New Look, Old Posts.


I’m in a meeting. I’ll be back soon. Apologies for the relative lack of updates here at Spectacular Attractions. I’m entering a period of exceptional busyness which will keep me in meetings for the next week or so. The first casualty of gainful employment is blogging, apparently, so although I’m keen to share with you my current research on puppets, ventriloquism, motion capture, anime and bunraku, I can’t give it all the attention it deserves. Instead, I’m going on a brief hiatus.

To mark my absence, I’m testing a new look for the site (again). I may change it again, but this outfit should freshen things up a little. To see how the new theme sits with the archive of older posts (sometimes changing the furniture can upset the formatting of posts that were designed to sit in different places), I’m going to repost some of my old favourites which you may have missed. I hope you like them – most of them come from an earlier time when this place attracted far less traffic than it does today, so they may not have been noticed by more recent visitors. I’ll also repost, separately, my massive shot-by-shot analysis of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, with updates, not least because it took me ages and I’m keen to get it noticed and to keep on developing it from your suggestions and comments. Thanks again for stopping by.

If you’ll excuse me lolling about on my laurels for a bit of self-reflection, here are Spectacular Attractions’ ten favourite posts:

2001: This Way Up?: Did the world really need another blogger’s opinion of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Was yet another interpretation going to finally solve its mysteries? Probably not, but this is one of my most concise and cohesive bits of blogging and it would make me feel warm inside if more people got to read it.

Avalon: Analysis of Mamoru Oshii’s beguiling/maddening, existential cyberthriller, distinguished by some fascinating discussion in the comments section – thanks to all concerned. Includes updates following repeat viewings.

Jacques Tati’s Playtime: Modern Life is Noisy: It’s one of my favourite films of all time, and it just gets more fascinating every time I see it. It’s also one of my most valued teaching aids when it comes to talking about film sound.

Kind Hearts and Coronets: The Gentle Art of Murder: I wrote this as an introduction for some first-year students who weren’t sure why they were meant to be watching it. Hardly anyone has read it, unfortunately. It took me a while to put together. Sadness.

Nine Minutes of Cows: When I wrote later about Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, thousands of people at least glanced at it, and some may even have read the words, but next to nobody took a look at this, one of my first ever posts at Spectacular Attractions (and one of the early, funny ones). It talks naively about the opening shot of Tarr’s Sátántangó and could probably do with some sub-editing, but I’m a bit fond of it as a starting point.

Why don’t you send us a photo?”: Chantal Akerman’s News From Home: Against the odds, this film has quietly lodged itself in my mind as an all-time favourite. It’s a meditative, solemn experience, and most of my students object quite strongly against it, so I hoped that this post would go some way towards explaining its significance.

Unbreakable Patterns: Remember when M. Night Shyamalan was a promising talent who treated genre films with reverential care and a defiantly contemplative visual style? If not, I humbly hope this post about his classy, glassy superhero drama will jog your memory.

Two or Three Things I Reckon: Written as an introductory guide for some of my students to one of Godard’s trickiest, but most rewarding 1960s films, putting this together reminded me of how deliberately composed, how compassionate, humane and hungry his films were back then.

J.S. Bach – Fantasia in G Minor: I can’t get enough of Jan Svankmajer’s dense, incantatory short films, and maybe one day I will have managed a post about each and every one of them. There are four so far, but this discussion of his musical, montagist, puppetless masterpiece is the one most starved of readership to date.

Don’t Look Now: “Did You Really See Her?”: It took me ages to get the appropriate frame grabs to illustrate this analysis of Nic Roeg’s endlessly rewarding maybe-ghost story, and at the very least I want to repost it to check that the new theme hasn’t ruined the arrangement of pictures. If it picks up a couple of new readers, that can only be a bonus.

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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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