Monday, December 20, 2010

Tarzan - man made vs. natural light (4/4)

In this last Tarzan post the focus is on the final confrontation between humans and apes. Visually it is also a confrontation of nature vs. civilization, natural light vs. man made light. In such instances usually warmth is associated with nature and coldness with technology, but here natural light is accurately shown as being cold and artificial as being warm (visually, not physically). So basically, it all comes down to contrasting warm against cool colors again. However expressionist these lighting changes seem they are carefully justified by story events.

Faint hope
Clayton has managed to capture the Porter family and Tarzan with them. The lower deck seems to be dark with the only light being white and coming from the sky. The situation feels cold and desperate.
But on the right side there's a lightbulb from which yellow light descends. The contrast is symmetrically emphasized by Jane in the light in front of cool blue and Tarzan in the shadow in front of warm yellow. The two-color scheme of the Porters' clothes is expanded into the background.
On the one hand, all hope seems lost for the professor, he almost blends in with the surroundings, Jane and Tarzan on the other hand are full of angry energy after the boat has been rocked by Tantor. The group and room are divided in a dispirited blue left half and a resurgent yellow right half.

Red light and blue night
Apart from the prologue, blue night colors have so far been associated with the tender relationship between Tarzan and Kala. Now an unexpected load of hot colors is induced achieving yet another progression of expressionist lighting for a scene that brims with fury. It's the ultimate cold - warm contrast with almost primary blue and red. For the subsequent fight between Tarzan and Clayton, there are hardly any colors left other than rainy blue and grey as natual light takes over again.
The jungle at night is almost monochrome, very much like the tinted versions of silent films used to be. This soothing blue night has been established over the whole movie. Usually it was associated with Tarzan’s “mother” Kala who is now sadly sitting at a distance. Like Tarzan earlier on, she is emotionally distant. That’s why we stay with Kerchak here.

Suddenly a red glint disturbs the blue calmness.
An exploding illumination rocket spreads red light all over the clearing.
As we have seen in the first post, red is connected to danger throughout the film (and much of real life). Apart from that, red is physically perceived as the most intense hue.
The strong red light affects everything within the clearing. Everything that’s out of this range is still blue preventing our eyes from adapting to the all red frame too easily. Because without contrasting colors even an all red image is perceived less intense after a while.
Even Kerchak is blinded by the light and appears relatively bright. He is the only one having to shade his eyes after keeping them most of the time in the shadow (this may just as well be a coincidence because this pose looks stronger than had he solely looked up).

What looks like an expressionist effect is clearly motivated by a light source within the story world. Because we tend to forget time and surroundings in moments of extreme tension, we don’t pay attention that the red light (supposed to be coming from a signal rocket) is glowing without fading for a rather long time. Now the whole frame expressionistically becomes red. Emotionally, this part of the jungle is on fire.
Contrast in time
These monochromely red shots (above right) are intercut with blue ones showing Tarzan coming back - from right to left, of course, as he is on his way back home. By contrasting whole shots against each other, we have a color contrast that unfolds over time, something only film can do.

Notice how the texture of the right picture benefits from these blue leaves (their shadow side).

With very different primary colors and the strongest possible cold vs. hot contrast you couldn’t get confused which shots are from which story strand even if the shots themselves are intercut at a very fast rhythm and you don’t have time to see what’s actually going on. This technique has already been popular in silent film which more often than not were somehow colored. After the arrival of Technicolor consultants, such color schemes that strongly affect skin tones were not in fashion for many decades. In the last twenty years, monochrome palettes have become standard again.

The closer Tarzan is getting, the closer the camera and the shorter the shots.

But first, from the edge of the clearing where the light already seems to fade Clayton steps into the red light.

Kerchak is still on fire emotionally, because he has finally lost control and cannot protect his family. Correspondingly, he's still in the center of the hot light which reflects on Clayton whose red figure stands out against a dark blue sky.

Tarzan emerges from a misty, monochrome blue background. His getting redder shows us that he has arrived at the clearing at last. Since we don't have time to actively think about the changing of his skin color and what that means, this change affects us unconsciously.

The elephants following him have also reached the clearing.

On Tarzan's ground again
At the exact moment Tarzan hits Clayton, the illumination rocket dies down and the red light is fading.
I like this a lot because, figuratively, Clayton and his men were in control first (casting their red light all over the clearing), now they’re fighting on Tarzan’s ground (the blue night time jungle). On an expressionist level it feels like the red light were emanating from a glowing Clayton that is deactivated by Tarzan's kick in the head.

Every background is a little less red until the whole clearing and all the characters (including the elephants) are only affected by the dark blue night.

Where there's light, there's shadow, even in the darkest night.

The final confrontation between Tarzan and Clayton takes place during a thunderstorm. With the rain and all, this reminds me of the final confrontation in Blade Runner (1982). It has become a cliché that weather conditions (not only) in animated films seem to be disposable for emotional expressionism. Just think of the many thunderstorms that accompany climactic battles in films like Snow White (1937), The Jungle Book (1967) or The Lion King (1994).

The vines are really Tarzan's ground: he is very much at home while Clayton gets all tangled up...

...and dies in the course of it. This frame's intensity is due to a splitsecond lightning.

To speak in terms of "the hero's journey", Tarzan's central internal conflict is finally resolved: Kerchak has accepted him as a son because he has redeemed himself by protecting his family against intruders.

Following Kerchak's death, Tarzan has already chosen to be the ape leader (we see the herd following him) in a scene that works without dialogue. Actually, this scene is as strong and emotionally complex that it would have made a perfect ending to the film with either leaving the Porters' destiny open or showing how they leave from a distance. But since this is a film that has to (has to?) live up to certain expectations - or better: conform to certain formulas - there follows a coda in plain sunlight with an external happy ending on all levels and against all probability.

All in all the capturing scene loosely mirrors the prologue with the burning ship (fire vs dark blue night), at least concerning color.
The intercutting pattern is already established in the prologue. There it connects two story strands about young families by means of match cuts rather than separating two locales defined by red and blue in the end. Narratively, the prologue symmetrically unites humans and apes in different locales while the final confrontation shows us the asymmetry of humans and apes by having the intruders overwhelm the clearing.

The personified connection between Tarzan's human and ape family is Sabor who apparently murdered Kala's baby and Tarzan's parents. Before Clayton's arrival in the jungle, Sabor is the main villain - painted in the same colors as Clayton.
Even the concept of getting tangled up high above ground is established early on. It's only consequent that the animal villain has trouble with man-made constructions whereas the human villain is unable to master the natural "construction" of lianas.

Although I still have many reservations against specific aspects of Tarzan - a lot of it, including the character design and Phil Collins' songs, is simply not to my taste at all - I cannot deny that the story is as well-constructed as the jungle setting with the greatest possible attention to detail.


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