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Obsession with Order and Rhythm in Hounds of Love

Ben Young’s psychological thriller Hounds of Love (2016) has some interesting aesthetic elements expressed visually in mise-en-scene and cinematography (which are the visual signs of the directorial signature) that consistently weave the psychological fabric of John (Stephen Curry), the randomly murderous husband who suffers a certain form of OCD. John is obsessed with cleanliness and having things in symmetry and perfect order, an obsession that finally lands him in his own doom. The things in his house, especially in the kitchen, are arranged in perfect symmetry or order. More than just an order, the things form a rhythm–similar things put in perfect order, like repeating beats in music. Evelyn (Emma Booth)–John’s wife who, from fear that she would be left behind by her passively abusive husband–acts helplessly subserviently on whatever he tells her to do, including getting herself involved in randomly abducting girls for his sex prey and finally killing them.

Even though it is Evelyn that is actually doing everything to keep the house in perfect symmetry, order and rhythm, her meticulous engagement in these rituals indicates her having become a behavioral extension of her husband, a deep subservience born of the insecurity as a wife she experiences.

This obsessive care for order–a transferred behavior–is seen when she prepares her husband’s breakfast toasts–she arranges them in a perfect line and checks the order repeatedly. This obsession is seen everywhere in the kitchen–the dining table has two knives and two salt containers set out neatly as a pair. The wall in the background has such sets of things. The frame itself is symmetrical. Everything about the house is in perfect rhythm–cigarette butts in an ash tray, the cutlery, the plates, small pieces of works of art.

The cigarette butts ranged in a line form a rhythm.

The cutlery, the jars form a rhythm each of their own that together form a larger rhythm.

The plates, bowls, the jars and the knives on the knife holder form their won respective rhythms in this shot.

The two wolves form a rhythm in this shot.

The legs of the animal, its breasts, and the two children form their own respective rhythms in this shot.

The obsession is to such an extent that the couple’s bodies form a rhythm even when they sleep. In the frame below, the corresponding parts of the couple’s bodies have similar orientations. Even the pillows.

The couple walks in their rooms barefoot. They leave their shoes on the shoe-rack near the door. Every time they put their shoes on the rack, they pay studious care to order and rhythm, as seen in the following instance, one of many in the film.

John’s obsession with cleanliness is also evident in the indulgence attention he pays himself when he shaves himself and narcissistically watches himself in the mirror while Evelyn, as part of her household upkeep, cleans up the blood-stained tissues at the foot of their captive girl’s bed.

John’s cleanliness obsession is to such an extent that he hates it when the captive girl he rapes turns out to be a virgin and blood is all over between her legs smearing him with blood. He stops short, recoils in utter disgust and rushes to the bathroom and showers.

His sexual interest is turned off by the sight of the captive girl in chains wetting her bed. His cannot control himself when he sees his wife’s dog shits in the rooms.

John kicks the dog to death when he finds it in the room and the frightened dog runs into the kitchen to avoid facing him instead of getting out of the house.

Rather than the Young taking recourse to a more direct expository characterization via action and dialogue, all these indirect devices consistently build up the details of character and psychological make-up of John. Importantly, this character trait is developed not in vain–it in fact leads to John’s own doom.

Good Acting: Liar’s Face in Fargo

Desperate for money, Oldsmobile salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William Macy) in Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996) has lied to his customer about a tru-coat. The customer displays a fantastic nervous aggression. Look at Jerry’s face when the customer says he lied to him–his looks, his eyes, and how he holds his face. That’s subtle and fantastic acting.

I like the details in the direction, acting and cinematography displayed when Jerry manages to smile at the customer’s wife and the wife returns courtesy when the customer has said he (Jerry) is wasting his time and his wife’s time.

A Few Shots from Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996)

A collaboration of multiple legends–director Joel Coen, cinematographer and DP Roger Deakins, music composer Carter Burwell and sound editor Skip Lievsay, and not the least Ethan Coen who co-wrote the script with his brother Joel, Fargo (1996) is a classic for multiple reasons. Here I will focus more on the visuals, with cursory references to direction and sound.

Take a look at this shot sequence–a tiny scene in the snow.

The story leading to this point is here:

In the winter of 1987, Jerry Lundegaard, the sales manager at an Oldsmobile dealership in Minneapolis, is desperate for money. He floated a $320,000 GMAC loan and collateralized it with nonexistent dealership vehicles and is unable to pay back the loan. On the advice of dealership mechanic and paroled ex-convict Shep Proudfoot, Jerry travels to Fargo, North Dakota and hires small-time cons Gaear Grimsrud and Carl Showalter to kidnap his wife, Jean, and extort a ransom from his wealthy father-in-law and boss, Wade Gustafson, in return for a new car and half of the $80,000 ransom.

Jerry pitches Gustafson a lucrative real estate deal, and he agrees to front $750,000. Jerry considers calling off the kidnapping, but learns that Gustafson plans to make the deal himself, giving Jerry a finder’s fee.

Jerry (William H. Macy) feels pissed off and is exasperated, but he is helpless. William acts excellently here (and throughout the film) but it is not just his excellent acting that makes his helplessness and exasperation so expressive–the cinematography, the direction and the sound go in together to make this effect. The wide, very high angle shot  opens on the snow yard of Wade’s office. We hear Jerry’s footsteps in the snow but he is not yet in the frame–he is absent, and this is significant. When he enters the frame from the bottom of the frame, he is just a negligible dot in the white wide screen and would have been lost but for his movement in the otherwise static scene–the high angle shot compresses his height and the width of the coverage reduces his space to a tiny black dot, accentuating his helpless condition.

Inside the car, Jerry’s back is toward the camera. Sometimes a face is too distracting to show very subtle emotions, and you express it with the back of the actor’s head with the shoulder (as the one in We Were Soldiers (2002) in which the Mel Gibson character is shot weeping from behind). We hear him heaving a sigh in the cold and see the steam from his mouth going out. Accompanied by Carter’s beautiful theme score that somehow gets to our nerves, we sense something is not quite right–the tension is in the air. This back shot is more eloquent than a face shot would have been.

Jerry’s helpless desperation and exasperation is clearly visible in how he scrapes the ice from his frozen car windshield. The speed of his hands and the sound of the scrapers on the ice and the windshield are increasingly more irritating by the millisecond. Jerry then loses self-control and throws the scraper, which he picks up after a while and begins to scrape the ice. This action is covered in a single handheld medium shot which. Then we are back to a high angle shot, not so wide as the former one. The scraping sound is still irritating but a bit less so. Watch it in the clip above–just 01:20 minutes.

Gaear Grimsrud and Carl Showalter had already arrived at Brainerd to kidnap Jerry’s wife. This arrival shot is portentous–in the foreground it has standing on a stone pedestal a big wood-chipper statue with his axe held over one shoulder on one side of he road that runs almost diagonally in the frame. Everything on the left and right of the road is snow. The car drives closer toward us. The hired kidnappers juxtaposed with the axe-wielding wood-chipper statue in the single frame lends some sinister portentous feel to the shot. Take a look–it’s just 7 seconds long.

The scene after Gaear and Carl kidnap Jerry’s wife in which they kill a state trooper and a couple who happens to see Carl (Steve Buscemi) handling the dead trooper from their passing car window is an excellently executed one. The direction, the cinematography, the editing and the sound (especially the train sound and the sound of the last metallic gunshot whose ring lingers into the black screen after the scene). This is a masterpiece, right from the beginning to the end. The scene opens with the ominous close low angle camera tilting from the wood chipper statue (with the light up from below lending it some frightening look) down to its base to cover Gaear and Carl’s car’s red tail lights on the left of the frame as they drive into the darkness in the direction they came from in the above shot. I will not write further about it here. Watch it for yourself–07:19 minutes.

This is superb!

Hounds of Love: Intriguing Opening Scene

The opening shot sequence of Ben Young’s Hounds of Love (2017) has visual clues as to the film’s theme and tone, and also to what the entire film is all about. The audio track also contributes to the build-up, but that being nothing extraordinary, I would keep to the visual side of the scene. I’ve taken here the first 02:36 minutes of the less than three minute long scene and it has 13 shots, and not shot is extraneous.

As the scene fades in, through the symbolic high chicken wire fence we see, in a wide shot, some teenage girls in high skirts playing basketball on a school ground. The camera tracks right at a very high frame rate (i.e., at an extra-slow speed). The shot (Shot 2) that follows is a tight close-up of the breasts of one of the girls, indicating that somebody is watching her. This in hindsight adds sense to the preceding slow motion–somebody (who we don’t yet know) is savoring every bit of the view.

Then another similar close-up of another girl. And then a thigh close-up of yet another girl, followed by a close-up scanning of another or the first girl from her chest down to the knees. Shots 2 through 5 on end. These close-ups powerfully imply that this person’s sexual interest is random–not a planned one, which makes it more dangerous.

Shot 6 is a wide one, which we don’t get instantly because can’t yet get our eyes off the visually dominating girls at the center of the frame. But as the camera pulls back allowing the wispy hair (which is to be of a woman) to enter the frame, we begin to make sense of her position–she is in a car, and in a matter of a few split seconds we scan the bottom line of the frame and discover the dash board and the steering wheel on the right corner. (It’s not America). Before us having time to think and reason, we find our eyes already scanning the screen because (i) the visuals cues in this shot are arranged for this psychological effect and (ii) something is still missing–if the hair we are seeing is of a woman and if she is not a lesbian, who is it watching the girls so lecherously? Moreover, the woman sits on the left, and there must be somebody behind the steering wheel on the right.

Shot 7 has a very tight close-up of woman’s face, dominantly the eyes. This shot is powerful in two sense. First, the woman leans her head against the window frame and her eyes are barely open–a sign of tiredness, boredom and impatience, and evidently she is not interested (it has character implications for the rest of the film), implying that it is not her that has been watching the girls’ bodies, (ii) the face languidly turns away from the camera, leading us to Shot 8.

A tighter close-up of a man’s face, his eyes, Shot 8 contrasts sharply with the preceding shot–here in this shot, the eyes are as keen and energetic as those of a predator lying in wait for a prey.

Shot 9 has the black, out-of-focus head of this man occupying the right half of the frame while most of the left side of the frame is covered by another car and in the squeezed space between them, we see a girl getting on into her car after the game and behind it a girl walking back home. We hear the car engine start. In Shot 10, the car engine hums and the man adjusts the gear.

This watching is so powerfully eerie that the fear of being watched hauntingly overhangs almost every wide shots throughout the film.

In the wide Shot 11, the girl walks on the side of the road on the left and the car enters the frame from the bottom left corner. Shot 12 is from the interior of the car and it feels suffocating–there is something menacing about it. The shot has the woman slightly off-focus looking at the man and then forward while the man’s attention is not diverted. Meanwhile the car now gets there and the woman talks to the girl in kind friendly words. She says the girl can get in and they would drop her.

Shot 13 has the girl get on in the car and thank the couple.

With very little dialogue in it, we get the information–the couple has kidnapped the girl. But the information is incomplete–why do they do this? Clearly the man has sexual reasons, but if that’s all about it, why is his wife in in? How is the relationship between the husband and wife holding? We want to know more, and this drives the plot forward.

There are some other beautiful things about the film’s design. I will write about that in another post.

The Unnerving and the Unbalanced in Angel Heart

Angel Heart (Alan Parker, 1987) is fascinating and astonishing as hell for various reasons including its symbolism, cinematography, music, etc., and I think it’s gradually becoming a classic. The events in the film unfold as a private detective named Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is hired by the mysterious Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to track down ex-singer Johnny Favorite and everyone Angel questions ends up dead. It turns out that Angel has been suffering from a dissociative fugue and he finally comes to know that he himself is Johnny Favorite.

While the whole of the film, from the opening to the end, keeps it suspenseful without a single surplus shot, I will cover only two shot sequences in this post–the opening shot sequence and the beach scene.

In the beginning, there is a black screen with deep ominous music (by Trevor Jones) in the background. Soon we hear an eerie whispering voice, whose we don’t know yet, repeatedly calling–Johnny. Then the black fades in to a low-key wide shot of high-rising black buildings with black metal side ladders and steam trailing up like creeping omens. The growls of cats, which at some point sounds like a child’s cry, also fade in contributing to setting up the tone of the film.

A visually understated form of a man with a walking stick in a black trench coat and a hat walks (his back toward the camera) down the dark squalid street, crossing the frame from left to right, creating a spellbinding atmosphere of mystery, as James Paterson, Editor of Practical Photoshop (Issue 50, May 2015), says about the understated human form. We will get to know only latter that this man is Louis Cypher, which, as Harry Angel finds out later, is a homophone for Lucifer, the Devil.

The scene then cuts to the second shot–a cat on the landing of one of the black metal ladders arching its back on seeing a dog coming leading to the third shot which follows the dog coming and nosing among the garbage bins on the sidewalk. On hearing the angry cat mewing, the dog looks up and finds the cat in the fourth shot. In the fifth shot, the dog barks at the cat and the cat disappears into the dark in the seventh shot. The eighth shot follows the dog on the sidewalk and discovers a bloody dead body of a man with a slit throat in the snow. The cat looks down, the dog moves on barking casually and the shot returns to the opening low angle shot, this time with more steam tousled by the wind. Then it fades back to black.

Take a look at the opening shot sequence here:

The beach scene with its unconventional cinematography by Michael Seresin is an odd one. As can be sensed from the frame below, something is odd, out-of-balance. As Blain Brown puts it

In unconventional framing, most of the frame is sky: negative space, we barely see the beach at all. One man is bundled in a coat, the other in a [vest], even though it hardly seems like good tanning conditions. The viewpoint is distant, observational. We know this is going to be no ordinary everyday conversation. Even when the dialog begins and you would normally expect the director to go in for close-ups, the camera hangs back, reinforcing the strangeness of the situation (Brown, 2012, pp. 5-6).

The conversation is odd indeed. Harry Angel is looking for a Madame Zora to get any clues of Johnny Favorite, and discovers odd details about both Zora and Favorite. Izzy and his wife Bo are not less odd–there is something mysterious about them. Read the conversation from the working draft of the script, though it is slightly different (critically at some parts) from the conversation in the finished movie.

For the full feel of it, watch and listen for yourself in the following clip.

Works Cited

Brown, B. (2012). Cinematography: Theory and Practice–Imagemaking for Cinematographers and Directors (2nd ed.). Waltham, MA, USA: Elsevier.

 

Sex Triangle Shot in The Housemaid

The Housemaid (Im Sang-soo, 2010), the remake of Kim Ki-young’s 1960 film of the same name has got some thoughtfully designed cinematic moments, a product of several elements working together–the script, mise-en-scèneproduction design, photographic direction, cinematography, and the acting.

Unlike most of those who have written about the two films, I won’t call the plot as a love triangle because there does not seem to be love at least between Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae) and Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) who is hired as a maid for Hoon’s beautiful wife Hae-ra (Seo Woo) pregnant with twins and to watch the couple’s small daughter. And importantly, there is evidently not much love between the rich husband and his wife Hae-ra. Hoon treads the line of sexual promiscuity like all men in his father’s line and he does not let an opportunity slip by. Due probably to certain psychological reasons which are not developed well in the film, Eun-yi seems to like male attention and does not do anything to avert Hoon’s advances; however, Hoon seems to be her first and she does not have any other man. The result is the development of a sexual triangle, and Im Sang-soo presents this development so exquisitely, using the elements mentioned above.

The scene opens as Eun-yi helps Hae-ra bathe her hair after which she polishes her nails. Then Eun-yi cleans the white bath in her maid’s short black dress which exposes her white underwear when she leans down while standing. Meanwhile, Hoon swirls, smells and tastes a new wine and after a connoisseurial examination he finds it good, implying a new intoxicating sexual encounter. The camera cuts to Hae-ra  putting some make-up on herself in the middle-ground and Hoon pouring some wine for her. Hoon crosses the frame toward right while the camera pans right to cover him open a door from behind discovering Eun-yi cleaning the white bath. Eun-yi looks up and Hoon takes a couples of steps back and shoots a glance at his innocent wife first smelling the wine in a goblet and taking a ship from it and turns his face back to Eun-yi and teasingly raises his brows. In the next shot, Eun-yi, seated beside the bath, looks down to examine herself, most of her legs and thighs exposed. Then the camera cuts to a beautiful triangle shot–Hoon is at the center of the frame with his back toward the camera, his wife is drinking from the goblet on the left side of the frame and on the ride side of the frame, in the adjacent bathroom, Eun-yi puts the bathtub faucet back in place and collects her shoes in both hands, visually establishing a triangle of relations–the man and the two women. Then Eun-yi comes toward the camera to the door where Hoon stands and she exits the frame from the right. Hoon smiles as he watches her go and takes another mouthful gulp of wine evidently lustily and casts a fast glance back at his wife.

The adjacency of the two rooms, the red wine and how the actions are covered by the cinematographer all contribute to the emotional subtext of the scene. The emotional charge of the scene is accentuated by music composer Kim Hong-jib’s piano and cello which bridges the scene with the next family picnic scene opening with a symmetrical shot of a long road indicating the affair making inroads into their lives.

 

Shutter Angle, Shutter Speed and Frame Rate: Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan

The combined effect of stop motion and motion blur of the first fight scene in Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000) is frightening. The scene was shot with a narrow shutter angle of 45 degrees; i.e., 1/198. It has the effect of both slowing down the time and speeding it up simultaneously.

The effect in this film has its predecessor. Steven Spielberg used this technique in his 1998 World War film Saving Private Ryan.

In an interview Steven Spielberg said about this technique:

You can also see several explosions, and Janusz came up with the idea of shooting with the shutter open to 45 degrees or 90 degrees, which completely negated any blurring. Often, when you see an explosion with a 180-degree shutter it can be a thing of beauty, but a 45-degree shutter looks very frightening.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski said in another interview:

By applying 45 degree shutter, we are achieving certain staccato in actor’s movement. We are achieving certain crispiness of explosions. Everything becomes slightly, just slightly more realistic.

Spielber continued in the above interview:

I used a 45-degree shutter on the explosions, and a 90-degree shutter on most of the running shots. But we alternated at times. Sometimes the 45-degree shutter would appear too exaggerated and the 90 turned out to be better. But for extreme explosions like this, where we really wanted to practically count each individual particle flying through the air, the 45-degree shutter worked best.

Take a look at part of the battle scene from Saving Private Ryan and you will see the effect we are talking about.

 

 

Walking Home

My film Walking Home was released with a small celebration followed by a short critical discussion on 29 October at the auditorium of LIBRAICK. The panel of critics including Ningthouja Lancha, Rajesh Salam, Meghachandra Kongbram, P. Biprachand and Makhonmani Mongshaba unanimously (but independently) said that the film sets a new trend in the history of Manipuri cinema. Here are the film’s official poster and some randomly selected stills from the film.

Moving forward, I will start working on the script for me next film project.

 

This cricket will give you some tension

There is no complete silence in nature–listening closely to silence, we come to hear a myriad of quiet sounds within the hearing range of the human ears which we are used to ignoring and taking for granted as absence of sound. Silence, thus, turns out to be the absence of both expected and unwanted sound frequencies, while we do not consider most of the nameless finer frequencies between and beyond these arbitrary sound-marks. Everything in nature produces frequencies within and/or beyond our hearing range.

The physical properties of sounds in nature can trigger our auditory nerves in myriad ways influencing our psychic states. Some frequencies are soothing while some others are disturbing. The sound of the drizzling rain has a different effect on us than the sound of the thunder rumbling or a cricket chirping.

The frequency of the cricket’s cry I recorded a couple of hours ago and am posting here has a tensing effect on us. In other words, this cricket gives you some tension. Play the track and feel it for yourself.