The Aesthetic and the Political


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!

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.