Under the Skin Randomised

Scarlett Johansson in Under the SkinI had to ask myself some personal questions recently, when it occurred to me that I had put Under the Skin and Holy Motors on consecutive weeks of a Film Appreciation course. I love both films, but I can see how they would be divisive in similar ways: I wanted to end the course with a couple of contentious films that would challenge students’ ideas about what cinema should do, and these are fairly accessible examples of feature-length experiments in narration, identification, performance and genre, all ideas that had been pertinent to the course (Holy Motors was also the set film for a week on cinephilia, since it strikes me as a film which targets the prone and yearning minds of a certain kind of viewer pining for an old-fashioned form of passionate and philosophical film about film). It’s also a good exercise to ask students to explain opaque films with reference to what they do know about film form, style and technique, showing how this kind of analysis can unlock and illuminate the meanings they have been used to communicate.

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Spring Breakers Randomised

Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is an oddity wrapped up in a conventional teen-drama that warps into some kind of day-glo fever dream of bikinis, Britney, and assault rifles. Ostensibly the tale of four girls who commit a violent robbery to fund their spring-break trip to Florida so that they don’t miss out on the hedonistic, beer-bathing fun they imagine their peers are having. But it could just as easily be their heat-stroked collective hallucination. It is neither the lurid exploitation of Disney princesses it might seem to be on first glance (see accompanying image, above), nor the handwringing “won’t-somebody-think-of-the-children”, expose of “the Real Spring Break”, though it has the scent of both those things about it. It’s a little more haunting and confounding than that. It seems like a prime candidate for some randomisation, so I’ve subjected it to the process that will familiar to regular readers by now, and which can be recapped/introduced with a quick visit to some of the earlier entries in the series.

The randomiser has selected minute-marks 2, 24, 37, 54, and 83. That’s a good spread across the whole of the film, but there’s no telling what those images will yield. The first picture will be… Continue reading

Se7en Randomised

I haven’t done one of these in a while, and I remember enjoying writing them, so I thought it would be fun to revisit the Randomised series. You can read more examples here, but the gist of it is that I use a random number generator to select for me some images from a film and use those frames as a prompt for discussion of the film. When I first saw David Fincher‘s Seven back in 1996, I disliked it quite a lot. It wasn’t just that it made me uncomfortable; I was an opinionated, contrarian filmgoer at the best of times, and seeing a packed house for a matinée screening lapping up the lurid details of such a fashionably grim movie wound me up. Dark was the new black. It felt like the film’s downbeat tone was all posturing: it wasn’t the product of a misanthropic worldview, but the shock tactics of a film-maker eager to buck every available trend of  the genre thriller. More to the point, I was sick of serial killer films, fed up of hyperintelligent and meticulous murderers whose preternaturally effective and elaborate schemes, always perfectly executed, seemed more like the manoeuvrings not of believable killers but of self-satisfied screenwriters. The fascination with the process of killing someone was distasteful and dishonest, I believed, resulting in the ultimate ascension of Hannibal Lecter and Dexter to the status of righteous avengers picking off the scum of society (a reactionary fantasy that I still find wholly repellent). I still have some of these reservations, but after subsequent viewings, Seven has, to my mind, matured considerably (as, I hope, have I) into a compulsive and rich work that rewards close scrutiny and transcends any of its modish or exploitative genre-mates. Continue reading

Monsters, Inc. Randomised

To restart the randomised series of posts (follow the link if you need a catch-up or want to read the earlier attempts at this), I thought it might be fun to try out some Pixar films, beginning, with no logic or reason whatsoever, with Monsters, Inc. from 2001. The way it works is this: using a magic bit of random number selection, three frames are generated from anywhere in the film, and provide the basis for a discussion of the film from unexpected angles, or at least angles that are not pre-selected to flatter my own interests. It’s usually fun, and the film needs little introduction, so let’s dive straight in. The randomiser has selected frames from the 5th, 66th, and 86th minutes from Monsters, Inc., which means we begin with…

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The Evil Dead Randomised

I remember the first time I saw The Evil Dead. I was an undergraduate, and it was loaned to me on a 3rd or 4th generation VHS copy, so it was fuzzy as hell and fitted with one of those wobbly soundtracks that you only get on movies that have been duped on home machines and passed from grubby hand to grubby hand. Younger readers might be surprised to hear of “the old days”, when plenty of films were not available for download or freely available on shiny DVDs, which lose none of their detail from one copy to the next. The Evil Dead was still fairly notorious, since it featured prominently on the BBFC‘s list of “video nasties”, films targeted by moral commentators in the UK media, resulting in the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which attempted to regulate the content of VHS tapes. It led to the withdrawal of many titles from the shelves of rental stores, and Sam Raimi’s directorial debut survived only on illicit copies salvaged from the purge. In those days (typing those words makes me feel so old), you couldn’t just go online and order a copy from abroad. In restrospect, I’m quite nostalgic for my old taped copy – I made my own (5th generation?), and I still have it somewhere in my office, complete with homemade sleeve. But today I’m working from a DVD version, which was finally released uncut in the UK in 2001.

Click here to read on…

Vertigo Randomised


What better way to ease myself back into the blogging routine after a forced absence than to return to a series that I very much enjoyed, the Randomised posts. In case you don’t know what this means, check out some of the others in the category’s archive. In short, I use a random number generator to give me three figures which will automatically decide three frames from a film, and these frames become the basis for a (hopefully) asymmetrical discussion of the film. It stops tired critics like myself from banging on about the best bits from their favourite films while ignoring the more interesting corners of a well known film. Of course, because it’s random, you might get the most famous, or the most banal images from your chosen text. That’s the fun. You just never know…

Probably because it’s familiar to me, and partly because the orange case makes it jump out at me from the DVD shelf, I’ve chosen Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) this time around. It’s admittedly an orthodox choice, so much so that it’s easy to forget that its masterpiece status is well-earned. It’s haunting and dreamy, unfurling as many strands of meaning as you want to drag out of it: that’s Hitch’s real achievement – making populist packages that entertain but which can also explode with jack-in-a-boxes of complex perversity if you look even slightly deeper.

The randomiser has given me 17, 37 and 111. And the first image, from the 17 minute mark, is…

Vertigo 17th minute

… ablaze with red. Scotty (James Stewart), a retired, traumatised detective, has been hired as a private investigator by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife around San Francisco in an effort to explain her odd behaviour. Elster has set up a scene where Scotty will get a good look at his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) as the pair have dinner. In this shot, Scotty watches her leave. The stately, prowling camera is not quite Scotty’s point-of-view, but the embodiment of his increasingly inflexible gaze. It also stands in for our own fascination, allowing you, dear viewer, an out-of-body float through spaces where people look you in the eye but don’t know you’re there. In this shot, Madeleine is leaving, approaching the camera. Her husband looms behind her (fortuitously positioned in a manner that visualises his manipulation of his wife from the shadows), and the vivid decor plunges back into a distance of nested spaces. If these are not mirrored zones, they certainly look as if they might be. The green of Madeleine’s dress, and the gold of her hair, not to mention her central framing, make her the undoubted focus of the image: the rest of the composition has been cleared of any similar colours, and her skin is lit to glow brighter, blonder than anyone else in the room. At the right of the frame, though, is a tiny insurgence of green in the leaves of the pink rose. It’s an inkling of the importance of flowers in the iconographic identity (flowers, paintings, hair, jewellery) that Scotty gathers up and pegs on her.

Vertigo 37th minute

At 37 minutes, we’re in the Argosy bookstore, where Pop Liebel (Konstantin Shayne) is telling the sad story of Carlotta, the mysterious woman with whom Madeleine appears to be fixated. I’m sure that, even before I’ve finished typing this sentence, you’ve noticed that all three of the carefully staged figures in this composition are looking in different directions. Ever more disconnected, Scotty listens while facing away. He holds his hat as if in reverence. He’s a strange investigator. Rather than interrogating his lead he passively takes the information, concentrating on selecting the bits that can be moulded to match his suspicions, his desire not uncover the truth but to confirm Madeleine’s desirous vulnerability. Ever-faithful Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes – hey, trivia fans, did you know that Jimmy Stewart starred with both Miss Ellies from Dallas? Bel Geddes’ replacement, Donna Reed, played the love of his life in It’s a Wonderful Life) is shunted into the shadows, intently watching the storyteller. She also is not necessarily interested in the truth, but in anything that might rationalise Scotty and bring him back into the scope of her fond attentions. Her simple love for him has a stifling insistence about it, but it’s never at the ferocious level of his obsession. It’s the most consistently touching aspect of the film, I find. Midge (another “M” name, but a witheringly diminutive one, loaded with unprecious overfamiliarity) enacts a simpler form of romantic love built on protective concern and stable availability. Scotty is already away, though, in pursuit of a beautiful ghost. The stillness, and dimness of the scene (the bookshop is a place of deep, arcane knowledge) is contrasted with the brighter lateral activity on the street outside. As with the previous image, the background action is oblivious to Scotty’s fixations, which find stillness and purpose by latching onto objects and making them stand out amidst the busy surroundings.

Vertigo 111th minute

We finish in one of the unsettling scenes where James Stewart grimly, palm-sweatingly attempts to make over his new girl, Judy, into a perfect replica of Madeleine. It’s discomfiting to see America’s favourite actor so fixated on the finer points of female couture, and his needling, pathetic need is similarly shocking. It’s as if Madeleine’s fixation on a phantom presence from her past (all a fabrication anyway) has passed on to Scotty like an infectious dream. In describing this shot, I feel suddenly redundant. So efficient is the signification, through mirrors, of Judy/Madeleine’s duality and the crossfire of dishonest gazes at, but not really at, one another, that it seems trite to point it out. Mirrors are cinema’s most portable symbolic props, but here it is precise, as Judy retreats to a corner only to be confronted by the image of her own duplicity even  as Scotty tries to reduce her to a mirror image of his absent object of desire. Note also the brown colour palette in this shot, in stark contrast to the earlier shots of Madeleine as a Vistavisioned semi-divinity. It is only when Judy’s transformation is complete that the screen once again explodes with colour.

Obviously, I can’t cover everything, so if you have any further observations about these images, please feel free to comment below.

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Randomised

StarWarsEpisode3PosterSee also:

Finally, we come to the end of an extensive Star Wars fest. I feel like I’ve settled into the Randomisation thing now, so perhaps it’s time to turn it towards some more challenging films. It’s not all that difficult to find something to say about narrative feature films, especially ones that spill over into so many intertexts and parallel strands of a franchise – each shot seems designed to resonate across a range of media. With Star Wars, for instance, even bit-part players might wind up with their own spin-off episode of a comic book or video game.

Before that happens, the saga must come to an end, or more, accurately, an end that sets up the beginning of the next/original trilogy of films. George Lucas might want us to watch them in order, 1-6, but there’s no doubt that Episode III: Revenge of the Sith plays on the dramatic irony of characters not knowing the significance that they will have later in the story; if it doesn’t require you to know what’s coming next, it certainly winks in the direction of those who do.

The random number generator will give me four numbers. I take frame grabs from the DVD of the frame that sits at the beginning of the minute-mark corresponding to these figures. They provide the starting point for discussion of the film. The numbers are 30, 77, 83 and 110. Let’s see what happens…
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Natalie PortmanHow often do we see people in bed in the Star Wars films? I’m sure there are some devotees who can give me an exact number, but I bet it doesn’t happen often. That sort of domestic necessity (we see people asleep, but rarely tucked up at home) is a rarity when there are more exciting things to show, and little interest in the private lives and thoughts of the characters. This is an unusually moody shot. The blinds cast noirish shadows on the wall (these people have discovered hyperspace but nobody took the trouble to invent curtains?) as Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) wakes to find her husband gone, tormented by a bad dream (premonition?) of her death. Throughout the prequels, Portman has been dressed up in some astonishing finery, at times ceremoniously decked out in Geisha style make-up and restrictively decorative robes, speaking in a cod-regal British accent through pursed lips. The story of her development as a romantic heroine (sadly, she has little to do in this film, though she does get to utter one of the only decent lines in all of the prequel scripts: “This is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause”, which really jumps off the soundtrack with its unaccustomed relevance) is told through the gradual lightening of her wardrobe load, destricting her personality in the process. But she still sleeps in jewellery with her hair up, it seems. Critics mocked the lack of chemistry between Portman and Hayden Christensen, and this is probably fair comment – they’re not given much poetry to spout to make us feel that their love is really making the blood flow, but this may be, accidentally or not, the point; could it be that the Queen has blundered into this relationship and stays with her husband out of pity or fear, discomfited by his developing violent tendencies but trapped by convention or shocked into inaction? The luxurious surroundings of the palace (those embroidered cushions don’t look very cuddly) can’t be very conducive to a mutual understanding between a monarch and a freed slave, after all.
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Ewan McGregor To paraphrase Wittgenstein, “Dude, WTF?!” This frame is so crowded with stuff I hardly know where to start. Obi-Wan is addressing one of the clone troopers, riding like a cowboy on a big, spaniel-lively lizard. Under their helmets, all of the clones look like their source material, Temuera Morrison; George Lucas even redubbed Boba Fett’s scenes in the Original Trilogy with Morrison’s voice. But, for reasons which are a mystery to me, Lucas decided that he didn’t want to make any actual, physical outfits for the troops, so they’re all digital animations. Morrison’s head has been superimposed onto a digital body. It looks ropey in places, but at least it matches the sense of manufactured soldiers, their uniformity and their slightly grotesque otherness, even if this flaw in the special effects is only inadvertently smuggling in such thematic reinforcement. The lizard looks pleasingly rubbery, giving me warm remembrances of Ray Harryhausen monsters, but the level of detail is overwhelming, with multiple planes of movement, destruction and colours that jostle for attention.
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregorWhat’s under Darth Vader’s mask? As a youngster, these kinds of questions felt important. The amount of human left behind beneath that machinic shell was a matter of urgency, a mystery that needed solving. Eventually, I got to see what was under there, and it was quite satisfying, but Revenge of the Sith promises to show you how Vader came to be that way. So here we come to the near-conclusion of Episode III, with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker duelling to the death on a beam that stretches across an infernal chasm filled with raging lava. Anakin’s eyes have gone all Emo on us, conveying a deep angst that we’re supposed to equate with a turn to the darkside. Personally, I was a little disturbed to see this tormented, child-slaughtering fascist, with or without his photogenically precise facial scars, adorning children’s lunchboxes and birthday cards. Red is obviously the dominant colour here, but the lightsabers cut through the frame strinkingly – usually, combatants fight with different coloured blades, but on this occasion the two friends fight with similar coloured weapons. I’ve heard George Lucas espousing the merits of Jordan Belson’s colourful abstract animations, and sometimes the lightsabers duels in darkened spaces transform into semi-abstract bursts of violent colour, but it’s still a couple of dudes having a swordfight. Maybe that’s going to be my final comment on the Star Wars saga – however innovative, adventurous and yes, experimental its technological showcasing might become, it remains resolutely old-fashioned in its cultural references and its commitment to showing its fans what they really want and expect to see in explicit detail, instead of shaking things up with plot twists and formal subversion.

Finally, the last frame grab from this long-running series of Star Wars Randomised posts. The 83rd minute throws out the image below. Fittingly, it’s a departure. I’ll save you some time and point out the obvious E.T. pastiche as Yoda flies off in his little pod, but I’m hoping you can add some comments on this particular frame:
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith: Yoda

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones Randomised

Star Wars - Attack of the ClonesSee also:

Here we go again, with the penultimate entry in this series of randomised Star Wars posts. After the execrable CGI quackery of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones could only be an improvement, right? Well, yes. It doesn’t solve any of the dramatic problems of the earlier film, and perhaps makes them worse by attempting the tricky feat of constructing a doomed romance around which all kinds of political and military activity will swarm. George Lucas is simply not up to such a task as long as he focuses his attention on his digital playthings. I’ve always argued that CGI need not be a brain-sapping tool of anti-intellectual eye candy. It’s just that, while it remained expensive, there was little incentive to put it to adventurous uses. As such, it was just used for the same tasks as earlier forms of special effects – crowds, environments, monsters etc. There’s a moment on one of the extras of the Attack of the Clones DVD where you see Lucas working with an animator on a brief shot of digital Yoda. He pores over the same piece of footage, trying to get the correct kind of wobble in one of Yoda’s ears; they want him to look a little bit rubbery so that he doesn’t look too distant from the puppet used in the earlier films, but they want him to have a much greater range of expressions. I can’t imagine Lucas lavishing this much attention on the finer points of his human cast’s performances. Instead, he’s turned them into a different kind of puppet, adopting a drag-and-drop approach to editing whereby individual performances within a group shot can be isolated from separate takes and compositied into the same space.

Let’s hope the random number generator will at least give me some interesting and unusual bits of the film to look at and write about. The numbers are: 16, 44, 79, and 112. A nice spread, so let’s get started:
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 16th minuteGeorge Lucas’ boy-racing past keeps on resurfacing. The Star Wars prequels purport to tell us what turned Anakin Skywalker into the evil Darth Vader. The explanations are pretty standard – the death of his mother, fear of losing his wife and child, being called Annie all the time. In short, he’s never really invested in the ideologies of Imperialism. He’s just weak-willed and very upset. But in Episode II we see him not as an incipient fascist overlord, but an angsty teenager. Lucas includes several moments where his reckless driving indicates a misuse of his Jedi powers for self-fulfilment, but he can’t help making it look exciting, and making Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) seem like a curmudgeon for his disapproval; look at the differences in their facial expressions, for instance. The lemon yellow speeder they drive in pursuit of a suspected assassin is designed like a sleek sportscar, the CG background a souped-up rear projection blurring in the background as it takes a rollercoaster dip. I seem to keep repeating this, but the Star Wars films feature a lot of this kind of vehicular velocity, and the use of point-of-view shots puts the viewer in the front seat of a ride. I noticed in an earlier post how one scene from from Return of the Jedi established downward motion as potentially lethal threat, running counter to controlled and steady forward journeys. Here, Anakin transgresses by leaving the flow of traffic to swoop downwards to street level, suggesting obliquely his alignment with the negative forces that populate the films.
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 44th minuteA giant production line is bottling up babies to form the massive clone armies that will enable an Imperial take-over of the galaxy. This extreme long shot abstracts the people inside the little bubbles to shut out their individuality. The light blue is quite soothing and beautiful, but it’s as clinically smooth as the CGI that’s been used to visualise it. Dystopian imagery, where human beings are reduced to tiny outputs of giant machines, is a staple of science fiction, but Lucas doesn’t really pause on the philosophical or ethical consequences of posthumanism; if these issues are raised at all, they’re in the design of shots like this. This is certainly not the film for long discussions of human subjectivity in an age of duplication. Mechanising the workforce is the first stage of an Imperial takeover that will be empowered by a massive arsenal of spacecraft and other hardware: the prequels offer clues as to how the Empire came to power, and this is one of the pieces of that build-up, an insight into its clandestine origins, manufacturing its followers like bargain basement merchandise. It’s an impressive image that isn’t coated in the nightmarish darkness of The Matrix‘s people farms, but it’s also a bit of a dodge – rather than confronting the more troubling possibility that the Empire took over by influencing the populace by false promises and perverted ideology, we see that actually they grew their people in jars.
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 79th minuteJust remember, if you’re a good guy in a Star Wars film, some jittery alien snitch is spying on you at every turn. Obi-Wan Kenobi takes a sidestep into the detective genre for most of this film, which means that other stock characters, including the snoop, come into play. This insectoid creature peers in from one side of the frame, hiding inside a cave. So many of the films’ alien species are introduced in this way, hiding and watching from a darkened distance. The digital matte painting that makes up the backgrounds in this shot still looks painterly, rather perfectly drawn and immaculately coloured – once again, we see Lucas’ insistence on dividing his planets up into single environments: sand planet, water planet, city planet, forest moon, etc., as if none of them is an ecosystem, but a cohesive, discrete design project.

For you, readers, the bonus frame is a relatively exciting one, a battle scene from the 112th minute of the film. Take a good look, and muster up some wisdom to share with the rest of us concerning this old thing:
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 112th minute

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Randomised

star_wars__the_empire_strikes_backSee also:

Continuing the occasional series of Star Wars Randomised posts (see here if you need to know what these are), I come to The Empire Strikes Back. This was the first Star Wars film I remember seeing in the cinema. My family was on holiday in Dublin, and I and my siblings were taken to see it as an evening treat. Mostly what I remember was Yoda, who I assumed was a member of the muppet family and therefore entirely hilarious at all times. But my memory of the story was bolstered by a second viewing (on a double bill with the earlier film), and by the toys, books, trading cards and magazines that help to extrude the afterlife of the film and embed it firmly in the brain.

The numbers randomly generated are: 25, 89, and 101. I take frame grabs from those minute marks and use them as prompts for discussion. The bonus number is 40: that’s the one I’m handing over to you, readers, so dust off your critical faculties and get ready to tell me stuff…
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 25th minuteThe Star Wars films move from planet to planet with the greatest of ease. This is not the barren, vast space of 2001 or Alien: it’s a galaxy teeming with life, each new world a monoclimatic, colour coded waystation for a a section of plot. There’s Endor, an entirely forested moon, Tatooine, the desert planet, Coruscant, its whole surface urbanised, and this – Hoth, all snow and ice. Its white surfaces are a retina-searing place for a battle, a bright open space that offers no shadows in which to hide. The Rebels troops are massively outgunned. They’ve just spotted the Imperial forces’ giant walking troop carriers (AT-ATs, if my memory of the action figures serves me right) approaching, their eyes aimed at the distant enemy. They know they’re pretty much screwed. It’s just a matter of buying some time while the Rebels evacuate their base. Writing this down, it sounds pretty trite, but the spectacle comes from the succinct reduction of the conflict to its powerful visual elements: definite lateral movement (the Rebels face and fire in this direction, the Empire advances inexorably from the opposite side), a diagonal composition in this shot scatters the troops in a loose, rather scrappy and pathetic formation. This will be intercut with the assured march of the Empire towards them. And when, oh when, will we get these wrist-mounted intercoms that science fiction has been promising us for so long? Again, there are few true gaps between places in the Star Wars universe: spatial gulfs can be spanned with this proliferation of communication devices, or hyperspace jumps that collapse huge distances in seconds. Scenes of isolation, out of radio contact or away from other people, are almost always scenes of isolation and fear.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 89th minuteFor a smart-mouthed gun-slingin’ hero, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) certainly suffers a lot in this film. Here he is in a prison cell shortly after being tortured with some kind of electroshock machine, and shortly before being encased in carbonite (all of the nonsense science in Star Wars is stated with casual confidence – there are few astonishing “new” technologies for the people involved, rarely even any expressions of surprise as they arrive on strange new worlds): I remember seeing this as a six-year-old and asking my mum if Solo was dead. Whatever they were saying on the screen about his life signs, I couldn’t imagine how being “in a statue” was not the same as being dead. In this shot, though, Han is on the way to his statue-state. The torture has knocked the swagger out of him. The smirk has fallen from his mough, and the dark shadows emphasise the sag in his face, the pallor of his skin, the frown on his brow that expresses disappointment that his roguish heroism has been met not with a similarly spry, moustache twirling villainy, but with a medieval set of restraints, jabs and agonies. Why won’t the enemy spar with him on his own terms? the stark, corugated iron (?) backdrop and the off-centre framing accentuate the disempowerment. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has been moved to his defence from his earlier standoffish flirtation. Her hair is gradually evolving from the tight buns she wore in the previous episode, snaking down the sides of her head as her affection unfolds: sad to see that her initial assertiveness is being equated with tightness, a quality to be outgrown rather than one to direct productively. In the flirtation that characterises their relationship during most of The Empire Strikes Back (and reminds us that it shares a co-screenwriter with The Big Sleep), they are equally matched: by this point, he has gained the sympathetic highground by getting the crap kicked out of him, but he gains it at the expense of his agency and heroic prerogative.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 109th minuteThe darkness of the film is often cited as its strength, positioned between the boyishness of the previous and the teddy bears’ picnic of the subsequent episodes. The shadiest chiaroscuro effects are reserved for the scenes of Oedipal revelation as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) battles the arch-villain who turns out to be his father (he has, by this point, stopped coming onto his sister…). Here, Luke looks down into the pit where he has just thrown Darth Vader. The low shot and confident stance seem to give him a superior positioning, but his size within the frame, and the prominence of opaque spaces in the frame suggest that he is still in danger. The lightsaber is another bit of impossible science that makes perfect sense – it works like a sword, and permits the film to borrow the intimate aspects of swordfighting (the proximity to an opponent, they attempt to inflict injury directly to their bodies) as opposed to the remoteness of gunplay. Hence, emotional conflicts are usually manifest as sabre fights; they evoke a chivalrous age at the same time as their alien technology suggests an unfathomable futurity for the films’ spectators. Plenty of sf technologies aim to provoke the flash of recognition that comes from seeing a gadget that one hopes will eventually arrive to make life easier. Star Wars paradoxically provokes nostalgia instead: its technologies return us to the sword and the cloak. Its inventions are not necessities to one day make our lives easier, but tropes of other genres (pirate, cowboy, knight) shifting to the back and to the side in space and time.

And here, from the 40th minute of the film, is your turn. What can you tell me about this frame? Anything at all. Surprise me…Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 40th minute

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Randomised (extended edition)


[See also: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King.]

The rules of Randomisation:

1. Select a film on DVD. Eclectic choices are encouraged.

2. Using a random number generator, select three frames from the film. So, if the film is 100 minutes long, enter the numbers 1 and 100 into the randomiser and it will select three figures. Capture the frames which occur on the DVD on the minute mark. You might want to cut out the titles and end credits if they’re just text.

3. Use the three frames as a starting point for discussing the film. Focus on the composition of the image, the content of the frame and, if you’re familiar with it, how it might fit into the rest of the film’s narrative or visual style. The random selection of frames will hopefully force you out of habitual preoccupations and selective analysis and make you focus on points of the film you might otherwise have ignored. Sometimes the frames will be very revealing and illustrative of the film’s central themes, and sometimes they will seem inconsequential, but you will always find something to say about them, even if it wasn’t what you instinctively wanted to say about the film in the first place.

[For more Randomised reviews on this site, go here. See also the 10/40/70 posts at Digital Poetics, the origin this idea.]

What fun for the Easter holidays. A trilogy of randomised posts, and since these are extended editions of the films, I’ll be using four frames from each instead of the usual three. The randomiser has given me frames from the start of the following minutes: 41, 115, 142 and 167. I should say that I’m not an expert on these films, nor a devoted fan, so you might find these posts arrive from an unusual and productive angle, or you might hate, hate, hate me as a result…

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002): 41st minute, Elijah Wood as Frodo, Andy Serkis as Gollum, Sean Astin as Sam

Middle Earth is rendered on film using a wide variety of special effects, including decorated sets, digital matte paintings and miniature models, all blended together to give the impression of a continuous, coherent environment. And yet the painterly abstraction of Mount Doom in the background, with its traditionally infernal inferences gives the distant objective a mythic status in contrast to the rubbly realism of the foreground. The composition thus effectively keeps the endpoint of the journey, and the weight of its morbid symbolism, in frame without losing sight of the step-by-step drudgery of getting there across these rocks. The integration of Gollum with his surroundings and his costars is sometimes more effective than others. Cowering all the way, his semi-digital status (by this I mean that he is comprised of a computer-generated body over a motion-captured, skeletal performance from Andy Serkis) makes him a mediator between the real and the fantasy worlds, guiding them from the profilmic real (the further they get from Hobbiton, the less green, more volcanic the terrain gets) towards their nightmarish, hallucinatory (Frodo’s vision becomes less reliable, his judgment skewed) destination.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002): Orlando Bloom as Legolas

Legolas searches for Aragorn after a battle en route to Helm’s Deep. The people of Rohan (known as the Rohirrim) are fleeing to their fortress shelter, but have been attacked by Saruman’s Wargs (like giant, leonine bull terriers). Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is looking for his comrade Aragorn, who has been dragged off a cliff during the struggle. Of course, he won’t be dead, but there’s a teasing gesture towards suspense. One of the trilogy’s main achievements is the ease with which it makes Tolkien’s inventories of peoples and places into a clear, linear, branching narrative, punctuating the interminable processions of travellers with bursts of memorable violence. The Rohirrim were a horse people, and their plight is succinctly demonstrated with the appearance of a horse’s bloody corpse in the immediate foreground. There are two many deaths, too many losses for the films to account for or mourn each and every one of them, so these visual abbreviations are useful tools for synechdochically referring to a massacre.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002): Andy Serkis as Gollum

Another view of Gollum, this time from behind. Tricked into captivity by Frodo, his trust destroyed, he is reverting to the twisted evil persona which he seemed to have successfully banished from possession of his mind earlier in the story. Faramir is questioning him, and the slow track in on Gollum creates an encroaching sense of foreboding: this creature can turn, switch sides at any moment. At many points in the film, the camera stares into his face, reading it for every flicker of conflicted emotion; not seeing that face is frightening – what is he thinking? Which face is he pulling? Has “Gollum” usurped Sméagol as ruler of the contested body? He is the trilogy’s self-serving crack fiend, ultimately addicted to the Ring. This is one of the most successful integrations of Gollum with his background. The light from a flame to his left plays over his skin, illuminating the veins, vertebrae and muscle definition that suggest a living, breathing being with an inner life (thus misdirecting the spectator away from attributing the signs of life to algorithms and mouseclicks). His emaciated, near naked figure and bulbous cranium show how the poisoned mind has neglected all earthly concerns to live within a Plato’s Cave version of the world. It is only when he lost the Ring that he had to emerge from the cave and seek it out again, and he is constantly discomfited by being above ground in daylight. His digitality further stresses his alienation from his surroundings. Even when the illusion of integration is successful, it is not quite perfect, and the spectator might perceive a fractional disjuncture between Gollum and the ground, or a visual tension between his CG limbs and the pro-filmic co-stars with whom he fights.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002)

It is at the climactic Battle of Helm’s Deep where the trilogy’s secret weapon comes into its own: the Massive program generates crowds of digital extras from an expansive database of motion capture information. Hundreds of performances are recorded and then applied in semi-random fashion to the little agents that play out the action onscreen. By making these avatars move with varying degrees of unpredictability, they can be imbued with signs of agency; any crowd movement that is too regimented, too routine has an air of computer programming, which is still associated with machinic, inhuman precision. The Two Towers challenges you to spot the difference between the actual extras and the digital versions, to see through the illusion to its studio-based origins. Massive will engineer even larger battle scenes in the next film, giving it the power of a deific overseer of Middle Earth’s gathered peoples. It can create sublime, horizon-stretching images of serried ranks of soldiers, and endow them all with a singular sense of purpose. Its power is therefore the fearsome force of a monominded mob.