Most of us are accomplished watchers of TV and film, so we intuitively understand some of the concepts lurking in dense film-theory tomes. You won’t need them for Internet Film School, The A.V. Club’s column about film and television. In each installment, we explore a basic element of visual composition and analyze examples to understand how the formal properties of film and television manipulate viewers.
Much praise has been showered upon the unsubtle English-language debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer, but the most interesting came from an unexpected source, conservative columnist Michael Potemra, who wrote that “the film succeeds aesthetically and as pure entertainment” despite the fact that “it’s a pretty heavy-handed Marxist allegory.” Convincing your ideological opponent that your “heavy-handed” slagging of their belief system is an exceptional work of art is quite the feat. Imagine convincing the grandchild of someone who survived a concentration camp that Leni Riefenstahl brilliantly captured the pain of the German people when she had Hitler lay a wreath on the Great War memorial in Triumph Of The Will. Not going to happen.
But that is precisely what a student of film should be able to do—divorce content from form, and remove both from the historical context, in order to understand how a piece works. Which is not to say that Potemra is a student of film, because despite his praise for the “aesthetic” of Snowpiercer, he also claims that “the train is an excellent set, a realized world that manages, amazingly, to avoid claustrophobia.” Potemra seemingly prefers to remember the more well-lit second half of the film to the painfully claustrophobic opening scenes. The latter half of the film, after all, concerns the tortured choices the capitalist elite must make in order for humanity to survive—a theme much more to the liking of someone who writes for the National Review.
But what’s interesting here is not the politics of a single reviewer so much as the tension between the film this critic remembers seeing versus the one he actually saw. The first half of the film is profoundly claustrophobic in a conventional way, so much so that the eventual presence of light becomes a crucial, if brutal, plot point. The latter half of the film, however, is just as claustrophobic, just not conventionally so. It doesn’t “avoid claustrophobia”—if anything, it embraces a more oppressive version.
The film begins with a dehumanizing head-count:
Calling this shot claustrophobic would be an understatement, but it is important to understand how its features interact to produce that feeling of claustrophobia. In this case, it’s a combination of four main factors: The first would simply be the darkness—there is a reason people talk about darkness “closing in” on them—but the more significant factors result from the shot’s awful symmetry.
Joon-ho emphasizes the inherent boxiness of the train car by having his actors occupy the entire frame in the foreground and taper back significantly in the deeper areas of the shot. Had he chosen a medium closeup on a particular face and merely surrounded it with other faces, the shot would look crowded without feeling confined. By choosing this long shot and allowing the audience to peer back through the rows of heads as the distance between them appears to decrease—as per the cyan lines in the image above—he creates the impression of an infinite number of rows within tight space whose borders are clearly defined.
In other words, Joon-ho creates an impression of impossible compression, of an infinite number of rows somehow contained within a finite space. The impossibility implicit in this shot creates the tension that will motivate the entire film, in that there are more people on this train than space to put them, and anyone in the audience with a rudimentary understanding of the human condition—or who ever had to share a room with a sibling—knows that this situation is untenable. This carriage is fit to burst.
Moments later, Joon-ho cuts to a private, family-dinner moment between Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and her son, as well as the two characters the film quickly set up as the leaders of its class war, Curtis (Chris Evans) and Edgar (Jamie Bell).
The medium shot is tight, but the constrained feeling comes more from the fact that the scene effectively has two audiences: the one in the film watching Tanya upbraid her son, and the one behind Curtis and Edgar watching them watch her.
Filling the foreground with the backs of their heads creates the impression that our access to this scene is mediated, and placing the camera immediately behind Bell’s head frame-left reminds the audience of the decreasing distance between heads in the opening the shot. If the characters in the first frame above could see those cyan lines I drew all over it, in the second shot the audience would see something like this:
The action is directly in front of the audience, yet still obstructed, a situation that shares more with the experience of a crowded concert than a night at the movies. When her son makes a quick exit, Tanya, Curtis, and Edgar go searching for him. Typically, when a child runs away on a screen, the eyes of the adults tracking him not only dart around the frame, they focus on areas outside of it. One way to impress upon the readers how limited a space this would be, then, is to have a group of people actively searching for a child by looking at almost the exact same place:
At this moment, Edgar has already spotted Tanya’s son, but Curtis and Tanya haven’t, even though they are all seemingly looking at the exact same place. Also note how shallow the focus in this shot is—as the trio moves toward the camera, each person will briefly walk into focus, then hand it off to the character trailing them, as Joon-ho limits how much visual information the audience can acquire at any given point in time. The intent behind the shallowness seems less to emphasize the character in focus than to remind the audience of how little there is to see behind him or her. After all, how much more information would the audience have about this frame if the depth of field had been large enough to capture every element in the frame in focus?
This is not to say that Joon-ho never employs deep focus, as when he shoots Curtis and Edgar fomenting rebellion in their bunks:
With the exception of a bar in the upper right, everything from the side of Edgar’s face to the detritus beneath Curtis’ bunk is in focus, which should make the world seem more open—there is more visual information to process, if nothing else—but the high level and oblique angle of framing that Joon-ho uses here combine to create an incredibly narrow perspective. Moreover, the implicit perspective of the camera makes it appear as if the audience is sharing the characters’ tight quarters, constricting its view of the world to the one shared by the characters.
After 42 minutes, the cumulative effect of shots using these techniques has created a palpable sense of claustrophobia, so much so Joon-ho predicates one of the film’s most significant moments upon having done so successfully:
Note how the above combines two of the claustrophobic shots described above—the infinite rows of humans in a seemingly finite space, and the impression that the audience can’t see past the characters to see the film—in such a way that it should feel more open, given the frame is flooded with white, information-imparting light. Now that the darkness has lifted, the world should feel more expansive. But because of the manner in which Joon-ho established these techniques earlier in the film and the meaning that accrued to them then, this shot feels more claustrophobic, not less.
Escaping into the light only proved how profoundly trapped they actually are—they’re still trapped in the same compositions, after all—and although the end of the film does provide an image of something resembling hope, claiming that the film manages to “avoid claustrophobia,” as Potemra did, should make any attentive student of film pause.