Turner is continually moving into and out of boxes, and his position in these boxes, or his depth within the box, contextualise, but rarely directly represent, his position in his social world.
The use of depth is not really a symbol on its own, its more like music.
Places this happens
- The big academy arts thing. The walls are tessellated with paintings, the upper walls lean in over the people inside and are also full of paintings laid almost edge to edge like tiles. Perspective leads us to a door at the back of the first room, inside is another, smaller room, also tiled with paintings like the first.
|The models for the gallery room|
Then we get taken through into the back room where the characters argue. The back room is explicitly stated as a place of less prestige, so painters can trace the curve of their careers by where they are hung. This is probably the most explicit relation of space to social reality in the film because where you are (where your painting is) is literally who you are.
- A scene in a country house with Mr Haydon. Haydon talks to a bunch of painters (I think he tries to skive money off them), at the end of these conversations Haydon walks off, away from the house, into the meadows.
The camera holds directly in the doorway. The artists indoors effectively frame the shot as they discuss Haydon, disparaging him and pointing out what a fucking drama queen he is. In the centre of the shot, moving in a straight line so that his course deviates neither to the left or right, Haydon diminishes and shrinks as he walks purposefully away from the house, a tiny man growing ever smaller.
|This is the same house but hot that scene.|
You can kind of see how people are arranged by depth though.
- Turners gallery. Turner has transformed a central, windowless room in his house into a gallery of his paintings. He makes visitors wait outside this place in a darkened room until their eyes have adjusted to that dark, then opens the door to his room of images. The light in this room comes from a glass ceiling covered with what looks like linen, so it is bright, white and diffuse. Inside this room Turners exquisite and carefully made paintings are chaotically scattered on easels and sometimes simply leaning against the wall.
I don't know if Turner in real life actually did this sort of thing but in the film it is a powerful piece of stagecraft that makes sense in terms of the character of the man (you believe the Turner shown would actually do stuff like that), and as a simple but powerful piece of symbolism. The bright room of fine beauty, casually strewn, unseen in the centre, hidden by darkness. Pretty much the man himself.
Those scenes have the most distinctive use of depth, the ones in which its use is most clear, but the use of depth in general is a powerful element of the film, usually woven very subtly into its makeup. Turner is continually approaching and receding from us, never, or rarely, directly like Sickert in the example above, but in more deft movements.
In particular, british social life is presented like a kind of stage set or dolls house that we are peering into. On a ferry, Turner makes a kind of hook shape through the crowd, moving right across them, then back into the shot and up some stairs, then, on this higher level he moves left again. As he moves through these people he moves very subtly through some fine divisions of social class, if I remember correctly, even the physical relation of the people shifts a little as their class shifts.
The same is true of a theatre performance in a country house where people are arranged neatly in ranks according to importance, there are lots of neat diagonal interactions across the social space.
Turner goes to a seaside town to paint, he gives a false name to his landlady to avoid attention. This woman lives with her husband, eventually Turner will end up living with her in a different house after her husband dies.
We approach the seaside house from the left, the camera panning right as Turner walks along, he makes and enquiry and disappears inside. Turners relation to the house and to the life he will build with this woman is shown by him moving in and out of the depths of this house, going deeper into hallways, behind doors and cupboards. There are no long shots, there are just layers, layers of physical depth and layers of social presence and familiarity.
This gives us some idea of how 3d might eventually be used in films. Right now its so expensive that the only thing you can do with 3d is big massive stuff in big massive films. Its directly sensory rather than integrated. Like, you are meant to feel the 3d and never forget it really. Since very few films are made to take advantage of the way you can tell a story with actual depth (I think Avatar might be the only one that actually pushed it as a method of storytelling rather than just a cool thing to slather on top) The spectacle isn't that interesting and the number of 3d films is going down.
I think learning to use 3d well will be harder than learning to use colour was. It actually works well when it is quiet, when the visual and emotional volume of a scene is temperate and there is not a lot of brain noise, and the things it does, and the way it feathers, cuts across or inflects the emotional impact of a scene or sequence may be much more powerful when subtle than when made a deliberate artifact to which the attention is drawn.
Which is a problem because it costs a shitload and, even if it cost less you would still need to wear the glasses and I am not sure you could get people to wear the glasses if the 3d in a film did not draw attention to itself. You can't really say to an audience in their mid-40's "Hey put on these 3d glasses, it'll shift your response to this Chekhov adaptation to an imperceptible yet meaningful degree." They won't want to do it.
But if you could deal with the glasses problem and if you could push down the cost of the crap you need to cart around then we could end up in a world where stuff like social drama's and soap operas are in 3d but blockbuster spasgasms are in 2d but with lost of stuff and noise.
And then in 90 years a generation will grow up thinking that we use 'deep' and 'shallow' because the actually refer to the actual depth or shallowness of a piece of media.
(Mike Leigh's 'Mr Turner' was not actually in 3d, but it kind of should have been because it was made with a keen eye to the 3rd dimension. I talked about the film as it should have been, or as I recall it in my minds eye because that was more interesting.)