Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #003: Michael Haneke’s Cache and the Politics of Privacy


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I have previously posted this lecture I gave to undergraduate students at the University of Exeter in 2010. But, while I previously had to split the video file into four separate chapters, I can now upgrade it to a single HD file for your enhanced viewing and listening pleasure. The subject matter hasn’t changed – it’s still an introduction to the themes of film form, voyeurism and political history in Michael Haneke’s Cache.

This is as good a time as any to let you know that I’ve switched to a new YouTube channel, so if you’d like to receive immediate updates of new videos like this one, you can become a subscriber using this link. My old channel is still available, and I won’t reupload everything to the new location, but nor will I update the old one again. I wish YouTube had a way to merge channels, but no such service exists at present.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen this lecture before, I hope you enjoy it, uninterrupted:

A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)


[First Published 8 October 2008; Updated 12 February 2009; 10 June 2010; 24 February 2012; 27 March 2012]

a_trip_to_the_moon_poster[I've been adding to this post occasionally since I first published it on 8th October 2008. I tagged it as a work in progress, but now that I've commented a little on every shot, I thought I'd publish the updates (it has more than doubled in length since it first appeared) and declare it (almost) finished. I will continue to update it every once in a while, but I hope you find it interesting and informative in its present form. I still invite comments or further information from anyone who'd like to add to the essay, or who has links or bibliographic references to recommend.]

For the benefit of anyone who is studying this film or just fascinated by it, I’m going to attempt a shot-by-shot commentary on Georges MélièsA Trip to the Moon, released in France on 1st September 1902. It might start out rudimentary and descriptive, but as I add to and re-edit it from time to time it will be embellished with notes garnered from further reading and visitors’ commentaries (feel free to add your observations at the bottom of this post), to see if we can gather together some useful critical annotations for each shot of the film. I’ve included lots of links, some of which expand upon a key point, while others offer a surprising but interesting digression, I hope.

Click here to read my analysis of the film…

Tarzan the Ape Man and his Mate


Tarzan-1932-poster[This post refers to the first two Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, Tarzan the Ape Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1932) and Tarzan and his Mate (Cedric Gibbons, 1934)]

Having just read James Lever’s mock autobiography of Cheeta the chimpanzee (which is far funnier and more moving than the skinny concept might lead you to expect), I was sent scurrying back on my knuckles to the original Johnny Weissmuller films. As far as my memory banks are telling me, these were on BBC 2 at 6pm every single night for about five years, when I was a kid, but I might have exaggerated that in my head.  I also remember Bagpuss lasting forever, instead of its actual 13 episodes, and that gaps in the TV schedule were to be filled only with Laurel & Hardy or Harold Lloyd I also can’t remember whether, as a (very) young lad I wanted to be Tarzan, or to be a member of his makeshift jungle family. I might even have seen myself in Cheeta. This pondering was perhaps prompted by a recent rediscovery of Hammer’s She, which made me want to revisit some of the films and TV that left a strong impression on my developing headspace as a child. films.

Coming from the “pre-code” period in Hollywood, a window of frisky abandon when the censorious Production Code had been drawn up but not yet rigorously enforced, the Tarzan films are a lot naughtier than I remember. In an early scene of Tarzan the Ape Man, Jane undresses and washes in front of her father, teasing him for being shocked: she is, after all, his little girl, and he’s seen her in states of undress before. Of course, she’s grown into a woman since he last saw her, and she seems oblivious to her adult sexuality. That’s a good excuse, at least, for her to lean into the camera, blithely delivering the kind of cleavage shot that would be snipped out of later films:

more about “Tarzan the Ape Man: Jane Parker & her…“, posted with vodpod

It’s nothing, though, compared to the brazenness of a swimming scene from Tarzan and his Mate, which was cut out of the film’s original release, and only restored once it hit the home video market 60 years later. By the time of the sequel, Tarzan and Jane have settled into a kind of domestic bliss. Over the course of many sequels they will build up a recreation of a family home on the jungle escarpment, but in this second film they’ll still in a honeymoon period. When Jane falls from a tree branch, she snags the dress she’s been given by an English suitor trying to tempt her back to civilisation with fine clothes, “accidentally” leaving her completely undressed for a bit of impromptu skinny-dipping:

more about “Tarzan and his Mate: Swimming Scene“, posted with vodpod

Actually, though Johnny Weissmuller, a former Olympian is doing his own swimming, Maureen O’Sulllivan is doubled by Josephine McKim, another Olympic swimmer. The sequence succinctly points to Tarzan and Jane’s idyllic separation from the outside world, a brief look at their ease in their jungle home before some more white guys arrive to screw it all up, but whatever its artistic merits, it was deemed too strong for the censors.

Poster - Tarzan and His MateLooking at these films again, it’s impossible to avoid the colonialist themes that are so prominently displayed within them. It would be easy to bash the films for their insensitive handling of African American actors (who are given roles no juicier than expendable dogsbody or pliant messenger) and  their native African characters (who are killed off with indiscriminate ease and patronised as window-dressing to the films’ safari aesthetic). It’s certainly true that the films condemn the destructive hubris of white traders mishandling the local culture (the first two films in the series hinge upon a hunt for the elephants’ graveyard, a sacred place for Tarzan’s friends, but an ivory-rich treasure stash for the traders), but Africa is still portrayed as an irresolvably deadly place of unchecked savagery and unpredictable violence. But you don’t even need to analyse the plots of these films. The polite but arms-length skirting around issues of race can be observed in the formal constitution of an early scene in which new arrival Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan) is given a tour of her father’s African outpost:

more about “Tarzan the Ape Man – Jane’s tour“, posted with vodpod

You can see that, what looks like an innocent, slightly patronising look at the locals actually indicates a vast ethnic divide thanks to the use of rear projection, delegating the authentic location duties to a second unit team, perhaps even using stock footage. I’m not sure whether this is better (the background plates seem to have actually been shot in Africa) or worse than the blackface in something like King Kong, which was released the following year. Whatever their narrative posturings about the need to respect the African wildlife (with no illusions about its eagerness to bite your face off), the Tarzan films are still really a drawn out discussion of the suitability of the jungle for habitation by white people, and as such, it falls back on an easy binary of civilised vs savage. But at least it does it with considerable energy, and a surprisingly striking visual style. It’s not surprising this stuff stuck in my mind. The films use a beautiful soft-focus vignetting effect for some shots, which may be to make the jungle seem denser than the woods around Los Angeles where it was actually shot, but it also adds a dreamy mist to the whole place, marking it out as a zone of fantasy:

Tarzan the Ape Man Vignette

If Tarzan’s jungle was an attractive place, it was always a dangerous one. More than anything, I remember the Tarzan jungles as a place of vertiginous cliffs and dangerous waters. Every visit to the escarpment was a tense negotiation of rocks that could throw you off at any second. I’m sure I had many dreams of falling as a result of watching this stuff:

Tarzan the Ape Man

Even as a kid, I remember Tarzan’s crocodile wrestling as a predictable, comically shoddy insert in which he rolls over on top of a plastic prop for a couple of minutes before finally stabbing it in the head. But, at least in this early version from Tarzan and his Mate, it’s a superbly realised sequence, with an unnaturally huge beast, superb puppetry and atmospheric underwater photography that mirrors the earlier swimming scene, a nightmarish flipside to the jungle dream:

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi Randomised


ralph-mcquarrie-return-of-the-jedi-endor-racing

See also:

The last in the “original trilogy” of films is ready to be Randomised, reduced to three randomly selected frames, which will then provide a basis for my discussion of “random” aspects of the film (as opposed to the usual tactic of picking out the stuff that suits my own thesis).

I remember Return of the Jedi better than any other Star Wars film. Iwas the right age when it came out – old enough to understand the plot and to have some investment in the lives of its characters, but young enough that the inclusion of a tribe of cheeky teddy bears seemed like a crazy-funny idea to pep up an increasingly downbeat and self-important franchise with some unselfconscious slapstick rather than a canny-cunning concession to the toy market. This is the first time I remember being, like, totally psyched (as I believe young people are saying these days) for an upcoming film. I even read an article in Time magazine, an unusual activity for this particular 8 year-old, which I remember being a million pages long and published months before the film came out; actually it was published in the week of the film’s release: it just felt like ages before I would get to see the film for myself. I also suspect that this film, in a pincer movement with The Muppet Show, cemented a lifelong interest in puppets. The accompanying documentary, Classic Creatures, confirmed that George Lucas’s galaxy was one where humans were interlopers in a crowd of rubbery creatures.

Anyway, enough nostalgia. The randomiser has given me the following numbers: 15, 59, 97 and 110. A very good spread, I think. Let’s see what we get:

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi 15th minute

15 minutes in, we’re at the court of Jabba the Hutt, a giant slug-thing as capriciously sultanic as a Charles Laughton performance. This is a shot that has been added for the Special Edition re-release of 1997. The two humanoid girls are dancers from the house band (their parts were added when George Lucas decided to expand the group’s musical number to a full-blown muppet-fest), Rystáll Sant (left) and Lyn Me (right). Bounty hunter Boba Fett, through the addition of this one shot (actually, I think there are two glimpses of the master shot of this group), is transformed into a suave ladies man, instead of the skulking dude in the corner too shy to take his suit off even in the desert. In the prequels, he is given a backstory that posits him as the donor DNA for the Clone army, and his uniform now looks like an antique version of their suits. His trajectory in those films had obviously not been planned at the time of Return of the Jedi in 1983, because he is given a throwaway slapstick death scene to match his minimal screentime. But fans had taken the character to their hearts, surely on the basis of his cool outfit; it’s not like he does very much in the films themselves, and it can’t be entirely because of his earlier cartoon appearance in the Star Wars Holiday Special, an utterly execrable embarrassment about some kind of Wookiee Christmas, as far as I recall. Anyway, the nightclub backlighting and alien groupies pay him the respect that his followers clearly believed he was due. The dancers are marked as exotic, with their colourful skin and hair, and their slightly augmented anatomy. At least as far back as the Star Trek Green Lady, lovelorn and pent-up fanboys have been prompted to imagine whether alien women were different in all kinds of ways, and Star Wars has a lot of catching up to do in the sex department, devoid as it is of even implicit eroticism beyond a bit of (tom)boyish flirting here and there. It’s just a shame that, in trying to loosen up the Lucas libido, the film ends up dressing girls in fetish wear instead of giving them something interesting to say or do.

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi 59th minute

A little later, at the film’s halfway point, we have an exhilarating chase on the literally named speeder bikes through the forests of Endor. It’s all forests on Endor. The motion blur on the scenery, accentuated by the sharp focus on the biker scout (used to be one of the favourites in my collection of action figures), demonstrate the incredible pace of this sequence. A self-confessed boy racer in his youth (see American Graffiti for evidence of a nostalgia for shiny, shiny cars), George Lucas finds plenty of chances in his Star Wars franchise for chase sequences and vehicular combat, all of them built on his signature coupling of mortal danger and a gleeful enjoyment of speed. So many complex special effects went into this sequence, including travelling mattes, miniatures and live action footage of the actors. But it hinges on a very simple trick – some dude with a camera has to walk through the forest, capturing the background footage that will then be played back at high speed. There are plenty of contests between vehicles in the Star Wars universe, so it’s refreshing to see one so close to the earth. Endor is one of the staging posts for the final battle between the Empire and the Rebels, marking out most forcefully the clash of interests between a hyper-technologised ruling party and the traditional cultures that populate its colonies.

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi 110th minute

An an unenlightened child, it always puzzled me why this mighty, wise warriors, good or evil, didn’t just kill each other. Instead they brandish statements like “give into your hatred” or “if you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”. Really? Do they want to be killed or not? What happened to the old ways of goodies and baddies trying to kill each other because each represented a threat to the other’s plans? And why did Darth Vader kill Obi-Wan Kenobi if he knew it would make him more powerful? Only later did I understand that the plan was to turn Luke Skywalker into an asset of evil and turn him to the Dark Side. This might seem like  a spiritual conception of evil as a corrupting infection that requires a single transgressive act (tellingly centred around the killing of a feared enemy) to let the infection take over the body and mind, but it’s also a conservative one where you either are or are not wicked and get branded as such. In any case, by the end we still wind up with the Emperor preparing to kill Luke once and for all. The camera moves with him, his hands threatening inwards from the side of the frame, an over-the-shoulder, almost-point-of-view shot signalling the pushing of the young Jedi towards the edge of the precipice. Think how many important showdowns or daring escapes happen on the edge of these apocalyptic canyons in George Lucas’ adventure serials (i.e. including the Indiana Jones films). Nothing signifies imminent doom better than a potential plummeting towards a vanishing point. These dangers of extreme vertical drops stand in sharp contrast to the horizontal axes of the chase scenes such as the one in the previous frame. Death comes when the forward motion stops.

Finally: this one is for you, readers – the bonus frame. The 97th minute. Take a deep breath, flex your typing fingers and tell me what you can say about this:

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi 97th minute

Memento: “The Camera Never Lies”


Memento Guy Pearce

[See also my article on the Christopher Nolan Batman films and my review of his latest film, Inception.]

I was reading Allan Cameron’s work on modular narratives this week, (you can read and download the introductory chapter here) in advance of a seminar that would include Memento, so I thought I’d throw down some notes. Hopefully they’ll come out in some kind of comprehensible order, but if it gets a bit disjointed, I’ll try and claw back some credibility by pretending that I was trying to write in a “modular” fashion.

Cameron describes a trend in contemporary cinema for a kind of reconfigured narrative:

In its cinematic form, database or modular narrative goes beyond the classical deployment of flashback, offering a series of disarticulated narrative pieces, often arranged in radically achronological ways via flashforwards, overt repetition or a destabilization of the relationship between present and past.

I’m sure you can easily think of some films that don’t tell their stories in a linear chronological order from start to finish (21 Grams, Pulp Fiction, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Irreversible are some of the key examples Cameron cites), but he’s not claiming that this is now the default setting for cinematic storytelling, only that the mainstream acceptability of these formal exercises suggests that “audiences are now acclimatized to achronological narrative structures.” But, Cameron argues, these are usually not just films that shuffle their stories for the sake of it. They often become “tales about time”, where faith in storytelling, knowledge and subjectivity is brought into question:

Although the pleasure of navigating the narrative structures of these films is undoubtedly central to their appeal, many modular narratives also evoke a mood of temporal crisis by formally enacting a breakdown in narrative order. This mood of crisis is not simply a response to the mediating role of digital technology in contemporary society, or to the rise of the database as a cultural model. It also serves as one of the most recent extensions of a modern and postmodern discourse that continues to rethink the human experience of time in relation to science, technology and social and industrial organization.

Memento might be an excellent example of a tale about time, about “a mood of temporal crisis” represented by “enacting a breakdown in narrative order”.

[Oh, I should add, for those who haven't seen Memento but plan on doing so, from this point on there will be quite a lot of major plot spoilers. Sorry, but it's probably best if you stop reading and come back another day. I hate to see you leave, but it's for the best. Go and check out my post about A Trip to the Moon instead. It took me ages.]

Memento

It’s a detective story where Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) attempts to find his wife’s killer, working around his anterograde amnesia, a condition that prevents him from creating new memories. I’d be tempted to posit the film as a “metaphysical detective” fiction, as described by Patricia Merivale and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney:

The metaphysical detective story is distinguished by the profound questions that it raises about narrative, interpretation, subjectivity, and the nature of reality, and the limits of knowledge. […] A metaphysical detective story is a text that parodies or subverts traditional detective-story conventions – such as narrative closure and the detective’s role as surrogate reader – with the intention, or at least the effect, of asking questions about mysteries of being and knowing which transcend the mere machinations of the mystery plot. Metaphysical detective stories often emphasise this transcendence, moreover, by becoming self-reflexive (that is, by representing allegorically the text’s own processes of composition).

Detective fictions seem very familiar to us, and their outcomes are usually dictated by the form: they set up the expectation, born of habit, that the detective will show the skills needed to solve the crime and fill in the plot gaps. Following a narrative is like following the clues that can lead to the solution of the crime (that’s what they mean by “the detective’s role as surrogate reader”), and the pleasure of a crime story tends to be the final falling-into-place of the clues which were offered along the way with no immediate certainty about their connection to one another or to a particular suspect. Subverting expectation is not only a threat to the prowess of the (usually masculine) detective, but also to the “rules” of the genre. One of the main forms that this subversion can take place, according to Merivale and Sweeney, is the “defeated sleuth”, the hero who fails, just like Jake Gittes fails to bring justice (and makes the current situation much worse into the bargain) at the end of Chinatown. The most fundamental failing a detective could make is to pursue a killer that isn’t there, or worse: to turn out to be the killer…

Memento Joe Pantoliano

Even though Lenny turns out to be perpetrator of an uncertain number of killings, the film manufactures a sympathetic view of him as victim, at least until his true condition becomes clearer. As director Christopher Nolan notes, the reversal of the plot sequence completely alters the response the spectator is expected to have to the film’s protagonist:

It’s not that it doesn’t work forwards, because it does. Technically it works, logically it works. It just becomes unbearable to watch. It becomes this horrible portrayal of this guy being abused and abused. The only way to get around that is to prevent the audience from seeing that abuse until much later in the film. People still seem to sympathise with him, they still want to view him in the way he views himself, which is as this kind of heroic avenging figure.

Lenny’s status as hero depends upon the delusional state constructed by the achronological structure, demonstrating how contingent and manipulative cinematic sympathies can be. Rob Content suggests in his review that the film is an indictment of the formal techniques which often narrativise horror and injustice in order to make it acceptable:

Leonard’s inability to acquire new memories after being clubbed on the head is not only a life-shattering individual catastrophe for him. It’s also the ground figure of a metaphor for the obstruction of historical memory about the criminal exercise of power – a criminality which, just like Leonard’s perverse and ultimately absurdist mission of retaliation, is typically masked as the pursuit of justice. [...] In an unusually frank gloss on Santayana’s often-quoted but little understood dictum on the forgetting of history, Memento demonstrates that those condemned to repeat history are condemned to enact their own criminal participation in its horrors. [...] Nolan’s great achievement lies in the unsparing use of formal devices of first-person characterisation to expose flawed moral character. Leonard Shelby’s murder of Teddy Gammell, committed right before our eyes in the film’s opening moments, is being made okay with us. Like the representation of so many other horrific killings executed within range of our view (and, very often, in justice’s name and so in ours), mass media’s form remains its fatalistic message.

According to Content, then, the film problematises the process of investigation and confronts the viewer’s longing for the reassuring pleasures of justice simplistically and tidily administered. But let’s not forget that Lenny is not a professional detective. This is an investigative role he has created for himself, a construct that conveniently casts him in a performance that masks his true role as a puppeteered killer. The most chilling revelation of the film’s conclusion is that we don’t know how many people Lenny has killed. Teddy’s nonchalance in arranging the kills and manouevring him into position suggests that this is a well-oiled routine. Watching the film again this week,  I noticed a flash of recognition in Lenny’s eyes just before he shoots Teddy, as if he realises that he is playing a part, but the part has become his life and he refuses to give it up. Did I imagine this, or was I being invited to entertain the notion that Lenny might be faking his condition to avoid facing up to the reality of his loss? Maybe not, but one of the pleasures of the film is the way that it sensitises the viewer to its deliberate clues, and thus ends up making every detail seem heavy with potential significance: by unhooking all the effects from their cases and reversing them, the investigative instinct is prompted by the novelty to think more keenly about these things. And this is a film packed with clues, it’s signature shot being Pearce’s hands turning over a bit of text, a note or a photograph:

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His sense of touch is one that he feels he can rely on. Solid objects carry more certainty than remembered ones, voices or interpretations.

Memento

But Leonard has also created his own clues with what Esther M. Sternberg dubs “a meticulous artificial memory system”. His main problem is his confusion of photographs with objects. Whatever their status as tangible things, they are primarily vessels of information that carries little in the way of inalienable factual weight, despite the assertion in the tattoo that reads “CAMERA NEVER LIES”.

In a fabulous article about the film in which he examines the film’s approximation of human memory in states of trauma, William G. Little discusses Lenny’s use of objects to construct a map of his former life. He draws on Susan Stewart’s theories on the nature of souvenirs as compensation for an existence disengaged from the sense of a real world. She argues that:

Within the development of culture under an exchange economy, the search for authentic experience and, correlatively, the search for an authentic object become critical. As experience is increasingly mediated and abstracted, the lived relation of the body to the phenomenological world is replaced by a nostalgic myth of contact and presence. ‘Authentic’ experience becomes both elusive and allusive as it is placed beyond the horizon of present lived experience, the beyond in which the antique, the pastoral, the exotic, and other fictive domains are articulated.

In Little’s astute analysis, it follows from this that the souvenir is “as much about forgetting as it is about remembering. Insofar as it serves to ‘discredit’ or discount a corrupt present in favour of an orginal past, the memento operates, repeatedly, as the activator of short-term memory loss.” That is, it allows Leonard to cling to the objects from the past whose meaning and significance (unlike his shattered experience of the present) never changes. He is fond of these authenticating things. He doesn’t like talking on the phone because he prefers people to be present, as if their unmediated proximity is more truthful. As Little puts it:

This claim expresses a conviction that modern information systems inevitably carry a ‘long distance’ charge, whereas physical proximity insures unmediated contact. According to this logic, face-to-face exchange guarantees an untroubled experience of presence.

Leonard therefore records “facts” by turning his own body into a living souvenir, the ultimate guarantee of presence and authenticity, an index of the self that cannot be mediated. He attaches a similar evidential force to the texts and photographs which he uses to build up a map of the remnants of his life. His mistake is to count photographs as indexes of presence, when most of us would presume that photographs are interpretive images whose meaning is almost entirely contingent on context. In Lenny’s artificial memory, arranged on his skin and on his walls, images, objects and text become placeholders for people. Because the story is told out of sequence, cause-and-effect relationships between people and their actions have to be calculated and pieced together, rather than being seen as the natural fallout of characters’ behaviour. One moment I find especially frightening in the film is when Natalie tries to tear up a photograph, destroying the evidence; Lenny immediately tells her “you have to burn them”, as if he has burned a lot of photographs of his victims in his time.

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Many viewers will spot the half-dozen frames that show Leonard in Sammy’s place in the institution. It’s a a simple, quasi-subliminal cue that their identities have become confused in Leonard’s mind, but it also undermines the faith in the photographic that Leonard holds so firmly. One of his tattoos reads “Camera doesn’t lie. Notes can be lost”, affirming his wish to attach special significance to the photographs he takes, but this glitch in the filmed inserts of Sammy’s story unseats the photograph from its position as privileged truth-teller: we the viewers have been invited to impute the veracity of Sammy’s backstory by its presentation as a flashback, with the same evidential status as anything else in the film. Though we begin to suspect that Leonard’s evidence is insecure, we at least expect that what we see actually happened, even if we’re not certain how it should be interpreted.

What he doesn’t realise, and what the viewer doesn’t realise until it’s too late, is that these signifiers don’t refer to an actual state of affairs, but to a constructed set of facts that have been manipulated by Teddy and Natalie, but which might also constitute Lenny’s radical reworking of his former life: Rob Content points out that we are led to suspect that Lenny has idealised his marriage, which is indicated occasionally as a fractious affair (he hates being called Lenny, hates her reading her book repeatedly etc.), and has created an investigator’s role to inflate his original job of “insurance salesman” (as Teddy teases him) into something more heroic and pro-active. If we follow this line of argument, we’re left with little certainty about how much Lenny has fabricated “the facts” by selected the souvenirs he chooses to represent his past; we see him burning some mementos, keeping others, and we know that he has been crossing out or removing parts of the police file that don’t fit with his theories. As Cameron suggests:

Leonard, despite his memory disorder, makes use of his memory of past events in order to create a coherent narrative. Rather than drifting helplessly through a detemporalised world, Leonard actively remtemporalises his experiences, giving them a temporal order and thereby endowing himself with a history and an identity.

Still Life With A Skull

If there’s a clue to the misleading status of Lenny’s memory objects, it’s in the film’s title, which is an abbreviation of the short story by Jonathan Nolan on which it is based, Memento Mori (you can read the whole thing here). An art historical term for those blunt symbols of mortality inserted into paintings, “memento mori” is Latin for “reminder of death”, or “remember you must die”. This gives me a spurious excuse to repeat the image of  Philippe de Champaigne’s Still Life With a Skull (1671), in which the symbols of life, death and time are laid out like single entendres on a block of stone, or Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533), a personal favourite in which the portrait is morbidly undercut by an anamorphic skull beneath the subjects (see below – click for a larger view or go here, for a detailed close-up, and see image right for a detail of the skull).Holbein Skull Ambassadors The film’s title hides the bit about “death”, leaving the less sinister term for “souvenir” or “reminder”. Lenny, too, though he has remembered his wife’s death, has forgotten the cause of death, and denies his own mortality by staying in a perpetual, timeless state of readiness for retaliation. In Holbein‘s painting, the image of death is hidden by the anamorphosis (you have to look at it from a certain angle to recognise it as a skull), and the two figures are oblivious to its iconography, preferring to be surrounding with their other artefacts of their profession. Lenny believes that by keeping mementos, he is guarding himself against forgetting what is important, without acknowledging that he is actually selecting the evidence to help him construct an alternate set of facts that block out the truth of the deaths he has inflicted.

Holbein-ambassadors

It could be argued that Memento‘s approach to narration, with its drag-and-drop approach to cause and effect, is a bi-product of the digital age, as if a greater facility and familiarity with Random Access Memory equips spectators to better handle the demands of non-sequential stories. It’s an attractive argument, but doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny when there are plenty of examples of modular narratives prior to the digital age (Annie Hall springs to mind) which are not conceptually baffling to their viewers. But the kinds of repeat viewings and close scrutiny of intricate narratives, and the kinds of attentive, diligent viewing they foster, fits in nicely with the trade in home viewing invigorated by DVD sales. DVDs, much more so than VHS tapes, allow you to take control of the telling of a tale, to slow down rapid action or sudden horror, skip to favourite scenes or fast forward to important parts of the plot you may have misunderstood on an earlier viewing. They let you modularise any film, should you wish to (I feel sure that most of us still prefer the old fashioned method of starting at the beginning and travelling forwards to the end). The Memento DVD can do this work for you, with an option to view the film in chronological order. Is it necessary? The redundancy of this feature (surely the “chapter selection” section can do this job, if your brain hasn’t already done the job of mentally arranging the pieces in sequence) is perhaps good evidence that modularity is a side-effect of digital technology – Leonard’s construction of his own database of “facts”, loosed from the temporal significance as he searches for their semantic connections, mirrors the non-linearity of digital media. Further cementing this link is the DVD menu screen that resituates Guy Pearce’s tattooed body as an index for navigating the film:

Memento DVD Menu

But the film’s evocation of a wounded mind arises from its finely tuned reversal of narrative convention; playing it “forwards” makes less sense than its intended order – the clues are overdetermined and obvious, the suspense and mystique dissolved from every situation, proving conversely that it is really a film about time, memory, and the ways in which alienation from the comforts of linear narrative can be devastating, and thus that narrativisation is an artificial comfort that guards against chaos and contingency.

Notes

Here are some extra notes that I couldn’t find a way to work into my argument, but wanted to download from my brain:

  • Lenny’s tattoo needles echo the insulin needles whose object (Leonard’s wife? Sammy’s wife?) has been mixed up in his mind, as does the sly injunction by Lenny’s wife to not “be a prick”.

groundhog-day

  • Balding and nebbish, Sammy Jankis is supposed to be thoroughly distinct from lean, peroxided Guy Pearce, but if there’s an advance hint that Sammy is a more crucial icon of misplaced memory and cyclical narrative, it’s the casting Stephen Tobolowsky. Remember him as Ned Ryerson, perpetually-punched recipient of Bill Murray’s repetitive frustration in Groundhog Day? In both instances,Tobolowsky is used as a marker of a trapped memory, a looped recollection that each protagonist must come to learn from.

Reading List (suggestions for further reading welcome):

  • Esther M. Sternberg, “Piecing Together a Puzzling World”. Science vol.292, 1 June 2001.
  • Allan Cameron, Modular Narratives in Contemporary Cinema (2008). (Download the introduction here.)
  • Allan Cameron, “Contingency, Order, and the Modular Narrative: 21 Grams and Irreversible“. The Velvet Light Trap no.58 (Fall 2006): 65-78.
  • Melissa Clarke, “The Space-Time Image: the Case of Bergson, Deleuze, and Memento.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol.16 no.3 (2002): 167-181.
  • Rob Content, “Review: Memento“. Film Quarterly vol.56, no.4 (2003) 36-41.
  • Thomas Elsaesser, “The Mind-Game Film” in Warren Buckland (ed.) Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema (WileyBlackwell, 2009): 13-41.
  • Francie Lin, “Double Think”.  Film (Fall 2001), 27.
  • William G. Little, “Surviving Memento“. Narrative vol.13, no.1 (January 2005): 67-83.
  • Patricia Merivale & Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, Detecting Texts: The Metaphysical Detective Story from Poe to Postmodernism.
  • J.J. Murphy, Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work (London: Continuum, 2008).

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Don’t Look Now: “Did You Really See Her?”


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You can download a PDF version of this post here. In the PDF version, the layout and images are a little more carefully formatted and stable. 

[This post is intended for readers who've already seen Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now: it contains major spoilers, and assumes knowledge of the plot. If you need a reminder of the story, try here. I wrote most of this while re-watching the film (trying to practice typing without looking at the keys!), so apologies if some of the prose is a bit scrappy. I've polished up some of it, but thought I'd leave most of it intact.]

Don’t Look Now is, when taken from one particular angle, a film about imperfect vision. It shows us a story of eyes deceived, beliefs challenged by visual evidence, even as the film itself conducts its own experiments in superhuman looking by conjoining separate spaces through graphic matches that suggest a world ordered not by random chance but by the interconnectedness of disparate phenomena. The tension between these two kinds of vision, the one flawed, partial and human, the other selective and authoritative, is one of the things that makes the film work and helps to structure its ambiguous play with superstition and clairvoyance.

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It might seem like a film about mystery, but it’s all signposted from the first scene, where the kids play outside while the parents read and talk indoors. Various cinematic techniques are used to introduce the question of vision, and to make affective links between characters who might not otherwise be spatially connected. Above, you can see a pair of consecutive shots in which Laura (Julie Christie) puts her hand to her mouth, followed immediately by a cut to her daughter doing the same. In another example, little Christine throws a ball, and the next shot shows her mother catching a packet of cigarettes:

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Matches-on-action are usually used to imply spatio-temporal continuity between separate shots of the same activity , but here the matches are between distinct locations. These seem like superficial matches to show the prelapsarian unity of the family, but the graphic matches are used at several points in the film to draw connections between various phenomena. The visual similarity of the red forms of spillage on the photograph and the drowned child’s coat  (the red zones occupy roughly the same areas of the frame) sets up a portentous link between the two moments, a clue which John (Donald Sutherland) will spend the rest of the film refusing to acknowledge:

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But if the connection between the church and Venice and the death of the child is meant to serve as a warning, then why is it built on similarity? The dwarf and the child are not the same, and it is a confusion between the two which will ultimately lead John into mortal danger. If the supernatural world is sending messages, then they are not clearly legible ones. Elsewhere, vision is portrayed as untrustworthy, partial and fragmented, with faces obscured or ambiguous figures glimpsed:

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Julie Christie meets the two English women when one of them gets something in her eye (the other is blind): mirrored images in the bathroom fragment vision. This film is fascinated by the tricks eyes can play, or the beauty of certain effects: light playing on the canal connects to the rain falling on the pond, igniting a memory of the aftermath of Christine’s death. Through the figure of a blind psychic, the film entertains the possibility of a superior mode of sight that comes from sense experiences beyond the eyes.

Does the film want us to conclude that the woman really is psychic and having visions of death and the dead, and thus that it is Sutherland’s incomplete vision, his disbelief in the fact that his daughter is not there in Venice with them that leads him to be killed? Or does it let the viewers decide for themselves whether the premonitions are real? Actually, I suspect it makes it fairly clear that faith in biological sight is misplaced.

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The pile-up of blurred lines between memory, premonition and present experience is the organising principle of the justly famous sex scene. Notable amongst movie sex for being a regenerative moment between a married couple as opposed to an inevitable plotpoint for a male hero and his designated shag, it also fits perfectly with the film’s visionary aesthetic. Beginning with tender foreplay, as the lovemaking escalates, it is intercut with flashforwards to shots of the couple dressing and remembering the sex. As the forward-looking shots become more frequent, they might be seen to take over, making the present action into flashbacks, or at least overlapping the temporal spaces and endowing each image with multiple indentities as present moments, memories or predictions and working them into an affective whole of conflated experiences. Perhaps this scene suggests a moment of closeness between the couple by allowing them a privileged, unified experience where the moment, its aniticipation and its memory all come together: it’s a shame that subsequently, they will judge these multi-temporal visions very differently.

If you’ve ever been to Venice and walked around without a map, you’ll know how perfectly cast it is as the backdrop for this story. Any stroll through the backstreets, particularly at night, can turn into a fiendish, circular journey where landmarks will seem to repeat in random order, canals will seem to move their position or reverse their direction. It’s eerie how easily Venetian pathways can mess with your sense of direction, your faith in your remembrances of space, place and time. Out of the holiday season, it’s a mournful, even morbid place, and the film exploits these qualities to the full by making it an architectural analogue of the characters’ mental and visual indecisions. The blind psychic, on the other hand, can navigate it with ease because the sounds are so acute, the echoes so instructive. It is vision, often the most trusted of the senses, that is portrayed as unreliable.

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It’s a film about grief, but grieving doesn’t mean sitting around crying – for this couple it means considering and modifying their beliefs about death, time and memory. Laura hides her medication, favouring the clarity of natural vision over medically regulated perspective. John sees his wife’s supernatural beliefs as irrational; he describes her to the authorities as “not a well woman”, and it is this refusal to attribute visual evidence to something other than physical presence that leads him into danger: seeing something that looks like his daughter, he cannot connect the little figure in the red coat whose appearance has been previsualised and warned against. Ultimately, then, the film is reliant on John’s misperception, building up to a shock ending that is foreshadowed heavily in the opening scene and  in every other glimpse of his killer-to-be.

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The collage of momentous fragments of the opening scene is matched by the death-throes montage that unlocks its significances at the end: all the pieces of the puzzle find their connections to one another in a final spatio-temporal flurry of overlapping times and places, signs and omens. The visual trope of the graphic match, where dwarf and child are made to appear similar, coded by the vivid red macs they wear, even repeating the shot of each figure reflected in the surface of the water, tricks John into accepting that his daughter might be alive before his eyes. But these cannot be John’s vision, because he wasn’t there to see Christine reflected in the water – the film is repeating its own imagery, and giving equal significance to this kind of visual inference and to witnessed sightings, ensuring that seeing something firsthand is not given precedence over other kinds of knowledge and belief. John and has wife have shared similar experiences and interpreted them in very different ways. He sees a premonition of his own funeral but can’t believe that it isn’t evidence of Laura’s physical presence, and can’t accept that his senses might have deceived him. She blithely accepts the evidence of second sight, while he ignores all of the portents, and is punished for trying to believe his senses in the face of other forms of evidence.

You can download a PDF version of this post here. In the PDF version, the layout and images are a little more carefully formatted and stable. 

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Do the Right Thing: “There it is. Love and Hate.”


Do the Right Thing poster

Do the Right Thing is motivated by and structured around ambiguities of knowledge, clashes of righteous views and irreconcilable communication problems. At one point, an argument between Mookie and his sister Jade (played by Lee’s own sister, Joie, herself a writer/director/producer) takes place in front of a wall that is shown to be graffiti’d with the statement “Tawana told the truth”. This refers to the Tawana Brawley rape allegations that surfaced in 1987. You can read the Grand Jury’s report on the investigation here, but the gist of it is that Brawley accused an unnamed group of white men of abducting her and subjecting her four days of sexual abuse in the woods before returning her in a rubbish bag. The Grand Jury found evidence to contradict her claims, and a New York prosector alleged to have been one of the attackers countered by successfully sueing for defamation.

Do the Right Thing: Spike Lee, Joie Lee

What are we to make of the slogan’s inclusion in the film? Is it one of Lee’s editorial flourishes, like the “Dump Koch” graffiti that represents the director’s admitted hopes for the outcome of the New York Mayoral elections? Is Lee so certain about Brawley’s allegations that he can confidently side with her in this way? Or is it a more subtle ploy? The argument undermines Mookie’s/Lee’s authority, and so the tension of the exchange fights with the unequivocal tone of the backdrop, where an assertion made publicly goes unchallenged. Whatever one’s opinions on the Brawley case, the inconsistencies in her story are enough to raise serious doubts. If you’ve ever read an interview with Spike Lee (there are some links at the bottom of this post), you’ll know that he’s a sparky character with very strong views that he’s not shy about sharing but, to his credit, Do the Right Thing shows the destructive, disunifying effects of entrenched prejudices and misdirected enmity. It shows a community under pressure from heat, disenfranchisement and municipal authorities whose petty problems pull the lids off deeply held historical resentments and create an explosion of violence that ends to nobody’s advantage.

The film finishes on the following pair of quotations, worth repeating here:

martin-luther-king-and-malcolm-xViolence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense. I call it intelligence. (Malcolm X)

The two activists are often portrayed as polarised in their views on how best to achieve civil rights for African-Americans, and Lee uses the two quotations to suggest the ambiguities and conflicts in the debate, but the picture  (above) that Smiley pins up in the smouldering shell of Sal’s pizzeria shows them united, harmonised, as if non-violence and direct action could be interchangeable selections from the same menu, or as if an insoluble difference of approaches to the same problem might be transcended by common cause. This is surely Lee’s most compelling, gripping film to date: he’s managed to balance the tonal diversity of his earliest elements to paint a nuanced portrait of a time and place where good people lose control. Most of the characters oscillate between worthiness, righteous indignation and ignoble inaction, making it difficult to take sides.

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Even if one sympathises with Buggin’ Out’s plea for pictures of black cultural heroes on Sal’s Wall of Fame (it is, after all, a justifiable wish for proportional representation), he’s an obnoxious, aggravating figure who ignores the similar lack of Korean or Puerto Rican icons in the pizzeria. Nobody would support the chokehold killing of Radio Raheem by the police, but Lee refuses to make him a noble innocent; throughout the film he is an aggressive, threatening presence, accentuated by the closer-and-closer close-ups that the director pushes on the viewer.

Do the Right Thing: Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn)

This confrontational style is a key part of the film. Always fond of some direct address, Lee frequently makes his characters talk directly to the camera, or uses canted angles to dynamise dialogue scenes.

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These techniques really come to the fore in a famous scene in which an argument over cultural representation between Mookie and Pino (John Turturro) reaches a stalemate and gives way to a montage of direct-to-camera torrents of racial abuse from various members of the community:

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Ed Guerrero is very eloquent on the topic of the racial slur montage:

By pitting various races, identities and groups against each other on the rawest emotional level, regurgitating the vilest, innermost thoughts and stereotypes about one another, Do the Right Thing depicts the danger and futility of bigotry and racism at a personal level, from which no social formation is exempt. As importantly, this montage works to reveal the how of racism while not necessarily addressing the racism’s greater structural and strategic why. That is to say, this litany of racial slurs functions to show how racism works on the interpersonal level, between individuals as targets, representatives of groups, while, perhaps inadvertently, masking the greater why of racism’s workings at an institutional, structural level, as a strategy of hidden elites – “the powers that be” – to keep races, classes and movements divided and fighting among each other, thus distracted from the ignored or concealed, truth of their mutual exploitation. Notably, all of the participants of this montage as working-class males share the same gendered, social orientation. Rather than following Do the Right Thing‘s thematic hip-hop call to “fight the power”, these angry, isolated figures representing different races scapegoat and fight each other instead.

In these lists of racial slurs, many of the attacks resort to insults to cultural icons: Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, etc., and this thread runs through the film as characters use them as visible markers of ethnic difference. Buggin’ Out extrapolates a territorial argument from the scuffing of his Air Jordans, and then objects to the pictures of Italian Americans on Sal’s Wall of Fame; Mookie takes Pino to task for mouthing racist language while appreciating black athletes and musicians; Radio Raheem battles a group of Puerto Ricans over the relative volume of their music. INn all these instances cultural iconography seems to be territorial tags, masks for deeper ethnic hatred: it’s a struggle over the equal representation of cultural preferences, but also a transference of furious energy onto prominent symbols. This is summed up in a verse from Public Enemy‘s Fight the Power, which plays several times in the film:

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Motherfuck him and John Wayne
Cause I’m black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes dont appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check
Dont worry be happy
Was a number one jam
Damn if I say it you can slap me right here
(get it) lets get this party started right
Right on, cmon
What we got to say
Power to the people no delay
To make everybody see
In order to fight the powers that be

The film’s title is a firm injunction to act positively, to take a stand, but it’s never quite clear what doing the “right thing” might be. Everyone seems to have a personal opinion about what is right. The most prominently contentious moment is when Mookie instigates the final assault on Sal’s by throwing a dustbin through the front window. This might be an altruistic gesture to divert attention from Sal and his sons, saving them from a mob attack, or he might just be taking sides, marking definitively his refusal to keep acting as neutral mediator between Sal and his objectors. But if this is taking a stand and “doing the right thing”, then it certainly doesn’t solve the roots of the problem. Just as with the team-up of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, it suggests that there might be many right things, and that right things are rarely easy, and might not make everything OK.

Do the Right Thing: Spike Lee

Links:

For a complete change of tone, one of my colleagues put me onto this great little mash-up of Do the Right Thing and Sesame Street (not suitable for kids – it really is brought to you by the letter “F”):

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J.S. Bach – Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Švankmajer, 1965)


J.S. Bach Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Svankmajer, 1965)

Compiling some more fragments of my notes on Jan Švankmajer’s short films, I come to his second, a setting of Johann Sebastian Bach‘s Fantasia in G Minor (composed in 1708) to pictures.

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You might expect such a subversive artistic talent to display a chaos of form and content in his work, but time and time again, you’ll see that, even if the imagery is oblique and inscrutable, it is tightly structured, often with clearly defined beginning and ending – Švankmajer doesn’t confuse complexity or opacity of meaning with a lawlessness of form. This film begins with a beautifully lit sequence following an organist (although his identity is not initially apparent) to his seat before he begins playing.

J.S. Bach Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Svankmajer, 1965)

J.S. Bach Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Svankmajer, 1965)

This prelude is followed by a montage of shots of locks, barred windows, and holes appearing or receding in stone and brickwork (achieved through by stop-motion animation). It is a rapid compilation of pictures which don’t accrete a coherent sense of space so much as a visual formula for confinement and stasis; Svankmajer often likes his films to provide inventories or collections of themed and arranged ojbects (I’m sure I’ll get round to writing about his Historia Naturae, Suita (1965) and The Ossuary (1970) at some point in the near future – both of them archive a compendium of anatomies inside tight formal structures), and this one is no exception.

J.S. Bach Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Svankmajer, 1965)

J.S. Bach Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Svankmajer, 1965)

In the review of the BFI’s DVD boxset written for Film Quarterly, Adrian Martin suggested that Švankmajer’s films may be so densely packed, so traumatically loaded with visual information that they might be met with a new kind of engagement fostered by the DVD format, slowing them down to pore over the microscopic detail they offer. This is fascinating enough, and hopefully the frame grabs I’ve incorporated here are testament to the careful of arrangement of objects that rushes past the eye in one of his films, but there is also great power in the pile-up of pictures that barely allow time for consideration: your only chance is to spot the accumulation of connections and graphic matches rather than attempting to analyse the composition of each individual fragment.

J.S. Bach Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Svankmajer, 1965)

It might seem customary for this kind of film to “interpret” the music visually, to take the perceived themes of the piece and select correlative images that help to reinforce those themes. Instead, it seems that Svankmajer has empowered the music in the same way that his animation gives agency and a defamiliarised significance to everyday objects. As the organist’s hands first attack the keyboard, the next cut is to two holes bored into stone, as if the channelling of the air through the organ pipes, the marshalling of bass notes, is enough to blast through walls and crumble the fabric of even the most static of objects.

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The compendium of locks and other barriers to movement is shaken loose by the music – whip pans dynamise the otherwise still pictures, and eventually the film ends with a montage of doors and windows swinging open, and an ecstatic tracking shot through the space. An earlier, sublime lateral tracking shot (see the first and last images of this post) traces scratches across masonry that seem to undulate like soundwaves along the walls. It is the most definite connection in the film between image and soundtrack, a premonition of how the film will suggest that music can affect the feeling of a place, the sense of an environment. It may be a perverse juxtaposition of Baroque music and decaying architectural squalor, but it reinscribes the humble location with the sounds of grace and order.

J.S. Bach Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Svankmajer, 1965)

Jaws Randomised


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The impetus for this post comes originally from Nicholas Rombes at Digital Poetics, but I got the message from Catherine Grant’s indispensable Film Studies for Free. The challenge is to analyse a film by responding to three frame grabs taken from the 10, 40 and 70 minute marks. By taking away the element of free choice from the selection of illustrative images (my own posts on this blog tend to be filled with frame grabs, usually ones that illustrate my argument), the critic is prompted to engage with the film text from a different angle – “freedom through constraint”, as Rombes put it. It’s a little like the Dogme 95 manifesto, where a group filmmakers drew up a list of tenets to make films by, each one imposing a cerain restriction that would push them out of habitual approaches and disable their natural tendencies towards artifice. I thought it sounded like an interesting experiment, so I thought I’d give it a go. Since I’m teaching Jaws to my second-year students for the first time next week, it seemed like a good choice to start with. Part of the task is that I will write this post in one go, now, without leaving my desk to look anything up (and without Googling anything, obviously), and then publish it straight away. So, from this point on, I have only three frames to work with, and a maximum of half an hour to spare. But instead of taking frames from the 10th, 40th and 70th minutes (which gives a spread of chances across the whole film), I’m using a random number generator to choose three points from which to take my grabs: the only control I will exert is in excluding the credits from consideration (except in films where the titles play over pictures).  in this case, the computer has chosen 49, 96 and 113. I’ve seen the film before, and recently, but I don’t know what the frame grabs will show until I get started. It all begins with…

Jaws: 49th minute

… this shot from the 49-minute mark. I got lucky on this one, I think. Jaws is a film of two halves, and this pretty much sums up the plot of the first. Chief Brody (Roy Scheider, far right) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss, centre) are trying to persuade Amity mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton, left) to close the beaches following a series of shark attacks in the area. The major is dodging his responsibilities, desperate not to lose out on the 4th July visitors who bring so much vital revenue to the local economy. This frame comes from a long tracking shot (I think it lasts about two minutes, though the strictures of this task forbid me from going back and timing it), over the course of which Vaughn’s progress from left to right is repeatedly obstructed by the Hooper and Brody trying to persuade him of their case. Vaughn’s suit is blue, decorated with little anchors that represent his feeble attempt at kinship with the ocean that contrasts later with the other men’s first-hand knowledge and experience.  His position on the left seems less dominant; the dark shape of Brody’s form seems to obstruct his passage, and the Amity Island sign aims a big diagonal line down towards him as if to keep him in his corner. But this is the end of the shot, and the mayor is about to exit the frame between the other two men, leaving a big sky-blue space in the image and confirming the ease with which he can ignore the evidence of experts and press on with his plans as normal. The billboard behind them has been vandalised: a bikini-clad swimmer is about to be chomped by a shark, represented by a big black triangular fin, a simple, iconic signature of death at sea, a cartoonised version of the Jaws poster campaign where the triangular monster is fixed on a devastating collision course with the naked flesh of an oblivious swimmer.

Jaws is often recorded by historians as the first “blockbuster”, the first mass-marketed movie whose box office impact was prefabricated through a perfect calibration of timed release dates, merchandising and hype. This may or may not be true, but what is notable is the way it builds the preparations for summer holidays into its narrative, reflecting the scheduled activities (the spirit of a beach holiday if not its actuality) of its audience, and putting those holidays in jeopardy. The danger of shark attack is pretty frightening enough, but adding the threat of cancelled holidays on top really racks up the tension. It’s just one example of Spielberg’s knack for mediating an immediate affinity between the film’s content and the lives and wishes of its audiences.

Jaws: 96th minute

At the 96th minute, we’re into the chase between boat and shark. If the first half of the film is about the uneven competition between an unseen beast, imagined only as a dark shape or extrapolated from a glimpse of fin, then the second is an equalised battle of wits between Quint, Hooper and Brody and the Great White. Since the shark is offscreen and undersea for the most part, the yellow barrel with which they tag it serves as a visual index of its proximity and pace. It’s a bright spot in the grey inscrutability of the ocean (notice how sea and sky almost blend together in this shot). Less imposing than the flat blade of the shark’s fin, the barrel gives the creature a jauntier avatar for these chase sequences; it dances across the surface of the water instead of slicing through it purposefully. For scenes where the shark becomes a fearsome foe once more, the fin replaces the barrel as the sign of its presence.

Jaws: 113th minute

By the time we hit the 113th-minute mark, with only a few minutes left to play, Hooper is missing believed dead, and Quint has been eaten alive, dragged back into the sea where he spent so much of his life. No doubt he will become another legendary fisherman’s tale of sea monsters and disappeared sailors resting in pieces at the bottom of the ocean. The shark’s blows to the hull of the ship are slowly sinking it. Jaws is partly structured around perpendicular lines, the tension between spaces above and below the water’s surface, as summarised in the film’s superlatively explanatory poster compaign: a horizontal swimmer’s forward motion along a horizon-line cut out by the vertical upward surging of the monster from below. The boat which has forced the shark to come up to the surface from below to be pursued along the horizontal axis (as in the 96th-minute frame grab above) now finds the tables turned as it lurches into a digaonal position, poised between the two angles and threatened with downward motion. The second half of Jaws sees the boat gradually destroyed in its battle with the shark, and its available spaces shrink away until Brody is left cowering in the cabin, between the smashed ship-to-shore radio that can no longer save him, and the compressed air canistor that will be his salvation. He is peering out of the window as if the shark respects boundaries between interior and exterior, though it is in actual fact about to break into the cabin and try to make a meal of the Chief. But at this point, Brody is still hoping that staying indoors will protect him from the sea a little longer, but all outside is an impenetrable pale grey, in stark contrast to the busy mise-en-scene inside the cabin.

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How Special Effects Work #1: The Sandman


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It’s been over a week since I’ve blogged – towards the end of a semester, things seem to get much busier, and I start to feel a bit stupider, so it’s harder to sustain my more prolific bursts of writing. Perhaps my previous post was long enough to keep you busy (or fed up of me) for a while. Thanks to all those who’ve commented on my Cloverfield paper: I always enjoy receiving feedback, negative or positive, so feel free to add your thoughts to the discussion. Hopefully, things will ease up a little and I can devote a bit more time to this. To reboot things, I thought I’d play to my specialism and start a series of short posts about special effects. This is partly to expand upon and clarify points from Performing Illusions, and also to include some ideas that were too late to make the final cut of the book. I’ll be making these up as I go along from time to time, but I’m happy to take requests. It’ll be a good way for me to take notes as I go, and hopefully provide some interesting reading.

To kick things off, here’s a little analysis of a great sequence from a far less great film, Spider-Man 3. About halfway through describing the plot of a superhero film, I usually pause for breath and realise how ridiculous it all sounds. Teenage boy sprouts web-spinning glands and dresses up in natty spandex togs to fight crime. Meanwhile, some other dude gets exposed to some sciencey stuff that turns him into sand. It’s not exactly Death in Venice, but this kind of story has become so familiar that we barely bat an eyelid when some new fancy-dress vigilante takes to the screen. Stop and think for a moment. Peter Parker is at school. Then he gets bitten by a genetically modified spider and picks up some arachnid tendencies. Why are we not laughing this stuff out of town? Partly, I think, it’s because of the familiarity: we’ve seen a lot of superhuman heroic figures over the years, whether it’s Achilles, Aeneas, Hercules, Perseus, Jesus, Beowulf, Gawain, King Arthur, Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Barack Obama or token female Wonder-Woman. But also it’s because we understand the allegorical function of these characters. Whether it’s Superman as a refugee migrant who has to change his name and act like a local to gain acceptance in society (while secretly saving the world’s collective ass), or Spider-Man playing out his awkward years of bodily change and early-career anxiety, we know that these are not portrayals of how things really are, but re-imaginings of things that are easier to talk about and popularise if we dress them up in shiny clothes and pit them against a series of similarly allegorised embodiments of villainy/social evils.

That’s my starting point here, but I suppose it’s not strictly relevant, except to say that Spider-Man 3 operates (because it is a sequel) in a pre-existing alternative world where scientific exaggeration is an accepted form of expression, with certain agreed limits on what may occur: there’ll be no “magic” here, just scientific principles extruded to a degree that probably constitutes impossibility, all the while remaining anchored in a logical basis (however tenuous) that isn’t there to make incredible events believable, but comprehensible.

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The scene in question is an origin sequence. We get to see how the Sandman came into being: as such, it offers a spectacle of incarnation, animating an apparently living body out of inanimate materials. It is structured between the bookends of these two states, beginning with an extreme, near-microscopic close-up of grains of sand, which gradually cohere into an image of the actor Thomas Hayden Church. This demarcation of the set-piece is a common trope in this kind of foregrounded spectacle – it has clear entry and exit points and stands alone as an autonomous performance, even as it offers some narrative information; It possesses a limited colour scheme of browns and greys (er… it’s sand-coloured), and the lack of dialogue or peripheral characters further enforces the self-containment.

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Witnessing the birth of the Sandman, one of the pleasures comes from seeing a two-dimensional comic book character transplanted into a three-dimensional, digitally rendered figure. The Sandman is the perfect CGI character: the kind of particle-system modelling used to make swarms of particles take on shapes and patterns is something that computer-graphics are equipped to do – it would be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to do this in stop-motion or another kind of pro-filmic object animation. So, while the scene references older media, it focuses on graphic qualities that exude novelty and technological specificity. The virtual camera (the scene is entirely computer-generated, so it’s not entirely accurate to think about the camera being situated within the scene) executes a slow track around the central focus of the emerging Sandman. The stressed dimensionality of the sequence thus puts further distance between this and two-dimensional animation, optical process shots and puppet animation where camera movements are much more difficult to pull off. In short, the scene’s novelty value is to be understood in terms of its differentiation from prior instances of animation and effects shots.

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The long take is the core of this sequence. The sustained performance of a technical illusion would seem to imply its pro-filmic authenticity: the camera never needs to cut away to or fragment the trick to hide its mechanisms in montage. However, there is no longer a logical reason to attach such notions of presence and solidity to things we see onscreen, even when the camera’s unflinching eye seems to be hinting that there are no sleight-of-hand edits, nothing up its figurative sleeve; a virtual camera tracking through virtual space to “film” a virtual object never needs to cut, and those connotations of authenticity can just as easily be translated into indications of artifice, of a lack of presence or ostentatious virtuality. But digital effects still exploit our residual expectations of photographicness. You can see it in the use of artificial lens flare to suggest that the camera is physically present, its mechanism overloaded by the scene in front of it. Lens flare is a side-effect of a camera’s registration process, and in a virtual scene it is added in order to offset the true origins of the shot.:

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These techniques subtly purchase your understanding of the sequence as a wholly situated moment, recoding it not as a flurry of algorithmic manouevres, but as a live recording of an event, where some of the unplanned markings of the photographic apparatus might come into play. To cut through my verbose description, the shot, which was actually constructed in a computer, is dressed up to look like it was shot on a set. So, computer-generated effects do not erase or evade the properties of photographic media. Instead, they extend those properties to supernatural lengths: the power of the illusion arises out of the distance between the acknowledged impossibility of the event, and impression of authenticity lent to it by the markers of a situated apparatus.