(Actual Part the First can be found here.)
The answer to the question of why some films are more re-watchable than others seems, to me, a matter of unpredictability of shot selection. We can all watch episodes of Law & Order half-asleep because we all know that any close-up of one character’s face will reverse to a close-up of his or her interlocutor’s. (The possibility of deviating from the script-bible is basically asymptotic: the staleness of the formula makes it look increasingly likely but it can’t ever actually happen.) And despite my general objections to Fellowship I’ll admit that its iconic scenes are rightly remembered because Peter Jackson bucked his horror roots and embraced an unpredictability that verges on randomness. To wit, consider the scene-setting that preceded Gandalf’s most infamous exclamation, which begins half-way through the mines of Moria with a close-up on Gandalf:
Did I say “close-up”? I meant “extreme close-up,” because Jackson’s lopped off the top of his head. That might not seem so important, but consider it in more mundane terms, for example, if this were a picture you took of a friend at a party. How happy would your friend be with a photograph in which he’d been a “bit” beheaded? How would you feel about framing your friend’s face such that it shared the spotlight with a few lines of mortar and some unfocused negative space? This shot feels wrong because it violates the conventions that makes Law & Order and the like such successful soporifics. It’s an ugly and unbalanced shot, but I’d wager it’s meant to discomfit, if only because Jackson’s going to repeat it so frequently in the next three minutes that this is the last time I’m going to mention it. Just remember that it’s wrong to borrow chunks of people’s heads for rhetorical effect. From here Jackson cuts to Frodo:
I’m not even going to say it, but you see it. The expectation here is three-fold: you assume that this shot’s going to be followed by 1) an eye-line match, 2) a point of view shot, and 3) a reverse shot, and you’re not disappointed:
But because you assumed that this would be a reverse shot, you also assumed that you’d reverse back to your point of origin, Frodo, so that you could gauge his reaction to what you’ve just observed while cohabitating his head. Only:
Jackson upset the implicit continuity of the reverse shot in order to make it more difficult for us to predict shot sequence. This might not seem like such a significant achievement, but that’s only because you underestimate the power of convention. Imagine you’re watching a medical procedural in which a doctor, in a medium close-up, addresses an ill patient and says “Blah blah blah kidney transplant.” You’d expect a reverse shot of the patient, possibly in a close-up to better capture the pain of this revelation, but what if instead of that you were hitched into a roller coaster backwards and yanked thousands of feet into the air? Because that’s what Jackson does when he violently zooms from Gandalf’s face to, well, this:
The screen shots don’t do it justice. Few currently available experiences are comparable to the ride Jackson subjects you to there outside of 47 seconds into this, and even though your mind knows you’re just watching a movie, your eyes and brain are subject to a few hundred thousand more years of evolution and react differently. You may not be scared for your life, but you’re not entirely comfortable with your current perspective. Jackson will exploit this feature of perspectival preference for the remainder of this scene, much of which will involve placing the viewer in places no one not named “Clark Kent” can achieve. But he won’t do that quite yet:
He yanks you thousands of feet into the air, then punches you in the face by following that shot with a medium close-up of some hobbits looking frame-left. Note that when he was previously mid-air panning he was drawing your eye to the right, and that when he cuts to this shot, he knows your eyes will re-set frame-center, find nothing, focus on action, see Sam glancing backwards, and then follow his eyes to whatever they’ll be matched to. In short, he’s directed your eyes right-right-right, then center, then center-left, then left-left-left, then:
Here, to a canted shot, presumably from Sam’s point of view, of whatever’s following. It’s canted because some people aren’t that bright and hadn’t gathered that the Fellowship might be in a tight spot. Or because Jackson wanted to marry content and form in such a way that the knowledge of the narrative peril was heightened by the manner in which it was depicted. For our purposes, all that matters is that when he’s using conventional sequences (like eye-line matches) he’s doing so in a dictatorial fashion, yanking our eyes from one side of the screen to other with a disregard bordering on callousness. But when he’s not using conventional sequences, he’s creating an environment of uncertainty of the sort I mentioned at the beginning of the post: because there’s little logic in the shot sequence, the film becomes more re-watchable simply because it defies our defaults. For example, what do you think follows the above eye-line match from Sam’s point of view? Back to Sam?
For fuck’s sake, really? Three quick edits followed by a head-level camera gently drifting rightward to capture the action? Speeding us up and slowing us down, are you, bartender? Serving us the cinematic equivalent of vodka and Red Bull, so now we’re—wait—we’re not feeling so good. Weren’t we level-headed with Gandalf before that CGI column obstructed our view? We were, and now we’re still following the Fellowship, only from a lower angle of framing, and—
That’s the ceiling. We’re lying with our backs to the floor, aren’t we? We most certainly are. It’s difficult to tell with the screen shots, but if you look at the film itself, it’s clear that as we passed behind the CGI column Jackson tripped us because that’s the fucking ceiling. But at least now we know where we are and can predict what shot’ll come next. We’ll get a slightly low-angled shot of the fellowship abandoning us to our inevitable—
Or Jackson’ll take a page from New Age out-of-body narratives and hover us a half-mile above our proxied body like the ignorant chump he’s proving us to be with every subsequent shot. Why is this sequence (and what follows) so re-watchable? Because even if you break it down before a class so often you think you can reconstruct it in your sleep, convention is the default, and you can’t escape it. So every time you watch it, you think you’ll know what it’ll be like, and every time you watch it, you’re wrong.
Tomorrow I’ll finish this up by writing more about how uncomfortable Superman’s director’s boots are and why wizards are more intimidating than 500 foot tall fire monsters.