Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Elbow on knee, heart in film - Rouben Mamoulian on the natural and the true

In my short list of “books to keep on a desert island”, one place is permanently reserved for the anthology Conversations with the Great Movie-Makers of Hollywood’s Golden Age. As a reader this book is always a work in progress for me, a living, shifting thing: I might set it aside for months on end, then dip into it again for just a few minutes and emerge with a new treasure. Even the familiar passages are worth revisiting over time because the filmmakers’ insights – and the diversity and occasional contradictions in their views – become more meaningful as you watch more of their films. (If that desert island didn’t have a DVD player and an electricity connection, this book would lose much of its appeal.)

There are dozens of quotes I’d like to share from Conversations, but for now here is something by Rouben Mamoulian, who made one of my favourite movies, the 1931 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This is Mamoulian, speaking at a seminar, on stylization, realism and what literary critics sometimes refer to as “poetic truth” (as opposed to literal truth).

I’ve always believed in stylization and poetry. Even on the stage, things are stylized – every movement, every grouping. If you preserve the psychological truth of the emotions and thoughts of the actors, and combine that with physical expression that is utterly stylized and that couldn’t happen in real life, the impact upon the audience is one of greater reality. Perhaps that’s why they call it surrealism [...] Done correctly, stylization carries greater reality in its impact on the audience than everyday kitchen-sink naturalism can ever achieve.

[...] Stylization is really an extension of feeling and thought, a sharper way of showing that thought. Let me all ask you a question. You probably know “The Thinker”, the great statue of Auguste Rodin. Will you show me how he sits? Let’s see.

Without exception all of you are wrong. It never fails. His man is sitting, believe it or not, with one elbow on the opposite knee. It’s not natural or comfortable, but aesthetically and artistically it has a focus. It has design and rhythm and power. So, what is unnatural becomes true, and you can apply this idea to any kind of a scene. You can put everything upside down or reverse it, provided what it does is sharpen. In your desire to express love or hate or doubt, whatever it is, you ask yourself “How can I express this more acutely?” Then you’ll wind up with a gesture that is not natural, but perfect as an expression of that thought.
As you'd expect then, Mamoulian’s version of the Jekyll-Hyde story is a brilliantly stylized work, and one of the most impressive-looking movies of its time. The first two or three years of the sound era were a generally poor time for visual inventiveness, because movie-makers already had so much on their hands dealing with problems caused by primitive recording technology. (Remember this scene in Singin’ in the Rain?) But Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a testament to what Mamoulian says elsewhere in the seminar: “My interest in the camera was always in the marvellous things you can do with it – with the angles, the dollying, the dissolves, the props, and the framing”. The film was also remarkably imaginative when it came to special effects, as in the famous transformation scenes where Fredric March’s Jekyll slowly, painfully becomes the simian-like Hyde.

Below are two videos of these scenes. The first one has a couple of cleverly disguised cuts as the camera moves from Jekyll’s face to his hands and back again, but the first 25 seconds provide an unbroken view of his face appearing to darken and change.

This must have been astonishing for audiences of the time, and the secret of the transformation was revealed only years later: different layers of coloured makeup had been applied on March’s face, and matching light filters were used at the beginning so that the makeup wasn’t visible on black-and-white film; as the scene progressed, the filters were changed and the makeup came into view, “magically” casting shadows on the actor’s face. It's a great example of problem-solving in an era when the computer effects of today were barely imaginable.

This second video has another transformation scene (beginning around the 55-second mark with the camera adopting Jekyll’s POV as he looks into a mirror). Here again, you can see March’s face changing colour, but the rest of the scene is equally notable for its use of the disorienting, rotating camera and a proto-psychedelic soundtrack that anticipates what Pink Floyd and others would be doing in underground clubs 35 years later.

But I’ll give the last word to Mamoulian again – here he is on the use of sound for this scene:

I asked, “What kind of sound can we put with this? The whole thing is fantastic. You put a realistic sound and it will get you nowhere at all.” So again, you proceed from imagination and theory and if it makes sense, do it. I said, “We’re not going to have a single sound in this transformation that you can hear in life.” They said, “What are you going to use?” I said, “We’ll light the candle and photograph the light – high frequencies, low frequencies, direct from light into sound. Then we’ll hit a gong, cut off the impact, run it backward, things like that.” So I had this terrific kind of stew, a mélange of sounds that do not exist in nature or in life. It was eerie but it lacked a beat, and that’s where I had to introduce rhythm. We tried all sorts of drums, but they all sounded like drums. When you run all out of ideas, something always pops into your head. I said, “I’ve got it.” I ran up and down the stairway for two minutes until my heart was really pounding, took the microphone down and said, “Record me.” And that’s the rhythm of the big transformation. So when I say my heart was in Jekyll and Hyde, it’s literally true.


  1. Radhika Oltikar3:57 PM, June 18, 2013

    Very interesting, Jai. Really enjoyed this post.

  2. Thanks, Radhika. I actually wanted to do a longer piece on the film (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) but just didn't have the time or energy, especially since I'm struggling with deadlines for columns.

  3. Haven't seen any Rouben Mamoulian yet. One of the directors I've completely missed out on. I love the Isn't it Romantic in Love me Tonight - one of those magical songs.

  4. Loved this post, Jai. Loved his thoughts, and the amazing idea to record his heartbeat. Will definitely watch this. Raj.

  5. Joseph Brodsky's nobel acceptance speech - talks about aesthetic reality vs universal reality - function of art etc. A great read. Though he is primary talking about poetry, his observations may apply to cinema as well.