Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Why The Season 2 Hannibal Finale Rocked Us Emotionally AND Visually

So first off, MAJOR SPOILER ALERT, OBVIOUSLY.

Second, HOLY HELL THAT FINALE. I know, I know, I'm super late on seeing this, but I've been busy... watching all of Seinfeld and X Files.

I wasn't too enthused about Hannibal after about mid season this year, but I'm stubborn so I pressed onward. I'm very glad I did. It only took me until the start of the opening credits to realize I wanted to do a post about it. So here I sit, Christmas Eve, glass of wine, and jaw on the floor. I was taking screenshots the entire episode, took me FOREVER to finish it. Anyway, here goes. <3

So first thing's first, this finale hit the duality of good/evil so hard on the head. All season the plot has been having this overarching discussion about good and evil and if they really exist. Everything is subjective, as Hannibal will say, but there is definitely a duality going on with Will Graham. Towards the end, Alana begins to openly reference their bizarre relationship and the conflicts it puts on their lives. The opening for the finale was SO INTENSE with duality (and shallow focus). The first thing that had me praising the cinematography gods was the use of focus on the close ups. As a film student, it was beat into my head to FOCUS ON THE EYES. They are the windows to the soul, after all. The opening scene, featuring Will, Hannibal, and Jack heavily, had an extremely shallow depth of field. We have come to expect that of James Hawkins in this series (other credits for Hawkins include Community and The Hitcher). But despite the sometimes rapid movement of actors' head positions, the focus stayed viciously on their eyes.




Somebody get on my level of excitement here? NBC is putting out a Class A drama with A List actors, an insane screenplay every episode, AND mind bending cinematography. (They've come a long way since The Jeff Foxworthy Show, am I right???) But seriously, little details like that never cease to amaze me on Hannibal. How many horror villains have we seen RUINED by TV? TOO DAMN MANY. TV is finally stepping up to bat against 3 hour dramas and not striking out.

So next, we get the duality effect I was talking about. Hannibal vs. Jack and the dueling sides of Will Graham. In a lot of ways, I feel like Hannibal and Jack are personified versions of the struggle between the two sides of Will. Here we thought we were getting a show all about Hannibal Lector and we end up with this immensely more complicated character. Will's struggle also plays as a surrogate for the audience to sympathize with Lector. You can't deny you've caught yourself with your mouth watering like Pavlov's dogs and thinking, "You know, he makes a pretty good point." As a testament to the writers and to Mads Mikkelsen, they've had this vegan craving filet during more than one episode. I'm simultaneously disgusted and drawn to Lector's moral compass, which I think is perfectly illustrated in this sequence.






For the next few scenes, we hop back and forth between real life and dream sequences. This further serves the purpose to blur the lines between the sides of Will Graham and of the viewers' divide between good and evil. Lector makes that great argument about storms being destructive, leaving you with an intense moral crisis.


The above shot is immediately followed by the shot below: bouncing back and forth flawlessly and making subconscious foreshadowings of the finale's big bang.


Next up, we have an incredible scene between Lector and Will burning the notes that Lector has kept on his patients. Lector says he is sparing his "patients the scrutiny" but they both know they are burning the notes because the biggest lead Alana and Jack have on Hannibal is the link between the Chesapeake Ripper's dead and Hannibal's house call list. (Also later, when Lector is killing Will, we get a call back reference to this scene. "Close your eyes.")



For almost all of the episode, Will and Hannibal are lit in very high contrast light, creating a duality of light on the face. But here, notice that Hannibal's key light is white and Will's key light is red. I read this as the different approaches they have to their duality. Hannibal reckons himself a sort of god and Will really toils with his 'evil' half.

OH GOD THIS NEXT DREAM SEQUENCE






Massive foreshadowing going on here (Alana later allegedly passes away in the rain). She is feeling drowned by everything and she calls out to it as a "darkness" that poisons her. Also note that the previous dream sequence was Freddie, another female character, in red facing up right and the following dream sequence is this one; Alana is inverted and surrounded by black.



Here we see more of Will in darkness, all of the light is being given to Alana's face.







And then macro shots of her blood in water aaaaand CUE DINNER SCENE. Coincidence? HELL NAW.




Above we see the only time Will is lit equally with his scene partner... and look who it is.


Oh hell yeah, then we arrive here. The SHOOT OUT. (Only figuratively, of course. Hannibal made sure to steal the bullets.) The POV of Lector we see above is an over cranked shot, showing us his physical presence in the scene. The funny thing is that earlier in the season, he tells Will a low heart rate signifies one's capacity for violence. This over cranked frame rate tells me that maybe this is where he starts to come apart. He is no longer in control of all the variables, even in his own home... even in his own KITCHEN. 


And you can't tell me it's not damn hilarious that he whacks Crawford in the face with his refrigerator door.


As we're coming up on the climax, Alana enters. BUT WAIT. She's now getting the lighting treatment Will and Hannibal have been getting for hours. She's finally being sucked in to the darkness Lector has been weaving for everyone she knows. Fitting, too, because she tries to shoot Lector but he has stolen her bullets.


We see Jack bleeding out in this shot which I found very intriguing because it seems very a la Enter the Void. 


Ah, and then we finally get Hannibal Lector in all his glory. Chaos, violence, and destruction... He's tried very hard to mask it with attractive logic and lots of existential questions, but now he has none of those luxuries. You can't argue with blood.

Also, notice he is getting top light from above... He thinks he is a god send, or perhaps just a god. But we can see the darkness on his face and the blood stains on his button down. We know he is not what he seems.



Alana's "death sequence" is just absolutely mesmerizing. (I put that in quotes because we didn't see her pronounced or buried so season finale law dictates she could still be alive). 



Oh hell, and then there's this macro shot of the falling rain drops. This is that call back I told you we would get from her drowning dream sequence. She's getting her watery, all submerged death she has had nightmares about.


And isn't this whole death sequence just beautiful? Hannibal pulling him close, making the murder as personal as possible. (and of course we get to all wonder if they're gonna kiss, like we're watching Frodo and Sam fight over lembas bread.) 


And finally, Will Graham's face is fully lit again... ear to ear.





These next few frames really got me in the gut. Lector walks out into the rain where Alana is living her worst nightmare... and he flourishes. He embraces this moral ambiguity that is killing someone he claimed to love right under his feet. She drowns and he swims to freedom.



AND WHAT THE HELL IS THIS???? AFTER THE CREDITS ROLL HE'S ON A PLANE WITH GILLIAN ANDERSON? WE TRUSTED YOU, SCULLY!!!! WE. TRUSTED. YOU!!!!!!!!!


This finale made me appreciate all the subtle (albeit sometimes boring) lulls of the show that gave us all too important context. Ladies and gentlemen, this is how you do television.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Call of Cthulhu directed by Andrew Leman

Recently I was turned on to the 2005 adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu due to my interest in the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast, HP Podcraft. Andrew Leman, who has the voice of an angel and should really become the Shaq of audio books, is a guest reader/Lovecraft expert on the podcast fairly frequently. (I get super bummed when someone else does the readings, sorry guest folks.)

Unbeknownst to me upon my first viewing, Leman's rendition of the Lovecraft tale is done in the style of a black and white, silent film. I loved this idea, first of all because I'm a huge silent film fan and second because these types of films were being made when Lovecraft was writing. So it made sense to me to adapt his writings to the style of film that it would have been done in had the filmmakers been Lovecraft's contemporaries.

Following in this post, I've got some things that could have been done to better mold the film to the style of the period as well as some things that Leman does extremely well. Before reading, I highly encourage you to watch the film first. With a run time of 47 minutes, it's not hard to sit through!

THE NUTS AND BOLTS

Before I get into some other things, I'd like to point out a few things that I think could have made the film better. These are not specific to Leman's film either; they are common hurdles filmmakers have to clear when attempting to make period films. (Films that look as if they were made in the period, not just set in them.) 

The first thing that I noticed right off the bat towards the beginning was that the lenses were too short. Shorter lenses are going to result in a wider range of view and typically when viewing old films we are used to a fixed, longer focal length simply because range in focal length was not the top priority or available resource for filmmakers. Also, wider lenses require curved glass to bend the field of view outward, which wasn't as easy to create or mass produce in the days of early silent film. Shorter focal lengths are very rare in the silent era and typically only occur on films with very large budgets. The variety in focal length unknowingly takes the viewer out of this era. Even if they have no technical knowledge of this, their eyes are accustomed to it.




In addition to this, quite a few of the opening shots have a depth of field that is too crushed. Old time cameras did not have this type of ability, therefore we are used to a very deep depth of field when viewing older films. Shallow depths of field are a newer tactic of cinema. On top of this, some of the shots lose that "natural vignette" look. The vignette feature is on all our retro photo editors because it's something that used to happen naturally on film, still or moving. Some of the shots have no vignette and some of them have too much. This lack of consistency draws the viewer's attention to the absence of vignetting in older frames.

Another error this film makes in copying an older style is the glow effect. Certainly a bit of a glow will happen naturally with filming and projection, but some of the shots are just a bit too overzealous with the effect. This results in a blown out area on the faces of subjects on screen. Typically, older cameras needed LOTS of light to capture a good image, so seeing an overexposed image in this style isn't very believable.



Something else that stuck out to me as out of place was the variation of shots used in the final edit. In a classic silent film shoot, the camera operator is not going to get four different angles of someone's dialogue. It's not part of the style yet and it's also incredibly expensive still. Leman's film has quite a bit of shot variation, which in today's era we would praise, but just isn't true to the period. I feel the same way about the abundant use of cross dissolves. As a stylistic choice for some of the detective, mystery coming together type scenes, I can get behind it. I just feel it was overused for such a short film.

I also would have considered using some grain or softening on the close up shots. Leman is using some pretty decent cameras, so I can see all the little pores of his actors. This makes for a beautiful shot, but not a very appropriate one. Softening up that shot will blur out some of the details an older camera would be unable to capture.


As a testament to his DP and camera operators, the pans, tilts, and rack focuses are just too smooth for the period equipment. That's the kind of talent you have to cover up when making a silent film era style B movie. Lastly, the subjects tends to stick out from the background a bit too much in multishots. During a shot with only one single character, this is acceptable and, indeed, preferred. Lighting technique, as it worked with cameras of the time, could achieve this look. However, lighting multiple characters in a shot and not having it look flat would be incredibly difficult. The depth of field is wide and the camera is not going to pick up the different planes as easily. On the particular shot I've chosen as this example, we can also see the glow effect causing some issues.


THE GOOD, THE GREAT, AND THE EVEN BETTER

All of that being said, there was a wealth of things this film got right. Indeed, I'm not going to have seen them all or written them all down in this blog. The first one I noticed, which prompted me to write the whole blog in the first place, was the tight shots for emphasis. We all know those cheesy shots that spoon feed us information to further the plot or lengthen a dull scene. Leman did this with ease, many times over, which really captured the endearing naivety of the era.



Other things that were subtle, but effective, were the text cards and iris vignettes. The iris in vignettes onto central information in certain shots was timed perfectly and the text/antiquity of the text cards felt very genuine.


There were some exceptions to this, such as the rolling in of the wheelchair towards the end, but for the most part the frame rate was just choppy enough to emulate that immature understanding of the science of the eye. The period costuming and architecture were also very consistent throughout the film. Adding to the effectiveness of these two elements, was the tight framing of most of the group shots. Since our eyes are expecting a longer lens, the framing will be forced to be tighter. The longer the lens, the less space you have in the frame. Leman did an excellent job of cramming in actors in a way that felt both appropriate and outrageous. (The shot below features a lens that may be too wide for the film, but the cramped blocking makes up for most of that warped feeling)




There was also a great deal of physical farce and faked difficulty keeping actors in the frame in the ending chase. This adds to the period feel of clumsiness, emulated by the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. 


There were also very believable canted angles, coupled with outstanding performer makeup. The silent film era was still using theatre style makeup techniques and had not yet been adapted to the up close and personal images of film. This makes the character's face contain deep contrast which would look normal from 20 feet away in a staged performance, but in a filmed performance looks dramatic and intense.





Actor direction was top notch throughout the film, as well as some various swift movements done in what seems to be a higher frame rate during frantic moments. I especially enjoyed the old style "Full Speed Ahead" maneuver in the ending chase.


By far the thing I was most impressed with, was the apparent ease that the dream world had in lighting and classic horror SFX. There were sequences that, coupled with the physical farce and actor direction, I would not have been able to tell were modern productions. They absolutely look like they could have been constructed by pioneer horror filmmakers on a sound stage.







Call of Cthulhu is definitely an indie cultist film worth a watch, which is not something you can say about most modern Lovecraft adaptations. It has most certainly made more room in my heart for Andrew Leman as well. There are always aspects of a film that could be made better, so mostly this was an exercise in asking myself how that would be done, but all in all I loved this film. It's refreshing to know that cultists are experimenting with films styles, even well into the new millennium.