Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Something old, something new

I spend a lot of time re-watching movies. Probably more than I should, considering how many titles I need to catch up on. But this practice occasionally leads to great experiences, like catching something in a movie that I hadn't noticed in any of the previous umpteenth viewings. One of these moments happened today, after again putting on Once Upon a Time in the West.

As a visual storyteller, Sergio Leone is one of the best in film history, and in watching his movies you start to notice how every detail of his frame is done deliberately to paint a broader picture of his characters and storylines. Nothing happens by accident in Leone's frames, and I found another example of this skill today. Jill's arrival at the train station in Flagstone has no actual dialog (just background chatter), but in this scene we see a woman who starts to learn that her fairy tale wedding is starting to unravel. We also see that Jill has traveled very far to arrive in Flagstone, where her life will start anew.

It's this last detail that I missed upon all previous viewings. Later in the movie Jill explains she's from New Orleans, where she met Brett McBain, but there's actually a visual clue at the train station about her journey's origin. After wandering in confusion waiting for her promised escort to pick her up at the station, Jill looks for answers, and her gaze finds a clock.

After reading the time on the clock, Jill glances down at her own timepiece.

And this only brings her more frustration.

It seems hard to miss now, but up until this viewing I had never noticed that Leone was showing us how Jill was still on New Orleans time. Before telling us she traveled from New Orleans, it's apparent she traveled a great distance, because her timepiece is over two hours off. It would have been easy to establish her origin with a throwaway line of dialog, but with this visual we see Jill's confusion and frustration through her eyes. "Where am I? And what the hell am I doing here? How will I ever get back to New Orleans?"

Another visual marvel from this sequence is Leone placing Jill next to the train's unloaded cargo. In this shot she appears to be just another piece of merchandise or luggage, an object she no doubt feels like at this very moment.


TALKING MOVIEzzz said...
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wiec? said...

when i was in college i went to party and we played a drinking game to this movie. every shot in the movie that focused on someone having a drink (be it water or booze) or being served a drink you had take a slug.

it's a long movie. and there is a lot of serving and drinking water shots in there. so many in fact i cringe every time i rewatch it. reminds me of on of the worst hangovers i ever had and i only made it halfway through.

it's jill mcbain's fault. every time someone dropped by to see her she gave them some water. never mind that scene at the end with the railroad worker. can anyone say alcohol poisoning?

Anonymous said...

CU shots of clocks and other timepieces have to be among the most versatile cutaways for editors and directors. You can cut to almost anyone, anything before or after that. Or show an actor look at her watch, cut to a CU of the timepiece, and then back to the actor's face but with a changed expression, and there's already a story forming...someone's about to arrive, someone is late, something is about to occur, something has been forgotten, or something far more interesting is going on like you've shown us here. Great stuff.

Adam Ross said...

Moviezzz -- part of it has to do with how anal I am with my DVDs. I feel like I have to watch them to justify why I own them.

evil -- Wow, I would never attempt a drinking game with any movie that flirts with 180 minutes! As for your hangover, you should have taken Cheyenne's advice: "Just pretend it's nothing."

Thom -- good point, a shot of a clock always means something, I don't know how I missed Leone's meaning of this sequence earlier.

elgringo said...

I once participated in a one-man drinking game where I had to take a drink every time a Beatles song played. Turns out, whoever chose the music for Across the Universe really dug the moptops. Three days later, I woke up.