Category Archives: Formal analysis

Mise-en-scene/Camera Work

Tom Brenner Reuters

This may be my favorite picture of him, taken months ago in Jacksonville, Florida yet in circulation today for some reason across various media outlets including Reuters. In terms of visual analysis let’s note composition, figure behavior, props/decor, costume (including make-up). The camera angle and framing, elements of cinematography, make all of this possible.

What we get is a crushingly obvious symbol for Trumpism firmly rooted in the image’s denotative dimension: the man himself with his signature mask of orange foundation, his spun-sugar hair styled into a shallow helmet, a writhing US flag in the background, seemingly spewing from his open mouth like a plume of saliva droplets. All of it emphasizing the demagogue’s clownish “flag talk.”

Now here’s another photo from the same event (Evan Vuccie AP):

Note the denotative differences in color palette, camera angle, figure behavior. Connotatively, this is a completely different image, one suggesting dynamism, even bold leadership rather than self-serving blather.

Pickpocket (1959)

My first entry in my first ever observance of Noirvember is Robert Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket, a very loose adaptation of Dostoevsky’s great realist novel Crime and Punishment. Marika Green (Jeanne) plays a vulnerable yet wooden romantic foil in the same vein as Sonia Marmaladov to Rodya Raskolnikov.For me, the affectless acting style of lead Martin LaSalle, et al, minimizes our focus on vocal performance even as it encourages greater attention to figure movement and editing. The sequences detailing Michel’s sleight of hand are particularly engaging in this respect.

Here is an illuminating discussion by David Bordwell of Bresson’s use of constructive editing in Pickpocket.

Connecting Dots (303/415)

“The rich are only defeated when running for their lives.”

Can anyone really imagine any American politician saying this out loud? Even as a metaphor– one of the ways James intended this statement– it’s impossible to envision the most “radical” political figures in national politics– an Ilhan Omar or a Rashida Tlaib– using such language. 

One of the secrets of American politics is that both Democrats and Republicans share a common philosophy: they are Liberal in the broadest sense of that term, which is to say they are devoted to the notion of a Free Market as the foundation of political rights, the social order, and economic prosperity. Unified by this commitment, in the absence of any substantial disagreement on the basic principle, Dems and Reps have had to find other ways to distinguish themselves from one another. The easiest, most inflammatory and engaging means of doing so is to fight Culture Wars that focus on issues of identity and morality rather than on the structural violence of the inequality that is an unavoidable outcome of the capitalist system. Though they may quibble about specific policies, on the issue of political economy, as Barack Obama affirms, the two parties are fundamentally in agreement.

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Harvests (225)

To some extent, you can judge a book by its cover. The original cover of Red Harvest, first published by Knopf in 1929, exhibits many of the characteristic features of art deco, the dominant design style of the era.

Note the angularity of the lettering. The way the title itself has been squeezed so tightly it forces a break in the word “Harvest.” The bold black on white. The flat, bright patterning of the borders. These are all signifiers of a new cultural phase of modernity. They represent a conscious rejection of the curvilinear font and rich, embellished illustration found in an art nouveau poster like this advertisement for biscuits (what Americans call a cookie):

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Outpost

You could do worse than watch The Outpost on Netflix as a way of thinking about the West and the Rest. Like most action war films, the filmmakers place the audience firmly in the position of the story’s protagonists. The obligatory hand-held camera work and high frame rate consolidate this perspective, producing a cinematically immersive experience. The dialog and characterization in The Outpost‘s opening minutes is equally familiar to anyone who has watched a few war movies. The soldiers are identified by surname and given a few seconds apiece in medium close-up, often with trivial yet character-establishing dialog. We hear accents, see facial expressions, and are given a name to attach to these minor details. The film wants us to care about its characters, though you can see even at this early point that it won’t direct our attention away from the coming fight to consider the lives of those they love back home. A succinct line of dialog confirms this when a seasoned enlisted man, Sgt. Romesha (Scott Eastwood) tells the younger soldiers not to think about their wives until they leave the outpost.

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Chahine’s Saladin (303/415)

Youssef Chahine’s 1963 film Saladin the Victorious was shot in Ultrascope for a beautiful widescreen aspect ratio, and the film’s color is equally striking. The first battle sequence makes effective use of both of these elements in unusual ways.

The psychopathic Renaud commands his troops to attack a group of pilgrims as they pray. In the absence of sophisticated fx Chahine uses a fast-paced montage replete with swish pans and rack-focus shots to capture the violence of Crusaders descending on unarmed civilians. In an era before the advent of more sophisticated versions of theatrical blood the wounded bleed a startling, vivid red. Here’s an image I pulled from another blog to give you a sense of the scale and color. Though it’s dominated by cooler blues note the red bits.

Notes on Narrative

I’m still learning how to teach online. The last lecture I don’t consider particularly effective and I think that from now on I’m going to post multiple, very short lectures instead of trying to adhere to a longer format which probably only works face to face in real time.

Ideally you’ll be learning the human geography of the Crusades, the dates of events, the names of the major figures, big picture stuff, etc. in addition to thinking about historiography as a form of narrative-making that shapes contemporary understanding of the present and the past.

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