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August 27, 2010


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Mark Asch

The effective crossing of the 180=degree line, reversing the left-right positioning of Flynn and Bond, is also a quite nice way of delineating their reversal of status.

Least favorite contemporary use of dissolves: mid-sex scene, as the participants change positions. Offenders: James Foley, who really should know better, in AFTER DARK, MY SWEET, and Robert Rodriguez, who would tell you that no, he really shouldn't, in DESPERADO.

Glenn Kenny

@ Mark: Yes, and the reverse of positions corresponds to the flipping of Bond's attitude. Shoe's on the other foot, as it were. Extremely clever, without looking at all fussy.

Fuzzy Bastarrd

The artful dissolve is one of the many optical techniques more or less lost as TVs all-cuts-all-the-time style took over (at least until digital editing made "opticals" an obsolete term). I do miss the good dissolves, but even more I miss the split-screens, matte-prints, and other techniques that were once perfectly standard and are now relegated to the avant-garde and the occasional wacky comedy. Watching MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA now, it's tragic to see how little of the cinematic possibilities explored lasted past the 40s.

Charles Hartney

Wonderful post, Glenn. You don't often see thorough explorations of a film's aesthetic and formal elements in film writing today (something you had been railing against in the recent past). Appraisals like these are what keep people reading.

I've been reading regularly for several weeks now, but this post has reminded me of and compelled me to share what is probably my favorite "narrative dissolve" in all of film, from Citizen Kane. The scene in question occurs during Kane's first encounter with Susan Alexander, when she provides him hot water and he the necessary comic relief to alleviate her toothache. He starts to question her about her age, her occupation, what she wanted to be when she was little - "A singer," she responds sheepishly - and then asks that she sing for him in the parlor.

Susan begins to sing as Kane regards her approvingly, though her voice is tinny and her piano-playing unintentionally dissonant. It is here where Welles inserts a dissolve, and the resulting scene is very familiar: Susan at the piano, singing the same song, and Kane rapt with attention. But the scenery is changed: we are no longer in Susan's claustrophobic parlor, but in a more refined, capacious environment. Susan has changed as well: her dress is more elegant, her piano playing and singing smoother, more melodic, confident.

These elements suggest a number of narrative developments: a significant passage of time; that Susan has been given the freedom (see: money) to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a singer; and not only the continuation but the deepening of the relationship between Susan and Charles - he has obviously moved her into more luxurious surroundings.

Watching Kane for the I-don't-know-how-many-th time, it struck me what a formal marvel this transition was. To communicate so much with so little...astonishing. My apologies for going on but as dissolves of this kind are, as you said, pretty rare, I thought I'd share this one.

Tom Russell

Excellent post, Glenn. I once posted a little polemic on my site against dissolves, but intelligent, well-reasoned posts like yours remind me that I was really talking about Dissolves As They Are Often And Lazily Used To Smooth Over The Passage of Time And/Or Hide A Lack of Coverage And/Or To Make a Montage All Romance-y. If more people would use dissolves as intelligently as Curtiz and Amy (or, for that matter, Scorsese and Schoonmaker), I wouldn't have a problem with them, at all.

Though I suppose you could say the same thing about any editing technique-- cut-aways, fade-outs, split-screens, maybe even wipes. Though, as for the latter, for the life of me I can't think of a visible[*] wipe that actually worked in terms of expressing something emotional, intellectual, or thematic (outside of a metatextual usage, as in genre pastiches like Star Wars). Is there some great wipe that I'm missing, or are they inherently silly?

[*-- By visible I mean an obvious scene-to-scene or passage-of-time or object-to-object wipe, and not a wipe used to construct a "seamless" pan between two shots, usually masked by passing over something completely black.]


In Katsuhiro Otomo's 'Akira', when Tetsuo is knocked out by a swinging truncheon, the staff itself bisects the frame and acts as the wipe edge. Hence the cause of Tetsuo's unconsciousness leads us, both narratively and cinematically, to the next scene.


Interesting how Kubrick embraced the use of dissolves late in his career to great and original effect.

Ed Hulse

One of the reasons I'm so out of place among today's cineastes is that, to me (someone who would rather watch a pre-1940 Hollywood movie than practically anything else), there's absolutely nothing out of the ordinary in that dissolve. While certainly effective for the reasons you cite, it's something I take very much for granted. It would never occur to me to give this simple narrative device the loving attention you've lavished on it. But your analysis is, of course, quite correct.

@ Tom Russell: The wipe became something of a minor art form in its own right during the Thirties and was used quite effectively. Studio editorial departments developed some of them with very specific functions in mind. There was a "keyhole" wipe that signaled viewers were about to see something to which they weren't supposed to be privy. Wipes shaped like musical notes transitioned from dialogue scenes to musical numbers. Pistol-shaped wipes introduced montages of gang violence. Et cetera, et cetera....

Some directors (especially those who graduated from the cutting room) actually built wipes and dissolves into their storytelling, rather than simply leave such transitions to the editor. Otis Garrett did a neat job of this in a 1938 Universal "B" titled THE LADY IN THE MORGUE. As I recall, Joseph H. Lewis did something similar in his 1937-42 quickie Westerns.

Chris O.

Great f'ing post. I wonder if you would've been less likely to notice the dissolve itself today if you were listening to the movie's sound. (I was revisiting "Ikiru" recently and the "Life Is Brief" scene. While trying to listen specifically to the song I noticed how much the camera moves in the scene, considering how somber the moment is. Not talking typical dolly/zoom-in emotion-wringing, either.)

You could read into the dissolve in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN when Tommy Lee Jones sees the vent screws & dime on the carpet as a "disappearance" of sorts. The money disappears as does his chance at triumph, etc. Yeah, it does seem like a lost art. In a similar vein, I miss not all that long ago when jump cuts in American mainstream movies were still kind of thrilling.

warren oates

Nice post Glenn. I've always been a big fan of the deft dissolve. I'm thinking of Scorsese's three-part timemelting dissolves in TAXI DRIVER as Travis Bickle walks down that lonely morning street and THE LAST TEMPTATION as a camel slowly rises into the desert heat. Or Sokurov's shot-reverse-shot dissolves in place of cuts in SECOND CIRCLE. There's some stuff like that in Godard films like SLOW MOTION too. And a great and surprising one in Woody Allen's VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA. Dissolves: They're not just for what you can't solve!


Tom: I recall a lot of horizontal wipes in Wellman's MIDNIGHT MARY (1933), but I don't suppose I'd say they expressed anything "emotional, intellectual, or thematic." They sure kept things moving though.

Kent Jones

A "little polemic against dissolves" - odd notion.

As someone who just spent a lot of time at Film Forum, I will say that dissolves in 3-D are extremely disorienting. The revelation of the series, INFERNO, is driven by hard cuts back and forth between Robert Ryan making his way out of the desert and Rhonda Fleming and William Lundigan swimming, drinking, and basking in air-conditioned comfort.

Glenn Kenny

@ Kent: Indeed. And those hard cuts, and the contrast between their comfort and Ryan's travails—which, for me, reached their tragicomic height when he shouted, "Hey, get back here! That's MY RABBIT!"—really increase the viewer's sympathy for Ryan's character, in a way that very deliberately pulls against all the bad things that everybody's saying about him throughout. There's a very busy and compelling psychological dynamism at work here. And that ending...not to give too much away, but I remember thinking, "Man, I wanna be a fly on the wall at the counseling session that's almost certainly in the cards here..."

Kent Jones

It's a film that was never on my radar, for one reason or another. It really gets the Crusoe scenario in a detailed and thorough way - for instance, going through the turmoil of lowering himself down with the rope, then coming to terms with the fact that he had to get himself back up again to loosen the rope and then come down again and risk further breaks in his already shattered leg. I loved all those little VO variations of "I've got nothing but time." And yes, it's structured so that the cross-cutting builds sympathy for him - that and the fact that we only HEAR about how unsympathetic he is, and only see him once he's been left to die. Ryan is so fully committed to the role.

The 3-D was fascinating: rocks, Ryan's crouching body from above, the sleek architecture and swimming pools and desks back in LA. Quite a movie.

The idea of the monstrous tycoon humanized through endurance was done fairly well in THE EDGE, I guess, and it was the basis for a great script that Antonioni never got to shoot, called THE CREW.

Chris O.

It's too bad Robert Ryan and Sterling Hayden never played brothers in the mid-50s -- specifically, Ryan in HOUSE OF BAMBOO and Hayden in THE KILLING. They look nearly separated at birth, but I'm hijacking...

The Siren

Fabulous. As Ed Hulse says, this dissolve is indeed the sort of thing one sees often in movies of a certain vintage. But BOY do I love someone taking an elegant example and breaking down, moment by moment, what makes it beautiful to look at, seamlessly appropriate in terms of the narrative and perfectly in keeping with what the actors are doing. And when you combine it all with the notation that few filmmakers seem to know how or want to do this any more--well, my heart is warmed and will stay that way for a long while.

Plus, Dodge City. GREAT movie. People used to mock Errol Flynn Westerns. So glad to see you and Dave Kehr giving them their due.


Don't forget Von Sternberg's unique use of dissolves, letting them go on for a few seconds, with different levels of opacity, often cutting in one of the sequences.

John M

It is odd that there seems to be a school of thought in which dissolves are glorious but zooms are disgraceful. If used thoughtfully, or at least with coherent expressiveness, I love 'em both.

Any technique can be a marvel, if in the right hands.

John M

By the way, the still of the overlapping Ward Bonds belongs on my wall. In a gilded frame. Blown up to four feet diagonal.

Paul Johnson

Well, I think part of the slam against the zoom lens is that it's very easy to use. That doesn't invalidate it mind you, but the very fact it's possible to use without putting much forethought into whether one should use it makes me immediately suspicious when I see it. Also, while I can think of many scenes rendered gloriously ridiculous through overzealous use of the zoom lens (see virtually every Eurociné production made in the 70s) the only unintentionally comic use of dissolves that springs to mind is John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (that's not to say there aren't other lousy/lazy uses of the dissolve, as the Foley/Rodgriguez examples above attest, but the Carpenter case is the only instance I know of where its use becomes camp). In the end, all that matters is obviously whether it works or not, and of course, yes, there are many great and glorious zoom shots in the history of film.

Russ Queen

Hooray, so glad someone mentioned the dissolve in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Surprising in that it comes out of no where, but so subtle you aren't aware of it as technique for its own sake. Thematically, it really draws those two characters together when it becomes clear they are falling for each other. Just a wonderfully deft touch by a master whom some feel has lost his touch.

Tom Block

There's a great dissolve in "Notorious" after Bergman moves into Rains' house, when she and Grant are feeling alienated from each other. I forget the order but we first see one of the two sitting and looking really alone at a table at an outdoor cafe; then there's a dissolve to the other person sitting in a different cafe, on the other side of the table from where the first person was--a beautiful piece of negative symmetry that accents the other person's absence. (I think we see Grant first and then Bergman, but don't recall for sure.)

Martin White

Could you show the same thing in a a live video stream on certain time? I'd really like to see it. I myself usually use ustream or www.tvmad.com maybe they'lle help ya.

If yould be willing to do it then let me know, I'd be 100% there to watch it.


Chris O.

An example of a dissolve hit me out of the blue while I was jogging... at the end of Milos Forman's MAN ON THE MOON when a laughing Carrey/Kaufman on the "doctor's" table dissolves into his body in the coffin. Now, maybe a match cut would've been more interesting, apropos and less Oscar bait-y, but it has stuck with me and I haven't seen the movie since it was in theaters.

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