the social network: breaking on the fourth wall vs. breaking the fourth wall

A quick post today; I’m in the middle of studying for my econ final. (Or playing Carcassone online against Germans. One of the two, at least.) I want to talk about a single shot from The Social Network that seems to break the fourth wall of cinema viewing without ever actually doing so.

It starts like this: Jesse Eisenberg, playing Mark Zuckerberg, has just let into his rental Justin Timberlake (playing Sean Parker) and his sort of anonymous-y companion. (“This is my…Sharon,” JT says, flustered by the immediate need to introduce a woman with whom he has a nebulous, possibly sex-based relationship.)

Eisenberg tosses JT a beer without incident. Then he throws one to Sharon, but it goes wide and smashes against the wall.

2014-05-02 social network flying beer 3 first crash

You can see the beer in mid-explosion on the white wall to the far left, looking like a burn mark on the paint.

Anyway, Eisenberg prepares to toss her another beer, but she’s not ready.

2014-05-02 social network flying beer 4 first sorry

Eisenberg tosses the beer, which you can see at the beginning of its arc here:

2014-05-02 social network flying beer 5 in midflight

…and shattering on impact less than a second later, in the same shot:

2014-05-02 social network flying beer 6 crash

For a long time, I assumed that what was happening in this shot was that the beer was supposed to be breaking against the camera, which for this split second was assuming the role of wall.

So often, the camera is a non-presence in movies; it has a perspective but no weight. It’s a window, not a door, into the universe of the film. Even when it takes on the POV of a character (literally or figuratively), the camera/perspective is not a thing itself in the world of the story, but more like a passive receptor of the image. For director David Fincher to suddenly make the camera a physical presence meant the audience was suddenly aware that the camera was there, taking up space in the room along with Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker.

To get what I mean viscerally, just compare the broken beers. The first (from the first shot above) illustrates how it feels to watch a beer smash up at a remove, when it’s breaking apart on some remote object. Then, in bold contrast, the shot of the beer coming at us – and losing focus as it does – creates a fuzzy space of indeterminacy right in front of us as the beer attacks us, smashes on us, interacts with us.

In any event, now that I’ve had to watch this scene several times, I’ve finally realized that the beer breaks not on the camera-as-wall, but on a sort of overhang at the top of the frame.

This is even sublimely better, in a way, since it means that Fincher is getting the best of both worlds: The camera is still, in theory, a passive window without substance, but there’s still the psychological effect of having the bottle break on our own faces. In the end, the viewer is tricked into feeling that the camera – and by extension, the viewer herself – is part of the scene, but without having a justification for it.

ikiru: the sad meat in a happy sandwich

To do Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru any real justice, I’d have to go on at length. Maybe I’ll save a longer discussion for next week. Today, I’m just going to breakdown my favorite scene, and in that way perhaps I’ll show why a movie like this deserves far more than a thousand words.

The context: Mr. Watanabe is an aging man who has recently learned he’s dying from stomach cancer. He has six months, maybe a year. He’s kept this fact largely to himself, and Toyo, the young woman he’s recently befriended, doesn’t know he’s terminal. They’ve had a chaste but warm relationship until now, but she’s beginning to feel creeped out by the attentions of this older man. She’s agreed to one last date.

Cut to the restaurant. In stark contrast to their silence, a party goes on in the background, across an open stairwell.

2014-04-04 ikiru rest 1 establishing
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one scene in the good wife is a sweet little triumph

One of the things I notice about nearly every movie I like is that there isn’t only one brilliant idea whose sheer ingenuity makes the movie great. Usually, it’s just several smaller good ideas, each one maybe a little unremarkable on its own, which add up to something transcendent.

Recently, The Good Wife had a sequence that made me feel that way. It’s one of the more affecting moments I’ve seen as of late, not to mention one of the more creative editing schemes I think I’ve ever seen outside of an actual film.

There’s some slight spoiling here, since this episode comes well into the show’s fifth season, but I can sketch the general psychological dynamic without really giving away much at all: At this point, Will, played by Josh Charles, is feeling terribly wronged by his sometime lover, Alicia (the show’s star Wife, Julianna Margulies). They’re both talented lawyers, and Will is preparing for the next day in court, when he’ll have to cross-examine a combative Alicia as a witness.
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the major details of michael mann’s heat

It’s one of my big beliefs that a great movie or piece of art is not born out of a single genius idea but a million smaller ones, each almost insignificant on its own but accumulating to make up something that takes you a while to really digest. Or maybe I’m just trying to say, execution counts and small details count, and that’s one of the few ways I can explain why Heat, Michael Mann’s 1995 heist thriller, has a special place in my heart.

As a kind of random sampling, I decided to confine myself to the first several minutes/scenes of the movie:

1. the change-up

The film begins with Robert De Niro dressed as a paramedic, on foot and headed for a hospital. He crosses a parking lot, and we get this shot:

13-11-05 heat birds eye

This isn’t terribly notable by itself. But it’s a nice bit of photographic composition, and it’s an angle that changes up the pattern of expected shots ever so slightly. Not a huge artistic leap, but a nice little touch.
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the flimsy, sad future of bartholomew’s song

IMDB.com estimates that Bartholomew’s Song cost $2,500, a figure that’s been rattling around in my head while I’ve been thinking how damn good it is. The short is only about 10 minutes long, but the directors, Lowell Frank and Destin Daniel Cretton, have made a virtue out of a low budget and a brief run time.

B.’s Song takes place in a dystopia where workers sleep in cell-like rooms and assemble little cubic things at an absurdly slow rate. Life for Bartholomew 467 and his fellow Bartholomews (it seems that every man is named Bartholomew) is monotonous and comically repetitive, but their blank faces suggest that this isn’t generally a problem.

This is a good world to set a cheap short in, because that basic premise can be established in only six static shots that begin Song. The simplicity of the shots echoes the mechanical, modular quality of the Bartholomews’ world, where everything is as discreet and functional as the cogs of a pocket watch.

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mirror mirror: shrek with (too much?) ambition

I watched another movie by Tarsem Singh this week, Mirror Mirror. He also directed Immortals, which I wrote about a couple of months ago. I like to write about outliers, and Singh’s movies are vivid and cinematic in a way that most modern Hollywood directors don’t bother with. Think Avatar but with arty intentions and even richer detail.

Mirror Mirror is a retelling of Snow White, which saves me the trouble of summarizing the plot. Suffice it to say that in this version the seven dwarves are thieves with a hideout. To get what I meant by “vivid” above, take a look at this screen grab of their den:

Check out the meticulously arranged mess in the front there. It looks like the perfect still life, and I suspect it’s a visual reference to some classic painting I don’t know, but in any event, the shot gives you a sense of what the movie is like: lots and lots of texture. This is a film where the bandit hideout has elegant, patterned wallpaper. (Look at the background of that screen grab and you’ll see a sort of Japanese engraving sort of motif.)

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hats of the damned: pasolini’s oedipus rex

I suppose I came to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film version of Oedipus Rex hoping that it would work with the meaning I had gotten out of the play, which I analyzed in some depth a few weeks ago. My conclusion was basically that Sophocles’ original play works best if we think of it as a parable about the sin we do unknowingly and the dangers of knowledge.

Pasolini’s film, however, doesn’t really focus on these aspects, or at least not in any way I can tell, and I’m kind of unsure what to make of it overall. The movie’s major innovation is that it begins and ends in 20th century Italy. In some early part of the 20th century (I can’t figure out what year exactly this would have been), Pasolini shows us a young military man who is jealous of the attention his wife pays to their infant son. Shortly, the setting changes to ancient Greece and tells us the traditional story of Oedipus in chronological order (as opposed to the play, where Oedipus is already king and we only learn of his true back story through exposition). Then, where the play would end with Oedipus blind and shamed, the movie magically transposes the same actor to 1970s Italy, making him a blind beggar.

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