Wednesday, 16 February 2011

How, exactly, do you film someone being stalked by a statue? (Being lecture notes on the Doctor Who episode "Time of Angels," obviously.) Something lumbering as quickly as a zombie wouldn't seem to pose much of a threat, so it goes without saying that turning them into something threatening would entail speeding them up or increasing their numbers unto ubiquity. In the former case, their uniqueness is reduced and they become just another movie monster; in the latter, they're horrifying because our inability to grasp the greatness of their numbers approaches the sublime. But how would they pose a threat if they were unable to move at all? I'm teaching the episode of Doctor Who entitled "Time of Angels" because the answer to that question is that they move via film cliché. More on that in a moment. First, let me introduce you to the Doctor: He is a funny old man with a magic blue box whose Wikipedia entry is longer than New Hampshire's, so I'm not sure I'll be able to briefly sum up who and what he is. Suffice it to say he's the English equivalent of Superman, only intellectualized instead of strong. You don't really need to understand the Doctor to understand this episode or my post, though; more important for the present are the Weeping Angels, a malevolent race of statues created by the current show-runner, Steven Moffatt. Let me say it again: they are a malevolent race of statues. How do they demonstrate their malevolence? When you're not looking. There's a purity to the concept of creating a monster whose movements perfectly (and can only, because they must) match the cinematographic vocabulary of horror. Every time the camera is on them, they must be statues, meaning the audience must actively infer their off-screen movement. The audience must be attentive because they won't be able to sit back and observe the proceedings (and because if they do there won't be any proceedings to sit back and observe). The challenge for Moffat and director Adam Smith is to take this ingenious metaphor for horror films and turn it into something genuinely horrifying. What follows is how they do it in the beginning of the episode. First, they place the Doctor's companion, Amy Pond, in an enclosed space: This is a fairly long shot, the purpose of which is to provide the audience with a sense of both a character and that character's status relative to his or her environment. It also uses deep focus ironically, keeping everything in focus so that the audience can see just how much of it there isn't. Additionally, the tight framing of the shot is similar to this scene from Mad Men, except here those lines are both imagined and actual because she's in a metal tube. The result is a claustrophic atmosphere, but a bit menacing, too, because the audience knows the cheat cut is effected from the position on the wall occupied by the recorded image of an Angel: Note that Smith eschews a point-of-view shot and instead places the camera equidistant between the recording and Pond. The previous shot established that...
Reifying memory in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home Alison Bechdel's Fun Home fits neatly into the last third of my "Confessional Narratives" course for all the obvious reasons: it's intensely autobiographical; it's told from an emotional and temporal remove from the events narrated; those events are of indisputable significance to the life of the confessor; etc. In particular, it resembles Craig Thomspon's Blankets and Art Spiegelman's Maus in that its focus is on the narrator's relationship with someone particular; however, unlike Thompson's relationship with God or Spiegelman's with his father, Vladek, Bechdel's interested in a fundamental reconcilation with her closeted father. I'm not claiming that Spiegelman was uninterested in understanding his father better, only that his attempt was doomed to failure because the unknowable horror of the Holocaust made it impossible for him to either share that experience or even understand the gravity of its effects on his father, e.g. these non-consecutive panels from "And Here My Troubles Began": There is something non-universal about the way in which the Holocaust altered Vladek Spiegelman, and as much as Art attempts to divine the particular from the universal or vice versa, he never succeeds. The nightmare of history is such that his father's story can only ever be that: his father's story. The same doesn't logic doesn't hold for Bechdel's Fun Home, not only because the horrors of discovering you're gay aren't comparable to finding yourself in Aushwitz, but because Bechdel's lament is that her father, Bruce, didn't live long enough to experience life outside the closet. It's no coincidence that Bechdel has "a hallucinogenic memory" of accompanying her closeted father to retreive her mother from the city: The irony of this memory occupying an hallucinogenic space "a few weeks since the Stonewall Riots" in Bechdel's memory should be obvious. I'm not saying she's lying or even misremembering, only that she's making history meaningful in a way that's similar to what Vladek performed on the first-order and Art did on the second. The difference between her performance and Art's is that she's doing so in order to make sense of his life in a way Art could never duplicate. Again, not faulting anyone for anything here, merely acknowledging what Art himself does above: the inability to understand, however tenuously vicariously, someone else's experience will prevent you from ever sympathizing with or being able to offer anything but sympathy to this other person. That's not the case in Fun Home, which is less concerned with communicating the attempt to reach an inreconciable understanding than the act of coming to an understanding you can live with. Put in the starkest possible terms: Art fails to understand Vladek because he can't comprehend the Holocaust, whereas Bechdel tries to understand herself through her father's life and succeeds because the attempt is a thing in itself, e.g. the book's Proustian returns to Proust: Fun Home reifies memory via narrative, but it does so in a way that reminds readers that human beings aren't made of words. Granted, the above panel is about as word-specific as...

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