Sunday, April 22, 2012

TOP 10 SHOTS from "Martha Marcy May Marlene"

Apologies for the two day delay, but I deeply had my work cut out for myself when I took on this week's Top 10 Shots piece, mostly because I had to figure out something appropriate for the week, despite "Bombay Beach" being unavailable for relation to "Mayley", another documentary of exceptional cinematography. That fell through, so I thought long and hard on what to branch out to, and there's really nothing out this weekend that even connects to something of strong enough quality for dissection. So I turned my gaze towards something outside the realm of theatrical cinema, and instead went towards the world of television for guidance, as many of us often do.

You may already have heard about "Girls", Lena Dunham's television debut after having success with "Tiny Furniture" on the indie market. I felt somewhat compelled to seek out "Tiny Furniture" itself, but it apparently takes time to get Criterion DVDs shipped out to the local library. Who knew? That might have been the end of it, but the cinematographer on both Dunham's series and film had another prolific cinematography venture this past year in the form of "Martha Marcy May Marlene", directed by Sean Durkin. So if you haven't seen the film, I caution SPOILERS TO ALERT, since I will be getting into details about the film following the jump. In other words, GET THE FUCK OUT THERE AND SEE IT!

Anyhow, figuring out exactly what film I wanted to break down was only the start of my worries. Sitting down for "Martha Marcy May Marlene" took some time, simply because it's a heart strangling film that borders on the edge of horror. Even more than that, Jody Lee Lipes' cinematography is vast and extremely impressionable, mostly in accordance with multiple shots edited together seamlessly, but also chillingly drawn out takes that work to build this tension, either within the ongoing story, or between characters. Even between the audience at points, which makes it all the more of a desperate choke hold. Getting it down to twenty was suffering enough. It took long deliberation to bring it to ten, and I can only hope it paid off.

10. Gun in the Forrest

This was a shot that stuck out as massively dynamic from the moment it came out as the defining shot from the film at the time of Sundance. It's a moment that the trailers did nothing to hide, and in fact did much to display proudly as definitive turning point. Ensconced in the middle of the forest, Marcy May, as she's now known regular as, is given some gun lessons by noticeably perverted Max, only for Patrick to enter and take the lead. The lighting is harshly uneven, with the bright lit areas behind them only emphasizing how murky the part of the woods they're in is. It's a moment of deep tension, even though there isn't much real risk. It's tension between characters, those who wish to head out in the light, and those who choose to stay willingly in the dark. Or if nothing else, it's thoughtfully layered composition amongst many.

9. Surveying View

There are several shots in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" that exist primarily for the purpose of showing, which isn't a knock against them, and in fact they do a lot more than just show. Take this one for example, seemingly innocuous, and indeed it is daily business as usual, but it moves across the farm slowly with a surveying view that everyone is aware of. Personal conflict is made available for everyone to see, and in the way of this cult that works in the context of their "family". And then we slowly slide across to the arrival of the newest recruit, to be taken up by Marcy May this time. It's a slow frame, but one that informs through the utmost simplicity.  

8. Behind Glass Walls

Coming on in the more "present" timeline of the film, depending on your subjective viewpoint, this is one of plenty moments that push forward the paranoia of the film, if it is indeed paranoia. The audio does a lot to aid the effect of this scene, with Martha and Lucy's voices barely audible through the glass, but the ring of the telephone crystal clear like a sounding alarm. Visually, the camera is placed on the inside of the house, and physically our characters are on the outside, but Martha's attention is very much gravitated inside. Her perspective isn't with her body, but with her fears.

7. Distanced Sisters

A lot of work is done to define the relationship between Martha and Lucy, like the scene of the two of them on the steps, largely aided through the use of dialogue, and it gives us indication of how they were before Martha's disappearance. The visual element of the film that gives strongest definition to their relationship, however, is one that appears very early on, after Lucy decline's Martha's offer for her to come swimming with them. The shot hovers on her for several seconds, shiveringly unmoving in her current stance as Martha walks at a distance down the steps. Lucy is given the opportunity to bridge the gap between them, and she selfishly declines.

6. Fractured Shadow

The nature of the cult that Martha/Marcy May joins is given at first very accessible boundaries, of people who are trying to create a way of life separate from society and those prerequisites that come from the simple act of birth. That understanding becomes stranger as the film goes on, with the first major indication being Martha losing her virginity via a drugged up daze allowing Patrick complete and total dominance. The strongest externalization of what happens to the girls in the group is shown in a carefully lit shot that shows one of the girls approaching Marcy May afterwards. Marcy's shadow remain intact, but the shadow of the girl who comes in is fractured in to. It's a sort of foreshadowing for what this cult does to Martha's psyche and sense of personality.

5. No Boundaries

What isn't especially an intuitive shot visually is an extremely relevant shot contextually within what's happening. There are two men in the cult that are given essential relevance in Marcy's life there, the obvious one being Patrick himself. The second is Watts, whom we see visit Marcy in the diner at the start of the film, and willingly leave. The person we're shown in that moment is somebody of slight sympathy for her situation, and we're given some articulation of why with this scene of them making love. But what we see is Patrick peering overhead, jealously, and the cult's veneer of self-sustaining individualism is shattered in the wake of his sexual dominance and superiority over the group.

4. Treading Water

One of two effective shots in terms of expansion and contraction through the lens of the camera, the first being the shot early on of Martha entering into the woods, and the camera widening to show the immensity of it. I opted out of that one due to its similarity to a shot I used for my critique of "Antichrist". But this shot is no less effective, and is in fact even more so. You could remember it being used in Kris Tapley's Top 10 Shots column for 2011, and my reasoning is much the same. It evokes the incredibly choking atmosphere of the film, and how the lens is almost breathing heavily of its own accord. The next cut gives an effective jolt, whether it's real or an evocation of Martha's state of mind, but it's augmented by this incredible shot.

3. They're Coming

This may be the most effective shot of the film in terms of pure paranoia and confusion regarding whatever the hell is going on at this point in the film. We're used to the film jumping forwards and backwards through Martha's memory at this point, and whenever we see a house in the woods, it's so easy for us to believe that it's Lucy's house. This works on multiple occasions, but this one most intensely. We see a house lit at night, make the previous assumption, and the entrance of shadowy figures approaching the house gives a sudden gasp of fear that things are finally unfolding for them. And then we see that Marcy May is part of that caravan. This is a different house, but the shot works every time.

2. "He just came out of nowhere."

The concluding shot of the film, and one that works greatly due to the subtle and articulated pacing of how it happens. We don't see Lucy or Ted in the front seat driving, and are instead just given an immediate look dead on at Martha's face, and the space behind her. A man comes out of nowhere, and we see him stumble back to his car, as Martha looks back. As she looks forward, there's an odd look on her face, but one that doesn't at all have to do with fear. We've seen that before. It seems more of acceptance of whatever happens, even if we the audience don't get that same feeling. All we see is the image of that car behind them slowly approaching closer and closer. And then we don't see what happens next.

1. Not Far Behind

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a calculated struggle for Martha/Marcy May to realize her own identity, not within either the contexts of the cult or the context of her sisters' home. An early shot on in the film, not far off from the previously stated shot of her walking into the woods, is this frantic shaky-cam take that disorients, but not to a degree that's incessantly attempting to disorient the viewer to a point of nausea. Martha is running frantically, not at top speed, and it may be all that she is able to muster, but she's desperately trying to shake the view of the camera, as if it were another pursuer. She is running to shake off everything that isn't her. The complexity of the title is that all of those are names given to her. None of them ARE her.

So, what do you think of my picks, and what are yours? Comment below! Yes, the next one will be on time this Friday!


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