Monday, 21 January 2013

Fellowship of the Ring: Conventions of Genre, Sorta Kinda Part the Second (Actual Part the First can be found here.) The answer to the question of why some films are more re-watchable than others seems, to me, a matter of unpredictability of shot selection. We can all watch episodes of Law & Order half-asleep because we all know that any close-up of one character's face will reverse to a close-up of his or her interlocutor's. (The possibility of deviating from the script-bible is basically asymptotic: the staleness of the formula makes it look increasingly likely but it can't ever actually happen.) And despite my general objections to Fellowship I'll admit that its iconic scenes are rightly remembered because Peter Jackson bucked his horror roots and embraced an unpredictability that verges on randomness. To wit, consider the scene-setting that preceded Gandalf's most infamous exclamation, which begins half-way through the mines of Moria with a close-up on Gandalf: Did I say "close-up"? I meant "extreme close-up," because Jackson's lopped off the top of his head. That might not seem so important, but consider it in more mundane terms, for example, if this were a picture you took of a friend at a party. How happy would your friend be with a photograph in which he'd been a "bit" beheaded? How would you feel about framing your friend's face such that it shared the spotlight with a few lines of mortar and some unfocused negative space? This shot feels wrong because it violates the conventions that makes Law & Order and the like such successful soporifics. It's an ugly and unbalanced shot, but I'd wager it's meant to discomfit, if only because Jackson's going to repeat it so frequently in the next three minutes that this is the last time I'm going to mention it. Just remember that it's wrong to borrow chunks of people's heads for rhetorical effect. From here Jackson cuts to Frodo: I'm not even going to say it, but you see it. The expectation here is three-fold: you assume that this shot's going to be followed by 1) an eye-line match, 2) a point of view shot, and 3) a reverse shot, and you're not disappointed: But because you assumed that this would be a reverse shot, you also assumed that you'd reverse back to your point of origin, Frodo, so that you could gauge his reaction to what you've just observed while cohabitating his head. Only: Jackson upset the implicit continuity of the reverse shot in order to make it more difficult for us to predict shot sequence. This might not seem like such a significant achievement, but that's only because you underestimate the power of convention. Imagine you're watching a medical procedural in which a doctor, in a medium close-up, addresses an ill patient and says "Blah blah blah kidney transplant." You'd expect a reverse shot of the patient, possibly in a close-up to better capture the pain of this revelation, but what if instead of that you were hitched into a roller coaster backwards and yanked thousands of...

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