Cinematography and composition in La Jetée

January 27, 2010

In Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1963), the story of a time-travelling test subject is told through a 28-minute montage of still images, with only one sequence of animated film. The scene I have elected to analyze depicts the protagonist’s love interest as she sleeps and slowly wakes. It runs from 19:02 to 19:52 in the film.

The first forty seconds of the scene consist of still black-and-white photographs, taken with a Pentax 24 x 36 (according to the notes included in the DVD case). The depth of field is wide enough to allow everything in the frame to be in focus, from the sheets on top of her in the foreground, to the pillow behind her. However, not everything is lit—there seems to be only one light source, above and to the left of the woman. It is probably a smaller light, because it only illuminates her left side and leaves the right in darkness, and seems highly diffused.

The first shots are medium shots, with the camera positioned above the woman and pointing down. Then the camera either moves closer, or zooms in—I suspect a zoom, only because no other camera motion is evident, making me think it was fixed in place. The feeling of movement in the scene comes instead from the woman’s changes in position.  By using long cross-fades to transition between photographs in which nothing moves but the woman herself, the sequence approaches a feeling of continuous animation, which stands out in contrast to the somewhat discontinuous nature of the rest of the film. The sheet on top of her is particularly notable, because it moves up and down between shots, but instead of jumping between positions, it seems to fade in and out as if we could see the woman breathing.

When the transition is made to “real” film at 19:45, nothing initially changes about the image—I suspect the film camera (an Arriflex 35mm, according to the notes) was fixed in exactly the same position as the still camera had been, and the focus carefully matched, with the lighting and the staging left untouched for the transition. The camera begins rolling with the woman unmoving and we cross-fade in, as in the earlier shots. After a few moments, she opens her eyes and blinks. By changing so little in the transition, it draws a direct correlation between the montage of still images and traditional film; when the sheet moves with her breathing, it is as if we have managed to take 24 photographs of her every second. It hardly feels like a change at all, until the camera switches to the next scene, and we return to the usual montage of still images in which a great deal changes between each shot.

The overall effect of the scene is peaceful and beautiful, because of the unusual seamlessness of the shots. It also feels more realistic than many other parts of the movie due to the illusion of motion, which, the film reminds us, is still only an illusion even in the shot that is “real” film. Although very little action takes place in these fifty seconds, the unexpected sense of reality becomes a significant event in itself.

Dynamic Utopia in Star Trek

January 26, 2010

In episode 15 of Star Trek season 3, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” we receive two messages about the nature of utopia. First, when reprimanding the warring idividuals Bele and Lokai for attempting to violently control the starship Enterprise, Kirk informs him that in the United Federation of Planets, “We live in peace, with full exercise of individual rights. The need to resort to violence and force has long since passed” (timestamp 30:29). Later, when urging Bele to listen to Lokai’s grievances and reconcile their factions, Spock says, “Change is the essential process of all existence” (timestamp 37:20).

In both instances, Kirk and Spock are reacting against Bele and Lokai’s violent pursuit of social change. Both Bele and Lokai invoke the word “utopia” when they first reunite in the Enterprise’s sickbay, but Kirk and Spock’s responses seem to say, “That’s not how you do utopia; this is how you do utopia.” However, the writers of Star Trek are SF writers, not Utopian writers, as described by Edward James in “Utopias and Anti-Utopias”; they reject the “largely static society” of traditional Utopian writing, because exciting story-telling cannot be reconciled with “a denial of adventure, of risk-taking, of the expanding of spatial or technological horizons” (p. 222).

Instead, the world of Star Trek envisions a dynamic utopia, in which “change is the essential process of all existence” but in which our protagonists have, in many ways, completed the evolutionary progression “from the lower levels to the more advanced stages” (as Spock describes evolution at 37:58). The social structures of the Enterprise are well-established and incredibly static; when Bele changes the ship’s course, his disruption of the status quo is considered such a threat that Kirk threatens to destroy the ship and everyone on it. However, the universe in which the Enterprise moves is anything but static, and the goal of the Enterprise is to constantly change position in order to sow change.

Thus, we have a utopia in which the universe is struggling to advance towards a better future, but our main characters are able to live in a stable world in which racial conflict is something they heard of in history class once. We are made aware, through the day’s adventure in each episode, of an imperfect world, but that is not where we live.

Or at least, that’s what the story tells us– the interesting questions come in when we compare what we’re told with what we observe. To what extent can Star Trek’s vision of a dynamic utopia really be seen as utopic? There are serious concerns both in the Federation’s definition of equality (in which serious questions can be raised about the characterization of women and people of color, and from which LGBT individuals seem to have been excluded entirely) and in the ever-expanding quest to spread this utopia (which is often unhelpful or insensitive to the people they encounter, and which has more than a whiff of colonialism about it). Was it really best for Kirk to refuse to take sides on Bele and Lokai’s conflict? Is life on the Enterprise really so perfect that nothing else can be considered?

What do you guys think?

(crossposted from Writing the Future.)

Blog Note: more class papers to come!

January 24, 2010

Hey, folks! A new semester’s started, so once again you’re being treated to my classwork, in lieu of more independent posting!

This semester, I’m taking two film classes, Cinematography and Editing the TV Documentary. They’re not theory-type classes so there’ll be less writing, but there will be at least some in the Cinematography class, so I’ll put that up. Anything generated in either of these classes will re-use the “film studies” tag.

I’m also taking a class called Writing The Future, about science fiction explorations of utopia. Some of these might be films, but not the majority, so I’m creating the tag “utopia studies.” This is actually a writing class first and everything else second, so expect a lot of stuff here!

I’m posting everything here partially in the desperate hope someone will be interested in my academic writing, but more in the desperate hope that it will prompt me to write at greater length about the things I watch, and otherwise grow back into the habit of posting here at GG. I miss alla y’all!

So, coming up next: Star Trek!!

Final Paper Analysis of The Fifth Element

December 4, 2009

Luc Besson’s film The Fifth Element has an anti-technological bias conveyed in an unusually subtle way. Generally, when a science fiction film is anti-technology, it conveys this by depicting robots murdering humans in the streets (or something similarly obvious); in The Fifth Element, however, the bias is conveyed by setting up two characters’ worldviews as oppositional, and then encouraging the viewer to identify with the point of view that is opposed to technology.

By manipulating our impressions of who is looking at certain scenes (as described by Daniel Dayan) and taking advantage of our identification with the camera (as described by Christian Metz), we are presented with two ways of seeing associated with our two lead characters. When the pacing, mise-en-scene, and sound design of the shots vary in concordance with these two views, we come to see the viewpoint of ex-military 23rd-century taxi driver Korbin Dallas (played by Bruce Willis) as complicated, technologically-oriented, and sexless, and the viewpoint of the world-saving divine alien being known as Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) as calm, simple, and romantic. The film then endorses Leeloo’s philosophy by having Korbin, throughout the course of the film, change his life to become more like Leeloo.

To exemplify this conveyance of this ideology in the film, I have chosen a short sequence that is something of a turning point in the movie, in which Korbin is strongly attracted to Leeloo (and everything she represents), but still distances himself from her. The scene is almost perfectly halfway through the movie, and immediately precedes Korbin’s decision to abandon his current life in order to pursue and help Leeloo. The sequence I will analyse runs from timestamp 1:05:5 until 1:06:49 in the film; this is from 0:05 to 1:06 in the clip below, which also includes a few extra shots for context.

First, there is the process by which the oppositional viewpoints are defined. The real origin of every image in the clip above lies, of course, in the camera and the filmmaking process. However, through the conventions of suture, “the real origin of the image–the conditions of its production represented by the absent-one–is replaced with a false origin and this false origin is situated inside the fiction” (Dayan, The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema, page 117 of Film Theory and Criticism, 7th ed.). Suture is to be expected in any conventional film, and yet I think the choice of false origins in this sequence is being used to tell us more about the conflict of philosophy within the film, and the ideology ultimately promoted by the film. So, let’s look at who, exactly, is looking at whom.


Korbin looking at Leeloo

Part 1 consists of only shot 1, which is 41 seconds long and begins at 0:05 in the clip above. An earlier shot/reverse-shot sequence showed us Leeloo, and then Korbin looking at Leeloo, so we predict that this shot will once again represent what Korbin sees. However, instead of a more traditional reaction shot showing Korbin’s face, we see Korbin and Leeloo together, as Korbin’s look at Leeloo (both the implied look of his earlier role as absent-one, and the literal look depicted in the scene) pulls him closer into her world. At the beginning of the shot, Korbin rummages through a cupboard, throwing things over his shoulder to clang noisily on the ground, separate from Leeloo as in his usual life, but after he begins to dry her off his field of vision shrinks. As he is influenced by her calm, he goes from chatting and drying her vigorously and glancing from one part of her to another, to silently gazing into her eyes.

The camera colludes in this tunnel-vision. As the shot progresses, it quite elegantly removes all traces of technology from the screen, so that the closer we are to Leeloo the further we are from anything that marks the scene as happening in the future. To accomplish this, it moves slowly forward throughout the shot, transforming a cluttered medium shot into a clean close-up, an action it carries out so subtly that I almost didn’t notice it even after several viewings. We are meant to see Leeloo as Korbin sees her: a stable center with an inexplicable allure that draws our attention away from the other distractions of life. And so, she never moves from the middle of the frame, while we, as camera-Korbin, physically move closer to her without quite realizing our own movement, and literally lose sight of anything but her.

The remarkable change within shot 1 which goes un-remarked on.

Our attraction to Leeloo is romantic, with soft horn music, the close physicality of drying off, and especially the near-kiss toward the end all contributing to a sexually-charged atmosphere. When Leeloo and Korbin stand close to each other, as they do throughout most of the shot, there is a sense of belonging. It is notable that Korbin’s shirt is so bright orange; throughout the film, this colour is strongly associated with Leeloo, so when Korbin begins to wear it as well it is a sign of his increasing allegiance to Leeloo’s way of life.

So, when Korbin looks at Leeloo, he sees simplicity and calm, and he is attracted to what he sees.


Leeloo looking at Korbin

Part 2 consists of the following 4 shots: shot 2, in which the bed slides out of the wall and Korbin rips Cornelius (a monk trying to help Leeloo save the world) out of the plastic; shot 3, in which Leeloo comments, “autowash” and begins to take off her suspenders; and shot 4, in which Korbin pulls Cornelius to his feet.

When shot 2 begins at 0:50 in the clip above, it’s not immediately clear who is seeing it. Here we must visit Dayan and his The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema, to consider the process by which a moviegoer decides upon the false origin of the images presented. Dayan says,

“Within the system of suture, the absent-one can therefore be defined as the intersubjective “trick” by means of which the second part of a given representative statement is no longer simply what comes after the first part, but what is signified by it. … On the one hand, a retroactive process organizes the signified. On the other hand, an anticipatory process organizes the signifier.” (page 116-117).

Thus, when we see the bed sliding out of Korbin’s wall in shot 2, just after Korbin turns his head away from the camera in shot 1, we are thinking both, “Ah, this is what he was looking at before” and “Who is looking at it now?” We provisionally consider that Korbin is still the signifier in shot 2, but then at 0:51 he runs into the shot, and we realize that he can’t be looking at himself. Since Leeloo is the only other person in the room, we think it is probably her, but we have been wrong before; when shot 3 shows us Leeloo simply pointing and saying “autowash,” it is not for the purpose of the joke, but to reassure us that Leeloo really was our absent-one in the shot before, and to confirm that we have changed our perspective from Korbin-seeing-Leeloo to Leeloo-seeing-Korbin.

So, what changes when we start looking through different eyes? For one thing, technology and clutter have both returned to Korbin’s life. The sound bridge connecting shot 1 to shot 2 is a mechanical whine, and when Korbin first enters the frame of shot 2 he kicks an aluminum can and sends it clattering across the floor. Most obviously, a bed emerges from the wall, a concrete example of the ways that technology drives Korbin’s life. The soft horn music also ends, completing the shift from romantic timelessness to science-fiction technology.

Sex has also been totally removed from the equation. It is somewhat ironic that it is Korbin’s bed to come out of the wall just after his romantic moment with Leeloo, because it is very clear that no sleeping, euphemistic or otherwise, is likely to happen. For one thing, Cornelius lies on top of the sheets, and the bed has been made. For another, Cornelius has been wrapped in sterile plastic. Additionally, the character of Cornelius is actually a monk– an embodiment of celibacy.

Shot 2 and shot 4: technology, plastic, and clutter.

Leeloo’s reaction to both of these changes is very much that of an outsider. Whereas Korbin and Leeloo share focus equally in shot 1, in shot 3 (the only shot in which they appear together) the depth of field has narrowed so that only Leeloo is in focus, and Korbin is set apart from her. Leeloo does not get involved in the action of rescuing Cornelius, merely passing comment on the action while she continues with her own business of dealing with her wet clothes.

The world without Leeloo is also less happy than the world with her. This is evident both on the obvious levels of the previously-mentioned cluttered mise-en-scene and change in music, as well as the nature of the action, but it is also true on a more subtle level: the camera moves more obviously, with a distinctive handheld shake, and everything within the shot is moves as well– the stability provided by Leeloo has been lost.

At the end of shot 4, Korbin and Cornelius look directly at the at the camera, making us ask quite explicitly, “What are they seeing?”

This shot demands a reverse-shot.

The answer, of course, is Leeloo.


Korbin and Cornelius looking at Leeloo

Shot 5 shows Korbin and Cornelius looking behind them at Leeloo, and then immediately turning back to face the camera because Leeloo has taken off her wet shirt to wring it out. They stand awkwardly, and then Korbin edges out of the frame to get coffee. Even though this shot expresses their view of Leeloo, we never get a clear look at her at all; the depth of field is narrow and Leeloo, behind the two men, is totally out of focus.

Shot 5: trying not to look at Leeloo.

I find this shot most telling because in it, Leeloo expresses what she really represents, and Korbin aligns himself with the monk to quite literally turn his back on her. Leeloo, as a symbol of straightforward sexuality, has no qualms about taking off her wet shirt to wring it out: how else would she get dry? But this is still the middle of the movie, the point at which the hero must decide whether or not to accept his quest, and at this point he is determined not to accept. The camera, like Korbin, obeys the authoritarian message on the wall to “Keep Clear” (an artifact of an authoritarian society), and refuses to look at her, blocking her out with the two men who represent the usual way of things in this science fiction world.


The true origin of the looks: the camera

The story becomes more complex when we remember that Korbin and Leeloo are both fictional characters, and therefore cannot possibly look at each other. In Christian Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier, he attempts to tease out the truth behind the spectator’s experience of identification with film.

“The spectator’s look… must first “go through”… the look of the character out-of-frame. … This invisible character, supposed (like the spectator) to be seeing, will collide obliquely with the latter’s look and play the part of an obligatory intermediary.” (page 700)

Thus, we are the ones beginning to feel alienated from Korbin’s technologically-focused, conflict-driven life, and we feel attracted to Leeloo’s simpler way of living.

However, we must not forget the fact that “as he indentifies with himself as look, the spectator can do no other than identify with the camera, too, which has looked before him at what he is not looking at.” Although our look is more real than the look of the fictional character, it is still not the cause of the image; the true origin lies, as always, in the camera. We take a stance on technology not through our own will, then, but as a direct result of the camera’s placement—or rather, the director’s placement of the camera.

Thus, the beautiful slow zoom in shot 1 is caused not by Korbin’s attraction to Leeloo (the false origin), but by the director’s desire to make the viewer subconsciously associate Leeloo with calm, gentle feelings. The shots get jumpier and shorter starting with shot 2 not because Leeloo is disoriented by Korbin’s world, but because the director wants the spectator to consider the world disorienting. Every detail has been orchestrated with intent, and at great cost, to cause us to identify with a very specific ideology.

Finally, let us consider how the film ends: when Leeloo does save the world, it is as an embodiment of love, not as a technological weapon. In the epilogue, the President wants to speak to Korbin and Leeloo to thank them, but, as a scientist awkwardly explains, they are “occupied”; they are encapsulated in a healing device, no clothes in sight, unashamedly having sex. That is, Korbin has completely embraced Leeloo’s world, and brought the spectator into seeing a “happy ending” that consists of keeping out the rest of the world, in order to enjoy life on a primal, uncomplicated, “uncivilized” level.

The Fifth Element, despite its surface similarities to technology-glorifying science fiction romps, therefore subtly encourages the spectator to identify with an anti-technology ideology.

Shots from The Fifth Element

November 30, 2009

Shot 1

Shot 2

Shot 3

Shot 4

Shot 5

A Shot-by-Shot Analysis from The Fifth Element

November 17, 2009

In the film The Fifth Element, the world in general and protagonist Korben Dallas’ life in particular are complicated, strange, and dangerous. Life is fast-paced and science-fiction devices abound. However, the alien Leeloo, sent by ancient beings to prevent the destruction of the universe, represents a peaceful return to normalcy, both for humanity, whom she saves, and for Korben, with whom she falls in love.

The contrast between the world with and without Leeloo’s influence becomes particularly evident in a scene in the middle of the movie, in which Korben accepts a military mission representative of his old life in order to pursue and help Leeloo. The camera motion, shot length, mise-en-scene, and sound all change from calm simplicity to frantic complexity as Korbin turns his attention from Leeloo to the rest of the world. The scene itself is almost exactly halfway through the movie, and the sequence I will be analysing starts at timestamp 1:05:56 and runs until 1:06:49. (In the clip, this is from 0:05 to 1:06 — I included a little bit more for context.)

My first shot is a long one, lasting 41 seconds. As part of the plot preceding this scene, Korbin has hidden a number of people in his apartment: Leeloo in his shower, the priest Cornelius in his bed, and three soldiers in his fridge. Leeloo, the orange-haired humanoid alien, is the first to be rescued; immediately prior to this shot, Korbin has retrieved his shower, which retracts into the ceiling and out of view, and discovered that Leeloo is now soaking wet because of an “autowash” feature.

In this shot, the camera moves very little; it starts with a slight pan to the right as Korbin helps Leeloo out of the shower, but this is primarily because the previous shot was moving, and to keep the transition smooth it must cut from motion to motion. After the pan, it begins moving forward in a very gradual, slow process which makes the framing simpler and more intimate as the scene goes on but which will probably not register consciously as camera movement.

Leeloo also doesn’t move– she stands in the center of the shot, shaking, as Korbin walks behind her and noisily tosses items out of a hidden cupboard. His apartment in general is very cluttered, and as the unidenfitifiable objects as they hit the floor their clanging highlights his unsettled state.

He finds a towel and walks back to Leeloo to wrap it around her. He starts by vigorously drying her off, but the more time he spends with her, the slower his movements become. His dialogue also changes from being more high-energy to calmer the longer he is with her; he begins by explaining and apologizing for the autowash, then comments that this is the second time today that Leeloo has ended up in his arms, then falls silent as he contemplates that fact and her face.

The moment around 1:06:25 best encapsulates the mood of Korbin-with-Leeloo. He has finally stopped frantically moving around, only absently stroking her shoulder from time to time, and he has stopped talking. The camera has moved forward enough to cut the shower and the cupboard out of the shot, giving us a view of Korbin’s apartment with an unprecedented lack of clutter. He is totally engrossed in looking at her face; we expect him to kiss her at any moment. The slightly cheesy romantic music, which has been playing since Leeloo appeared, becomes most audible at this moment.

However, a whining/ moaning noise also becomes audible, and at 1:06:31 we begin our transition out of Leeloo-land. Korbin physically turns away from Leeloo to look behind him for the source of the sound, and asks (in a voice that has become a whisper through her influence), “Did you hear something?” and the music stops. When she answers, “Cornelius,” he is silent for a moment, and then we finally cut away from Leeloo and to our next shot.

In my second shot, we see a return to the world of action and technology that represents Korbin’s life without Leeloo. The music stops abruptly, and instead we hear a mechanical whine (which actually begins to be audible in the last few seconds of the previous shot) as Korbin’s retractable bed slides out from the wall, with Cornelius trapped under its plastic wrap.

The camera begins moving again as Korbin runs into the frame. In his haste, he kicks a aluminum soda can, which clatters metallically;  it’s not meant to be noticed consciously but as with the junk thrown out of his cupboard in the shot before, it calls to mind the clutter of Korbin’s usual life. As the can skitters away, Korbin rips the plastic off the bed, and Cornelius sits bolt upright with a loud gasp for air. The shot lasts four seconds, a mere tenth of the shot before.

We cut back to Leeloo for the third shot. It’s a dirty single, with Korbin’s out-of-focus back in the foreground of the shot. However, it’s not very dirty, since Leeloo is standing in front of the only blank wall in Korbin’s apartment, and absolutely none of his things are visible. It is essentially a reverse-shot, showing Leeloo’s reaction to to action in the shot prior.

Leeloo is unworried. She does move, but it is to begin taking off her own wet clothes, not to get caught up in the action surrounding Cornelius. Instead, she simply points off-screen to the action, and comments, “Autowash.” (It is probably worth noting, for those who have not seen the movie, that Leeloo does not yet speak English in this scene; she speaks primarily in one-work proper names, but we are meant to read a further eloquence into them; they do not represent an intellectual deficiency on her part.)

However, Korbin is no longer engrossed in the calm world of Leeloo, and this shot lasts only two seconds.

In the fourth shot, the camera jostles back and forth as Korbin pulls Cornelius to his feet (a motion which also pulls a huge swath of plastic into the shot). We are once again looking at the messy part of Korbin’s apartment, with open drawers, cupboard doors, and shelves of books, awards, photographs, and knickknacks.

The men shove at each other for a few moments, Korbin in an attempt to brush Cornelius off, and Cornelius in an attempt to brush off Korbin’s attention (and to express his annoyance). Korbin is talking loudly again, saying almost the same thing he was saying to Leeloo when he pulled her out of the shower– lots of “sorry.”

Then, with an amusing swooshing sound effect, they both look directly at the camera.

In shot five, the two men are in the foreground in focus, obscuring Leeloo as she takes off her wet shirt behind them. We get the swooshing sound again as they both in unison turn their backs to her. Korbin awkwardly offers Cornelius a cup of coffee and steps out of the shot as Leeloo wrings out her shirt (the water splashing audibly on the ground) and mutters “autowash” to herself.

By standing with Cornelius and literally turning his back to Leeloo, Korbin has rejoined Cornelius’ world of action (a world that does not have time for romance). It represents a complete reversal of his position towards her earlier, which was romantic but devoid of action. It also represents the general tone of the movie, a tone that Korbin consistently tries to escape by pursuing Leeloo.

As the scene continues, we see Korbin pour a cup of coffee, then a reverse shot of Cornelius standing awkwardly, then a point of view shot as Cornelius notices some plot-important cruise tickets and grabs them, then a reaction shot of Cornelius as he crosses himself and grabs an award statue of Korbin’s, then a shot of Korbin and the coffee as Cornelius runs forward to bash Korbin on the head, and then a shot in the hallway as Cornelius and Leeloo flee– all of which happens in barely thirty seconds, less than the time Korbin spent just drying Leeloo off!

Overall, these five shots (and the context surrounding them) perfectly encapsulate the two worlds of the film, and Korbin’s reaction to them. When we move away from Leeloo, the camera moves more, the shots come faster, the mise-en-scene is messier, and the sound changes from peaceful music to motion-driven sound effects, whereas the closer we get to Leeloo, the calmer all of these things become. Because of this, throughout the movie, Korbin is drawn to Leeloo, and in fact puts up with more frenzied action than usual in order to gain the happy romantic “clinch” at the end.

Quick Hit: The Stupidity of Stupak

November 9, 2009

Note: I have no idea when I last posted, nor when I’ll get the chance to again. Turns out I haven’t abandoned you all after all.

It’s all over the feminist blogosphere, and until I get the chance to clear my head (read: the PTSD-induced reactions subside and I can feel safe leaving my house again), here are a couple of You Must Read takedowns of what I like to call the “Throw the (Poor! Middle Class!) Women (of Color)! Under The Bus” Amendment to the “Health Care Not-Really-For-All” Bill.

Pilgrim Soul @ The Pursuit of Harpyness: You Can Put Down Your Champagne Now (a quick overview)

Cynematic @ MOMocrats: The Stu-Pitts of Congress, and Women’s Healthcare From the Waist Up (in depth discussion, with estimated effects if the bill passes)

Meteor Blades @ DailyKOS: 64 Democrats on the Wrong Side of Stupak-Pitts (a list of all Dems who voted for the amendment; a list with demographics and website links is here.)

I’m cutting this off here, sans commentary, because I literally feel like my head is going to explode with rage because YET AGAIN women are the first to vote for Democrats and the last people Dems in office give a shit about.