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.