• I couldn’t find any wide-screen stills from Words and Pictures, so enjoy this one from Cukor’s A Star is Born.

Words and Pictures, which opens in Chicago tomorrow, might be the first American, star-driven romantic comedy in years to use the wide-screen frame purposefully—and the achievement is all the more remarkable when you realize how much of it takes place indoors. I’ve gotten so used to American genre movies taking the format for granted—giving the audience what are essentially 1.85:1 images with the tops and bottoms sliced off—that I no longer bother to express disappointment about it (not that often, anyway). So I was pleasantly surprised to find in Words and Pictures wide-screen compositions that actually encourage viewers to explore them from side to side. When we first see the English teacher protagonist (Clive Owen) address his students, for instance, the students’ desks, arranged in a semicircle, fill more than half the frame. Owen and his desk seem crammed into the righthand corner, illustrating succinctly his inability to connect with the kids.

Director Fred Schepisi gets the most mileage out of the format in those scenes depicting the film’s central relationship between Owen’s character and the new art teacher (Juliette Binoche), who becomes his verbal sparring partner and eventually his lover. There are relatively few close-ups in the film—instead Schepisi stages many of the two-hander conversations in medium shots, so as to highlight the distance (both physical and emotional) between the characters. When the two stand at opposite ends of the wide-screen frame, we get a palpable sense of their friction. At the same time, these shots grant the characters a certain equality, hinting at how much they have in common. Such images form the foundation of a consistent visual language, which subtly guides our response to the drama. As such, it means something when the space between Owen and Binoche starts to narrow in those two-shots—or when Schepisi cuts to a rare long-shot to show Owen struggling with a personal failure towards the end of the film. The latter scene reminds you that, when used sparingly, the image of a solitary figure in the middle of a wide-screen long-shot can communicate great emotional power. (See, for another example, the scene in Two Lovers where Joaquin Phoenix sits alone in a fancy Manhattan restaurant, out of his element and supremely embarrassed.)

  • Joaquin Phoenix in Two Lovers

True to its title, Words and Pictures is as talky as it is visually expressive—in fact I’ll be stunned if I see a talkier American movie open at a multiplex this year. The movie’s rambling discourse reminded me of the dialogue-driven comedies Joseph L. Mankiewicz made at Fox in the 1940s and ’50s (The Late George Apley, A Letter to Three Wives, People Will Talk), wherein drawing-room conversation becomes a means of exploring values, prejudices, and what one wants out of life. (In the film Owen and Binoche come to lead their students in an ongoing debate over the cultural merits of literature versus visual art. That’s a stupid argument, of course, though it provides a worthy prompt for both teachers and students to consider how they choose to engage with the world.) Yet Schepisi’s use of wide-screen evokes two other great Hollywood directors of that era, George Cukor and Vincente Minnelli.

Both Cukor and Minnelli came to cinema from the world of theater—they brought to movies an exacting sense of dramatic space, deriving meaning not only from the people and objects in the frame, but from the distances between them. Both directors adapted brilliantly to wide-screen when the format was introduced in the mid-50s. A Star is Born (Cukor’s first film in the format) and The Cobweb (Minnelli’s second) remain some of the finest examples of wide-screen cinematography in American movies. Incidentally numerous crucial scenes in both of those films take place in domestic interiors, which speaks to the prodigious visual imagination of both filmmakers. Cukor and Minnelli recognized that a new aspect ratio meant finding new ways to convey dramatic conflicts in visual terms—namely, emphasizing the x-axis of any playing space. (The same can be said of the 50s wide-screen films of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray, both of whom also started in the theater.)

I wouldn’t rank Words and Pictures alongside the best work of Cukor, Mankiewicz, or Minnelli. But seeing how little current American filmmaking evokes any of those directors, it warrants serious attention.