Sunday, 22 February 2015

June 2012 exam: Coming Down From the Mountain

This was the only example, so far, of physical dis/ability being the exam focus. The clip is embedded below, plus a full marks exam essay (not from an IGS student, but from a CHS student - see


In place of the customary establishinbg shot, typically an extreme long shot of a building or area, we get an ELS of a bedroom, faded in from black perhaps as if from a nightmare or to signify the darkness of the shirtless brother's (David; the disabled brother is Ben) mind.

The two-shot conventionally connotes a close, tight bond or relationship, but the accompanying voiceover and following sequence of shots quickly anchor quite the opposite. Furthermore, later two shots at the bus station are employed to connote David's claustophobia and sense of being trapped and confined. The high angle of this aerial shot (clearly shot in a studio as it requires a removable ceiling) could connote the vulnerability of both, and to some extent the clip does represent the turmoil of two teens, but the preferred reading (using Stuart Hall's concept) appears to be of a binary opposite, nicely achieved through the mise-en-scene. Ben's side of the room is incredibly messy, with toys and posters we'd associate with a young child scattered around, in stark contrast to the skull, heavy metal poster, drawings and general neat, minimalist, monochrome appearance of David's side.

Whilst we later hear both brothers speaking, the voiceover's opening line, "last summer I decided to kill my brother" is juxtaposed with curiously benign, bland non-diegetic music, which will shortly segue into the even more ironic Beach Boys feelgood track. We are immediately positioned as an audience to empathise and identify with David, a reading which is reinforced through the following two shots, which provide us with David's point-of-view (pov), a frequent occurence in this sequence. However, given the extreme nature of his feelings, it is debatable whether our sympathies might lie with ben instead. It is notable, whichever way this is read, that Ben is cast as "the other"; he is is not given a voice or agency for much of this sequence.

We cross-fade into a centrally framed medium close-up pan around David, whose mindframe is well represented by the posters and artwork behind him, connoting that he is the source of the voiceover as well as the central protagonist of the piece (although his words could clearly cast him as antagonist, the Proppian archetype of villain). Ben is initially in a medium shot which slowly tightens, reflecting the narrowing eyes of David, whose pov this is. Ben is shot in a much more pronounced high angle, connoting his weakness and vulnerability. The passivity of Ben in this opening sequence is comparable to the objectification that feminist Laura Mulvey criticised when formulating the male gaze theory, even if there is an absence of sexual signifiers (which itself is normative in the representation of the disabled).

David's violent thoughts are captured in a smart, polysemic piece of Eisensteinian editing (montage), cross-fading from Ben to a depiction of the big bang (in black and white to remain in keeping with the theme of David's darkness, and perhaps his greater maturity and range of references), complete with sound effect, which also serves to signify a bullet or explosion hitting Ben.

Including a shot of microbes not only helps to anchor the reading of a Darwinian mindframe, but hints at the idea that Ben's biology has gone wrong. The shots of the apes and then the cavemen can also be read as carrying conflicting, polysemic connotations; the views of David could be viewed as 'Neanderthal', but then so too could the audience if they do go along with our protagonist's views.

This montage is an unusual inclusion in a mainstream drama, but serves to reinforce our identification with David, though could also be read as undermining the apparent sophistication of his Darwinian points given the clunky, 1950s-style shots used.

Once again, the diegetic (it plays on the radio as we cut into the kitchen) Beach Boys track ("wouldn't it be nice ...") leaves scope for multiple readings, though the reference to 'getting older' does link to David's desire to be older and so freed from looking after Ben. This kicks in as we get a peculiar low angled shot of the block of flats this family lives in, the angle being something we might expect from the Bates Motel rather than for a typical nuclear family. The next shot being of Ben rather than David is an interesting choice, which could be linked to the music and a presumed sense of his own frustrations. As we open this close-up below his chin, there is a momentary narrative enigma before we pan up with the fork to reveal which brother this is. Any sense that greater agency is being given to Ben is immediately dashed when the following shot cuts once more to David, revealing this as his pov of Ben. Despite the earlier montage, this is a good example of the continuity editing approach generally applied in the clip, with a match-on-action of the fork, and a shot reverse shot sequence that sticks to the 180 degree rule.

On the surface at least, this clip centres on the frustrations of a mature older teen forced to deal with his disabled brother. However, David is also signified as quite childish, being admonished by his mother to grow up.

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