A Man is Off-Kilter

I haven’t seen very many Stanley Kubrick movies, though I learned to my surprise a few years ago that he was responsible for one of my favorite childhood action movies, Spartacus. A few weeks ago, I watched his World War I film, Paths of Glory, starring Kirk Douglas (like Spartacus). The film is about a French general who accuses his troops of cowardice after a failed charge. Three soldiers are randomly selected to face a kangaroo court martial with the sentence of death hanging over their heads. Their colonel, played by Kirk Douglas, argues for the defense. So it’s a combination war film and courtroom drama (unlike Spartacus).

Though I haven’t seen many Kubrick films, I have read enough to know about his famous perfectionism. He often shot close to a hundred takes of a scene before he was satisfied. I also knew he was a photographer, so I expected Paths of Glory to be a visual delicatessen. I wasn’t disappointed. The film is beautiful, light and shadow playing off one another in every frame. Kubrick made good use of his locations, too, especially during the court martial and execution scenes, which were both shot at Schloss Schleissheim in Germany near Munich. I was surprised, though, that the cinematography wasn’t more… well, symmetrical, I guess. I noticed this most in the execution scene. Take a look at the screenshots below (thanks, film-grab.com — one of the best places out there for cinematographical references).

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Nudge the camera in any of these shots and you’d have a perfectly balanced frame. Especially that first one! Come on, why isn’t the accused in the center centered under the archway? It could be an aesthetic choice. As a photographer, Kubrick probably spent a lot of time looking through a lens. (The last screenshot above is practically balanced in its imbalance.) He may have chosen to frame the film like this for a greater sense of realism. War is messy, so is making movies. The rough-and-readiness of the shots do make you feel like you’re there, witnessing the events unfold. Or it could be that the production schedule was rushed, the crew were harried, and nobody could be bothered to make sure both sides of the building were in the frame. Not likely, given the director’s aforementioned perfectionism.

Thinking about that word, “imbalance,” I wonder if Kubrick is communicating something by intentionally framing the action in this slightly off-kilter way. In the story, high-ranking officers shoot three innocent soldiers rather than own up to their mistakes. The structure of responsibility fails. The world skews. Kubrick may have translated this sense of unreality into the pictures themselves. A balanced frame would imply that justice is being done and all is right with the world. The story insists that all is not right, and what better way to underscore this than through slight imperfections in the way the characters are presented?

A Man Tries a Dollop of Samurai Jack

A offhand comment in some article by Matt Zoller Seitz piqued my curiosity about Samurai Jack, an animated TV show that aired on Cartoon Network in the early aughts. I cast into the Youtube pond, and the first episode I reeled in was the one Seitz mentioned. (I’m sure there’s some eldritch internet cause-and-effect at work there.)

In the episode, Jack is hunted by the Shinobi, warrior of the night, who uses the shadows to sneak up on his quarry. The first half of the episode is forgettable – Jack defends a defenseless village from giant robotic lobsters – but once the Shinobi catches up with him, the two square off in a tall building that is sort of like a mix between a lighthouse and a warehouse. As the sun sets outside and the shadows lengthen inside, it becomes apparent that this is a battle between light and darkness. The Shinobi keeps to the blackness, while Jack hides in the (rapidly diminishing) areas of sunlight. The sequence even switches to black-and-white at one point to emphasize the contrast.

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As Seitz says, the amazing part of the fight scene is that it believably portrays what it’s like to fight someone whom you can’t see. The Shinobi becomes visible in the dark for a split-second when Jack’s sword strikes his. The sound of the blades making contact gives Jack (and the audience) a moment’s glimpse of the villain’s whereabouts.

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I also love the way the sunset raises the stakes of the fight. Jack knows that the Shinobi will gain the advantage as night draws on, so he must finish off the ninja before the building goes completely dark. And all this is communicated through animation, mind you. There’s scarcely a line of dialogue in the whole episode. Ah, animation. You never fail to amaze me.

Watch the episode on the tube here.

Watching a Man in the Process of Ruining Himself

A friend tweeted that she’s having a hard time getting through Breaking Bad. I understand. It took me five years to get through it all, even though the whole thing was available on Netflix — I am the anti-binge-watcher. One reason I dragged my feet is that I had a hard time getting used to the pace. It was fast when it should’ve been slow and slow when it should’ve been fast. I’ve since changed my opinion (more on that later), but at the time, I often felt lost, unsure of what I was supposed to think or feel. I rarely thought about the show when it wasn’t playing in front of me.

But the biggest reason is took me so long to get through Breaking Bad is that I despised Walter White. I guess there are people out there who see Walt as some kind of hero, standing against The System, or who identify with his mid-life hissy fit crisis. To me, he was just gross, a trodden-on slug of a man spewing excuses while actively ruining his life. (I should say, ruining it further than he already had.) Every episode, I asked myself, “Am I supposed to connect with this guy?” His phony ethical dilemmas bored me. If Walt had been shot in the chest by a random drug mule in the middle of Season 2, I would have sighed with relief and closed my laptop.

I remember the moment when my opinion of the show started to change. I don’t remember the episode or even the season (Netflix: it all bleeds together), but there’s a point when Walt has a chance to quit the drug business, to wash his hands of it all and start over, and he chooses not to. At that point, he went from a man pretending to be a victim to a man deciding to be a villain and I thought, “This show has a moral center after all.” His exploits immediately got more interesting. Plus, it’s around that moment that we get to meet Gus Fring for the first time, and that guy… He can’t help but make things interesting.

T finished watching Breaking Bad recently (it took her about 2% of the time it took me), and after re-watching part of it with her, I have a lot more respect for the quality of the show. For example, it’s one of the few TV shows I know of that uses silence liberally and with great effect. Breaking Bad would rather imply than show, which is a mark of great cinematic storytelling. You can tell that the creators of the show have a lot of respect for their audience. And, though I still don’t have much patience for Walt, I admire the awe-inspiring stuff Bryan Cranston pulled off with that character.

My friend who doesn’t like Breaking Bad said she’s tempted to switch to Better Call Saul. Do it, I told her. Switch. Follow Saul Goodman into his own world. Better Call Saul is a fantastic show — dareisay, more fantastic than Breaking Bad. The writing? Excellent. (Though the Mike-and-granddaughter scenes are so saccharine they make my teeth wince.) More importantly, the flawed protagonist actually tries to be good and doesn’t make excuses for his sins, which is more than anyone could say of Walter White. On top of that, the show is funny, even pleasant in places.

If you can’t stomach Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul provides a nice intro to the pace, style, and world of that particular TV universe. It gives you a chance to respect the quality of what you’re watching without that icky feeling that you get from trying to root for Walt. If you like BCS and want more, tap into BB with a new appreciation for its artistry. True, by starting out with Better Call Saul you’ll miss some of the winks and foreshadowing, but in my opinion, it won’t lessen your enjoyment of the show. Most of those insider moments appear in the various B-stories anyway. The central story — the Jimmy-Chuck relationship — will be completely intact, and that’s where the best writing is.

And, c’mon, it’s got shots like this one. Doesn’t get any better than that.

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