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