Archives for category: screen space

I’m cowriting a piece on Hugo with Jennifer Clement. She’s the principal investigator, so our collaborative writing goes like this: 1)She writes. 2) She sends me the draft with a lot of annotations on what she feels like is missing or in need of attention. 3) I address those things. 4) I make the case for adding something. 5) I send that to her. Repeat. Consider this chunk of a paragraph:

In fact, this is a movie very concerned with work, both in the sense of “not-broken” and in the sense of labor. Hugo’s obsession to make the automaton his father rescued work is partly due to his sense of sorrow at all things that don’t function as they were designed to do. And this sense of sorrow is linked to his feeling that he himself is broken, damaged perhaps irreparably by his father’s death. But the movie also establishes the value of labor, which helps give a sense of purpose to life and which gives people a place to which they belong. The station is a place of work, as the repeated scenes of shopkeepers, commuters, and Hugo working at the clocks makes clear. The Inspector’s dismissal of the children in the Christina Rossetti scene ends with his words “I love poetry, just not in the station. We’re here to either get on trains or get off them. Work in different shops. Is that clear?” implying that children have no place in the world of work. Yet the movie shows that work is vital to everyone’s sense of self. When Isabella sits down to write, it seems the culmination of her own search for a place into which she fits, a place she can call her own. And it seems to follow naturally from her love of books.

With these ideas in place and in mind I’m pushing for moving from this set of ideas to a set of concerns raised by one of the recurrent images in Hugo: The Station Inspector checks his watch and the labourer responsible is always in the frame with him, but invisible.

Consider that when he catches Hugo and Isabelle in the station, the Inspector asserts that the station is a place of transit and work for adults, not poetry and children. When Isabelle recites a Christina Rossetti poem, the Inspector cuts her off saying, “I knows it’s Rossetti,” sounding a bit like Ali G. He continues: “I love poetry, just not in the station. We’re here to either get on trains or get off them. Work in different shops. Is that clear?” But adults and functional writing (newspapers) do not hold a monopoly in the station. Hugo, lives inside the walls of the train station, and his labour plays a significant part in the smooth functioning of the station. Isabelle is part of the public sphere in the station – an active part of the cafe dance lessons, Papa Georges’ shop, and the bookshop. Children and poetry belong as well. The unseen and unappreciated labour Hugo performs is thus paired with poetry, breaking the distinction between functional/work and aesthetic/joy spaces.

I admit that this doesn’t do a whole lot for the article’s argument, but it’s a lovely example of Judith Halberstam’s contention from The Queer Art of Failure children’s movies put across a distinctly communitarian and/or Marxist worldview.

John Hughes was never much of a director, but I really like the contrast between the opening and closing of The Breakfast Club for the way it gets at the way in which zoning plays such an important part in possible mobility. The film begins with everyone arriving at the school, and the school looms over the two achievement-oriented students, Brian and Andrew.

Bender and Alison, by contrast, arrive in an image that marks them as much less concerned with class mobility and more with the politics of their class position:

Finally, at least in terms of my argument, school occupies much less of Claire’s, shall we say, horizon. For Claire, Standish old (read: inherited) money will assure her continued comfort.

Why do Andrew and Brian need school for mobility? The ending returns to the school parking lot to hint at a reason: Zoning. Brian gets in the car and the school remains in the background – its stairs no less. No heteronormative couple will smooth his class mobility; Brian must depend on mobility through education. The shared car here is the key marker of how much Brian’s family has sacrificed to live in a “good district.”

When Andrew and Alison say goodbye, the school does less looming than in its previous appearance. The apartment complex in the centre right of the image takes up a far greater proportion of the screen. There’s a gulf between them – Andrew’s has aspirations to join Alison’s comfortable upper-mid life. But if the scholarship doesn’t pan out, Anderw just might find membership in the upper-middle class. (As an aside, the film’s big howler is that Andrew’s worried about being a “discipline case” and thereby losing his full ride. I briefly attended University of Iowa, where wrestling meets sold out Carver Hawkeye Arena. Dan Gable would have given a guy who won the Illinois state championship for his weight division as a sophomore a scholarship. No piddly solitary Saturday detention would ruin Andrew’s chances.)

The Bender-Claire framing is even more relentless. In place of the BMW of Overwhelming Financial Potency from the film’s beginning, the Bender-Claire farewell similarly places the apartment complex at its centre, with the glitz of the BMW pushed off to the corner. Why the sudden prominence of the apartment complex instead of the car? Breakfast Club is unabashedly utopian, and I’d argue that Hughes locates that utopian potential in places like apartments – the corners of affordable housing that make it possible for the working class and lower middle class to take advantage of schools in affluent areas. In limited numbers. That’s why multi-family residential zones (apartment complexes and the older kind of duplexes) are so important – and in such relatively scarce supply – in American suburbia.

In the future I’ll have a similar argument to make about a much more geographically specific (Shermer is Northbrook, but it’s also not) example of zoning’s importance in suburban education, The Slums of Beverly Hills.

I often tell my students that I don’t cotton to psychoanalytic criticism because I am too personally shallow; witness my literal-minded approach to film. Recently I wanted to compare Burt Reynolds’ shots of the Atlanta skyline to other skylines, mostly to provide a chance for a “name that skyline” moment of audience-participation. I discovered I have every establishing shot from the Bourne movies – even the entirely-black screen that says “Moscow, Russia” from The Bourne Ultimatum.

Long story short, I love establishing shots. It seems obvious that someone interested in the geography of cinema narratives would like establishing shots, but it’s something I wasn’t aware of consciously until I started breezing through my collection of screen grabs to find a skyline. It’s quite clear why I would have have some establishing shots for teaching and research purposes, but until a little while ago I didn’t realize how extensive my collection of establishing shots is. As an office-seeking politician would say, let me offer some context:

I have plenty of teaching and research reasons: I have dozens of establishing shots from Absolute Power, Dave, Murder at 1600, National Treasure 2, Shadow Conspiracy and Wag the Dog for a piece on White House secret passages. I have more than twenty establishing shots from Dirty Harry because I used it as a contrast for Police, Adjective. There’s a whole ton of German Expressionist imagery in long/establishing shot. City of God, Constant Gardener, and District 9 all helped out in a lecture on the geologic basis for slums. As a brief aside, I live in Sumner and it’s a bit of a curiosity: it’s far more common to find the dis-advantaged not the dirtbaggy upper-middle-class on crumbly hilly land on the edge of the city. Last Resort and Lost in Translation were a matched pair in CINE 102. All the clumsy preacher-and-cross framing can’t outweigh the great establishing shots of Mecca and Venice Beach, CA and the NorCal cemetery in Wild Angels. Finally, Y Tu Mama Tambien’s establishing shots – and long shots – are essential to its engagement with class in Mexico.

Some images are more personal: I have shots from Che (parts I and II) because I wonder about how extensive the Puerto Rico-for-Cuba and elsewhere shooting is. Same for Carlos the Jackal. I have a mess of establishing shots from Fargo and A Serious Man because they’re so Midwestern (I’ll have a future post on how half the Coen Brothers output makes me incredibly homesick). To get even more self-indulgent, something about a car driving through a corn field conjures up a memory of when my U16 soccer team played the Hampshire (then a Podunk town on the edge of rural nowhere) U19 team. It seemed like a long drive from Carpentersville into nothing but corn – I remember their right back was wretched, and I scored six goals in the first half. This likely explains my love for the cornfield shots from the beginning of The Informant!.

The main job of an establishing shot is to establish for the audience the larger context in which the action takes place. To me, the charm of an establishing shot is its reminder that the larger world surrounds the film. I still dream about the version of Die Hard 2 that deals with the people who cleaned up the mess in the car park at Nakatomi Plaza. And for that postmodern desire, I can in part blame my love of establishing shots.

The Bourne Ultimatum

Carlos the Jackal

On a smaller scale, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

Larry Gopnik’s neighbourhood in A Serious Man.

It’s a brute tool, but a good enough place to start. Here’s a hacked-together map of the narrative locations of the films in the Top 20 box office returns from 1970-1981. This little bit is a zoom on the South, especially the “New South” region. Burt Reynolds films are, like the legend says, colour-indicated. The next step (to come one of these days) is to provide dates/periods for the other New South-set films. Here’s the preview: most of the other films in the region take place between 10 and 30 years in the past. I could stretch the map’s time frame into the mid-80s without any significant change to the map. The contemporary New South was a strange sight on American (hit) movie screens.

Sheet 1

If there’s any justice in the world, the split screen will make a comeback one of these days. Sure, it’s good for the odd cheeky 60s reference, as in Down With Love, but the ability to show simultanaeity across multiple spaces without going to newly-tired shit like CCTV has its uses.

Case in point: In Airport Dean Martin leers like nobody’s business while Jacqueline Bisset changes. This shot sneaks into “more comic than creepy” territory precisely because it’s in split screen. When you have Dino’s undeniable charisma on the one side and Bisset’s sex appeal on the other, we can forget how damn old he is (almost 27 years older than her). In fact, Dino and Bisset are way more believable as a couple in split screen; the tangible chemistry between them is in this split screen and almost nowhere else in the movie.

Airport, for all its deadly earnestness, gets in a few bizarre – and compelling – split screens. There’s Mel calling home to talk to his daughters, who occupy little squares while his wife occupies a large one – creating a weird, dysfunctional Brady Bunch wall by the time everyone’s on the line together. In another set of shots, the air traffic controller pops up inside the plane’s cockpit in a superimposed oval between the pilots, where the plane’s non-dashboard controls are visible. The all-hands call to the airport police slices the screen up along diagonals and covers almost the entirety of the concourse in an expected, but slightly off-kilter representation. In all of these, nothing particularly radical is going on, but there’s just enough of a wiggle in the film’s visual style to make me wonder when this sort of Ross Hunter film gets its shot at critical re-appraisal.