Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Heroic Abeyance (On Donner's Superman) [The complete list of my visual rhetoric posts can be found here.] Richard Donner knew that Superman needed a powerful entrance in Superman (1978), but he also knew that the one element that it would necessarily lack was surprise. The audience knows who Clark Kent is and knows that Lois Lane won't actually plummet to her death, and Donner knows that the audience knows that. Because he can't rely on the narrative to carry the weight of the scene, he must resort to using spectacle to carry the weight of the narrative. The scene begins innocently enough, with an extreme long shot (in deep focus) of Lois Lane approaching a helicopter parked on a skyscraper: Why go with the extreme long shot? Because he needs to establish the relation of the helicopter to this mischievous cable: How do we know it's mischievous? Because he cut to a close-up of it. The audience may not know why they are being asked to pay attention to this cable, but they know it will play some role in the narrative about to transpire. Donner then cuts back to the original shot to show Lane entering the helicopter: Note the deep focus here: even though the camera remains positioned exactly as it had been in the first shot, the scale of this would be considered medium long. Why? Because the most important element of a shot helps define what a shot is. It could be argued that the helicopter is more important in the first shot, in which case it would have been a medium shot of a helicopter with Lane visible in the background. But I'm going to argue that Lane is more significant than the helicopter 1) because she occupies the central position in both shots and 2) because her yellow jacket contrasts both the black to the left and the red to the right. Besides, if Donner wanted the helicopter to be the central element, he would've just done this: An even more extreme long shot of the helicopter pad works as a re-establishing shot. Because of its scale and the lack of on-screen movement, this shot imparts a calmness to the proceedings. Everything is going according to plan. It is now safer for the audience to join Lane in the helicopter: Donner situates the audience immediately behind Lane, but the shallow depth of field results in the back of her head being out of focus. This shot is uncomfortable because it's contradictory: her centrality indicates the very same importance the focus diminishes. Everything may not be going according to plan: By cutting from the cockpit shot to this close-up of the cable, Donner is momentarily disorienting the audience in a manner that mimcks the disorientation about to be felt by Lane and the pilots. Where is that cable? Where is moving? What is snapping? Maybe these guys know: Probably not. From that distance, a black cable on a black helipad would be well-night invisible. At least until it snaps and...
Form and Content in Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman Before I begin, I would like to re-admit that I don't "get" Grant Morrison. I understand and, to some extent, can appreciate what others find interesting about his work, but for me reading Morrison is akin to arguing with someone who believes that, after death, we enter "the Supercontext ... a fifth-dimensional, informational continuum where things that we don't quite understand go on." (Because that's exactly what it is.) In other words, I don't disapprove of Morrison's grand scheme so much as I think its philosophical underpinnings are as sound and stable as those of anyone else who drops too much acid and claims communion with unseen entities of vast esoteric power. They—being the philosophical underpinnings, not the unseen entities of vast esoteric power—are there, certainly, but they're there to be accepted as revelation, not to be argued with. That said, I decided to teach All-Star Superman anyway and will attempt to do it justice. Fortunately for me, that's not too difficult to do if I concentrate on the opening pages of the first issue. To wit: Absent from these four panels is any hint that "[t]hat 'S' is the radiant emblem of divinity we reveal when we rip off our stuffy shirts, our social masks, our neuroses, our constructed selves, and become who we truly are." (We're not, truly or otherwise, anything we see on that page.) Instead, Morrison presents the familiar origin of Superman with a narrative economy as impressive as it is moving. (Or because, despite its familiarity, it is moving.) In eight words evenly distributed over four panels, Morrison captures the oft-forgotten pathos of the character. How does Morrison effect this? By creating an alternating rhythm to the panels. The first depicts a world-historical catastrophe; the second, a medium close-up of two people caught in it; the third, the catastrophe again; the fourth, a first-person extreme close-up of two people whose lives are changed by it. The balance created by alternating between the catastrophic scale in the first and third panels emphasizes, by putting into relief, the personal scale evident in the second and fourth. Put differently: the pained faces in the second panel are both magnified and humanized by the events depicted in the panels bookending it. Similarly, the inquisitive faces in the fourth panel are made meaningful both by the third and the splash page that follows: The second and third pages aren't typically considered part of the opening sequence, but they seem to me vital to understanding the rhythm Morrison establishes. It's almost as if the Kents' curiosity on the previous page is answered by the magnificance depicted on the two subsequent ones. (The visual impact of the second and third pages is diminished by the necessities of blog-columns, but if you click on the images they should open in their original sizes.) In short, the book opens with symmetry (page one) and transitions to sublime grace (pages two and three), which perfectly prepares the reader for this: I'm going to avoid plot-points...

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