Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Lady in the Lake


Dir: Robert Montgomery (As Actor: Mr. and Mrs. Smith; Here Comes Mr. Jordan; They Were Expendable)

Very flawed but nonetheless fascinating murder mystery with a twist. Montgomery, in his directorial debut, plays Philip Marlowe investigating the disappearance of a woman. The story is slight, typical noir stuff, lots of hard dialogue and fast women. It would be one among thousands of movies like this except for one thing.

Montgomery shoots the entire movie in first person. He figured that since the original Dashiell Hammett novels were written in first person, he could recreate that experience on the screen. And I am not just talking about a few scenes. For two hours, we do not see Montogmery except for (1) a few scenes of him as narrator behind a desk and (2) if Marlowe walks in front of a mirror. If Marlowe is talking to somone, they look directly into the camera and make eye contact with the audience. If someone walks into the room behind Marlowe, we cannot see it until he swings his head around. When he gets into a car, he sits in the passenger seat and the camera literally bounces as she shifts over behind the wheel. When Marlowe smokes, grey clouds billow up from below the camera. At times, Montgomery's commitment to the technique goes to extremes. When Marlowe talks on the phone, the mouthpiece is placed in the lower left hand corner of the screen. A girl kisses our hero by pressing her face up against the camera.

I have seen first person in lots of movies. But it is usually used briefly and to accomplish a specific purpose. I may see the world through the eyes of a child for comic relief. Someone drunk or just waking allows the director to go from blurry to clear, maybe even blinking the camera a couple of times with a shutter effect. In "Being John Malkovich" and "Memento," there are extended first person scenes to impress upon us the oddness of those movie's signature narrative devices.

But "Lady in the Lake" seeks a total immersion in the lead character's world. We are to experience the entire story just as he would. And that extended phenomenal approach is why the movie fails so totally. The complete abandonment of film conventions continually reinforces just how artificial cinema is. When I talk to someone, I do not make eye contacy with them for minutes on end. My eyes dart around the room, looking out the window, at my hands, at the clock, at other parts of my interlocutor's body, taking in all kinds of information. When there is a noise behind me, my head jerks around, not the slow, deliberate sway that this movie employs. And I certainly don't see the telephone when I talk into it. No film medium could recreate a first person experience. The camera would get blurry at those speeds, and cannot recreate peripheral vision.

The technique also puts incredible strain on the supporting cast. It's not like these are brief conversations Marlowe is having. He is the main character, and speaks for minutes to many people. They are forced to stare silently into the camera, making facial expressions to show anger, shock, fear, sexual attraction, and the like to the voice-over narrative. Without the help of editing (they are straight takes) or camera angles, all of the emotional load in on the shoulders of actors themselves. Their facial controtions are very bizarre and over the top, as they struggle to not remain dormant when they listen.

I would be very fascinated to see this idea taken up with a virtual camera. There, the actual experience of talking to someone (eye darts and all) could be recreated. I wonder what it would look like. Maybe a five minute short, I can't possibly believe it could be sustained for a whole film.

The movie is poor. But its poverty highlights the reason we make films the way we do, why complete and total realism is never, ever, the thing that makes a film good. Any serious student of film should see "Lady in the Lake" and then remember why it does not work.