Good Critical Thinking About The Negative Space
American and French Cinema are completely different entities. Their approach to cinema offers alternatives that have been rarely seen. Take the lead characters in either films. Take Steve McQueen as Capt. Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape. According to Mark Athitakis of contactmusic.com, “This is the moment where McQueen defined himself not just as a great American actor, but as a living representative of what America's all about” (Par.3). Take the scene when the audience first sees his character. He’s constantly standing upright, with a baseball glove in one hand looking towards the forest beyond the enclave. The director, John Sturges, cuts back and forth between Virgil and laborers leaving the camp. The laborers are crouching over, putting their heads down and on their way out. As other characters are trying to escape via trucks or disguising themselves as laborers, he is examining the other wall which is forbidden. In A Man Escaped, Fontaine (François Leterrier) is being taken in the car to the prison. Unlike Capt. Hilts, Fontaine is a man who is quiet, takes heed of the brutality of his captors and is aware of his surroundings. His head is kept down and he is hunched over and is essentially plays a role of a deaf mute. As a prisoner in a brutal prison, he realizes that if he bides his time, he can escape. A quiet determination runs through the character throughout the film. This is in stark contrast to The Great Escape where bravado and playful banter with the Germans belays the true nature of the film. A Man Escaped aims to portray Germans as mysterious vile creatures that have spawned from hell.
Both films are about the art of escape. While The Great Escape is essentially an ‘escapist’ sprawling epic, A Man Escaped feels real with every frame right from the beginning. Take the opening scenes of both films. The opening shot of The Great Escape is a wide shot carrying prisoners to the camps. It’s reminiscent of a western looking at the great stretch of the unconquered Wild West. The new prisoners immediately begin to look for a way out and the Nazi’s are depicted as school teachers with guns. It’s a stylistic choice by the director with the opening shot portraying a ‘fun’ adventure film. A Man Escaped offers a completely different point of view of the prison experience. For instance, take the opening scene of the film. Fontaine (François Leterrier) is being taken to prison for alleged crimes against the state in a car. In this scene, the audience only sees the back of the driver’s head in medium and extreme close-up shots. As the car comes to the stop, Fontaine rushes out trying to escape. The camera just stays on the prisoner who was sitting next to Fontaine. The director, Robert Bresson, makes it a point to keep these series of shots in a series of extreme and medium close-ups. It all adds to the dictum of the scene of an enclosed area.
Use of cinematography coupled with lighting is also a device to push forward the styles of each film. Take the scene where Virgil is escorted to the ‘cooler’ as punishment. It should be noted the lighting is still well lit from the yard to the ‘cooler.’ Within the walls, the director employs to use of shadows. The prisoner next to Virgil has half his face lit. The shadows fall on the left side of his face with light coming through the cell. This infers his sense of insecurity being in a POW camp. With Virgil, his lighting remains consistent as he bounces his baseball into the wall pining away the time. Steve McQueen portrays that sense of nonchalance to his reaction to the whole situation. He encompasses the scene with his mere presence and bravado connecting the audience with his character and allowing them to root for him throughout the film. Another important aspect of the scene is how Virgil’s cell is depicted. The audience sees three walls, left right and center. The director uses the space of the ‘fourth wall’ to identify the lead character with the audience. While McQueen’s charisma is shining through in the scene, the director’s handling of the space shooting from a medium wide angle allows the performance to captivate the audience. In A Man Escaped, Fontaine prison cell is small, dark and dirty. The director uses medium and extreme close-ups inside the cell. The cell is akin to being inside a coffin. The lighting is darkly lit with half of Fontaine’s face being lit to initiate the dilemma of his incarceration. For instance, when the Germans enter the cell, the director wisely doesn’t show their faces either by shooting from a over head shot or keeping them in the shadows. From a performance perspective, it allows to actor to act as a shining beacon of hope in the depths of hell. There is nothing funny about prison as the Germans are depicted with cruelty, sternness and brutality.
Another stark difference is the use of sound. In The Great Escape, The sound is bombastic. It doesn’t necessarily offer a new dimension to films in the same genre. A Man Escaped uses sound a great deal to its advantage. For instance, Fontaine can view the courtyard from his cell. As he sees a couple of female prisoners walking back to their barracks, he hears gunfire in the distance with no one blinking an eye. They just go about their business with Fontaine narrating that executions took place at the prison. According to David Bordwell, “At certain points in A Man Escaped, Bresson even lets his sound technique dominate the image; throughout the film, we are compelled to listen” (par.2). When Fontaine is first beaten and dragged to his cell and lays on the floor, he narrates, ‘I could feel I was being watched. I didn’t dare move.’ Take another scene for instance. As Fontaine is led to his cell, the camera pans to a close-up of the keys as it rattle across the stair railings and across the wall. In another scene, as Fontaine is secretly hiding a few items or unshackling his shackles, he quickly hides his items as he hears footsteps down the hall. The director has cleverly used sound effects to focus on the details of Fontaine’s prison life.
John Sturges, director of The Great Escape, is obviously interested in the plot of pushing themes of American exceptionalism. Right from the opening shot of the film to the depiction of the characters, he reinforces the idea of man working together for a common cause. Robert Bresson in A Man Escaped uses the camera to strip away the veil that covers his lead actor. The director is more interested in minimalism to push the theme of the singular individual uses his wits to escape from the depths of hell.
A Man Escaped and the Great Escape are very different films. The former portrays a sense of dread with its lead character willing to bide his time to escape from the prison as he is willing to succumb to humiliation, bide his time and escape. The negative space allows the actor to convey his sense of emotions to the audience. According to Manny Farber, “a movie filled with negative space is always a textural work throbbing with acuity” (Pg.7. Par.1). On the other hand, the latter film depends on the audience identifying with the charisma of the lead actor as opposed to the surroundings that engulf the film. A Man Escaped portrays the Nazis as faceless monsters. The Great Escape’s portrayal of them is akin to overbearing and overworked school teachers with rifles that kill. The Great Escape is overblown with American self-serving exceptionalism, an unrealistic geography and poor characterization. A Man Escaped is willing to allow its leads to scrape his way to freedom and enduring the wrath of captors along the way.
Thitakis, Mark. "The Great Escape." Review 1963. Www.contactmusic.com, 5 Nov. 2005. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <http://hub.contactmusic.com/film/review/thegreatescape>.
Bordwell, David. "A Man Escaped." Http://www.davidbordwell.net. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <http://www.davidbordwell.net/filmart/manescaped_soundanalysis_filmart_293.pdf>.
Farber, Manny. Negative Space; Manny Farber on the Movies. New York: Praeger, 1971. Print.
The Great Escape. Perf. Steve McQueen. MGM Home Entertainment, 1963. DVD.
A Man Escaped. Perf. François Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche. Gaumont, 1956. DVD.
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