Compare and Contrast
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban / Children of Men
This Week: How Alfonso Cuaron exploits our claustrophobia in Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
So, who’s excited to go see Gravity this week? Oh, everybody else. That’s great. No I’ll tag along. Yeah, I’m going to bring this air-sickness bag. Dont worry if I dry heave a little bit. You know what, ignore me if I run from the theater screaming. On second thought, I think I’m going to stay home and re-watch Breaking Bad. It’ll be more relaxing.
Ok, ok, I’m not that afraid of going to see Gravity. Judging from the trailers though, it plays pretty perfectly into every fear I’ve ever had about space travel, or sea travel, or even plane travel . The part that freaks me out though, isn’t the vast emptiness of space. It’s how claustrophobic that emptiness feels.
If you don't mind, let’s start by picking apart two small sections of the first trailer. You know, the one you emailed to everyone you know:
The first part, roughly from 0:12 to 0:44 is one long take of total destruction, which I’ll get to in a bit. The section I want to talk about right now is 0:55 to 1:30. This scene starts with what seems like a middle distance long take on Sandra Bullock. She’s spinning on a horizontal axis, while the camera spins with her while keeping her in frame. It’s also spinning a little slower, so she rotates in front of us even as we rotate. And while we can clearly make the astronaut out, her surroundings zip by us. This has a paralyzing effect, because we have a pretty good visual understanding of her body, while we simultaneously share in her total disorientation. It’s like our eyes and our brains are seeing two different things.
As if to reiterate this feeling, the scene then shifts to intercut sequences. First we focus on Bullock’s face. It’s a safe, welcoming, steadying shape. Then it cuts outward to an impossible to understand vastness. Cut back in, and we’re closer to her face then before. Cut back outwards, and cut back in, even closer. As the outside universe remains impossible to parse, we feel claustrophobia closing in more and more. Normally cutting between two perspectives is meant to give a sense of space (think of any multi-camera sitcom), but here it emphasizes a lack of concrete setting. Our point of retreat, the only thing we understand while this is happening, is closing in on us. It’s a horrible feeling. And it’s one that director Alfonso Cuaron deals in often.
Cuaron is a director who has a lot of style but is also ignored on a lot of best-directors lists. Each of his films has problems, to be sure, and he doesn't have the auteur-ish touches of some of his colleagues. But his films share themes and structures that can be traced through them all the same. And what striking about Gravity is how it seems to distill one of his obsessions: claustrophobia and the paralyzing inability to escape from apparent danger.
Children of Men is about a world that is becoming smaller by the day. In a world where humans have been rendered infertile, the entire existence of humanity is drawing back, slowly reducing as people die of normal causes without the sense that they will be replaced. This sense of closing in is a constant presence in the film - you can see it in how the margins of society are breaking down, the crowds of restless and weary are on all sides of our hero. It’s all closing in. But the film gained a lot of recognition for its technical feats, including a number of long tracking shots that got passed around by movie buffs like some illicit substance that only they could enjoy.
Perhaps the film’s most famous scene is an attack that occurs on the hero, his pregnant protectee, the hero’s former wife ands current handler, and two allies in a small-ish car. Midway through the drive to a safehouse, enemies appear on all sides to try to take the pregnant woman for their own purposes. They drive out of the ambush, the former wife gets shot before they make it out safe and sound, and everyone in the car holds her while she’s dying. It’s a powerful scene, but what makes it so memorable is that it’s filmed in one long take, with our perspective spinning around the inside of the car, trapping us with our hero.
The technical achievement of this shot is amazing (take the time to watch this short featurette to get an idea of the logistics), but beyond the rig that it took to get this right it’s also a masterful evocation of the tenseness of the occurrence. The scene begins in tranquility, in which the five characters banter and Clive Owen and Julianne Moore play their little ping-pong ball mouth game (why she brought the ping-pong ball is beyond me). At this point the camera work seems almost naturalistic, focusing on the most important characters as they talk and play. That changes when one of the characters shout and points at the camera, or rather, what lies behind it. In one 360 degree swivel, the camera slowly turns to reveal the trap. As the car flips into reverse, it continues turning, slowly revealing just how many people are attacking, making the situation ever more hopeless.
The forced perspective here accomplishes two things. It obviously situates us completely with our protagonists, and we watch this whole thing play out in the same claustrophobic position as they do. But it also constrains us from seeing what we would naturally want to see - we would be looking around constantly. It holds back information while giving clues (like the way the characters frantically look around even as we can’t), confining us just as much as the characters. When Moore is shot, the steadicam initially moves away from her, then shifts back for a minute where she’s blocked by other characters, to only shift again. At one point it focuses on the shattering windshield rather than her injury. This has a totally gripping effect, where the viewer mentally begs to have the camera centered on a character we care about, to gain some literal perspective on what’s happening. It’s the closest thing a film can have to a first person perspective, where the camera can mimic the lack of knowledge or understanding that the characters have in that moment. Because the camera never leaves the car, it closes us in with it.
Compare this sequence to a couple of scenes in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Apparently this film was at one point set to be filmed by a number of directors, including Guillermo Del Torro who turned it down because it was too happy. This, of course, is a film whose primary antagonists literally suck out happiness from our mop-headed heroes, but let’s ignore that, because it means that we got an equally skilled hand in Cuaron to bring the Dementors to life.
Even if you’re not a huge fan of the Harry Potter series, the Dementors (said happiness-sucking spirits) are a great, inventive monster. And the way Cuaron introduces them here is an extension of the same dramatic techniques he uses in scenes from Children of Men and Gravity. In their first appearance, we haven’t even heard the phrase ‘Dementors’ yet. We are simply in a train car with our three heroes and some sleeping man (the sleeping car feels about the size of the inside of that car occupied by our OTHER miraculous teenager, for what it’s worth). The train buckles, stops, and then the lights go out, all of which is viewed from long distance outside of the train. So our whole little world of the train has suddenly stopped, and safety is not close at hand.
The camera cuts into the car, where the lighting only shows parts of bodies and faces. The shadows here are so striking that this world practically becomes a black and white noir film, a genre that trades in claustrophobia and anxiety constantly. Furthermore, Cuaron twists the camera and tilts it slightly, studying the individual characters rather than situating them for our understanding. Its a trick that manages to turn a comforting situation into a terrifying one, primarily through lighting and camerawork. We are already more disoriented in this small space then we were in the large space outside.
The camera work here zooms in and out, tracking around the car. As the windows freeze up because of the approaching monsters, we are zoomed so tightly on the window that it takes a minute to register what’s happening. Even more brilliantly, Cuaron doesn't introduce the first Dementor we see as a quick jump-cut. We watch it through the window in a long shot, emphasizing that we as the audience have nowhere to escape too. It’s a long-way-coming terror, seeing this monster through the glass first, then opening the door to our (very small) little room (it’s notably similar to the way the number of attackers are revealed in the above Children of Men scene). And when it enters the cabin, it feels inevitable and hopeless; all of our control is gone.
The only other major confrontation with the Dementors comes at the end of the film, where Harry defends his newly-discovered uncle from their onslaught. But rather than being confined to a sleeping car, we’re in an open field. And rather than only one monster, there are a lot. How many? In a bravura shot, the camera starts tight on Harry, then zooms directly upward, revealing more and more monsters circling overhead on the margins of the frame. As the camera tries to provide visually concrete data about where our boy hero is relative to his surroundings (normally a comfort to our brains) it has the effect of forcing us to feel more trapped. Like the spinning universe that fails to provide visual data to ground us, the more we expect to see, the less comforting it truly is.
It’s also the same style of shot used in the early section of the trailer. In this one the character is approaching the camera at the same speed the camera is backing up, so they seem relatively stationary. However, because the camera is fixed on a direction opposite of the one we are traveling, we see debris fly by the same way we comprehend the Dementors coming into our forced perspective. In Harry Potter, we know these things are a danger. In Gravity, we’re not so sure - each item could be a hindrance or a deadly obstacle. The forced perspective keeps us from registering anything as a particular threat, and our fixed viewpoint means we can’t focus on any moving object too long. Imagine you couldn't move your neck because, say, you have a giant astronaut helmet on - this is exactly what it would feel like, and why it’s a brilliant piece of immersive filmmaking (or trailer making, as the case might be).
In these worlds, the loss of control is the real challenge these heroes face. The magical boy-wizard may be able to temporarily hold off the forces of evil, but he’s not able to do much more. The man pressed into the service of humanity is constantly being acted upon rather than acting himself, trapped in a car that he’s not even driving. All he can do is survive. And Cuaron is a brilliant director, because he understands the ways that a series of basic shots or one bravura sequence can put us in the mind of these characters utterly trapped in a terrible situation. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to grab my air-sickness bag and see if I can’t tough this one out.