A screenwriter once asked Charlie Chaplin for advice on how to design a gag in which a fat lady is walking down the street, slipping on a banana peel and falling down. Should he first show the banana peel, then the lady approaching, and then the fall? Or, to show the fat lady first, and then the banana peel on which she slips?
Charlie Chaplin immediately replied: ‘You show the fat lady approaching; then you show the banana peel; then you show the fat lady and the banana peel together; then she steps OVER the banana peel and disappears down a manhole.’
Inside Llewyn Davis
For their latest movie, the Coen brothers (Ethan and Joel) weren’t able to work with their cinematographer of choice (Roger Deakins) because he was working on another film, so they had to settle for French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. I say, “Settle for,” but Delbonnel has an extensive history in French cinema and his contribution the Harry Potter films (shooting The Half Blood Prince) was the only one in the series to be nominated for the Academy award for Cinematography.
Inside Llewyn Davis follows a young folk singer as he tries to survive a week in New York city in the dead of winter. He has no coat, no money, and his few friends are starting to be unimpressed by his constant bellyaching and freeloading. To say the movie has a plot would be generous: Llewyn meanders here and there, and the world never gives him sufficient reason to pursue anything. If anything, it conspires against him, although we wonder if there’s a chance he would succeed as a musician (and if not as a musician, at least as a friend) if he would just try, even a little bit.
In this first shot, Llewyn is knocking on the door of the apartment where his friends, Jim and Jean, live. Each location in this film is distinct, but several of them press closely around Llewyn as he tries to figure out his life and where he’ll be sleeping next.
It’s not easy to make the outdoors look as small and manageable as a film set. And it’s probably rare that you want to. I’m not exactly sure what it is about this shot, but I remained riveted on the back of John Goodman’s character as he hobbled to the men’s room. The angle of the roof helps contain the shot and focus attention on the character.
Roger Deakins is well-known for his habit of putting the light sources within the shot as opposed to outside it. In this third shot, it appears Delbonnel may be paying homage to this habit. We see all of the light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. With the red chairs on the floor and the white globes above, the effect is kind of psychedelic, which fits the dreamlike journey Llewyn has with these two crazy characters.
This shot has already been discussed over on HitFix, where Kristopher Tapley chose it as one of the best shots of 2013. The camera slowly pushes in on Llewyn as he plays for Bud Grossman, the music manager who could change his life and set him on the green, green rocky road to success. Llewyn’s guitar is in the light, while his face is in shadow. Bud Grossman is lit harshly from one side, creating a huge black hole between him and Llewyn. Needless to say, the audition doesn’t end the way Llewyn wants it to.
While Inside Llewyn Davis is wonderfully shot, there weren’t that many single frames that leaped out to me. For the fifth shot, I picked a frame that says more in the story than it does by itself. In some ways, it’s a recap of the previous shot. Llewyn visits his father in a nursing home and plays him a beautiful ballad, one of his favorites. His father listens without a single glimmer of recognition. He stares out the window as if thinking about something he misplaced a long time ago.
Nebraska is shot in black and white, and Tapley at HitFix gives a brief explanation why, based on an interview with the director of photography: “The goal was to capture a stark landscape where seemingly nothing happens, providing a glimpse of a simple reality one would yearn to rise above.” The story concerns a man named David who travels with his father, Woody, from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim a Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize. Like Inside Llewyn Davis, a large part of the film concerns a road trip. It was interesting to see how differently the two films portrayed the experience of driving across America.
Nebraska is more concerned with watching people relate to one another from a respectable distance than direct the audience’s attention to specific places. That said, there are quite a few instances of photographic jokes, where the framing itself becomes funny.
The first time we see Woody Grant, he’s hobbling along next to a Montana freeway, looking about as disoriented as you can get. A policeman stops, picks him up, and takes him in. The shot above comes when Woody’s son David comes to get his father from the police station. It doesn’t really have the full effect without David’s resigned disappointment, but the shot effectively conveys Woody’s smallness and weariness. The five empty chairs around him emphasis his loneliness as well.
In this shot, David and his brother Ross discuss what to do with their father. Woody is just offscreen, working on the engine of the truck. Almost every line in the frame directs attention to the brothers’ conversation, and we get the sense that Woody might be listening in.
Once again, the frame emphasizes how small and inconsequential Woody is at the end of his own life. This scene takes place in a graveyard, where Woody’s wife Kate ruminates on all their buried friends and relatives. Incidentally, Nebraska was directed by Alexander Payne. You can see a gravestone displayed the last name Payne on the left side of the frame.
I love this shot. These are Woody’s living relatives, gathered to watch some kind of sporting event on TV – football, probably. The shot continues far longer than is comfortable, and no one but David fidgets. The placement of one of the relatives closer to the camera on the right side of the frame cuts David off from the rest of the group, which makes him stick out even more. Also, the old man on the far left should be in more movies.
After visiting a friend’s farm, Kate and Woody drive off without Ross and David. The sons appear in the rear windscreen, running as fast as they can. Woody’s complete oblivion is almost as funny as Kate’s surprised expression.
I often find myself paralyzed when I try to write. I mean, when I try to Write. Not physically paralyzed, of course. It’s mental paralysis, an inability to connect one sentence to another. More than anything, this paralysis is due to wondering what the effect of my Writing will be on the world. (I never stop to ask who that “world” comprises.) Will it be read? If I’m weighing in on some topic, will my contribution be relevant? Will it be insightful? If I’m writing a short piece of fiction, I wonder if the story will be meaningful, if it will be entertaining, if it will capture the atmosphere that I set out to capture. Will it be any good? Everyone asks themselves this question sometimes, but those who try to create capital-A Art on a regular basis ask it all the time. Scratch that. We beg for the answer.
When I take a photo and plan to post it on Instagram, I don’t suffer from paralysis. I blithely shoot and post away, happy to even approach taking something that resembles a good photo. I’m not a photographer, so I don’t care to compare myself with other photographers, which means that they are irrelevant to me except as sources of inspiration. I don’t worry whether my photos matter, because I don’t care what the world thinks of them. If I think a photo is passable, and if it resembles the photos of professional photographers, and if I like it, I’m happy.
Let’s take these two scenarios and cross the wires. What if my writing didn’t matter? I’d be free from the pressure of writing something insightful and interesting, something that would make a person stop and think. If the writing doesn’t matter, there’s no need to worry about what people think of it. In fact, there’s no reason to even show them. With that pressure off, I’d have an easier time putting words on paper. And well, once the words are there, I might as well show them around.
Problem is, words do matter. Unlike an Instagram photo, a paragraph carries meaning, argument, attitude, personality. A poorly written paragraph reflects on the writer in a way that a bad photograph does not reflect on the photographer. At least, that’s what I tell myself. I’d be happy to be proven wrong.
The other day I watched Shun Li and the Poet, a film about a Chinese woman working in northern Italy who befriends a fisherman who emigrated there from Yugoslavia thirty years ago. Neither of these characters are given much explicit backstory. We know that Shun Li’s father was a fisherman and we know that Bepi, the fisherman, has a son and two grandchildren. The setting itself features prominently in the film, as you can see from the screenshots below.
The wide lenses used for the film allow us to see the setting provided for the characters. This, combined with the haze that always permeates the island-town of Chioggia, gives us some striking backgrounds.
This is the shot that appears on the poster for the film. Shun Li is walking to work, wearing the high green wellies that every inhabitant of the island owns and carrying her bright red umbrella. Usually, Shun Li is somber and reserved. Not in this scene. She splashes around happily, taking delight in all the little idiosyncrasies of the town.
There are many great shots of the sea in the film, or rather, of the lagoon. Especially when the mist presses right up against the water, the lagoon has a extraterrestrial look to it. I chose this shot because Coppe’s red sweater provides a nice contrast to the smooth, grey water around him.
This shot is one of my favorites in the film, even though it’s not as pretty as the others. Shun Li is warned by her supervisors that she must stop spending time with Bepi, because the locals are beginning to gossip and it will reflect badly on the Chinese. The camera moves forward and around the table until it faces Shun Li as she sits bracketed by the two men. Mirrors appear in a lot of the scenes in the movie. In this one, the mirror on the back wall shows Shun Li small and inconsequential while the two men loom in the shadows.
The haze in the atmosphere gives all the outdoor scenes a certain tactility or three-dimensionality. There are other shots in this scene that give a better angle of the beautiful buildings in the background, but this close-up gives us a look into Shun Li’s eyes as she receives some bad news and then pulls up the hood of her coat around her face. It is an understated reaction in an understated film.
I watched All Is Lost on Saturday night. As I explained in my post on the movie’s cinematography, the story is about a man sailing alone across the Indian Ocean who runs into a jettisoned (accidentally, we assume) shipping container. The collision breaks a hole in the side of his boat and the rest of the movie shows his increasingly frustrated efforts to survive.
All Is Lost is one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. Robert Redford, who plays the only character, has almost no lines, but his silence brings attention to everything he does, including what he looks at or doesn’t. The film never explains why Redford’s character is floating alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean. A short voiceover at the beginning of the film hints that he strongly regrets something, but we’re not sure what. We find out towards the end of the movie that those regrets are only voiced after his boat has been damaged and he’s completely helpless. It constitutes a confession of some kind, and only after this repentance is Redford “consumed” by fire and the story ends.
All Is Lost is a deceptively simple story. I suspect that it may be more theologically rich than many reviewers seemed to think – how can the story of a man alone on the ocean not be theological? Below are several quotations from Scripture that occurred to me while I was watching the movie. They roughly correspond to the narrative arc of the story.
But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.
“…Bind this line of scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down…”
Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.
Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord…
And the priest shall burn all on the altar as a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the Lord.
“For I,” says the Lord, “will be a wall of fire all around her, and I will be the glory in her midst.”
All Is Lost, directed by JC Chandor, stars Robert Redford as a man on a solitary journey across the Indian Ocean in a sailboat. His boat runs into a shipping container floating in the middle of the sea, which leaves a gaping hole in the hull, and he must deal with the consequences and survive.
The film is gorgeous, and as always, picking five representative shots was hard. I encourage you to see the film and see each of these shots in context. I should warn you that this post may contain spoilers, if you’re sensitive about that sort of thing.
In shot number one, Redford is asleep in a hammock the first night after his boat was damaged. He hasn’t had time to pump the bilges and water swirls below him as he sleeps – on a rainbow colored hammock, you will note. He is literally inches away from drowning and we have yet to pass the movie’s fifteen minute mark.
Redford’s character is not a happy man. He is stoic and capable, taking everything in stride, even approaching doom. He hears rain pattering on the deck and comes out to feel the water on his skin. This is one of the only times we see him smile. The shot continues as he pulls his sleeves back and washes his arms, staring almost reverently at them. It’s a worshipful moment.
This is one of my favorite shots in the film. Redford’s boat is sinking. We see it slipping under the waves for several seconds before cutting to this shot and witnessing his complete resignation. His hands, normally so active, are hanging lifeless over the side. Given how the camera is placed, close by and slightly below Redford, I think this could have easily been a hopeful moment, but Redford’s expression and posture completely destroy that idea.
A freighter passes very close to Redford one night. He shoots a flare and shouts to gain their attention. This shot emphasizes how fruitless his efforts at being rescued are. Nothing is shown in the frame except the freighter and the flare, and the black distance between them.
There are several beautiful underwater shots in the film, but none have such a variegation of light. The burning raft alone is enough to make this shot memorable.
I’ve decided to start a habit (and I challenged my brother to do the same thing, so remind him). Whenever I watch a movie, excepting in the theater, I will pick five shots from the film to post here. The shots may be particularly striking, or they may perfectly encapsulate the spirit of the movie, or they may just be examples of good blocking or good staging. The goal of the exercise is simply to practice paying attention, which I do little enough of.
Yesterday, I watched most of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, directed by Brad Bird. Bird comes from an animation background, and it shows in how he composed his sequences. Unfortunately, most of the really gripping stuff comes from cutting or camera movement, which are both hard to capture in a screenshot.
This whole list could be composed of nothing but shots of Tom Cruise running. Instead, I picked the first shot Bird gives us of Agent Hunt: the back of his head as he lounges on a prison bunk. The rock-throwing is a nice nod to Captain Hilts, the Cooler King.
Shot number two is just one of many examples of Bird letting the camera do the work for him. The IMF secretary’s car is rammed, shot at, and rolled into a canal, and we experience it all from inside the car. In controlling the audience’s perspective, Bird is giving us a show rather than simply showing us what happened.
The Burj Khalifa sequence and subsequent sandstorm chase scene is a half-hour action set piece in the middle of the film, full of the sort of cinematography that marketing and distribution teams love. I picked one shot from early on in the sequence. It’s the sort of thing you can imagine Philip Bloom composing, except for the movie star in the middle of the frame.
In this shot, Cruise has just lost the man he was chasing in the sandstorm and he pulls out his tracker to find him. The shot doesn’t last very long (few do in this film), but it communicates how overwhelming the storm is by blurring out the character and squeezing him from both sides of the frame. Also, the sound design in this scene is pretty amazing, even on a laptop.
The final action sequence is a little bit of a letdown after Dubai, but this shot stuck out to me. Car mirror shots are not especially unique, except when the villain is dropping down on you from above while you’re busy trying to snuff out a nuclear briefcase. Don’t ask how the mirror got to be at that angle.
Film Fisher is a new movie review site that aims to evaluate movies based on their truth, goodness, and beauty. Naturally, this results in some unconventional movie reviews that try to go beyond, “I didn’t care about the characters and didn’t care enough to wonder why I didn’t care.” If you’ve ever wanted to see Solomon quoted in a review of a Wes Anderson movie or read about Joss Whedon’s careless disregard for what’s great about Shakespeare, this is the site for you.
What excites me most about Film Fisher is that every one of the reviewers still maintains a childlike excitement about good movies. There are plans in the works for a Film Fisher “Film School” (of Fish, no doubt) that will explore the technical side of moviemaking, both of story and production. As video content becomes more and more widespread, I think resources like this will be invaluable for anyone who wants to know the ingredients of the films they’re ingesting.
Check out the site here.
The humorist and suspense novelist Kevin Guilfoile has noted that writing humor is similar to writing thrillers, in that both manipulate the audience into an intended emotional reaction: amusement in the former, fear and anxiety in the latter. They build up tension in the audience, then release it — through laughter or plot resolution, respectively. It’s the opposite of poetry, for which the reader’s own response to the text is as essential to its meaning as the author’s intentions, and which relies less on narrative tension and revelation than on the subtler pleasures of language.
Sorry for the long delay between posts. I am working on finishing my MA, and the work leaks into every moment.
Father sat down on the edge of the narrow bed. “Corrie,” he began gently, “When you and I go to Amsterdam— when do I give you your ticket?”
I sniffed a few times, considering this.
“Why, just before we get on the train.”
“Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we’re going to need things, too. Don’t run out ahead of Him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us will have to die, you will look into your heart and find the strength you need— just in time.”
Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place
(HT Robin H.)