Sunday, April 19, 2009

Staging the act

I've just learnt that this is already my 50th post. Initially I intended to do a post a week on average which means that I should have had my 52nd before April 9. But anyway, the following has nothing to do with animation in particular but a lot with the basics of film making in general.

As stated earlier this year, I’ve been looking at a lot of Clint Eastwood pictures lately. Although he always tries to sneak out on questions about his visual handwriting by stating that each story dictates the style of a film, there are some characteristic traits that are instantly recognizable once you’re aware of them. He may not be considered a stylish director like his mentor Sergio Leone but his visual handwriting is found in all his directorial efforts, good and bad.

Visual handwriting
While in a self-conscious Leone picture the chosen compositions and shots are essential to the experience, Eastwood is much less eye-catching. He likes to tell his stories in an unhurried no-nonsense way, achieving this by subordinating all stylistic devices to his narrative points.

Concerning light and colors, the most obvious characteristic is Eastwood’s preference for having characters – especially himself – stand in the shadow. The brightest spot in a shot is hardly ever a character’s face, it’s usually some light source in the background. He really celebrates his special variation of low key lighting at times, but never so much so that it distracts from the plot.

During the 1970s and 80s, he kept the colors mostly “natural”, meaning normal fleshtones – nowadays he likes them digitally toned down – surrounded by earthly browns, greens and greys. Primary colors were (and still are) reserved for special occasions, usually red and blue in connection with white. The amount of shots that feature American colors and flags is unsurpassed, I guess.

Additionally he likes to put the camera below the eyeline to make his larger-than-life protagonists even slightly more towering, as if we had to look up to a cowboy sitting on a horse.

Bronco Billy
In the following, I'm analyzing two pivotal sets of recurring scenes in Bronco Billy (1980). Hardly Eastwood’s best film, it nevertheless contains some good examples of staging.
It’s essentially a failed stab at doing a screwball comedy, complete with a cold big-mouthed blonde (Sondra Locke, his then wife) whose hair color stands out among all the other characters. It’s definitely one of Eastwoods more personal films. Strictly speaking it is not a Malpaso film, but most of the crew are Malpaso co-workers.

Bronco Billy McCoy (Eastwood) is a former NJ shoesalesman who travels the country with his Wild West Show second only to Buffalo Bill’s. As a last and lost cowboy he is out of touch with modern life and thus resorts to his ersatz-family of social outcasts (one of his favorite themes of the period starting with The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)) and where he has to communicate to the normal world, he is most comfortable with children. In short, the comedy deals with the redemption of Eastwood’s cowboy character in finding his place in modern society. After all, it’s about the American Dream still being possible in 1980.

Inside the tent
The movie starts and ends with scenes inside Billy’s Wild West Show tent. In the first one Scatman Crothers is introducing all the acts with Billy as the main attraction. It’s a rather pathetic event since there’s a very small audience, almost no applause and before the show is over there are two accidents (including some embarrassing reaction shots). Most of the show is almost painfully silent, so that you really feel the lack of applause.

There are many wide high angle shots that dwarf the actors. The darkness around the harsh blue lights makes the tent seem to be infinitely large. The audience is practically non-existent.

There’s something very admirable about all of Eastwood’s films: he (or rather his lighting crew) is particularly careful with lighting dark skinned actors so that you can always see their features equally well as those of white actors, even if they are shown against bright light sources. This has been less common in American cinema than one would expect.

Music off a record is heard playing only during Billy’s horse stunts, it sounds rather thin.
Even Billy’s stunts and the proud announcer are primarily shown from up above. Although there are lots of red props, they are not highlighted too much.

Only when he is addressing his “little partners”, the children in the audience, is the camera below his eyeline. It emphasizes the point that only the children are looking up to him. The same is true for his blonde assistant who is introduced as a silly, scared girl. Note that in the lower left screencap the camera position puts Billy higher in the frame than the girl who is actually hanging a few feet off the ground.

In the end, we see the same show in a new tent which is completely made of American flags (stitched together by inmates of a mental institution, in case you wondered…). Of course by now everybody’s reconciled and the tent bursts with people. This time, Billy comes in at the beginning, making it possible for the music to play during the whole show – not through the tinny speakers but on the soundtrack. There’s also applause throughout, Billy gets his close-up this time and most of all, it’s not that dark anymore, so we see the omnipresent red, white and blue.

The lighting emphasizes the strong primary red more than in the previous tent scenes.

The magic moment of reconciliation is celebrated with especially theatrical lighting that sculpts not only the faces but also the hats very clearly, after all we're in the middle of a staged show. Eastwood himself is again partly in the shadow. This time his eyes are the visible part, which is very unusual for him. He’s still higher in the frame than anybody else.

All the show members seem to get their “heroic treatment”, i.e. their extreme low angle shot. Interspersed with tight framings of the cheering crowd.

At the end of the show (and the film), he speaks to his little partners one last time. They are more or less on eyelevel now.

In between these two bookend scenes there are two confrontations that are handled like ritualistic western shootouts:

Confronting his “Little Partners”
Just before Bronco Billy talks to the blonde (arriving in a cold blue car by the way) for the first time, a few kids examine his flamboyant red convertible. They have come to get a glimpse at the “real” Bronco Billy, apparently some kind of hero to them. Billy does what’s expected from him yet accidentally reveals that he’s out of touch with normal life by not knowing what day of the week it is.
In classic western fashion he’s approaching them, but keeps the distance until they have turned at his call. The camera is more or less at the children’s eyelevel. While this prevents us from looking down on the children, Billy still looks larger-than-life.

They turn around and we see him from extremely far below, in silhouette against the sky.

Billy whirls his six-shooters which has the desired effect, he then tells the children to lower their hands.
Approaching them slowly, he looks increasingly smaller. Also from behind he’s rather dark against the background.

The child standing alone on the left explains to him that they “don’t go to school today, Bronco Billy, it’s Saturday…”. This shot’s slightly from below the child’s eye level. Billy's already bent down to them, standing next to an American flag once more.

He then hands out free tickets to the show and asks the kids to bring their folks tonight. He’s in control of the conversation.

They take off with Billy driving off (after giving his gunbelt to Doc) with them.

Confronting the local sheriff
The second confrontation scene comes late in the film when Billy lets himself be humiliated by a local sheriff in order to get his friend out of prison.

We first see the empty street out of town, followed by a classic backlit low angle shot. Here, Billy is still in control of the situation.

Then the camera tracks down as the sheriff comes closer (one of Eastwood’s favorite establishing devices).
As expected, The sheriff is facing the sun, while Billy stands with his back to it. As soon as he is offering the money, the sheriff is seen in the higher position, although he is physically smaller than Billy.
The rest of the scene is handled in shot - reverse shot.
“just how fast are you with this?” pointing to the gun, not accepting the money

Billy “admits” that the sheriff is faster than he is. He doesn’t move a bit, only his face does.

He drops his gun. There’s even a high angle shot as the sheriff approaches the now unarmed Billy.
With the sheriff now closer than ever, Billy’s face is twitching, but he’s not moving, the humiliation has left him speechless. They have met on eye level. But Billy is not capable of handling such a situation. This is a far cry from Dirty Harry. Bronco Billy may in fact be Eastwood’s least violent picture, nobody gets killed during this one.

Although nothing about these examples is unexpected or bold, I still think they illustrate well how even a set of established stylistic traits is flexible enough to adjust to the needs of a scene. Style doesn’t have to be the icing on the cake, in fact, it shouldn’t. It should be the means by which a story is told visually.

All screenshots taken from Bronco Billy, DVD PAL RC2.

1 comment:

Michael Sporn said...

This is an excellent film. I think I've seen it more than a dozen times. Certainly a change came to Eastwood's work after this film.