Sunday, 27 September 2015

It takes three days for Ahmed, a poet banished from Baghdad, to learn the language of his adopted Norse comrades in John McTiernan's The 13th Warrior, or at least his education is shown consecutively over three nights. Having left his translator behind to join a band of warriors fighting a mysterious evil, Ahmed is thrown into Norse culture with no points of reference. He sits in silence as the men drink, talk and laugh around a fire at night, watching their mouths as they speak and studying the sounds of the words they say. He understands nothing but watches everything. McTiernan compliments this with alternating close-ups of Ahmed's face, his eyes darting around following the speakers in the conversation, and close-ups of those speaking. As Ahmed focuses on specific words, McTiernan cuts from a close-up of the speaker's face to an extreme close-up of their lips as the words are repeated to emphasise their importance. He then cuts back to Ahmed's face, and fades to black. 

Day two. It's raining, but the men are again sitting around a fire, telling stories and drinking, Ahmed is still studying them as they speak, but this time the camera is much closer to his face, slowly zooming in towards his eyes. As he watches, he silently mimics the shape of their mouths, and he begins to pick out the occasional word or sentence from their conversations. McTiernan presents Ahmed's perception of language through English, so we hear these English words sandwiched between the Norse words the warriors have been speaking up to this point, only they are heavily accented and only vaguely distinguishable from Norse. Still, progress has been made, and McTiernan returns to the close-up of Ahmed's face, deep in thought, before fading out once more. 

Day three. The rain is gone and the men are talking. A close-up of Ahmed's eyes, wide, steady and attentive, is the first image we see. McTiernan again cuts between this close-up and Ahmed's perspective of the men talking, now almost entirely in English with less obstructive Norse accents. One of the men directs an insult at Ahmed, assuming he does not understand. He does. His eyes spring into action, and McTiernan moves the close-up down to Ahmed's mouth as he responds in stuttering but accurate Norse, stunning the laughing men into silence. McTiernan cuts to a wider shot of Ahmed's face, echoing those he used to portray the warriors. But they're still separated. Before he finishes, McTiernan places all the warriors in one frame, and Ahmed alone in one. Some of the warriors take offence at Ahmed's response, while another stands over him, furiously (if not fearfully) asking him: "where did you learn our language?"Ahmed stands up, shouting back: "I listened!" Two men: one Arabic, one Norse; standing face to face, speaking the same language. The Norseman laughs, and places his hand on Ahmed's shoulder. Now able to communicate with the men, Ahmed becomes one of them. 

Friday, 18 September 2015

The first meeting between Cary Grant's high-flying ad-man turned accidental fugitive and Eva Marie Saint's alluring, mysterious stranger in Hitchcock's North By Northwest takes place on a train. Running from cops chasing him on a murder charge, his face on the cover of every newspaper in town, Grant's panicked Roger Thornhill inexplicably makes it through Grand Central and onto a train bound for Chicago. Once aboard, he walks along an empty grey-white corridor surrounded on one side by cabin doors, barred windows on the other; four artificial lights on the ceiling barely illuminate the passageway, perhaps the only slice of good luck he's been afforded thus far. Still, his expensive tailored grey suit, with brown shoes and cufflinks, render him far from inconspicuous, and his insistence on wearing sunglasses in the daytime serves the dual purpose of partially obscuring his face while drawing attention to his presence. Hitchcock's camera statically observes from one end of the corridor as Thornhill hurries towards it, looking in the cabins as he searches for somewhere to lie low for a while. He stops to look out of the window, and Hitchcock cuts to his point-of-view as two cops run onto the train just beyond him; Thornhill rushes back on himself, too scared to look for a place to hide, blindly running to buy time and distance, until he bumps into Eva Marie Saint's as-yet-unnamed character in the tight space linking the corridor to the carriage doors.

This space provides a platform for an awkward, fumbling attempt for the two to pass by each other, constantly copying the other's movements as if faced with Groucho Marx's mirror. And perhaps, like Groucho Marx, it's a situation intentionally drawn out by Saint. She doesn't seem surprised to walk straight into an alarmed Thornhill, and her eyes barely leave his face as they try to manoeuvre past each other - the only time she does avert her gaze, in fact, is to look back along the corridor at the two cops, stuck behind an elderly couple and the porter carrying their luggage. As the camera cuts to her vantage point, the set-up is the reverse to that of Thornhill entering the train seconds before, with the only changes being the end of the corridor the camera is placed and the perceived shift from objectivity to subjectivity - I say "perceived", because the parallels between the two shots suggest that somebody (perceptibly linked and even opposed to this mysterious woman) has been watching him the whole time. As he ducks into the nearest cabin, she lies to the oblivious onrushing cops: "he went that way, I think he got off," and she watches as they leave the train; the conductor's call of "all aboard" suggests they'll be departing soon. At least for now, he's in the clear, but who is this woman? He sheepishly emerges from the cabin, thanks her, and fakes an explanation ("seven parking tickets"). She responds with a brief but elongated "oh," and sashays along the corridor to find her cabin, abruptly ending their interaction and leaving him wanting more. Thornhill's eyes follow her, his gaze dropping and holding on her legs as the same point-of-view shot repeats itself, this time from his perspective. He's enthralled by her, but was she by him? Is that why she helped him so readily? Hitchcock gives no answers here, but he does lay the groundwork for something to happen between them later on. After all, she found him once, and now she's in his head it can only be a matter of time before she finds him again. And from there, who knows what could happen.




Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Ozu's Good Morning is filled with moments of small talk like this: a recently out-of-work salaryman visits his friend and neighbour for no other reason than to talk about the weather - or rather, to pass the time of day. Of course, engaging in small talk is an act of friendliness, of maintaining a relationship with another person, but to the children of Good Morning, this is an alien concept. "Grown ups talk all the time," declares one boy in defiance of his father's demands that he be quiet. "'Hello. Good Morning. Good Evening. Have a good day. How far is it? Just a little way. Is that so?' Just a lot of talk!" He soon vows silence, having lost faith in the word, communicating only with his younger brother through a series of hand signals and shakes of the head.

But is this a better alternative? At school, the teachers remind the students that they have to pay their lunch money the following day, but the boys can't (or won't) verbally ask their parents. Instead, they ask physically, crudely acting out their request with a game of charades which leaves the adults mystified and the boys hungry. This is no good to anyone, but the boys continue on with their vow at all costs. "It'd be a dull world without such conventions," the boys' English teacher later says of small talk to their aunt, on whom he has a silent crush. "Yes, but the children don't know that." But they soon will, and when they finally get the TV they've been suffering for they immediately abandon their silence, and the next morning they're politely greeting the neighbours and proudly discussing the relative benefits of pumice stone and burdock on the ability to fart on cue with their friends, smiles beaming from their faces. Maybe words are stupid and pointless, but, like washing machines, they make life a lot easier.

Friday, 4 September 2015

"He's past the others, the last cell. You keep to the right. I put out a chair for you."

This moment in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, just before FBI trainee Clarisse Starling meets Hannibal Lecter for the first time, stood out to me as perhaps its defining image. It's that perverse sense of normality that lingers throughout this movie: the idea that a violent murderer could be somebody's neighbour; that even the most twisted people can blend into a crowd; and that an act of kindness as simple as providing a small fold-up chair can give a psychopath an audience.