Friday, May 22, 2009

LITTLE SHOP Handbook: Visual Strategies in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

Visual Strategies in Little Shop of Horrors

Director Frank Oz blocks the Little Shop of Horrors actors in stylized tableaux in every scene, usually for the duration of each separate shot. While actors are given free reign to emote in unrestrained fashion, their location and movements within the shots in dialogue scenes are always as precisely choreographed as the dance numbers. This rarely occurs as normalized two-shots or singles, except as pushed into extreme image through rack focus revealing further visual information, off-center angle or sundry weird technique.

There are no "normal" (or "boring"/expected) shots in this studio-bound film, nor any naturalistic ones. In the loosest-feeling sequences dominated by actors given over to manic ad-libbing — those in which Arthur Denton (Bill Murray) visits Dr. Scrivello's (Steve Martin) office, and Wink Wilkinson (John Candy) conducts a radio interview — Oz allows the performers to roam a bit more, and his camera to follow some minor wanderings. There are also a few scenes with actors pacing within limited space (Rick Moranis as Seymour is prone to this, as is James Belushi as marketing pitchman Patrick Martin), but all these counter-examples are shot and blocked to diagram power relationships and create popping, graphic images as well. The Denton/Scrivello scene is loose inside a few nervous pans to follow Murray, but these shots work toward punctuation marks formed by actors' postures, the location of bodies within the frame. No character prowls the space purposelessly, or occupies uncomposed space in the frame.

The staging of Little Shop of Horrors is perpetually "stagy." It is not stagy, however, in the sense of being only suited to the stage. Oz may have lifted/transfered some of the blocking from the off-Broadway production (should anyone be in possession of tapes made of the original production, please contact this writer), with "musical staging" by Edie Cowan. This is natural for an adaptation of a stage production, and it is unremarkable for a musical film to adapt the stylized techniques of classical Hollywood forerunners; our purpose is simply to catalog some of Oz's strategies for organizing the film. Though the source is a theatrical production and the original 1960 film —respectively bound to the diorama of the stage and Roger Corman's grungy hemmed-in sets and catch-as-catch-can location shots — the show has been reconfigured, the story retold in aggressively cinematic language. Little Shop of Horrors is stylized, and it is stylized for the movies.

I - Paired Profiles

The placement and posture of bodies within compositions always looms large among directorial concerns; Little Shop of Horrors always arranges its performers for both dramatic purposes and graphic impact. Among the visual body-prop motifs in Little Shop of Horrors are a large number of shots in which two performers face one another in full profile. While not an uncommon viewing angle of conversing persons in real life, it is not a common blocking for stage performers, particularly in musicals, as it tends to swallow the voice and cut off actors from an audience. It is also uncommon for a film to block and shoot so many scenes in this fashion. Shooting eye contact from the side throws up a proscenium between the screen and audience; the angle cuts off an audience from looking into an actor's eyes and sharing the gaze available in an over-the-shoulder shot or face-forward angle. Freeze-framing a dialogue scene in more naturalistic films may capture moments of actors in face-off profile, and certainly similar shots occur in other films, but Little Shop of Horrors uses the image in a pattern of frequent and prolonged shots. Though a "weak" stage position for actors, it is graphically bold in a visual medium.

A majority of these dual profile shots are used while charting the progress of Seymour's burgeoning relationship with Audrey. The second largest number of these shots document the verso: Seymour's destructive relationship with Audrey's dark twin, Audrey II. A handful of others feature other characters paired with Seymour, and one — literally striking — example does not feature Seymour at all. Below are screencaps of ten prominent examples of this shot.

a) Audrey and Seymour consider a friendly shopping excursion to spruce up the nerd's wardrobe. Both brighten at the prospect of socializing outside the workplace, and excitement blooms. They have just bonded over a rush-job floral arrangement for Mrs. Shiva, the bouquet (augmented with glued-on glitter) appears between them, signals the positive outcome of their teamwork. In their small world, with the limited expectations of Skid Row, and narrow set of personal standards, depending on one's empathy levels, they are either good at what they do, or simply sympathetic to one another — i.e., Seymour thinks Audrey has good aesthetic sense. The moment she is encouraged by Seymour's attention, feels herself valued by a kind man, she remembers she has a date with her current abusive paramour and wilts. The flowers become a funeral bouquet once more, and Audrey turns from Seymour, breaking the dual profile composition.

b) Audrey II exhibits its first signs of sentience as Seymour serenades the plant during the "Grow For Me" number. A Seymour-POV shot of the plant making kissy-suction movements with its lips and a low angle nearly from Audrey II's perspective as Seymour squeezes blood drops into its open pod surround this shot of dual profiles. These angles confirm plot information — Seymour's gives visual confirmation that the plant is moving, Audrey II's that it has a "perspective" equal to a human character — and intersect with another motif, that of unexpected POV shots. The profiles, as before, highlight a change in one of Seymour's principle relationships, as the plant and the horticulturist study one another in a new light and from this angle we may survey the tensions in both gazes.

c) "Does this look inanimate to you, punk?" growls Audrey II and, sliding a chair under Seymour, yanks him forward into an echo of their first shared profile shot. In each of the profile moments, Seymour comes face to face with new information about other characters. Here, the power dynamic shifts dramatically, as Seymour begins his move from caretaker to slave. This is a seduction scene, Audrey II displaying physical threat and prowess, appealing to both Seymour's base material lusts ("money... girls") and need to be loved ("one particular girl? How 'bout that Audrey?"). Twined up in this, the domineering plant begins to act as a parental figure, replacing the inadequate Mushnik. Audrey II begins life an orphan like Seymour, onto which the boy-man projects the love he did not receive, until the plant essentially enslaves him in the same way Mushnik forces Seymour to work in the shop to earn his keep (this is strengthened in the stage show via a subplot in which Mushnik legally adopts Seymour only after it becomes a lucrative proposition). In this profile shot leading up to "Feed Me", Audrey II begins a sales pitch in which it threatens and begs, works Seymour's empathy and selfishness, and thus thwarts Seymour's attempts to come out of his shell by twisting his nurturing instincts back upon him.

d) Seymour and Audrey II, through the shop's display window, watch Dr. Scrivello and Audrey. This paired profile as Orin slaps Audrey, punctuates a shot in which they enter her apartment building and exchange rhythmic dialogue while striking silhouetted poses a through a lighted window. It is not properly part of a song and dance, but functions as a loose middle eight to tie together the Audrey II/Seymour duet occurring across the street. Scrivello berates Audrey for minor perceived slights then sweeps her into the above pose and belts her across the face. Besides the abuses occurring in his dental office, this is the worst on-screen act that Dr. Scrivello commits in the film, and is impetus for Seymour's eventual murder of Scrivello via reckless endangerment. Prior two-shot profiles with Audrey and Audrey II have established this as a Seymour-centric motif, and this moment, which spurs to action a man defined by inaction, is about watching; it also intersects with several other LSOH motifs: silhouettes, shots through glass, scenes viewed from across a street, voyeuristic POV shots of characters secretly watching one another, and shots through or in front of frames -- mostly doors and windows.

e) The "Suddenly, Seymour" sequence is bookended with dual profile shots. The song cements the Audrey/Seymour romantic relationship by its final notes, but it does not begin there. Rather than a time-out declaration of love, the number contains key narrative information and character drama. As the lead-in dialogue begins, Audrey and Seymour are emotionally and visually separated. She is distant and distraught, having just learned that Orin has been killed, and Seymour is nerve-wracked and guilt-ridden over having murdered the dentist. Audrey explains that her tears are not of sorrow but relief (and, we infer, caused by no small trauma, as well as a guilty conscience over that same relief), and her confusion and confessions repeatedly cause her to pull away from comfort, look away from Seymour's sympathetic gaze. When the pain reaches its apex, and the players are at their greatest physical distance, they turn to face one another. This early verse of the song begins in the widest dual profile shot of the film. The couple tentatively expresses their feelings and Audrey lays out her backstory of personal damage, they step nearer one another and the camera pushes in on them.

f) "Suddenly, Seymour" ends by echoing the earlier wide shot, the physical distance now bridged with a lovers embrace. Triumphant as the final sustained notes of the song are, exhilarating as the rush of positive emotion seems, it is not the resolution of all troubles in Seymour's story. Rather, the declaration of devoted couplehood deepens the conflicts inherent in Seymour's other problems. The workplace romance and Seymour's increased confidence cause a panic in Mushnik, who would exploit his unadopted son's success. The vow to look after Audrey worsens Seymour's transgressions in his pact with Audrey II. Though it is not tinged with particularly pointed irony -- and the relationship, while problematic, eventually provides Seymour the inspiration to rise above -- the golden artificial sunset-kissed bliss of "Suddenly, Seymour" is an ignorant bliss.

This key sequence in the Audrey/Seymour romance contains a good deal of detail-packing beyond the scope of these notes. It does end with the couple framed before another window, this one in the half-demolished ruins of a Skid Row building. "Suddenly, Seymour" begins as the characters believe they have hit bottom, emotionally wrecked, and mulling about among the building's rubble. As they reveal their feelings, in their mutual uplift Seymour and Audrey dart up a crumbling staircase that seems to lead nowhere -- but they are indeed rising up above the ruins together. In the reverse of the above shot, the Greek chorus of Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon is perched on a ledge as heavenly chorus. The yellow sun -- last seen fully eclipsed in the backstory flashback number "Dah-Doo" (the story, thus, begins in sunlessness; the narrative opens in the vacuum of space) -- from this vantage seems to glow so warmly that it burns away the mesh (chain-link? safety-glass reenforcement?) covering the window behind Audrey and Seymour.

This double profile bursts into a comically frantic kiss the moment the characters have finished their vocal duties, which melts into the mellow ripples of afternoon light: actually a dissolve to the textured glass of Audrey's apartment building's front door. This transition is part of another visual system running through the film, one of dissolves between abstract patterns of texture and color found and revealed in mundane or unpleasant details of prop, costume and set dressing.

g) Mushnik's power games come to a head. He corners Seymour with the information that he witnessed the dismemberment of Scrivello's body, and at gunpoint insists that Seymour turn himself over to the police. In the above shot, Mushnik does an about-face, feigning sympathy to blackmail his slave/son in order to get his hands on Audrey II. Rather than taking the moral high ground, Mushnik simply believes he has the upper hand. He believes he holds the more powerful weapon (physical mass and firearm; Seymour is unarmed), the more valuable information (that Seymour murdered Orin to get to or protect Audrey; that Seymour does not know Mushnik has designs on the plant) and the greater insight into his opponent's character (he preys upon Seymour's cowardice, gentleness, meekness; Seymour holds no sympathetic sway over Mushnik). In geometric growth patterns, Mushnik's capitalist ownership increases with insatiable appetite -- he thus mirrors the destructive hunger, expansive growth and viral encroachment upon Seymour's psyche as embodied in Audrey II. Mushnik will turn to face this dark green mirror and be destroyed in a scant few screen moments, which Seymour anticipates visually and mentally. Both physically and informationally, Seymour is packing the bigger gun. In this irony-charged shot, Mushnik takes the power position, holding the center of the frame and looming over Seymour, backing the smaller man against the door.

The shot is of two men, though, and through Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour allows his mingled hollow success/doom to occur through inaction. Scrivello and Mushnik are not killed by Seymour's hand, but neither does Seymour intervene. They are destroyed by Seymour's externalized rampaging Id, in the form of Audrey II -- a point made manifest in different ways by Corman's film, the stage show and LSOH's own scrapped ending -- but also undone by their own foibles and Seymour's very meekness. LSOH positions Seymour's timidity as the central obstacle he needs to overcome. He is passive to the extreme, wallowing in socioeconomic despair on Skid Row, hoping for "someone [to] tell Lady Luck that I'm stuck here," shy around women, parental figure, customers, and thus a target for a dozen breeds of bully. This inaction is underlined as parodic parallel of Christian martyrdom and cheek-turning ethos in the number "The Meek Shall Inherit" (the aphorism given cynical twist into "the meek are gonna get what's coming to them...") The paradigm for human interaction in LSOH is one of bullying and cowering, showboats and wallflowers. Under Mushnik's threat of bullet, blackmail, losing his shot at public adoration, release from poverty, and his romance with Audrey, Seymour puts up his hands and lets the universe chomp on the bigger sinner first. Everybody gets what's coming to them, by and by.

h) The finished film allows Seymour to transform via late-game assertiveness, Audrey's affection providing his inspiration. In this profile shot, Seymour proposes marriage to Audrey and they excitedly discuss plans for elopement. As in the shot it most resembles -- (a) above -- the tableau is broken by flooding recollection of a violent personal relationship parallel to the Audrey and Seymour couple. In (a) Audrey plans to go shopping with Seymour on a borderline date, but is reminded of her abusive relationship with Orin. In (b) Seymour plans a life with Audrey but slips into ranting that there must be "no plants, I promise: no plants at all!"

Just as the prior shot marked the first evidence of Audrey and Seymour's dawning connection, and those in "Suddenly Seymour" allow them to openly express mutual feelings, this one depicts them entering a new phase. Having just caused two deaths and signed away his soul, Seymour hits bottom in the prior scene, a public meltdown at his television taping. Proposing to Audrey is certainly a progressive step, but even more proactive is Seymour's determination that they move out of town and begin a new life. Seymour's journey with Audrey II serves also as answer to his plea for "Lady Luck"'s assistance. Through dumb luck, the plant zaps through the cosmos and lands in his lap, alters his life but to no good end: Audrey II uses Seymour. In counterpoint, Seymour's transformation thanks to Audrey and learning to take control of his own life. With this profile shot, Seymour realizes he must choose between the Audreys.

An evolution to be sure, but not complete.

i) This dual profile visually quotes the staging of "Suddenly, Seymour" for a comic thwarting. "Suddenly, Seymour (Reprise)" is immediately interrupted by the sales pitch of Patrick Martin (Jim Belushi). Though brief and undercut by the disruption of Seymour's sins catching up with him, the shot and song represent the full flowering of Seymour and Audrey's romance. Having just rescued Audrey from psychic seduction and physical assault by Audrey II, Seymour's secret life is now entirely in the open. "Suddenly, Seymour" begins with Audrey's full disclosure of her dark life; the reprise is Seymour's. She accepts him despite the fears, failures and transgressions he has been concealing. Immediately after, Seymour will make his final, greatest transformation, now empowered enough to do battle with Audrey II. Seymour heads back into the shop to confront his demon and its offspring and correct his crimes. He chooses not to run or cower but solve the problems he has created. Seymour chooses responsibility and positive action. He does it because of the moments captured in these profile shots.

j) A grace note here, after Seymour has dispatched Audrey II. In some ways, the system of profile shots has been building to this moment.

After the above shot, there is only one more in the film proper, before the credit roll. The next is truly a coda, with Audrey and Seymour running away from the camera, out of Skid Row and into a suburban fantasia, and final unsettling punchline as the Greek chorus presents a small reminder of the eternal dangers of what Audrey II represents. But this, the penultimate shot of Little Shop of Horrors, closes the narrative and includes a dual profile.

In unbroken shot: Audrey cries and laughs silently, overjoyed at Seymour's emergence from the rubble of the demolished shop. Tracking left in a circle around Audrey, the shot reveals Seymour, who moves toward his proud, elated fiancée --Seymour comes to Audrey -- and the camera continues a full 360-degree track around them as the lovers embrace. The hug breaks, the tracking ceases. As Audrey and Seymour gaze at one another, the motif is invoked for just a moment, this moment. They turn and run directly into the fourth wall. Audrey runs past the camera, screen left. Seymour runs straight at the lens. The shot ends on blurry frames of Seymour's chest. It ends on his heart.

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