Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Claustrophobia is a cumulative effect. (Yet another one of those posts.) Representing claustrophobic situations on screen should be simple enough: you take a person, put them in a confined space, and then you bury them alive. Doesn't matter if they're Buffy (in "Bargaining"): Or Bones (in "Aliens in a Spaceship"): Or some character played by Ryan Reynolds (in a dull film I wish I hadn't seen): Each of those cramped shots communicates to the audience that, like Everett in O Brother, Where Art Thou, someone's in a tight spot. But that's the problem: it communicates the narrow confines in which the characters find themselves, but because the "coffin shot" has become so clichéd, it does so the same way that a sequence of reverse shots inside a car communicates that the participants of a given conversation are driving. Only the oblique angle of the shot of Reynolds comes close to doing what a "coffin shot" is intended to do: duplicate in the audience the claustrophobia felt by the character. (And it only does so because of the odd angle. Most the film uses more conventional "coffin angles" and is as enervated as the other shots above.) Point being: filmmakers are quite proficient at representing people in enclosed spaces and communicating that said people are feeling claustrophobic, but they're not nearly as accomplished at making the audience feel the confinement represented the on screen. From the examples above, it's obvious that two techniques don't work: 1) placing characters in an enclosed space for a short duration and 2) placing characters in an enclosed space for a long duration. The first falls victim to convention, whereas the second flirts dangerously with boredom. (I disagree vehemently with Ebert on the effectiveness of Buried.) But if acclimation to convention has vitiated the tools with which a director could cajole claustrophobia from the audience (and if said director's not interested in making a tedious stunt of a film), how can an episode or a film be claustrophobic? The answer is: holistically. By which I mean, burying characters for X-amount-of-claustrophobic-time won't cut it, because that still leaves Y-amount-of-non-claustrophobic-time acting as an atmospheric counterweight. The entire episode or film must be shot with claustrophobia in mind. To use the episode of Bones as an example, too many shots in the episode are scaled too long: Does this long shot feel claustrophobic to you? Of course not. It's a brightly lit long shot: the lighting (and depth of field) allows the audience to observe details in the fore-, mid- and background, while the scale assures the audience that there's plenty to observe in all those grounds. To think counterfactually for a moment, it's not that shot couldn't be made more claustrophobic. Had the director cropped out some unnecessary visual information: Still a long shot, but by focusing more narrowly on Agent Booth and the lab technician, the space on-screen seems more cramped. If those officers in the back were to scoot a few feet to the left, the composition of the shot would...
They can (mostly) hear those whistles blowing. (Mostly.) Juan Williams wrote a column on conservative dog-whistles in which he points out the obvious: The language of GOP racial politics is heavy on euphemisms that allow the speaker to deny any responsibility for the racial content of his message. The code words in this game are “entitlement society” — as used by Mitt Romney—and “poor work ethic” and “food stamp president”—as used by Newt Gingrich. References to a lack of respect for the “Founding Fathers” and the “Constitution” also make certain ears perk up by demonizing anyone supposedly threatening core “old-fashioned American values.” Conservatives are pouncing on the idea that “Founding Fathers” could be what Williams calls a “racial code word,” and admittedly, it’s his weakest example. (Though you need not be a Constitutional scholar to understand that everyone who signed that document was not only white but that many of them owned slaves.) The dog-whistle status of the public fellation of source texts is questionable, but Gingrich’s refrain about Obama being a “food stamp President” certainly isn’t. Because not only is it a dog-whistle, it’s a dog-whistle whose etiology is a matter of public record. According to a source of unquestionable integrity, on January 5, 2012 Newt Gingrich told an audience in Plymouth, N.H. that if he were invited to speak at the NAACP’s annual convention, he would accept and “talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” Far from being an idiopathic charge arising from some haze of liberal thought, the connection between blacks and food stamps is present right there in the very words Gingrich said: NAACP + Food Stamps = Dog-Whistle This isn’t that complicated: Gingrich created a rhetorical situation in which any invocation of food stamps would signal to his intended audience that he was talking about black people. The fact that he dispels this notion is belied by the undercurrent of thought that gave rise to the equation in the first place. If he didn’t associate black people with food stamps, mentioning the NAACP wouldn’t have triggered a canned statement about food stamps. Conservatives may wish this weren’t the case—that is, they may want to talk about the rise in food stamp consumption under the Obama administration—but Gingrich has made it impossible for them to do so without invoking the racist undertones of his statement.

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