Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Hit Me with Your Best Shot: Jurassic Park

This post is brought to you by The Film Experience's 'Hit Me with Your Best Shot'

John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) is a huckster at heart. He started out as the proprietor of a fraudulent flea circus, thrilled, in a charitable interpretation, to be injecting a little wonder and amusement into people's lives through the power of illusion - or in a less charitable take, pulling the wool over their eyes and pocketing their cash.

The character, in Spielberg's film, has been softened considerably from Michael Crichton's novel, in which he's an egotistical and greedy bastard who ends up dying alone, devoured by his own creations. You have to wonder if that is, in part, because Hammond is now such an obvious stand-in for a Hollywood director like Spielberg - using cutting-edge technology to thrill his audience and sell a bunch of branded merchandise, but living in constant anxiety that the money's going to get pulled. In the film he's essentially benign, a charming old Scottish duffer who simply underestimates any complex system's tendency to chaos - something Spielberg would surely understand. I mean, you could read the entire film as being about Spielberg's difficulty wrangling Bruce the shark for Jaws.

Watching the film through this time, the shot that lingered with me was a brief moment in which Hammond's motives - and his role as a director figure - are crystallized. 

The visitors to the island - Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie Satler (Laura Dern - basically my Ripley when I was twelve), Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) - have abandoned the scheduled tour in the hope/fear of seeing the fearsome velociraptors (people proving just as unruly and disregardful of boundaries as dinosaurs in this film - this bunch are forever jumping out of cars and rides, although Gennaro finally gets a lesson in why you should really keep your hands, arms and everything else inside the car). A luckless cow is lowered into the raptor enclosure, prompting a hhoting, spitting, screeching ruckus as the three reptiles tear it to pieces.

Cue shots of Gennaro, Malcolm and Satler looking suitably green around the gills. Hammond, however, notices Grant's reaction is a little different:

Grant isn't disgusted: he's rapt - spellbound. His utter engrossment in the spectacle is undoubtedly a product of his professional and intellectual curiosity, a student of the long-dead granted an audience with his subjects; but his transfixed countenance aligns him with the audience in the cinema, identifies him as our point of identification, the figure on screen expressing what we (hopefully; ideally) are feeling at this point in the movie. 

And Hammond knows this. Hammond's expression says: I've got him. It's working. It's a businessman's relief that the investors are in the bag, but more importantly it's a showman's pride that his multi-million dollar man-eating flea circus works on the basic level of: holy shit! Look at that! It was probably the look on Spielberg's face when he first showed the movie to the studio, and to the first audience.

 What's great about this moment, this acknowledgement of the showman's secret anxiety about his audience, is that it arrives not in the scene in which that spectacular Brachiosaurus is knocking everyone's socks off, but at a moment when some poor heiffer is getting torn to shreds, quite loudly, just off screen. It renders the moment comically perverse. In this moment, and really only in this moment, does Hammond seem potentially quite sinister - genuinely unprincipled and manipulative, as opposed to merely misguided, a huckster seeing that the deal has been sealed. That this is also the moment when he seems closest to Spielberg's (and Hollywood's) populism is incredibly interesting. 

It's worth noting that the shot, brief though it is, is also a group shot, one of many in the film, and it typifies the film's approach of giving texture to the relationships between the characters in the little interactions and reactions they trade and share in these shots (more substantial examples include: the scene in which Hammond makes a deal with Grant and Satler in their trailer near the beginning of the film, or the helicopter ride, or the exchanges over the hatching velociraptors, or by the cars at the beginning of the tour, or by the sick Triceratops). This kind of shot, with actors given the opportunity to interact with each other within the frame, rather than being held in relentless solitary close-ups, seems such a basic tool of the film drama that it seems perverse that it's basically absent from current summer movies. Jurassic Park feels practically classical in style these days. 

Some other favorites:

The T. Rex is a great design - that angular head has such complex contours it looks quite different from shot to shot. She demands dramatic lighting. She is basically the Marlene Dietrich of dinosaurs.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Hit Me with Your Best Shot: Jackie Brown

The first thing I think of when I think about 'Jackie Brown' is the color blue - the french blue of her Cabo Air uniform, an instantly iconic design that is one among many triumphs for costume designer Mary Clare Hannon; Hannon stocks the movie with stylised, subtly retro threads that also feel lived in, work-ready, persuasively part of the texture of everyday life. In its balance between the iconic and the workaday, that uniform is the film in a nutshell. It symbolises all the financial stresses and consequent dubious compromises that gnaw away at Jackie (Pam Grier), but it also turns her into a visually striking generic figure, a player in Tarantino's game of cool. With one look at that uniform, we know that Jackie's both a loser and a winner. 

The long opening tracking shot that follows Jackie through the airport to her work is my choice for best shot: impressive on its own terms, that blue uniform raises it to another level. Held in profile as the tiled backdrop scrolls by and the credits flash up, the combined potency of the costume design and Grier's own history help Tarantino coin Jackie as a new film icon. Still, even serene, in motion, this opening shot suggests exactly the way Jackie's sang froid and poker face will see her through to the end. And yet the shot reveals at the same time the mundanity of Jackie's daily life, catching her on the slog to her (relatively) dead end job - life as a flight attendant drained of its traditional glamor. People often talk about the unusual empathy 'Jackie Brown' finds for its characters in contrast to Tarantino's other films. I'm not sure those other films are quite as emotionally cool as typically assumed, but 'Jackie Brown' signals its interest in stylisation modulated by thoughtful attention to people's actual, frustrated lives right in this opening shot.

I also love its semi-reprise in the lead in to the theft itself. The background tiling is now a matching shade of blue. Jackie is no longer stuck in daily drudgery and desperation - she's seized the initiative. This is Jackie's world now. 
           The second thing I think of when I think about 'Jackie Brown' is red.

This post has been brought to you by The Film Experience's 'Hit Me with Your Best Shot' series.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Serenity

Time for another 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' with The Film Experience.

Joss Whedon, writer/director of 'Serenity' (2005), has made his reputation as an inspired scripter of character and dialogue, but the deft compositions and economic visual storytelling that characterise his direction are perhaps his strongest suit. Whedon-helmed episodes of his TV series - in particular, Buffy's 'Hush' and 'Restless', Angel's 'A Hole in the World', Firefly's 'Objects in Space' - are among the most carefully thought-through (in visual terms) works ever made for television, up there with the best of 'Twin Peaks' and Mike Leigh's 'Play[s] for Today'.

My favourite shot in 'Serenity' is a pivotal moment in the plot: Ophelia-esque fugitive River Tam (Summer Glau) has been carrying around some dangerous knowledge in her head, but despite occasional hints percolating to the surface of her shifting, damaged psyche, she has been unable to grasp or communicate this information to her friends and protectors aboard the eponymous spaceship. Finally, in a dream, River finds herself in an open-air classroom that may or may not be a memory from her own childhood. She approaches an interactive terminal - and the viewer is shown what seems to be a POV shot of the screen, before the camera zooms in, passing through the screen and reveals the subject of River's secret knowledge: the lost world Miranda.

Unexpectedly, the view pans round to reveal the terminal screen from the other side, River staring down through the frame. The image recalls, for me at least, the starchild from '2001: A Space Odyssey', which makes sense - just as the starchild represented an apotheosis for the human race, this moment signifies a profound change in River: from here on, she will take ownership of both the knowledge and the abilities that have been forced on her by a faceless authority, driving the narrative through to its conclusion.

Whedon's thematic and narrative economy are very apparent here, as this single image draws together any number of elements from across the film. The schoolroom has been set up as the territory of the Alliance (the centralized government of the system), where students are taught the 'right' version of history, with the Alliance as a 'civilizing' agency. Miranda, a terrible mistake in the Alliance's quest to secure peace across the system, has been erased from history. In this shot, River has to (if this isn't too on the nose) 'see through' the official Alliance version to the unacknowledged victims. Moreover, in the opening sequence of the film, the schoolroom is a psychic cover for the horrific acts the Alliance perpetrates against River. The lattice of indecipherable language - and what better image to stand in for a self-consciously civilised culture than that neat and aesthetically pleasing array of text and symbols? - lies between River and vital knowledge; for River, language is the unstable, untraversable boundary between the inside of her head and the people who care for her, the barrier she slowly overcomes in the course of the film. The pan turns what appears to be a POV shot back on itself, so the viewer is left disoriented. River's own dissociation and fluctuating selfhood are perfectly embodied in this shot, as she becomes, in effect, the object of her own gaze.

The best thing about the shot, however, is that none of this means anything to the viewer the first time through. What matters, instead, is the sheer beauty and uncanniness of the moment. River, looking down into the universe, gave me goosebumps the first time I saw it. Perhaps part of its power lies in the way River, framed through a screen, mirrors the position of the viewer, caught in the act of beholding this fantasy universe.

Dreams, in film and television, too often default to either direct 1:1 symbolism or arbitrary surrealism. The best thing about Whedon's dreamscapes is that they refuse to be distilled to plot or theme. Mood, texture, and the irreducible, alien strangeness of the image are paramount (this extends to dialogue - is there a more inexplicably skin-prickling moment of television than Riley (Marc Blucas) telling Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) 'Don't worry - if I kiss you it'll make the sun go down' - precipitating a lurch into nightmare?). In 'Serenity', as in 'Hush', the imagery communicates vital plot, character and thematic information in symbolic terms, but the full power and resonance of the images exceeds the viewer's grasp. It carries the real shiver of the unconscious.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Aliens

This blog post is brought to you by The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot and the number 2.

Watch a movie enough times - and there are few films I've watched as often as Aliens - and certain details start to stand out, and take on more significance - even start to seem like a motif. Watching Aliens over the years, I can't help noticing all the hands reaching out - alien hands reaching out to drag their soldier victims into the smoky air, the pilot's hand going for her gun, Bishop's synthetic hands stretching out to grab Newt during the climax, mechanical claws extending as Ripley goes to war with the queen: hands reaching out in desperation or menace have started to seem central to the film's push and pull between possessive and protective motherhoods...

... particularly in this shot, my favourite. In a film of perfect 'behind you!' moments, this simple, indelible shot is what I think about when I think about Aliens. The emergency lighting and sprinklers turn the clinical, stark interiors into something almost organic in its dampness and its redness. But what makes it for me is the transformation of the face-hugger from it's typical form as a nightmare bug into a spindly hand, creeping over the equipment in the way my childhood self used to imagine spectral fingers inching their way over the end of my bed, ready to reach out and grab my vulnerable ankle. The Other Mother wants to steal Newt away from bereft mother Ripley.

Thank god for the other hand in the movie - the reassuring, parental hand of Ripley, reaching out to reassure and protect Newt. The shot above is the inverse of the last one - this time, all the audience wants is for the hand to reach out and grab Newt, and for one cruel second, the film toys with us. It all works out in the end, of course - until the sequel. Alien3's ruthless kicking of this film's happy ending has always rubbed me up the wrong way, but it makes this fleeting moment of contact all the more acute, representative of all Ripley's brief moments of human feeling and comfort before the inevitable loss, as someone else is irrevocably torn away by the monsters.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Beauty and the Beast

Care of The Film Experience's 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot':

Beauty and the Beast contains one of the Great Moments in Disney - having already introduced us to a castle full of talking objects and one very expressive horse, the film cuts to a scene of Belle dodging the amorous advances of Gaston. Stepping outside to see if the coast is clear, she asks a nearby chicken, 'Is he gone?' Given all the anthropomorphism, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it might respond, or at least give her a reassuring cluck and start stitching her a dress, Snow White style. But no - it just looks at her. Of course it does - it's only a chicken. But look closely and something like bemusement crosses its face - is she trying to talk to me? Is she nuts? No wonder all the villagers think she's a bit weird.

Confessions up front - Beauty and the Beast strikes me as a little patchy, nothing like as dynamic or sustained as near-contemporaries like The Little Mermaid or Aladdin, and without the diabolically great villains of either (no harm to Gaston - he is indeed very good at expectorating, and that chest is something to conjure with - but is his the most arbitrary villain death in any Disney movie ever? Whoops, he slipped!). The character design sometimes seems off - Gaston's comedy sidekick may be my least favourite Disney character of all time, crassly put together visually, irritatingly voiced and devoid of decent comedy - and the CGI seems less well integrated now than it did at the time. But it is, for the most part, still fantastic entertainment - best exemplified by my 'best shot':

This moment comes from the kitchen sequence of the ‘Be Our Guest’ number. The castle background has dropped away, leaving the characters and the viewer in a pure, almost abstract fantasy-space in which, rules suspended (loose as they are already), anything can happen. With no regard for gravity, a troop of napkins in napkin rings sweep down from the air, ready for their Busby Berkely routine with Mrs. Potts. In a sequence as buoyant as the featured bubbles, we might almost be back Under the Sea in The Little Mermaid, as characters momentarily forget their relationship to three dimensional space. Once the song ‘Be Our Guest’ gets underway, the film largely leaves the strictures of narrative and the respectable alibi of the fairy-tale behind and indulges fully in what American animation in general and Disney in particular has often done best – anthropomorphism run amok, song and dance, silly jokes, and an immersion in a happy nonsense world. I’m as keen as anyone to resist the notion that animation is just for children, and like most people I’d take the hipper, more cynical, wisecracking WB shorts or the more rigorously-constructed fantasy worlds of Studio Ghibli, to name Disney’s two most obvious counterparts, to this kind of frappe of whimsy. But in unashamedly Disney moments like the one above, the film becomes as air-light as the characters, and the sheer pleasure of the movement, the colour, the feeling, can leave you with a buzz that carries you through the rest of the film, or the rest of the day.

If Mrs. Potts’s dance with the napkins is the highpoint of the film in terms of sheer joyous fun, then this shot of the Beast, reaching his momentous decision to let Belle leave as he contemplates the enchanted rose which is progressively sealing his fate, is the pinnacle of the film as both romantic melodrama and symbolically-charged fairy-tale. The Beast is obviously one of the great character designs in animation, and amazingly flexible in his expressiveness – that scowling, shaggy mug is used for horror, comedy, pathos and romantic charisma throughout the film. He's a great love-object, like a Bronte hero with the demonic passions worn on the outside - Heathcliff with his horns showing; Rochester in Furs.
In the version of the tale I heard and read as a child, the rose had a very different function; Beauty's father, leaving on a trip, asked his three daughters what gifts they would like on his return. Her two spoilt sisters asked for gowns and jewels - but Beauty wanted only a rose as a token of her father's affection. Of course, it was plucking this rose from the grounds of the castle that brought on the wrath of the Beast; and when the Beast tells him he will only release him if he exchanges the rose for the one who asked for it, the terrified father betrays his daughter and agrees. In that tale, the rose is an appropriately thorny symbol for the barbed nature of filial love, and the transaction between father and groom, betraying a daughter's tender affection, that might have rung a bell for many unfortunate marriageable young women in Ye Olde Europe.
None of that patriarchal Stockholm Syndrome for a nineties heroine like Belle - in the film, the rose, pink as a heart and under glass, is an obvious metaphor for the Beast's own closed-off capacity for feeling and tenderness, so his great romantic epiphany - if you love her, put her needs before your own - must come standing over it, cupping it like a crystal ball, as mysterious to him as his own awakening emotional state.

But I couldn't help noticing on this viewing that the Beast is not the only castle inhabitant struggling with a dark side. During the battle between the villagers and the enchanted folk, there's a lot of violence, most of it as casual and negligible as most Disney violence. But take a look at the image above; Mrs. Potts and her brood of tea-cups have just poured scalding hot tea over some of the invaders. The clouds of steam linger, suggesting to this perturbed viewer just how agonising the injuries sustained by the villagers must be. Worse, though, is that a look of sadistic glee passing over Mrs. Potts's usually beneficent face? Is she relishing the pain of her enemies, or simply her own discovered capacity for bringing the hurt? Those Noirish shadows and camera angle aren't suggesting any comforting answers to me. Still, she is voiced by Angela Lansbury, and for someone fondly thought of as a lovable old lady, she sure brings some dark baggage with her - mistress-tormenting, incestuously-plotting, wolfy-tale-telling, meat-pie making baggage. Perhaps it's no surprise that Mrs. Potts's fine china exterior might hide a particularly dark brew.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Psycho

It's time for The Film Experience's weekly 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot'. Taking part in this was a large part of the motivation behind starting this barely 24-hour old blog; and as the subject of the week is one of my very favourite films, it seems the perfect time to get on board. Watching it through again with this task in mind was interesting, as a lot of images suddenly jumped out at me that I'd barely even noticed before - not least the one I'm calling my favourite, for the time being at least:

This moment occurs when Marion (Janet Leigh) is checking into the Bates Motel under the name ‘Marie Samuels’. The newspaper sticking out of her bag is, of course, wrapped around the $40,000 she stole.
Why do I love this shot so much? Mostly it’s the composition – the way a light-colored Marion against the dark background of the curtain on one side of the screen contrasts with the dark handbag against the lighter backdrop of the wall on the other; it suggests the odd split between trustworthy, well-behaved Marion on the one hand, and her criminal act on the other. Together with Leigh’s surprisingly sharp profile, much less soft than you might expect based on her appearance in earlier films, the composition makes this shot beguiling but severe – not unlike the film itself.
The wry touch that makes it special, though, is the ‘OKAY’ on the newspaper Marion is looking at; reassurance stamped right on her guilty secret, framed almost like a thought bubble. On the run, signing in under an assumed name, close to her goal but a little out of her way, a little lost, she might be telling herself – don’t worry, you’ll be okay. This is all going to turn out okay. And the strange young man she’s taking to, who keeps giggling in an unnerving manner – he’s probably okay really. Later, she might even say okay to having something to eat with him.
There are a couple of other images that caught my eye, however:

Can I take a second to say how much I think Lila Crane (Vera Miles) rocks? She’s the flintiest heroine in all of Hitchcock’s films, maybe in all of American cinema before the eighties. She’s not necessarily the easiest character to warm to, certainly not as faceted and easy to empathise with as her doomed sister, but she’s an impressive bloodhound, unwilling to put up with bullshit in tracking down Marion, and seemingly not too impressed with the men she encounters along the way. She also keeps her nerve and her wits surprisingly well at the end of the film, considering all she sees, hears, and experiences as the audience’s vessel into the deepest recesses of the Bates psyche (the psychiatrist at the end is just adding the Cliff Notes to what she brings to light in the house).
She also gets the best line in the film – ‘I can handle a sick old woman’. It has different ironic resonance depending on whether you know the twist or don’t, building suspense either way, but it also nails her character in seven words – determined, all business, and more unprepared for the horrors she will face than she can imagine.
I love this shot of her in Sam’s store, rushing out to find out what news there is of Arbogast, and how threatening it seems in the dark – the hanging scythes, the rakes like hands on the left, the claustrophobia of all this stuff piled high in the dark. She rushes out of the light of the back room; as she approaches the camera, the audience expects her features to become visible in close-up, but she remains a silhouette. A perfect metaphor for the search for answers in this film – it only takes you deeper into darkness.
Another shot worth looking at is what I think is the creepiest shot of the movie. Everybody remembers Mother’s bed, with the groove in which her body has lain for years, but I feel far more unnerved by the bed Lila discovers in Norman’s childhood room. Hers is a plush-looking double bed, with a mattress thick enough for a body to sink into; his appears to have a functional metal frame and a thin mattress, not unlike an army bunk (with some interesting implications for how she treated him whilst she was alive).
The crumpled sheets suggest that he has been sleeping here his whole life, still a child in the nursery. In the house, as in Norman’s psyche, the boy has been forced into a tiny corner by the demanding, consuming Mother in her imperial bedroom. Sitting at the end of the bed is a glass-eyed, stuffed animal, reminiscent of his stuffed birds and standing in, like them, for his equally stuffed Mother, and all the glassy-eyed dead girls that followed.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to throw a little bonus love in the direction of Gus Van Sant’s remake. This shot is from the climax of the film, and illustrates as well as any the effectiveness of Van Sant’s reworking of the film’s aesthetic, not least in the use of colour. Check out the soft, maternal pink of Mother’s cardigan - why, she wouldn’t even hurt a fly! Lila (Julianne Moore), meanwhile, is a walking Saul Bass title sequence. And then there’s the birds; not only does this provide a morbid answer to where Norman gets his birds for taxidermy, but Mother appears to be sitting watching them like characters on a movie screen. The dead sitting watching the living as they flutter about, innocent of their inevitable appointment with a pale young man – just like the dead birds in Norman’s office watch Marion. An uneasy commentary on the viewers sitting out there, in the darkness of the auditorium? Or just really, viscerally unpleasant?

Tuesday, 29 March 2011