While at The Raw Story retreat last weekend in San Francisco, my colleague Arturo Garcia and I had a long conversation about the show that went something like this...
United Smart People
While at The Raw Story retreat last weekend in San Francisco, my colleague Arturo Garcia and I had a long conversation about the show that went something like this...
STUDENT: It’s so great to get to college and finally have a gay professor.
SEK: I bet it is. Ain’t culture shock grand?
STUDENT: Absolutely. So what was it like for you in college?
SEK: What do you mean?
STUDENT: When you first found out one of your professors was gay.
SEK: I don’t know that I ever did. Wait, what are we talking about now?
STUDENT: I read that thing you wrote yesterday. It made me proud to be in your class.
SEK: Wait, I’m your gay professor?
STUDENT: It’s awesome to finally have a teacher to relate to.
ALL THE OTHER STUDENTS: Scott’s gay?
SEK: How about we discuss Game of Thrones now?
(Of course this is yet another one of those visual rhetoric posts. Can you not see all the pictures?)
The title of the episode, "The Collaborators," is so obviously meant to be evocative that it almost sinks beneath its own freight. The episode's foremost "collaboration" occurs between Don Draper and his upstairs neighbor, Sylvia Rosen, who are acting out the transparent stratagems of Updike's titular Couples (1968). Though Updike's novel covers the time addressed in earlier seasons, its particular combination of adultry and war is relevant here:
This pattern, of quarrel and reunion, of revulsion and surrender, was repeated three or four times that winter, while airplanes collided over Turkey, and coups transpired in Iraq and Togo[.] (161)
Simply put, there's something about having sex while the radio describes some new front in the Tet Offensive makes The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit feel more like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. (And we well know how accurate that novel is.) Consider the first time Don and Sylvia play "collaborators." The scene begins with a point-of-view shot from Don's perspective as the elevator door opens on Sylvia and her husband, Dr. Arnold Rosen, arguing over money:
It's significant that even though she's shot in profile here, Don's able to see her entire face. He can see more of her than she can of him; he exists only in her peripheral vision, if at all, whereas he can observe her from two angles. He's not spying on her, but he is paying attention to their private matter. When Dr. Rosen enters the elevator, she throws Don the most meaningful glance she can in the half-second that she has:
The director of this episode, some clown by the name of Jon Hamm, uses this medium close-up to great effect. Remember that close-ups are meant to suggest intimacy, whereas medium shots are designed to give some sense of body language. In terms of scale, this medium close-up provides intimate access to her face as she shoots Don a plea, while simultaneously allowing enough frame to depict the familiarity of Dr. Rosen's body language. He's distant from her (emotionally) but doesn't know it (physically); she's distant from Don (physically) but acutely feels it (emotionally); and Don's somewhere back there on the elevator, but the camera's not aligned with his perspective anymore so his feelings are absent from this shot. (If it were his perspective, the eyeline match wouldn't be slightly frame-left.)
But not from the scene. This is the first example of the "collaboration" between the two, so it should come as no surprise that after Dr. Rosen enters the elevator, Don remembers he's forgotten his cigarette:
The medium shot is perfunctory, because its main purpose is to capture Don's exaggerated gesture. The fact that the gesture's exaggerated is important, or would be if Dr. Rosen were paying attention. (Which he seems not to be.) But Don puts on a show just in case and zips back up the elevator:
To Dr. Rosen's apartment, where Sylvia awaits. Whether she knew he was also playing this game at this point is unclear. That she wanted it to be one of the days he did goes without saying, but her attractiveness here isn't a function of being "made up" so much as being natural. Which reminds Don of something:
If you click you can see the subtle hint of a thinking zoom that makes the reverse from the shot above more significant. Instead of reversing back to the door as Don enters it, the audience is presented with another point-of-view shot from Don's perspective:
Instead of entering Sylvia Rosen's apartment to continue playing "collaborations," the camera reverses into Don's memory. Note how the same subtle zoom works in two different ways here: the first begins with a close-up and moves into a closer-up, and because the perspective belongs to the audience, it believes that it is "getting inside Don's head." And it is, as evidenced by the second zoom, which moves from a medium into a closer medium and is clearly from a perspective within the diegetic space:
Young Don's. The subtle zoom here is a young boy staring at a prostitute into whose house his pregnant stepmother has brought him. There is a lot to untangle here, but the main point is the very subtle way in which the memory of young Don's time in the bordello is coloring what's about to happen between elder Don and Sylvia Rosen. Because remember what Sylvia and her husband were arguing about earlier? In case you forgot, here's how her encounter with elder Don ends:
They're not playing "collaborators" anymore: the movement between his memory and the present moment makes it clear that, in Don's mind, they're playing "prostitute." And they're doing so while being informed of yet another U.S. setback in Vietnam because of the Tet Offensive, which itself followed on the heels of the Koreans taking the USS Pueblo. Death and violence are not visible on screen, but their presence is pervasive. As, for example, is the case with Peter and his game of "collaboration," which begins innocently enough:
Combined, these two images strongly suggest that wives are about to swapped, but 1968 is not yet the 1970s in suburbia, so this should be nothing more than a dinner party. Which it seems to be until one of the wives stops by Pete Campbell's apartment in the city:
Yet again, the woman is playing "collaborator," and clearly enjoying her role in what she believes to be their affair. However, after sex, she tries to talk to Pete about the covert eperations they will undertake: cars parked near rather than next to mailboxes or on the street rather than in the driveway—the secret, sacred curb dances of suburban love. The reclining long shot of her as she snaps on her special lingerie seems to indicate attraction, as this is a clearly attractive, nearly naked woman offering to play her part:
Pete looks at her and wishes she were a prostitute. So he just starts playing "prostitute" anyway. He walks up to her and invades her space, but instead of an intimate close-up of the sort that would be appropriate, given they've just been intimate, Pete looks at her, gently touches her hair and says
That we can't see his face as he delivers this blow isn't a surprise. After all, only one person can play "prostitute" at a time. Sylvia and this woman are both forced into the role of playing prostitute by someone they considered their collaborator, but while the outcome of Don's mid-course game-change is merely violence on the radio, the off-screen violence this woman suffers is more personal:
In terms of scale and angle, this shot nearly mirrors the one above it, in that both register the prolongation of a moment of pain in a medium close-up. The first pain, in the panel above this one, is psychological, in that she's merely be made to feel like a whore; the second pain is also psychological, in that she has lost both her first collaborator, her husband, and must run to her second lost collaborator, Pete. But the second pain is also physical, because her first collaborator beat the shit out of her. But he did so off-screen, leaving Pete and Trudie to deal with the repercussions of violence.
And this is the key to the episode: the deaths and violence that happen off-screen are beginning to intrude into the lives of these characters. Such things have happened before on Mad Men, but they seem to be coming at an accelerated pace. Why? Because the game is changing, as are the players, but the game's not merely evolving from one into another, as it seemed previously; now the rules of the game are being changed such that it's the bottom of the third inning, the batter asks the umpire if he can take two free throws instead trying to hit that wicked curve again and is being given the go-ahead.
(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.
The old, white math professor who teaches in the classroom before me did not release his students at 10:50, as he is supposed to. He did not release them at 11:00, when my class starts. At 11:05, I entered my classroom to find a room full of students, fast asleep, and the old, white math professor silently working on a problem on the whiteboard. When I informed him that I needed the room, his students stirred and made for the door, but he pointed at me and said, "I need to finish this problem."
His students left.
He went back to work.
The old, white math professor continued to work at the far end of my classroom until 11:30, at which point he took out a notebook and copied what he'd written on the whiteboard. At 11:40 he noisily collected his books and markers and strode out of the room without a word.
This is because the old, white math professor is an asshole.
The old, white math professor again refused to leave the room at 10:50, so today
Ithe dashing young lecturer walked up to the podium and began to prepare for his class. He asked the old, white math professor if he was almost finished, but received no response.
At 11:00 a.m., the old, white math professor picked up an eraser to correct some minor mistake on the whiteboard, at which point the dashing young lecturer smiled broadly, politely asked the old, white math professor if he needed help and, without waiting for a reply, promptly began erasing the entire whiteboard.
The old, white math professor stared in horror at the dashing young lecturer -- who hopes he didn't erase the cure for cancer, but is otherwise extremely pleased with himself.
In this podcast, Steven Attewell, author of the indispensable Race for the Iron Throne blog and general internet celebrity, joins Yours Truly for a rousing discussing of "Valar Dohaeris" that was in no way ruined by me posting everything I had to say about the episode three hours earlier. Because it turns out that, in the presence of experts, the smartest people are the best listeners. All spoilers are prefaced by a damned fool loudly declaiming against them and I'm responsible for 99 percent of the salty language, for which I apologize in advance but will not be endeavoring to amend. Enjoy!
The final assignment of my visual rhetoric course is called Rhetoric in Practice (or RIP). It has two components. To paraphrase the rubric: the students create their own rhetorical performance, explore questions of how to target an audience, follow the conventions of a genre, choose the medium for their message, and all the while, use the critical tools they’ve been learning all quarter to develop their ideas. They then perform a rhetorical analysis of their own work via a detailed writer's memo.
The pedagogical theory behind this is sound: by forcing them to do something fun at the end of the quarter,
I get better evaluationsthe tools I taught them over the course of it become more solidly ensconced in their brain-space. Only this time, instead of deducing the rhetorical intent behind someone else's decisions, they must decide how to communicate their message to their target audience most effectively.
One of the highlights of this quarter was a remake of the Game of Thrones opening credit sequence, only intended for an audience of the sort one finds at the University of California, Irvine:
I hope that, as a student project completed in a little under two weeks, this doesn't violate Fair Use and won't be taken down, but I can't be sure. Also, I'll credit the student when I hear back from her about whether she wants credit for it. Given that I've already had a Disney animator think it worthy of praise, though, I'm fairly comfortable sharing it with the world.
It is 1 p.m. SEK will be spending the next five hours in his office helping STUDENTS revise their essays. At no point will there not be a line of STUDENTS outside his door.
STUDENT #1: I have a class at 1 p.m. Can I just drop this off, have you comment on it, and pick it up after class?
SEK: I’ll try to have it done by then, but six of your classmates are waiting in line, and I have to get to them first.
STUDENT #1: See you at 2 p.m.
SEK spends the next hour in conference with the STUDENTS who waited patiently outside his office. It is 2 p.m.
STUDENT #1: I’m here to pick up my paper.
SEK: I’m sorry, I haven’t had a chance to get to it yet. Do you have any more classes today?
STUDENT #1: No.
SEK: So if you can just wait, I’ll get to you as soon as I finish talking with your classmates.
STUDENT #1: I’ll just come back at 3 p.m. See you then.
SEK spends the next hour in conference with the STUDENTS who waited patiently outside his office. It is 3 p.m.
STUDENT #1: I’m here to pick up my paper.
SEK: I’m sorry, I haven’t had a chance to get to it yet. Since you don’t have any more classes, maybe it’d be best to take your place in the queue and we can talk as soon as I’m done with your classmates.
STUDENT #1: I’ll just come back at 4 p.m. See you then.
SEK spends the next hour in conference with the STUDENTS who waited patiently outside his office. It is 4 p.m.
STUDENT #1: I’m here to pick up my paper.
SEK: I’m sorry, I haven’t had a chance to get to it yet. If you’ll just—
STUDENT #1: Come back at 5 p.m.? Yes. See you then.
SEK spends the next hour in conference with the STUDENTS who waited patiently outside his office. It is 5 p.m.
STUDENT #1: I’m here to pick up my paper.
SEK: Have a seat, there’s only one person in line at the moment so it’ll just be a—
STUDENT #1: Fine. I’ll come back at 6 p.m.
SEK spends the next hour in conference with the last of the STUDENTS who waited patiently outside his office. It is 6 p.m. SEK has just finished what he thought was his final conference of the day. STUDENT #2 is packing up her stuff and preparing to leave.
STUDENT #1: I’m here to pick up my paper.
SEK: Good timing. STUDENT #2 and I just finished so—
STUDENT #1: I’m here to pick up my paper.
SEK: We can go over it right now.
STUDENT #1: It’s too late.
SEK: I’m more than happy to stay a few extra minutes and look over your paper with you.
STUDENT #1: No, it’s too late. Give me my paper back.
STUDENT #1: !
SEK: I can send you comments via email if you’d—
STUDENT #1: IT’S TOO LATE. JUST GIVE ME MY PAPER.
STUDENT #1 grabs her unmarked essay and storms out of SEK’s office. STUDENT #2, who hadn’t finished packing up yet, looks as confused as SEK feels.
STUDENT #2: What the—
SEK: Your guess is better than mine. You kids don’t make any sense anymore. I just don’t understand—
STUDENT #2: The things we do on your lawn?
(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 feet into the air? Because that's what Jackson does when he violently zooms from Gandalf's face to, well, this:
The screen shots don't do it justice. Few currently available experiences are comparable to the ride Jackson subjects you to there outside of 47 seconds into this, and even though your mind knows you're just watching a movie, your eyes and brain are subject to a few hundred thousand more years of evolution and react differently. You may not be scared for your life, but you're not entirely comfortable with your current perspective. Jackson will exploit this feature of perspectival preference for the remainder of this scene, much of which will involve placing the viewer in places no one not named "Clark Kent" can achieve. But he won't do that quite yet:
He yanks you thousands of feet into the air, then punches you in the face by following that shot with a medium close-up of some hobbits looking frame-left. Note that when he was previously mid-air panning he was drawing your eye to the right, and that when he cuts to this shot, he knows your eyes will re-set frame-center, find nothing, focus on action, see Sam glancing backwards, and then follow his eyes to whatever they'll be matched to. In short, he's directed your eyes right-right-right, then center, then center-left, then left-left-left, then:
Here, to a canted shot, presumably from Sam's point of view, of whatever's following. It's canted because some people aren't that bright and hadn't gathered that the Fellowship might be in a tight spot. Or because Jackson wanted to marry content and form in such a way that the knowledge of the narrative peril was heightened by the manner in which it was depicted. For our purposes, all that matters is that when he's using conventional sequences (like eye-line matches) he's doing so in a dictatorial fashion, yanking our eyes from one side of the screen to other with a disregard bordering on callousness. But when he's not using conventional sequences, he's creating an environment of uncertainty of the sort I mentioned at the beginning of the post: because there's little logic in the shot sequence, the film becomes more re-watchable simply because it defies our defaults. For example, what do you think follows the above eye-line match from Sam's point of view? Back to Sam?
For fuck's sake, really? Three quick edits followed by a head-level camera gently drifting rightward to capture the action? Speeding us up and slowing us down, are you, bartender? Serving us the cinematic equivalent of vodka and Red Bull, so now we're—wait—we're not feeling so good. Weren't we level-headed with Gandalf before that CGI column obstructed our view? We were, and now we're still following the Fellowship, only from a lower angle of framing, and—
That's the ceiling. We're lying with our backs to the floor, aren't we? We most certainly are. It's difficult to tell with the screen shots, but if you look at the film itself, it's clear that as we passed behind the CGI column Jackson tripped us because that's the fucking ceiling. But at least now we know where we are and can predict what shot'll come next. We'll get a slightly low-angled shot of the fellowship abandoning us to our inevitable—
Or Jackson'll take a page from New Age out-of-body narratives and hover us a half-mile above our proxied body like the ignorant chump he's proving us to be with every subsequent shot. Why is this sequence (and what follows) so re-watchable? Because even if you break it down before a class so often you think you can reconstruct it in your sleep, convention is the default, and you can't escape it. So every time you watch it, you think you'll know what it'll be like, and every time you watch it, you're wrong.
Tomorrow I'll finish this up by writing more about how uncomfortable Superman's director's boots are and why wizards are more intimidating than 500 foot tall fire monsters.
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.
SEK and his class are brainstorming ideas for their end-of-quarter rhetoric-in-practice project.
SEK: Given the fact that we studied Fellowship of the Ring and Game of Thrones, I could easily see something like the "Sean Bean Death Reel" being a viable final project.
STUDENT #1: What if we made a perfect copy of the One Ring out of metal?
SEK: Nope. You can't turn in anything you bought from Skymall.
STUDENT #2: Can we do Reverse Game of Thrones?
SEK: A Throne of Games?
STUDENT #2: Like we get a regular guy to play Tyrion and hire little people to play everybody el—
SEK: No! No reversing Game of Thrones! That's unacceptable on so many levels I don't even know where to begin.
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.
One of the issues with teaching Game of Thrones is that nudity is treated very casually—so casually that the very idea of watching it with your mother feels deeply wrong. But it must be accounted for, and one of my classes decided to name the regular appearance of casual nudity after scenes in which Peter Baelish conducts important business while people behind him are getting down to business. (About which more shortly.) Today we were discussing scenes in which wolves and lions were isolated, and I was pointing out that in the exchange between Bran and Maester Luwin, the director prefers to give each of them their own frame instead allowing them to share a single. So I'm letting the scene run as I speak:
When all of a sudden I look out at the class and everyone is staring at me. Not in that glass-eyed way that they normally do, but with an intensity that made me want to ask them about their corn. So I said:
I always say that titles don't matter, then I go on to demonstrate how they do, so I see no harm in doing so again: the definite articles in the title matter because this episode focuses on what it's like to be "the" Stark (wolf) or "the" Lannister (lion) in the room. And the roles keep reversing. In "Lord Snow," Jon Snow (wolf) stood alone in the middle of a circle, surrounded by people who wished him ill and observed by Tyrion Lannister (lion); in "The Wolf and the Lion," Tyrion stands in the center of a circle, surrounded by people who wish him ill and observed by Lady Stark (wolf):
The shots are not identical in scale, but they are nearly identical in composition: in both cases a significant character is nearly, but not quite, occupying the center the frame:
I don't want to harp on about explicitly literary tropes like "empty centers," so instead I'll just note that the reason the center is empty both in "Lord Snow" and this episode is partly because the top half of the frame occupies fifty percent of the shot and is (ostensibly) empty of people. The features of the landscape are dominating the characters, and with good reason: the Wall in "Lord Snow" and the Eastern Road here represent (or in this case pose) more of a threat to the characters than they do to each other. Even if, as is almost the case above, a character's head sat square in the crosshairs, he or she still wouldn't be a dominant element in the frame. The (very) long shot allows the viewer to understand that whatever threats or pleas these characters enjoin, those hills behind them don't care, nor do the people in them:
Granted, those hill people are running down the road, but I can't show you the hill people in the hills any better than I did (or didn't) above: they're a part of the landscape from which projectiles emanate more than they are people. Because it only appeared in the first frame above that Lady Stark and those beholden (however temporarily) to her surrounded Tyrion: in truth the circles were concentric, with the hill people surrounding Stark surrounding Tyrion, and when this becomes clear to all involved, these lonely wolves and lions call a kind of truce:
Tyrion stands alone, surrounded by hill people, as does:
Lady Stark. Both of the proud members of these noble houses are cowering, because both are surrounded now. Shifting to the medium close-up allows the audience to read the fear on their faces, and the fact that both of those eyeline matches look off-frame and, in fact, are unrequited by the next shot creates an addition sense of chaos. Because if the people in the middle of a scrum can't figure out what its focal point is, how is the audience supposed to? Perhaps if they worked together?
If she unties his hands, maybe the focal point will come into—
Excuse me, "Ser," Lady Stark and Tyrion are trying to have a momen—
No, that's worse, now all we can see is your a—
At least now we can see the important people again. Now as I was writing before my shot was so rudely obstructed, Lady Stark and Tyrion are the important people here, which is why when they come together—when they are no longer alone—the person who's actually the most significant in the person in the sequence dances through the foreground. Whatever momentary truce they come to in the midst of battle matters far less than Bronn playing the interrupting sellsword. The rest of the sequence (12:49 and ff.) substantiates my point, but this post is unwieldy as is and the visual emphasis on Bronn's talents is easily discernible to anyone who's read any of these posts. The previous scene occurs on the Eastern Road to the Vale, which Lady Stark and Tyrion eventually reach only to find themselves surrounded again:
Placing Lady Stark in the center of a circle (described off-frame by the Knights of the Vale) puts her in a position analogous to Jon and Tyrion's earlier, meaning that despite the context of the scene (that is her sister on that throne), because the directors have trained the audience to consider center-circle people imperiled, she doesn't seem altogether safe. Nor is she. The director of this episode, Brian Kirk, points out via his short selection that whatever bond she shared with Tyrion on the road to the Vale has been unforged:
She is as alone here as she was in "Winter Is Coming." The close-up and shallow focus emphasize her isolation, and a similarly scaled shot is used to reflect Tyrion's reactions to her sister's words:
In fact, the only people in this scene who aren't alone—who occupy the same frame at the same time—are her sister and her nephew:
Which strikes me as an unsubtle argument in favor of being alone. But Lady Stark is not the only lonely wolf, nor is Tyrion the only lonely lion. There are five more scenes in the episode I should discuss, but only one more that I must, which is at the end of the episode, and the reason I must is because it deliberately confounds my entire argument about center-circle people:
This shot is nearly identical in scale and composition to the first one I discussed, only this time the lonely Lannister isn't in jeopardy. He stands in the center of the circle threatening the periphery as opposed to being threatened by it. The suggestion from the earlier shot—that this is secretly a concentric circle—still holds simply because of the percentage of the frame occupied by Littlefinger's bordello, but all those spears seem to be pointing at it too. All of which is only to say that this shot interests me because it undermines my argument, i.e. because it surprises me. In an episode dominated by lonely and imperiled wolves and lions, this shot suggests that even though this series is teaching its audience how to watch it, viewers need to keep vigilant because the writers and directors are more than willing to confound the very expectations they created.
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.
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?
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?