Tag Archives: one hour mark

One Hour Mark: Elephant

By Andreas

You can’t quite see her face up there, but that’s Michelle (Kristen Hicks). At 1:00:00 into Gus Van Sant’s school tragedy à clef Elephant (2003), she’s just minutes away from death. Nothing about her milieu, with its pastels and clipboards and desktop computer, suggests that a bloodbath is about to unfold, but that’s the ace up Van Sant’s sleeve. In the middle of a perfectly routine school day, it’s here—in this safest and blandest of high school libraries—that we’re about to see Michelle’s blood splattered on a bookshelf.

The contrast is shocking, but it comes about organically. The stories of the killers, Alex and Eric, chronologically parallel those of Michelle and other students (a photographer, a jock, a trio of clique-y girls). These narrative strands wind around one another, occasionally intersecting in small but significant ways, until the massacre begins and collapses them all into a unified tragedy. Michelle is the first to go: she spots the killers’ weapons as they enter the library, and only gets out a polite “Hey, you guys—” before she’s cut off.

But until that moment, she’s just a lonely teenage girl living out her splintered vignette. She has a brusque exchange with her gym teacher, changes her clothes, then walks through the halls, breaking into a run as she nears the library. Hicks is a non-professional actor, and it shows in her remarkably unadorned performance; she’s self-contained, giving only the most minimal emotional cues to the audience. Van Sant’s direction follows suit, stalking the characters for us but never telling us how to react to them. It’s scrupulously fly-on-the-wall filmmaking.

The end result is an impeccably naturalistic movie that recreates the average high school experience with uncanny accuracy before dragging it down into hell. The school library is a dead ringer for other high school libraries across the country; Michelle’s short conversation with the librarian is utterly plausible; and the camera angle here gives the scene an incidental flavor—as if we just happened to peek in on these characters, and this is what they were up to. Poor Michelle feels less like a fictional character and more like a documentary subject.

This quasi-documentary style, coupled with Hicks’s hushed acting style, makes me wish we’d seen more of Michelle, or at least seen her in a movie where she wasn’t marked for death. We learn vaguely of her body image problems, her awkwardness, and her difficulty socializing; she’s kind of like an ultra-realistic version of Sissy Spacek’s Carrie. But then, of course, she’s blown away. I know this is a movie about Columbine, but I can’t help feeling like she’s used to add adolescent color to Van Sant’s high school setting, and then perforated like a flesh-and-blood prop. I love Elephant, but I still wish it did better by its ill-fated characters.

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One Hour Mark: Nosferatu

By Andreas

In this image from 1:00:00 into F.W. Murnau’s legendary Nosferatu (1922)*, the captain of the riverboat Demeter is hard at work. His ship is in peril, and his entire crew is dead. Only one option remains: he must quickly lash himself to the wheel, and do whatever it takes to get his ship and its cargo to safety. It’s that old cliché of a captain going down with his ship. Unfortunately, as a title card informs us, the Demeter is the “Ship of Death”—and as such, both the ship and its poor, unknowing captain are doomed.

If only the captain could’ve seen the low-angle shot that precedes this one, wherein the gaunt, rat-like Count Orlok (Max Schreck) stalks across the deck. It’s an iconic horror image, and with good reason: the odd angle emphasizes the evil strangeness of Orlok’s posture and gait, as well as the totality of his hold on the ship. He doesn’t need to skulk around in the cargo hold anymore; now he can skulk out in the open. No crew members are around to impede him, and the captain’s too busy panicking and tying himself down.

Yes, it’s one of those classic we-know-more-than-they-do moments, when the disparity between our knowledge and the character’s is the source of terror. Normally, the captain’s actions would be brave and heroic. Normally, the ship would be threatened by something external, like pirates or bad weather—anything but vampires. Lashing himself down now, however, is like buckling your seatbelt in a burning car. The ship itself is diseased, and in a few moments Orlok will be the only passenger left.

As much as we implore him, the captain refuses to look up and realize his mistake until it’s too late. He’s just as oblivious as a sexually active babysitter in an ’80s slasher movie. By the time he shifts his attention away from the knot he’s tying, Orlok has circled around the deck and is lurking off-screen, about to descend. The scene ends with an ominous fade to black, signaling the consolidation of the vampire’s shipboard control. The whole build-up to the captain’s demise takes only five shots, with two angles and no camera movement. It’s both economical and terrifying.

So here’s a salute to the captain of this ill-fated ship, and to F.W. Murnau for immortalizing him in the annals of horror history. He may not have been the most observant sailor to captain a plague-ridden vessel, but at least he was committed! He knew his ship was in trouble, and he did what seemed right. Well, he gets an A for effort in my book. Sometimes, especially when you’re a minor character in a vampire movie, you just can’t win.

*At least, according to Kino’s 2002 DVD. Different editions of Nosferatu (and there are many!) have different running times.

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One Hour Mark: Only Angels Have Wings

By Andreas

This image is from 1:00:00 into Howard Hawks’ adventure yarn Only Angels Have Wings (1939). In the South American port city of Barranca, macho airman Geoff (Cary Grant) sits in his rickety office, facing a tough situation: he has just grounded his closest friend and much-needed pilot Kid (Thomas Mitchell). Despite cheating on countless vision tests, Kid has finally been cornered, and Geoff forces him to admit that his eyesight’s too poor for him to fly.

This scenario, in which Kid’s derring-do clashes with painful reality, is built on clichés that were already hoary in 1939. But in the all-too-capable hands of Hawks, Grant, and Mitchell, they make for essential cinema. Who needs an original plot when you’ve got three men who are the best in the world at what they do? Grant, as usual, plays a handsome daredevil, but he has to suppress his lighter, sillier instincts here as he doles out tough love in order to save his friend’s life.

Mitchell, as usual, plays an avuncular sidekick, but he’s never just a neutral accessory to the protagonist. His narrative role, here as in Gone with the Wind and It’s a Wonderful Life, is tainted with pathos, as he’s becoming old and obsolete. (Mitchell was 12 years older than Grant, and it shows.) Mitchell’s Kid sees himself as a potential hero, but like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, he’s “at times, indeed, almost ridiculous— / Almost, at times, the Fool.” That ridiculousness is compounded by his eagerness to sacrifice his life just so he can keep flying.

In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris briefly notes that “the heroes of Hawks [are sustained] by professionalism,” and that’s really the glue in Geoff and Kid’s relationship. They must balance their personal desires and their love for each other with the well-being of their whole flying team. That’s the pain in this scene, and it’s why they can’t look at each other. How do two rugged men of action express their complex, uncomfortable emotions? They don’t. Geoff castigates, Kid wheedles, and they awkwardly avoid each other’s eyes.

All of that is conveyed very cannily in the composition of this shot. It’s visually clean and legible, with criss-crossing slats and shadows filling in the background, and the physical relationship between the two figures in the foreground. Grant is glancing at the back of Mitchell’s head while assuming hostile body language; Mitchell fiddles with a cup. Hawks communicates emotion through ellipsis, by not saying anything. Their averted eyes say more about wounded masculinity than screams or tears could.

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One Hour Mark: Claire’s Knee

By Andreas

I’ve long considered Claire’s Knee to be the visual high point of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Sure, it lacks the metaphysical intrigue of My Night with Maud, and it shares it gifted cinematographer Néstor Almendros (who won a well-deserved Oscar for Days of Heaven) with other beautiful Rohmer films like La Collectionneuse and Love in the Afternoon. But you can really feel the sun-kissed alpine setting of Claire’s Knee: the constant hum of wind, birds, and motorboats; the gentle motion of the trees and water. This place, like the film around it, is truly and palpably alive.

The image above, from 1:00:00 into Claire’s Knee, is from a rare shot that doesn’t showcase the stunning lakes and mountains of eastern France. Instead, it showcases all the film’s human youth and vivacity during a Bastille Day dance. On the far left is the romantic, fascinating Laura, dancing with the bearded, engaged protagonist Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy); on the right are Laura’s icy sister Claire and her boyfriend Gilles. Conveniently, this shot’s composition sums up the film’s real conflict: Jerome is alluring to Laura, but he’s obsessed with the unavailable Claire.

You may have noticed that the sisters are in their teens. This makes Jerome seem pretty creepy, yes, but it’s also part of the film’s strange charm. Jerome doesn’t want to possess or have sex with these much younger girls—he just wants to touch Claire’s knee. The moral dilemma is whether or not he should. It’s such an ethereal crisis to build a movie around, but Rohmer pulls it off. His films (including his last, 2007’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon) are lighter than air but never trifling or insignificant.

Whether or not to touch a knee may look like an absurd premise, but Claire’s Knee goes deeper: it’s about the underlying, often irrational desires that goad us on. It’s about Jerome’s moth-to-flame attraction to the luminous youth of these two sisters, and to the potentially immoral freedom he’ll never regain. As the song that’s playing comes to an end, Jerome says to Laura, “This isn’t a dance for me. I’m too old.” It’s not quite poignant, since he’s not actually old and is in the midst of playing all these selfish games, but it does get across what this scene (and to an extent, this film) is about. That is, Jerome’s fear of the mummification of marriage, and his incipient (symbolic) inability to dance.

It’s all in this frame, whose static top half is filled by the night sky and the colorful, carefully arranged lights, while the bottom pulsates with layers of bouncy, attractive party-goers. For Bastille Day, and for the summer, they’re alive. For now, at least, Jerome is too. Rohmer’s beautiful, nebulous films always have a built-in sense of mortality, with the knowledge that time will pass, flowers will wilt, looks will fade, and fiancés will get married. The sun rises, and my night with Maud is over. But tonight, we are beautiful—and tonight, we dance.

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One Hour Mark: Stranger Than Paradise

By Andreas

This image comes from 1:00:00 into Stranger Than Paradise, the opening volley in Jim Jarmusch’s personal war against conventional cinema. Specifically, the kind of conventional cinema that focuses on adventurous people leading interesting lives. Or on cataclysmic events. Or on things happening. This nighttime driving scene—which runs about a minute and a half—is about as action-packed as Stranger Than Paradise gets, as Willie (John Lurie, on the left) banters back and forth with his Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) and his friend Eddie (Richard Edson). For the most part, it makes Clerks or Slacker, both of which it heavily influenced, look like Lawrence of Arabia.

But that’s because it’s about the rhythms of everyday life, which are filled with pauses and false starts. (Or, if you hate Jarmusch, because it’s pretentious and boring.) Jarmusch has a particular talent for visually capturing people who are awkwardly in transit. Earlier in Stranger Than Paradise, we get a tracking shot that recurs in Mystery Train: Eva wandering along city streets, past one identical block after another. Like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, Jarmusch’s characters keep walking but never get anywhere; as a title card in Mystery Train puts it, they’re “Lost in Space.”

The shot above is another one Jarmusch is clearly infatuated with, especially since he based a whole movie (called Night on Earth) around it. It’s another image of travel that never seems to go anywhere, an automotive version of No Exit, with our protagonists buckled into this triangular composition for their entire, interminable car ride to Florida. (And predictably, Florida ends up being no more of a paradise than Cleveland or New York.) It’s also the ideal vantage point for Jarmusch to just observe his characters in their natural (boring) environment, see what makes them tick, and see how they relate to each other.

In this case, what makes Willie tick is Eva pulling out her stereo and playing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” which serves as Stranger Than Paradise‘s unofficial theme song. Hawkins’ macabre, obsessive love song is such an oddly appropriate choice for this ennui-ridden movie filmed in fuzzy black-and-white; it might make for a great “Mix Tape” piece someday. Not only is the song fantastic, but it’s quirky and (at least within the context of this car) divisive. It gives Jarmusch’s jaded drifters something to argue about, something of cultural value to fight over. Willie says the song is awful, but Eva explains that Screamin’ Jay is her “main man.”

Well, there’s no accounting for taste, and it all transpires very affably. But that doesn’t mean their little musical squabble isn’t important—it lets Jarmusch turn this visually minimalist scene into a self-contained nocturnal vignette that also further develops the characters’ relationships. By keeping his camera trained on the forward-facing passengers, he gets at their little gestures, like how Willie turns his head in exaggerated disgust at the sound of Screamin’ Jay’s voice, or how a toothy smile slowly develops on Eddie’s face during the course of the mild argument. For all of Jarmusch’s occasional posing and empty style, Stranger Than Paradise still gets at the boredom, the waiting, the quiet resentment, and the rest of the qualities that define what we consider “real life.”

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