The person who subtitled Alias is either brilliant or an idiot:
SYDNEY: WHERE IS THE ANECDOTE!
RUSSIAN SPY: THERE IS NO ANECDOTE!
SYDNEY: GIVE US THE ANECDOTE NOW!
RUSSIAN SPY: ALRIGHT! Alright, I'll tell you ...
It's like a spy novel written by old Jews.
Since I have two classes to devote to "Lord Snow," the third episode in the first season of Game of Thrones, I thought I'd divide them between the characters. In this post and the next we'll hie to the Wall with Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister; in the final one, we'll churn through the Dothraki Sea with Daenerys Targaryen. I'm pairing Jon and Tyrion not simply because of the odd bond they form on the way to the Wall, but because they present similar problems to director Brian Kirk: both must be built up, knocked down, and rebuilt. As you recall, in the first episode of the series Jon Snow's the victim of Catelyn Starks's redirected aggression: she can't stop Ned from taking Bran to an execution, but she can glower at her husband's bastard from above.
Then he decides to take a position in the Night's Watch, which means leaving Winterfell and joining his "black brothers" on the Wall. So lowly Jon Snow arrives at the Wall and finds himself a trained fighter among thieves and rapists and people who believe they deserve the nickname "Ser Piggy." In this lot, lowly Jon Snow isn't nearly so lowly. Director Kirk establishes that when in a prolonged training sequence early in the episode:
Everyone in this long shot is diminished by its dimensions: Ser Alliser Thorne, who likes Jon not one whit, is the closest to occupying frame-center, but the scale's so small that his figure can hardly be said to "dominate" the shot:
My patented yellow-line-technology demonstrates that frame center's about a foot above his head, but it also reveals something else about the Wall's intended scale: all of the sparring combatants are in the bottom triangle, and all of the spectators are in the the one on the right, which leaves the top and left triangles empty of people. (Note: I'm officiating the next two frames like a football ref with a sketchy understanding of what constitutes an offside position.) The compositional weight of the left and top frames seems to bear down on the tiny figure in bottom one, such that even the foremost among them, Alliser, cedes center-frame to a weathered baluster. All of which is only to say that, initially, Kirk continues shooting Jon with the same disdain that came from Catelyn's eyes. Until:
It's close enough for government work—which might cause those who have finished the novels to chuckle—but the basic point is that the purpose of this scene is for Alliser to break Jon, but that frame speaks to his inevitable failure. They each occupy the central position of their respective sides, but the importance of each is tempered by the unusally high level of framing:
As noted previously, unusally high levels of framing—by which I mean shots in which the characters who should occupy the entire vertical space in the frame don't—creates the impression that the world the characters occupy is pressing down on them. It communicates to the audience that the circumstances in the frame are, in this case, at least one-third as important as the characters who aren't even central to it. If I wanted to be really clever I'd skew the vertical line from the frame-before-last and claim that the most important element of this shot seems to be the baluster's weathered head:
But I won't, because the baluster's head being elevated is less important than Alliser and Jon's being humbled by the composition. Alliser considers himself Jon's superior, but the shot says otherwise. Alliser's words directly harken back to Snow and Catelyn's encounter in "Winter Is Coming," meaning the audience should remember that Jon's not the spitter but the spat upon. All of which adds up to Ser Alliser putting on airs and Jon being right about where he should be in the social scheme of things. At least until he begins to fight. He glowers to the left:
He owns those medium close-ups. He beats down every person from the bottom triangle above because he is the Big Man on the Wall. Or not:
Cutting away from the scene of Jon's successive victories to Mormont and Tyrion simultaneously accomplishes two things: first, it puts both Alliser and Jon back in the below-place, beneath the betters whose lowly subjects they are no matter how skillfully they fight; second, it places Jon beneath Tyrion in a manner that, again, reminds the audience of Catelyn's earlier disdain. Except unlike Catelyn, who has the luxury of despising her husband's bastard, there's no condescension in Tyrion's positioning. Is this because he's a "half-man"? (A term I use because it's what the novels and series do, not because I endorse it entering the common tongue.) I don't think so ... and I don't think so because that shot of Tyrion dominates him and Mormont as thoroughly as the earlier one oppressed Alliser and Jon. Feel free to draw your own yellow lines on it, but by now pointing out that the characters are off-center and that the spaces above and beneath them make this long shot feel longer than it is.
Which isn't to say the low angle of framing is unimportant: Mormont and Tyrion are supposed to appear superior to Alliser and Jon, but the scale of the shot indicates that "superior" is a relative term here because everyone is dwarfed by the wall.** In sum, this short scene re-establishes Jon's unimportance, establishes his potential significance, then re-re-establishes his unimportance as a function of everyone's insignificance compared to the Wall. "Everyone" is, of course, a group that includes Tyrion, whose building-ups and tearing-downs I'll cover tomorrow.
*The logic of this post and the next isn't entirely different from that of this one, about "Blackwater," except that I can't teach the "Blackwater" post because I'm working through the first season and it's in the second.
**No pun intended. I just couldn't bear to type the word "diminish" again.
Because every time our attention flags, this is what happens to the world:
For further reference, let me repeat what I wrote six years ago because I am old and write too much [and am "only" about 90 percent deaf so I lip-read but still listen to music]:
I want to talk to you about staring at women's breasts. I do it all the time. I'll be standing there talking to a woman only to be stricken by the sudden and irresistible urge to stare at her breasts. She'll register her discomfort by pulling her lapels close or yanking her plunging neckline chin-high. Then she'll become intensely interested in objects in the general vicinity of her feet. But I won't let that deter me. I'll continue to stare at her breasts until she won't be able to take it anymore and informs me in tones of suppressed outrage that she had some important elsewhere to be fifteen minutes ago. Then she'll never talk to me again.
Such is the experience of the deaf man in America today. When the eyes of a hearing man break contact and wander south, the obvious conclusion is the correct one: he is staring at her breasts and she is justifiably uncomfortable. When a deaf man who relies on verbal cues and lip-reading to converse lets his eyes drift south of his conversant's, he stops at her lips. (You can tell because if he didn't—that is, if he actually stared at her breasts—he would have no clue how to answer whatever it is she would have said to him while he indulged in some "covert" sexism.)
Why mention this in the one forum this commonplace of deaf life will never make anyone uncomfortable? Because I've acquired another rude habit:
Talking to people while wearing headphones. People who know me—for example, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barry Siegel—won't bat an eye when I talk to them with my headphones on because they'll know that I'm reading their lips and not paying attention to the music. They'll know that I'm so invested in the conversation that I've forgotten that I have the headphones on and have merely neglected to remove them. But other people—for example, the inimitable Gay Talese—will look at me horrified as I chat with Barry without removing my headphones. His eyes will rebel against the solipsistic impertinence of youth culture he detects in my actions.
I register his discomfort but, blinded by reputation and desperately trying to impress him, I won't understand what it is I've said that so offends him. I'll rifle my brain for the offensive statement the entire walk home and come up empty. Only later that night, as I force myself to stop thinking about the events of the day, will I realize what I've done. And then?
So much for sleep.
I apologize for the lack of posts lately, but since I sent in my absentee ballot, the election's lost a little luster for me. Turns out that voting ruins elections.
That said, look forward to much more on Game of Thrones from me in the near future. I've already written the posts, I just can't publish them yet because my students are on to the fact that I post my lesson plans before I teach them, which has resulted in a truly frightening situation in which they actually know everything I'm going to say before I say it. So I have to hold those back until after class on Tuesday. (Grumble stupid students being responsible grumble.)
But my students are still blogging, and they're producing all sorts of interesting material. I assign them 1,000 words a week, 500 of which I script for them via a prompt, the other 500 they're free to write whatever they want so long as it includes the course's critical vocabulary. Last week I covered the neuroscientific argument about frontality, the short version of which I discussed here, and now I have students who can't stop seeing faces everywhere. Including one particularly bright apple whose free post this week concerned Prometheus in a very interesting way. He began by noting that the film opens with an intelligent designer ceding its DNA to fertilize the Earth—the pun was intended in the original—and that the first scene in the film that includes humans opens thus:
See how sad that rock is? See? It's this sad:
Just tilt Mr. Intelligent Designer man about 35 degrees to the left and you'd have Mr. Sad Rock:
I'm not sure I buy this argument—and strongly suspect that I may have overplayed the frontality hand—but I can't help but admire the pluck of this close-reading, especially given the fact that stretched as it is, it does conform with the overall (and problematic) logic of the film, which is all about, as the audience is informed immediately after Mr. Sad Rock makes his appearance, the existence of "the same configuration" appearing across Earth and the universe. I informed my student that this was an impressively terrible argument—far too overdetermined to be correct—and he responded by saying I should put it out there for others to decide. I warned him about what happens on the wilds of the Internet, but given that he's taken legitimate points about frontality and merged them with a solid accounting of the film, he feels comfortable putting his theories out there.
So what do you think?
SEK: What are you doing?
YOUNG CHILD: Huntin' monsters.
SEK: Monsters? You see some?
YOUNG CHILD: On you.
SEK: On me? Where?
YOUNG CHILD: All over.
SEK: I have monst—
YOUNG CHILD: ALL OVER! ALL OVER! (runs away)
SEK: Of course I do.
Paul Ryan's committed to doing work that doesn't need to be done because someone has to do it. Or something:
Is there anything more odious than conservatives pretending to do the work of a class for which they don't care one whit in order to secure the votes of those who spit on the very people these conservatives are pretending to be?
Futzing around on Facebook last night, I had an idea—which turned into a very interesting thread—about teaching a class on “films that can’t be unseen.” My suggestions were Requiem for a Dream, Happiness and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but a number of horrifying suggestions followed, including: Dead Ringers, Oldboy, Irreversible, Dancer in the Dark, Blue Velvet, and Gummo, among others.
Obviously, this is a terrible idea for a class—or a fine way to find myself fired—but those of us not disturbed enough by the prospect of a Romney presidency need something to foreclose the possibility of ever sleeping again. So I wonder what would find its way onto your syllabus, were you to teach this course?
[Comments piling up at LGM.]
I caught the latest 30 Rock this afternoon and noticed something:
The guy in the midground is off-center:
This may seem like a blindingly obvious point, but one reason this shot is off-center is because the characters in it are off-kilter. The director, Robert Carlock, stages this shot in order to maximize the misdirection: Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) encourages viewers to follow an eyeline match left and somewhere north of his mother (Catherine O'Hara) before the camera gently racks the foreground out and the midground in to focus. The audience resets its eyes and sees nothing of interest until the movement of Kenneth's step-father (Bryan Cranston) attracts its attention, at which point an eyeline match again suggests viewers look left and somewhere north of his mother. Compelling the audience to bounce its eyes around this quickly within a sustained shot redoubles the manic impression the dialogue and narrative want to create. As I said, this point may seem obvious, but if you want to think about the difference between comedy and drama on a visual level, the scene above may be the perfect place to start.
Situational comedies are filmed in an unsettling manner in order to maximize the capacity for surprise. When the audience haphazardly spirits its attention across the frame, the director literally has more space with which to work:
Before the camera racks, our attention is in quadrant one; after the camera racks, our attention is again drawn to quadrant one. In this case the director has at least three other quadrants in which to introduce new and potentially humorous information. We could actually divide the screen much more finely by following Kenneth and his step-father's eyelines:
But the four quadrants suffice for now. We look there in quadrant one when Kenneth's in focus, recenter when the midground comes into focus, and then follow Kenneth's step-father's eyes back to quadrant one. The rest of the screen is primed for hilarity. I grant that posts about creating comedy are by definition unfunny, but there's a reason this particular shot spurred me to write this post: this person ... about whom I wrote an entire post concerning his staring.
In Breaking Bad the audience's eyes don't bounce around the scene from character to character in an attempt to ascertain the significant in-frame elements—they follow Walter White's in an attempt to understand some particular fact. The quiet dignity to Walter's unrelenting stare is partly a credit to Cranston and partly a credit to the plot, but it's also partly a credit to the directors of Breaking Bad, who know that creating shots that contain no quadrants capable of surprise results in a menacing atmosphere. Compare the shot above to this one:
I'll refrain from drawing yellow lines all over it because, unlike the shot above, the intended movement of our eyes is obvious. We center our eyes in the frame, move to Walter's face and then follow his eyes to the money pile. That's the only movement it makes sense to make. In the frame from 30 Rock, our eyes are encouraged to move quickly but not decisively. We're not asked to stare so much as follow. I created quadrants and drew lines to indicate the misdirection that enhances comedic direction—that the two eyeline matches bracket a racking focus is significant too—whereas in this frame from Breaking Bad no such embellishment is necessary because there's nothing to embellish. Your eyes move the way director Michelle MacLaren wants them to or you lose the plot.
*This entire post was inspired by the fact that the episode had been over for half-an-hour before I realized that'd been Bryan Cranston, so I started to think about why it was, formally, that I hadn't recognized him. (Outside of the obvious fact that I'm not that bright.)
When you debate competitively there are some issues you know not to address. There are others you know to better than to pursue. Then there are those that must be avoided at all costs—that must not even be mentioned lest your loss become an object lesson in unwitting self-immolation. Whether Ryan’s handlers wanted to watch him burn or Ryan was simply too stupid to recognize the brutal inefficacy of his anecdote matters less than the fact that he said it with his “honest face” to Joe Biden’s actual one:
RYAN: Mitt Romney’s a car guy. They keep misquoting him, but let me tell you about the Mitt Romney I know. This is a guy who I was talking to a family in Northborough, Massachusetts the other day, Sheryl and Mark Nixon. Their kids were hit in a car crash, four of them. Two of them, Rob and Reed, were paralyzed.
The one thing you don’t address—the one you know better than to pursue—the one that must be avoided at all costs—the one that must not even be mentioned in a debate with Joe Biden is a tragic car accident. The attempt to elicit sympathy for Romney by anecdotal proxy is a poor enough of a play. The decision to do so via an anecdote about a tragic car accident in a debate with Joe Biden means you’re either a sociopath or possessed of an idiocy of immeasurable power.
TECH PERSON: What happened here?
SEK: Don't know. Was like that when I got here.
TECH PERSON: (points at the clip still displayed on the wall) How'd that get up there then?
SEK: It was working at first.
TECH PERSON: At first? Before you got here?
SEK'S STUDENTS: (SIMULTANEOUSLY BURST INTO LAUGHTER)
SEK: (to no one and everyone) Almost done?
SEK'S STUDENTS: (WEEPING UNCONTROLLABLY)
TECH PERSON: (turning on the lights) All done.
SEK: Thank you. Now as for you lot ...
Typepad's been reluctant to let me post images and has been reshuffling them when it does. So this is a test. Because it's on the Internet it involves cat pictures. This should be a cat informing you that he can see dead people:
This should be a cat yowling the opening notes of "Immigrant Song":
When Typepad let me post on Monday it reshuffled the images about an hour after I posted, so that's how long this post will remain up. If all goes well it'll be replaced by one about Fellowship and Game of Thrones later this afternoon.
UPDATE: That obviously didn't work. If you're interested in the sausage-making, I'll just say that on the back-end, they're in the right order. They just won't display that way. Might not seem like a big deal with two images, but imagine it with twenty (which is my average per visual rhetoric post). And if you're wondering whether I'm complaining in public because I'm not entirely satisfied with the service I've received behind-the-scenes, well ...
I have one goal here: to define "high fantasy" as a genre through Fellowship of the Ring. There will no doubt be academic arguments about the particulars—the true extent of Tolkien's influence, for example, or the necessity of orcs—but I want to sketch out the basic generic qualities of high fantasy in a portable manner, i.e. one that will also apply to Game of Thrones. Meaning the most commonly argued generic feature to qualify as unnecessary baggage is this one:
Works of fantasy exist in a world utterly unrelated to the one in which we live and are therefore purely escapist.
Because, at the very least, whatever work I do with Fellowship also needs to apply to Game of Thrones. That and it's just wrong. Anything written by a human being in a particular historical moment belongs to that particular historical moment even if it depicts a different or invented historical moment. The rest of the generic features of high fantasy I want to pull from Fellowship via an immanent analysis of the film itself, and what better place to begin than with maps?
Maps are important because 1) sentences like "Go north until you hit Chicago and hook a left and you'll end up California" don't make intuitive sense in fantastic worlds, and 2) the most common plot elements in fantastic works, quests and wars, are map-driven affairs. You need to know who's where and in relation to what in an invented world, and that requires special attention be paid to maps. Though the visual presentation and manipulation of maps is prevalent in high fantasy—as is evidenced both above, viewing Peter Jackson's zooming around the map of Middle Earth, or in the opening credits of Games of Thrones—it should be noted that as a film convention, it predates high fantasy as a genre. (Spielberg's clearly referencing something here.) Another common element in high fantasy would be a token of power:
Like one of those. In the case of Fellowship, the ring functions as both a token and embodiment of power, whereas in Game of Thrones, the Iron Throne will merely be the token awarded to the winner of the game, but in both cases there's an item whose acquisition is certral to the plot. In Fellowship, Jackson establishes and maintains the significance of the ring by constantly zooming in on it. The frame above, for example, belongs to a sustained zoom:
That's Frodo at The Prancing Pony, but note the difference between the sustained zoom on Sauron's hand and the interrupted zoom on Frodo's fingers. Jackson's taking advantage of our implicit understanding of filmic convention when he zooms in on Sauron's hand: he knows that such zooms are sometimes intended to convey a thought process-in-process, so by sustaining the zoom it appears as if the ring itself is thinking. The edit from the extreme close-up of the ring to Frodo's face and back to an even more extreme close-up on the ring breaks up the continuity of the zoom, meaning the ring doesn't appear to be thinking so much as conversing with Frodo. It's asking Frodo to put it on, and from one shot to the next is becoming more insistence, hence the increasing extremity of the zoom. That's a literalization of the typically figurative allure of a token of power. Who falls victim to this allure?
Depends on what you mean by "victim." In one sense, the victims are a few singularly important people through whom the narrative will be focalized; in another, it's the anonymous hordes whose fates will be decided by which of those singularly important people acquire the token of power. For example, here's a singularly important person surrounded by his anonymous horde:
You can tell Elrond's important both because of the central framing and the difference in costume: it's not just that he's not wearing a helmet, but that not wearing a helmet makes his full face available to the audience. (See here for a preview of why that's important.) It goes without saying that in terms of genre it's the singularly important people who undertake quests and the anonymous hordes that go to war. It's also worth noting the color of Elrond and his anonymous hordes, which for historical reasons typically fight against anonymous hordes that look like this:
I'm not saying that dark skin and unconventional jewelry decisions necessarily indicate that a character in a high fantasy will be less-than-noble, but neither am I denying it. (There's a reason that conversations like this one happen, and about Peter Jackson, no less.) But more on that later, because at this point it would behoove us to unify the generic conventions I've identified as succinctly as possible:
High fantasy consists of narratives in which singularly important people go on quests for tokens of power in order to facilitate or forestall wars between anonymous hordes and all of that can be tracked on maps.
That seems like a fair assessment of the genre, as established in Fellowship, don't you think? If you don't, what essential features do you think I've missed?