The Energy Source
Rewatching Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie (1964) for no reason other than sheer pleasure, I was struck by one thing above all: its incredibly sustained energy level. Like so many of the most intriguing and compelling American films of the 1960s, it is poised between the classicism of the Hollywood 1950s and the all those 'new cinema' movements sweeping in from around the world during the 1960s and '70s.
But Hitchcock was ready for the challenge: with his always surprising choice of camera angles; in the sudden truncation of scenes mid-action; in the jagged transitions between events, keyed to Bernard Herrmann's florid, emotive music; in the 'artificial effects' disdained by a horde of short-sighted critics; and in the opaque gestures and facial expressions of the main actors — Hitchcock keeps finding ways to raise the energy and keep it flowing from moment to moment.
Energy, like rhythm or atmosphere, is at once among the most prized elements of cinema, and also the most difficult to locate, quantify or describe. As Alain Masson commented in a 1997 Positif piece on gauging the play of rhythm in film:"The difficulty of the problem — but also what is interesting about it — lies in its complexity".
No one is quite sure exactly where it comes from, or what formula can be applied to create it: indeed, any good filmmaker knows that it can potentially arise from anywhere — or die just as swiftly — at every level of production, from initial script to final mix, and that their job is to find and preserve that treacherously discontinuous spark leaping from point to point. Is this why so many directors on set intone, as if praying to a mysterious god: "OK, everyone — keep the energy up!"
Another instructive 1960s example. Whatever you think of Lolita (1962) as a screen adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov, however high or low you rate it in the Stanley Kubrick Pantheon, one thing is certain: it's a film that taps the Energy Source. Kubrick — and in this he has influenced many directors, from Jean-Claude Brisseau and Krzysztof Kieslowski to Paul Thomas Anderson and Todd Haynes — is the 'director of force': he seeks clear, bold ideas of style.
Lolita is a Master Class in energetic direction: especially in everything to do with the concerted, integrated action of framing, staging, camera movement, costume, objects/props, and the postures and gestures of (brilliantly inventive) actors. 27 minutes into the film, during the high school dance, there's a 90 second take that few viewers would particularly notice. Charlotte (Shelley Winters) moves into the frame carrying two significant props: a drink and a piece of cake. Once she has deposited these in the hands of Humbert (James Mason), and her two friends (dressed in black like her) have also suddenly entered the frame from the other side to take up their choreographed positions, Humbert (dressed in white) is completely trapped: he can't put the food down, he can't eat or drink it, and every angle he awkwardly turns confronts him with female chests altogether too close for comfort. High point of this comedy: when he tries to stand up and leave, three hands simultaneously force him back down. Final, ironic grace note: only Charlotte and Humbert left in the picture, but him flanked by her outstretched arms — one hand clutching the drink, the other holding the cake.
For critics, this is a challenge relating to the — often unstated or unconscious — criteria we use in judging any film. What do we really value, what are we looking for in a movie: clarity, economy, expressivity, dramatic unity, emotional impact? Every critic must try to get beyond rigid, pre-set, frequently conservative norms of evaluation. But first, they must become conscious of their own criteria. In my case, it took many years to realise that a central power of cinema over me — far above plot or characterisation — is precisely this difficult-to-describe property I am calling energy.