Monday, 23 January 2012

What we talk about when we talk about hands. As I was writing and writing and writing and writing about Jack London in my dissertation, I noticed something I was never able to fully incorporate into my argument: the man's obsession with hands. He not only wrote about them regularly in his fiction, but his letters are heavily peppered with references to his own "deformed" mitts. I scare-quote "deformed" because history has no record as to whether his hands were as he believed them to be—the scarred and calloused collection of fingers that his life of hard labor had created. That a leading voice for the working class was embarrassed by the signs that he'd once and long been a member of the same is one of those historical ironies that's better left for braver souls to judge. I'm more interested in the evidence. For example, were you a photographer taking a profile picture of London, he would present you with this: Or this: Decent shots, no doubt, but ones in which the palms of his hands have been deliberately obscured. If you were a different sort of photographer entirely—one who wanted to take pictures of famous authors in diapers, for example—London would oblige thus: All of which is only to say that, for obvious reasons, my eye's been trained to seek out and find meaning in hands. Hands, as I noted in my post on "The Van Gogh Job," do things. Directors and artists—perhaps especially comic artists—focus on hands because they're humanity's native tools. Any other tool we have, for the most part, is either an actual or imaginative extension of our hands. So when I teach Craig Thompson's Blankets, I begin with a tailored introduction to McCloud and comic theory, then I move on to the hands. Why import a tic I noticed in London to a book written a century later? Consider the evidence: Thompson's rough but fluid style is meant to be evocative, not realistic, otherwise Craig and Phil (the boys pictured in the bed) would be like shih tzus unto their father. More significantly, measure it out and you'll realize that their father's hand is the same length as his head, which isn't an impossibility—the NBA does exist, after all—but is very much an improbability. Point being: Craig and Phil's father has a gigantic hand, one capable of doing many things, some of which may be horrible. For example: That'd be a close-up of Phil being manhandled from his bed by his father. Note how the close-up emphasizes the size of Phil's head relative to his father's fist. Note also the emblem on Phil's pajama top, as the irony's by all means intended. Continuing: Phil's being dragged into an attic space of composed of pure darkness. All the light in this panel originates in the room behind Phil and his father. The implication is that as soon as that hand—and only that hand, as the hand's replaced the father's face in the iconography of this scene—as soon as that hand slams shut that door,...
Claustrophobia, as Wolfgang Petersen recognizes, is a cumulative effect. (The continuation of the previous post which, like this one, is yet another one of those posts.) I was going to jump right into the episode of Doctor Who I'm teaching tomorrow, but due to a non-Whovian coup, I'm going to prove my point differently first. To that end, I asked my however many Facebook friends I have the following: Please name the five most claustrophobic films and/or episodes of a television show you've ever seen. If your nominee is chosen, I'll honor you by naming you by name in the post I'm going to write this afternoon. (Not much of an honor, but hey, it's better than nothing.) Patrick Slaven, Kyler Kuehn, Carrie Shanafelt and Gary Farber all recommended Das Boot, and since I own a copy of said film, Das Boot it is. Short plot summary: back when Wolfgang Petersen had talent, he directed a film about a German U-boat and its discontents, and because the majority of the film took place on the boat, it had plenty of shots that approximate the "coffin shots" I discussed yesterday. (Being stuck in a metal tube leagues and leagues below the sea is roughly equivalent to being buried alive.) But unlike the frames discussed yesterday—in particular, the awkward image of Reynolds in his coffin—Petersen relies on standard scaled shots to create a claustrophobic atmosphere for his audience. So long as the audience grants him the conceit that the men in his film live precariously in a long metal cylinder, he need not 1) employ conventional "coffin shots" nor 2) improve upon convention or go whole hog (as Rodrigo Cortés did in Buried). Petersen's audience knows that these men are confined behind a brittle shell of metal and will miles below the sea, so the enclosed atmosphere of the film is implicit. But that's not enough. As I mentioned yesterday, audiences key in to conventions in ways that subvert their effectiveness. A director can put a person in a closed coffin, but because so many have done so previously, the effect is merely communicative. The simple fact of being entrapped comes across, but the sympathetic feeling of entrapment doesn't. Das Boot is different. It lacks any of the obviously constricted shots and opts instead for a directorial ethos of tight framing (much as I discussed in my counterfactual Bones yesterday): That'd be a typical dinner shot. It lacks the ostentation of Reynolds in a coffin, but by framing this medium close-up as he did, Petersen's use of shallow focus indicates that there's little more to the room than what's seen here. Typically, shallow focus emphasizes a face (or faces) and blurs the unimportant background into a hazy nothing; here, however, the shallow focus reveals that the walls behind these folks abut them so closely that they can't be excluded from the shot. There's simply no way for them to be in focus and the walls around them not, which an audience will realize (even if it doesn't consciously understand) means that...

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