Sunday, 25 November 2012

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Game of Thrones: Learning to use "The Pointy End" As I noted in my first post about this course, one of the signal elements of high fantasy as a genre is the presence of a coming-of-age narrative, and Game of Thrones is clearly no exception. "The Pointy End," in fact, delivers three distinct moments in which a character is provided an opportunity to take a significant step in his or her maturation process. (It actually contains more than three, but only three of the characters take advantage of the opportunity provided and I want to focus on them.) We'll begin with Arya Stark, who as the episode opens is literally practicing at life: The balanced long shot employed by director Daniel Minihan has the effect of bringing a sense of calm to this fencing lesson. Arya and her instructor, Syrio Forel, are playing at combat in a manner as elegant as this shot is composed. Note that Arya moves between the third arch from frame-left, while Syrio strikes at her from the third arch from frame-right. If this is fighting, it is unlike the brutal art being performed outside this very room at this very point in time: This violence is sloppily composed, with the elements of the background functioning as mere backdrop to the slaughter before them. The characters rush into and out of focus as jagged edits push and pull the viewer from one point in the mise-en-scene to another seemingly without reason. I say "seemingly" because the disorientation is clearly the point. Not being able to tell who is and isn't on "the pointy end" is why Minihan cuts from the above to: To here only after this skirmish concludes. The Lannister guards have a dispatched a man who lies helpless, dying if not already dead, and Minihan makes his suffering seem insignificant by shooting it from a high angle with canted framing. The canted framing is important because it keeps the shot uncomfortable even after the initial confusion is resolved. ("So that is who was on the pointy end.") The deliberately awkward composition of the previous two frames and the frantic editing that transitioned one to the next leads to a clash not just between characters in the show but the formal elements of its direction. When the Lannister guards confront Syrio and Arya, the shot maintains most of its initial balance: It is slightly altered because the circumstances of the characters it had framed has altered. The fight that follows, then, will be between both the characters and their attendent compositions. Here, it seems as if Syrio and Arya have the upper hand: they occupy the center of the frame and the slightly low angle of framing makes them appear slightly more dominant than the figures in the background. (Who are the same height, relative to the frame, as Arya at this point.) This is Arya's moment—the point in her coming-of-age narrative in which she puts her training into practice—or it would be if not for the fact that ...you killed his father. Prepare...
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Black people can't swim In the summer of 1968, Charles Schulz—born today in 1922—decided not to take the path of least resistance. In the first months of the Presidential race, the politics of Peanuts were as inscrutable as ever: The political positions of the birds—one of whom Schulz would christen “Woodstock” two years later—are literally cryptic. (Snoopy later embraced of identity politics via a nifty collapse of signifier into signified, but let’s not lit-crit these panels quite yet.) For Schulz, the campaigns of Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace were less important than baseball: This dead-pan surrealism here is Peanuts at its artistic best, but at a time when America was at war and a segregationist was a viable Presidential candidate, dead-pan surrealism wasn’t the order of the day. So Schulz sent Charlie Brown to the beach: This strip’s a fairly typical example of Charlie Brown’s half-hearted exasperation with an unfair world. The next? Not only does the world cease its relentless, playful torment of Charlie Brown, but the boy who tamps it down is black and can swim. Because on 31 July 1968, Schulz introduced the world to Franklin. May not seem like much, but it’s as explicitly political as Peanuts ever ventures. Until, that is, 1 August 1968: The father of Franklin, the black boy who swims, is over in Vietnam. That second panel neatly illustrates how far Schulz strayed from his comfort zone. Charlie Brown’s father “was in a war, but [he doesn't] know which one.” That’s the extent to which contemporary politics typically intruded the most popular daily comic in America. But for some reason, Schulz felt the need to contradict conventional racist wisdom that summer. The racists responded in the manner befitting Wallace-backers: “I don’t mind you having a black character, but please don’t show them in school together.” It must’ve sucked to be a racist. Unless, that is, you’re a fan of Dennis the Menace: That’s from 13 May 1970, two years after Schulz quietly integrated public schools. There’s much to admire in the matter-of-factness of Schulz’s racial politics. Not only is there no meta- to it, there’s no mention of it—Franklin arrives, befriends Peppermint Patty, and plays football. (Re-posted in honor of Schulz’s birthday.)

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