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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The third season of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, one of the most enjoyable projects anywhere in the film blogosphere, starts today, courtesy once again of Nathaniel at Film Experience. To kick things off, he's selected the 1985 medieval romantic fantasy Ladyhawke, inviting anyone who wants to play along to select their favorite image from that movie.

In honor of our good host, a man with a singular love of the actress Michelle Pfeiffer, I'm going to take the liberty of choosing two favorite shots in the categories of Best Shot Overall and Best Shot Primarily Featuring Pfeiffer.

The first of these was a bitch to pick. I was able, relatively early on, to narrow it down to three choices, each of which described a different element of the movie's visual vocabulary, and that is considerable: it was shot by the genius and crazyperson Vittorio Storaro, which is all the guarantee you need that a lot of the shots are going to be so pretty that it's almost not fair; but what I wanted to focus on was not just shots of almost unspeakable picturesque beauty, even if those shots also contributed significantly to the narrative; for the film was also directed by Richard Donner, a filmmaker who I think does not get his due as an intelligent, considered craftsperson. No, he's not the most sophisticated visual storyteller out there, but there's far more cunning to his shots than he is typically credited with, and I saw it as my duty to call attention to that.

Here's what I ended up using:

There are three things above all else that stand out to me about the imagery in the film (after the prominence of crazy-ass lovely sunsets): the depth of the shots, creating a world that is as active on the Z-axis as it is on the flat plane, the authenticity of the sets, and how filled-in the mise en scène is. By which I mean, there are a great many shots where there is action in the background that cannot be defended in anyway that has to do with what we "care" about, in terms of character or plot; it functions only to define the film's world as a place where there's much more than just this one story. It is a living, functioning world, not of background peasants walking in diagonal lines out of focus, but of peasants doing specific jobs and implying personalities that we never otherwise explore. And so we have that little man on the left side of the moat, raising crates, not particularly worried about Matthew Broderick bobbing out of the water, nor the guards looking for him.

This shot also showcases the outstanding location sets the filmmakers scrounged up: plenty of '80s sword-and-sorcery movies were shot in European castles, but Donner and Storaro find ways to make those locations hit the screen with more of a realistic impact than anything else I have personally seen; going along with the lived-in direction of the backgrounds, it is overall one of the most convincing and detailed of all the films in this genre.

And I needn't point out, I assume, that it's gorgeous to look at: golden hour hasn't quite started but there's a pink hue to everything, and the reflections in the water give it all a painterly quality that is all the difference between a competent DP shooting pretty landscapes, and a truly gifted cinematographer shooting pretty landscapes.

Best Shot Primarily Featuring Pfeiffer was a lot easier. There are plenty of images that showcase her beauty and act as an advertisement for this New Star in Training, but there's one that showcases her not just as a gorgeous woman, but as an actress:

Note, if you will, the classic movie star gauze of the shot: yes, she is ill, but not so ill that her skin can't be made to look like porcelain. But let's focus for the moment on her physical weakness in this shot: almost perfectly horizontal, with a white dress that washes her out; a tiny spot of red that is one of the few prominent focal points of the shot, pointing out that she is, yes, wounded and bleeding. And her eyes, another focal point, are watery and not-quite focused, suggesting a mild throb of pain she's successfully keeping down.

But then we notice her smile - the only thing that moves in the entire length of this particular shot, from a flat line to the quiet smirk we see here. And it is, I beg to point out, a smirk, silently informing us that yes, she hurts, but she will get over it just fine thanks; and in the context of the scene, demonstrating how much sturdier she is than Broderick's easily-flummoxed thief gives her credit for, insisting on her strength without having to lapse into anachronistic power grrl excess.

My two runners-up below the jump.

One of the more conspicuously pretty sunset shots, and probably the single best visual moment in the movie that emphasises the day/night conflict that is so damned important for the story.

Another example of depth, but it also shows a pointed use of color and staging: Leo McKern's monk, the same color as his ruined abbey, standing still and blending in; in contrast to the bright red and jet black knight running and falling through the bridge. Basic stuff, but effective; it works much better in the two shots preceding this one, contrasted with one another, but as this is Hit Me with Your Best Shot and not Hit Me with You Best Cut, I had to go with the one that showed both people simultaneously.


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