Saturday, October 25, 2008

On the Use of Setting and Theme as Characters

In recent weeks, I've seen a couple of movies that seem to use inanimate objects as key characters in both plot and character development. This is something with which I have very little experience with; it's entirely possible that this is a phenomenon that is quite common in art house and indie films, but previously I'd never really been exposed to much of it.

The first of these that I saw was The City of Ember, based on a children's book. Although the primary characters, while occasionally interesting, were generally dull, generic and static throughout the work. However, the City of Ember, a city built far below the surface of the earth in an attempt to save a portion of humanity, quite succinctly fulfills the character and plot development void left by the script and the characters found within. The struggle of the children's movie revolves around the reactior of the city. Built hundreds of years ago and meant only to sustain the city for a specific period of time, the measures set in place by the Builders have fallen to the wayside and escape and repair measures forgotten. As a result, the reactor is failing, and periods of terrifying blackout are becoming commonplace.

Lina and Doon set out to discover a method to repair the faulty reactor and, barring that, an escape both for them and the other inhabitants of the city. The remainder of the plot isn't terribly relevant to this. Through their adventures in the main avenues in the streets of Ember, Lina and Doon encounter a variety of obstacles; a pipeworks in a state of quite serious decay, lights that fail at the most inopportune times (not that there ever IS a good time for this), huge squig/cthulu monsters roaming the pipeworks, a series of railings and darkness surrounding the city. The characters don't so much walk about the set pieces as normal actors would in a typical film, but are rather immersed and absorbed by them, and often their fate is determined by the seemingly random layout of the city. Although Lina and Doon are responsible for discovering the mechanism by which the denizens might be saved, it is Ember itself that provides directions for them; an old manuscript for functions is found, and when the proper .. dongles are aligned, a full-scale evacuation begins. The benevolence in this part of the movie is quite striking in a context to be mentioned in the next paragraph. The city, once begun, initiates the escape and leads them into their salvation.

However, the city also encounters a series of problems; the waterwheel, designed to raise when the lifeboats enter the river, grinds and destroys itself, due to a combination of design and human neglect. The only method of repair for this wheel is the sacrifice of a character that isn't even worth naming; although the city attempts to kill Doon and Lina, a human must intervene and shed blood of his own veins in order to save them – not from a terrible event, but from what appears to be the city contriving against them.

The city itself is beautiful, and a marvel to behold; the people that developed the graphics behind it deserve an award, particularly because it has made me want to explore Ember more than any other film previous to it made me want to be a part of it's setting. Sure, Moria seemed okay, and the mountainscape after the escape from the mines was beautiful, but it wasn't engaging – not nearly so much as the City of Ember. The sheer volume of mysterious passageways and secret ducts in the pipeworks warrant the sort of exploration only a little boy could possibly hope to succeed in. It's a shame I can't visit it, it being fictional in all.

The second film, Anamorph, handles the analogue of Ember in a different light; the only character development found throughout is the work of art by the antagonist serial killer of the film. Although the characters found within are believable, sad and warranting of sympathy, little care is to be bothered with them when held up to the glory that was the art. It's quite apparent as well that this is the emphasis the director and writer of the movie wanted to place. Through exposition, we learn what an anamorph is, and how it is used in art. To paraphrash, it's a work of art that appears one way – sometimes chaotically, sometimes beautifully – at one angle, and takes on an entirely different significance and meaning when seen in another. This is accomplished, for example, by the stringing up of a series of body parts, hewn from a man and gutted in gross and vile ways, and at the far end of the room a fish-eye hole on the top of a rusted rod. When the work is viewed from the lens, it becomes a terrifying demon monster thing that is genuinely disturbing. This further manifests itself in images taken at other crime scenes; an icon that is representational of the coming murder scene can be found in each photo, although these are only seen in, as the film did it, the reflection of a mirrored coffee mug.

They of course ultimately lead to the location of the killer, and all is more or less resolved in typical cop/mystery drama fashion, although the culmination of the villains art is quite startling. It's easy to say that it was painstakingly sculpted before the movie was written, but by employing a bit of suspension of disbelief, it's a disturbing climax (of sorts). The art functions as a character because the murders were initially all done in a fashion focusing on composition and lighting, and not perspective; but as the murderer – the artist – evolves, he begins to attain an absolute mastery of color, composition and true form. It's fascinating to watch the movie while taking note of these things, and although this certainly isn't a movie for everybody, it was absolutely great if you're into the analysis of imagery and symbolism.

The intentional lack of character development on the other humans in the film, while likely alienating many people, is what makes this movie shine; the entirety of the work directs your attention to the art, suggesting that art is the only worthwhile pursuit (at least in this context), and it succeeds dramatically, and almost painfully, and certainly gruesomly well. It' something I plan on seeing again in the theatre in the next few days, as I imagine that this work is even more fascinating the second time around.

I pray that developers in the future begin to use setting and themes as characters to be developed on their own, and any sense of morality coming from the work to be coming from those two things. It was quite refreshing to see that settings and themes aren't to be developed at the sole discretion and influence of the characters, and I was, in a word, blown away by its effects.

I think I've found a new love.

Ps: if you have any films or novles that employ this sort of development in them, please, please let me know – I'm going to quickly becoming desperate to feed this new longing of mine.

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