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Contempt: Godard Against Cinemascope

In Contempt, Fritz Lang said that Cinemascope “wasn’t made for people. It’s only good for snakes and funerals.” Godard seems quite often to use the Cinemascope of Contempt to illustrate how this is true. I’m just an hour and two minutes in, but I have to stop just to record my thoughts on Godard’s anti-Cinemascope tract. Frequently up to this point, Godard has used compositions that allow people too little room, or alternatively leave too much negative space on either side. Perhaps I’m reading too far into some of the compositions. But of course, when Paul and Francesca meet Jeremy for the first time (the first time in the film, at any rate,) the Cinemascope frame practically cuts them off, so they’re barely keeping their heads above water, as it were. At this 1 hour 2 minute mark, I had to stop to observe the image. There is a framed picture of an amphitheater. Not quite an Ancient Greek amphitheater, but with many Greek touches. After all, there’s so many other facets of Ancient Greece in the film. But it’s obvious with just one look, and you can confirm this by measuring, that the dimensions of the picture conform to, you guessed it, the golden ratio, roughly 1.62:1. It was the perfect rectangle according to the Ancient Greeks, and they may well have been right, because it ties into a million different things in the world, from facial dimensions to spiral shells. And that golden rectangle is just sitting there mocking the Cinemascope frame, making it look absurd and ridiculous.

Sergei Eisenstein, or course, argued against the move to the original widescreen format (16:9, give or take) because he felt that the classic rectangle, or relieved square (4:3, give or take,) offered so many compositional possibilities that to change to any other format would be a major loss to filmmaking. Paul Sylbert (if you haven’t taken one of his classes yet, go take one!) echoed this sentiment. For my part, I feel comfortable in 16:9, but sometimes I feel like Godard in regards to 2.35:1 (Cinemascope, as if I had to tell you.) In certain situations, it becomes format best suited to snakes and funerals.

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