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...
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…
As previously noted, my chronic insomnia and the scheduling of television in the night’s more obscure recesses often compel me to watch Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. One side-effect of such viewings is that I sometimes drift in and out of consciousness during commercial breaks, and I assume that anything I remember watching is a daft melange of half-heard words and half-remembered dreams of the sort an almost-deaf person might concoct to explain the episode to himself after the fact. Like the time I watched that episode about Big Boi being eaten by hyenas after Detective Stabler was shot over a monkey in a basketball — that had to the product of secondary elaboration.
So, when I awoke this morning convinced that I’d seen two seasons of Doctor Who spoiled by a 2008 episode of SVU about “sexting,” I couldn’t just chalk it up to shoddy dreamwork. I fired up the Netflix machine, turned on the closed captions and wouldn’t you know it? A 2008 episode of SVU does contain the mother of all spoilers for the fifth and sixth seasons of Doctor Who. See what I mean below the fold:
In my first post on “In Care Of,” I discussed the importance of the logic of the “Oh Really” sequence to the episode; in the second, I not only proved that cowboy hats aren’t the new lasers, but also that Matthew Weiner is dedicated to creating pain by any means necessary, including undermining the importance of structural elements like the “Oh Really” sequence. In other words, my first two posts were about how Weiner creates tension via the visuals and sustains it by undermining the visuals that created it via the narrative. Most television shows — and most television writers — have a particular set of visual and narrative crutches they break out when they need to rouse their viewers. For example, Joss Whedon favors hackneyed speeches undermined by immediate circumstances:
BUFFY: No, it doesn’t stop! It never stops! Do you — do you think I chose to be like this? You have any idea how lonely it is? How dangerous? I would love to be upstairs, watching TV or gossiping about boys or — God, even studying! But I have to save the world. Again.
LOKI: Enough! You are, all of you are beneath me! I am a god, you dull creature, and I will not be bullied by –
(HULK flattens LOKI by SMASH)
Whenever one of Whedon’s characters starts to speechify like William Wallace pontificating about the theoretical possibility of Scottish independence, that character’s likely to find his or her authority undermined either by their own words or someone else’s actions.* Whedon telegraphs it to a man who proceeds to semaphore it at your face. Which is why Mad Men continues to make for compelling television: Weiner and his writers are clearly aware of how they’re manipulating us and, like a great boxer, always slug us where we’re not expecting. Especially when they’ve established those expectations in a particular episode. In the last scene of this one, he combines the “Oh Really” sequence with its content-dependent and confessional opposite. To wit:
He opens with this long shot of the Draper/Whitman family. They’re all clearly staring up at something, and because of the extremely high angle, seem to be dominated by whatever that something is. Establishing that something’s doing the dominating before actually showing it on screen has two effects: the first is to rouse our curiosity; the second, to remind us of what’s become obvious by now, i.e. that this family’s been burdened by an unknown and unspoken something for quite some time. Of course Don knows what it is, but to Sally, in particular, there’s just been this horrible presence that’s tainted her father’s relationships with everyone. She has no idea what it is, but this shot’s telling you here it is. But before cutting to this looming presence, Weiner thinks we need a refresher on how close this family is at the moment:
These are the children. They’re together, but:
They’re also apart from Don. Each slightly encroaches into the others’ shot, but for the most part, Weiner segregates the children from their father here. They may share the same physical space and be looking in the same direction, but they’re not seeing at the same thing. Don needs to tell them what it is they’re seeing — the narrative has become content dependent again. Which is why, before cutting to the shot below, Weiner has Don inform them that “This is where I grew up.”
We’re looking at them looking at the house, not because we don’t know what it is, but because we don’t know what Don’s up to. Nor should we, because that’s not Don. Because this is the moment Dick Whitman’s chosen to pitch his life to his children. He’s spent a lifetime telling them the equivalent of his initial Hershey pitch, so he knows he needs to find something bold and unexpected to draw them into his story. And as with the Hershey pitch, he decides to go with the painfully unvarnished truth: the whorehouse in which he was raised. Weiner then switches to a first-person shot of some sort:
Your guess is as good as mine as to whose perspective this is. I’d wager it’s Sally’s, for reasons I explain below and because in the previous shot she’s the one most centrally located vis-a-vis the stairs. But Sally still doesn’t quite understand what she’s looking at. This season has addressed the racial upheaval the late ’60s, but Sally’s experience with African-Americans seems limited at this point to a thief and her former nanny, so I doubt she has any real understanding of the larger situation. She seems to understand here, however, that her father’s trying to tell her something about race in America at the moment:
Because the camera jump-cuts to the small boy standing aimlessly on the porch. He’s meaningful — the jump-cut from the extreme to the medium long shot informs us that she’s paying particular attention now — but she doesn’t know what he means. She doesn’t understand how her father could’ve grown up in what her brother referred to as “a bad neighborhood.” So what does the child mean? For Sally, he’s some sort of living connection to her father’s past, but that’s a line of thought that she’s not prepared to handle. She can’t understand what this child could possibly mean. And so the final exchange is unspoken, but the reverse shots fit a familiar pattern:
I’ve tried to use the font size to demonstrate how, unlike the earlier incarnation of this sequence, at this point everything’s deescalating. This isn’t a drunken Draper building up to an inevitable bar fight — it’s a battered Whitman telling his children the quiet truth of his life. That it’s structured as a similar series of two-shots — with one character towering over the other — invites us to consider the differences between his encounter with the bar and this moment with his children. Foremost among them is that there’s no personal space being violated, although that’s a bit of a dodge because his other two children are standing between them. Or are they? Of course they are, as much was established in the establishing shot. But they’re not in frame because they don’t matter. Ages ago, I argued that Mad Men will be remembered as Sally’s show, and this is one of those moments when I feel vindicated for doing so. Draper’s effectively gone at this point, but he left behind this broken shell of a man named Whitman and a precocious daughter whose future won’t be burdened by his past.
*Which is why I think the final season of Buffy was underrated. Critics became annoyed when Whedon let Buffy rehash Saint Crispin’s Day every episode, but that was the point: divorced from her ability to back them up, her words lost their argumentative power; but instead of finding ways to make them more meaningful, she just started to produce more of them, as if she believed that if she talked long enough she’d convince herself, and that once she convinced herself, she’d convince her troops. She failed, spectacularly, to do anything of the sort. It made for stretches of uninspiring dialogue, but that doesn’t mean it made for bad television.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit ranks among the worst shows on television. Not because of the acting -- though the fact that Richard Belzer's been going through John Munch's motions since 1993 has been obvious for about a decade now -- but because it's all exploitation all the time. Its bias is clearly liberal, but cruelly so, in that it manifests itself in the bodies of its victims: children, women, immigrants, non-whites, gays, lesbians, etc. But that only makes it worse, because I suspect that conservatives secretly love the show because it combines the victimization of marginal peoples with the systemic incompetence of the New York state police force and legal system. The world of L&O:SVU is one in which white men frequently get away with doing terrible things to people conservatives don't consider people.
Which isn't to say that I don't also watch it. When it's on -- and it's always on -- I can't stop myself. It's that terrible. Last night, for example, I watched an episode in which Big Boi was eaten by a pack of hyenas and Detective Stabler was shot trying to stop a man with a monkey in a basketball. Because as we all know monkeys in basketballs are clearly within the purview of the Special Victims Unit. But you need not watch any particular episode to understand its horribleness, because it's right there in the Riefenstahlian opening credits. To the images!
This is New York City, where all the American crime happens. This helicopter shot shows you how many people are in it and, therefore, how much crime is likely to happen. Which is a lot. Or would be were it not for:
This tough American woman detective. You can tell she's tough because she has her hands on her hips. You can't actually see that here, but the camera's going to pull back on this still image in a moment because this is action photography. Like in a documentary! With two notable exceptions -- which I'll get to shortly -- it's all panning and zooming on still images. It creates the illusion that you're going to be watching something along the lines of Ken Burns's Civil War, and in the distant past of 1990, when the style of the franchise's opening credit sequence was originally established, maybe you were. But L&O:SVU is a far cry from those early episodes, so this here's a bill of goods. As is the first mini-narrative of the sequence:
A close-up on the police line. A crime must have occurred! Fortunately, a still image of a speeding police cruiser is on the way:
Will it get there in time? Will the criminal get away with it?
He will not! The rapist has been captured! The residents breathe more easily. But wait! Just because he's captured doesn't mean he's been convicted. Might he not get away with the raping on a technicality?
He will not! He and his raping hands are behind bars. The residents really can breathe more easily now. Who captured him again?
A tough man-cop posing in front of a bridge! Note that the bridge and the man-cop occupy similar areas in the shot, almost as if the bridge is as important as the man-cop, unlike the tough American woman detective, who only had to compete with her own name. So what does this insignificant man-cop do?
He finds missing babies! Only not really, because this is a still image of a photograph of a missing baby that's hanging on a chain link fence. So all we know for sure is that he's alerted to babies being missing and does something about it:
Like finding them too late. This is crucial to the ethos of the show: the more sympathetic the character the more likely he or she will end up dead. The first mini-narrative was a tale of success; the second, one of abject failure. That baby had to die. Like the cruel god that it is, the show's narrative efficiency demanded a human sacrifice. I'm going to skip past a character so irrelevant the credits almost do too and move on to the third mini-narrative, which involves the aforementioned Detective Munch:
One of the benefits of looking like Richard Belzer is that you never have to age. Your hair cut and color may change, but you don't visibly age. Belzer is like Batman in this respect: like a proper character in a serial narrative, he's always been the-age-he-is and he'll always be the-age-he-is. But what' s Munch's story?
A missing child! You can tell because this is a still image of a swing in motion, meaning that the child's just been taken. What ever can we do to save it?
Identify a suspect! That's a grand idea! Now to question his known associates, and because this is a suspect on L&O:SVU, they're going to be:
Prostitutes from New York-that-was. I get the feeling that the writers of the show are actually a little annoyed at the city changing for the better. Much easier to frighten people with the horribleness of the streets when the streets were legitimately horrible. But I digress. What happens next?
Another victim? What happened here? This mini-narrative's ceased to make sense -- which is perfectly in keeping with many of the episodes. The monkey in the basketball episode, for example, began with the death of an underage model before it got to the rapper-eating hyenas and cop-shooting. The narratives on this show frequently veer wildly from their original premises, but that doesn't matter, because:
America! It doesn't matter because America! This is one of the two exceptions to the still-image dictate: a full-screen close-up on a waving American flag. What does America have to do with sexually based offenses? I don't know, but sudden swell of patriotism is well-timed, because:
This man is a cop! He wrote "Cop Killer" and now he's a cop! Is there anything that can get my mind off this black man on my screen?
Another mini-narrative! This one begins with a photo-negative of a carelessly discarded doll. You can tell by its condition the impoverished circumstances of its owner. Or maybe its condition tells you how long it's been exposed to the elements. Either way you know by its condition that something terrible has happened to a child. Something like:
Molestation? What the fuck is going on here? First of all, that's not a child. Second, that's a dead not-a-child. I suppose they can't actually show you someone being molested, but superimposing the word "molestation" over a dead adult body makes no sense. Unless we're to assume that victims of molestation are more likely to end up dead in miniskirts and heels -- which, now that I think about it, the show often wants us to assume. Anything else it wants us to assume?
That the police will lovingly cradle us as we die -- even if we're poor black teenagers holding our arms like an addict on the verge of an overdose. These assumptions are getting unseemly, but at least they make sense, inasmuch as the show wants us to trust the police. It's almost as if they're fighting the image of Ice T with images of Cops Who Care. Because they do:
Even if they're all white. Which they're not. Except when they are, they really are:
Now that that's settled, it's time for the coup de grace. This is the Hall of Justice:
And what's happened to it?
It's been perverted! I mean inverted! Who can save us?
A bunch of people trying really hard not to move because this isn't a still image. In the original series, this closing scene involved the cast walking-and-talking in the Hall of Justice. But here they're just standing there trying not to move. It's the worst image of a police force imaginable: "We're the Special Victims Unit, and we're here to help. Just don't ask us to move or anything." It's also the moment that best captures the "dynamic" of the show: the narrative should be moving, and you think you can see it moving, but it's trying really hard not to lest it lose the "timeless" quality that allows it be re-run forever. Not despite but because it's a terrible show.
Just watch the opening credits.
In my previous post on “In Care Of,” I defined an “Oh Really” sequence as as structure of escalating exchanges that requires no dialogue to be understood. What I didn’t say — but which should make perfect sense in retrospect — is that such sequences are most often found in the saloons of classic American Westerns. Just consider what would happen to that scene if you put Don in a ridiculously large cowboy hat:
Don didn’t need to take off his hat to inform us of impending violence: the structure of the shots and reverse shots is so familiar that the context of the scene matters more than the content. Two men being filmed in this manner in a “saloon” inevitably leads to fisticuffs and gun play. The logic of the escalation is “drunkenly disproportionate” even if neither of the parties involved is actually drunk. Because we know how this scene ends, Weiner need not actually show Don striking the minister. But we want him to. The tension mounts but Weiner provides no release — instead he relies on our familiarity with this sequence to cut to a flashback, because he knows we’ll only be momentarily confused. He effectively holds that tension in abeyance throughout the flashback, but instead of relieving it by cutting back to the scene at the bar like we want him to, he suspends it in perpetuity by moving the narrative a few hours forward in time:
All of which is only to say that Weiner’s playing with the conventions of the “Oh Really” sequence in order to frustrate the the expectations of his audience. You may not have consciously recognized the structure of the scene when you watched “In Care Of,” but years of experience watching films and television conditioned you to be disappointed by its result. As well you should be. The entire episode’s structured around disappointment: from the title that doesn’t specify who or what’s “In Care Of” to Don and Ted’s respective beliefs about their prospects in New York; or from the firm’s feelings about Don’s recent performance to Peggy’s about the end of her relationship with Ted and the insult that is her temporary “promotion.” Weiner so wants us to be disappointed that — like the bar from the first episode of this season — he rewrites the most triumphant scene from the first season: Don’s presentation in “The Wheel.”
It’s not just the classic Draper pitch scene: its central concerns are creating a “sentimental bond with a product” via “nostalgia,” which is the same tactic Don uses to approach Hershey. But at that time Don’s life intruded into his presentation because he deliberately put it there. He was simply surprised by the results. As I wrote:
Don’s in a redoubled-blind here: he loathes Betty, but must pretend to love her for the Eastman Kodak people; but as he’s pretending to love her, he genuinely feels the nostalgia he thinks the Carousel will mass-produce; but because he’s in the middle of a pitch, he has to hide the fact that his appeals to nostalgia are working on him as powerfully as they are on everyone else [...] Don’s trying, but failing, not to buy his own shtick here.
But this Don isn’t that Don. This Don knows he’s selling Hershey a shtick and he’s not buying it. He has absolutely no sentimental attachment to its elements and it shows in his performance. Here’s the first half of Don’s pitch in “The Wheel”:
You can read the whole post for why I compiled those images, but for now all that matters is the manner in which Weiner shot Draper during the Eastman Kodak presentation. It’s a single medium close-up on Don’s professional head as he’s unprofessionally moved by his own presentation. The steadiness of that medium close-up is indicative of a man who’s losing his shit with dignity. Not so with the Hershey presentation:
Gone is the stolid medium close-up. In its place is a medium shot of a man who’s losing his shit in front an image of a giant metaphor for it. The reason for the medium shot here is not only to capture his manic action — he decided not to drink before the meeting — but also his instability:
Not only is he not dominating the shot — Ted’s unfocused head prevents that — but he’s using the chair for support. The medium shot allows us to see the unnatural arch of his hand and bend of his elbow, but more importantly it forces Jon Hamm to sell his smile in a grossly exaggerated fashion. His initial pitch to Hershey is as fake as that smile, and in seasons past, that wouldn’t have bothered him so long as the client bought it. And Hershey buys it. It’s a testament to his talent — a real victory for the man he wants to become — and for a moment Weiner reminds us of this visually with a near clone of the medium close-up from “The Wheel”:
Except there are still differences. Without getting into too much detail, I’ll just say that in “The Wheel” he leans forward, toward the camera, dominating the screen; whereas in this episode, he leans back, attempting to appear like he doesn’t need the chair for support. Except he does. It’s important to note that at this moment, neither the audience in the room nor the one watching at home is meant to disappointed with Don’s performance. If anything it’s a more triumphant moment than the one in “The Wheel” because it’s more hard-earned. The only person who’s disappointed is Don. He’s failed to fall for his own shtick. He hasn’t been moved by his own presentation. So he attempts to recreate the circumstances of “The Wheel,” to move himself via actual nostalgia instead of manufactured narrative:
I’m sorry, I have to say this, I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again. I was an orphan. I grew up in Pennsylvania. In a whore house [...] I read that some orphans had a different life in [Hershey]. I could picture it. I dreamt of it. Being wanted. Closest I felt to being wanted was from a girl who made me go through her johns wallets while they screwed. When I collected more than a dollar she’d buy me a Hershey bar. And I would it eat it. Alone. In my room. With great ceremony. Feeling like a normal kid. It said “sweet” on the package. It was the only sweet thing in my life.
What’s unnerving about Don’s confession isn’t merely its context, which is captured neatly by this long shot in which we sit at the table with the other horrified onlookers:
What’s unnerving is that it’s the opposite of the “Oh Really” sequence, in which if we’re given the context, the content is immaterial. The content is all that matters. You can’t substitute other content into this context and produce the same result. Here Weiner’s playing with the show’s own conventions, not one of film generally, but he’s doing so for the same reason: to limit the audience’s ability to vicariously share in Don’s triumph. Except this time it’s the specific content of a specific moment that leads to our disappointment. By taking a different route to the same destination, Weiner’s preventing us from becoming complacent in our disappointment — every time we think we’ve become immune to its sting, he finds another way to make the pain feel fresh again.
All of which is setting the final moments of the episode in relief, as I’ll discuss in my next post.
The season finale of Mad Men, “In Care Of,” contains an inordinate number of what I call “Oh Really?” reverse shots. They typically don’t involve dialogue — and the episode will end with one that doesn’t — but at the beginning of the episode it does. It’s also odd because it substitutes a flashback for an “Oh Really?” escalation, but I’m getting ahead of myself. When representatives from the Sheraton Royal Hawaiian arrive at whatever the name of the firm is at this point — because not knowing the firm is part of the point at this point — Don Draper isn’t in the office. You may remember the Royal Hawaiian from the season premier, and if you do, you can probably anticipate Don’s whereabouts. Here he is at the Royal Hawaiian:
That’s the opening shot of Draper at the Royal Hawaiian’s bar. Note the quality of the light: there are two on screen sources — the lamp to Don’s left and the Tiki fixture to his right — and a noticeable off-screen, but still diegetic light illuminating the painting from above. The lighting is high-key, that is, the back and fill lights complement the key light in a way that creates low contrast between brighter and darker areas. (I write “complement” because there are many ways the effect of high-key lighting can be produced: all manners of angles and intensities come into play.) Of the previous episode, “The Quality of Mercy,” I noted that Don’s shadows were eating at his face because the back and fill lights weren’t providing it illumination. Even though his back is turned in the shot above, were Don to turn around his face would be plenty covered by the back light. All of which is only to say that the light is natural and gentle in this scene at the Royal Hawaiian bar. Which is significant given that when the Royal Hawaiian representatives arrive in New York, Don’s not available to greet them because he’s here:
At this point, I hope you don’t need me to point out the structural similarities between these two shots. There are many ways to shoot a man at a bar — I know, I know — but to shoot the same man regarding relations with the same corporation in such a similar manner invites comparison. Whereas the scene at the Royal Hawaiian is lit in a high-key, this is clearly lit in the low-key that’s characterized Don’s relation to alcohol the past three episodes. (Just look at the poor man pouring vodka.) The low-key lighting allows the diegetic lights sources — the illuminated bar and the television set — to provide the majority of the illumination. Meaning there isn’t much of any because Don’s in a darker place. Remember the “dark wood” that Don read about Dante awakening in while at the Royal Hawaiian? Clearly Don hadn’t actually reached it yet. At the brightly lit bar he interacted with an American icon — the serviceman on shore leave — and never went home that night because, as I noted in my post on “The Doorway,” he’d abandoned his wife to give another woman away in marriage. But all that happened in a luminous Hawaiian past.
Now when Hawaii comes mid-day calling in New York, Don’s in a bar that hasn’t seen sunlight since the first time Nixon ran for President. And when another American icon — the itinerant evangelical preacher — starts talking about brotherhood at the bar, Don’s so rattled it’s almost as if he can recognize the structural similarities with the scene from “The Doorway.” The young serviceman with whom he shared a moment of brotherhood — false though it may be on Don’s part — has been replaced by a preacher who’s selling his idea of a brotherhood to strangers at a bar. The idea likely offends Don both as a man and an ad man: the quality of the preacher’s salesmanship is so shoddy Don can’t help but interrupt his pitch. When the preacher asks his profession, he replies “Keeping out of other people’s business,” which isn’t exactly the best description of someone who works in advertising. That’s likely why the preacher’s response, “You’re not doing a very good job of it,” stings Don more than it should. It’s little wonder he’s annoyed when the preacher approaches. Here’s how the scene actually proceeds:
We’ll talk about where the scene cuts to momentarily, because I want to note that while the content of the scene isn’t unimportant, the “Oh Really?” reverse shots are doing quite a bit of heavy lifting here. The initial invasion of Don’s personal space by the preacher is a violation, but it’s only the first: the preacher leans in when he speaks until, in the fifth frame above, the director, someone named Matthew Weiner, opts for a close-up on the preacher’s face. Between the preacher leaning in and the close-up — close-ups being violations of our personal space that we’ve become accustomed to via biology and habit — Weiner’s pushing this man into Don’s face. Think about it: how often are you close enough to someone’s face to see it as closely as you do in a close-up? If you’re not a dentist or an ENT or about to kiss someone, I’d wager not very often. Despite our desire to read faces — as discussed at the link — we’re also made uncomfortable by close-ups, and here Weiner’s mapping Don’s discomfort onto the shot by using such a short scale. As the “Oh Really” reversals follow one after the other into the close-up, a necessary escalation that looks something like this occurs:
At this point one expects the escalation to climax with some violence, but instead Weiner throws to a flashback of a young Don encountering a similarly unpersuasive man of the cloth:
As we learn later in the episode, Don’s opinions are not yet formed. But Weiner wants us to understand that this may have been where they were. That boy there? He simply doesn’t care enough — about anything – to start matching someone “Really” for “Oh Really.” He simply watches the bordello’s owner toss the preacher on the street:
The long shot is significant not just because it allows more of the house to be visible, but because it provides the very emotional distance between the preacher and Don that was lacking in the previous scene. Even when Weiner reverses to the preacher in a two-shot with Don:
And has the preacher inform him that “The only unpardonable sin is to believe God cannot forgive you,” Don is impassive.
He’s so impassive that the house itself apparently feels the need to stick up for him:
Not that he gives a shit:
But look what happened when the camera zoomed back in on Don. It’s the same shot in terms of composition — a medium close-up on Don — but compare it to the one that preceded the interrupting house. It’s not just tighter — giving us a closer look at Don’s uncaring face — it’s darker. The increased contrast may just be an artifact of shooting outside. A cloud may have passed over as Weiner shot the reverse. But even if that’s the case, Weiner could’ve waited until the cloud finished passing and re-shot it, or lightened it in post-production to match the previous shot. And given the emphasis on how Don’s lit the past three episodes — if not the entire season — I think it’s safe to say that this particular darkening is deliberate, as there’s no other reason to cut back to Don’s expressionless face after the shot of the house. His inability to see hope, in whatever guise it may come, seems to be the origin of his darkness, and this may be the moment where he discovered that he can’t find hope in God. While initially his feelings about this non-source of hope may have been trivial, by the time he exchanges “REALLY” with the preacher above he feels so strongly about it that he follows this night at the bar with the same entity he spent the last: the significant absence of Megan:
Only this time Weiner treats the “marriage is a prison” line a little more literally, since he actually ends up in jail for punching the preacher. It’s significant that we don’t get the gratifying image of Don actually attacking the preacher, because that’d be gratifying. It’s best to see him riled up and suffering the consequences without getting to enjoy the act itself because that’s Don’s life at this point. It’s all suffering and consequences and will continue to be unless he addresses it. Wasn’t I saying something about someone not yet awakening, disoriented, in a “dark wood” earlier? Because this might qualify — much more so than finding one’s self on a beach in Hawaii reading about somebody else awakening in a “dark wood.”
And that’s where I’ll leave you for today. Except more tomorrow. Possibly more all week. Rejoice or disdain accordingly.
(There's a television show in the title. How could it not be yet another one of those posts?)
I say “surprisingly” because the show’s producer — and at this point, principle director — is David Slade and I’m not exactly a fan of his work. That means Hannibal is a litmus test for my brand of auteur theory, because I’m genuinely impressed by some of his work here and consider him a derivative hack with all the subtlety of a nine-year-old learning to play the trumpet: whatever talent he possesses is masked by the fact that all he can do is blow. I took the fact that he does so as hard as he can for as long as he can sustain his breath as a fairly damning character flaw. But Hannibal suggests he may have finally learned something.
For those of you who know nothing of American popular culture, Hannibal is a show about a man named Hannibal Lecter. He’s a serial killer who loves playing psychological games with know-it-all FBI agents. That’s the show’s motivating irony: he’s contacted by the FBI to provide psychiatric support for their most gifted criminal profiler. He’s solving crimes! While copycatting them! Talk about dramatic irony!
The point being that this is a show about people with deep insight into the thought and behavior of sociopaths who fail to notice that their consultant’s therapist is one. It’s a show about psychological isolation — about people who can’t interact with the world or the people who inhabit it because there’s a felt distance between themselves and their humanity. So it only makes sense that even when they’re together, they’re alone. In “Potage,” for example, Lecter meets with the head of the FBI’s behavioral science division and one of their top psychiatrists:
The long shot establishes that they’re all in the same room, which is important because if it didn’t, you might not realize that. The conversation proceeds via a series of medium close-ups in shallow focus:
The depth of field is so shallow that the items on the front of his desk as unfocused as the wall behind him. His body occupies the thin slice of the world that the camera and lighting conspire into focus. Same with her:
And with him:
The three of them are sitting in the same room but are connecting neither with it nor each other. Their psychological isolation is being represented by the thin slice of the diegetic world that happens to be in focus. How thin is it?
Thinner than this man’s face. It’s almost as if this man — the aforementioned criminal profiler — doesn’t even understand himself. Maybe he should see somebody about that.
That’s right — he already is and it’s not working. You can tell because even when Slade switches from medium close-ups that suggest that all men are islands to two-shots that should suggest companionship, the thin depth of field isn’t even ample enough to include both subjects in focus. How isolated does Slade want these people to seem? Even when they’re four of them in the same frame he racks the focus from one to another depending on who’s talking:
Sticking four people in a frame and creating a sense that they’re talking at rather than to each other requires a deft touch I didn’t think Slade possessed. It’s not exactly unsubtle, but it effectively creates a mood that untrained viewers would describe as “creepy” without exactly knowing why. Instead of the shallow focus functioning as it normally does — to focus the audience’s attention on one element in the composition — the cumulative effect of these shots is a claustrophobia tinged with obsessive attentiveness. The world is small and largely unfocused except for this little slice of clarity. And on Hannibal, as often as not that little slice of clarity contains corpses mutilated by someone with an eye for composition. The mundane world of homes and offices and other people exists only in an unfocused and isolating haze; the frail horror of artfully desecrated bodies is sharply in focus.
(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.
To celebrate what’s going to be a very Mad Men week at Lawyers, Guns & Money—at least two posts by me and a podcast starring an illustrious cast of thousands—I thought it’d be good to remind everyone where we left off. (And by “everyone” I probably mean “me,” as I need to pick up threads I’ve forgotten about in the intervening months.) So here’s where we left off (plus a little coda) according to Yours Truly:
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!
(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.
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:
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.
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.