11 July 2012

BEST SHOT: ROAD TO PERDITION

First off, the pitch: if you aren't playing along with Hit Me with Your Best Shot at The Film Experience (a rhetorical flourish; given that only some half-dozen bloggers in various permutations have contributed to the last three entries, I am well aware that you aren't), you're missing out. It is one of the most consistently fun things I've done all summer as a blogger. It encourages one to watch new movies or revisit old flings with an eye to thinking about how they work as visual art; when it works well, it means you are part of a dialogue involving several other film writers you might not otherwise have had contact with; it (and this is maybe the best part) is an easy way to come up with content, because what blog-runner hasn't had a day where coming up with an idea for a post was the very hardest part?

The point being: the series is potentially on its last legs: Nathaniel R is currently looking to set an end-date for this season, and it depends on how much activity there is for the next couple of weeks; meanwhile, the very existence of a season 4 is entirely dependent upon how many people join in between now and whatever August Wednesday is the finale. So come on! If you have a blog and like pretty pictures of movies, you should take part! It is fun, it is easy, and it means I get to do it again next year if we can keep it alive this year. So do it for me.

Anyway, this week, Nathaniel has played a mean trick on we who participate, by selecting Road to Perdition as our movie from which we can select a favorite shot; that same Road to Perdition which was the final project of the the great Conrad L. Hall (who won his third Oscar for his work here) and which is one of the most top-to-bottom pretty movies of the last 25 years, a movie described by a cinematographer friend of mine as the most technically perfect work of cinematography of the 21st Century.

The mean trick is, how do you pick a single best shot? They're all the best shot! You could pick a frame totally at random and trust that it's probably stunning gorgeous and packed with thematic, narrative, or character information. I'll prove it: here's the shot I landed on when I blindly clicked in the middle of the timeline on my video player. It's at 56:17.

I mean, right? That's a fucking flawless shot, and it's totally random, and I didn't even get lucky. It's a movie of shots just as magnificent as that one.

It was almost worth just going with that shot and being done with it, because holy God damn, is it ever pretty. But I decided to watch for something that did have some significant resonance, and I had a particular moment in mind, and here it is, my official though somewhat arbitrary pick for the movie's best shot:

The whole movie is in there: we're watching from the POV of Michael Sullivan, Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), furtively getting a glimpse (from beneath a table, and I absolutely adore how Hall uses the filigree at the bottom of the table to create something akin to a silent-movie style iris) of something menacing and evil that he had been better off not seeing, involving his dad (Tom Hanks). I am happiest not digging into it very much, for story and characters are very much Road to Perdition's weak spot: like pretty much everything in director Sam Mendes's career, what's going on and to whom is far less compelling than the way it's being communicated to us visually. And my word, is it ever being communicated well - the voyeuristic quality of the foreground table legs, and though you cannot see it, a jiggly, furtive shaking of the camera, keyed to little Michael's ragged breathing; the brutally hard film noir key light that promises cruelty and things that are not okay; but unlike a proper noir, it's not carried through, there's a nostalgic poetry to the colors and focus that tie in to how the film renders its dark plot as fable rather than as nihilistic crime drama.

And, y'know, it's crazy damn beautiful. But that goes without saying.

9 comments:

Amir said...

I'm glad to see you've settled on the same shot as I did. Though it's worth mentioning that I cheated (by picking the whole shot-reverse-shot sequence as my favourite) and that your post is, as expected, infinitely more articulate than mine.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I don't trust myself and my reaction to ROAD TO PERDITION to some extent. The very last time I watched it though is the most I've appreciated and yet I find myself (almost involuntarily) reacting against the beauty of its photography.

You're exactly right, of course, that every shot - every single goddamned shot - is gorgeous.

(Which annoyed me on previous viewings somewhat because in a way it suggests - but vaguely - that it's not willing to confront the harsh issues it may or not be addressing, but I' digressing and nitpicking.)

Curiously, I think this is the only movie of Mendes that especially fits your "what's going on and to whom is far less compelling than the way it's being communicated to us visually" which is why it's - maybe - my least favourite film of his, give or take Jarhead. But, I generally like him.

NATHANIEL R said...

I always forget about Jarhead.

tim, thanks for the pitch :)

Road to Perdition has always bugged me for the reasons Andrew just mentioned (which I don't, by the way, think is nitpicking) but i still love the visual information.

Tim said...

Amir- I mean, it's such a key moment, I'm not at all surprised that I wasn't alone. I'll swing by and take a look at your write-up.

Andrew- Where for me, RtP is my "favorite" Mendes film, the scare quotes because I don't really trust any of this movies (the only one I out-and-out dislike is Away We Go). To me they're all surfaces, and he's just not that interested in actually grappling with the people inside - "not willing to confront the harsh issues it may or not be addressing" describes all five of them, for me. And since this one has the best surfaces, that gives it the edge.

It also makes Mendes a fairly brilliant choice to direct a James Bond movie.

Tim said...

Nathaniel- An easy film to forget. And it's my pleasure to pitch as hard as I can, I really do love doing this series.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Nathaniel - I guess I just feel as if I'm nitpicking because the film is so pretty, and for all its effortful ways it obviously was made with thought and dedication, which makes me feel a bit "this is why you can't have nice things" when i want to criticise it for being TOO good-looking.

Tim - I figure it's because I buy (perhaps stretching it) the potential superficial way that American Beauty, Away We Go and Revolutionary Road (especially the latter) might off despite their focus "deep issues" as a sign of the deep issue being avoided as a narrative point, in a way. But, Road to Perdition's narrative isn't trying to make Peter's live pretty, so I tend to question why it IS so pretty....if that makes sense.

dfa said...

Off topic.. Tim, it would be pretty sweet if you did something called "versus" or something, in which you depict two movies which treat the same subject matter; you could start with "Exorcism of Emily Rose" vs "Requiem", two completely different approaches to the same story.. Then there's Antz and A Bug's Life, etcetera.. Just sayin'

Will said...

Tim,

The shot you "randomly" picked could have been my choice, if the rules (I don't know) consider the full duration of the shot. In motion, it's the most innovative push-pull since Goodfellas, and an amazing introduction to Jude Law's figure of anarchy, being belched into being from the underbelly of the city of Chicago.

StephenM said...

Have to say I agree with the consensus here on Sam Mendes. He just feels too slick to have real, most obviously in American Beauty which just seems dishonest, but even here in Road to Perdition, which I really wanted to like, it's all so shallow that it misses the genuine emotion and gut punch it seems to be going for. Someone like Scorsese or De Palma in the 70s would have made it a far more interesting, dark, and powerful film. Nevertheless, it is, as you say, shot beautifully. I like the execution in the rain sequence.