Spot that halo!
November 12, 2010 3:16 AM   Subscribe

What are some interesting visual juxtapositions to look out for in films?

A while ago I noticed that some film-makers have great fun doing shots where a character is "accidentally" crowned by a halo. That is, they're positioned so that a ceiling light or a basketball hoop produces a halo shape above their head. Sometimes it's used ironically, sometimes to reinforce the "goodness" of the character.

Ever since I noticed I've been on the lookout for this. What are some other juxtapositions of this kind that crop up in films?
posted by Zarkonnen to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I've seen a character posed as Jesus on a cross (arms outstretched) in a few movies. The end (or near to) of Pearl Harbor has such a scene.
posted by backwards guitar at 4:11 AM on November 12, 2010

Best answer: Any director worth his or her salt will pack meaning into the composition of the frame. The term you're looking for is mise en scene.

I think the most extraordinary directors are the ones that do this with subtlety, and in my opinion, John Ford was among the best at it. Observe Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine. Look at how the line of bar sweeps directly across the frame and right into his body. The lamps above send a line straight into his head. It's like the entire town of Tombstone is aiming a gun at him.

Or look at this shot in How Green Was My Valley. The preacher has just performed a marriage between the girl he loves and a cold rich man. He alone stands in the graveyard as they ride off to their honeymoon. The townspeople are in the lower right corner of the frame celebrating, gazing at a couple that is conspicuously out of the frame.

I think some of his best visual work occurs at the beginning of The Searchers. A door opens to the harsh, beautiful, and threatening West, and out of it rides a wild man still clothed in Confederate garb years after the end of the war. Indoors is safety, civilization, and family. Out of doors is something else entirely. And in the end, we see that he never will choose to join this civilization.
posted by TrialByMedia at 4:23 AM on November 12, 2010 [8 favorites]

When there's conflict between two people, when they're both in the frame there will be a vertical line between them (standing lamp, window frame, tree, etc.). Or, one of the two in conflict, particularly the one you're to sympathize with, will be framed in some way to isolate them from the surrounding area (standing in a doorframe, in front of the only tapestry on a blank wall, etc.) It's something I can no longer unsee in film and TV.

Trial By Media has it as a whole: those sort of juxtapositions are everywhere in film, and those that you're consciously aware of are either intentionally acute or are the work of hamhandedness.
posted by AzraelBrown at 4:42 AM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

All I can think of is every single frame of Citizen Kane. There are so many examples, I wouldn't know where to start, but hell, I'm not the only one who feels this way. I'd be more than happy never watching any other movie, ever.
posted by dbiedny at 5:35 AM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I never heard any reference to this being on purpose, but in Superman: the Movie (1978), almost every shot (if not every shot) of the adolescent Clark Kent in Smallville has a moment where his head in the sky/clouds. Even the scene at night where he is in his bedroom and looks out his window to notice something in the barn.
posted by sandra_s at 7:13 AM on November 12, 2010

I believe the director's commentary on Fight Club has some discussion of this sort of thing. Shots from specific angles to make one character seem small/weak, other stuff like that.
posted by inigo2 at 8:43 AM on November 12, 2010

Look out for the spiritual opposite of the halo, devil's horns. Off the top of my head, so to speak, this occurs in Wallace and Gromit:The Curse of the Wererabbit, and doubtless elsewhere...
posted by nicktf at 11:36 AM on November 12, 2010

Minority Report, Blade Runner and Coraline are all packed with this sort of rebus like narrative. The first two minutes of each of these wonderful movies, the director gives you the whole narrative in pictures before a word is spoken.
posted by effluvia at 1:41 PM on November 12, 2010

I should have posted this* instead of the still this morning. But, look at this. You don't need any dialogue to understand what's happening here. And the last image, as the elevator rises out of the mine: The preacher is a cross, and the child cradling his dead father is the Pieta.

*Music is not from the film score.
posted by TrialByMedia at 2:03 PM on November 12, 2010

On potential thing to look for in films is what happens when you see a character for the first time.
- what angle are they shot at, and are they big or small in relation to the frame?
- what objects or scenery surround their first appearance?
- where are they coming into view from, if they move into the frame?
- what does their clothing say about them?

Maybe that's kind of trite stuff, but I think most directors are very conscious of using visual language to give the audience a first impression of a character, and I think you can learn a lot of mise en scene tricks and practices by observing that.
posted by chaff at 6:24 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

About halfway though The Exorcist, Detective Kinderman visits Chris MacNeil to ask if it's possible that her friend Burke Dennings (recently found dead at the foot of the stone steps outside her house) may have been in Regan's room the night of his death. They sit at McNeil's dining table and drink coffee. In the room behind them, and between them, there's an open doorway, a black rectangle. As they talk, MacNeil realises, with dawning horror, that her daughter may have thrown Denning from the window and murdered him—but she conceals this from Kinderman, offering him more coffee.

I've never heard anyone make this observation before—and it's possible my reading is completely wrong—but whenever I see this scene I think: the black rectangle is Pazuzu.
posted by hot soup girl at 8:07 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

In Scorsese's "After Hours," the protagonist gets into a yellow-black checkered taxi at the beginning of the movie which leads him into surreal nightmare world. Visually (in a sense), the whole movie takes place in the taxi, as its colors (yellow and black) are repeated in nearly every shot, sometimes strikingly. Look at Catherine O'Hara's shirt, here:

The diner counter here:

Most strikingly, Teri Garr's dress and sofa, at 00:30 here:
posted by grumblebee at 7:33 AM on November 13, 2010

Speaking of color, watch Helen Mirren's dress as she walks from the bathroom to the dining room in "The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover," starting 30 seconds into this clip:
posted by grumblebee at 7:44 AM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Same transformation in reverse at 5:00 in that clip.
posted by grumblebee at 7:45 AM on November 13, 2010

This scene from Kubrick's "Lolita" has really fun visuals once Shelley Winters and James Mason wind up in bed together, with the photo of Lolita on one side and the gun on the other side. Kubrick stages a fun little farce with verbal and visual gags.

In general, people don't think of "Lolita" when they think of Kubrick's visuals, because it's not grandiose like "2001" or "The Shining," but nearly every scene has clever visual jokes that are cinematic equivalents of Nabokov's wordplay.

Look at the choreography that starts at 8:18, here:
posted by grumblebee at 7:54 AM on November 13, 2010

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