Monday, December 16, 2013

Framing Indiana Jones (or, No Stills, Please, We're British)

When I was young, I used to "watch" a lot of movies by putting them on in the background while I flipped through roleplaying books. "Shouldn't you watch the movie?" asked my dad. "I'm listening to the dialogue, so I know what's going on," I shrugged.

Sure, I know better now; but even after getting into photography (depth of field! rule of thirds! silhouettes! stopping down! solarization!), visuals are more like a second-language than a mother-tongue to me.

And maybe that's why I was so blown away by Raiders of the Lost Ark this time around, now that I was actually paying attention to the still compositions and to the way that Spielberg and cinematographer Slocombe move the camera.

Aside: One danger of film analysis, in my experience, is that people pay too much attention to the still image and talk about framing as if each still was a separate photograph. Sure, there's some talk (especially starting in the 60s and 70s) of how one shot leads into the next--eyeline matching and one-two dialogue shots. But it still tends to see the image as something still. I mean: you can talk about eyeline matching in painting.

(Even really good analysis of visuals can fall into this pattern of talking about composition as if films were just photographs, over and over. See SEK's analysis of Mad Men, Walking Dead, etc., which occasionally falls into this pattern.)

So, when I watched Raiders a few weeks ago, I really wanted to talk about the composition of the shots: how Spielberg loves to play with Indiana Jones as this mysterious and occasionally cold character by putting him in shadow or silhouette in the foreground, while keeping the background in focus and well-lit. Take, for instance, Indy's confrontation with Belloq in the bar in Egypt after the supposed death of Marion Ravenwood:

Belloq in white, with his lit face, matches the background a lot more than Indy, which is something we see a lot here: Indiana separated/against the world, a perfectly logical position for an adventurous guy like Indy, who keeps finding himself surrounded by snakes or fire.

In this particular composition, we can see that Indy is literally shadowed, darker than the world. Which makes sense since here he's haunted by Marion's death and not really responding very much to Belloq. As I said, Indy isn't just against the world, but somehow apart from it in this scenario: what could tether him to the world in this moment? Belloq makes the claim that Indy is just like him: they don't care about people or about the things Nazis are interested in, but in history. Belloq's whole speech about how this cheap watch would be made precious by time ignores the central fact: he's holding a goddamn watch. Yes, fine: Belloq cares about history, not the inevitable mortality that's haunting Indy.

But what happens if we add movement to these scenes? Take  a look at this video of the longest shot in Raiders: the first is this scene between Indy and Belloq; the second is when Brody comes to Indy to say that he's been approved to search for the Ark for the government. The essay attached focuses on how long a scene it is, which is a good lesson for some directors. It ignores the movement of the camera, which tells us somethings very clearly.

Notice here that Indy's room basically has two parts: an office--books, shelves, a desk with a globe; and a bedroom, with a closet. When Indy is excited about the prospect of this job, he's in the office area. For all that I've talked about his separation from the world, I should note that Indy is very much a man of the world--at least, in the sense of his being a faithless materialist. (I mean "faithless" both in his failure to believe in something larger than himself and in his faithlessness to Marion's love and Abner's affection in his backstory.)

And when Indy is wondering about Marion, he's standing in the bedroom area--his personal rather than professional area. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, he's standing in front of his closet because that's where he keeps his secrets.

And when Brody starts talking about the dangers of the ark, the camera moves to focus on him. Who is Brody? Besides being the font of information and advice, he's also a very still person, not at all like Indy as a man of action.

So when Indy disregards Brody's advice, note that he walks across Brody, slapping him on the shoulder good-naturedly. In doing so, he takes the focus away from the cautious Brody and reminds us that Indy is a man of the world, of action, of the professional world rather than the closet/personal world. Which introduces us to one of the weirder tools of the archaeological field: the pistol, which crosses worlds from the office side to the bedroom side.

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