Small, striking moments: The Corner and The Wire

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 15 August 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

The HBO ‘miniseries’ The Corner (2000) is now predominantly viewed and marketed as a warm-up or sketch for The Wire (HBO, 2002-8). When we enter for the first time the fictional world of the prior series (in its first episode, ‘Gary’s Blues’), the presentation of that world employs aspects of the rhetoric of a documentary. A handheld camera travels backwards to keep in frame its subject – a black man in early middle age (Gary, played by T K Carter) – as he hurries along an alleyway and then across a street. Offscreen, a voice asks him questions.

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Small, striking moments

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 3 April 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

This is the comment I wanted to leave on Girish’s latest blog entry, which has the same title as this one, but there wasn’t enough space in the comment box!

I’ve been working on Hitchcock’s Rope for some time now. It’s a film full of striking moments (like the moment, already discussed by V F Perkins, where a swing door’s movement is synchronised with a character’s actions, perhaps suggesting complicity between the director and the murderous protagonist). There are two great moments that sprang to mind after reading this blog. Perhaps I thought of them because they’re arresting moments, moments of thought, for the characters as well as for the viewer.

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I love that moment near the end of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

…where the newly-triumphant, newly-tragic Dr. Horrible (having, through the same act, gained membership to the Evil League of Evil and killed the woman he loved) strides through a bar, receiving as he does kudos from various villainous patrons.

Dr Horrible

The bar is full of movement, but not the movement of conviviality or of joy. Instead, the pumping, almost hydraulic, up-and-down movement of the patrons – which, in the case of the cowboy trio with their stetsons and handlebar moustaches, tips over into the grotesque – has an edge of franticness, and of insistent hedonism that has left behind pleasure. The artificial lights, the looping lo-fi music, and the alcoholic drinks, abundantly visible, and aggressively brandished by the cowboys, complete the impression of seediness.

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I love this one shot near the end of ‘Who Are You’…

Context: ‘Who Are You’ is the the sixteenth episode of season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s the episode where Buffy and Faith switch bodies (well, the switch happens at the end of the previous episode, but this is the episode where we see how it plays out). Faith is a wanted criminal, so Buffy-in-Faith’s-body is first arrested by the police, and then intercepted by muscle working for the Watcher’s Council. In the time it takes her to escape from her incarceration and return to Sunnydale to reclaim her body, Buffy has received a taste of how those who know Faith feel justified in treating her: she has been called trash, and her/Faith’s face has been spat at. Meanwhile, Faith-in-Buffy’s-body has received her own novel taste of what it is to be treated with love (both maternal and romantic), gratitude and respect. The two Slayers come face to face with each other/themselves once more when both independently learn that vampires are holding a congregation hostage in a church, and go there on a rescue mission. Once the vampires have been dispatched, Buffy and Faith fight it out on the church’s altar. Faith-in-Buffy’s-body gains the upper hand, and straddles Buffy-in-Faith’s-body while she directs blow after self-loathing blow and insult after self-loathing insult at her own face. What she does not know is that Willow and Tara have conjured Buffy a doohickey that will reverse the body swap. Buffy interrupts Faith’s onslaught by clasping her hand (in a gesture with the appearance – appropriately, given the location and aspects of the pair’s relationship – of communion). There is a glow, a shudder, and a rushing sound effect to confirm that the reversal has worked.

The shot

Faith

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I love that moment in Boyhood…

…where Mason Sr./Ethan Hawke and Mason Jr./Ellar Coltrane are driving through the desert on their way to a night of camping, and a country song comes on the stereo.  Mason Sr. turns it up, and commences enthusiastically narrating and appraising the song.  It’s straight-up country, he says, nothing fancy, but the way he says it, we know that this is being offered not only as the terms upon which the song is to be enjoyed, but also a reason for doing so.  The desire to articulate and share enthusiasm that is one of the hallmarks of Ethan Hawke performances in Richard Linklater films (and one of the most beguiling qualities of those performances) is here given a parental inflection: Mason Jr. is still young enough to have his taste ‘coached’ by his father, but also old enough that might reasonably be expected to partake of the pleasure being offered.  Both times I have seen the film, this moment has elicited a smile of recognition, and a feeling of warmth towards the characters.

I love that moment in ‘Once More with Feeling’…

…at the end of the ‘in-between’ scene that separates the numbers ‘I’ll Never Tell’ and ‘Rest in Peace’. There are no cuts in the scene. The camera tracks laterally, following Anya, Giles and Xander as they walk along a Sunnydale street, sharing information (and frustration) regarding the musical spell that the town and its residents are under. Whedon artfully modulates our attention: at first the main characters are the main thing we have to look at and listen to, but then, as well as tracking, the camera moves back to allow us to take in some amusing surrounding sights. We see a woman (producer Martin Noxon) protesting her parking ticket, in verse, and three street cleaners in matching boiler suits doing some choreographed broom work. (So much, in fact, is going on around the main characters that we might even miss some of their killer lines, like Giles’s ‘I managed to examine the body while the police were taking witness arias.’)

The characters come to a halt, and the conversation turns to Buffy, who has recently been brought back from the dead, and is behaving despondently and disconnectedly.  ‘I’m helping her as much as I can, but uh…’ Giles says, trailing off.  Then comes the moment I want to talk about.

Anya 'comforts' Giles.

Anya ‘comforts’ Giles.

In an attempt to comfort the downhearted Giles, Anya pats his shoulder.  By this point in the series a regular viewer will have become used to the difficulties that Anya, ex-vengeance demon, has in understanding and participating in some of the more subtle and unspoken human social rituals.  Sometimes, as in ‘The Body’, this is used to create pathos; usually, as here, it is used to create comedy.  One can see that Anya knows that in situations such as these, one of the things to do is to offer reassurance and comfort to someone by patting their shoulder.  The thing is, she is not yet particularly well-practiced in the delivery of the gesture, so its execution is comically mechanical.  Emma Caulfield is excellent at delivering such moments.  In this instance, Whedon’s framing lends a nice helping hand.

The broom dancers have just exited behind Giles and Xander, leaving the frame, for the first time in the scene (and just as it is about to come to its end) almost still. In the closing moments of the scene, the main motion is provided by Anya’s patting of Giles’s shoulder.  This, as well as the fact that we cannot see the face of the person performing it, helps us to focus our attention on the gesture.  The communication of the particular quality of the gesture is also supported nicely by the staging and framing.  Anya is slightly too far from Giles for the gesture to be comfortable (even if she were more comfortable with it); she is forced to perform it with a straight arm.  From our vantage point, we see the arm jutting out slightly awkwardly from behind Anya’s hair and across the frame.  Our angle of view also means that the up-and-down motion registers well, and we notice the slightly too-rhythmic quality of the patting, and the way Anya lifts her hand slightly too high above Giles’s shoulder between pats.

It is a delightful grace note to a delightful scene.

I love that moment at the end of Frances Ha…

Mini-spoiler alert:  Frances Ha (Baumbach, 2012) is not a film particularly susceptible to being ‘spoiled’ by learning how it ends before one sees it, but readers should be warned that the below does talk about the film’s closing minutes and answers a question that viewers may well have been pondering whilst viewing.

I love the final scene of Frances Ha (along with the rest of the film).  Frances, after sharing two different apartments with friends during the rest of the film, is moving in to her own place.  The film ends with her in the hallway of the apartment building, making a name label for her mailbox.  She begins by writing out her whole name (I can’t remember her surname, and can’t find it on the internet either!), but it’s too long to fit in the window.  Instead of re-writing, Frances just trims (or does she fold?! I wish I could see the scene again, and apologise for any other falsely-remembered details contained here!) the piece of paper.  The film ends with a close-up, held over the credits for quite some time, of the finished result: ‘FRANCES HA’.

This detail is lent some weight by being the last image we see, and also by finally explaining the film’s title.  And its implications when it is treated as a symbol are a nice fit with the rest of the film, and a nice note to end on.  Over the course of Frances Ha, we see Frances suffer embarrassment, financial hardship, insecure employment, and difficult friendships.  In the film’s closing minutes, though, we see a series of small triumphs, which cluster around a dance recital that Frances has choreographed and put on.  Frances achieves some measure of artistic and professional fulfilment through having planned and executed a short dance sequence featuring a small group of small (and very cute) children, shown to a respectable gathering of friends and acquaintances.  At the same event, she receives the praise and approval of her former mentor, and appears to reach reconciliation and a new phase of friendship with her former room mate and best friend Sophie.

Structurally, then, after this event, the writing of a name tag feels like a coda.  But it also marks a new beginning, and serves as a(n appropriately-understated) declaration.  Frances does not have her name in lights, or even her whole name on display, but there is a label that tells people ‘I am here’.  The apartment and all that goes with it may not be enough to accommodate or express Frances’s whole being, but they are a landmark on the journey.