Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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...
Buckling the frame (This isn't only one of them posts, it's the bastard child of this and this one.) I feel this post nips too obviously at the heels of previous ones, as I'm not going to be discussing anything I haven't discussed before. Creating a claustrophobic environment is a technical accomplishment that can be done irrespective of the environs in which one shoots a scene. Cramped quarters help, obviously, but they're not necessary. That said, the quarters in the second half of the Doctor Who episode "Time of Angels" are quite cramped, so the fact that director Adam Smith chose the default shots of his principles to be medium- and medium close-ups exacerbates what would've been a feature of every frame anyway. To wit: That's the Doctor discussing the impending arrival of the Angels with the soldier-clerics assigned to assist him. Important here isn't merely the framing—though compositionally, the soldier-clerics bookending the Doctor can't be considered insignificant—but the tightness of it. The shallow focus leaves only those three in focus—although Amy's still visible by virtue of her ginger dress, not unlike a certain someone else—but the shot's overstuffed with folks in a way that completely obscures the background. Given that that the imminent threat isn't any of these three shot-stuffers, obscuring the background denies the audience access to whatever it is that might be lurking in the dark. Point being, it's not just that this shot is claustrophobic, but that the claustrophobia it elicits is deliberately obfuscatory: by focusing, shallowly, on these three, the dangerous statues currently spooky-fishing* their way towards them are perforce crushed from the frame. They'll be revealed in shot/reverse shot sequences shortly thereafter, but the tight framing here makes the situation in which the Doctor et al. find themselves seem all the more hopeless. Consider: This is the Doctor coming up with one of his patented plans, but the framing still indicates that whatever trap he's in still possesses the upper hand. It's entrapping him, not the other way around. Of course, this entrapment is but a preface to a spectacular escape, and the way in which Smith films this desperation is but a means to increase the glory that said escape entails, but the heightening of this effect is a significant moment in this season. Rarely do the Doctor's plans include genocide, no matter how malevolent the species he's dealing with. Daleks and Cybermen he traps in other universes or the empty space between them, but this Doctor? He disappears his enemies like a Chilean dictator—erasing them from history—or outright murders the last of them if they pose a threat to Earth.** There's much more to say, but for now I'm focusing on the abreaction of Doctor and audience to the claustrophobia he and it encounter. It's cathartic, most certainly, but there's purging and then there's purging, and only one of them is just and healthy. *I can't directly link because Comedy Central is a ... but the relevant material's at 3:58. **As in "The Vampires of...

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