Sunday, August 12, 2012

Directed by Clint Eastwood - Part II: show, don't tell

One of Eastwood's characteristics is his willingness to deliver exposition in images and not dialogue (a technique he might have learned from working with Sergio Leone on the Dollars-Trilogy). This is one area where animation filmmakers may directly profit by studying Eastwood (or Leone or Melville) films.

Classical Hollywood protagonists have to face and finally resolve a more or less suppressed incident of their past. Just think of Casablanca (1942) or The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Eastwood, however, likes to play taciturn characters whose past stays vague at best.

As a director, he doesn't like to explain too much or talk down to the audience. He'd rather leave as much as possible to the imagination:
"don’t lay out so much that it insults their intelligence. I try to give a certain amount to their imagination. [...] I think that audiences are smarter than a lot of producers think they are, and I think the audience will draw with you"

It is thus self-evident that Eastwood doesn't like expository dialogue. Whenever possible he establishes character relationships through staging in space. For that he relies heavily on master shots and shots with two or more characters visible at the same time. In a time when even Martin Scorsese (in The Departed and Shutter Island) has started to favor the single character shots, it is a real treat to have at least one mainstream director left who leaves the choice to the audience which character they want to focus on.

Eastwood's use of cinemascope for his larger scale stories comes in pretty handy as well. However, thanks to Joel Cox' perfected editing rhythm the individual shots do not attract attention to themselves or distort the spatial relationship like in a Sergio Leone film.

It's worth mentioning how many observers (innocent or not-so-innocent bystanders) there usually are in his western scenes. Ever since the "man with no name", Eastwood himself is often introduced as an outsider to the community who observes for some time and only reacts after a long time.

The exposition of the strange town of Lago in the surreal morality play High Plains Drifter may be one of the best examples of the Eastwood way of setting up a story. Communication is reduced to glances and sounds. Nevertheless, one immediately gets the notion that the townspeople of Lago do not welcome the stranger. 



0:10 Eastwood's head in shadow, filmed from behind, no facial expression visible 
0:13 With the music fading away, the rhythm of the horse noises is carrying the scene acoustically. 
0:23 low angle shot from behind an unsettled citizen. 
0:29 Eastwood's face visible, in shadow; horse sounds obtrusive, audible seagulls to remind us of the presence of an eerie lake. 
0:39 the stranger in silhouette in the shadow, his fearful observer behind glass following his every move.
0:52 through the unfinished building we see a white figure standing high above on the balcony of the town hotel. 
0:55 Close-up on white woman from below. Her face is in the light, she looks down suspiciously but seems less fearful, has a broom in her hands so we know that she's working (which is always a good thing in Eastwood's universe). 
1:09 the next woman's face is in the shadow. She is one of only three women in this town but will not have an important role and thus doesn't get a reverse-shot or a close-up.
1:20 the barber stands outside and the camera in the dark room. He gets a reverse-shot. 
1:32 The third woman is introduced in a shot with Eastwood. She's the only person who crosses Eastwoods path. Her face is shaded by her hat. Eastwood seems to follow her with his eyes. 
1:48 the white saloon door and one person sitting and one standing leave no question about the size of the dwarf coming out of the white door, although we only see him from waist up. At least he's coming out, is not paralyzed like the rest of the townspeople.
1:55 real close-up on Eastwood's dark face, reverse shot on sweating observer
2:07 the Lago mining company is visible, two men about to leave town in a carriage 
2:12 bullwhip sound, Eastwood immediately turns his head 
2:14 first words of incidental dialogue, carriage sounds obscure horse's noises
2:22 another bullwhip cracking, Eastwood turns away disgustedly.

There's no way one cannot get the importance of the bullwhip to Eastwood's "stranger" character.

Staging talking heads
As you might have noticed, Eastwood likes to block his actors so that their heads are hardly ever on a horizontal line which is abetted in the western by having some of them sit on horses or stand on boardwalks.

This is not a publicity photograph but an actual screenshot from Flags of our Fathers (2006): the characters' heads' are not on a horizontal line and we can actually choose on which character's reaction we'd like to focus.
Eastwood also likes to stage dialogue scenes in contemporary films with one person sitting and one standing which creates visual dynamics. When the camera is facing the sitting person in a shot-reverse-shot sequence we often see the hip (where the guns hang in a western) of the standing character. I have nicknamed this recurring type of shot the "hipshot".
Eastwood's Ben Shockley in The Gauntlet (1977) gets his next assignment in alternating overshoulder- and hip-shots.
In Gran Torino (2008), Kowalski's opposite doesn't even sit and we get low-angle hip-shot.
Of course this is no exclusive Eastwood trait, but he likes to hark back to it more often than other directors. The same can be said about the moving camera from the point of view of the rider which leads to a slight encircling of standing characters. While this is commonplace in scenes involving horseback riding or cars, Eastwood transplants this short camera movement to all kinds of different movies as can be seen from the following non-exhaustive montage:



Note: I haven't decided yet if there will be a next installment of this series and what area it would cover. In the meantime you may be interested in this earlier post on Bronco Billy (1980).

There are many books on Clint Eastwood's career both as a director and an actor. One of the more rewarding is Laurence F. Knapp's analysis of Eastwood's first 18 films aptly titled: Directed by Clint Eastwood. Unfortunately, I don't own a copy and Amazon will only send used or new books to Americans, but I have read it in a library a few years ago and Knapp is really digging into Eastwood's visual style (without the benefit of pictures, though).

Last but not least, there's also an interview book edited by Robert E. Kapsis and Kathie Coblentz from which I have excerpted many of the quotes in these two posts.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

BRAVE - Part I: Traces of Miyazaki

Pixar's latest film may feel like a letdown to the animation community because of its retreat into the abhorred fairy tale ghetto. But while the story and characters essentially follow the Pixar rules of storytelling, some of the magic aspects are more closely resembling Hayao Miyazaki's princess films than Disney's. The following essay is first and foremost concerned with these allusions and whether they add up to something more profound than superficial homage. I will look at BRAVE's Pixar lineage in a future post. 

When you read the following paragraphs, please keep in mind that I thoroughly enjoyed many aspects of BRAVE and certainly recommend it.
[CONTAINS SPOILERS]

"At Pixar, when we have a problem and we can't seem to solve it, we often take a laser disc of one of Mr. Miyazaki's films and look at a scene in our screening room for a shot of inspiration. And it always works! We come away amazed and inspired. Toy Story owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Mr. Miyazaki." (John Lasseter)

According to John Lasseter, Pixar itself was modelled on Studio Ghibli. While Disney, Dreamworks and Pixar directors from Tony Bancroft to Pete Docter never tire of proclaiming how much Miyazaki's films mean to them and how they are continuously influenced by the Japanese master's work, the key elements of Miyazaki's style haven't hardly been surfacing in their films yet.

One might point out that Up with it's elderly protagonist, the flying house and the rousing battle in the sky might have been inspired by the Japanese auteur's love for fantastical aircrafts (and Howl's Moving Castle in particular). Also the fact that both Wall-E and Up start in one place and are suddenly going off into a whole different direction may owe a great deal to Miyazaki's episodic screenwriting (or rather storyboarding) style that is organically evolving during production.

Altough Brave still is a typical Pixar film, it is the studio's first picture that bears traces of Miyazaki's archaic fantasy universe as seen in NausicaƤ (1984), Mononoke Hime (1997) or Howl's Moving Castle (2004) with the most obvious parallels being the bow-wielding redhead princess and the depiction of the magical aspects of the story.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the Japanese trailer for Brave focuses on the darker aspects suggesting a larger thematic scope than the story ultimately lives up to. In what is practically an amplified version of the exciting earlier teaser, Merida comes off as a distant cousin to female warriors Nausicaa and San (Mononoke Hime) whose adventures to save enchanted forests full of intriguing creatures required real acts of bravery.



Early Brave Teaser

Full Japanese Trailer

The eerie blue "will o' the wisps" suggest an animistic worldview and - although firmly rooted in northern folklore - are thus reminiscent of the white spirits who accompany the travellers through the forest in Mononoke Hime.

Strangely sounding forest spirits (Mononoke Hime)

Blue "will o' the wisps" leading the princess to her destiny.
While the Japanese trailer is giving away almost all the mystical locations, Pixar's two best kept secrets - the mother's transformation and the identity of the witch character - are still not revealed. As it turns out in the film, the woodcarving witch is a lot closer to Miyazaki's ambivalent elderly women and sorceresses than to a Disney witch or evil queen. Even the design seems to be inspired by various female Miyazaki characters not least by the bewitched Sophie of Howl's Moving Castle.

The wise old woman with Nausicaa (1984)

The wise old woman with Ashitaka (Mononoke Hime, 1997)

Yubaba and twin sister Zeniba in Spirited Away (2001)
Sophie transformed into an elderly woman by a witch (Howl's Moving Castle, 2004)

Brave's woodcarver witch



In spirit and scope Brave may be farther away from Mononoke Hime than Avatar (to pick a recently successful western equivalent which also lacks Miyazaki's more subtle storytelling approach), but I still think it's rewarding to explore its storyline and characters a little further in the context of Miyazaki's works.

A Princess Is Not Inherently Bad
Much has been written about Pixar's lack of female protagonists and the deploring fact that the long awaited first heroine is a princess. However, kingdoms, princesses and magic have always been part and parcel of Miyazaki's epic stories, whether they were set in medieval or post-apocalyptic Japan or an alternate version of Europe. Nevertheless, no audience in the world would confuse any of them with Disney's softened princesses derived from harsh folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm or literary fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen.

Miyazaki circumvents the most problematic aspect of princess protagonists by avoiding romance and marriage. Despite Nausicaa's friendship with Asbel, a foreign prince, romantic love is of no importance to the story. In Mononoke Hime it's not even an option for its two more mature royal protagonists.

The relationships at the heart of many a Studio Ghibli film are based on deep feelings more closely to a child's love. Such profound non-romantic affections are most obvious in children's films like Totoro (1988), Ponyo (2008) or Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies (1988). Focusing on the relationship between an adolescent girl and her mother, Brave is following this path quite closely in the beginning.

Not So Brave
While one can perfectly picture Nausicaa staying childless and happy, Merida is not likely to "stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset" for the rest of her life. In fact, as the ending suggests (Merida is riding together with her mother after having fought for her right to choose a husband), her unwillingness to marry may have simply been the result of her not being ready for it (and the whole mother-daughter conflict a natural stage of adolescence).

Besides, her suitors are so ridiculous that any sane person should have rejected them (the danger of war among the clans is never even noticeable). I am not so sure whether Merida would have been reluctant to trade her freedom in for a boy as intelligent and handsome as prince Ashitaka from Mononoke Hime.

However brave it seems to an adolescent girl to change her fate so that she can choose when and whom she will marry, Brave might have been a more powerful film had Merida chosen to fight for the right to stay single even as a mature woman. And let us not forget that she only had the courage to "change her fate" with the consent and support of her mother-turned-bear.

What made Brave a less courageous film seems to be partly based on the remarkable decision to portray Merida as a woman and not a man in a dress.

The Female Warrior Trap
Ever since female heroes (as opposed to heroines which most often are tragic characters) have become popular in mainstream action films they have usually been measured by their achievements in men's domains. Traditionally strong women are depicted as successful warriors - examples range from Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in the Alien series (1979-1997) to Mulan (1998).

And although Merida's fascination for bow and arrow and her setup in the first half hour suggest such a familiar character, Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews have fortunately resisted the female warrior trap and thus made Merida a more interesting character than many of the sword-wielding amazons of the last decades.

Miyazaki often relies on gender role reversals resulting in both female protagonists and antagonists and men who prefer not to fight. With opponents who are seldom all good or evil, he achieves a considerable balance of ambivalent male and female characters. As mentioned above, Brave is more interested in its female characters and men are generally depicted as hoggish or rowdy children who hardly ever realize what is going on around them.

The mother-daughter-relationship, however, is rendered more subtly than in most mainstream family films. Although we experience the story more or less from a teenager's point of view, Elinor is never demonized and although she is not the one coming of age, she is changing as well.

Transformation
But before that she has to undergo physical transformation against her will. As a bear she may be the one to take orders from her haughty daughter but unlike role reversal films like Freaky Friday or Brother Bear she does not have to earn her rightful place as a human being by walking in her daughter's shoes. She merely serves as a reminder to Merida of the consequences of her selfish behaviour.

In Miyazaki's films magic and the spirit world always co-exist with human reality even in modern-day films like Spirited Away (2001) or Ponyo. Shape shifting characters are quite common even in Howl's Moving Castle which is based on an English fantasy novel. But unlike transformed characters in European fairy tales like "The Frog Prince", Miyazaki's transformed characters (e.g. Sophie) are constantly changing.

Elinor's transformation is of the same nature. She is shifting from a queen in a bear suit to a real bear which is beautifully rendered by subtly changing animation styles. These scenes really shine with the most lifelike and realistic animation to be found in any Pixar film. The transformation itself is gladly left to the imagination. In contrast, the transforming characters of Mononoke Hime and Howl's Moving Castle are animated in most original and inspiring ways.
Transformation of a dying boar god in Mononoke Hime.

The stylization of Japanese character animation - despite feeling closer to live-action than the constant motion of the western "illusion of life" style - allows for such phenomena however. When Nausicaa or Ashitaka get excited, for example, their hair is visually developing a life of its own (see below). Funnily enough, reviewers have outbidden each other writing about Merida's hair having a life of its own. While one can see the metaphorical nature of such an observation it is simply inexistent in the animation (I haven't seen anything other than slowed-down but realistic overlap).


Ashitaka (Mononoke Hime) and..
...Nausicaa getting angry.
A Sense Of Wonder
Miyazaki's influence only goes so far even in the films of his most ardent American admirers. Visually, Brave is breathtaking and at times even magical. On the whole however, it lacks the quietness and natural pace of any studio Ghibli film. Although Brave's character animation seems to be far more inspired by real life than, say, The Lorax or Ice Age: Continental Drift, it still feels busy and a little too fast-moving.

To me, Miyazaki's slower narrative pace is essential to the creation of such memorably haunting pictures like the train ride in Spirited Away (see below). There should be time to breathe in a film, no matter how epic or small scale it be. At times Brave delves into a darker territory but it never addresses its adult subject matter as effortlessly and fearlessly as Miyazaki does. There is always some comic relief around the corner to lighten up or - more aptly - break the mood.
Spirited Away

If any studio in the western world has enough prestige, know-how and box-office power to change the notion of what a family film is and advance American animation once again, it is Pixar. Maybe they should invite Hayao Miyazaki as a director-in-residence. To really rise above  a well-made spectacular, a film should have a unique point of view that transcends pure entertainment.

Miyazaki's stories like Simpsons episodes often evolve into a different direction than one expects at the outset. This is one trait that Pixar has increasingly adopted and which, among other things, I will discuss in a future post about Brave's Pixar lineage.