Monday, May 10, 2010

Looking at Compositon

I've recently analyzed the movie "Monster" (2003, directed by Patty Jenkins) for a class I had with the thought-provoking, Amy Taubin.

I loved the assignment because it forced me to consider things I hadn't considered before resulting in this epiphany I had in regards to the brilliance of Patty Jenkins.

It's a slightly gory film, and the plot probably doesn't appeal to a lot of people, but I think if we recognize what works so subliminally about this film, we can apply it to our own films and especially as animators, we have the power to make some of Jenkins's visual techniques work even more effectively.

Anyway here it is. Sorry to people that don't like reading, I'll post something visual next.

Written and directed by Patty Jenkins, “Monster” is a glimpse into the true story of serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Set in the late 1980s into the early 1990s, the film depicts the last chunk of Wuornos’s life, ending with her execution. [1] Released in 2003, just one year after the execution of real-life Aileen Wuornos, the film stars an incredibly transformed Charlize Theron with Christina Ricci in a supporting role as Wuornos’s lover: Selby Wall. Ultimately, “Monster” is a film about power – what power is, who in society has power, and what happens to those who have no power at all. By framing characters along alternating diagonals, director Patty Jenkins paints us a picture of a woman who is cornered despite all attempts to rise above her position in life. Jenkins also employs repetition: Wuornos looking at herself in the mirror, the sound cutting off abruptly, hard edged lines in the background visually enclosing Wuornos in a phallic and Apollonian, rigid world. My personal interest in this film is rooted in my sympathy for antagonists. I remember watching Sleeping Beauty as a child and thinking “why didn’t they just make sure the witch got invited to the party?” I believe both Jenkins and Wuornos meant for the life and death of Wuornos to be a message and I believe in listening to every message.

The film instantly introduces us to Wuornos as a young girl whose ambitions are dismissed as silly. As she develops, her life fails to improve. A social outcast, she starts to find a means of connection through sex. To her disappointment, however, she is rudely reminded that these connections are temporary and loveless. Eventually accepting her lot in life, she turns to prostitution to earn her livelihood. After a failed attempt at cleaning up her act and enduring a horrendous assault and rape, Wuornos begins to kill her clients as a way to earn money and gain transport for her and Selby.

This introduction is handled very delicately. Starting in black, a small rectangle frames young Wuornos and becomes larger as the narration takes us through Wuornos’s early life. The sound is limited to an instrumental and no voices are heard despite lips moving. That the frame zooms in slowly, matching the narration, represents Wuornos’s realization that her dreams are never coming true. Finally, when the sound of rain assaults our ears and the frame has hit full screen, any shred of a happy illusion that Wuornos had is washed away from possibility. The images presented in the introduction are no accident. The concepts that these images represent are used constantly throughout the film.

In the introduction, we see Wuornos as a teenager, standing far away from a group of her giggly, female peers. Wuornos’s loneliness is visually emphasized later in the “gay bar” when lesbians seated near to Selby joke about Wuornos’s appearance as Wuornos sluggishly grabs a seat at the bar, alone. This visual token comes up again at the amusement park when Selby runs off with her friends. When Wuornos and Selby exit the bowling alley and some girls are gawking and laughing at them – that Selby is with her is the only thing that keeps that scene from being a reminder of her loneliness because for once, she’s not alone. The introduction also shows Wuornos as a girl staring in the mirror, posing. Wuornos’s narration is “I always wanted to be in the movies” setting an ironic tone for the movie. The next time we see Wuornos in the mirror is when she is getting ready for her date with Selby. Where her dreams once involved becoming a star to the world, they now involved at least being a star to Selby. The mirror viewing comes back with Wuornos admiring her stance with a gun in her hand and then again with Wuornos covered in blood before bathing the remains of her victim off of her body. We watch as Wuornos’s perception of herself changes.

How viewers perceive Wuornos is a direct result of Wuornos’s position in the frame. In the scene in which Wuornos visits her storage space, she is seated on the bottom of a frame that has a high horizon line. The storage lockers in perspective produces a diagonal that extends down, so that she is in the far left bottom corner of the screen, framed by this diagonal. In this scene she is at the mercy of her landlord, who, luckily understands that she cannot afford rent right at that moment. This downward angle is much more apparent in the silhouette of the opening credit, where she is seated on a downward slope – a visual foreshadowing of where her life is headed. The very next time we see this exact silhouette is right before Wuornos is arrested. While in jail, Wuornos is on the phone with Selby and in the background is a shadow against the wall that creates the exact same diagonal line as the slope Wuornos was sitting on. This persistence of shape is meant to tie Selby to the concept of the downward slope reaffirming the viewer’s conclusion that Selby is directly connected to Wuornos’s downfall.

The scene that demonstrates these subliminal diagonals best is the assault/rape sequence. When Wuornos is standing near the car on the highway, considering taking one last John for the night; her position in the frame is higher than that of the man in the car. Once she gets in the car, she is “lowered” she is visually “on his level.” Once he attacks her, he is positioned higher in the screen – which is no coincidence. The camera could have been angled in any direction and still have gotten the point across but that there is some imaginary seesaw positioning the faces of the actors contributes to this idea of a power play. When Wuornos jumps up and kills him, she is above, he is on the floor, and she has won. This seesawing takes place again and again and especially in Wuornos’s interaction with Selby.

The low and seesawing positioning of Wuornos forces the audience to sympathize with her. An audience in 2003, in the U.S. is generally inclined to “not kick a dog when it’s down.” We love a good underdog story, and while we won’t condone Wuornos’s behavior, Jenkins had reasonable expectation that we would understand Wuornos’s motivations. A similar movie probably could not have been made in 1950 and received with the same amount of tolerance and appreciation. Viewers today can understand Wuornos’s desperation because it is also contradicted by her intensity and strength and the great humanity that we do see from her in her loving and protective affection for Selby. Wuornos is extremely proactive – she needs money to survive, she hooks. She wants Selby, so she goes to her house and gets her. Wuornos succeeds as much as she can succeed and this is a good old American sentiment. By catering to some of our values, Jenkins manipulates us into accepting some other things that may clash with our values – such as murder. Casting the beautiful Charlize Theron also elicits some sympathy with audiences. Theron’s natural beauty radiates despite her radical changes (weight gain and prosthetic ugly teeth.) Viewers enter the visual experience with certain expectations in regards to Theron and to their pleasant surprise find that she more than looks the role, she becomes the role – playing on the heart strings of people who never want to believe that bad things can also happen to beautiful people.

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