🎬 #16 Can You See A Film In One Frame?
I can honestly say this week’s two choices are heavily influenced by the fact that I’ve just finished watching Severance - an excellent show created by Dan Erickson, and directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle, which I’m sure you’re all watching / have heard about. But these choices also come from a challenge / interest I’ve always had when it comes to films and how they’re sold. How can one image capture the overarching story and overriding theme of an entire feature film? This is usually a challenge to the studio’s marketing department but it’s also an indicator of a very well designed film. Because every single decision, every single frame is a fractal of the larger film, it’s the story in of itself, it’s an encapsulation of everything the film is. In a well made film I feel like you could grab any frame and see the whole story contained within it. I like to think of this in a similar way to ‘Parti’ a principle in architecture:
Where "parti" refers to the concept of 'parti pris', and refers to the main 'idea' of the organizing principle that is embodied in a design and often expressed by a simple geometric diagram. The "parti" often expresses the essence of an architectural design reduced to its essence.
This week I’m going to choose two frames, one from each film and see how they hold the essence of the whole within them. I’m going to sell it to you in one frame.
FILM ONE: PLAYTIME
1967 Dir Jaques Tati
This frame literally sold this film to me. I think I was doing some image searching for a project and this popped up. I had never seen a Tati film before and I was immediately hooked in by this random shot. I wanted to know more.
Who is the man? Why is he at odds with the people below him? Why do they seem to be locked away in a maze of cell-like offices? Why is it at once cold but also comforting - even inviting?
When I saw the film I realised this frame hooked me in so well because, like I said in the intro, it’s a perfect summation of the film. The film is a fish out of water comedic tale of Tati’s titular character coming into a ‘new’ Paris to attend to some unknown business. It’s a modern world that he feels lost in but still captivated by. The geometry of the offices below him and the looping action of the characters within them feel hypnotic - drawing him in, but also keeping him at a distance - standing upon his distant platform.
Usually a high angle shot with the main character in the foreground would signify power and ‘domain’ over that which they’re seeing but here it’s the opposite. He’s powerless yet enraptured. He’s ‘off centre’ to the left of the frame while the world he’s in is very much centred and symmetrical. Even his wardrobe makes him the odd-one out. He’s soft and crumpled, while others around him are sharp and pointy. All these choices form the larger whole - the story of a man caught up in a world he doesn’t belong to, and the comedy that results from that clash.
This is a new technological city of commerce and busy-ness. In this frame he’s trying to get a handle on it - seeing it for the first time from an elevated position, he sees the shape of it. But even now he doesn’t quite understand it. The graphic framing and perfectly designed setting and art direction seen here permeates the entire film. This stylistic choice makes it a film that doesn’t so much feel shot as designed. In many ways it feels like you’re watching a meticulously drawn cartoon. Or an architectural model populated by characters.
The shot above feels dystopian in some ways - the rigid block-like design of the offices and the walk ways between them. But it’s also weirdly utopian - the perfection of it makes it feel desirable, appealing in its commercial gleam.
Tati’s character is us - outsiders but wondering at the workings of this new fangled place. Seeing a metropolis as if for the first time, we are guided through the film by him, taking in the sights and sounds, the geometry and theatricality of the almost silent comedy and the environment leaving us wanting more. The precision and timing of the action, the posture of the actors walking through the hallways makes us feel soothed - comforted that things are so well organised. In this Tati world - we don’t have to feel worried or anxious.
We can stand back and look out at the action that’s beyond our control and simply enjoy it in all its lovely and perfect form even when things begin to go awry. Put it on and enjoy the view.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hrs 35 mins of my precious life watching this? Observe, not so much as watch, this phenomenally designed comedy/ art installation/ theatre piece set in a high tech Paris, as Tati’s Monsieur Hulot acts as our out of place guide to a world where everything is perfect until it isn’t.
*Available on the Criterion Channel
Fact: Tati refused to make a 35mm print of the film - insisting that it always be shown in 70mm, and when you see it you’ll see why it deserves/needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
FILM TWO: THX 1138
1971 Dir George Lucas
This is George Lucas’ first film. And this frame tells you almost everything you need to know about it. This is the story of Robert Duvall’s THX 1138 falling in love in a society that’s banned all sexual relationships or feelings of any kind. It’s a state controlled world patrolled by robots - where everything is tightly regulated through the use of drugs.
The whiteness here is dominant - the colour that’s an absence of emotion or stimulation. Not only is the background white, but they are clothed in it, from bald head to toe. Nothing in this frame shows any human trait or personality - the very goal of the society these two characters find themselves. And yet amongst this blankness and the homogenous character design, there is pure rapture. The intensity of feeling between the two characters is palpable. In some ways the whiteness only serves to merge the two together - as if they are becoming part of one body, a visual representation of the act that is strictly outlawed.
Even in the harshly cropped prison of this two shot, love can flourish. The framing here is the domination of the environment, and yet it’s the environment itself that gave rise to the relationship. THX 1138 [Duvall’s character’s designation - names are no longer a thing] was introduced to LUH 3417 after the system randomly designated her as his roommate.
The film is about escape from this overwhelmingly inhuman society - escape from the rigid framing, control, from the blankness of un-emotion, from the un-uniqueness of look, from the barren alphanumeric naming conventions and it’s all here in one simple frame - the triumph of humanity despite everything. I wish Lucas would make more films like this.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hrs 26 mins of my precious life watching this? Watch Lucas’ first feature, a study of human beings overcoming anything that can hold them captive - a stark science fiction prison break adventure that even now I feel is underappreciated.
*Available for a small rental fee on Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, Apple TV, Rakuten.
Fact: The script was co-written by Walter Murch and if the name sounds familiar - it’s now also the name of Lucas film’s proprietary audio visual system for film theatres - THX.