Darren Aronofsky is an auteur. Even without a clear visual style, the themes in his movies revolve around getting into the head of the characters, and possibly the audience too. Hope you guys enjoy and please leave some comments telling me what you think!
Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is successful in depicting the unease and tension of war. Amy Taubin describes the movie as “a totally immersive, off-the-charts high-anxiety experience from beginning to end.” The majority of the movie is shot on a shaky cam to depict the restlessness of soldiers at war, and the quick editing mirrors the agitation of the situations they are placed in. The movie also accurately portrays the soldiers’ perspectives rather than just the events going on around them. The audience is given a glimpse into a soldier’s psyche during a time of war and experience things as they might. Bigelow, along with editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, created a claustrophobic environment that forces the audience to feel the discomfort of battle, which was exceptionally represented during the scene of a sniper duel between Iraqi guerrilla and the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team that we follow throughout the movie. This scene’s editing embodies the disorientation that the characters experience and the disquiet that an ironically quiet situation can cause.
The scene begins when a group of Iraqi guerrilla starts attacking James, Sanborn, and Eldridge, all part of an EOD team, along with a group of military contractors. They are being shot at from a distance and retaliate against the enemy snipers with their own sniper tactics. However, the battle is prolonged over a few hours and the soldiers are restricted to their positions until the threat is over. This scene is one of the most uncomfortable and restless to watch due to the characters’ clear desire to move from their positions and the seemingly endless wait for the battle to end. Throughout the movie, Bigelow effectively uses the technique of elongating and shortening time, making certain things appear as if they are happening faster or slower than they actually are. In this scene, she uses this method to represent the ceaseless wait in-between action. Image 1 shows one of these instances, in which Bigelow zooms into a shell casing from a bullet that was just fired as it falls on the ground and slows down the shot dramatically so that it takes a lot longer to fall than it normally would. As this bullet falls, one of the enemies has just been shot and killed. Bigelow’s decision to place this shot here when someone was just killed, rather than showing the dying man, allows the audience to experience death differently, and perhaps more heavily, than in the movie’s other scenes. It also represents the possibility that the soldiers, who have just killed this man, are also affected by his death more than they may have time to realize.
Additionally, that Bigelow slows down this shot not only represents how long the battle is taking, but also the lengthy time lapses in-between the action. By continuing to zoom into small details, Bigelow is able to accentuate the wait of the battle and highlight the tension. In Image 2, we see a fly land on Sanborn’s eye, but he is unable to swat it away. Placing this shot here, not only shows the passing of time, but also irks the audience. We feel their discomfort, as it is uncomfortable to watch. Bigelow continues to use this method in other shots such as Image 3, where we see what looks like the beginnings of a small tornado, and yet the soldiers are unable to move from their positions. This shot continues to affect our perception of time. These characters have been sitting here so long that the weather is starting to change. It also mirrors the possibility that anything could happen at any moment.
Throughout the movie, there is also never a clear idea of when the soldiers are going to be attacked. Innis said that when editing The Hurt Locker she wanted to make it feel as if it were a horror film where “a bomb could go off at any minute, but you never know just when it’s going to happen, so the ideas of Hitchcock — about making your audience anxious — were influential for us when we did the editing” (Idelson). That is particularly clear in this scene, where the time intervals between the gun being fired are always different, but the audience is constantly on the edge as we wait for what we expect, but can never be fully sure, to be coming. This is also a truthful interpretation of what the soldiers are experiencing, because they never know when they are going to be attacked either. The audience is stringed along on this journey with the soldiers and we are dropped into this world of unease just as they are.
While there is not a lot of movement in this scene by the characters, the shots are all still very shaky, which increases the discomfort that both the audience and the characters are going through. The majority of the shots in the movie are constantly moving, yet they also all have action. However, this scene breaks that rule. The contrast between the camera’s motion and the lack of motion of the characters was successful in heightening the anxiety. It also accentuates the characters’ body language, which is extremely tense and still. They are all in compromising positions, and have lost members of their teams, but must remain prepared for the next attack that might be coming their way. Therefore, they are restrained to their statue-like positions. The camera’s shakiness also adds a realistic element to this scene, along with the rest of the movie. Documentaries often use hand-held cameras, which result in a shaky image. But it also gives a realistic, rather than stylized, perception of an event. Bigelow uses this technique to add to the idea that this is a realistic portrayal of war. Innis and Murawski said that editing this movie was much like editing a documentary, and that they kept the effects to a minimum to make it look natural rather than artificial (Innis). Any shots, such as Image 1, that break away from that still heighten the effects and do not take away from its realism. This is similar to Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Olympia, where she goes from showing diving in one uncut and realistic shot (Image 6) to showing more manipulated shots of the divers (Image 7). This method did not take away from the realism of the sport, but instead added a new perspective.
We also have the opportunity to look at things through the soldiers’ perspective, which is consistent to the shakiness of the camera. In Image 4, we see Sanborn’s point-of-view through the scope on his gun. This view is also very shaky, and the transition between looking at him and looking through his point-of-view is seamless. This shows that Bigelow is successful in showing a real view of war. Aside from this shot, however, most of the scene uses discontinuous editing, which restricts the audience from ever being fully certain of where the characters are. We see multiple shots of the building, seen in Image 5, where the enemy snipers are attacking from, but we never get an idea of how far it really is. We understand through context that it is far enough that they need sniper guns to attack, but there is never an establishing shot that lets us determine the distance. There is also never a perception of just how long the battle takes. It appears to be taking hours, but we are not sure of the time span. It is possible that the altercation doesn’t last as long as it is portrayed, but it is shown this way to depict how the characters experience it.
The sound adds another element of distress to this scene. Throughout the movie, the audio level of the dialogue is a lot lower than the action, such as explosions and gunshots. While this is realistic to what gunshots really sound like, it is not constant with how other movies traditionally portray these loud sounds. While other movies do make sure to show that gunshots are louder than dialogue, they adjust audio levels to make the sound gap smaller. However, the action in this movie is much louder than any other part of the audio, and it becomes almost deafening to the audience as well as the characters. Bigelow also amplifies the sound of the smaller details she focuses on, such as the falling shell and the fly, which just keeps adding to the tension in the scene. There is also an eerie sound in some parts of this scene, and also throughout the movie, which add to the terror element of the movie. It also gives the audience another factor where we can experience this world of war. Caroline Phillips said that the “diegetic sounds in the sequence were the dialogue and the sounds of the environment,” which shows that even without dialogue, or maybe especially without dialogue, we live what these characters live.
Bigelow and her editors take the audience on a ride where we catch a glimpse of war and what soldiers experience. The editing in this scene breaks a bit from the rest of the movie, but still uses techniques that primarily function to show the characters’ experiences and the realities of war. Bigelow is successful in manipulating time in such a way that we are never fully aware of the actual time lapse, but we still feel restless for the long wait to end. Her use of sound increases tension and intensifies anxiety. And the constant movement of the camera makes the audience’s desire for the characters to move almost uncontrollable. Innis said that “editing this war film felt like a war itself.”
Woody Allen said that when he paired with cinematographer Gordon Willis to work on his new film Manhattan, he wanted to give “a great look at New York City, which is sort of one of the characters in the film” (Gould). The film’s mise-en-scène makes it clear that a lot of Allen’s direction was done to show New York as a leading character in the movie, one that affects the other characters’ lives. The long tracking shots allow the audience to experience the city’s settings. The underexposure of the shots gives it a dark comedy vibe and accentuate the drama that protagonist Isaac struggles with. Throughout the movie he has the idea that people put themselves in situations that make their lives more complicated than they should be. Once Isaac comes to the realization that this is something he does himself, he heroically runs through New York City to see his beloved 17-year-old Tracy and asks for forgiveness for leaving her. This scene exemplifies the techniques that Allen uses to epitomize the city and Isaac’s emotions.
Manhattan was filmed in black and white. Allen said that he made this stylistic choice because he felt that it exhibited the city’s beauty and gave him a sense of nostalgia, since that is how he remembered the city from post cards (Gould). A lot of the imagery in the movie, especially the first and last images, are just shots of the city. This portrays that these characters all live within Manhattan. In the scene where Isaac is running to meet Tracy, he goes through the city but never seems to escape it. He appears to be running around in circles, and it is never clear in which direction he is running; we never see him turn in any particular direction. This also shows that Isaac never really wants to leave Manhattan, and while he does want to have certain things in life, such as a relationship with Tracy, he is unwilling to leave New York to do so. He asks her in their final conversation to stay in New York, rather than leave to London, so that they can be together. This also points to Isaac’s struggle where he enjoys where he is physically (living in Manhattan) but is never satisfied with where he is emotionally, again showing how he creates problems for himself. His struggle is clear in this scene due to the contrast of the beautiful city setting against his anxiety and frustration over the need to reach Tracy.
Manhattan’s mise-en-scène is also affected by Willis’ cinematography. We see the city’s pace is contrasted to Isaac’s with the long tracking shots. And while the focus is wide and we see everything that is happening around his character very clearly, we know exactly where we should be looking. The camera is following Isaac’s motion only; therefore, our eyes are always kept on him. The blocking in the film also allows for the audience to focus their attention because Allen is generally always at either side of the frame rather than in the center. This composition helps the audience keep the tension that Isaac is feeling while focusing on him only. His motion is also contrasted against settings where most people are still or moving slowly, such as a park or stores; and then his lack of motion is contrasted against fast motion such as speeding cars. This juxtaposition between motions also builds the pressure that Isaac feels and builds more tension for the audience, which is rooting for him to get to Tracy. We can also see how successful Allen and Willis are in building this scene because even without us knowing that Tracy will be leaving soon, we are still nervous for Isaac and feel that there is something at risk if he doesn’t get to her right away.
Another aspect of the mise-en-scène that helps give the scene a sense of urgency is the music. Throughout the movie, the music that is composed by George Gershwin adds an entirely different level of emotion. The music is purely instrumental, including jazz and blues. This was not modern music for the time, but Allen’s use of it gives another element of the classic New York that he is trying to portray. In this scene, the music sounds almost militaristic due to the drums and fast rhythm. This enforces the idea that Isaac has a mission to go on and a goal that he needs to reach. It also helps to strengthen Isaac’s pace throughout the scene and shows the need for him to get to Tracy. The music, while dramatic, also gives a slightly comedic effect, showing off Allen’s satirical style. This is represented further through blocking when Isaac is running and he slows down to catch his breath, but the music continues with the up-beat rhythm.
The editing of this scene adds to its unique mise-en-scène. The entire scene, until Isaac finds Tracy, only has four cuts. Normally, when there are so few cuts in a sequence, the scene feels slow; however, this scene feels very fast due to the movement of the camera. The horizontal and rightward movement of the camera helps give the sense that Isaac is working towards a goal, which we know is getting to Tracy. The long shots, where we see the city constantly in the background, help accentuate the vastness of the city. Allen seems to contrast this against his character’s insignificance and the problems that bother him.
The lighting of this scene is distinct from many other parts of Manhattan. Throughout the movie, the lighting is pretty dark and the characters and settings are often underexposed, despite this being set up as a comedy. This underexposure shows that the characters are never truly revealed to themselves or the other characters, probably because they are never truly being honest. In this scene, however, Isaac is well exposed and we see his emotions clearly. This is due to his realization about what he really wants and therefore he sees things much clearer. In the darker shots, the driving force of the plot is the dialogue, which is forcefully highlighted because there is nothing else on the screen we can focus on. The dialogue is often intellectual nonsense rather than having any emotional value. In this scene there is no talking at all, however, it has more sentiment in it than many of the other scenes that are spoken. It seems that Allen uses this as a commentary on how people living in Manhattan, especially the community of intellectuals that he is involved in, are often so concerned with the abstract and unanswerable questions in life that they forget to focus on the more basic things such as their emotions. As Isaac said to Mary in the planetarium, “the brain is the most overrated organ.” It is also curious that this is the one scene in the movie where Isaac is the most expressive of his emotions, yet there is no dialogue.
Allen is known for making social commentaries in his movies, and Manhattan is no exception. The mise-en-scène of the movie is guided towards showing the city’s grandeur. Because of this, the movie has a Classic Hollywood Cinema style to it, which is really only expressed in the imagery. However, the topics and the acting are similar to Neo-realism due to its social commentary. The city’s grandeur is juxtaposed against the characters’ trivial problems, which they seem to concentrate on as a tool for ignoring more consequential matters in their lives. Therefore, Allen wants to focus on the simple beauty of New York and wants to show that the feelings he gets from it don’t have to be explained or analyzed, and they can just be felt.
Image 3: Here we see Isaac running to see Tracy. The whole image is in focus, but because we are following Isaac’s actions, the rest of the city is blurry, allowing the audience to focus on Isaac. He is also at the edge of the screen, allowing for tension and seeing that he still needs to get to his destination.