Orson Welles, Terrence Malick, and Michael Bay: Three feet high and rising | Bleader

Monday, April 29, 2013

Orson Welles, Terrence Malick, and Michael Bay: Three feet high and rising

Posted By on 04.29.13 at 05:16 PM

Welles in Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report)
  • Welles in Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report)
It's a good time to be looking up at the movies. Two high-profile recent releases, Michael Bay's Pain & Gain and Terrence Malick's To the Wonder, employ the low-angle shot like it's going out of style; and the Music Box Theatre is in the middle of an ongoing series devoted to Orson Welles, the filmmaker most commonly associated with that device. Welles is the king of the low-angle shot, in part because the device fits so well with his theatrical aesthetic—it makes an impression similar to looking up at a stage from the orchestra pit. It also adds to the monumentality of his bigger-than-life characters who appear in all his films; in fact, the low-angles of Mr. Arkadin, which screened at the Music Box this weekend in the original European release version titled Confidential Report, are one of the reasons why the film feels mythic in spite of its obvious low budget.

Malick aims for a mythic sensibility as well, though he tends not to apply it to individuals like Welles did. In To the Wonder, the camera is often in motion when it's a few feet off the ground, setting characters against boundless skies. These shots evoke what it must be like to recognize landscapes for the first time, of being overwhelmed by the totality of existence. In this regard, Malick's low-angles represent the opposite of Welles's, which present people as worlds unto themselves.

Dom Irrera
  • Carl Lender/Wikimedia Commons
  • Dom Irrera
To the Wonder might be Malick's most contentious film to date; I suspect the polarized responses stem from the wide chasm between the movie's awestruck style and banal content. For many viewers, Wonder's plain Oklahoma settings and simple love story seem risible when presented like the stuff of Biblical verse. Speaking for myself, the odd combination reminded me of stand-up comic Dom Irrera's old bit about looking forward to getting osteoporosis if it means shrinking so much he'll be able to stand up in a moving car. ("This is great!" he'd imagine himself saying. "I haven't done this since I was four!") Perhaps we're supposed to find the content silly: how many people live up to the wonder of all existence? Adopting the perspective of a small child, Malick reminds us how small everybody feels at some point.

Michael Bay's low-angle shots fall closer to the Wellesian end of the spectrum, but that's not to say his characters feel particularly mythic. When Bay points the camera up at his bodybuilder antiheroes in Pain & Gain—making their muscular chins and pectorals look like they're stabbing at the lens—the device registers as one more unnecessary boost to their outsize egos. It's an aesthetic steroid.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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