Thursday 15 June 2017

1300th Post - Image & Ownership

My 1300th Post

Image And Ownership

Well, this one makes 1300 posts since my on-line debut back in March 2010 (right here). As always... thanks very much for reading. I appreciate that a lot.

I didn’t really have anything planned to write for this one, it kinda crept up on me so... I thought I’d pose a question about something which has been bothering me on and off about linearly perceived visual arts since somewhere around the mid 1980s. And the question is ultimately this...

Should shots in film be copyrighted? Is it an infringement when, say, a particularly well known shot is imitated in a certain kind of way? Not a question that most people would ask but I was almost obsessed with it in the 1980s and, well, here’s my take on it...

This question first occurred to me because of Steven Spielberg’s hit movie Jaws. Everybody loves that shot on the beach where the camera seems to fold out the perspective and caress Roy Scheider’s face, right? It's achieved by pulling the camera back at speed from the subject while simultaneously zooming in at exactly the same speed... or the precise reverse of what I just wrote. I forget which but you get the picture. It’s a celebrated shot and... perhaps rightly so. I used to love it. However, a few years later I finally got around to watching Alfred Hitchcock’s absolute masterpiece (although I didn’t appreciate it as such the first time I saw it) Vertigo and, well, you probably know that exactly the same trick with the camera movement timed to the reverse zoom is used in the model shots looking down the interior of the tower that James Stewart’s character famously can’t climb. So it turns out that Spielberg, who I seem to remember was once, as a young man, thrown off one of HItchcock’s sets, kinda nicked the idea from the celebrated director... or did he?

I’ll use a later example now and I’m going to pick on Spielberg again... not because I have anything against him. On the contrary, I think he’s one of the all time great American directors of his generation. It’s just, please forgive me, I’m getting a little old and I can only think of certain examples off the top of my head.

So let’s talk about Jurassic Park (1993) for a minute.

I think I may have mentioned this before in a review but in that move there’s a celebrated moment where the Tyrannosaurus Rex gets loose and goes on a rampage. The main protagonists are sitting in special jeeps stranded by the enclosure from which the errant T-Rex has escaped and, to heighten the suspense, Spielberg focuses his camera on a glass of water sitting on a ledge in one of the jeeps. We then start to see ripples in the water, followed not long after by the sound of the gigantic footsteps as a way of wringing out every last bit of tension from the scene. It’s great stuff but... take a look at The Unbearable Lightness Of Being from 1988, a clear five years earlier than Spielberg’s masterpiece (and it is a masterpiece... both these films are). There’s a scene where two lovers are in an apartment and the camera focuses on a glass of water which begins to ripple as vibrations build up from the Soviet tanks invading Prague in August of 1968. Is this another ‘origin’ shot or was this visual substitute for approaching danger used even earlier in cinema? I don’t know the answer but the comments section is downstairs if you do.

Okay, so two shots that are, on the surface, quite unique and then an inventive use of them in other movies by a different director, right? But where does homage end and plagiarism begin? Stay with me on this for a minute...

I recently watched director Anna Biller’s fantastic first feature length movie Viva (the review is written but it might not go up for a month or two yet and... I do mention some of this shot detail in there too). There’s a sequence in there where the director (who also stars in and wrote the thing) is lying naked beneath a man who is, more or less, forcing himself on her. The scene uses the same camera technique from a similar scene in Radley Metzger’s sexploitation opus Camille 2000. The camera focuses on a bowl of apples (in this case) in front of her and, as she heavily breathes in and out on the soundtrack, the differential focus keeps switching in time to her breathing between the apples and her face. The scene is clearly a knowing homage and Biller even uses the score from Camille 2000 in this scene (and a few other scenes in the movie too) to re-enforce that idea. However... how many young people watching Viva are that likely to have seen Camille 2000? What percentage of the audience? So... and I really am playing Devil’s advocate here... when does copyright infringement kick in when a percentage of your audience, possibly even a significant one, has no idea you are intentionally parodying using something from another movie.

These are just three examples here but I’m pretty sure there are a wealth of others which could be thrown into the mix too.

My personal response/answer to this question back then... after I thought about it for a good long while... is that you can’t copyright a shot or even a series of shots. These, like everything that has gone before them in cinema history, are things which are additional techniques added to the toolbox of any director’s visual semantics. It’s fair game. After all, I don’t ask why a director uses a zoom or a dolly or a pan or cuts to a close-up after an establishing shot. Therefore, I can’t, in all fairness, expect anything else in history’s cinematic arsenal to be exclusive to one person. And looking at that long history of the motion picture (relatively), it’s obvious that there are a hell of a lot of movie makers not bothered about any sense of visual ownership either. So there you go... there’s my answer.

However... think on this as a little postscript to this proposition...

In this day and age when two different comics companies have the opposing rights to the words ‘super heros’ and ‘superheroes’... and the phrase ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’ is off limits, possibly due to copyright violation in some countries (hence a change to Salazar’s Revenge for the fifth Pirates Of The Caribbean movie in certain areas?) then you have to ask yourself what kind of world we are living in right now and, you know, how long before companies do start asking this exact same question and trying to patent specific types or styles of shot? I hope it doesn’t come to that but... well... watch this space.

And thank you for indulging me for reading to the end of my 1300th post. As I said before, it's much appreciated. Stay tuned for more reviews, coming to this blog soon!

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