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!

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Some Whispers are Soundless

Birth and death meet in a house and it embraces both of these two ends of life into one great enigma. A grey mix of love that comes across as love tinted with fear or fear tinted with love. Every house has this enigma in its rooms.

Dehradun. A small girl died in this house first as far as we know. She puked blood. Then after a couple of years the man of the house followed his daughter. Soon the elder daughter died too for no apparent reason. Then the son, the eldest child, survived by his wife and their very small daughter. All in front of the mother. Soon the mother also walked the way of the whole family, leaving her daughter-in-law and the small kid. The mother and daughter moved to Delhi, where they are living now, leaving the empty house with silence.

People come and go. Houses remain there, standing, day and night, year after year, as if waiting even when there is nobody to come until somebody demolishes them. Before they return to their origins, some see more births than deaths with their occupants moving to more convenient, if not better, places, while some others see more deaths than births. Number is not always the weight–to us humans, a death casts a long gloomy shadow on three births of our loved ones. Death is more conspicuous because it tears a hole in the chest of life and smuggles our loved ones out through it and the last time we see them, hear them, touch them, is the last time we have with them. Death nullifies life on this side of the grave, and it often empties a house with a few repeated sweeps leaving it to sink in silence and decay amidst the din of the busy world, like the one in the photograph above.

The patio of an old British lady’s mansion. Soon after Independence, she gave the mansion and the estate to the Mussoorie Post Office which though has moved to a new place still owns it. The house is dilapidated now but parts of it still have a couple of antique-maniac occupants.

Abandoned houses always fascinate me. The gloom, sadness, decay and the evident shabby-gentility they are characterized by, the mute memories the rooms are filled with, the soundless whispers of their stories splashed on the damp, faded, mossy walls–I love these ghosts, their haunting.

Me Chasing Dogs for Disturbing Me

Last night, past midnight at about 1 am, I and my friend Meme were audio-recording at a suspension bridge across the Sekmai somewhere at Wairi, Kakching for my film Walking Home. We required the sound of a broken suspension bridge wood planks and naked metal cables creaking when stepped on and disturbed their abandonment. We had set up the equipment and I was just about to start walking on the bridge when dogs began to bark on the other end of the bridge, which was very disturbing. I waited for a while and when they have not stopped, I calibrated my police torch for a sharp pointed shaft of light and trained in on the eyes of two dogs–one white and the other black, their eyes glistening against the light.

I loved some fun–I walked to them and when they started to retreat, I followed them, and then chased them, shattering their barks into pieces of annoying barks. They ran through the bamboo clumps to their homes. I was laughing soundlessly. I love dogs.

I waited there for the dogs to come back for a while. They came back and I ran head on into them and they ran back again. After five minutes of timid barking, it was silent again. It was my time.

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.

Strangers in the Night; Killing Me Softly

Among what make the world beautiful (despite itself) and life worth living is Frank Sinatra. His songs. His Strangers in the Night (among many of his other numbers) is one of my all-time favorites. This really makes my nights beautiful even when I spend them alone. Lyrics here.

And here is another version. From a live performance. Of course, as we know, most live performances by the singers themselves of already famous records have flavors slightly different from the originals. A concert performance is a different medium than a studio recording session.

Another number among my all-time favorites is his Killing Me Softly. O my! He is–I mean is–a singer. Such a singer. Lyrics here.

Jotin Kumar Singing Surmai Akhiyon Mein

Nobody knows why he does not choose to be a singer when he has such a golden voice.

Here he sings K.J. Yesudas’s Surmai Akhiyon Mein from Balu Mahendra’s 1983 drama Sadma. Karaoke.

This song was recorded at the Robert Leishangthem Workstation, right at the heart of Kakching keithel, where all the noise of the market and the street flowed in from one side and three walls blocked it like an echo chamber.

Why aren’t you a singer, Jotin?

Photographer Jotin Kumar sings Saawariya a cappella.

Jotin himself recorded this song in a small studio not designed for music recording. Without any instrument accompaniment. I doubt he positioned the mic properly :). I did no editing, except increasing the volume because the volume level of my laptop speakers is terribly low, and I am not sure how this is going to sound despite Jotin’s golden voice.

Sound of weaving on a loom

While I was recording the sound of the wind blowing through the leaves and of footsteps on dry leaves in the hills in Manipur for a current film project, I heard on my earpieces a weak sound of something familiar I had practically forgotten to be still existing–weaving on a loom. The sound from my childhood. My aunt, my father’s younger sister, on whose back I grew up as a child. She used to weave. (Mother too.) I often went to the main market in Kakching to buy yarn for her.

I turned my mic to specify the direction the sound was coming from, then followed the sound track, and I heard the volume and clarity of the sound increasing as I got nearer to the source.

Higher up the hill in one of the cottages a woman was there weaving on her loom. I recorded as she weaved.