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How the great and mighty dress themselves.

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(This be another one of them posts.)

Remember that post I wrote at the beginning of the quarter about the first episode of the fifth season of Doctor Who? Of course you don’t: it’s still in my draft folder. The whole point of that post—which I’ll briefly recapitulate here—is that there’s something unusual about a man sporting tweed and bowtie playing the cultural equivalent of Superman. Spandex and tights? That’s American. But tweed and a bowtie? That’s academic, and surely no one wants the weight of the world resting on academic shoulders.

Unless, of course, you’re English. In which case it makes perfect sense. So, to begin that post I never posted, here’s Superman coming out of the closet and into his own:

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Note that Richard Donner’s American version of making manifest the hero’s heroism involves stripping in public, entering a random office building, and emerging in jammies and a cape. The English version of this scene maps particularly well onto its American equivalent, with the one exception that director Adam Smith attempts to out-America America and film it in the sort of long tracking shot Scorsese favors. I’m only going to show the end of the first (Fig. 1) and the end of the second (Fig. 7) tracking shot, because the reaction shots in between are actually more crucial:

Doctor who the eleventh hour Figure 1
Doctor who the eleventh hour Figure 2
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Doctor who the eleventh hour Figure 4
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Doctor who the eleventh hour Figure 7

What are the point of the tracking shots? First, watching men get changed isn’t an inherently interesting activity, so the long tracking shots add some dynamism to an otherwise static scene. The fact that the shots are long hammers this home: a long shot holds the whole body in frame, so even if something interesting’s going to happen, the audience’ll already be privy to it—which is precisely why Smith interrupts the long take with a series of close-ups and reverse shots on the Doctor and Amy. Note that in the Fig. 2 Amy’s aghast expression is purely a function of the Doctor’s insanity: the Doctor’s vanquished the alien Atraxi and won the day, so she’s understandably surprised he decided to star-sixty-nine them. Smith kept the focus shallow so Amy’s bewilderment occupies the entire frame—at least until the Doctor pops back into the foreground (Fig. 3) being very naked. What had been a close-up on her becomes a close-up on him—presumably the BBC has standards and practices—and she and Rory dissolve into the blur.

But only momentarily. Smith then cuts to a medium close-up whose sole purpose is to put the clean minds of the audience into Amy’s prurient state (Fig. 4). Amy’s eyeline match corresponds with the naked body of the Doctor, whereas Rory’s terminates somewhere down and left there on the floor. Smith then returns to the close-up on the Doctor that previously blurred Rory and Amy, but there’s a difference:

Doctor who the eleventh hour Figure 5

Amy is no doubt still blurry, but she now occupies the dead center of the frame. Don’t take my word for it:

-doctor who the eleventh hour Figure 5 with an X

If not the dead center, then, close enough. Let me explain: as Michael Land and Benjamin Tatler in Looking and Acting: Vision and Eye Movements in Natural Behavior, humans have “a bias towards looking at and near the centre of screens and monitors rather than their margins [and] because photographers tend to place objects of interest at the centre of the viewfinder … salience will tend to be higher in the centre of the scenes used in many eye movement experiments” (39). Such “experiments,” for our present purposes, being “television episodes” and “films.” Viewers fixate, in Land and Tatler’s sense of the term, on the center of the screen because they’ve been trained to do so. So strong is this training that if David Bordwell wants to be a bastard and introduce a string of continuity errors in the margins of a shot sequence, he can do so without anybody noticing. In short, we fixate on the center of the frame because we’re barely mindful film-viewing automata, but what mindfulness we have, as David Bordwell argues, is face-mindfulness:

[H]uman faces are a special case. We are sublimely sensitive to them. Faces are recognized even in low-resolution images, they are detected faster than other configurations, and we readily project them into ambiguous patterns. Hence we see the Man in the Moon and the Savior on a Cheeto. Naturally, artists realize the power of faces and gestures to attract our attention.

Even though Amy’s is a blurry face, the combination of our filmic fixation on centers and our generalized face-mindfulness leads to this being, in the end, an eyeline match. Smith forces the audience to watch Amy watch the Doctor change, and just on the off chance that some member of the audience missed it (or her attitude towards it), I re-present Fig. 6:

Doctor who the eleventh hour Figure 6? No! I lied!

Only that’s not Fig. 6, that’s what I’ll call Fig. 7. It’s a slight zoom in from Fig. 6 and its purpose is to communicate to anyone who missed the point of Amy staring down the half-naked Doctor Fig. 5. (Note also that Rory’s been shuffled out of this shot. He’s there, in the diegetic sense, to her immediate right, but for some reason Smith is making this sequence all about Amy and the Doctor.) The subtle zoom from close-up to an extreme close-up works, in film terms, to get the audience “into her head” because it is, literally, being injected into her head. Smith used the same technique more dramatically earlier in the episode, when he had the Doctor enter Amy’s mind via his zoomed-in-on-hands:

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Doctor who the eleventh hour00161
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The above scene, because of its science-fictional nature, is more obvious, but only because it has to be. Audiences aren’t accustomed to having characters literally enter each other’s memories; however, in the Fig. 7 the subtle zoom and her tightened eyes allow the audience to know what she’s thinking without having to literally enter her head. (Naughty thoughts about the Doctor, obviously. I hope it didn’t take you this long to figure it out.) Point being, this entire post is about the dressing of heroic figures and the manner in which said dressings are shot, except that it actually isn’t. The point—the actual one—is that unlike Superman, the Doctor is just a man sporting tweed and a bowtie who is, nevertheless, able to saunter onto a rooftop and do this:

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In case you’re wondering, yes, the Doctor is threatening a giant eyeball of a spaceship with tweed and a bowtie. Because this post is becoming unwieldy, I’ll put the rest of the lesson-plan for tomorrow in a subsequent post and just note, for the record, that the significance of this final scene from the first Matt Smith episode will become apparent when compared with what could his final scene in the penultimate episode of this season. About which, more very shortly. (I teach tomorrow, after all.)

 

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  • rea

    watching men get changed isn’t an inherently interesting activity

    One can tell you’re a hetero male. Amy seems to disagree . ..

    • SEK

      I should’ve re-phrased that “watching men get changed into tweed,” then I’d just be normal. Still, I’d argue that on the scale of on-screen excitement, watching people get changed rates low. Watching what they’re doing between the time they start and complete the act of changing is, obviously, another matter entirely.

      • Still, I’d argue that on the scale of on-screen excitement, watching people get changed rates low.

        Is there some scale of onscreen excitement available somewhere? Perhaps it includes some sort of directorial factor, where X exciting action is multiplied by 1 for a competent director, the multiplier dropping with directorial worth.

        So Evil Robot Attacks Train with the Bay multiplier comes out a smaller number than Alfred Hitchcock Clothes-Changing.

        • rea

          Evil robot attacks man changing? Go for the sweep!

          • Njorl

            That thing sure hates Duane.

  • Is that what Scorcese does? Gawd, I love his movies. I put “Bringing Out the Dead” on regularly to fall asleep to. It’s great just to listen to— his use of music is right on the mark, he doesn’t need a whole lot of conversation for his characters to say a whole lot, and he uses narration sparingly, elegantly.

    • SEK

      Is that what Scorcese does?

      At least once per film, but it being the end of the quarter, the only one that comes to my muddled mind is the underground intro sequence of Gangs of New York.

      • Even the greats have their dogs.

      • JRoth

        Didn’t Goodfellas have a few bravura ones, including one with Ray Liotta going through a nightclub?

        Actually, I feel like he did it in every sub-era* of that movie, but I haven’t seen it in a long, long time.

        * that is, when Liotta’s a kid, when he’s coming up, when he’s made, when he’s falling, etc.

        • SEK

          I think that’s the one I linked to in the post.

        • chris

          Liotta’s character is never made. He has a long monologue about how you have to be 100% Italian to be made, and how the only one of his friends who *could* be made is Tommy (Pesci). This sets up a major plot point I won’t spoil here.

          You’re right about the nightclub shot, though — it was featured in one of those “movie interspersed with talking heads talking about movie, and also some ads” things that several channels do now. I think it was AMC.

          • Jon

            The “Goodfellas” nightclub shot is also homaged whenever a tv show or movie wants to show how cool its characters are. “Swingers” is the example that comes to mind, but I feel like I see someone doing this at least once or twice a year. Probably a kids’ movie has referenced it at this point.

      • *GASP*

        Jake LaMotta heading to the ring????

        Also, the ten greatest tracking shots in film history.

        Goodfellas makes it, but I still think the LaMotta one, primarily because it’s really his first use of it and it shows as a proto-polished effort, is his best.

  • Njorl

    I’m sure somewhere in my consciousness lurked the idea that bowties which needed to be tied existed, but I never really considered it until I saw this.

    • I’ve got one. The reason it remains untied is that I don’t know how to tie it.

      • Njorl

        Just carry it in your pocket whenever you wear a prefab bowtie. Then deftly pocket the fake and leave the untied one hanging around your neck when you’re seducing the sexy enemy spy/jewel thief.

      • PSP

        It is easy. You tie a bow, then wiggle it around until it is even. Really.

      • Can you tie a shoelace in the “two loops” fashion? Then you can tie a bowtie. It’s that easy.

  • Anderson

    It’s becoming obligatory for each new superhero movie to quasi-apologize for the fact that the hero is running around in a ridiculous outfit.

    The curious thing is what cultural assumptions made tights and a cape seem reasonable back in the day.

    I suppose a lot more Americans saw sideshows and travelling circuses back then; were used to performers in tights; and accepted comic-book superheroes as essentially not so different from those performers.

    • JMP

      That was pretty much out; Siegel and Schuster designed Superman’s costume to resemble a circus strongman’s, and once he became popular all the new superheroes were created with a look derived from his.

      • Anderson

        Ah, bingo. Always glad when my laptop musings coincide with reality.

        Pretty unfortunate trend, alas.

        • What would a god wear these days?

          • SEK

            I think Dr. Manhattan [ahem] covered that one.

            • Anderson

              SEK FTW, though Substance’s question reminded me of Nietzsche:

              Whatever is profound loves masks; what is most profound even hates image and parable. Might not nothing less than the *opposite*, be the proper disguise for the shame of a god? A questionable question: it would be odd if some mystic had not risked something to that effect in his mind.

              Now there’s a superhero premise for ya. Whatever could we call him?….

            • Or rather uncovered. But, to be honest if you don’t have to worry about social conventions or climate there is no reason to wear clothes.

  • rea

    In case you’re wondering, yes, the Doctor is threatening a giant eyeball of a spaceship with tweed and a bowtie.

    Not having seen this episode, and being a smart aleck, I have to ask–is the doctor really threatening the spaceship with tweed and a bowtie? (“Leave the Solar System, or I’ll make you wear these!”) Or, perhaps more plausibly, is he merely wearing tweed and a bowtie while threatening a space ship?

    • Mike

      Merely wearing tweed and a bowtie. But it’s the Doctor, so it’s never “merely.” And I think SEK’s pointing out that a modern hero in tweed and a bowtie is more than a bit of an anomaly, except in Britain, where a Doctor who wasn’t a natty dresser would be almost offensive.

      • SEK

        Or, perhaps more plausibly, is he merely wearing tweed and a bowtie while threatening a space ship?

        It’s about being powerless, but for the ability to speechify, a trick he’ll whip out again in the post I’m writing in the other window.

        • It’s what might be an ordinary milktoast turning out to be something extraordinary, after all. That really happens, sometimes; it just usually doesn’t involve flying, super-human strength, and a seriously gay, form-hugging costume.

          • rea

            a seriously gay, form-hugging costume.

            No, seriously, I’ve been to a lot of gay bars, not to mention coffee shops and bookstores, and I’ve never, ever once seen anyone dressed like that.

            • Njorl

              Perhaps he meant gay as in “festive”. Superman does wear bright and cheerful colors.

              • I’m a she. I meant “gay” the way kids use it to day which— if I understand it correctly— does mean exceedingly festive, campy, or sappy

        • mds

          “I. AM. TALKING!”

          Yeah, definitely his primary superpower.

      • Malaclypse

        where a Doctor who wasn’t a natty dresser would be almost offensive.

        Ahem.

        • dangermouse

          Filed under “not making the point you think you are”

  • If not the dead center, then, close enough. Let me explain: as Michael Land and Benjamin Tatler in Looking and Acting: Vision and Eye Movements in Natural Behavior, humans have “a bias towards looking at and near the centre of screens and monitors rather than their margins [and] because photographers tend to place objects of interest at the centre of the viewfinder … salience will tend to be higher in the centre of the scenes used in many eye movement experiments

    Utter bullshit.

    Rule of Thirds, Land and Tatler. Look it up. No actor in his right mind, except in an ubercloseup, wants to be dead center frame. The human eye reads left to right in visuals. Dead center in frame is the single most boring spot, visually.

    Now, you can make the case in the still SEK pulled that the Doctor is the primary focus of attention and you’d be wrong: he’s looking at his clothes, which is where *our* attention is meant to be drawn.

    And the clothes are almost precisely at the intersection of 2/3 from left of frame and 2/3 from top of frame.

    Rule of thirds, for the win.

    • And actor212 for the epic tag fail.

      • SEK

        You Rule of Thirds folks are basically a cult at this point. (He says lovingly.) In all seriousness, most of the work that’s been done with eyeballs and lasers vindicates the idea that after a cut our eyes “settle” or “reset” to dead center, then follow eyeline matches or pronounced activity as needs be. You’re welcome to continue to argue this point with me, but remember, I’m aligned with people who have lasers.

        • Bah! I have a hidden camera in your office.

          • By the way, rule of thirds doesn’t not refer to lengths…

        • aligned with people who have lasers

          Isn’t that kinda dangerous?

          • Not so long as you stand behind them, no.

            • mds

              Lasers, bah. I’m aligned with people who have sonics.

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