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The Dig

Movie archaeologists have been presented as dynamic adventurers, such as Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. It is, therefore, refreshing to see an archaeologist who is quiet, subdued and very careful, played by that most diffident of English gents, Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes is Basil Brown, employed by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) in 1938 to excavate a mound on her Suffolk land, a mound that proves to be of historical significance. Director Simon Stone, working from Moira Buffini’s adaptation of John Preston’s novel, follows the characters at an intimate level, allowing us to appreciate the close bond that Basil and Edith, as well as Edith’s son Robert (Archie Barnes), share with the very earth that they interact with. This bond is contrasted with other attitudes to the artefacts, and also interwoven with confrontations that the characters make with serious illness, questions of sexuality and the approaching drums of war. The end result is an exquisite and melancholy love letter to the English countryside, that also meditates upon our relationships with time and with history.

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HD Isolation

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My last post discussed the treatment of violence in Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011). Another theme in Drive is urban alienation, a theme explored in greater depth in another film which came out the same year: Shame, written and directed by Steve McQueen (no, not that one). Like Ryan Gosling’s Driver, Michael Fassbender’s Brandon is a man isolated in the urban wilderness, both men deriving meaning from specific activities, driving for Driver and sex for Brandon. Amusingly, both encounter Carey Mulligan, who plays Driver’s neighbour and potential romance Irene, and Brandon’s emotionally damaged sister, Sissy. Both films are made by non-Americans who turn a penetrating eye on American urban environments, Los Angeles in Drive and New York in Shame. A key element which emerges from these environments is isolation, and a key tool is high-definition digital film.

When discussing Shame with fellow movie buffs, the film has been described as “beautiful”, “haunting”, “hypnotic” and “mesmerising”. The underlying commonality among these responses is that Shame draws you in and maintains your attention, compelling the viewer to keep watching. McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt achieve this effect by staging much of the action in long takes. Many shots last several minutes and capture a lot of action, sometimes lasting for entire scenes. Furthermore, these long takes make use of deep focus, capturing detail in the distance as well as that close to the camera. In high definition, this detail is clearly visible, resulting in a rich and textured image, but not a cluttered one – everything within the frame is neat and ordered.

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This style is used from very early in the film, as a naked Brandon rises and goes through his morning routine, a single take capturing him in his disciplined but sterile apartment as he walks, urinates and ignores the phone ringing. Through the expansive windows appear the first indications of his isolation – various anonymous buildings whose detail can be seen in high definition deep focus. This visual arrangement continues through the film, Brandon situated in expansive environments in which he is isolated. This isolation is achieved both by long shots which make him diminutive, and the high definition deep focus which does not emphasise him. The viewer identifies Brandon as different from the metal, concrete and glass around him, but with everything in equal focus and definition, the person is no more or less emphasised than what surrounds him. People are not only anonymous in Shame’s vision of New York, they are practically part of the scenery.

This scenery features many flat panels, including the plate glass windows of New York buildings, glass walls and doors in the office where Brandon works, sleek, shiny tables and computer screens. These smooth panels are visually echoed in the sleek planes of Brandon’s body, the naked breadths of his chest, back and legs are similarly smooth and almost featureless. These planes again integrate Brandon with his environment, which further expresses the disengagement he has with others. The protagonist glances off people as though he were made of glass or stainless steel himself. A subsequent role played by Fassbender was David in Prometheus, and his role in Shame serves as a fascinating precursor to the android. Although Brandon does have emotions, he as unable to operate as a human being as the artificial person.

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McQueen’s long takes serve to emphasise Brandon’s isolation and immersion in his environment, in some scenes reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. This is especially striking when Brandon goes jogging, the camera capturing his progress in continuous tracking shots. As he jogs, he passes people, shops, restaurants, cars, never stopping or pausing, his progress uninterrupted either by obstacles or camera cuts. Again, his disassociation and alienation is emphasised by the film’s style, as the HD footage places the fibre of Brandon’s clothes and the texture of his skin and hair within an equally detailed environment – the reflections on water and oil patches, the sheen on car bodies and the detail of other people, not to mention the mottled walls of buildings. Everything is equally detailed, and so nothing is emphasised, our protagonist one feature among many, equally apparent and only discernible by the camera following his movement. This creates an intimacy between Brandon and the viewer, taking us (literally) along for his journey, sharing his isolation and disconnection which may be a reflection of many viewers’ experience of 21st century urban life.

Another version of this alienation appears during two scenes between Brandon and his co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). They have a dinner date in which Brandon explains his aversion to relationships, his longest being four months. The scene occurs in a single take, the camera focus slowly narrowing either through a zoom or tracking shot, drawing the viewer closer to this intimate conversation. Outside the windows of the restaurant, the New York street is once again exquisitely detailed in the high definition deep focus, the couple, such as they are, merely the details that we can hear. Later, the deep focus creates an even more isolating effect, as Brandon and Marianne go to a hotel room and begin kissing and undressing, but Brandon stops before they proceed to intercourse. It seems that if he has an emotional connection to a sexual partner, he cannot become fully aroused. His isolation is again emphasised by the high definition deep focus which allows the viewer to see what takes place outside: rain spattering on the floor-to-ceiling windows, cars passing on the roads outside, cranes at a nearby construction site. Urban life progresses, this failed attempt at intimacy occuring in the midst of indifference. Brandon is emotionally distraught but, cruelly, the camera remains on him even once Marianne has left, a tearful Brandon gazing out at the uncaring city which continues uninterrupted. The viewer’s focus cannot focus on Brandon and Marianne, because the background action is a constant distraction. This distraction expresses the alienating effect of urban life, perpetual motion and empty expanses, in which Brandon, at least, cannot connect.

The long takes express Brandon’s discipline and continuity, his sexual addiction compartmentalised alongside his work and home life. Even when Sissy arrives unexpectedly, Brandon surprising her in his shower, the discipline continues as their first heated conversation occurs in a single take, Sissy’s naked form seen as a reflection, expressing her separation from Brandon. In a later conversation, when they talk on Brandon’s sofa, the focus becomes shallower, reducing the TV in the background to a blur of indistinct movement which is situated between them. Even while Sissy tries to find some way into her brother’s compassion, he coldly rebuffs her, the indistinct image of the TV expressing the barrier between them. The scene occurs in another long take, but the shallower focus helps to use the mise-en-scene to express the characters’ strained relationship.

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Amongst these scenes of long takes, there are also moments of discontinuity, especially during Brandon’s virtual breakdowns. When he is overcome by shame and throws out all his pornography, the scene is presented in short takes, punctuated by jump cuts as he sweeps magazines, videos and a laptop into bin bags and dumps the bags on the street. A more intense and indeed upsetting scene occurs later, when Brandon goes to the apartment of two prostitutes and engages in a furious but agonising threesome. The scene is a montage, cutting between the expressions of Brandon and the women, their pumping bodies and the room’s furniture. It may rank as one of the most uncomfortable presentations of sexual intercourse ever committed to film, bereft of intimacy or even simple pleasure, Brandon screaming as though under torture.

Not that the prolonged takes are far away, as in probably the film’s most distressing scene, Brandon returns home in a panic to find Sissy in the bathroom with her wrists slashed. His discovery is captured in a long take, but without sound, Brandon’s anguish expressed through his face, contorted into a howl of agony. Here the film expresses the ineffable – the unspeakable and incomprehensible pain at finding a loved one dead or dying. Such scenes are common in films – Heat features a very similar one – but Shame offers one of the most effective encounters with an attempted suicide. Once again, the long take prolongs the agony, lingering on Brandon to an uncomfortable degree.

Shame demonstrates remarkable cinematography and editing choices, as one is largely merciless and the other restrained. New York is used to great effect, the HD footage capturing the city in exquisite detail, which serves to demonstrate the isolation of the protagonist. In another heartbreaking scene, Brandon sinks into an almost foetal crouch in a wasteland part of the city, crying out for something beyond his addicted and hollow existence.

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Once again, we see everything, the pores of his face as richly textured as the tarmac around him. This is one the great effects of HD, creating a visual palette in which people and environments are presented in equal detail (I have published elsewhere on the use of this in Collateral). It need not be used in this way – particular shots as well as depth of focus can still emphasise actors’ faces. But in the case of Shame, urban alienation is effectively conveyed through long takes, deep focus and high definition digital film.

NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH

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In my last post, I discussed action cinema and the change in emphasis away from the spectacle of pain towards scale and wonder. I qualified, however, that there are still plenty of violent films but that they are very different from films like Olympus Has Fallen. In particular, there is a type of crime film which does not shy away from nor glamorise violence but rather presents it upfront in all its hideous glory. For my money, no movie brings home the treatment of violence in film better than Drive.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn won the Best Director Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and the film was distributed by Icon in the UK. 2011 proved to be the year of the Gosling, as Ryan Gosling appeared in three very different films in quick succession: Drive, Crazy, Stupid Love and The Ides of March, which demonstrated the range of his talents. 2013 looks to be another such year with the releases of Gangster Squad, The Place Beyond the Pines and Gosling and Refn’s reunion, Only God Forgives, which also looks to be very violent.

Across his oeuvre, including Pusher and Bronson, Refn has become associated with a particular kind of screen violence, as his protagonists tend to be existential loners who erupt without warning. Drive’s protagonist Driver echoes Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle in his peculiar and awkward relationships with others, and his recourse to violence to solve the problems that he encounters. Just as there is no warning for when Driver will strike, the violence in the film as a whole often erupts without preamble. I remember my first experience of viewing the film, at a morning screening during Norwich’s hottest October on record (yes, I would rather sit in an air-conditioned cinema than in the sunshine, what of it?). For the first forty minutes, I was drawn into the almost dreamlike representation of Los Angeles, a city I have seen on-screen many times and even visited twice. The film’s unhurried pace, expressive mise-en-scene and smooth transitions lulled me into a false sense of security, so that when a character was shot it came as a real shock. This was only the opening salvo, as in a quick succession of scenes, one character is shot and another stabbed, a man is attacked with a hammer, a head is reduced to mush in the film’s most infamous scene, several men are brutally stabbed. A scene of drowning is relatively restrained in the midst of this carnage.

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I call it carnage, but there is relatively little death in Drive as a whole. A total of nine people are killed in the film, which compared to the innumerable deaths in Olympus Has Fallen seems rather tame. But the issue is quality rather than quantity. The deaths in Olympus Has Fallen are largely anonymous, generally quick and, crucially, not dwelt upon. The BBFC Guidelines at “15” state “Violence may be strong but should not dwell on the infliction of pain or injury”; there is little dwelling in Olympus Has Fallen, for example.

In Drive, there is definite dwelling on the infliction of pain and injury. A head is blown apart at close range with a shotgun, the obliteration of the head shown in slow motion with ample spray of blood and brain matter. When a man is stabbed through the chest with a metal shower rail, he is not simply stabbed and left to die – the stabbing is drawn-out, blood bubbling out of the man’s mouth as the rod is forced through his chest with agonising slowness. Later, the sound of a hammer impacting flesh and bone is enough to make anyone wince. Several scenes of stabbing that involve knives and razors do not skimp on the blood and screams. The notorious elevator scene is one of the very few times I have had to look away in a cinema (on home viewings I forced myself to watch), as the unremitting brutality is deeply uncomfortable. The BBFC states that these scenes “contain the strongest gory images, which are at times accompanied by an emphasis on the infliction of pain and injury”, and they are not kidding. Although the violence takes up relatively little screen time, it leaves a lasting impression.

Drive’s depiction of violence is entirely appropriate, as it leaves the viewer shaken and disturbed. It is also very unusual, as violence in film is frequently sanitised to make it acceptable. Drive actually draws attention to this tendency, as Driver does stunt-driving for the movies in which everything is controlled and kept safe. The first driving sequence in the film is similarly safe, as Driver transports two armed robbers away from a crime scene with smooth, elegant precision. In his introduction, Driver dictates his guiding principle:

You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own.

His approach to life is as simple as a movie – he has his role and other people have theirs. But as he is drawn deeper into the morass that lies between the streets of Los Angeles, his rules are disrupted and simple delineations become blurred.

A striking example of this blurring is the family that Driver helps. Ostensibly, he has a romantic interest in his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), bonding with her son Benicio (Kaden Leos).Yet his involvement with her family is to help her husband Standard (Oscar Isaacs). This seems strange for a movie like this – should he not be drawing closer to Irene herself? His endeavour leads him directly into the escalating violence, which includes a very different car chase to that which opened the film. Faster and messier, Driver guns his car away from a pursuing vehicle in reverse, while reaction shots of his passenger Blanche (Christina Hendricks) show her terror at this turn of events. The chase culminates in the pursuers’ car crashing, and things get more violent as we progress.

The contrast between the two chases is the difference between movies and reality. Drive moves from smooth, predictable organisation to discordant, random, surprises. Its violent sequences are the strongest expression of this, as the arrival of two gun-toting men is without warning as is the stabbing of a man in a pizza restaurant. The elevator scene features the film’s most violent set piece, but also its most romantic interlude. Violence interjects without preamble or significant warning, and when it strikes, it is messy, painful and horrifying to watch.

An interesting exception is a scene in which a car is forced off the road on a beach below and its occupant drowned in the sea. Driver wears the latex mask of a stunt driver, used to disguise the driver’s features in movie scenes. The drowning scene is relatively bloodless and largely rendered in long shot, so we are not exposed to the intimacy of violence as we are in the elevator scene. It is as though the film steps back into sanitised movie violence rather than “real” violence, before the final clash in which two men are graphically stabbed. The chronology of this scene is distorted, however, as two lines of action that would be sequential are intercut to appear simultaneous. Once again, the clear delineations of classical Hollywood cinema are disrupted, indicating the intrusion of something messy and unpredictable. The film’s conclusion is deeply ambiguous, the final shot (presumably) Driver’s point-of-view through the windscreen of his car. He has been injured, so he may be travelling to a hospital, or simply driving until he dies, or perhaps the final shot is posthumous, driving eternally in the afterlife.

I love the ambiguity of this final shot, leaving the viewer to decide what we think Driver’s fate will be. Our faith in him as a cinematic hero has been shaken, with his psychotic eruptions of violence, and the fate of someone about whom we are ambiguous is itself ambiguous. Drive itself provokes complex and contradictory feelings, as it is both beautiful and hideous, seductive and repulsive. The film makes a point about cinematic violence, with its own violent sequences exceptionally graphic in stark contrast to the sanitisation of typical movie violence. Whether this is critical of normal movie practice or simply Refn’s own aesthetic is also ambiguous, resulting in an unsettling viewing experience.

Film violence is a hotly contested debate, with arguments raging on both sides for years. I wrote previously on the two types of violence in Django Unchained, and in an interview with Channel 4, Quentin Tarantino stated that he would not answer questions about violence in his films because he had been doing that his whole career, and he has long been a referent for those concerned with this phenomenon. A recent BBC radio programme on Frank Capra included the comment that films today are too violent, although no evidence was presented. Human beings have enjoyed violent entertainment for centuries, and in cinema we can view both sanitised versions and graphic representation that is perhaps more realistic. Drive highlights this sanitisation by presenting violent assaults in unrestrained gore, as well as hinting at the disturbing psychology behind such attacks.

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