Yes, I am a man obsessed -- obsessed with circles!
United Smart People
Yes, I am a man obsessed -- obsessed with circles!
What had, minutes earlier, been an audition for the role of “child” in a production of “family” has transformed into one for the role of “cog” in “drug enterprise.” The confusion created by placing these scenes back-to-back will resonate throughout the season, as Taystee must decide whether Vee is a caring mother figure or an exacting boss. Initially, at least, she seems to understand the difference—but as the episode progresses, the amount of emotional energy she invests in acquiring a job becomes increasingly excessive, making the stitching of these two scenes together seem increasingly meaningful.
My latest Internet Film School column at the AV Club is open for business! Sample:
The camera communicates a psychological state, but the logic C.K. follows here isn’t predicated on the uncertainty of dreams so much as the tedium of depression.
Everything is the same visually, in terms of the shot selection, but the situation is growing worse. Louie is increasingly a show about the mundane yet fraught experience of depression, and this mood is reflected in C.K.’s direction.
The long eye-laser-less nightmare is over!
I watched Man of Steel again yesterday, and all I can say is that on second-viewing, I'm impressed by Zak Synder's subtlety. He captured Superman's insectile origins quite superbly -- native Kryptonians fly aback demon dragonflies and travel the stars in space-beetles! -- and never once tried to compare this creation of two Jews writing at the advent of the Second World War to anything inappropriate:
I was also impressed by his integrity. During the hour-and-a-half-long climactic fight scene, Snyder could have gone for gore and showed the human toll of Superman's decision to move the fight from one heavily populated area to the next, but he never let you forget that the Real Victims™ are people too, my friends:
I mean, Zod was blinded by our Terran sun when he threw Superman into that 7-11's gas pumps. It was just an innocent bystander! Fortunately, Superman's here to avenge those pumps' deaths:
Zod will have none of it. "I'm stronger than you, a warrior bred," he tells the symbol of Truth, Justice and the Americans Who Matter, right before tossing him into one of our most sacred temples:
Now Superman's the one having none of it. "YOU CAN BREAK MY PANCAKES, BUT YOU CAN NEVER TAKE MY --
But before Superman can stop Zod from trolling the planet, a minion throws a U-Haul van that you can rent for $19.95 a day by calling 1-800-GO-U_HAUL at an army helicopter, so he can't worry about the broken pancakes, because he has a more important person to save:
JESUS CHRIST -- no pun intended -- are you an idiot? You already saved him. 7-11 is fine. What you mean he's still in danger?
I don't care how that shot's framed, Kal-El. She's about to literally shoot that man with eye-lasers. Where are your priorities?
THANK YOU DETECTIVE STABLER. Maybe we can grossly manipulate him into --
Did you just 9/11 Metropolis? WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU? Can't you save anything?
You've got to be fucking kidding me.
That's it, I'm done.
This week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Internment,” may well have been the strongest in what’s shaping up to be the strongest season to date. It was directed by David Boyd, one of the most talented men you’ve never heard of. He’s been the director of photography on such visually uninspiring fare as Firefly and Deadwood, so it should be no surprise that the composition and shot selection in “Internment” was barely this side of breathtaking.
What do I mean?
For one, Boyd’s use of close-ups in this episode weren’t used to cheaply intensify scenes whose dialogue lacked emotional impact. Unlike, say, the opening credit sequence of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which closes in to bring the pain and reassure you that the police always have your best interest at heart, the close-ups in “Internment” function as the necessary conclusions to terrible arguments.
Consider, for example, this close-up of Rick’s gun:
It’s the culmination of the should-he-or-shouldn’t-he-pick-up-arms subplot, but instead of having Rick say something about it, Boyd just places Rick’s gun in-frame and lets it speak for itself. Note, though, that the gun’s slightly off-center, a screen-position people have been trained by Hollywood to hate.
The audience, then, is primed for something to happen — and conventionally, that “something” would be that the camera shifts to the left and “properly” frames the gun, dead-center, since it’s the most important element in the shot.
Boyd knows that’s the expectation — he knows that his audience craves symmetry in its compositions — but instead of conceding to audience expectations, he recapitulates the should-he-or-shouldn’t-he argument:
When Rick’s pea-bearing hand enters the frame, Boyd racks the focus, shifting the emphasis from the arms he just took up to the green thumbs he put them down for. In a single shot, then, Boyd’s reminded the audience of the Big Decision Rick had to make, but he did so without having to use dialogue as a crutch, as the show so often has. What could have been a tossed off transition between scenes in which characters indulge in unnecessary expository monologues is, instead, a seemingly tossed-off reminder of past soul-searching.
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…
I just read this awesome new article about Breaking Bad that said things like this:
The tone being set here is riddled first with uncertainty (“Where are we?”), then with pointlessness (“Who are these skaters?”), and potential hazard (“Why so fast?”), before finally answering the question the opening shot asked (“Why are we wherever ‘here’ is?”). Once Cranston moves to the crane shot of Walter White’s backyard, we’re able to place ourselves spatially and temporally.
We recognize the once meth-blue pool in which Pink Bear and Skyler White floated; we notice the absence of the Lily of the valley Walter used to poison Brock Cantillo; and we know that the second half of season five begins where the first half did: one year in the future, closer to Walter’s 52nd birthday than his 50th.
You should read its life-affirming affirmations of life, speaking of which:
It's the first day of class, and I'm starting really basic. As in really basic. That's where the best courses begin.
Attendance and participation are both mandatory. I want to see comments from familiar faces in these new strange places. Because if it weren't for you, I wouldn't have this new gig. Engaging with you lot made me want to investigate this mode of writing, so you owe me.
You owe me.
Now go make me look good in front of my new bosses. What? Really?
Fine—I also want to say thank you for all the encouragement over the years. I wouldn't have this opportunity if it weren't for you.
*Facebook title of this same announcement: "HOLY SHIT-BALLS-IN-A-CAN I WRITE FOR THE ONION."
Grant Morrison went on Kevin Smith’s radio show and, as he dedicates his life to doing, blew your mind with his wholly original interpretation of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke:
No one gets the end, because Batman kills The Joker. [...] That’s why it’s called The Killing Joke. The Joker tells the ‘Killing Joke’ at the end, Batman reaches out and breaks his neck, and that’s why the laughter stops and the light goes out, ’cause that was the last chance at crossing that bridge. And Alan Moore wrote the ultimate Batman/Joker story [because] he finished it.
Putting aside the fact that Morrison is the perpetually whining junior party in a feud with Moore, the idea that Moore “finished” the story of Batman and the Joker in The Killing Joke requires you misunderstand not only the structure of the book itself, but of the entirety of Moore’s structurally obsessed early work. Consider, as proof, a single page from Watchmen in which Moore accomplishes in nine panels more than Morrison did in all the pages of his magical masturbatory experiment in narcissism combined. But we need not even go there, because The Killing Joke fundamentally refutes Morrison’s contrarianism: the point is not that the story is “finished” but that it never can be. Even the dialogue circles back on itself:
That’s not the Joker, but a substitute with a painted face; the dialogue, however, is the Joker’s. After twenty-three silent panels, we have words. Moore frames The Killing Joke by floating the premise without the punchline in the first non-standard panel in the book, but it’s actually uttered in the last non-standard panel in the book:
This is because the books folds in on itself. The conflict between
the Batman and the Joker is circular: it begins and ends in a “lunatic
asylum,” and the non-diegetic words in that first panel are actually
spoken aloud by the Joker in the second. Also significant is that
they’re about the place they’re not spoken in, which happens to be the
place the Joker will
eternally recur inevitably be returned. But it’s not just the Joker whose words are eating their own tail:
As demonstrated in the post I linked to earlier, the central panels in Moore’s work at this time are inherently important, and this is the central panel of the fourth page of The Killing Joke. But it’s not just its placement in the structure of the page that’s significant — the structure of the panel itself is. The Batman and the Joker are presented here, center-page, as mirrors images of each other. Their faces are identically shadowed, their hands identically held. The slight perspectival asymmetry chops Batman’s fingers off at the knuckles and introduces a hint of uncertainty into an otherwise impassive panel. The only problem is that that’s not actually the Joker, but the Batman doesn’t know that yet, so he’s delivering an obviously prepared soliloquy in which all the dialogue is doubled: “Perhaps you’ll kill me. Perhaps I’ll kill you.” And it’s doubled in a way that makes literary critics swoon: in the service of overcoming a tired binary. The point of all those doublings is singular, because the Batman wants to avoid the inevitable “just once.”
Just once he would like what cannot happen to happen, so it’s not without a little irony that this dialogue reappears later:
Minus the “just once.” Just as the Joker’s words from the end of the book are superimposed on the beginning, the Batman’s speech — which the Joker’s never heard, because that wasn’t him in Arkham — so too are the Batman’s words from the beginning of the book superimposed on the end. The absence of “just once” is a self-undermining irony. That the caption bubble is a box indicates that they’re not the Batman’s thoughts. He’s not thinking about the speech he gave, Moore is re-presenting them as an echo. He’s reminding the reader that Batman’s trying to escape the cycle of violence, incarceration and escape in which the pair are locked. Only they can’t escape each other, because they’re damaged in the same way.
This should be a familiar argument to anyone who watched The Dark Knight, but Christopher Nolan castrated the pathos of Moore’s argument. In The Killing Joke, the Joker has a definitive origin that — go figure – mirrors the Batman’s: the accidental deaths of his wife and newborn child break him just as the murder of Wayne’s parents broke him. They both had what the Joker wants to impose on Gordon when he shoots his daughter Barbara: “one bad day” centered around the loss of family members. The whole book is a reflection upon the damage done by “one bad day,” and in the end it valorizes Gordon for not responding to his bad day by dressing like a flying rat or serially poisoning the water supply. But the point is that this book is about the relation of past to future, a chance …
I’m not going to harp on the language, visual and actual, of mirrors and reflections and doublings in the b –
– ook. But it sorta won’t let me n –
– ot. It’s just asshole like tha –
– t. Like that. I mean, the final fight takes place in a fun house in front of mirrors that distort their respective reflections, which means that in that second panel above, they’re not only distorted reflections of each other, their reflections are distorted reflections of their distorted reflections of each other. (Moore clearly values structure over subtlety at this point in his career.) For one to kill the other would be a kind of suicide neither are willing to commit.
They’re both the damaged products of “one bad day,” endlessly reflected in the fun house mirrors they stand between. That each reflection further distorts the other into infinity is kind of the point of the book.
The man in the fetish bat costume isn’t any healthier than the clown in the purple suit, and the more they interact, the sicker they become. Each reflection is a further distortion. Their interlocking stories always begin and end the same way, but along the way they inflict a little more damage on each other. You’d think one of them would snap eventually, but the point of Moore’s exercise is that neither ever will. Both responded to their “one bad day” with an excessive commitment to the willed necessity of their new identities: they differ from ordinary men only in their strength of will.
Morrison’s brilliant and wholly original idea — which has been floating around so long it’s been addressed in the introduction of one reprint and the conclusion of another — is an ignorant misreading that cuts against all the other grains in the book. It only seems plausible if you ignore the abundant evidence of its wrongness, including the first three panels of the book:
And the last:
Which combine in way that summarizes the story of the Batman and the Joker: on a dark night and rainy night, the Joker does something the police can’t handle. The Batman is required. His headlights in the book’s third panel announce his arrival. The Batman subdues the Joker, who can then be contained by the police again, hence the sirens announcing their arrival in the third-to-last panel of the book.
On a dark and rainy night.
Don’t make me mention that those panels are distorted mirrors of each other.
I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder or appear to be piling on, but one aspect of Hugo Schyzer’s “confession” strikes me as especially problematic, especially at a time in which the humanities are under assault from well-funded conservative forces: his claim of academic fraudulence.
He’s clearly not a fraud in the traditional sense, i.e. he didn’t falsify his credentials or publish papers on data he knew to be cooked. He claims that when he was in graduate school, “there was no such thing as porn studies,” so he lacked the credentials to teach it. Which, I suppose, is technically true. But he also claims to have “do[ne] the reading,” which in practice is all that’s required of scholars who work in a field that didn’t exist when they earned their doctorates.
The other “fraud” he believes he committed is that he spoke about feminism but “never published in any serious academic journal [because he] wanted to write for a popular audience.” Anyone familiar with the current state of academic journals knows about the incestuous nature of “blind” review: your name’s not on your submission, but if you’ve spoken at a conference or to another scholar in the field, you’re a known quantity. Your work whispers your name to the person who reviews it and that, as much as any independent factors, determines whether it’ll be published. (Why yes, I am that cynical.) But I haven’t come here to bury humanities journals—their “style” secures them a place in the deepest recesses of empty libraries—only to note that failure to publish in a discipline or subdiscipline doesn’t disqualify a person from teaching in it if they’ve done the reading. That’s all that’s required. If Schwyzer convinced his colleagues that he’d done the reading, he was qualified to teach a course in whatever it was he’d read.
Does this system require trust and lend itself to abuse? I suppose. But as someone who spent 13 years teaching at one of the best universities in the country, I can assure you that when you stand in front of a classroom of bright, motivated students you always feel like a fraud. You’ve never read enough, and you never will have. Your shelves will always be lined with books you should’ve already read. You feel like a fraud because you’ve only read thirty books on X, but your students consider you an authority for the very same reason.
Was I a hypocrite when I taught a literary journalism course after only having casually read Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and John McPhee? What if I told you I’d also had a subscription to The New Yorker for a decade? How much literary journalism did I need to read to be able to teach it? How familiar with its style and conventions did I need to be? I can’t answer those questions, so instead I’ll say what every teacher knows to be true: I wasn’t qualified to teach the material until I’d already taught it a few times.
That doesn’t make me a fraud—it makes me a teacher.
Here’s a hypothetical: an academic writes a dissertation about, say, evolutionary theory in fin de siècle American popular culture, but later starts reading and writing about a subject in which he’d received absolutely no graduate level training. Like, I don’t know, film theory. He reads the seminal texts, then writes about it online, for a popular audience instead of an academic one, for the better part of six years. Would this academic be qualified to open an “Internet Film School” at the Onion A.V. Club? Would he be a fraud if he did?
Steven Attewell and I decided that we didn't want to wait until next February to continue talking about Game of Thrones, and so we decided to start over. Here's our take on "Winter Is Coming," the serie's inaugural episode. I'm including links to the works I referenced and will have Steven do the same. Works SEK discusses:
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.
Not wanting to spend the entirety of my life figuring out how to put the entirety of my life into boxes and move it across the country, I decided to watch the animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Directed by Jay Olivia and released in two parts in 2012 and 2013, it belongs to the Zack Snyder School of Literal Filmmaking, in which the idea is to replicate particularly stirring comic panels on the big screen by unwittingly mangling the elements that make them stirring.
Consider Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen. We don’t even need to venture past the opening credits to see where the film misses the point. But before we do that, I should note that I’m not complaining generally about a lack of faithfulness in adaptation. Comics and film are different media and ought to be treated as such. I don’t mind if changes are made that alter the narrative in an interesting fashion. But Snyder preaches fidelity as his ethos, so taken at his word, deviations from the comic in his films aren’t “interesting alterations” so much as the “necessary accommodations” of adapting any medium into another. These changes are being made by a lover of the source material who would never be unfaithful to the “spirit” of the original. For what it’s worth, I think Snyder’s dead honest about his commitment to accurately representing both individual panels and the “spirit” of the original work on screen — he simply happens to be terrible at doing so. Back to the opening minutes of Watchmen, in which Rorschach’s investigating the Comedian’s murder. Both the novel and the film begin with a close-up of the Comedian’s iconic image before pulling back to the skyscraper window from which it fell.
I’ve turned on the subtitles in order to make the difference between the novel and the film clear. Although both pull back to great heights, in the novel the emphasis during the slow transition from the ground floor to the Comedian’s apartment is on the content of Rorschach’s journal. You can tell because it occupies a little more than a third of the first three panels and the other visual information is merely repetitive. This isn’t necessarily the case when a camera zooms out — and readers of the novel recognize that there is relevant information in the third panel — but in this case seeing some anonymous man walk through the pool of blood isn’t necessarily useful information. (Readers might associate the anhedonic tone of the journal and the callousness with which the redheaded man walks through the pool of blood, but who among us was that clever at eleven?)
Point being: Snyder’s made the minor directorial decision to move the interior narration of the journal to when Rorschach actually appears:
Same lines from the first panel of the comic, they’ve just been shifted forward to remove the mystery of their author. There’s just one problem: in the film, the implication is that Rorschach’s thinking about the awfulness of the city when he discovers the Comedian’s badge. His behavior’s motivated by his disdain for the people he deigns to protect. His anger drives his actions in a very conventional manner: this man named, clearly identified as Rorschach, is a moralistic vigilante who prowls the streets at night preventing crime, picking up shit from sewer drains and inexplicably using grappling guns. He’s in a mood — the only one he ever has — and he happens to find something that sets him off again. Not so much in the novel:
Notice how quiet Moore and Gibbons’ panels are. By shifting the narration from the zoom out to Rorschach’s discovery of the Comedian’s pin, Snyder’s demonstrated that he fundamentally misread those three panels. The point of them — which will be made more strongly shortly — is to establish Rorschach’s skills as a detective. It’s too easy to turn a character of Rorschach’s pedigree into a mindless vigilante, which is why Moore and Gibbons use Watchmen‘s opening pages to establish his credentials as a detective. He finds evidence of the Comedian on the street; stares it down in attempt to ascertain where it came from; then decides it must have fallen. Only then does he look up at the building. It’s a slow and contemplative progression of panels that the film turns into an minor action sequence complete with “all the [drowning].” And of course once Rorschach arrives on scene:
He says nothing, because he’s investigating. He’s thinking his own thoughts about what he sees. If he had a Watson or a Wilson or a companion he’d be vigorously shushing them at this point because he needs to think. In the film?
He’s thinking that right there as he’s perched in the window. He’s not being an effective detective — he’s being a bitter blogger stuck doing something else but silently composing posts he’ll write when he gets the chance. Even though they made the juxtaposition of the journal clear when he first opened his mouth by having him “think-read” “Rorschach’s journal, October 12, 1985,” the manner in which Snyder uses the non-diegetic voice-over in the scene makes it appear to be a interior monologue, right down to the emphatic eighties-action-hero-overstatement of his final “No.”
It’s actually a little more complex than that. Interior monologues are typically considered to be non-diegetic — in that they don’t come from a source visible on-screen — but I’d argue that, in film generally, they’re diegetic inasmuch as they are coming from a visible source, e.g. I can see Rorschach’s head and think I’m hearing his thoughts as he’s having them. Which is why this is a little complex: he’s not actually thinking the thoughts the audience is attributing to him, unless he’s got an perfect recall and is reciting his journal to himself. In 1985. Or possibly later if this is a flashback. All of which is only to demonstrate how needlessly complicated Snyder’s made this scene in order to streamline it: now Rorschach’s journal is introduced while he arrives at the Comedian’s apartment. He thinks nothing’s lost by transposing Rorschach’s mad rantings onto his work as a detective. He’s wrong.
The point of keeping Rorschach’s journal distinct from his detective work in the opening pages is to create, in the mind of the audience, a distinction between the man and the mask. The man, Walter Kovacs, is a violent sociopath; the mask, Rorschach, can channel the man’s tendencies into productive policing and temper his violence. This distinction indicates that he’s going to be a character whose psychological state is difficult to read. It’s almost like people will see what they want to see in him because he’s wearing a fucking Rorschach test. By which I only mean to suggest that despite his fidelity to the panels, Synder’s missed the entire point of the scene in order to make it more conventional. That’s why his Rorschach says quite a bit more than Moore and Gibbon’s:
Rorschach’s “HUNH” and “EHH” are thinking noises of the sort people make when lost deep in thought. In the third panel, Rorschach recognizes that the size of the interior of the closet seems odd; in the fourth, he improvises a means of measuring the closet’s depth; in the fifth he measures the exterior; in the sixth he measures the interior. And Moore and Gibbons are clever enough to emphasize the crook in the hanger. It’s literally in the dead center of the fifth panel — meaning it’s in the dead center of a page scripted by Alan Moore and therefore quite important:
Only when he compares the location of the crook on the interior in panel six does Rorschach realize that there’s a secret compartment. These panels are evidence of a process of deduction at work. He’s more than a vigilante obsessed with a citizenry slipping into sin — he’s a proper detective who’s capable of improvisation in the course of his investigations. Or he opens a random closet, slides the clothes aside and sees a button:
Then he presses it. Great work there Detective Rorschach! Not sure how you thought of that! I think my point is obvious: Snyder may be faithful to the design elements of particular panels, but more often than not he entirely misreads the significance of the work he slavishly imitates. Now that I’ve established that, I can say that a similar dynamic is at work in The Dark Knight Returns: panels from the graphic novel appear on the screen in a manner that demonstrates the Olivia, the director, didn’t quite understand their import. Consider this action sequence in which the Batman runs across a tightrope from one building to another:
Is shot square in his symbol and staggers:
Begins to fall:
Then fires his grappling gun at an escaping helicopter:
This sequence seems like typical heat-of-the-moment Batman: expensive body armor and years of training allow him to routinely do the impossible. He doesn’t need to think — he’s a man of pure reaction. Even after all these years of not being the Batman — the word “Returns” is in the title for a reason — his instincts allow him to act unconsciously. Such is the impression created by the adaptation. One problem: although that last capture above does reproduce an iconic silent splash page, the rest of those panels should sound, via interior monologue, like this:
Whereas with Rorschach there should’ve been no interior monologue, in The Dark Knight Returns there should have been. The point of the book is that Batman’s falling off buildings worried about having a heart attack and trying to console himself on the dignity of his impending death. Those are very un-Batman-like things to be thinking in the middle of a fight. Eliminating the interior monologue has reduced him to his body — which I grant is the point of many a Batman story, e.g. Bruce Wayne escaping the vaguely Asian pit in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s just not the point of this one. It’s the opposite of the point. But as with Synder, the desire to be faithful to the original work has resulted in something utterly different and more mundane. I led with the discussion of Rorschach because I don’t want people to assume that I’m making the common criticism that comics handle interiority better than film because we can “see” people think in them. That’s not the point — especially not with a Frank Miller book, since the tone of the interior monologue comes straight from film noir’s tradition of voice-overs — which, of course, comes from the first person perspective of the detective novels on which they were based, but that’s not the point either. The point here is that the films of two of the greatest graphic novels of the 1980s are both significantly worse than they have to be because they were adapted by people who fundamentally didn’t understand how they worked.
They’re the equivalent of a parrot trained to greet visitors with a hearty “Hello! Good to see you!” It doesn’t have a fucking clue what it’s saying but somehow we’re convinced we hear language.
I keep on reading that the title of this season's penultimate Mad Men episode, "The Quality of Mercy," is "a phrase from Shakespeare" without any explanation as to what its significance might be. Todd's the exception, but his account of the play muddies his most pressing insight: one only appeals to the quality of mercy when dealing with people who don't deserve it because one wants it from that very same person. It only exists as a rhetorical tactic. But it doesn't work quite that way anymore. For contemporary audiences the quality of mercy is something granted through extra-textual means -- the play's antisemitism retroactively grants it to Shylock -- which is another way of saying that characters exist in history and shouldn't be judged by their actions in the moment so much as their reputation over the not-so-longue durée. This excuses nothing:
Shylock behaves like a stock Jew because Shakespeare didn't think his character worth elevating. The same can't be said of Don Draper in a season in which his status as an unknown quantity's been highlighted by the presence of fellow professional liar Bob Benson. Or can it? The last two episodes have seen him turn against his wife (Megan) and his protege (Peggy) for reasons that aren't entirely clear but clearly aren't merciful. And yet the arrival of Benson mingles with his failing marriage and office foibles in a manner that makes him seem deserving of the mercy Shylock wanted to refuse Antonio. That mercy would've denied Shylock his "pound of flesh." Care to guess who we are in this analogy?
That's correct: we're Shylock demanding a pound of Draper's flesh and we're the contemporary audience extending him mercy because we know that Shylock's been misunderstood by history. Which is about where we stand at this point in the series: Draper's a tragic figure made all the more tragic by the decisions he's making. He's an unforgivable human being widely recognized as a product of his circumstances. He's the man everyone envies until they see his substance is little more than strategically placed shadows -- particularly in this episode. But before I comment on that I should note how this episode begins:
With Draper in the fetal position. I'm not going to go all Freudian on you because I don't do that anymore. What's more significant than any Freudian overtones is that this is the first time in this episode that one side of Draper's face is hidden from the camera. That Phil Abraham went with an overhead shot in order to accomplish that is a telling oddity: we don't normally see shots from this perspective outside of the opening credits. Make of that what you will. What I find significant is that the opening shot of the episode 1) informs us that Don's wounded and 2) suggests that he's hiding his wound by hiding his face. I know this isn't actually true -- you can't hide psychological scars behind turned heads or well-positioned shadows -- but consider how the rest of the episode is shot. Here's Don pouring orange juice:
Abraham's clearly taking advantage of the "natural" light streaming in the set's windows -- it's most likely a key light -- but it's all coming from frame-right. If you imagine Jon Hamm's standing in the center of a clock facing 12 o'clock, it appears as if there's a key light with a diffuser of some sort around 9 o'clock. If there weren't a diffuser of some sort the contrast would be harsher and it would look more noir -- but the shot's not that flat, as we can see light gently reflecting off the cupboards behind him. What's missing is some sort of fill light at 2 o'clock to illuminate Hamm's face. Why's it missing? Because Abraham wanted him to look "shady" without seeming Manichean. That's why the diffuser's significant: it prevents the contrast from being harsh and turning Draper into an anti-heroic image of stock-noir. The conflict in most noir films being, of course, that Humphrey Bogart's trying to apply his black-and-white code of right and wrong to a grey world. Draper's conflict, of course, is that he has no code to apply to an increasingly colorful world, so it stands to reason that Abraham wouldn't shoot him so harshly. Especially when he's pouring orange juice. But what about when he's pouring vodka into the orange juice?
Nope. That's the same key light. Hamm's just turned around so now the other side of his face is shaded. Not completely, though, because as noted there's some light reflecting off the cupboards that's preventing the entirety of the left side of his face from being in darkness. There's clearly something wrong with him in these shots: it's not that Draper's drinking in the morning, but that he's hiding drinking in the morning. Even the functional alcoholic occasionally needs a day off to drink inappropriately -- not that I speak from experience. But that's clearly what's happening here: more of the same only slightly different. But it doesn't get any better as the scene progresses:
As soon as he turns around he may as well not have: he's not bathed in the radiance of the same missing fill light. Maybe it'll improve once he stops celebrating Screwdriver Appreciation Day and shows up for work?
It's dogging him. I know shadows can't actually dog people and that it's all about strategically placed lights but if I didn't know any better I'd say this shadow was dogging him. Because rhetorically it is. In terms of its effect on the audience this shadow has been plastered to a side of his face since the moment he woke up in the fetal position trying to hide it from the camera in that overhead shot. It dissipates some in the meeting in which he "saves" Peggy by attributing her idea to the dear and recently departed:
It's not nearly so extreme here, which makes sense, because Draper's in his element. If the producers are manifesting his demons as shadows, it's understandable that they'd be less prominent in the one place Draper still feels somewhat comfortable. But the lighting's still working against Hamm: there's a fill light illuminating most of him, but it seems more designed to highlight the drawings of Peggy's Rosemary's Baby-inspired children's aspirin ad. He's catching the light incidentally and Draper's not a character often filmed in reflected glory. But here he is. I don't have any inside knowledge about why he keeps his head canted throughout this scene, but I can say that the effect echoes the shadowing from earlier in the episode. He's fighting the lights to spite his face here, and I don't think that's unintentional. Especially not considering his conversation after the meeting:
And this one's the give-away. This shot shouts the director's intent loud as subtitles: he's determined to create shadows on Hamm's face even if it requires off-lighting it very brightly. That glare on the right side of his head is the unfortunate side-effect of burying the rest of his face beneath shadow in what is, otherwise, a very bright room. I'm not sure what the thematic function of this shadow is -- I'm wary of explanations of characters that rely too heavily on how they're being presented by individual directors -- but there has to be one. I mean:
There has to be one. It's extremely difficult to create that sort of contrast -- diffused or otherwise -- in such well-lit spaces. I'd praise the dedicated crew responsible for creating this effect if I knew what their names were, because they deserve praise for creating this impression of a Don dogged by something. I could be glib and say it's history generally, or his personal history, or his night with Betty, or his non-nights with Megan, but I'd rather let the show tell me which of those is bothering him. Apparently it's the latter:
Whatever his problem is, the visual structure of the episode is relating it back to Megan. He ends this episode as he began it: in the fetal position sleeping with Megan's significant absence.
It’s been brought to my attention that the two posts I’ve produced about “The Rains of Castamere” were written under the influence of Los Lobos’s How Will the Wolf Survive? (1985). Weeks ago, insomnia guided me to some 3 a.m. PBS documentary that placed Los Lobos between Public Enemy and the Rolling Stones in terms of the most influential bands of the 20th Century, and since then I’ve been revisiting their catalog.
I just didn’t realize how biased this non-deigetic sound may have made my past couple of analyses. Maybe the Lannister’s deserve more benefit of the doubt than the “none” I’ve been extending them? The Boltons too?
When we left off, Catelyn was in the act of recognizing the terribleness of her moment. At 37:38 in the podcast, Steven and I argued about when the band began to play the song “The Rains of Castamere,” which is associated with House Lannister, and though this may seem like an insignificant detail, I don’t think it is. So I don’t want anyone to think that I’m arguing just to argue here, because this is one of the most important moments in traditional tragedy. In the Poetics, Aristotle claims that simple plots merely contain a catastrophe — something terrible happens for which general pity is felt — but complex plots combine that tragedy with anagnorisis, or a moment of recognition.
This moment of recognition is not had by the audience, but by a character within the play; that is, it’s had by a character with whom the audience sympathizes, and through whose perspective the consequences of this catastrophe can be understood. In other words, for Aristotle, the superior play is one in which the audience’s sympathies are focalized through a perspective in a way that personalizes the catastrophe. It’s not just generally sad that these Trojans have to die, it’s particularly sad that we’re forced to watch one of them we care about realize he’s about to die. That’s the heart of traditional tragedy: it’s not the catastrophe itself (because the audience isn’t in actual jeopardy), but the sympathetic identification with the character who realizes he’s about to be killed (because that’s something the audience can actually feel) that makes a tragedy effective.
In other word: this moment is important because it’s the engine of tragedy. The audience may only realize what’s happening when “The Rains of Castamere” begins to play, but because tragedy’s supposed to lead to reflection, it’s important to determine exactly when Catelyn does. So here we go. Robb and Talisa are having a long and playful conversation that ends in her informing him that she’s carrying a child named “Eddard Stark.” I’ve animated the 33-second-long conversation so you can see that it consists of 15 reversals and one pan down: