Monday, March 30, 2009

A Postcard to Jane Austen: Shot by Shot Analysis of Pride and Prejudice

In the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice (2005), director Joe Wright brings a more realistic and unconventional take to this period piece than his predecessors. Rather than idealize eighteenth century Britain and keep it within the usual picturesque traditions, Wright captures and romanticizes the filth, the economic hardships and societal conventions. Likewise our protagonists’, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, relationship seems to be far more convoluted and intense. In the 5-shot sequence, starting at 38:45 min of screen time and ending at 41:18, Wright attempts to feed the spectator’s voyeuristic need and manifest the sexual tension felt between the characters Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy through the use of editing and mise-en-scène as well as camera and character movement.

In this sequence Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are at a ball in Netherfeld, the country home of Mr. Darcy’s best friend Mr. Bingley. At this point in the story, Mr. Darcy has just asked Elizabeth to dance. She consents even though Elizabeth despises him because of his arrogance and treatment towards Mr. Wickham, a former acquaintance of Darcy and recent love interest of Elizabeth’s. The sequence begins as they both line up to dance at 38:45 minutes of film time and ends at 41:18 minutes, consisting of five shots.

Shot 1 is quite brief and expressed in only two seconds. We see a line of men, consisting of three eighteenth century British soldiers and five of the gentry, including Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, in profile facing to the left. The rest of the crowd, as well as the ballroom walls, can be seen vaguely in the background of the mise-en-scène. It is filmed at a medium oblique angle with the shot widening from right to left and the focus narrowing from left to right, particularly onto Mr. Darcy. Also, all the men next to Mr. Darcy are shorter helping to establish for his character an air of prominence and importance. As the men wait for the music to begin a lulling clatter of chatter can be heard. All the men are dressed in rather demure colors and are staring left off-screen, presumably to their dance partners as shot 2 reveals.

As the film cuts from shot 1 to shot 2, the music, Dario Marianelli’s “A Postcard to Henry Purcell,” begins. Shot 2 reveals what the men were gazing at with a row of female dance partners bowing and shown at a medium oblique angle. This shot seems to be the opposite of shot 1, thus paralleling the differences between men and women. Instead of a line of men, we have a line of eight women, including Elizabeth and her sister, Jane, in profile facing right. All of them are dressed in white with their hair perfectly coifed. Unlike shot 1, the shot widens from left to right and focus narrows from right to left perfectly onto Elizabeth. Similarly, however, the characters next to Elizabeth are shorter thereby drawing attention to her. What’s more, a very similar mise-en-scène can be seen in this shot to that of shot 1. This shot, too, is brief, lasting only three seconds.

As the ladies rise from their bows, the film cuts to shot 3. At first cinematographically it appears the same as shot 1 but then continues on as a long take, running about two minutes without any cuts, of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth dancing. In this shot, the camera is somewhat static, only moving laterally as the characters’ dancing gives the impression of a figure eight. Only Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are in focus. This is the first shot that has dialogue spoken and our two protagonists seem to dance around each other through biting banter just as much as they do via actual dancing. It starts off with small talk as the music plays softly and smoothly. However, as music begins to slowly swell the banter becomes more sarcastic as Elizabeth responds to Mr. Darcy’s inquiry of whether she speaks as a rule while dancing with “No, I prefer to be unsociable and taciturn.” Furthermore, the circles and turns of the dance increase with the sarcasm of the dialogue. The music of the violins soars as Mr. Darcy finally loses his cool and stops to confront Elizabeth when she asks about losing Mr. Wickham’s friendship. Through clenched teeth he retorts, “Why do you ask such a question?” This is were the tension between the two characters is at its highest. Both are battling with their desire to loathe and love the person standing before them.

Suddenly the director cuts into shot 4 as the music reaches it’s crescendo and Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth begin to dance again. However, the mise-en-scène of this shot is devoid of people. The people from the ball disappear and all that can be seen is the two of them dancing. They are fixed so intensely on each other that everyone else has disappeared from the dance. In fact, their stares are so powerful that the sexual tension can be felt through the screen. The camera in this shot becomes less stagnant and it seems to move around the two protagonists unlike it had before. This gives an otherworldly impression that they are flying and are not constrained to the floor.

Shot 4 seems more prominent and significant than the other shots not only because of the changed mise-en-scène but also because of Wright’s editing. According to Graeme Turner in his book, Film as Social Practice, he notes that a director “can use the timing of their cuts either to enhance the energy of the action, or to slow it down” (88) and in moments of action, cuts increase the drama. Because shot 3 had been so stagnant and fixed, as well as long, the cut to shot 4 was more apparent and jarring. This edit conveys the importance of shot 4 and thus the magnitude of its contents: the sexual tension between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.

The last cut occurs when the music ends and Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy bow to each other. Shot 5 resembles shot 2 with the ladies all in line except now they are in the same position the men were in shot 1. The sequence finally ends with Lizzie glaring off-screen, presumably to Mr. Darcy, and the other ladies clapping.

Based on this sequence, the camera seems to follow Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth without ever giving the spectator a real clear indication of who is watching, an important question that Daniel Dayan brings up in his essay “The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema.” Once that question is posed the spectator becomes aware of the mechanics of film and "[the film] must hide its operations, 'naturalizing' its functioning and its messages in some way" (126) in order for that impression of reality to work. Conventionally, in order to prevent this questioning of "who is watching" is to use “the shot/reverse-shot” and thus to suture “the hole opened in the spectator's imaginary relationship with the filmic field by his perception of the absent-one" (128), with the "absent-one" being the off-screen character that is viewing the scene unfold.

Because of this lack of suturing we are forced to identify with the camera’s viewpoint, as Christian Metz coins in his essay “Identification, Mirror,” as our primary identification. With no identification of who is looking, “the spectator can do no other than identify with the camera, too, which has looked before him at what he is now looking” (804). Our voyeuristic pleasure in this case is purely derived from just watching as the camera does. This is voyeurism at its most primal. Director Joe Wright purposely does this in order to increase the spectator’s viewing pleasure and enjoyment of the romantic sequence.

This dance sequence is one of the more beautiful scenes in the movie. Wright navigates the camera through it as smoothly as the music playing in the background. He wonderfully conveys, via film narrative, what Jane Austen tried to demonstrate in her beloved work of so many years ago, creating a visually pleasurable sequence for the spectator.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Enunciating Pleasure in a Nameless Hero

Before taking this "Intro to Film" course, I believed that my intense love for movies stemmed from the escapist aspects of films, of going to far off places and encountering people and situations that I have never experienced. However, throughout the course, it has surprised me to learn that this love has more to do with a narcissistic self-reflexivity and a voyeuristic need, according to most of the articles we have read. My identification with the camera and characters and the gratification I derive from watching the latter is what ultimately provides cinematic-watching pleasure. Of course, this requires accepting a certain reality within the story and ignoring the discourse, or production, that creates it. According to Christian Metz in his essay, "Story/Discourse: Notes on Two Kinds of Voyeurism" he explains that the "traditional film succeeds in giving the spectator the impression that he is himself that subject," and thereby derives pleasure, when "[the film] abolishes all traces of the subject of enunciation," that is to say when the spectator is unaware of the discourse.

While watching Yimou Zhang's film, Hero, I had this very idea in mind. First, I must say, this film was perhaps one of the most visually stunning movies I have ever seen since Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The mise-en scene in this film is spectacular and is meant to invoke visual pleasure for the spectator's wandering eyes. The spectator is mesmerized by the gorgeous colors, costumes, and settings, not to mention the acrobatic insanity that ensues for most of the film. All of these elements help to enhance the story and make it more pleasing to that ever-fickle moviegoer.

However, those same acrobatic feats are what make the movie suspend reality and introduce skepticism into the spectator's mind. The action in this film is so unbelievable and magical that the spectator wonders exactly how these amazing shots could be made. For example, the scene on the lake (shown below) is incredible.

Jet Li (Nameless) and Tony Leung (Broken Sword) share an epic battle while practically defying gravity as they fly over the water. Not only that, but the water itself serves as a balancing board for them to regain their battling composure. It's stunning! Yet as soon as the spectator starts questioning how the shot was made the illusion of the story is gone and discourse comes to the forefront. Therefore, the supposed reality of the film comes into question and the pleasure derived from self-identification is somewhat lost. Pleasure can be derived from the amazing visuals, but it is not as intense as primary identification would be.

On the other hand, if there are an abundant amount of gravity defying stunts in the film, there are just as many close-ups. I believe that is where the true pleasure of the film comes from and thus when voyeurism is at it's highest. The spectator is not only watching these characters and objects, but he/she can see also them in detail. In her essay, "The Close-up," Bela Balasz explains close-ups "radiate a tender human attitude in the contemplation of hidden things, a delicate solicitude, a gentle bending over the intimacies of life-in the miniature, a warm sensibility." It is this sneak peek into a previously "hidden thing," as Balasz says, that we enjoy in film. (Hidden in the sense that it is not as defined or able to be seen in detail in long or medium shots.)

In the first ten minutes of Hero alone there are at least 15 or more close-ups showing the spectator a hidden secret, hidden object, or hidden emotion that could not have been seen in a long shot. Throughout the film there are numerous more and each one provides a hidden insight. When they are all combined in the final product, the spectator can derive far more voyeuristic pleasure from the close-ups then he/she could from the discourse-revealing gravity defying acrobatic fights. It's possible that by juxtaposing these two opposites it enhances the visual pleasure even more.

Perhaps I am a bit biased since I was watching the film under the pretense of finding some kind of meaning in order to write this blog or to have something to say about it in class. If I was just going to see the movie in theaters maybe I wouldn't be focused on any of the technical aspects but would rather just be amazed by the extravagant beauty of the movements, settings, and costumes. Who knows? Maybe by studying film itself we are more attune to the discourse and often forget to just enjoy the story.