Saturday, May 29, 2010

The dilemma of High Noon

The story seems to mean different things to different people . . . [Producer Stanley] Kramer, who had worked closely with [Carl] Foreman on the script, said it was about a town that died because no one there had the guts to defend it. Somehow this seemed to be an incomplete explanation . . . I vaguely sensed deeper meanings in it; but only later did it dawn on me that this was not a regular Western myth.1
- Fred Zinnemann, Director

I first watched High Noon in my early twenties. I had just received my degree in Film Studies and was accustomed to looking for "against the grain" readings of popular movies, or, at the very least, to looking at westerns like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence as essays on the diminishing relevance of the traditional Western hero. So I was well prepared to do the following: First, to assume that High Noon had one established popular reading, and Second, to find one counter to it.

It was my preconceived supposition (based upon the bits and pieces I had heard about it already) that High Noon was probably a conservative film, one which advocated confrontation and machismo over reason and an intellectual society. What I saw instead was a refutation of that; I saw the townspeople — many of whom did not seem to object to convict Frank Miller's pending return — letting their marshal know that his outdated code of honor must not interfere with the continuing development of the town. In marshal Will Kane I saw a man who refused to put the safety of the town in front of his own personal grudge with Miller. I agreed, essentially, with the plea made by Hadleyville's mayor (played by Thomas Mitchell), that gunfighting would damage the growing town's reputation, and that Kane should leave at once and take his problems with him. To me, the treatment of Kane was in line with the door shutting on Ethan Edwards or the coffin lid being closed on Tom Doniphon.

Cut to twenty years later.

I recently watched High Noon for the second (then third, fourth, and fifth) time, and my thoughts were very different. This time I felt more sympathy for Kane. He became the target of Miller's revenge while in the service of the town, after all, so why shouldn't the town stand up for him later (much in the same way our government offers secret service protection to former presidents)? And despite the fact that Miller and his gang had been arrested or run out of town, the handful of years since then did not seem sufficient for the people to be able to consider their nascent town free of the troubles of the lawless West. Surely they needed to contribute more than taxes to establishing and preserving a peaceful society.

I also learned, thanks to DVD special features that were not available on the VHS copy I had originally watched, that screenwriter Carl Foreman had meant for High Noon to reflect the oppression of blacklisting in the era of McCarthyism, something he was experiencing at the time. In my subsequent viewings, I could easily see how Kane could represent a blacklisted professional whose friends and colleagues no longer want to have anything to do with him for fear of the consequences (the death of one's Hollywood career being represented by the possibility of physical death in a gunfight). I was pleased to know that such a liberal message could exist in a Western — indeed, be one of its stronger readings.

At the same time, I could very easily see how the movie could be appropriated by the Right. The townspeople could certainly represent stereotypical liberals — intellectuals who would rather debate the issue than take real action (as they do in the church scene), and who feel their problems should be solved by government (one of the citizens feels the politicians "up north" are responsible for Miller's parole, so they should somehow take care of things; another says that Kane is paid to take care of such matters himself).

I was therefore not surprised to learn that the movie has been revered and condemned by conservatives and liberals alike (see High Noon's Wikipedia entry for some interesting examples), nor that among its fans are political leaders of opposing parties, for many of the questions asked by the film concern the relationship between government and citizens:
  1. Who is directly responsible for the welfare of society — the people or its appointed officials?
  2. Do people need to take direct action in society, or is it enough to vote and pay taxes?
  3. How much responsibility does the citizenry have toward its appointed officials?
  4. Where is the line between an appointed official's professional and personal duties?
High Noon endures in part because these questions endure, and because it does not offer definitive answers to any of them.

1Zinnemann, Fred: A Life in the Movies: An Autobiography (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992), 96.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Great showdowns: The Tin Star

Early in The Tin Star (1957), bounty hunter Morg Hickman gives some advice to inexperienced sheriff Ben Owens after Owens' near-disastrous attempt to arrest town tough Bart Bogardus: "You walk right up to a man, chances are he won't gun fight. 'Cause at three feet he knows he'll get hurt, maybe killed, even if he draws first." Hickman becomes a reluctant mentor to Owens, teaching him some of the things he learned in his own time as a sheriff and preparing Owens for the inevitable showdown with Bogardus at film's end. "It's that time you wait," he tells Owens, "that split second, that means the difference between missing a man and killing him."

The showdown comes at night, when Bogardus leads a mob to Owens' office to demand the release of two outlaws so they can be hung without trial. Wielding a shotgun, Owens refuses to give up his prisoners and challenges Bogardus. "You're a brave man when you've got 100 better men to back you up," he says. "Why don't you come on and get them by yourself?"

"Put down that gun," replies Bogardus. "I'll tear you apart."

But the dismantling is done instead by Owens, who calls Bogardus on his bluster: "You fight with your mouth and hat." The mob parts, leaving Bogardus standing alone. Owens approaches him, first handing the shotgun to Hickman. "All right, I put down the shotgun, Bogardus. Now tear me apart." Bogardus stares, dumbfounded. Owens slaps him twice in the face. A stunned Bogardus turns, looking for help among the retreating mob but finding none. As Bogardus walks away, ostensibly in humiliation, we know that he is really removing himself to safe gunfighting distance. But we also see that Owens knows this as well — he stands still, hands at the ready, watching Bogardus' every move. As Bogardus turns and fires, Owens waits the split second and shoots — Bogardus falls dead.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Robin Hood, Richard II, and divine appointment

Oscar Isaac as Prince John in Robin Hood (2010)
I was expecting my favorite part of the new Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe Robin Hood to be an opening battle, showing me a new way to imagine medieval warfare, much in the same way Gladiator gave me new thoughts about what a Roman battle may have been like. Instead, what I found most interesting came at the end (spoiler alert), when King John reneges on his promise to sign a bill of equality, citing his divine appointment and claiming that no man should be able to impose limits on his God-given power. This causes an uproar among the attending citizenry, who as far as we know are as God-fearing as any under 12th-century Christendom.

While I am no proper student of theology or English history, I find the relationship between God and king fascinating, particularly when it is at odds with the desires of the king or the people. It is at such moments when this relationship is thrown into doubt, and what is revealed can at best be described as a letting go of tradition for the common good, and at worst as religious or political hypocrisy. Shakespeare examined this problem in Richard II, in which Richard, a seemingly incapable ruler, is deposed by Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. The Bishop of Carlisle objects:

And shall the figure of God's majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy elect,
Anointed, crowned, planted many years,
Be judg'd by subject and inferior breath,
And he himself not be present?

Among other things, Richard II makes us consider if the notion of divine appointment should be upheld even in times of incompetent leadership. Is Bolingbroke a necessary adjustment to the royal lineage, or is he nothing more than a blasphemous usurper? The answer hinges on one's view of divine appointment, and of how closely Church can be associated with State. As history and fiction have often shown, this can be a very difficult relationship to maintain.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The obvious, the code, and Double Indemnity

Raymond Bellour's 1973 article The Obvious and the Code had a huge influence on my approach to film during my college years; at least three of my college writing projects were direct applications of Bellour's ideas. In one of these projects, re-presented here, I examined a scene from one of my favorite movies, Double Indemnity. (Shots referenced below can be seen in the table following the article.)


Raymond Bellour, in his article The Obvious and the Code, examines the workings of a seemingly simple segment from The Big Sleep and concludes that working behind the apparent simplicity of the classical Hollywood style is a highly structured and very deliberate schematic. This schematic, he claims, is concentrated on repetition, but a repetition which seeks to subvert itself with subtle differences in the use of cinematic codes. Furthermore, this repetition works to create a symmetrical structure which is the very key to narrative.

The following is a test of Bellour's thesis on a segment from Double Indemnity. The segment chosen is the twenty shots in which Walter Neff meets with Phyllis Dietrichson for the second time, and it offers strong support for Bellour's conclusions. This segment not only displays a great deal of repetition and a tendency to subvert that repetition with subtle codic differences, but it demonstrates the workings of a complex order which uses conflicts between symmetry and dissymmetry for narrative purposes. Photographs of the shots are included on page ten, and are labeled to correspond with this text.

As in Bellour's segment, the greatest contrast between shots in the segment from Double Indemnity occurs between shots one and two. Shot one follows Phyllis down the stairs with a close-up of her feet, and comes to rest in a medium long shot as she opens the door for Walter. The shot ends as Walter walks through the door. Shot two matches the action of Walter's entrance, but in a long shot taken from the living room. Both camera angle and framing are changed significantly. The shot continues as Phyllis and Walter walk from the foyer into the living room, where Phyllis offers Walter some iced tea. Shot two is a long take with much more camera and character movement than shot one.

The effect of this opposition between shots is remarkably similar to that of the first two in Bellour's segment from The Big Sleep. Both pairs of shots serve to carry the spectator into the important space that is, the space where the segment's action will unfold. The first shots of each pair place the spectator outside of that space, and the second shots place the spectator within it. In Bellour's segment, this is a movement from outside to inside Marlowe's car. In the Double Indemnity segment, it is a movement from the foyer to the living room. The two pairs differ in that in The Big Sleep the characters are already in the important space — only the spectator needs to move into it. In the Double Indemnity segment, the spectator is allowed to arrive at that space before the characters do and watch them enter. Nonetheless, in both cases the first two shots are used to bring the spectator into the place of action.

The second shot of the Double Indemnity segment is most significant, however, because it introduces a shot that is repeated throughout the segment, and which is a critical part of the segment's repetitive and symmetrical structure. This shot, which is presented in the last two subshots of shot two (2F-2G), is a two-part sequence of:

1. one character standing while the other sits on the couch, and
2. both characters seated on the couch.

This shot precedes each sequence of shot/reverse-shots in the segment, and through its repeated use defines the segment's symmetry. This defining shot combination appears as shots 2F+G, 5A+B, 13A+B, and 17A.

This shot alone offers fine support for Bellour's thesis. It is repeated three times after its first appearance, but each time with a subtle change. The first time the shot occurs (2F+G), the order of its two parts is as described above: one character (Phyllis) sits on the couch while the other (Walter) stands to the right, then both characters are seated on the couch. The shot's second appearance orders its parts differently. This time, both characters are seen seated first, and then it is Phyllis who stands. The third time begins with Phyllis standing, and ends with the two characters seated. The final occurrence begins with the two seated, and ends after it is Walter who stands. Each time this shot is used, the order of its two parts is changed.

While these changes do make each use of this shot subtly different, the also serve to reinforce the symmetry of the overall segment. If we use "stand-sit" to represent this shot ("stand" representing the half when one character stands and "sit" to represent the half when both are seated), and denote the standing character by inserting the first letter of his/her name (thus shot 2E+F would be represented as "stand(W)-sit"), we see the following palindromic pattern:

stand(W)-sit, sit-stand(P), stand(P)-sit, sit-stand(W)

While these variations subvert repetition of this particular shot, then, they clearly declare a strict ordering of the overall segment. This order is more clearly visible when we consider the sequences which fall between these shots, those shot/reverse-shots mentioned previously.

The sequences of shot/reverse-shots which occur between shots 2F+C and 5A+B, 5A+B and 13A+B, and 13A+B and 17A+B also provide repetition which attempts to subvert itself, but which strengthens the segment's symmetrical structure. The first sequence consists of two long takes (shots three and four). While both characters are present in each shot, the character that dominates that moment of conversation is given visual superiority. In shot three, this superiority is given to Phyllis as she expresses concern for her uninsured husband. In shot four the superiority is given to Walter as he explains the type of coverage available. There are only two shots in this sequence, and both are relatively long takes. The second sequence (shots 6-12) contains seven shots of shorter duration. This time, only the speaking character is shown in each shot. The third sequence, however, returns to the use of a small number of longer takes (shots 14-16). Like the shots of the first sequence, these shots contain both characters. Unlike those shots, however, these do not give visual superiority to the character dominating the conversation.

The repetition of these shot/reverse-shot sequences is subverted somewhat by these differences in visual and verbal dominance. The first sequence establishes that the verbally dominant character will also be visually dominant, but excuses the presence of the other (verbally and visually subordinate) character within the frame. While the verbally subordinate character also speaks in each shot, the impact of his/her verbal intrusions is lessened because that character is also visible (though not necessarily prominent) in the shot, thus giving the audio a visual justification, and because his/her lines are not the most important part of the conversation (they are nothing more than miscellaneous comments or questions which compliment the lines of the verbally dominant character). The second sequence, by contrast, isolates each character in his/her own shot, and gives that character a shot whenever s/he speaks, even if his/her dialogue is not the most important element of the conversation. The sequence then violates that rule when Walter is allowed to verbally invade Phyllis' visual dominance in shots seven and eleven. The third sequence employs yet another method to determine visual dominance. Here, the verbally subordinate character is given visual dominance, while the verbally dominant is included in the shot as visually subordinate. The most important dialogue is spoken by the visually subordinate character, but what is most important to the narrative is the other (verbally subordinate) character's reaction to this dialogue (Walter's realization of Phyllis' plan in shot fourteen, and Phyllis' feigned indignation in shot fifteen).

While these differences lessen the redundancy of the shot/reverse shot sequences, they do not diminish the sequences' contribution to the segment's overall symmetry. On the contrary — the movement from a small number of long takes (first sequence) to a larger number of short takes (second sequence) back to a small number of long takes (third sequence) simply provides more framework for symmetrical structure. If we revise the previous "stand-sit" shot diagram to include the accompanying sequences of shot/reverse-shots, and represent each of those sequences according to the number of shots which comprise them ("F" for "few," "M" for "many"), we see that symmetry is not only preserved, but enhanced:

stand(W)-sit, F, sit-stand(P), M, stand(P)-sit, F, sit-stand(W)

Furthermore, we can now see a center around which the symmetrical structure is constructed. The second sequence of shot/reverse-shots (the boldface M) divides the segment in two.

Such an axis of symmetry is also evident in Bellour's analysis of the segment from The Big Sleep. Bellour finds a dividing axis in shot seven of his sequence, which, he says, "delimit[s] a beginning which makes it possible, and an end which it motivates and which echoes the beginning through a multiple process, a process simultaneously of equivalence through symmetry, of resolution through repetition and variation, and of acceleration in balancing." Bellour recognizes, however, the existence of dissymmetries in the structure of his segment. Such dissymmetry is evident in "the unequal deployment of the shots alternating between Vivian and Marlowe around the central axis represented by shot 7." Furthermore, Bellour states that it is "the regulated opposition between the closing off of symmetries and the opening up of dissymmetries which gives rise to the narrative, to the very fact that there is a narrative." These narrative-forming oppositions are quite evident in the segment from Double Indemnity, for there are dissymmetries working against the seemingly perfect symmetrical structure of this segment.

One such dissymmetry is at work in the sequences of shot/reverse-shots previously discussed. While there is an even number of shots in the first sequence — one for Phyllis, one for Walter — there is an odd number of shots in the second and third sequences. In both cases, an extra shot is given to Walter. This dissymmetry does propel the narrative, for the extra shots given to Walter are powerful tools of audience manipulation. Both shots help to steer audience sympathy toward Walter. In the first example (sequence two), cuts are made between Walter and Phyllis as the two discuss Phyllis' apparently unsatisfying marriage. Walter has been revealing his romantic interest in Phyllis since the beginning of the segment, and restates that interest in shot ten. He tells Phyllis, "Only with me around, you wouldn't have to knit." In shot eleven Phyllis asks "Wouldn't I?" to which Walter responds (still in shot eleven), "Bet your life you wouldn't." Then follows Walter's extra shot. All talk of Phyllis' husband so far has depicted him somewhat negatively; that, coupled with the attraction Walter and Phyllis apparently have for each other, suggests that Walter, not Mr. Dietrichson, should be with Phyllis. The extra shot given to Walter seems to affirm this. Walter is deserving of an extra shot, so he is deserving of Phyllis.

The second example (sequence three) also steers audience sympathy toward Walter, this time by accenting his suspicions about Phyllis' motives. In shot fourteen, the visual dominance is given to Walter while he listens to Phyllis explain her desire to insure her husband without his knowing. We are shown Walter's reaction to Phyllis' dialogue, and can see that he suspects something. Shot fifteen shows the reverse: Phyllis' reaction to Walter's suggestion that she wants to kill her husband. In Walter's extra shot, he is given both visual and verbal dominance, and Phyllis' reaction (one of feigned shock) is not seen. We therefore understand that her reaction is no longer important, and that Walter's suspicions are probably correct. This extra shot gives Walter the same air of authority given to him in shot twelve. Deserving of the extra time to argue his case, he must certainly be deserving of our trust and sympathy.

Another dissymmetry occurs at the end of the segment in shots eighteen through twenty. This is another shot/reverse-shot sequence and, like the others, it is preceded by the same "stand-sit" combination which precedes all other shot/reverse-shot sequences in the segment (here, it is in the "sit-stand" order of shot 17A+B). This is not an issue of an extra shot given to one of the characters (at least, this is not as simple an example of that as the previous; Walter's exit in shot twenty, it could be argued, leaves Phyllis visually dominant long enough to compensate for Walter's extra appearance). Rather, it complicates things by adding an extra shot/reverse shot to one end of the dividing axis (shot/reverse shot sequence two).

What this sequence does, however, is recall the very beginning of the segment. Shots 1 and 2A-E also do not fit into the symmetrical establishing shot//shot/reverse-shot framework of shots 2F through 17. The two ends of the segment, therefore, because of their opposition to the rest of the segment, are balanced with each other. (Interestingly enough, shot two is quite symmetrically balanced in itself. Compare the positions of the two characters in relation to each other in each section of the shot: Walter's positioning is screen right, then left , then right, then center, then left, then right, then left. Phyllis' are just the opposite. The positions of each character are symmetrical around the axis of shot 2D). Shot twenty also recalls the opening sequence in that it shows opposite action. Shots one and two show Walter's entrance, shot twenty shows his exit. These two end segments, therefore, provide the beginning and end which are delimited, as Bellour states, by the central axis of symmetry.

It is interesting how well this segment compares with Bellour's. Both segments are structured about some central axis of symmetry, and each is built with an establishing shot//shot/reverse-shot pattern. The symmetry created in this segment is surprisingly complex. The simple narrative action is actually built upon a very deliberate and organized system of conflicting forces, of similarities and differences in structure. There is nothing "obvious" about it.

Shot 1A

Shot 1B

Shot 2A

Shot 2B

Shot 2C

Shot 2D

Shot 2E

Shot 2F

Shot 2G

Shot 3

Shot 4


Shot 5B

Shot 6

Shot 7

Shot 8

Shot 9

Shot 10

Shot 11

Shot 12

Shot 13A

Shot 13B

Shot 14

Shot 15

Shot 16

Shot 17A

Shot 17B

Shot 18A

Shot 18B

Shot 19

Shot 20A

Shot 20B