In a remarkable, early 1980s book on the relationship between cinema and painting, the French critic-theorist (and later scenarist and director) Pascal Bonitzer evoked a modern aesthetic, comprised of "unusual angles, limbs suggestively truncated, inadequate reflections in clouded mirrors"; a cinema full of "empty shots" that "expel the human body beyond the frame to focus instead on dead, empty zones barren of décor".
He was primarily thinking of Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Marguerite Duras and other heroes of heroines of modernism. Although Bonitzer has always had a fine taste for popular cinema (he would end up, many years after this book called Deframings, making an Agatha Christie mystery), he was, in this still-militant era of the end of the 1970s, a little dubious about the thrillers, fantasies, comedies and other popular forms that, in their own merry way, made extensive use of "unusual angles" of all sorts.
The '70s were a time of highly-theorised, eagerly cultivated suspicion: yes, popular cinema could be rich and thrilling, bold and inventive — but even the good moments functioned as a lure, a trap, a bad seduction, an "abduction" of the spectator as Bonitzer (alongside many other critics) liked to say then. Pop deframings 'sucked you in' for the sole reason of re-setting the balanced order of things.
But today, it is well worth revisiting, with refreshed eyes, the freaky framings of often overlooked films.
Many cinephiles know (as they should) the brilliant, dazzling, avant-garde films of Austrian Peter Tscherkassky — especially the 'Cinemascope Trilogy' including Outer Space (1999) and Dream Work (2001). For years, Tscherkassky committed to memory, and worked over with a laser pen, every frame of a horror film titled The Entity, made by Sidney J. Furie in 1982, starring Barbara Hershey. Many of Tscherkassky's most astute commentators appear to have never seen The Entity — which does not stop them dismissing it as the mere, trashy, 'raw material' that the avant-garde artist required for his found-footage extravaganzas.
When I had the chance in person to ask Tscherkassky what he really thought of The Entity, he exclaimed: "I love it!" Me, too. Because — one from one end of the film to the other — Furie unleashes the freakiest, most unsettling and unsettled framings this side of Straub and Huillet. 'Off-kilter' is a weak description of the ceaseless spatial disorientation of both the screen and the spectator of The Entity — even when the camera is framing something as innocuous as a filling baththub.
In an even more perverse horror-thriller, Lamberto Bava's Ghost Son (2007), featuring Laura Harring from Mulholland Drive (2001), another bathtub triggers a freakier framing: its bottom is transparent so that we can study the heroine's foot plunging towards the lens!
But we didn't have to wait for the 1980s for the visual freakshow to start. Fritz Lang was already bending perspective and camera-position for grand and grotesque effect within the first two, breakneck minutes of Spione (1928), as a motorbike rider sped into the night with a state secret. And Jerry Lewis had a distinctive way of (to use David Lynch's memorable phrase) of 'working the frame' in the 1960s. In a frankly experimental flashback scene of The Ladies' Man (1962), he casually decapitated two minor, transgressing characters. Raymond Durgnat described it so well in his early 1970s study of screen comedy, The Crazy Mirror: "When Herbert's fiancée kisses The Other Man, both their faces are conspicuously cut off by the top of the screen. Thus the frame as such is part of the picture... This gag is completely meaningless but it feels right (the kiss is a fact too awesome to show — 'off screen', like a repressed memory?)."
Such freaky framings are, today, the repressed memory of pop cinema.