Watch: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ Is All About Power Struggles and Blocking
Any good story ultimately involves a power struggle of some sort, whether it be between two characters or between a character and his or her own mind. Character X wants something Character Y has: since the story of Cain and Abel, this is the most basic plot vector there is. In the scene from Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ shrewdly and economically analyzed here by YouTube’s Evan Puschak, aka ‘The NerdWriter," Gavin Elster wants Scottie Ferguson to take his questionable case very much, but Scottie is reluctant. The conversation we witness between the two of them is all about power: who has it, who wants it, who takes it away, how it can float between two individuals like a cloud. And that power play is show through blocking, though the way the two men occupy the space they share: who stands. Who sits. Who’s in the foreground. Who takes up more screen territory. If you turned the sound off on this scene, you’d be able to tell what was happening with only the slightest bit of extrapolation. And that is the nature of true drama, as we see it on film.
Watch: Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ‘Amélie’ Depends on Symmetry for Its Curious Power
Interestingly enough, restraint may be the defining characteristic of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ‘Amélie.’ Regardless of how many surreal leaps and gestures occur within this story of a whimsical Parisian, the film never leaves the realm of what can be easily imagined. Some might see this as a flaw; I tend to see it as a deliberate aesthetic choice, backed up by the film’s cinematography, which, as this new video piece by "Lessa" shows, skews symmetrical. The center of the viewer’s vision will never be too far away from the center of the lens, a perfect technique for a stroll into the center of the imagination.
Watch: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ is a Game of Perspectives
Consider this story: a woman steals some money, runs away with it, goes to a small motel, is murdered by the proprietor. Moderately interesting by itself, possibly with some potential for suspense–but this is not necessarily a gripping tale, especially when you add on an extra storyline: the woman’s sister comes after her, followed by a private detective, both of whom are murdered. Again, it’s interesting: if you saw it in the newspaper, you might "tsk" at it and then move on. And then, even if you add on the eccentric twist–the murderer dresses up as his mother–you still have a bare bones story. Of course he was a psychopath: look what he did! Alfred Hitchcock turned ‘Psycho’ into a classic by using this skeleton story to construct a madhouse of a tale, something like a cross between a house of mirrors, a surrealist novel, and a collage of tabloid headlines. One of his primary lines of attack, as shown in this brilliant video essay by Julian Palmer, was to constantly shift the perspective from which the story is told, so that viewers’ sympathies are perpetually changing, at times moving into uncomfortable territory as we find ourselves looking at the world through the eyes of Norman Bates, of all people. In a sense, the suspense becomes less about the murder, or its investigation, than about what we, as viewers, will discover about ourselves and our sympathies next.
Watch: ‘The Dark Knight’: Mapping Out the Action
As complex and, in a sense, limitless as Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight‘ might be, with its heady urbane mood, its panic-inducing sense of foreboding, and the presence of Heath Ledger in the role that may have driven him over the edge, there is also a pre-ordained quality to it that slows one down. You wouldn’t necessarily be curious where its characters go after they step off-screen; you wouldn’t wonder what they’re thinking; you probably wouldn’t speculate on their past lives. The world of the film is laid out within the limits of the screen. This partially due to the film’s previous life as a comic, a work in a form in which frame after frame after frame sends a louder and louder message: Look in here. Don’t look out there. All of the information you need is right here. Because the comic upon which this film is based is better than average, the film itself is superior; other films based around frames, not always so much. This brief but densely packed piece by "Glass Distortion" places the storyboards for ‘The Dark Knight’ up against the actual film for an examination of an especially fraught chase scene, a move which reminds us how carefully the film was deliberated. It’s hard to say if the film’s over-planning works in its favor, or if it’s merely a horse for the director to hang good performances on. Whatever the case, this 49-second piece will give you a unique and revitalizing look at the way movies can be made.
Watch: In Charlie Kaufman’s Work, The Self Is Bottomless and Will Outlast You
A sense of poignant exhaustion runs through Charlie Kaufman’s stories. Not the bad kind of exhaustion, where you simply want to pass out, but the clear kind, in which you see only one thing in front of you, and that thing, that idea, that concept, becomes the entire world; the reason this idea becomes the entire world is that you’ve been thinking about it almost constantly. It may be a screenplay, such as the one Charlie Kaufman impales himself on in ‘Adaptation’; it may be an art project as big as the Ritz, as in ‘Synecdoche, New York’; it may be one’s memories, and the gulf before and after them, as in ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.’ Whatever it may be, all it does is drive you deeper inside yourself. Leigh Singer’s latest probing, soulful video essay for Fandor points up the loneliness at the heart of self-examination, even as it is essential. In Charlie Kaufman’s vision of the gaze into the self, we are all either running along a deserted wintry beach, like the two hapless guinea pigs in ‘Eternal Sunshine,’ or spat out on a New Jersey interstate, as in ‘Being John Malkovich.’
Watch: Vera Chytilova Makes the Richest Kind of Fun
Watch this video essay. It’s okay if you haven’t heard of Vera Chytilova. It’s okay if you never saw ‘Daisies,’ the film about two young rebellious sexy kids the essay is centered around. All you need to enjoy this standout piece by Joel Bocko is a pair of eyes, a pair of ears (for the rocking soundtrack) and a couple of minutes. It won’t be what you’re expecting. And if you’re made more curious about Chytilova after watching, all the better!
Watch: Yasujiro Ozu’s Glorious Repetition
If you watch enough of the films of a particular director, be it Martin Scorsese, Jane Campion, or Robert Altman, you will begin to understand the code in their work: the way shots are framed, the way characters tilt their heads, the way figures move through a space, all come to mean something. These configurations become a visual language that works alongside the language of a script, at times helping to tell the script’s story, at times telling an entirely different story. In kogonada’s most recent outing, he examines the work of Yasujiro Ozu. Three frames, side by side: three couples eating together; three women, head in hands; three men staring broodingly into space. These visual displays, compiled from 24 different films, have as much of an effect on us as the words of the screenplay might, but they speak to us differently, accessing a subconscious "eye," if you want, that is different from the two eyes we use to watch the film. kogonada’s piece strikes a quiet, offbeat chord, and should serve as an excellent way into the work of this Japanese master
Watch: Steven Spielberg, Housebuilder, Shot by Shot
If you want your teeth done, contact the sumptuous Paolo Sorrentino. If you want a house built, contact Steven Spielberg. The great risk a director like Spielberg, whose films grapple with vast subjects like the Holocaust, life on other planets, slavery, and Abraham Lincoln, takes is that his film will never be able to grasp it all, that it will fall prostrate before its subject, flopping into mediocrity and cliche. What keeps Spielberg’s films from doing this is his profound sense of structure, of arrangement, of timing, of letting the stages of a story, such as Frank Abagnale Jr.’s from ‘Catch Me If You Can‘, unfold gradually rather than cutting to the maudlin chase too soon. This sense of craft, of what English majors would call the "well-wrought urn," can be found all over his work, perhaps most notably, as video essay dynamo Jacob T. Swinney points out, in his shots. Swinney has assembled 30 shots here, all of which bring that reaction—you know, the sharp intake of breath that follows a dramatic, thematic leap by a director, a jump into territory that might be (but isn’t) too big for the film at hand (cf. the red sweater in ‘Schindler’s List‘). If you look at the shot, you see that it’s the composition, as much as the extenuating circumstances, that bring the reaction. If you were to try to pin down what it is about the composition that’s giving you chills… you would come up short. But the structure is there, and it’s usually a part of a much larger story structure, one that is, in the words of many a financial journalist, too big to fail. Why is it that a bicycle moving across a full moon in ‘E.T.’ is so magical? It could be because everything in the frame is centered; it could be because a full moon is very close to a perfect circle; it could be because we like imagining such an arc, because it recalls our own dreams as children. Whatever the cause, if you want to study Spielberg’s magisterial structure, his shots provide a good place to start.
Watch: ‘Carol’: The Power of the Glance
In the right context, a glance can be as powerful as a hand on the thigh or even a kiss. One recent movie that proves this idea, the latest in a long line of films dependent on the power of the optical nerves, is Todd Haynes’ ‘Carol.’ Much of the erotic push of the film relies upon the way the two women at the film’s heart look at each other: what it means, what it could mean, what has led up to it, what will follow it. Blanchett is a natural for this sort of scenario, being possessed of somewhat bottomless eyes and a capacity for unpredictability. Roberto Bra does us a service by showing that, beyond the script, beyond the cinematography, there lies the spark ignited when two people simply look, and that looking forms a world that cannot be penetrated.
Watch: How Much Are the Oscars Shaped by Advertising?
Most contests, of any sort, are rigged. The course by which the "winner" is chosen is never a straight one, and extenuating circumstances almost always shape outcomes. And yet we notice them. The Oscars are no exception. As many angry or indifferent essays may be written each year (!) about the ceremony, and about the awards, and about who won, and who was left out, and who should have been included, the Academy Awards nevertheless register with us, even if we’re not entirely sure how the awards were assigned. This deft and smart video essay by Leigh Singer takes a look at how the awards shape themselves, spotlighting the advertising motion picture companies do, by way of the insidious "For Your Consideration" tag, with its many variations.