The Dinglehopper

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The Coen Brothers’ Masterful Use of Shot/Reverse Shot

It’s probably the most used sequence of shot types in film: shot, then the reverse. A shot showing a character looking at something, then the reverse to show what they’re looking at. A shot to show a character speaking to someone, then a reverse to show how the other person responds. It’s a sequence practically invisible to audiences due it’s ubiquity and familiarity.


But the nuances of it’s use will make or break a film, defining it’s pacing and tone. In his most recent Every Frame a Painting, Tony Zhou analyzes the masterful use of shot/reverse shot in Coen Brothers films. He examines their framing and timing of cuts among other things that differentiate their use from more amateurish examples, including from a film they wrote but didn’t direct. As always, Zhou’s insight and affability make his video essays edifying and entertaining. Check it out.

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Buster Keaton – The Art of the Gag

Tony Zhou, creator behind the series Every Frame a Painting, is one of my very favorite video essayists. A few months back, he made a video exploring Buster Keaton, one of the great silent comedians along with Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. I frequently use Keaton’s One Week or The General in my film class, because, despite being a century old, the humor holds up. Keaton’s charm continues to engage and his stunts are still smile-inducing. This semester, I’ll get to deepen the students’ understanding with Tony’s insightful examination.

Zhou starts by establishing how the elements of Keaton’s comedy continue to inspire and influence comedians today, from Chuck Jones to Jackie Chan to Wes Anderson to Bill Murray. Then he breaks down the importance of camera placement for the gag to work. This is largely because Keaton’s gag world is flat, and the rules are of a flat world. Additionally, what’s outside of the frame is not only not visible to the audience, they’re also not visible to the characters in the film. Lastly, Keaton did his own stunts and was devoted to doing it once without cutting to create a vitality to the gag. If it felt too practiced, the stunt wouldn’t charm the audience. All his stunts were real, and they’re just as impressive now as they were then.

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Chuck Jones–The Evolution of an Artist

ChuckJonesOnce again, I say, hooray for Tony Zhou, the video essayist extraordinaire behind the series Every Frame a Painting. His most recent creation is a look at one of the greatest animators of all time and a favorite from my childhood: Chuck Jones. His Looney Tunes cartoons were a Saturday morning staple and the basis of my sense of humor.

What Zhou is truly great at is dissecting comedy–not an easy or even advisable thing to do. Here he sets up how Jones developed the characters from their early forms to the more advanced, deepened selves and how comedy extended out of those characters.

The video not only shows the development of an artist, it’s also a wonderful reminder of how great classic Looney Tunes is. It may also inadvertently suggest just how inane those Minions are. Sadly, Looney Tunes isn’t streaming on Netflix or Hulu, but if you’d like to have a flashback-Saturday, pour yourself a bowl of your favorite sugar cereal and get settled for this four hour block of The Tunes.

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In Praise of Chairs: A Video Essay on Mise-en-Scene

juno chair 2Tony Zhou never calls it mise-en-scene, but that’s what production design falls under–the setting of the stage in a film or play. Here he develops the ways production design can help an audience understand setting, tone, mood, character, and situation. He doesn’t talk so much about production design at large but focuses on the oft taken for granted chair. As he does in all of his videos, Zhou takes a concept that can be complex and distills it to simple understanding.

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Drive and the Quadrant System

drive-movie-poster-02We reviewed Drive back in our Married to Max days. I appreciated it more than Michael because I was taken in by the neo-noir, pastel, Vice City style of it. But I had a hard time really nailing down what might have been so striking about it.

As he often does these days, Tony Zhou has an answer for me now in his most recent Every Frame a Painting. In it he examines the way that director Nicolas Winding Refn uses quadrants of the screen to create relationships, dualities, and meaning. 

In the shot below, Irene shows the Driver her apartment. The quadrant system highlights two things: on the right-left axis, it shows her considering her attraction to the Driver; on the top-bottom axis, to shows the dilemma of this attraction–the Driver in conflict with her absent husband and the child they have together. The top half tells the story of her current attraction while the bottom half tells the story of her responsibilities. drive balanced

I’ve traditionally understood the screen like any composition, with the Rule of Thirds being tantamount to placement choices for actors and props of significance. But it would make sense that directors would flex and break this rule for a variety of surprising effects.rule_of_thirds_in_Rear_Window

In addition to that, many cinematographers and directors seek to balance their shots between left, right, top, bottom, foreground, and background. But what Zhou shows in this short video essay is just how deliberate and surprising the compositional choices are in Drive. Check it out.

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‘The Geometry of a Scene’ Highlights Akira Kurosawa’s Cinematic Vision

I’m a Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting devotee, and since I’m suffering some gastroenteritis, his new entry in the series will be filling in for a more substantial post. But as always, he delivers a thoughtful look at what makes a film great versus meh.

bad sleep well

In this one, Zhou shows a quick look at two Hollywood films up for Best Picture Awards: The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, and he points out how uncreatively the scenes are shot, moving from simple coverage to close up to close up. He then compares that to a scene done by Akira Kurosawa, famed great Japanese film-maker. In Kurosawa’s work the mise-en-scene and blocking are used to create geometric shapes that shift and change to draw the eye deliberately to important spots in the composition. The effect is fluid, a deft movement from one spot to another without the boring cutting of classic Hollywood.

It’s worth checking out, to be sure.

Bonus: I found out that The Bad Sleep Well is Kurosawa’s Hamlet adaptation. Perhaps my students will be watching this after the AP exam this year.


Analysis of Snowpiercer Part I: The Ending

This is the post with all the spoilers. If you want to take a look at my spoiler-free review, go here. Otherwise, know this is for people who have seen the film. If you haven’t, it’s currently streaming on Netflix Instant, so go watch it already.

It’s difficult to know what to start with. The film linearly progresses from the tail-section to the engine, but information is doled out in almost a reverse order so that each piece reverberates back onto earlier parts of the film. This is just one of the ways Bong Joon-ho suggests that this linearity is a false, limiting construct.

The Ending

Classic Hollywood action movie ending with heroes victorious, eating schwarma.

Classic Hollywood action movie ending with heroes victorious, eating schwarma.

I was so struck by the film-making in Snowpiercer, it initially didn’t occur to me that others might not be so arrested with it. But this is not a film made for an audience expecting a classic Hollywood narrative. The biggest divergence is that the ending is ambiguous–Curtis’s revolution fails. In a classic Hollywood film, that wouldn’t be the case. Even if we kept the reveal Wilford gives that he and Gilliam had orchestrated this rebellion, and the revolts that came before it, Curtis would still kill Wilford, take the mantle as the new leader, and somehow reinvent the train’s class system. But how would the train keep going without children hidden in its innards working as the now unobtainable part? And perhaps that’s the question that keeps Curtis from attempting such an endeavor–in the end, the train is the train, and there are things he can’t change about it. Gilliam taught him that exploiting children (practically babies, after all) wasn’t acceptable to maintain the lives of adults, that it’s all just feeding on the weak to make the strong fatter. Curtis has taken this lesson to heart, and holds it as his touchstone even after he finds out Gilliam wasn’t the man he thought he was.

“The writers, I do believe, who get the best and most lasting response from readers are the writers who offer a happy ending through moral development. By a happy ending, I do not mean mere fortunate events–a marriage or a last-minute rescue from death–but some kind of spiritual reassessment or moral reconciliation, even with the self, even at death.” (Fay Weldon, writer and literary critic)

So Snowpiercer’s ending doesn’t offer a traditional happy ending, but it does offer a moral reassessment and reconciliation and a smidge of hope. Curtis finds out that his revolution is all part of the system of inequality, but he makes a choice to literally become a wrench preventing the proper movement of the system by sticking his arm in the works to save Timmy, thus living up to his ideals. It is a personal victory, and a statement of faith in humanity by Bong Joon-ho, though it doesn’t save anyone but Timmy and Kona. He finally gives up his arm, as he had wanted to after meeting Gilliam and becoming cannibalistic because of the horrible conditions the survivors in the tail suffered before Wilford gave them the protein bars.

In many ways, the ending’s level of satisfaction is all about Curtis making the “right” decision. I emphasize “right” here because Bong Joon-ho makes deliberate camera placement choices to keep the tail-section to the left side of the screen and the engine to the right. Tony Zhou’s video essay explains this better than I ever could.

But Curtis’s decision to destroy the train rests on an entirely different set of symbols and information. He’s been so trapped in the tail/engine dichotomy, he has failed to truly notice what else there is. The middle of the train and the outside. The former literally offers a window to the latter–and ultimately a path. Evan Puschak, aka Nerdwriter, offers another outstanding Understanding Art House video essay on Snowpiercer that explains the sight, color, and lighting aspects that emphasize this path to the outside.

Namgoong, the gate-maker, has been a middle-section dweller during his time on the train. He’s had access to the windows, was taught by an Inuit woman the many types of snow and ice, and now sees signs that the snow is melting. As Curtis’s group moves through the middle-section cars, he teaches his daughter a new truth: what dirt is, that the airplane is more visible, that life is returning to Earth.

snowpiercer2His final plea to Curtis is that he look beyond the gates–the doors that maintain the social hierarchy–to the one gate that matters, the gate to the outside. He tells Curtis what he’s seen but does not include one last detail, a detail so grand and improbable that Curtis would likely think Namgoong’s whole theory was induced by his drug addiction. But in light of what Curtis learns about the requirements of keeping the train running, Namgoong’s faith that the outside can sustain human life (a faith he trusts his daughter’s life to) is enough for Curtis to put his support behind. The two of them shield Yona and Timmy from the explosion blast, sacrificing themselves and society for a chance to start anew without the class/car barriers.

yona timmyWhen Yona and Timmy set off outside from the burning wreckage of the train, we finally see what Namgoong likely saw–a polar bear. The sighting of the polar bear means that life is already on Earth again in an advanced form. As an apex hunter, the polar bear indicates that all of the animal and plant species required for its survival are also around: seals, fish, fauna, algae. While Yona and Timmy’s survival isn’t assured in the ending, all indications point to a hopeful remaking of humanity. His daughter is clairvoyant, a foreknowledge which might trump her lack of experience in the outside world. Timmy is fast-thinking and fleet-footed. Although we don’t see other train survivors, they have to exist if two people who were closest to the blast survived. And while many parts of the train plummeted into ravines, there are still resources of shelter, fire, and food on the train to get them going. No guarantees, but the inequity of survival on Snowpiercer wasn’t fixable within that closed system, nor was it worth surviving for. Humans would be better off opening the door to the outside and starting again.

Coming Up! What’s up with the fish? Plus the brilliance of casting Chris Evans as Curtis.

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How to Do Action Comedy Like Jackie Chan

Each semester I go through my Film class rosters by asking each student to tell me the best movie they’ve seen this year. Invariably, the hot choice will be the latest superhero action or action comedy flick. It’s not surprising–they’re 16-years-old, after all–and these are the films that entertain them. Still, I often smile outwardly at their picks and shake my head inwardly, trying to figure out how I might elevate their taste and expectations for “great” films.

I have, more than once, turned to the illuminating videos done by Tony Zhou for just this purpose. I especially love his video on Edgar Wright’s visual comedy. Now he’s done a video on how to do action comedy, and I can’t wait to show my students when Winter Break ends.

I first encountered Jackie Chan in Rumble in the Bronx in 1995. His martial artistry and kinetic choreography just blew me away. I hadn’t really dipped my toes yet into the martial arts movie waters, but I knew I wanted to see more of Jackie Chan. I went on to Drunken Master and Drunken Master 2, both of which are action comedy gold. But I still didn’t really know what I was looking at. Nearly 20 years later, Tony Zhou has put his finger on what makes Chan’s movies, especially the Hong Kong-produced ones, superior to the action comedies of Hollywood.

What interested me especially is Zhou’s discussion of editing in fight scenes and that in Chan’s martial arts films, he breaks continuity editing rules, doubling back on the action just a little bit so that each punch can be seen in full to be viscerally effective.

To see the films’ titles as Zhou talks about them, turn on the CC feature.



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On David Fincher and What He Doesn’t Do

Gone-Girl-PosterWe have desires to see David Fincher’s new film Gone Girl, though we have not yet wrangled the time or babysitter to do so. Fincher has directed some of our favorite films, including Fight Club and The Social Network, and I hold him up as one of the greatest working directors. I shall quote him again with this filmmaking gem:

There’s potentially a hundred different ways to shoot something but at the end of the day there’s really only two, and one of them is wrong.

But sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint what a director does to create the style and effects of their shots and overall film. That’s where a veteran film critic and analyst like Tony Zhou is so helpful.

I’m a fan of his Every Frame a Painting series, and this week he focused on Fincher’s ever more restrained directing hand. It is illuminating, as always.