Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Doubt And The Dutch Angle


I wanted to like Doubt. How can you go wrong with Hoffman and Streep trying to one-up eachother in the acting department? It may have suffered from the same dilemma as Frost/Nixon. Meaning it was at the hands of a director who was not worthy of the material. I speak of John Patrick Shanley. Yes, he wrote it and yes he directed the stage production. But there are vast differences between the stage and the big screen.

Doubt offers up no answers. You know as much leaving the film as you did going in. And that's not a bad thing. Like Mamet's Oleanna, the strength of the film is in how it makes you feel. The internal struggles that you suffer as you try to finish the story in your head so you can sleep at night. What bothered me is something I like to call Movie Manipulation. I'm trying to trademark that phrase so don't go throwing it about at cocktail parties because I'll come after you.

Movie Manipulation (remember, it's being trademarked) comes in many forms. Could be narration. Could be a music score. Techniques that are used to either enhance your movie experience, or to fill in the gaping holes left by a bad script or bad direction. As a movie watcher, the director wants to make me aware I'm watching a film or not. It's not uncommon for a film to have the character break down the third wall and speak directly to the audience. This sometimes works and it sometimes doesn't. I think you lose a little something when you tip your hat to the audience. I don't always like being reminded I'm watching a movie. Sometimes I just want to watch a really good story unfold.

Of course this doesn't happen in Doubt. Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn't turn to the camera and say "can you believe this shit? This crotchety old nun thinks I'm hitting it with one of my students." But Shanley reminds me I'm watching a film in the way he uses the camera. Specifically, the dutch angle. It's used several times throughout the movie and each time I saw it, I was suddenly sucked out of the story and reminded I'm watching a movie. And then suddenly it's a battle between me and Shanley right there in the theater. He throws his dutch angle at me and I counter with a "hellz no, you're not going to make me uneasy with your dutch angle. How simple do you think I am?"


The dutch angle is usually reserved for a Batman TV show. Or a Sam Raimi movie. These are fun movies where manipulation takes many forms and anything goes. In short, it's kind of a joke. Almost an homage of sorts. Only why? It's here that Shanley should have just taken a page out of his stage direction book. It's page 26 and it clearly states DON'T FUCK WITH THE SCENE. JUST LET IT HAPPEN.

Shanley was trying to inject tension in a scene where all he had to do was let the actors do it for me. Think of the coin flip scene in No Country For Old Men. Can you imagine a dutch angle there? It was completely unnecessary because the tension was created by the actors. By the action. There was no reason for the director to do anything except get great performances out of his actors. So why Shanley would decide it necessary to add any drama to a scene involving Seymour and Streep is beyond me. It's like he took off his white glove and slapped them both across the face for failing him. Only he failed them. He was the one who had doubt. And we all suffered from it.

22 comments:

JA said...

If I could make the word "WORD" ten stories tall and exploding with fireworks it could not get across just how much I agree with you on this one, Piper. I was so annoyed with his camera fuckery. I wish I would've just gone and seen this when it was on the stage and he had gravity working against his overheated visual instincts.

PIPER said...

JA,

I'm currently working on that sign to place it on top of my house. I'll send photos when it's completed.

And allow me to compliment you, you designer, on the well written line "I wish I would've just gone and seen this when it was on the stage and he had gravity working against his overheated visual instincts."

You should really think about starting a blog or something.

Anonymous said...

Back to the "flip a coin" scene at the gas station in No Country For Old Men. I saw that the other day when the movie played on cable. It's inspiring to watch. The dialogue and the empty spaces that the director allowed to be in that horrifying moment. It's the threat of violence with no violence. There aren't many scenes that burn in memory like that one in the last five years. At least to me.

Burbanked said...

I haven't seen DOUBT, Piper, and I essentially agree with you that hacky directors tend to compensate for a lack of confidence by using silly visual tricks.

But don't go all pissy on the Dutch angle, friend-o. Plenty of action and other be-genred movies have used it to excellent effect far beyond the campiness of a BATMAN.

Personally, I use it in just about every home movie I shoot, but that's just how action-y and disorienting my family's antics tend to be.

Marcy said...

I didn't mind the slight overuse of Dutch angles in Doubt. I mean, it didn't really do anything for the film, but I don't think it hurt my viewing experience either. Shanley might've been trying a bit too hard to be cinematic and failed. But I still thought Doubt was a fine film with some great performances.

Dutch angles did annoy me when I watched the John Adams mini series in history class, though. Major overload...

PIPER said...

Anon,

The coin flip is good stuff.

Burbanked,

Why ya gotta go all Anton on me? Huh? I bet you use a lot of star wipes and really slow fades too.

Marcy,

I haven't seen any of the John Adams miniseries, but why it would be loaded with dutch angles, I have no idea.

Bob Turnbull said...

You want Dutch Angle overload? Hal Hartley's "Fay Grim". EVERY scene is shot on a tilt. Granted, maybe Hal was trying to do something else with it, but it just annoyed the crap out of me.

I love 'em (and other camera tricks) when used sparingly and with subtlety. Remember that court room scene in "Philadelphia"? Where we see things from Tom Hanks' point of view? NOT like that.

My favourite camera trick to do in my home movies is zooming out as you physically move the camera in (or vice versa). You get an effect somewhat like that scene in Goodfellas when De Niro and Liotta are eating at the diner and they remain in frame normal size while outside the window seems to be moving closer to them. It's great and lends an added sense of tension and weighty-ness when I'm filming my son eating his cereal.

PIPER said...

Bob,

I love that "sinking" technique. I used it in my student films all the time. Stone also used it in Wall Street when Fox discovered he has been royally screwed by GG.

Seth said...

Hey Piper-

I completely agree going dutch in this context is lazy and uncalled for. But I have to disagree with "There was no reason for the director to do anything except get great performances out of his actors."

This diminishes the value of composition, which adds untold value to a performance. Composition added to the magic of the coin toss scene, as it does almost any great scene.

The crime of the dutch angle isn't that composition isn't necessary. The crime is it's a shitty, tasteless composition choice.

I dig the blog whenever I drop by, btw. Keep it up.

sp

PIPER said...

Seth,

It's my bad that I suggested that composition is not important because it absolutely is. And I suppose using the dutch angle is a form of composition, albeit a very, very lazy one.

Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors and that sumbitch is all about composition.

And thanks for the props. You are always welcome here at the Lazy Eye Theatre.

Ray said...

I saw this thing yesterday. Kinda conflicted about it. I think somewhere within this formless mess is a terrific film.

About the performances - I liked Hoffmann's performance. Meryl's performance relies on the usual bag of "Streepisms" to telegraph emotion. Amy Adams is a little distracting with her overly-innocent, doe-eyed performance.

As for Burbanked calling Shanley a hack ... I don't think he is. However, I do think he becomes too enamored of his symbolic elements. Like JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO, Shanley's direction here is a bit overbearing.

The main reason this movie fails with me is that I didn't feel like both sides of this unsolved mystery were adequately illustrated onscreen. The audience is meant to question whether Hoffmann's priest actually committed these crimes, but we never really see anything to point us in that direction. The net result is that the movie's point of view is skewed against Streep's nun, rather than objectively remaining in the center.

WHEW.

PIPER said...

Well said Ray.

I too wouldn't go as far as calling Shanley a hack. It's a little hard to considering he only has two movies to his name.

Like you, I was really counting on a little more meat to create internal turmoil.

Honestly, I was hoping for a bit more creepiness from Hoffman. More of a back and forth between believing and not believing. The premise was too thin for me to really get on board.

Kramer said...

In addition to being the worst film ever, try Battlefield Earth: KING OF DUTCH ANGLES. (I think that was the working title of that steaming pile o' poo.)

Dan E. said...

I don't know about Doubt, having not seen it yet, but your argument goes directly against the one you made about Frost/Nixon. You argued that Ron Howard was the wrong director because he did not add any sort of visual style to the film. With Doubt, you complain about the director's attempts at a visual style. You can't have it both ways. It is perfectly reasonable to have complaints about Shanley's style, but it isn't reasonable to wish that Ron Howard directed Doubt after decrying his direction on another play adaptation.

Sorry for the harsh language, but this just struck me as trying to eat your cake and have it too. I still love dropping by here every once in a while. Keep up the good work.

PIPER said...

Dan E.,

I can understand on the surface how this looks but it's kind of hard to argue with someone who hasn't seen the film unless I just want to be argumentative. So here goes.

If occasionally using a dutch angle here and there substitutes for visual or directorial style nowadays, then we're all in a lot of trouble. Or the director I'm talking about is Joel Schumacher.

I would say that Shanley did a fine job establishing a style with Joe Vs. The Volcano - at least in the beginning office shots. It was less in how he used the camera, and more how he framed his shots.

And directorial style doesn't necessarily mean visual style. The point of my Frost/Nixon post was that it suddenly occurred to me while watching this film that Ron Howard has not really established himself with any kind of style. One could not say the same for David Lynch per se. Or Martin Scorsese. It doesn't always have to be in how it's literally shot, but also in how the director comes at it.

If you decide to see Doubt, hopefully you'll understand what I'm talking about. The purpose of this movie is to approach it with hands-off. Like Seth pointed out, it doesn't mean that you throw composition out the window, or acting, it just means that this type of movie demands that you let the audience decide for themselves the outcome. By adding dutch angles in scenes, Shanley attempts to create tension where it should naturally be created by the acting and writing. It's lazy. And a good director knows when to insert himself/herself and when to let the story take over. That was my point. And if it was lost, my apologies.

But I appreciate your thoughts.

Dan E. said...

I don't feel any strong desire to see Doubt. The previews make it look like Streep and Hoffman yell at each other for 90 minutes, and that doesn't look very appealing. I have yet to read a review to make me change my mind.

The odd angles here seem a perfect stylistic representation for the film given its preoccupation with a lack of knowledge. Since the characters ultimately do not know the truth, their worldview is uncertain. This is reflected in the Dutch angles. Of course, this is all conjecture on my part.

Your response clarifies things a lot for me. I didn't quite get your point through the original posts, but I think I understand what you're getting at now. I agree that Ron Howard lacks any noticeable directorial style, but I rarely immerse myself in a film to the point where some stylistic eccentricity pulls me out. But then again, I think of Harry Lime when I see the Dutch angle, where you see Batman. Just different worldviews, I guess.

PIPER said...

I didn't mention Harry Lime because he is the one exception to the rule. I can't think of many others.

Even if it was Shanley's intention to portray his characters that way (which I can't believe it was since you know the movie is about uncertainty before you even set foot in the theater) I have to ask why? Does Shanley have so little regard for his audience? Or so little regard in himself? In this case, and in my opinion, the dutch angle is lazy filmmaking.

And you should try the whole film immersion thing Dan. You're missing out.

MovieMan0283 said...

Piper, you beat me to it in your most recent comment, but I was going to say that The Third Man may be the only effective use of the dutch angle that I can think of (at least a dramatically noticeable dutch angle.) It is easily the most overrated camera trick out there and almost never works (I don't much like extreme high angles either, though I'm a sucker for low angles - not under-the-chin-low but Wellesian low...)

PIPER said...

MovieMan,

To me, the dutch angle is a bit like leg warmers. It had its time but it hasn't aged well. I would say that the most recent use of a serious dutch angle I can think of would have to be War Of The Roses, which is filled with wonderful homages left and right.

Chuck Williamson said...

Excellent write-up! This, in many ways, explains why I strongly disliked DOUBT--more than I ever thought I would, honestly.

For me, the dutch angles are a symptom of the much larger problem of Shanley's inability to translate his play onto the cinema. In many ways, the film's overbearing direction reduces the subtle poigancy of the original play, as it literalizes many of its key components in awkward, near-juvenile terms. It's as if Shanley is overcompensating for the script's claustrophobic nature through empty cinematic gestures that, conversely, make the film feel more stagey and artificial. At times, I was waiting for a Godardian intertitle saying, "THIS IS A METAPHOR!"

It just... doesn't work. At all. Which is a shame, because this film could have been something more than an actorly showcase of Streep's mad-dog barking and Hoffman's high camp posturing (just LOOK at those fingernails!).

PIPER said...

Thanks Chuck. I think the biggest problem with the movie is like you said. Shanley just couldn't translate it to the big screen. He attempted to get cute and it didn't work.

Fletch said...

I learn something new every day. Never knew the name for it. Thanks, Pipes.