I have a theory that Stallone films, like Bond films, are excellent indicators of what film style looks like in popular cinema at any particular moment – they tend to be competent, and to show off whatever is thought to be “stylish” in current mainstream filmmaking, but they rarely break new ground. If you want a quick primer on the going cinematic fashion of 1969, just look at On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, if you need a quick glimpse at the popular palette of 1985, Then Rocky IV is a good bet. The Expendables doesn’t disappoint. In narrative content and structure is feels like a throwback cross between Commando and Cobra, a Reagan era action script propped up thirty years later. Visually, though, it is a nice distillation of the 2010 look. Stallone fully embraces the run-and-gun aesthetic for his action sequences, which are incoherent moment-by-moment but make a general sort of sense (same as Inception or Salt) [see Bordwell’s blogs on this topic: http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=1175]. He employs digital compositing and CGI liberally: practical pyrotechnics are sweetened (and sometimes replaced) digitally. And, as in so many films of our period, the results are decidedly mixed and uneven. The team’s digital seaplane and the baddies’ digital fortress are surprisingly obvious; flat lighting of actors before a green-screen background (aboard the airplane or in a car) keeps the various elements from blending convincingly. Expendables’ visual effects are worse than some, but they are a good summary of a transitional moment of technology and technique.
One scene stood out for me, a moment of male bonding lifted from the Rio Bravo playbook. Mickey Rourke mourns the death of his soul while he paints a guitar under blue neon light in his Tattoo parlor. He recalls letting a woman die during a mission in Bosnia, and wishing he had saved her. Stallone listens intently, and takes the message to heart. He will return to Velina to rescue the general’s daughter, and save his own soul. The scene is The Expendables version of Bernstein’s monologue about the girl on the ferry in Citizen Kane. A secondary character’s revelation about memory and loss is meant to give us insight into the hero. Rourke gives his all in the scene, it is clearly his acting set-piece and seemingly the prime reason he is in the movie. The scene is pure Stallone. His films can feel like Lego constructions, each scene a different preformed brick. Rourke’s soliloquy is a stand-alone module of pathos plugged in among other modules that could be labeled “comedy,” “rollicking action,” “exposition,” and “brutality.”
But what caught my eye was the scene’s color design. Rourke is entirely blue. Navi blue. Stallone, is bathed in orange-red, as though lit by unseen firelight. Shots alternate between close-ups of the two stars, sometimes framing Stallone in Rourke’s background, an ember glinting behind an ice mountain. The color-coding is awkwardly literal: Rourke is blue, (his girl just left him), but he is also cold, dead inside. Meeting Giselle Itié during his recon of the island has ignited Stallone’s passion. He has a spark, and Rourke coolly encourages him to keep it lit. Color is splashed across the scene for an emotional effect, motivation seems a second thought – why is Rourke painting a picture under blue light? The color design comes right out of the early days of Technicolor, when Broadway designer Robert Edmond Jones employed colored light to broadcast characters emotions in the first three-color short La Cucaracha. Jones hoped that Technicolor film would become a sort of opera, with color arias swelling beyond the story to touch the viewer. When characters raged at one another the screen was blasted with scarlet, when they were sad, blue light stepped in. Jones helped promote Technicolor when the company needed to attract attention from studios, but his brand of mad hyperbolic color quickly faded from the scene. Color would become an adjunct to the drama and action, more like an orchestral film score than an opera. But the use of colored light to cue emotions continued in a more subtle form. Cinematographers soon realized that they could manipulate color temperature, cool and warm light, for dramatic and atmospheric effect. The technique worked well because it followed a generally accepted convention that moonlight is blue and lamplight and firelight were orange. I’m preparing a detailed discussion of this for a forthcoming anthology of color film – but you can see powerful instances of this mix in melodramas of the 40s and 50s. Consider the night-scenes between Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck in Duel in the Sun, or the bedroom scene between Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind, and you will see how passion and resistance are played out in a dance of orange and blue light.
So here we are in 2010, and it seems that Stallone is raiding the visual vocabulary of Hollywood melodrama. Stallone, of course, is no stranger to borrowing from classical melodrama (this is how Brando’s “Stella” became Stallone’s “Adrian”), and he has always been prone to visual hyperbole. But what we see in Expendables is less a quotation of the past than a sign of a general resurgence of expressive color effects in popular cinema. The development is partly due to advancements in Digital Intermediate, which allow colorists to tweak a scene’s palette with unprecedented precision. I’ve discussed this with regard to films like O’Brother Where Art Thou and The Aviator in my book and elsewhere. Over the past decade filmmakers have become accustomed to muscling their palettes in post-production. Sometimes the effect is bizarrely experimental (as in Speed Racer) but more often the colorists fall back on old standbys: sepia for flashbacks/historical scenes; hot oranges for deserts and arid settings; blue for night; and green for “otherworldliness” (ala The Matrix). At the same time, audiences have shown themselves to be remarkably forgiving of variations in skin tones – once thought to be the bedrock of color reproduction. Historically, “good” flesh tones has been THE test of color technology, it was the one area in which the experts thought viewers demanded accuracy. Recent films like The Expendables suggest that in contemporary norms there is quite a lot of latitude. Rourke isn’t just cast in blue light, he IS blue, and Stallone’s face is simply orange. In other scenes, the flesh tones thin out to a grayish white (for the Caucasians in the cast), elsewhere they are flushed with warmth. I noticed a change in Tom Cruise’s skin tone from thin to amber across two shots in Knight and Day (during the airplane scene at the beginning). I’m not sure whether this new flexibility of color is a good or bad thing, but it seems that in one (small) area the contemporary filmmaker’s stylistic palette has broadened.
There has been a lot of talk lately about the “Teal and Orange” color design in contemporary cinema (see here: http://theabyssgazes.blogspot.com/2010/03/teal-and-orange-hollywood-please-stop.html ), and the argument seems to be that digital colorists simply set their controls to orange fleshtones and teal backgrounds, sacrificing pure greens, reds, yellows, and essentially narrowing the palette. I find this argument overstated, and it is probably worth its own blog at a later point. It may be true that DI has encouraged greater play with chroma in a general way, but the new techniques follow well-worn paths. “Teal and Orange” is, of course, a development of the cool/warm color temperatures mixed for dramatic effect in the classical Technicolor era. More recently, the 80s action film often invoked this palette for the industrial settings of their big showdowns. Consider the rooftop of Die Hard, for instance, or the steel foundry at the end of Stallone’s Cobra where red light from blast furnaces contrasts with the cool concrete and girder arena. James Cameron almost made this look a trademark in films like Aliens, partly because the uniform blue helped integrate miniature footage with live-action. So The Expendables doesn’t exactly return us to the early days of Technicolor experimentation, but it does flag an area to watch in contemporary cinema. In binding the action film’s cool/warm palette and DI’s power to manipulate hue to an “acting” scene, a scene of male bonding melos no less, Stallone pushes the going style forward, creating a film that will look “very 2010” to future historians.