Rohmer on 1.33:1

Wide and Tall
by Eric Rohmer

In issue 31 of the Cahiers, François Truffaut’s famous article, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” coincided with the collective review of the presentation of the first film in Cinemascope.  The magazine’s position was defined not only by what it denounced (content nourished by hackneyed libertarian themes), but by what it highly approved of: a form regenerated by the newest techniques (color, zoom, 3D), but kept in doubt by the nomenklatura of the time.  

Among the six writers collaborating in this group, only two, Bazin and Doniol, risked a few timid reservations.  The other four - Dorsay, Astruc, Rivette and myself - exhibited an almost delirious enthusiasm; an enthusiasm justified by the long and happy life Cinemascope has known since, and will continue to know, in intimate as well as spectacular films.  The paradox, however, is that Rivette and I, its biggest supporters (contrary to Truffaut, Astruc, and Godard at the time), have never, in our films, used the Chretien process.  To stick to myself, I’d say that I’ve become a more and more determined adversary of ‘scope in particular and even, in general, of the wide screen.  My only 1.66:1 films, aside from my first, The Sign of Leo, are the ones I shot on Super 16.  All the others are 1.33:1.

Re-reading this article, I’m alarmed to see that I was praising as “virtues” what I’d now like to denounce as the most insidious vices of contemporary cinema.  In a word, I think that, far from favoring directors’ formal inventiveness, widescreen, instead, stifles it.  It is, I’m more and more persuaded, if not the only, at least the main culprit for the expressive poverty of the image today.

In believing we were rediscovering the visual dynamism of the silent masterpieces, we were only turning our backs on them, and I’m surprised that widescreen continues to be popular in the profession, without anyone, critics or technicians, daring to bluntly confess that the low ceilings in multiplexes are the real reason behind a commercial rather than an aesthetic choice.

Scope, I said in this article, allowed the film to do away with a certain number of cliches inherited from academic painting.  It liberated the frame from the constraints of “composition,” going so far as to render the very notion of “framing” futile.  This freedom has revealed itself to be only an illusion: a fact once and for all, inevitably, far from stimulating the directors’ imaginations, it paralyses it, and, thinking they’re escaping stasis, they only fall back into it with renewed force.  I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying that a slightly bigger screen offers a thousand less combinations to filmmakers in the dynamic organization of line, surface and volume than the good, old standard format.  It no longer inspires so easily, for example, the frame within a frame constructions in which the “cine-plastic” genius of Griffiths, Murnaus, Langs, Hitchcocks, Renoirs, and a hundred others revealed itself.  It weighs down shot/reverse shots, a major element of cinematographic syntax that, even with my love of Welles and Bazin, I’ve never been close to renouncing.  

There’s more: “Cinemascope,” I wrote, “finally introduces in our art the only tangible element that escaped it: air, the divine ether of poets.”  Now, it is precisely against this lack of air, imposed by current framing, that I do not cease to combat.  Because where is the air, if you really look for it?  To the left, to the right?  No, it is to the top that our eyes looks for it, and it is this upper part that has disappeared.  It’s at the top that one breathes, and it is at the top that the poetry is often found!  I like that my characters’ heads don’t bump against the top of the frame.  I like to show the sky, the trees, the mountains, even the roofs of houses, so much so that I only feel at ease in rooms with high ceilings.  It’s a matter of taste, they’ll say.  Very well.  But, if I miss the upper part of the screen, the lower part is often also lacking for me.  The sides aren’t too important: the slightest pan is enough to extend them.  On the other hand, knowing that my frames will be “enlarged,” (in fact, “narrowed,” I’d put it) by the projection in most theaters, I have trouble showing with enough “presence” what seems to me to be the most expressive part of the human body (the head, shoulders, and hands) by shots that used to be called “close-up,” that continue, in spite of everything, to make me happy, but that I look for in vain in the films of my younger colleagues.  How often have I had to regretfully employ this or that ploy to avoid having my actors’ hands go too low, hands that are often more eloquent than a word or a face!  Long live Eisenstein, I’d prefer to proclaim today, who only dreamed of the square screen!

My last film, however, The Lady and the Duke, for the sole purpose of preventing the mangling at the hands of distributors and TV channels, was shot in 16:9.  Unfortunately, this format doesn’t exist in movie theaters: its equivalent would be 1.77:1, which projectors can’t do.  That’s why the 35mm copy will be printed 1.66:1, to avoid any choice, by the projectionist, of 1.85:1.  This policy of the least evil hardly delights me.  Shall I say it’s the fault of Cinemascope’s?

Originally published in Cahiers du cinéma, August 2001      

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