Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Truth or Lies?

"I always laugh about Jean-Luc Godard's comment that 'Film is truth 24 times a second,' because in my opinion, film is a lie 24 times a second. Everything is prearranged, predigested, rehearsed, thought out, worked out, written down and then eventually photographed." - Stanley Donen

This quote from the Turner Pictures documentary, When the Lion Roars, about the history of MGM, is about Donen's specific thoughts concerning the famous title sequence from Singin' in the Rain, which he directed in 1952. Noting how much preparation went into this scene, he continues:

"No musical number is not organized down to the last eyelash. The puddles were even organized. The puddles had to be placed and we had to work out how far he was going to have to move to splash in the puddle and we had to dig out the cement in the street and make it hold the water.

"It's an appearance of truth 24 times a second, but it's all organized. "We're all working strings."

LIke most of us, I've seen that scene in Singin' countless times, yet I never noticed that the cement was dug out on the street to hold the puddles. After Donen mentioned it, I saw it right away and now I know it's coming, whether I am looking for it or not.

So it seems to me that Donen is saying, at least in part, that the scene works so briliantly (I think it's one of the most perfectly realized scenes in cinema history) because it was so organized and rehearsed; in other words, nothing was left to chance.

But I wonder what Donen would say about the penultimate scene from In Cold Blood (1967) where convicted killer Perry Smith (Robert Blake) tells a childhood story to his former warden, as both of them are in a small room not far from the "corner" where Smith will soon be hanged. Smith is standing next to a window and as the rain hits the glass, we also see the reflection of the raindrops on Smith's face (this is shot in low key black and white so we can see these details quite clearly). Remarkably, the reflection of raindrops fall from his eyes down his cheeks, making it seem as though Smith is crying as he speaks. Conrad Hall was the director of photography on this film, but even a cinematographer as brilliant as he could not have planned this. It's an amazing, powerful visual that gives even more meaning to the scene, as Smith talks of the heartbreak of his youth. (The scene can be found on YouTube at:http://www.youtube.com/v/IVDxfDNq2VU&fs=1&source=uds&autoplay=1

So how do we now look at Donen's quote and what about Godard's statement of "film being the truth?" Of course, as Godard was a political filmmaker, we can believe that his words were more ethereal thoughts about the meaning of film - we don't have to take it literally. But while Donen certainly has a strong point, I think it's safe to say that based on the scene from In Cold Blood, the reality (truth?) lies somewhere in between, as this scene is a compelling one thanks to its happy visual accident. In this case, the total emotional impact was clearly more than the sum of its parts.


  1. Interesting. Certainly true for that scene, anyway. I don't know, I never really consider the ratio between purposeful and accidental beauty in film.

  2. Simon:

    Thanks for the comment. If you think about it, there are probably a lot more scenes like the one I described from In Cold Blood. That one really stands out for me, however.

  3. Yes, Hall admitted this was not planned. The truth is both directors are correct. And thankfully for the sake of discussion, the medium is flexible to accomodate both lines of reasoning.

  4. Tony:

    Good point about the medium being flexible. The way movies are made today, I sometimes wonder.