Monday, October 18, 2010

Hey Look, It's Ringo and Frankie!

Under consideration, this universally beloved shot from Stagecoach, the one that moves from this:

... to this:


First things first and sliding immediately off topic, there are plenty of images capturing this moment all over the Internet and I might have swiped them for illustration. Unless making a point with incongruous stolen pictures, I try to create my own screencaps whenever possible, because, like Quaker Oatmeal and recycling beer bottles, it's the Right Thing to Do, and because there's a certain art to screencapping, one for which I sorta like to think I have a flair. David Bordwell would surely have a lecture for me about the inadequacies of the practice, but it's all I got. In this case, an even worse sin, I can't make frame enlargements and can't take frame grabs of Blu-ray discs. For all Blu-ray's myriad pleasures (including the fun of typing the gimmicky e-less "Blu"), the inability to screencap is an ever-increasing hindrance to the important work we do here. Sadly, the only other option is to, uh, take pictures of my TV screen, which is a hideous solution, and photography is an art for which I do not have a flair.

Anywhich, back to the shot in question. It is the first shot of John Wayne as the Ringo Kid, a gasping, audacious hero shot that stops the stagecoach in its tracks, dollying up on Ringo as he twirls his rifle, yells "HOLD IT!" and has a sudden, barely perceptible change of expression. Wayne has struck an elegant pose even though he's toting a rifle in one hand and a saddle in the other, the strain of this ridiculous feat betrayed not by his casual posture but the sweat streaks on his face that aren't apparent until the shot moves in. Basically it is an unforgettable, electric-buzzed moment and every element is perfect, even those that are not. Specifically, 1) the movement is just slightly faster than expected or is comfortable, and 2) this famously causes the shot to pop out of focus as it repositions into 3) the whoa-just-slightly-too-close close up of Ringo. There is a vast amount Stuff Going On in this shot which does not last more than three seconds, from the aureola crowning Ringo to its importance in Wayne's career, but I don't think it is fully unpackable because part of its power is of disruption; the thrill is in the way it feels subtly off, arhythmic and just-out-of-control.

That said, it is cemented into the film and a piece of a scene, and some of this impact comes from 1) the whinnying horses immediately before the shot. The eye-catching movement in the preceding shot is the horses pulling back in reaction, effect being that the dolly-in is pushing off of the backward momentum of the horses.

2) a goofy two-shot reaction of Curley (George Bancroft) and Buck (Andy Devine), immediately after, where Devine chirps "Hey look, it's Ringo!" in that inimitable Andy Devine way. On the front end, the picture-story is that the stagecoach crosses a ford in the river and comes toward camera, the effect being that the coach is pulling up on Ringo and drives straight into a huge view of his face.

So it's all in reaction and juxtaposition, and I'm going to say that Andy Devine is quite responsible for making this one of cinema's greatest entrances.

Speaking of which, we all have our favorites, and my shortlist would include Peter Cushing in Frankenstein Must be Destroyed!, Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest — elaborate setpieces climaxing with thrilling reveals and introductions that we won't go into right now, but top Orson Welles in The Third Man — keep some popular favorites (Karloff in Frankenstein) and dump others (Darth Vader in that movie about Darth Vader). This scene in Stagecoach, however, always puts me in mind of another great movie entrance, Tim Curry as Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (yes, yes, he is visible as another character earlier in the film).

The reason the entrances of the cowboy and the transvestite alien reverberate off one another — though come to think of it both are fugitives from justice, questing for freedom and non-judgmental of the sexuality of others — is simply a jarring push in from this:

... to this:


But of course, while prepping these screencaps, it became clear that the moments are very different. The effect as a memorable, keyed-up introduction to a character is similar but John Ford does it with effortless 3-second economy, while RHPS director Jim Sharman is simply up to something else. Ringo appears during a lull when we aren't really expecting it, while Frank-N-Furter's entrance is a mini-climax to which a whole sequence is building. The first close up of Frank is, indeed, a privileged shot, but it is punctuation on a scene.

Frank's entrance in Picture Show has been moved from its place in the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show. In plot terms, this merely swaps the positions of the numbers "Sweet Transvestite" (first in original stage productions) and "The Time Warp" (first in the film). The reasons, one supposes, are that "Time Warp" is the sort of "hit single" of the musical, a live showstopper to which the play builds up, in a loose-knit plot that is an excuse for the songs. The film is more dramatically developed, and thanks to lessons learned from the stage show, has a better grip on pace and payoff. Once Tim Curry appears, the beast is basically loosed and one wants to get on up to the lab and see what's on the slab, rather than dally downstairs for, as Brad Majors puts it, "more folk dancing."

The scene bridging the two numbers then is not just an introduction. By repositioning "Time Warp", there is a gap left where there used to be an exchange concerning the whereabouts of delivery boy Eddie. In place of this missing exposition, the film adds: nothing. That is, the film's transition adds no additional narrative information, but creates a musical bridge, uniting a pair of songs. Frank descends to the first floor in an elevator behind Brad and Janet, and this little scene is scored with sound effects (and percussion) that build off the discordant piano banging at the end of "Time Warp" and ramp up to the fanfare at the top of "Sweet Transvestite". The instruments in play are a base tone laid down by the lowering elevator, a chorus of the chortling Transylvanians, the rhythm section stomp of Frank's platform heel, and the mounting chant of Brad and Janet's dialogue in metered back-and-forth ("I'm COLD, I'm WET and I'm just plain SCARED!"). This audio piece terminates with Janet screaming as the zoom into Frank's close up comes to rest.

The above awkward screencap of Brad and Janet in front of the elevator comes straight off the top of the shot in question, after Janet has already noticed the figure in the cage. The sort of platonic ideal of the composition is in a pair of earlier shots, like so:


Besides the aural component, the gag being staged in this scene is that the square couple is backing out of the ballroom, away from the Transylvanian weirdoes but into Frank in the foyer. So there are cutaways for reactions (Transylvanians rising from the floor as they see the elevator descending, Transylvanians assembling around red carpet, Janet goggling at Frank's back) and clarifying information (two close ups of the stomping shoe), all building anticipation for the reveal of Frank.

The screenplay's newly invented bit of business is well-motivated, with Brad dismissing Janet's rising hysteria by condescending and trying to minimize her concerns (Frank will later diagnose Brad: "Such a perfect specimen of manhood. So dominant."), and the rousing of the "Time Warp" spent Transylvanians providing reason for the couple to keep their eyes on the ballroom. Immediately after the money shot, before the gate slides open and "Sweet Transvestite" proper begins, Curry's close up is disrupted by a reaction shot of Janet, who becomes over-stimulated and, in running gag, faints. This puts a button on the scene, separates the elevator shoe-stomp as its own mini-song (audience participators traditionally stomp and clap along), and Janet's response cues the audience on how to react to Frank-N-Furter — that is, somewhere between Beatlemania-style abandon and what-the-fuck gaping. In short, Susan Sarandon provides the Andy Devine effect here.

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