Friday, December 28, 2012

Meta Concepts: Storytelling Technique vs Visual Tropes

A show like Grimm covers a lot of genres, arguably related but each genre having their own separate signature body of work. The procedural drama elements are the most obvious, followed by the new trend of pastiche fairy tales as a manifestation of urban fantasy. Beneath that we have the horror genre, and finally there are occasional scenes of situational comedy or romance, depending on the writer and what is going on in the plot. Each of these genres has their own signature elements, the most common of which so far seem to be the visual signatures of the horror genre. You've already heard us refer to Dutch angles, and they also use color in the faded/saturated balance typical of more recent horror movies, as well as some lately egregious use of the unSteadiCam or the Shaky Cam or as we fondly call it, the Evil Dead cam.

These elements are familiar ones we all know from directors such as Tim Burton and Sam Raimi (or Timur Bekmambetov and Eli Roth), but they are only as recent as film. Grimm, somewhat like its counterpart Once Upon A Time and like tv shows such as 10th Kingdom and The Storyteller, takes its foundation from a media older than television which used a whole different set of tropes and devices. We've already discussed the Rule of Three in extensive detail; this was a popular device for emphasis and memory in oral traditions. Color is also used in folk stories and fairy tales, most commonly for its associations in the culture of the time. Youngest siblings traditionally have the greatest virtue or innocence, certain animals are associated with certain traits, etc. Because these are oral traditions, these also change depending on the values of the time, or most often the values of who's in charge at the time, but some core elements of each fairy tale remain. The Grimm writers and staff are now therefore tasked with conveying these memorable elements, but since we have a new medium that's sprung up so quickly they have an additional set of tools to work with, as well as balancing the expectations that those bring. 

The opening episode sets a false tone with the daylight and the supersaturated color, and when I say false I mean more the daylight than the supersaturated. Most of the action on Grimm happens at night, as befits a story mostly about dark deeds and amoral folk; humans in general are a photophiliac species, we see light as good and dark as bad. But when a tv show or a film wants to draw our attention to the visuals color is one of the first things to be keyed up. We see it first in the pilot episode with the girls' sweaters and the warm tones of the perpetrator's house, contrasted with the deep greens and blues of the woods. It carries through Last Grimm Standing, with the sickly green color washes, over through the blood spatter from the Mauvais Dentes in the first two episodes of the second season. In general, the gore is always highlighted, bright reds or glistening, shiny reds if there's very little light on the set, with a blue tint to give the blood both a more unnatural look and draw our attention. Red has been a popular color of significance for centuries, in the story of Snow White we have 'lips as red as blood' and in the red cap or hood Little Red Riding Hood, among others. And as a nod to the original fairy tales, indeed, we have Juliette running around in red pretty often. Enough to be significant, anyway.

Colorwashing is a film media only tactic, obviously, because it's not exactly something you can do with spoken or even written history. That said, for as young a medium as film is, colorwashing has especially in the last twenty years or so become popular first with genre shows (X-Files comes to mind) and certain directors (Tim Burton I'm looking at you) and eventually with other shows (Sherlock, possibly) and other directions (the Hughes brothers, the Wachowski siblings). The trend for the last ten years has tended towards colorwash and saturate, but shows like Awake and X-Files have also used colorwashing and desaturation to set a mood, usually one of reality confusion. Although Grimm doesn't overall desaturate for the same reasons, lately there's been a trend towards desaturating Sasha Roiz's eye color usually by lighting, though I wouldn't entirely be surprised if they were doing strange things in post. This gives his eyes a more silver, unearthly look, which underscores how affected he is by the potion.

Both more and less subtle than color we have words, specific words and phrases that we don't often see used so blatantly in television, not outside of procedurals at least. Most notably we have Hank referring to being roofied which, in essence, he was, but by naming what happened to him they take away a little of the power of the experience. It isn't so much a mystery, what happened to Hank, not to the character at least but also not to us. By contrast, Hank doesn't have the words for what he's seeing and experiencing when he starts to see the Wesen around him in their woge state, and so it isn't until Nick explains things that he can master that horror. Naming the horror takes something away from it, leaves it a little bit less of a hold on us. For the audience, the episode Bad Moon Rising clearly describes a gang-rape of a young woman by family and supposed friends, but never in those specific terms, leaving us to fill in the blanks with whatever words carry the most emotional impact for each of us individually. 

Words have power is another old, old bit of knowledge from oral tradition of all kinds, fairy tales and religion and otherwise. In religions of all sorts we have ritual words to absolve us of ill deeds, to bind us to our promises and keep us honest, and to punish the wicked with curses and exile. In fairy tales special words can do magical things, such as Rumplestiltskin's name setting the miller's daughter free. Perhaps not surprisingly this is one bit of storytelling tradition that has stayed relevant even through today's film and television advances; even in the silent film Metropolis the story of the Tower of Babel makes an appearance, although the aspect of language in it is downplayed. The more blatant examples off the cuff where words were of magical significance include: The Day The Earth Stood Still, Labyrinth, Army of Darkness, and others. Within Grimm we haven't had any magic words as yet, though since we have had potions it may only be a matter of time before spoken magic appears.

The Grimm directors love playing with camera angles, and more so lately than in the first season. We've mentioned in at least a couple of different places the Dutch Angle; this is the oblique or canted angle meant to instill a sense of unease or awkwardness in the audience. (It actually comes from Deutsche Angel, or German angle.) There have been a number of these, combined with something that for the purposes of this essay we'll call the Evil Dead Cam since Sam Raimi's now-infamous work is one of the chief offenders. Particularly both Quill and To Protect and Serve Man, both of them pretty standard horror movie episodes of the zombie and the cannibal hillbilly types respectively, were lousy with Dutch Angles and the Evil Dead Cam. And while Dutch Angles might have been avant-garde once, I have to say that both of these devices are at this point so overused I want to give each Grimm episode a quota of no more than two instances of Evil Dead Cam and severe Dutch Angle. Slighter canted camera angles can be useful, particularly when you have a tree like Sasha Roiz in your midst. But the purpose of the extreme Dutch Angle and the Evil Dead Cam is most often to give either victim or killer point of view, thus dragging the audience deeper into the action. In a film where we only have to stick with the protagonist for maybe an hour and a half (or nearly three hours if it's a Peter Jackson movie) this makes good contrast for the protagonist. In a forty-two minute television episode where we already are invested in the protagonist(s) and should be following their emotional arc, interrupting that flow to be hammered with the victim of the week's point of view, or the killer's... well, you'd better have a damn good reason, that's all I have to say. Oddly, the one place in the second season where they could have benefited from a victim/villain point of view exercise, they used neither of these: in The Other Side when the killer was revealed as a Jekyll/Hyde multiple personality. (And yes, I'm using the Hollywood psych term because if I try to map that behavior to a specific, dissociative-style disorder I will get a massive headache.)

So. Although the functional purpose of these camera tricks is to give us a villain or victim eye view, there actually is no similar device for most oral histories. This is because most oral histories, tales, stories, fables, etc, are not meant to have sympathetic villains. We're meant to take a lesson from the actions of the heroes, and either do as they do or learn the moral lessons they learn over the course of making mistakes and being punished for them. Rather, the consequences of the transgressions are what are emphasized to scare us, dancing in red hot iron shoes, being drawn and quartered, etc. The only time we're meant to feel what the villain feels is when we're meant to understand that this punishment is so horrible, we should never ever ever do that thing they did.

Mood whiplash is another technique that many horror movies use to enhance fear within the audience. Generally directors and writers try to create a false sense of relief and security, sometimes with a conversation or two characters bonding, usually followed by running and screaming, or the moment of comic relief before something horrible happens. The Grimm writers are intimately familiar with that as well, as we see from several examples: Monroe's picnic with Rosalee with the victims of the yellow plague, again in Quills, the transition from Nick on the phone with Juliette to Stark attacking in Game Ogre, the dinner between high school friends to the bloody attack in The Other Side. It goes hand in hand with the jump scare, a time honored horror movie tradition. We had a recent example of both these and the gross-out all at once when Ryan the Intern finally went off and left at least A and I capslocking all over our chat programs screeching what the fuck is that? Admit it, at least half of you did too. Like you do when the serial killer is revealed to be a human sized lamprey. A lot of the episodes begin with mild jump-scares, right down to the pilot episode again when the first victim is tackled off the camera's view by the Blutbad. We had a couple in Big Feet with the Wildemann, at least in one case followed by an extended gross-out sequence as Monroe's buddy pulled the drug delivery device from his body. Last Grimm Standing was full of both jump scares (the hunters) and gross-outs (the man holding his innards in and then dropping them).

All of these are devices intended to control the adrenaline levels in the audience. Mood whiplash brings you down from the high of being frightened and the jump scare yanks you back up again. In the days of oral histories, storytellers, and fairy tales, these might have been literal jump scares. Good storytellers used very similar devices, modulating their voices to be soothing and calm when they were describing a calm scene and then abruptly switching to projected volume and often different pitch when they wanted to frighten or startle their audiences. In some historical periods storytellers used noisemaking props to assist them in creating their mood, anything from rainsticks and sheets of metal to simulate thunder to a steady drumbeat of a stick on a hollow log. These days we do the same thing in the form of the soundtrack, used to set first a comforting mood and then a disturbing one, or sometimes used in the form of a leitmotif to identify a character. (Leitmotif comes from the German leitmotiv, meaning roughly leading/guiding motif. It's a term often associated with Wagner's operas, which ties us back to German/Scandinavian legends, and in music it's a chord, a few bars, or some other fragment of music that indicates a certain person, place, or thematic element in the story. If you know the Lord of the Rings movies, you know from leitmotifs.) This can take on a sinister quality when the leitmotif for a certain character is played over a scene when we haven't yet seen and have no reason to suspect that the character is present.

Grimm, and other shows of its kind, are in an interesting place between the two worlds of the stories we used to tell each other and pass down from generation to generation by word of mouth, and the meticulously structured and created medium of film which has a set framework and a set path. Because these stories are so well known, certain techniques from oral history remain in evidence, despite the visual medium being so different. But also because fairy tales and fables of whatever culture of origin (and Grimm has drawn from several so far) are so pervasive and entrenched in our consciousness, translating them from oral to visual was bound to happen sooner or later. Now it only remains as an exercise for the production staff to pick and choose which techniques they're going to use in any given telling. We will leave determining the quality of the techniques Grimm has chosen as an exercise for the viewer.

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