Can be found here. It concerns "realism" in film, and how utterly awful the working definition of it is.
Can be found here. It concerns "realism" in film, and how utterly awful the working definition of it is.
I watched Man of Steel again yesterday, and all I can say is that on second-viewing, I'm impressed by Zak Synder's subtlety. He captured Superman's insectile origins quite superbly -- native Kryptonians fly aback demon dragonflies and travel the stars in space-beetles! -- and never once tried to compare this creation of two Jews writing at the advent of the Second World War to anything inappropriate:
I was also impressed by his integrity. During the hour-and-a-half-long climactic fight scene, Snyder could have gone for gore and showed the human toll of Superman's decision to move the fight from one heavily populated area to the next, but he never let you forget that the Real Victims™ are people too, my friends:
I mean, Zod was blinded by our Terran sun when he threw Superman into that 7-11's gas pumps. It was just an innocent bystander! Fortunately, Superman's here to avenge those pumps' deaths:
Zod will have none of it. "I'm stronger than you, a warrior bred," he tells the symbol of Truth, Justice and the Americans Who Matter, right before tossing him into one of our most sacred temples:
Now Superman's the one having none of it. "YOU CAN BREAK MY PANCAKES, BUT YOU CAN NEVER TAKE MY --
But before Superman can stop Zod from trolling the planet, a minion throws a U-Haul van that you can rent for $19.95 a day by calling 1-800-GO-U_HAUL at an army helicopter, so he can't worry about the broken pancakes, because he has a more important person to save:
JESUS CHRIST -- no pun intended -- are you an idiot? You already saved him. 7-11 is fine. What you mean he's still in danger?
I don't care how that shot's framed, Kal-El. She's about to literally shoot that man with eye-lasers. Where are your priorities?
THANK YOU DETECTIVE STABLER. Maybe we can grossly manipulate him into --
Did you just 9/11 Metropolis? WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU? Can't you save anything?
You've got to be fucking kidding me.
That's it, I'm done.
Last week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Isolation,” focused on who was with whom and the tightness of the quarters they shared, i.e. how isolated every single person in this episode wasn’t. The title of this week’s episode, “Indifference,” is equally ironic, because the entire episode is about inappropriately caring too much — whether it be Rick caring about Carol enough to banish her, or Daryl caring more about Bob the Alcoholic than he should’ve.
But that’s not what I want to discuss this week. Not because it’s insignificant, as it clearly isn’t, but because in visual terms, this episode is much more about what people do than who they are or what they feel. The episode announces as much in the opening shots:
The jump-cut from the medium shot of Rick bandaging his hand to the close-up of his hand while he’s bandaging it is Brock’s way of gesticulating wildly at this episode’s theme, which I’ll call “The Terrible Things We’ve Done With Our Hands.”
Before you object that every episode of The Walking Dead features many hand-oriented shots, since characters are constantly thwacking walkers through the head, let me assure you that I already know that. Brock’s shot selection in “Indifference” isn’t different in kind from other episodes, but in degree. Consider the second sequence with Rick before the introduction rolls…
A few weeks after the finale of Lost, Chad Post attempted to defend it by claiming that its nonsense was the stuff of art. “What’s interesting,” he argued, “is how these six seasons functioned as … a great work of art [that] leaves things open to interpretation, poses questions that go unanswered, creates patterns that are maybe meaningful.” I’m not interested in discussing the merits of the Lost finale – whether all of the “survivors” Oceanic 815 were dead the entire time or some of them were only dead most of time doesn’t matter, as they’re both the narrative equivalent of convincing a child you’ve stolen its nose: it only works because kid’s not equipped to know it doesn’t.
Defenders of the Lost finale, of course, have no such excuse and are instead forced, like Post, to recapitulate aesthetic theories they half-remember from high school – in this case, the quasi-New Critical theory that elevates the interpreter over the work of art. It’s the critic, after all, not the artist, who benefits from “leav[ing] things open to interpretation.”
The New Critic was an archeologist of ambiguity, teasing from every contradiction he encountered a paean to the antebellum South. They valued ambiguity as an aesthetic virtue because poems and novels that possessed it could be made to be about anything, which freed them to make statements like, when it came to great works of art, “all tend[ed] to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way.” And they did so by being ambiguous, which allowed the New Critics to say, without irony, that great works of art celebrated “the culture of the soil” in the South. This, dear reader, is the brand of literary and aesthetic theory you were likely taught in high school, and by its druthers, Breaking Bad‘s not even a work of art, much less a great one.*
In fact, by this standard, it’s quite possibly the least artful narrative in the history of American television, and because of this, it’s the first show that deserves the label “naturalist.” The naturalist novels of the early 20th Century were tendentious in the most base sense of the word: any tendency that appears in characters’ personality early in a book will, by its end, have metastasized into impulses so vast and deep you wonder why they even tried to repress them.
For example, in the first chapter of McTeague (1899), Frank Norris compares his titular character to a single-minded “draught horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient,” whose one “dream [was] to have projecting from the corner window [of his "Dental Parlors"] a huge gilded tooth, a molar with enormous prongs, something gorgeous and attractive.”
There’s your premise: McTeague is dumb and stubborn, especially in the service of his vanity. In the next chapter, when he tries to extract a tooth from the mouth of a patient he’s fallen in love with, it’s no surprise that “as she lay there, unconscious and helpless, very pretty [and] absolutely without defense … the animal in [McTeague] stirred and woke; the evil instincts that in him were so close to the surface leaped to life, shouting and clamoring.”
“No, by God! No, by God!” he shouts, then adds “No, by God! No, by God!” He tries not to sexually assault her, but fails, “kiss[ing] her, grossly, full on the mouth.” Moreover, his failure revealed that “the brute was there [and] from now on he would feel its presence continually; would feel it tugging at its chain, watching its opportunity.” When the woman, named Trina, wakes from the procedure, he proposes to her with the same stupid vehemence with which he tried not to assault her:
“Will you? Will you?” said McTeague. “Say, Miss Trina, will you?”
“What is it? What do you mean?” she cried, confusedly, her words muffled beneath the rubber.
“Will you?” repeated McTeague.
“No, no,” she cried, terrified. Then, as she exclaimed, “Oh, I am sick,” was suddenly taken with a fit of vomiting.
One of the most prominent features of naturalist prose, as you can see, is stupid, ineffective repetition in the face of adversity. McTeague can shout “No, by God!” as many times as he’d like, but he still assaults her, and no matter how many times Trina says “No, no” in response to his “Will you?” the only way this ends well for either of them is if she vomits all over his office. Given such favorable initial conditions, would it surprise you to learn that after she wins the lottery, he beats her to death? Or that the novel ends with him handcuffed to the dead body of his best friend, who he also beat to death, in Death Valley?
Because McTeague is a naturalist novel, it shouldn’t. The key phrase buried in the previous paragraph is “initial conditions,” because when you’re in the presence of a naturalist narrative, they’re all that matter.
By now, I’m sure it’s obvious how this relates to Breaking Bad: in a real sense, the second through fifth seasons mark the inevitable, inexorable consequences of what happens when someone with Walter White’s character flaws is put in the situation he’s put in. Like his forbear McTeague, he’s incapable of developing as a character: he can only more robustly embody the worst aspects of his fully-formed personality.
This is why, in naturalist novels and Breaking Bad, repetition is so significant: it’s only when provided with a reminder of where the narrative started that we’re able to recognize how much the central character hasn’t changed. Every time we see another visual echo from episodes past – and in the fifth season, they come fast and frequently – we’re reminded of how committed Walter is to his vision of himself as a heroic figure struggling against a universe determined to wrong him. Consider this shot from “Bit by a Dead Bee,” the third episode of the second season:
Walter is in his hospital bed after the shoot-out with Tuco in the desert, which happened after he had been missing for three days and, of course, which almost got his brother-in-law Hank killed. He’s also claiming that the cancer treatment ate the memory of the walkabout it sent him on. The difference between the man he is – one who’s capable of devising a cover story for his meth-related absence that involves playing cancer for sympathy – and the one he imagines himself to be: the one in the boat, about to leave his family alone, possibly defenseless, while he heroically sets out into the great unknown. The next time he sees that image, he’s in a motel room surrounded by white supremacists planning the coordinated execution of the remainder of Gus’s crew. The director of “Gliding Over All,” Michelle MacLaren, moves our eyes around the scene before settling on a convoluted long shot:
MacLaren is fond of shots in which you’re forced to follow eyelines around the frame in order to make sense of the scene, and like that banquet in the “Second Sons” episode of Game of Thrones, it’s only after you’ve done the work of following everyone’s eyes around the room that you realize that the most important element in the frame isn’t actually in the frame. Once you follow an eyeline to an uninteresting terminus, you move on to the next character, so if you start analyzing the frame from the center and track on action, you’ll move to Kenny stretching and follow his eyes (red) to the floor, then Frankie shuffles in place, so you look at him and follow his eyes (blue) to the table, but since that seems unpromising, Todd catches your attention when he shifts his weight, then you follow his eyes (green) to the bed, which means that McClaren’s direction has compelled you to move your eyes around the screen until you reach the area of the bed at which Todd’s staring, which is puts them right next to Walter, who has remained stock-still throughout. She didn’t need him to move or even speak to draw your attention to Walter, she’s done so by other means. Once she has you where she wants you, she has you follow his eyeline (yellow) to its terminus, which is off-frame.
Following eyelines to their rainbow’s end is a function of film that doesn’t necessarily pique our curiosity, but when we come to the end of our journey around the frame and the most significant character in it is staring at something off it, we desperately want to know what he’s looking at.** McClaren knows that we’ll be less interested in the frame when we find out what he’s staring at, so beginning with that long shot (14:43), she cuts to a medium close-up on Jack (15:06), a close-up on Kenny (15:10), a medium shot on Todd (15:13), an extreme close-up on Jack (15:17) that racks to a medium shot on Frankie (15:20) before reversing to the initial medium on Jack (15:23), then back to the initial medium close-up on Jack (15:24) before jumping to a clean medium on Frankie (15:28), then to a more extreme close-up on Jack taking a drag (15:29), then she moves back to the close-up on Kenny (15:31), then back to Jack (15:35), back to Kenny (15:39), and back to Jack (15:41) until finally returning to Walter (15:50), who is of course still staring at something off-frame. McClaren’s refused to provide us with the information we desire for more than a minute at this point, but it wasn’t a typical minute.
According to the Cinemetics database, the average shot length (ASL) in “Gliding Over All” is 5.8 seconds, but as you can see from above, after that initial 23-second-long shot of Jack, the scene has an ASL of 3.8 seconds.*** Lest you think I’m using the kind of “homer math” that leads sports reporters to write about how their team’s ace has the best in ERA in the league if you throw away the four starts in which he got rocked: I’m sequestering this bit of the scene and treating its ASL in isolation because we watch scenes sequentially and in context.
The shift in the pacing of editing created the impression that something really exciting was happening, but “four guys in a motel room talking about doing something exciting” actually qualifies as exciting; the other alternative is that the shot-frequency accelerated because McClaren was building up to something exciting, like the revelation of what Walter is staring at. The editing could be doubling down on the anticipation created by that intial long shot: as frustrating as it is to watch shot after shot fly by without learning what’s on that wall, the editing’s at least affirming our initial interest in it.
Or was, until she cut to the close-up of Walter staring at the painting (15:50), and because it’s a close-up of someone staring at something off-frame, you assume that the next shot will be an eyeline match, but no, MacLaren cuts back to Jack, who’s explaining to Walter how murdering ten people is “doable,” but murdering them within a two minute time-frame isn’t. In a typical shot/reverse shot situation, especially when it’s in the conversational mode as this one is, you expect the eyelines to meet at corresponding locations in successive frames. If Walter’s head is on the right side of the frame, and it is, you expect Jack to be looking to the left side of the frame in the reverse, and he does:
The sequence is off-putting because Walter’s violating cinematic convention in a way that makes us, as social animals, uncomfortable. On some fundamental level, the refusal to make eye contact is an affront to a person’s humanity, so even though Jack’s a white supremacist with a penchant for ultra-violence, we feel a little sorry for him. He is, after all, being ignored in favor of we-don’t-even-know-yet, but at least it’s something significant. MacLaren wouldn’t have put all this effort into stoking our interest in something of no consequence, but that doesn’t mean we’re thrilled when she cuts out to the initial long shot in which whatever-it-is remains off-frame, or when she cuts to an odd reverse on Walter, who asks “Where do you suppose these come from?”
How wonderful is that “these”? We’re finally going to learn what Walter’s been staring at, but even the dialogue is militating against our interest, providing us with the pronoun when all we want to see is the antecedent. MacLaren holds on Walter for one last agonizing beat before finally reversing to this image of the painting (16:09):
This reverse shot seems more conversational than the last – again, in a way that insults Jack’s essential humanity, or whatever passes for it among white supremacists – only now the conversation isn’t between Walter and any of the actual human beings sharing that motel room with him, it’s with himself.****
“I’ve seen this one before,” he informs the very people he just insulted. It’s not that he’s wrong – it is the same painting he saw after he ended up in the hospital, and the timing here is crucial. In “Bit by a Dead Bee,” his outlandish plan had just been successfully completed, so when he looked at the husband heroically rowing out to sea, nobly sacrificing himself for the family he’s left behind, he sympathetically identified with a man who shared his current plight, who had made a decision and was following through with it for the sake of those he loved. But in “Gliding Over All,” he sees the same painting before one of his outlandish plans has come to fruition, so now when he sympathizes with the husband heroically rowing out to sea, nobly sacrificing himself for the family he’s left behind, he identifies with him because they share a common fate, as both have to decide whether to continue with their foolishness or return to shore.*****
Astute readers may have noticed that I just wrote the same sentence with different words. That’s because I did. The only “development” Walter’s underwent from the first time he saw that painting to now is that he’s more fanatically committed to the image of himself as the hero sacrificing himself for his family. Every sacrifice he makes on his family’s behalf only makes him more of the same same kind of hero he’s always imagined himself to be.
The presence of this painting – as well as the other visual echoes, most obviously Walter’s birthday bacon – reminds us that it’s only been eleven months since the moment he first saw it, in November 2009, to the moment he sees it in “Gliding Over All,” in October 2010. Naturalist novels also focused on the rapidity with which can descend in the absence of a social safety net. McTeague’s life unravels astonishingly quickly once he loses his job: four months later he and Trina are living in squalor; a month after that, she moves into an elementary school; two months later, he murders her; two months after that, he’s chained to the body of a dead man in the middle of Death Valley. Because of the kind of person he is, this is how McTeague’s life had to end. Aaron Paul’s appearance in Saturday Night Live demonstrates just how much Breaking Bad shares this naturalist concern.
I could go on: the short stories and novels of Jack London were about the opportunities to be had in the wilderness, and the dangers associated with them. In his most famous story, “To Build a Fire,” there is a moment in the fourth paragraph when the nameless protagonist could have, and should have, turned back. Once he makes the decision not to, his fate is sealed, it just takes another 40,000 words to reach it. If there’s an art to enjoying a man struggle in vain against his inevitable doom, it’s been lost to us – or had been, until Breaking Bad, which demonstrated that there is an audience for naturalist narratives, bleak and unremitting though they may be. Moreover, the opening scene of the finale, “Felina,” almost seems like a combination of “To Build a Fire” and another famous naturalist story, Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I’m not saying I believe that Walter dreamed he took his revenge in the moments before he froze to death, but it’s not entirely implausible, especially if the series is considered in the light I’ve presented it here. (Norm MacDonald, of all people, has my back on this.)
The question remains, then, whether Breaking Bad qualifies as “art.” Literary naturalism’s reputation has faded since the 1930s because, in part, critics consider it more akin to an experiment than literature. Literature requires its characters to develop, to become “round,” as they used to say — whereas naturalists were like scientists who would rather take a personality type and stick it in fifteen different environments so they could observe its behavior. When you consider the conversations that followed George R.R. Martin’s comment about Walter being a bigger monster than anyone in Game of Thrones, you can see where that temptation comes from, and how powerful it is, three-thousand comments deep in discussions about whether White would’ve been more like Tywin Lanister or Roose Bolton.
So is Breaking Bad art? Of course it is. The absurd amount of detail included above isn’t meant to overwhelm, merely to acknowledge the level of artistry that went into demonstrating that Walter hasn’t grown. I would take it one step further and say that even if you don’t believe naturalist narratives can be considered “art,” Breaking Bad would still be art, because as much as critics focus on the show’s content, what separates it from most television is the manner in which it’s presented. Even if the plot itself were terrible, the manner in which it’s shot would elevate it to the status of art.
*The main reason New Criticism was adopted as a model was that, unlike the modes of historicism that preceded it, it was infinitely scalable. After the GI Bill was passed, even college and university faculty were worried that their students lacked the educational background required to write the kind of research papers they’d previously assigned, but anyone could be a New Critic: all you had to do was look at a poem and point out what didn’t make sense, because that’s what it a work of art. Within half a decade, the bug of student ignorance became a feature.
**If you were paying close attention when the scene opened, you would’ve noticed, since she opens with a medium shot of the painting, then pulling back and sweeping to the right. Like many scenes in Breaking Bad, this one is sequenced backwards, providing us with information before we can understand – or if you’ve seen “Bit by a Dead Bee” recently, remember – the significance of it.
***For the record: 4 seconds, 3 seconds, 4 seconds, 3 seconds, 3 seconds, 1 second, 4 seconds, 1 second, 2 seconds, 3 seconds, 4 seconds, 4 seconds, 2 seconds, 4 seconds, 4 seconds, 2 seconds, and finally 9 seconds.
****Before you wonder why I’m not just calling that an eyeline match, because it’s also one of those, keep in mind that not only has Walter been staring at it with a faraway look in his eyes for almost two-and-a-half minutes, he now appears to be asking it a question. Also, in a move seemingly designed to frustrate my former students, check out the examples the Yale Film Analysis site chooses for “eyeline match” and “shot/reverse shot.
*****The boat seems closer to shore than ship, after all, which only adds to the nobility of the man rowing it out to sea, because it’d be so much easier to just turn around.
I just read this awesome new article about Breaking Bad that said things like this:
The tone being set here is riddled first with uncertainty (“Where are we?”), then with pointlessness (“Who are these skaters?”), and potential hazard (“Why so fast?”), before finally answering the question the opening shot asked (“Why are we wherever ‘here’ is?”). Once Cranston moves to the crane shot of Walter White’s backyard, we’re able to place ourselves spatially and temporally.
We recognize the once meth-blue pool in which Pink Bear and Skyler White floated; we notice the absence of the Lily of the valley Walter used to poison Brock Cantillo; and we know that the second half of season five begins where the first half did: one year in the future, closer to Walter’s 52nd birthday than his 50th.
You should read its life-affirming affirmations of life, speaking of which:
Matt Zoller Seitz has an article on Vulture that helps answer a question many of you have asked me: "Where can I can find more stuff like the stuff you do?" Here's MSZ:
It’s customary to decry much TV writing, recaps especially, as plot summary plus snark; I’ve done it myself. But as television criticism has evolved, this catch-all insult has started to seem as lazy and out-of-touch as cinephiles writing off the whole of television as an idiot box.
Even those sites that adopt a lighter touch—such as previously.tv, the new site from Television Without Pity’s original founders—invest snark with imagination and a sense of play. Tara Ariano’s “Schraders vs. Whites” chart and Newsroom recaps, the “watch/skip index,” and “Ask the Experts” are all riffs, but not just riffs; the site’s a welcome reminder that most people watch TV because it’s fun. (Though they do get serious on occasion: see Sarah D. Bunting’s appreciation of Tony Soprano as a prototypical Jersey dad.) Pajiba’s Joanna Robinson does the most visually inventive recaps I’ve seen, using GIFs and screenshots as rimshots. At Lawyers, Guns and Money, Scott Eric Kaufman’s detailed breakdowns of composition and editing liven up the recap with a dash of film theory.
Look beyond the writers who churn out thousands of words a week, and you’ll find many insightful, sometimes powerful one-offs, such as Aura Bogado’s piece accusing Orange Is the New Black of being unthinkingly racist even as it strives to enlighten. Bogado’s target isn’t just the show, but the complacent white liberal point-of-view that dominates criticism in every field, not just TV.
Tom and Lorenzo’s style-oriented approach and Molly Lambert’s Grantland pieces—on Mad Men, especially—are a breed apart. They’re not recapping, exactly, and I don’t know if they’re reviewing or criticizing, either, but they’re definitely feeling and responding, and noticing, and at their best, they make art from art. Tom and Lorenzo’s coverage adopts an outside-in approach, looking at the clothes, architecture, colors, and textures, and then finding their way into the drama, but they do more straightforward criticism as well, and it’s often dazzling.
Yes, I see what I did there too. But soon I'll be able to provide another answer: "At The Onion AV Club's 'Internet Film School,'" which will be me. I'll provide a link when it goes live in the next week or two. In the meantime, enjoy the bounty of links MSZ provided. (I'm not saying there'll be a pop quiz, but neither am I saying there won't be.)
I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder or appear to be piling on, but one aspect of Hugo Schyzer’s “confession” strikes me as especially problematic, especially at a time in which the humanities are under assault from well-funded conservative forces: his claim of academic fraudulence.
He’s clearly not a fraud in the traditional sense, i.e. he didn’t falsify his credentials or publish papers on data he knew to be cooked. He claims that when he was in graduate school, “there was no such thing as porn studies,” so he lacked the credentials to teach it. Which, I suppose, is technically true. But he also claims to have “do[ne] the reading,” which in practice is all that’s required of scholars who work in a field that didn’t exist when they earned their doctorates.
The other “fraud” he believes he committed is that he spoke about feminism but “never published in any serious academic journal [because he] wanted to write for a popular audience.” Anyone familiar with the current state of academic journals knows about the incestuous nature of “blind” review: your name’s not on your submission, but if you’ve spoken at a conference or to another scholar in the field, you’re a known quantity. Your work whispers your name to the person who reviews it and that, as much as any independent factors, determines whether it’ll be published. (Why yes, I am that cynical.) But I haven’t come here to bury humanities journals—their “style” secures them a place in the deepest recesses of empty libraries—only to note that failure to publish in a discipline or subdiscipline doesn’t disqualify a person from teaching in it if they’ve done the reading. That’s all that’s required. If Schwyzer convinced his colleagues that he’d done the reading, he was qualified to teach a course in whatever it was he’d read.
Does this system require trust and lend itself to abuse? I suppose. But as someone who spent 13 years teaching at one of the best universities in the country, I can assure you that when you stand in front of a classroom of bright, motivated students you always feel like a fraud. You’ve never read enough, and you never will have. Your shelves will always be lined with books you should’ve already read. You feel like a fraud because you’ve only read thirty books on X, but your students consider you an authority for the very same reason.
Was I a hypocrite when I taught a literary journalism course after only having casually read Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and John McPhee? What if I told you I’d also had a subscription to The New Yorker for a decade? How much literary journalism did I need to read to be able to teach it? How familiar with its style and conventions did I need to be? I can’t answer those questions, so instead I’ll say what every teacher knows to be true: I wasn’t qualified to teach the material until I’d already taught it a few times.
That doesn’t make me a fraud—it makes me a teacher.
Here’s a hypothetical: an academic writes a dissertation about, say, evolutionary theory in fin de siècle American popular culture, but later starts reading and writing about a subject in which he’d received absolutely no graduate level training. Like, I don’t know, film theory. He reads the seminal texts, then writes about it online, for a popular audience instead of an academic one, for the better part of six years. Would this academic be qualified to open an “Internet Film School” at the Onion A.V. Club? Would he be a fraud if he did?
Steven Attewell and I decided that we didn't want to wait until next February to continue talking about Game of Thrones, and so we decided to start over. Here's our take on "Winter Is Coming," the serie's inaugural episode. I'm including links to the works I referenced and will have Steven do the same. Works SEK discusses:
Not wanting to spend the entirety of my life figuring out how to put the entirety of my life into boxes and move it across the country, I decided to watch the animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Directed by Jay Olivia and released in two parts in 2012 and 2013, it belongs to the Zack Snyder School of Literal Filmmaking, in which the idea is to replicate particularly stirring comic panels on the big screen by unwittingly mangling the elements that make them stirring.
Consider Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen. We don’t even need to venture past the opening credits to see where the film misses the point. But before we do that, I should note that I’m not complaining generally about a lack of faithfulness in adaptation. Comics and film are different media and ought to be treated as such. I don’t mind if changes are made that alter the narrative in an interesting fashion. But Snyder preaches fidelity as his ethos, so taken at his word, deviations from the comic in his films aren’t “interesting alterations” so much as the “necessary accommodations” of adapting any medium into another. These changes are being made by a lover of the source material who would never be unfaithful to the “spirit” of the original. For what it’s worth, I think Snyder’s dead honest about his commitment to accurately representing both individual panels and the “spirit” of the original work on screen — he simply happens to be terrible at doing so. Back to the opening minutes of Watchmen, in which Rorschach’s investigating the Comedian’s murder. Both the novel and the film begin with a close-up of the Comedian’s iconic image before pulling back to the skyscraper window from which it fell.
I’ve turned on the subtitles in order to make the difference between the novel and the film clear. Although both pull back to great heights, in the novel the emphasis during the slow transition from the ground floor to the Comedian’s apartment is on the content of Rorschach’s journal. You can tell because it occupies a little more than a third of the first three panels and the other visual information is merely repetitive. This isn’t necessarily the case when a camera zooms out — and readers of the novel recognize that there is relevant information in the third panel — but in this case seeing some anonymous man walk through the pool of blood isn’t necessarily useful information. (Readers might associate the anhedonic tone of the journal and the callousness with which the redheaded man walks through the pool of blood, but who among us was that clever at eleven?)
Point being: Snyder’s made the minor directorial decision to move the interior narration of the journal to when Rorschach actually appears:
Same lines from the first panel of the comic, they’ve just been shifted forward to remove the mystery of their author. There’s just one problem: in the film, the implication is that Rorschach’s thinking about the awfulness of the city when he discovers the Comedian’s badge. His behavior’s motivated by his disdain for the people he deigns to protect. His anger drives his actions in a very conventional manner: this man named, clearly identified as Rorschach, is a moralistic vigilante who prowls the streets at night preventing crime, picking up shit from sewer drains and inexplicably using grappling guns. He’s in a mood — the only one he ever has — and he happens to find something that sets him off again. Not so much in the novel:
Notice how quiet Moore and Gibbons’ panels are. By shifting the narration from the zoom out to Rorschach’s discovery of the Comedian’s pin, Snyder’s demonstrated that he fundamentally misread those three panels. The point of them — which will be made more strongly shortly — is to establish Rorschach’s skills as a detective. It’s too easy to turn a character of Rorschach’s pedigree into a mindless vigilante, which is why Moore and Gibbons use Watchmen‘s opening pages to establish his credentials as a detective. He finds evidence of the Comedian on the street; stares it down in attempt to ascertain where it came from; then decides it must have fallen. Only then does he look up at the building. It’s a slow and contemplative progression of panels that the film turns into an minor action sequence complete with “all the [drowning].” And of course once Rorschach arrives on scene:
He says nothing, because he’s investigating. He’s thinking his own thoughts about what he sees. If he had a Watson or a Wilson or a companion he’d be vigorously shushing them at this point because he needs to think. In the film?
He’s thinking that right there as he’s perched in the window. He’s not being an effective detective — he’s being a bitter blogger stuck doing something else but silently composing posts he’ll write when he gets the chance. Even though they made the juxtaposition of the journal clear when he first opened his mouth by having him “think-read” “Rorschach’s journal, October 12, 1985,” the manner in which Snyder uses the non-diegetic voice-over in the scene makes it appear to be a interior monologue, right down to the emphatic eighties-action-hero-overstatement of his final “No.”
It’s actually a little more complex than that. Interior monologues are typically considered to be non-diegetic — in that they don’t come from a source visible on-screen — but I’d argue that, in film generally, they’re diegetic inasmuch as they are coming from a visible source, e.g. I can see Rorschach’s head and think I’m hearing his thoughts as he’s having them. Which is why this is a little complex: he’s not actually thinking the thoughts the audience is attributing to him, unless he’s got an perfect recall and is reciting his journal to himself. In 1985. Or possibly later if this is a flashback. All of which is only to demonstrate how needlessly complicated Snyder’s made this scene in order to streamline it: now Rorschach’s journal is introduced while he arrives at the Comedian’s apartment. He thinks nothing’s lost by transposing Rorschach’s mad rantings onto his work as a detective. He’s wrong.
The point of keeping Rorschach’s journal distinct from his detective work in the opening pages is to create, in the mind of the audience, a distinction between the man and the mask. The man, Walter Kovacs, is a violent sociopath; the mask, Rorschach, can channel the man’s tendencies into productive policing and temper his violence. This distinction indicates that he’s going to be a character whose psychological state is difficult to read. It’s almost like people will see what they want to see in him because he’s wearing a fucking Rorschach test. By which I only mean to suggest that despite his fidelity to the panels, Synder’s missed the entire point of the scene in order to make it more conventional. That’s why his Rorschach says quite a bit more than Moore and Gibbon’s:
Rorschach’s “HUNH” and “EHH” are thinking noises of the sort people make when lost deep in thought. In the third panel, Rorschach recognizes that the size of the interior of the closet seems odd; in the fourth, he improvises a means of measuring the closet’s depth; in the fifth he measures the exterior; in the sixth he measures the interior. And Moore and Gibbons are clever enough to emphasize the crook in the hanger. It’s literally in the dead center of the fifth panel — meaning it’s in the dead center of a page scripted by Alan Moore and therefore quite important:
Only when he compares the location of the crook on the interior in panel six does Rorschach realize that there’s a secret compartment. These panels are evidence of a process of deduction at work. He’s more than a vigilante obsessed with a citizenry slipping into sin — he’s a proper detective who’s capable of improvisation in the course of his investigations. Or he opens a random closet, slides the clothes aside and sees a button:
Then he presses it. Great work there Detective Rorschach! Not sure how you thought of that! I think my point is obvious: Snyder may be faithful to the design elements of particular panels, but more often than not he entirely misreads the significance of the work he slavishly imitates. Now that I’ve established that, I can say that a similar dynamic is at work in The Dark Knight Returns: panels from the graphic novel appear on the screen in a manner that demonstrates the Olivia, the director, didn’t quite understand their import. Consider this action sequence in which the Batman runs across a tightrope from one building to another:
Is shot square in his symbol and staggers:
Begins to fall:
Then fires his grappling gun at an escaping helicopter:
This sequence seems like typical heat-of-the-moment Batman: expensive body armor and years of training allow him to routinely do the impossible. He doesn’t need to think — he’s a man of pure reaction. Even after all these years of not being the Batman — the word “Returns” is in the title for a reason — his instincts allow him to act unconsciously. Such is the impression created by the adaptation. One problem: although that last capture above does reproduce an iconic silent splash page, the rest of those panels should sound, via interior monologue, like this:
Whereas with Rorschach there should’ve been no interior monologue, in The Dark Knight Returns there should have been. The point of the book is that Batman’s falling off buildings worried about having a heart attack and trying to console himself on the dignity of his impending death. Those are very un-Batman-like things to be thinking in the middle of a fight. Eliminating the interior monologue has reduced him to his body — which I grant is the point of many a Batman story, e.g. Bruce Wayne escaping the vaguely Asian pit in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s just not the point of this one. It’s the opposite of the point. But as with Synder, the desire to be faithful to the original work has resulted in something utterly different and more mundane. I led with the discussion of Rorschach because I don’t want people to assume that I’m making the common criticism that comics handle interiority better than film because we can “see” people think in them. That’s not the point — especially not with a Frank Miller book, since the tone of the interior monologue comes straight from film noir’s tradition of voice-overs — which, of course, comes from the first person perspective of the detective novels on which they were based, but that’s not the point either. The point here is that the films of two of the greatest graphic novels of the 1980s are both significantly worse than they have to be because they were adapted by people who fundamentally didn’t understand how they worked.
They’re the equivalent of a parrot trained to greet visitors with a hearty “Hello! Good to see you!” It doesn’t have a fucking clue what it’s saying but somehow we’re convinced we hear language.
(Yes, yes, this is yet another one of those visual rhetoric posts.)
Midway through Don Draper's life journey, he strayed from the path and found himself in a dark wood:
I know that doesn't look much like a dark wood—and the idea that Draper somehow just started his midlife crisis is rather far-fetched—but this is what writer Matthew Weiner and director Scott Hornbacher wanted the audience to be looking at while Draper read the opening lines of the infamous beach book that is Dante's Inferno. Of note is the fact that Don is just beginning the book, and the only evidence that he's finished it is that, when asked by its owner, he replies "It made me think of you." Which means that in all likelihood he didn't read it, and so what follows has less to do with Dante's actual poem and more with what it stands for in this scene, i.e. an epic midlife crisis written in terza rima that no man in recorded history has ever read on a beach. The juxtaposition of Dante's meditative lines and Megan's taut stomach signals the insincerity of Draper's reading. The last time the audience directly occupied Don's head, after all, is when he composed his anti-tobacco letter, an effective but utterly insincere and ultimately petulant rebuke to a suitor who'd already rejected him. But he's trying, for whatever reason and however insincerely, to come to terms with the state of his soul.
While on an all-expense paid trip to Hawaii. How well is it going for him? He attends the Sheraton's approximation of a luau:
And seems unsatisfied with it:
Catching him in a medium close-up with a fuzzy couple in the foreground and fuzzier G.I. in the background is significant because the camera is calling attention to Don in a crowd—a crowd comprised of happy people busy enjoying this simulation of a traditional Hawaiian festival in a way that he can't. It's not because he's unmoored from culture or that he doesn't want to enjoy the proceedings; he feels the absence of something acute here, which ironically enough presents itself, visually, as being the only sole subject in focus. His pain is more real than the joy of the fuzzy faceless crowd to which he belongs—but thinks himself better than. Love, after all, is a feeling invented by guys like him to sell nylons. The folks at this luau are just stupid enough to feel it. So what does someone who can't muster fake emotions at a simulated celebration of nothing in particular do?
He drinks. But he doesn't just drink anywhere, no, he drinks immediately before a painting of what is, presumably, an actual version of same ceremony he just witnessed. It's still mediated, only this time by art instead of commerce; and it's still unsatisfying, because he's not even looking at it. It clearly exists, dominating the central area of the frame as it does, but it almost seems to be shaming him, almost as if he can't make eye-contact with it without being reminded of his inability to feel the emotions he evokes in others via mediations like this one. Don seems to have lost the ability to feel anything other than drunk, and with this anhedonia comes an inability to even appreciate artifice for its own sake, a skill that's not merely critical to his profession, but the one that sets him apart from others in it. (But more on that later.)
As those of you who've been reading these for a while no doubt already noticed, this shot is extremely unbalanced. Don occupies frame-left in a way that begs for something to occupy frame-right to balance it out, and who better to occupy it than a fellow military man? They bond over military issue lighters and the groom-to-be joins Don for a drink, thereby balancing out the shot in a way that suggests that Don's balancing himself out:
Only no. Even when the groom-to-be joins him, his blacked-out best man tilts the frame in the other direction, with a compositional element on the right that vainly demands a similar one on the left. The reasons for this are complicated: like Don, Private First Class Dinkins has tangled up war and marriage in an unconventional way. P.F.C. Dinkins wants to ensure that his wife acquires American citizenship before he returns to Vietnam and (possibly) meets a terrible end; in short, he's using his war as an excuse to legitimize her identity, as opposed to Don, who used his war to acquire an illegitimate identity. Who is Dick Whitman to commune with such a soldier, much less the woman marrying him to acquire, through legal means, an identity?
He's the man to give her away, that's who he is. I'm not even going to try to unravel the ironies evident in this shot here. I'm not going to point out that he abandoned his wife all night to give another woman away in marriage; or that Dick Whitman is helping a Mexican immigrant acquire an identity he doesn't have; or that the painting Draper and Dinkins decided to do this before is of a wedding ceremony that failed to move Draper in the least; or any of the other ironies compounded in this simple long shot of some people getting married on the beach. Instead, I'm going to point out that Don is no more moved here than he will be later, when he sees this image again through one of Megan's photographs:
Don's inability to be moved by this image of himself being unmoved during a ceremony that replicates, in life, the subject of a painting that also failed to move him is even more significant because of how it's being displayed:
That's a Kodak Carousel, which as you remember from "The Wheel," is a machine that produces nostalgia, that "twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone." Except here, Don feels no twinge. Despite his old wounds, some of the most significant of which come from this exact same sort of intermingling of love and war and identity, Don feels no pain. His moving and dramatic speech in "The Wheel" betrays him, as this episode isn't about Dantean self-reflection so much as fleeing. What is Don fleeing?
The nothing that he can't seem to escape but which has incapacitated him. When he pitches to Sheraton near the end of the episode, he's a hollow shell of the man who sold Kodak on selling not just memories, but the emotions they necessarily evoke; because whatever necessity tied him to his emotions has been severed by something. What?
Nothing, as in, the Big Nothing.
Don's struggle to understand Lane's suicide, which initially manifested itself as guilt-by-hallucination, has been replaced with nothing. Neither life nor its many imitations, be they painted or projected, can move him, because he's nothing so much as a member of the title of the show whose time-slot Mad Men took: The Walking Dead. In the Sheraton pitch, he desperately tries to make art imitate life in a meaningful fashion. Here's his bedroom floor the night before:
Here's his pitch:
As the Sheraton executives bluntly inform Don, this guy? The one who made the footprints? He's dead. From their perspective—and this is, literally, from their perspective—this man who walked into the ocean believes he has nothing to live for. Don's examination of this board after they leave is heartbreaking in its cluelessness:
He simply doesn't see it. He feels it—or more accurately, he doesn't—but he doesn't know what it isn't is. He doesn't know what's missing. The medium close-up here emphasizes that instead of the emotional response he had to his Kodak pitch, Don's intellectualizing everything. He's thinking instead of feeling, and the result is unambiguously inappropriate art accompanying suicidal copy. When he tells Dr. Rosen earlier in the episode that he doesn't want to compare what he does, advertising, to what Dr. Rosen does, doctoring, it's partly because you have to want to live to care enough to save someone else's life.
Don clearly doesn't.
About which more tomorrow.
All images in this post are used for educational purposes and are the exclusive property of Lionsgate Entertainment and AMC Network Entertainment.
(It goes without saying that this is one those visual rhetoric posts.)
The title of the third season premier of Game of Thrones comes from the traditional Braavosi exchange: one meets the chipper greeting, "Valar Morghulis [all men must die]" with the equally cheery response, "Valar Dohaeris [all men must serve]." Given that the last episode of the second season was named "Valar Morghulis" and the first episode of the third season is "Valar Dohaeris," it seems sensible to consider these two episodes together because they are, if only ritually, conversing with each other. What are they saying? "Valar Morghulis" would be saying "I may not be a liar, but I'm not telling the whole truth," because the episode's final shots demonstrate that all men must die except for the ones that don't stay dead:
Combine that with the man who was Jaqen H'ghar becoming another man after advising Arya and it becomes clear that the certitude of the Braavosi greeting is a comforting ruse. All men must not be anything—not absolutely—if they can also be both one thing and another. What can change its face isn't a man and what can't stay dead can't be trusted. Meaning I'm not sure how much I want to invest in "Valar Morghulis" as a title tied to its theme; in "Valar Dohaeris," however, the theme that "all men must serve" manifests repeatedly, beginning with the opening sequence. This sequence ties the two episodes together almost comically, as the change in scale from the first two close-ups (from "Valar Morghulis") to the extreme long-shot (from "Valar Dohaeris") resembles the kind of fear-realizing and mad-scrambling often found in cartoons:
Sam Tarly's service is twofold here: first, his general service as a man of the Night's Watch; second, his particular service as a member of a scouting party, which was to tend to and dispatch distress-ravens. That he failed to do so during his epic flight from the White Walker only indicates that he failed to meet the terms of his service, not that he escaped the responsibility of serving altogether. The episode's director, Daniel Minahan, could have foregrounded the humiliation written on Sam's face when his Lord Commander upbraids him by using a close-up, which would've captured every mortified muscle trying not to twitch with shame; instead, Minahan decided to shoot Sam in a medium close-up with his Lord Commander in an off-center two-shot that suggests both the bonds these two share and the precariousness of their situation:
But it is not just these two, bound by service though they may be, who are in a tight spot. The reverse to the long shot—which is even more unbalanced than the one from which it reverses—heightens Sam's humiliation by including the presence of everyone he failed to serve:
Point being, the opening sequence strongly suggests that service (and its terms) will be a thematic element of this episode in a way that death (in its finality) was not in "Valar Morghulis." In truth, saying that service "strongly suggests" itself as a theme is an understatement so grave as to almost be a lie: from Jon Snow and Ser Barristan pledging their respective fealty to Mance Rayder and Daenerys, to Tyrion and Davos bemoaning their father and father-figure's reluctance to recognize their commitment to the cause, and did I mention the Unsullied? The elite band of warrior-eunuchs who have been on their feet for nearly two days just waiting for someone to slice off their nipples? These are examples of the meaning of "service" to which the phrase "Valar Dohaeris" conventionally applies, so connecting the visual rhetoric to iterations of this theme would be a bore.
More interesting is the visual pun on another meaning of the word "serve" that worms its way into the episode. Consider the scene in which Cersei comes to talk to Tyrion, who is still convalescing in his new quarters. Tyrion hears her knock, pulls a stool to the door and greets his sister through the bars:
And yet Minahan chooses to shot both through the bars. The tightness of the framing on Tyrion makes him seem the more imprisoned one, because this shot is, debatably, from Cersei's point-of-view. Despite having an entire door to look at, she focuses her attention (via the camera's close-up) on the one section of the door that emphasizes the bars between her and her brother. (She could just look at the door, after all.) The reverse shot from Cersei, however, isn't even debatable: it's clearly a point-of-view shot from Tyrion's perspective. He's looking at his sister as if he is serving time, and and for what? For successfully defending King's Landing at Blackwater? Tywin will answer those questions later, but for the moment I want to focus on Minahan's decision to imprison, visually at the very least, members of the Lannister family. Because they aren't serving—they're serving time.
It's not just Cersei and Tyrion who find themselves behind or speaking between bars. When Joffrey and his newly betrothed, Margaery Tyrell, venture into the city, here is the perspective the young king has of his subjects:
This medium shot is almost too precious. Look at little King Joffrey peeping at his bride-to-be through the bars of his processional. He doesn't occupy the center of the shot, nor does his tiny blue carriage, the size of which suggests that peeking out requires he kneel before his subjects. The bars quadrisect his face into a giant ear, an eyeball, another eyeball, and another giant ear.:
He's less of a person than an assemblage of odd-looking sense-organs seemingly on display for all and sundry. He may think he looks regal as he jealously peers out the rear of his cage, but Minahan's framing suggests that Joffrey misunderstands what's meant by "the trappings" of royalty here. Who is free to move as they please and who is serving time in a gilded hot box?
Which brings me to my point: what do all of these characters have in common? They're all serving time in Tywin Lannister's royal scheme. Much as you admire Tyrion or detest Cersei and Joffrey, this episode erases all doubts about who has agency in the House Lannister: it's Tywin and Tywin alone. His children and grandchildren are pawns imprisoned by the moves Tywin plays. Just look at the poor bastards.
But maybe it's a coincidence that the Lannister brood is shot in a manner suggestive of imprisonment, and maybe other characters with claims to the throne are also shot in a similar fashion. It would be nice if Minahan provided some sort of direct reference for the sake of comparison. Maybe something like this?
In both shots, a claimant to the throne is surrounded by a repetitive vertical element that meets slightly to the right of frame-center. By structuring the shots the same, Minahan invites the audience to pay attention to the differences: Joffrey's vertical elements terminate at hard wooden walls and ceiling, creating a claustrophobic effect amplified by his retracted posturing, as if he wished there were more wall for him to cower before; Dany's vertical elements extend into open sky, and she stands with her dragon before her and her friends beside her, resulting in a shot as expansive as Joffrey's is confining. Same structure, similarly stationed subjects, but these shots convey vastly different messages about the "service" required by the throne.
I'm watching the BBC documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, and you can too, for free:
It's interesting more for the historical anecdotes than the Nancy Grace-style murder-narrative at its core—and I say that before reaching the point where they'll talk about Spector threatening Leonard Cohen, Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan with a crossbow over the final mix of "Don't Go Home With Your Hard-on. For example, the notion that Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro's careers could have killed by an injunction, and that only special pleading by John Lennon saved them intrigues me as a film scholar (40:40). But even more interesting is Spector's discussion of "Be My Baby," Brian Wilson and an "edit record" (44:28), which for him means a song that suffers because its seams are showing. "Good Vibrations" isn't a good song because it's
got a lot of edits in it, like Pyscho, which is a great film, but an "edit film." Without edits, it's not a film. With edits, it's a great film. But it's not Rebecca, it's not a great story the way Alfred Hitchcock could make a great story.
I suppose this would make Rope Spector's favorite Hitchcock film, what with all its invisible edits—or maybe that would make Rope Spector's least favorite Hitchcock film, being that it'd be his most dishonest. Which is another way of saying that Spector seems to believe that a work in which a professional can ascertain the hand of an auteur is less valuable than one in which an amateur can. Because anyone can see the edits in Psycho, whereas it takes a trained eye to find them in Rope. At least that's how I'm reading Spector's aesthetic philosophy here: Wilson's production of "Good Vibrations" is lacking because Spector can hear tracks end or overlap that the average person can't. Except that doesn't make any sense, because he's basically arguing for his own insignificance, i.e. the greatest artists are the ones whose labor is imperceptible to the audience.
But this criteria strikes me as counterproductive if you're trying to claim that producers are artists. Just consider this excellent video about the production of The Beach Boy's "Sloop John B." I've queued it up to where Wilson's editorial oversight becomes evident instrument-by-instrument, and I'll admit that it's clearly a highly edited song, but why would that make it less interesting to a producer than one like "Be My Baby," which was recorded in a take, pumped into an echo chamber and transmitted into a studio? Spector seems to be arguing at cross-purposes here, fetishizing the act of capturing a sound in a moment instead of valuing the artistry required to combine various sources in order to match some ideal a composer only hears in his head. To muddy the waters further by introducing another medium, this seems like the equivalent of valuing Dubliners over Ulysses because the artistry is more evident in the latter than the former even though it abounds in both.
This may be one of those simple matters that only confuse me because I've studied aesthetic theory—only the learned can be so easily confounded—but I'm having a difficult time understanding what Spector means here. Because he seems to be saying that the best producers are really just building Rube Goldberg machines and recording the results, but that can't be right, can it?
The choice to go from 24 fps to 48 fps was that some filmmakers really hated the strobing effect when the camera pans in 3-D versions of movies. Their solution was to up the frame rate—giving the filmmaker more information to play around with. Honestly, the 24 fps strobing never bothered me, cause if you are telling your story right, little nitpicks like the don’t enter the mind of your audience.
For reasons unclear even to me, I responded to his gentle correction with A Brief and Inadequate History of Special Effects:
I didn’t want to get too technical in the podcast, but I was hinting at that: 3-D created a problem that didn’t previously exist, and the solution is worse than the original problem. No more strobing, but now the effects are so obviously “special” that we may as well be watching the original Clash of the Titans. An incredible film, don’t get me wrong, it just required a superhuman suspension of disbelief. Which at the time was fine, because “special effects” like George Reeves flashing across the sky were meant to be “special,” outside of the ordinary, and didn’t need to look as if they were of this world or obeyed its laws of physics.
I tend to think George Lucas ruined this fantastical acceptance of the specialness of “special” effects when he married recognizably modernist styles with space stations and star ships—the Millennium Falcon could’ve been a Le Corbusier, the stormtroopers come from the mind of an Italian fascist, and half the scenery consisted of the same brutalist style that litters my campus. Point being, his realist aesthetic made “special” effects look quaint, the people who loved them rubes, and that’s where we’ve been ever since. Realism or naught! Realism or naught! (With a few exceptions, Del Toro notably among them.)
So I could understand why Jackson wanted The Hobbit to accede to the demands of the regnant style, but in doing so he utterly ruined his film. I mentioned in the podcast that the best scene in the film, Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum, looked like exactly what it was: Martin Freeman in front of a green screen talking to a man in ping-pong ball covered suit. (I know that’s not how they do it anymore but you know what I mean.) It looked like Jackson had decided to avoid the uncanny valley by introducing its monstrous child to an actual human being and hoping the audience wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. I’m not going to say it made me want to cry, but I’m not going to deny I teared up a bit at the sheer waste of it all.
Like you, I’m more interested in the story, so if the technological advances can be integrated into it—like the conference tables in Avatar—I’m fine with that because it complements the narrative. But I don’t even think we need 3-D. It took us millions of years to develop the particular sort of stereoscopic vision we have, and our brains react to an “occupied periphery” the same way now as they did before: by flooding our bodies with hormones that make us nervous, tense, excited, afraid, etc. Since our eyes still point forward, you don’t need anything more fancy than an IMAX to occupy our peripheries, and I’m fine with that.
I thought I was talking about special effects and their more cloyingly “special” forbears, but the real sore spot for me here is the blind lionization of a limited definition of “realism.” Don’t misunderstand me: I find relocating fantastic narratives to a world that resembles ours an admirable endeavor. Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the “Joker” outstrips Jack Nicholson’s because we don’t need a vat of quasi-mystical chemical slurry to believe that a child of neglect and poverty might come to resent those he believes kicked him down to choke him out. I’m all for grounding narratives that occur in fictional worlds in ones that mostly obey the rules of ours. I’m on board with Battlestar Galactica and (though I’ll never admit it) I even watch Arrow. But the “reality” of “realism” has to amount to more than a little extra grease smeared on the walls of some backlot “Brooklyn.” Because when “competitive realism” becomes a sport the audience always loses. Embracing filth for love of the slop as an ethos would be one thing, but embracing it as an aesthetic out of devotion to an empty notion of what constitutes “realism” is more than just a thing:
Earlier in the quarter, I introduced my students to the anything-that's-longer-than-it-is-wide mode of psychoanalytic criticism. Not very sophisticated, I know, but it helps explain the historical context of certain rhetorical tropes.* Given that this class is based on Game of Thrones, the discussion inevitably landed on the subject of swords as phallic symbols, and I noted that while there's nothing necessary or natural about that connection, it is one of long-standing and therefore might have influenced how George R.R. Martin employed them in his narrative. Which the students took to mean "SWORDS EQUAL PENISES," a not altogether unfortunate development given how the Arya and Needle string undermines conventional gender assumptions. It did, however, make teaching the ninth episode, "Baelor," a little difficult. The episode opens with Lord Commander Mormont gifting a sword, Longclaw, meant for his son, Jorah Mormont, to Jon Snow. Snow proceeds down the stairs and is immediately accosted by his Wall-fellows:
Even skipping over the scene in which Daenerys demands that the previously de-sworded Jorah Mormount draw his sword for her, it's clear that this episode is very much about swords. Remember how it ends?
There you go. The point of all this is that anyone analyzing this episode needs to account for its economy of swords: they're distributed, re-distributed, lost, stolen, and finally wielded by a masked man at a sham of an execution. This execution, by the by, neatly parallels the scene in the first episode in a manner that highlights their differences: in both instances a man is being executed, only in "Baelor" the beheader has become the beheadee, the trial isn't just, and the Stark child witnessing it is commanded not to look.
So, as I was saying, swords! Swords! Swords! Swords!
*As an example of psychoanalytic criticism, I use an explication of The Castle circa 1950, in which the tall lanky K. and his short round assistants, Artur and Jeremias, are reduced to the walking-talking male genitalia Kafka clearly intended them to be.
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
My close-reading instincts typically compel me to focus on scenes more than structure, and that's not necessarily a good thing. So let's talk about structure from the point of view of someone who went to film school before the advent of DVDs and Netflix, by which I mean before we could finish one episode and jet right into the next. Traditional dramatic structure in serial narratives involves table-setting and brain-burning. In "You Win or You Die," here's how the table's set:
Jaime Lannister enters the tent of his father, Tywin, but he does so out of focus and in the midground. In the foreground, shot in shallow focus, is a big dead stag-looking beast, which creates a connection in our heads between whatever it is Jaime's talking about and big dead beasts. (That stags are affiliated with House Baratheon isn't immaterial either. Especially when you consider that when introduced to Tywin, he's elbow deep in a dead stag, suggesting his role in Baratheon's demise.) This is significant because it's not just that beast is big and dead—as we're fine with that when such heads are hung on walls—but that it's in the process of being broken down:
As everyone knows, if you want to make the majority of Americans uncomfortable, ask them where their meat comes from. Tell them that it wasn't born shrink-wrapped on a styrofoam plate and that it had a sad face when it was dispatched. Point out that the meat department in their favorite grocery store is a literal wall of death befitting of a serial killer's trophy closet. Or not. You don't have to do that: seeing Tywin going to town on that beast has already made them uncomfortable enough. The writers and directors know this, which is why they shot this conversation, which could have occurred anywhere, in a room in which Tywin Lannister was butchering his kill. Moreover, it's significant that Twyin is butchering the beast himself, because as is noted in the "Prologue," being suckled at your mother's teat is a sign of being low-born, so surely he someone in his employ who could butcher this beast for him. The fact that he's doing it himself is somewhat admirable, in that hunterly way, but it also suggests that he enjoys it, i.e. he enjoys doing something that the majority of Americans can't even bear thinking about, which makes them dislike him.
Not that they didn't already, mind you, because the show has long since marshaled our sympathies against the Lannisters, but this is the opening scene in the episode—the lens through which all the events that occur in it will be seen. And there's a lot going on there. There's not just the beast on the table, there's the deliberate arrangement of dialogue and imagery, e.g.
In 1993, the American Family Association convinced 57 ABC affiliates not to air the series premier of NYPD Blue because it contained the word "asshole." A few years later, many conservative groups called for a boycott of the show when news that Dennis Franz's ass would be shown in an episode. Which isn't to say that the '90s were a quaint time in which profanity and pornography only existed on the cultural margins, only that there existed a consensus among network television producers to behave as if they did. Television audiences in the '90s weren't shocked by the profane or pornographic content, only that it was appearing on networks during primetime—but they were shocked, as the producers of NYPD Blue intended them to be.
And it was a superficially quainter time: the ability to be shocked by hearing a character curse is completely lost on people whose knowledge of televisual culture can be characterized as post-September 11th. I know because I teach them. Here's the thing: in order to shock people whose baseline includes all the colors of George Carlin's rainbow something more extreme must be endeavored. Something like Deadwood. I brought up that sentence in class on Thursday and read it aloud:
Ellsworth: I’ll tell you what: I may have fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker.
After discussing its literary quality for a moment, I asked them why their jaded faces had blanched when I read it. The answer, in the end, is because David Milch, who'd outraged audiences in the '90s with "assholes" and asses on NYPD Blue had found a way to reinvest profanity with its ability to shock. How? When South Park reveled in "shit" in 2001, it became clear that repeating a word robs it of its offensive intent. So Milch went literal: the phrase "hammered shit" offends not because of the presence of the word "shit," but because "shit" actually signifies shit, and the image of what happens when someone hammers actual shit is disturbing.
Then he introduced an implicit comparison: "human cocksucker." Ellsworth is "beholden to no human cocksucker," a qualification with disturbing implications: is he beholden to an inhuman cocksucker? What is an inhuman cocksucker? Why are we even talking about human versus inhuman cocksuckers? The answer to that last one is easy: because David Milch planted that thought in our heads. We didn't want it there—we would rather have never had to think about it—but it can't be unthought anymore than certain images can be unseen. Milch recuperated profanity for a generation whose ears would otherwise be dead to it.
A similar dynamic is at work in Game of Thrones, only this time it relates to the pornographic instead of the profane. Contemporary culture is steeped in pornography: if someone traveled back to 1996 with an episode of Jersey Shore they might be arrested for transporting it across state lines, but if they actually managed to air it? The amount of incidental nudity in a single episode of Jersey Shore would drop jaws and make eyes bleed. Remember what happened with Dennis Franz's ass? One old white ass had conservatives screaming about Nero and his fiddle. How effective would an old white ass be today? Would it shock?
Absolutely not. It would seem neither more nor less appropriate than half the ads on mainstream news sites, much less what college-aged people actually read online. In order to reinvest nudity with its ability to discomfit, Game of Thrones treats sexual situations with the same attitude Milch brought to pornography. Imagine watching a scene in which Littlefinger was Littlefingering with your mother? Pornography may be ubiquitous in contemporary American culture, but it still has its place—and that place is typically a private one that bears little resemblance to you and your mother sitting on a couch. Point being:
You can't divorce rhetorical effect from historical context. What worked in 1996 fails to offend in 2012. This is a blindingly obvious fact to most people of drinking age, but most of the people I teach aren't of drinking age. I share this with you because most of the emails I've received since the "Littlefinger" post concerned how I deal with the pornography in the classroom when I'm not being flip about it. The answer, as should be clear, is that I contextualize it.
Very. I know you're tired of hearing me talk about circles, but it's not my fault: the series is making me do it. Consider the set design of the Eyrie:
I mentioned in the previous post that I wouldn't talk about "empty centers," but this one is too significant not to. At the center of the seat of power in the Vale is, literally, nothing. A hole. (An execution hole.) An absence that, should someone step into it, well:
The writers and producers of the show moved the Moon Door so it would occupy the same place in the audience chamber that Jon, Tyrion, Jaime and Bronn did previous episodes: in the center of a circle, surrounded and imperiled. Only this center is pure peril, not possible, and an absence of power that is absolute instead of merely hypothetical. Put differently: it's a powerful absence.
On the one hand this makes perfect sense: in a contest for a throne that only a single person can hold, the position of power is inherently fraught. Visualizing it in circular terms, as the Game of Thrones team does, replicates that tension on-screen: Jon was in no more danger in "Lord Snow" than Jaime was in "The Wolf and the Lion" in their central positions, but they were still in some danger, as were those describing the circle around them. Capturing the precariousness of the central position is crucial to understanding the stakes of playing the game of thrones. Consider Dany in this episode:
She needs to eat that stallion heart, and she needs to keep it down. In the oddly egalitarian Dothraki society, her husband sits on the rim of the circle. Only because she is currently undergoing a trial-by-carpaccio is she allowed to occupy the central position. When the hoard is regularly arrayed, she sits beside her husband on the rim:
At the center is not a person but a communal meal, which says quite about their society but I'm not going to address that here. I'm more interested in what happens when a person steps into the center of the circle and says
A golden crown that, surprisingly, isn't a circle so much as a molten bowl. Point being, this isn't an episode in which one really wants to occupy the central position, and that's not surprisingly, given the run of the narrative: the Lannisters are making their move against Baratheon and Stark, creating a vacuum that undermines the formerly inherent power of the central position, which will remain unoccupied and contested for the remainder of the season.
That said, the next post will only mention circles in passing, I promise.
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.]