The excellent blog erase steered me toward an interesting body of film criticism lurking in the crevices of the Internet Movie Database. The prolific reviewer Ted G (or "tedg") reviews movies almost exclusively in visual terms and by Orson does he have a viewpoint! (Sorry, I've also been reading Alan Moore lately.) Ted G's core philosophy can be found in his review of Panic Room: "Ambitious directors have two holy grails: mastery of the self-referential narrative and establishing a new grammar of space, usually with architecture." Almost every review cycles back to these points, relentlessly. Here's a quote combining the two principles, from his review of De Palma's Snake Eyes ("the most ambitious mainstream film that explores the architecture of narrative"):
A central question in most art concerns the role of the viewer. This dominated easel painting, then was the center of evolution of the novel and now sits at the core of thought about film. Is the viewer an omniscient God, or can the viewer be fooled like a person? Is the viewer a passive observer, or does she 'walk' with the participants as an invisible character? [...]

De Palma thinks the camera is a whole new thing, The camera is a type of character, part narrator, part actor, part god. It can lie, be fooled, search curiously, document, play jokes. So this is a film about the camera's eyes. `Snake' both because the camera can snake around following [Nicholas] Cage, going places that Cage cannot, but also `snake' because the camera sees with forked tongue.

To Ted G, actors are only interesting to the extent that they can command or project into filmic space, or riff on narratives outside the movie's frame of reference (he also has a weird thing about redheads). Writing and stagecraft are subordinate to the "hungry," "curious" eye of the camera. I've said similar things, but not as singlemindedly. I fired off an angry letter to Salon over its visually illiterate review of De Palma's Mission to Mars (which Ted G puts into a elegant dialogue with 2001: A Space Odyssey), but my screed was probably just too strange for them. Didn't "everyone" hate that movie?

Besides De Palma, Ted G also reveres Atom Egoyan's Exotica (me, too! me, too!) as well as a thousand things you'd overlook if you only care about story and acting. Here's more from that Panic Room review, just to give you the flavor:

Ambitious directors have two holy grails: mastery of the self-referential narrative and establishing a new grammar of space, usually with architecture.

[David] Fincher is an ambitious, intelligent director who in past projects has explored the first of these. This time around, he explores the second. Hitchcock did this in `Rear Window,' a film often compared to this one. It has NO commonality at all except the architectural aspiration.

One can see these architectural ambitions in the team he assembled: writer David Koepp did the amazing `Snake Eyes' [...]. Cinematographer Darius Khondji is one of the recent fellow travelers of this emerging expertise. See the poetic underwater architecture in `In Dreams.' See what he did for master Polanski in melding image and narrative in `Ninth Gate.' Look at how his camera creates a city in `The City of Lost Children.' He is not master of this yet (not like Welles and Kurosawa) but he is familiar with what can be done, and willing to take risks. Khondji was fired from the film by barbarian financiers because of his expensive pains. Some of his work remains, especially in the first third.

[mean stuff about actors snipped for space]

One knows from the first that what Fincher has in mind is an architectural exploration, starting with the titles. Each credit assigns a name to a building. Each name except Fincher's who is notably suspended in space.

Slap, slap one is quickly introduced to the building in the part of the film where one normally meets the characters. The characters here don't matter: they are furnishings. What matters is the physical relationship of spaces: four floors, stairs, elevator, etc. Right away we are also introduced to the bank of video monitors. This house is not only seen, but sees. (Shades of both `Fight Club' and `Snake Eyes.')

Then we are given a remarkable tracking shot that outdoes De Palma, Altman, Anderson. This starts out with various angles on Meg in bed, then goes out the room, between the balusters and down the stairwell. It eventually takes us all through the house as the baddies break in. On and on it goes, in and out of a keyhole, through the handle of a coffeepot, through floors and walls. Each moment thrills.

Then Khondji is fired and the tiresome wheels of the story grind and the requirements of the genre force us into bankable cliche. But that first third is nice.

He likes Hulk, too.

- tom moody 8-10-2003 4:34 am

how about "narrative folds?" that seems to be another of his key phrases. care to explain what he means by that.
- dave 8-10-2003 11:30 am

From a character and story standpointI thought Exotica was brilliant. Watching it was like being on some sort of excavation. Usually I find explainations of past incidents which drive the characters to be a cop out, "Oh I see, he was abused as a child, that's why he's so creepy" etc. Usually because they are brief footnotes which are meant to bind together whole stories, or whole characters. Egoyan takes these footnotes and makes whole movies out of them.
What's your take on the poacher character? I still don't know what to make of him.
- steve 8-10-2003 7:57 pm

Ted G seems to be pretty acquainted with theory but mostly internalizes it and doesn't drop theorists' names. The "fold" may or not refer to a concept that has percolated down from the ivory tower to the level of artists chitchatting about it (that's how I heard about it), specifically: Deleuze interpreting Leibniz's theories on the baroque. Some citations I found are here, here. and here. My own hasty paraphrase would be: the "fold" is an abstract way of imagining certain structures that emerge within a film. Typically they take the form of connections between signs or symbols. In Exotica you have a character who is "illlicitly" pregnant (she paid a guy to knock her up) and a character who smuggles exotic bird eggs into the country. These two characters never meet, but their implied connection (eggs, illegality/"abnormality") creates a "fold" in the narrative, where the straight line of the story bends back and touches itself. Folds are a way of creating infinite space within a confined space, so the more connections there are, the fuller and richer the story. For Deleuze, it seems, the fold was a way of moving Leibniz over to post-structuralist camp from his position as a pure Enlightenment philosopher. The symbolic connections of the fold (from Leibniz's writings on the baroque) were a way of splicing together monads (Leibniz's units of irreducible reality-stuff) as "inclusive disjunctions" rather than a model based on strict causality. Not trying to be pretentious here; this is my Philosophy Made Simple understanding of this crap.

Steve, I want to watch the movie again before I say anymore about the egg smuggler. Your calling him a poacher creates another fold, external to the movie--i.e. "poached eggs." Ha ha. Too much Ted G. Time for shock treatments.
- tom moody 8-11-2003 10:36 am

More on "folding"--this is Ted G's definition, from his Heavenly Creatures review: "Perhaps the premier concern of modern filmmakers is locating somewhere in the film exactly where the filmmaking process is. This is often incorrectly called irony, self-reference or the odd construction of reflexivity. I call it 'folding' and it seems to be everywhere and often in rich and engaging forms." And from his review of Adaptation:

I am writing a book about `folding' in film. That's a term I have coined to describe all the parallel levels that have become part of the film vocabulary, among them self-reference, reflection, self-aware irony and timeshifting. I love these films. They are always about ideas and many are incredibly sophisticated in concept, even though the story (an incidental component in such projects) may be uninteresting. There are an amazing number of films with some sort of folding -- in my nearly 1,000 IMDB comments, I have found about a third that use these tricks.

- tom moody 8-14-2003 2:56 am

This review of Twister is wonderful.

Hoffman's Tempest Twist

The great Phil Hoffman plays the chief technician-scientist of a group of stormchasers. As with most scientific projects, the front men/women are the figureheads. Here they are impetuous, non-methodical and pettily competitive as well. The true genius is often in the background; often brilliance is marked with personality `disorders.' So here we have the obviously dimwitted Bill and Jo as the leaders and Dusty and his handpicked team doing the real work. The rest are content to stay in the background.

Hoffman plays the gay Dusty, who has long had a crush on Bill, the male `scientist' leader. Through some device (of which we remain ignorant) Bill's wife drove him away from the project. This film is about the machinations of getting Bill back into the team. That the plot revolves around sexual confusion is underscored by Bill's fiance, who is a sex therapist (consistently experiencing `bad communication,' through her cell phone -- rare in those days).

(There's a pretty blunt association of the storm with sexual confusion, as a story is told about a drunk, nude Bill confronting the storm.)

Dusty plays Prospero, summoning up great storms to coax events along. ("Spero" means "dust" in the gaelic Shakespeare parodies in his play.) This Prospero is not always in full control however, and the forces do get out of control at the end, harming the beloved Aunt Meg, (Meg is a sort of likable Caliban, providing nourishment and making mechanical weathercharms.) But by the end Dusty has his double victory: Bill is back and the scientific mission (at least the data collection) is done.

I know lots of Dustys, and often suspect them of creating to suit themselves that part of nature they study. The self-referential, rather clever element of the story is how Dusty conspires to focus the movie away from him. But while standing in the background, he acts up, reminding at least himself that he's in charge. Shouting "don't look at me."

- tom moody 8-23-2003 9:17 pm

Have you ever considered that TedG is simply full of himself and that the filmmakers in whose work he finds all this evaluation were just acting upon natural phenomena and talent versus some prconceived notion of what it was to be?
- formerlyx111b3825 (guest) 9-19-2004 11:10 pm

That amounts to a claim bold enough that, in order to hold up, you might have needed to be as smart about disproving his reasoning as he was in processing the movies to do so. Such ingenuity would require a lot more than just a point-by-point excuse. As it stands, TedG makes real a great deal of the visual "shaping of the imagination" which underpin all of the participants' actions upon natural phenomena and talent, so understand that to be worthy of study and don't be so quick to guard the honor that you think he's trying to demand from you.
- siln (guest) 9-28-2008 4:56 am