This week I want to focus on iconography. How can you make a shot iconic, or more specifically a character within the shot? Think of a Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972) sitting with his cat in his chair, surrounded by darkness. Or a Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones walking out of the shade into focus, nicely framed by his head. A Batman standing on top of a skyscraper against the Gotham night sky. Bill Murray sitting on his bedside in his gown and slippers for Lost in Translation (2004). George C. Scott as General Patton standing in front of a humongous American flag in Patton (1970). Rita Hayworth wondering if she’s ‘decent’ in Gilda (1946), all great iconic images of famous movie-characters.
I’m fascinated by this iconography. Even outside of the art of filmmaking it engages me. Putting Barack Obama’s head on that duo-tone poster with the words ‘Hope’ beneath it, or a Steve Jobs in his turtleneck, jeans and sport shoes walking on stage. Often these are carefully designed concepts that succeed in creating an image that is larger-than-life, that dehumanizes the character and makes him/her something more-than-human. He/she becomes an icon.
Film is a great medium to express this technique of iconography because of its fully constructed artificial reality. An artist can use framing, lightning, clothing, music and background to design an iconic image.
Analyzing an icon
This week I wanted my one shot to relate to this concept of iconography. For this I decided to turn to the western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) from director Andrew Dominik and filmed by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Fargo (1996), Kundun (1997), No Country for Old Men (2007) and most recently the James Bond film Skyfall (2012)).
The Assassination… (as I will call it for short) is a unique western in that it is a long, slow moving character study that avoids many typical western-conventions like shoot-outs, silent heroes and sunset-drenched horse-riding. The film instead focuses on the iconography of both legendary outlaw Jesse James and his infamous killer Robert Ford. It examines the construction of legends and the influence of fame and infamy on the human psyche. Way before the gossip-fueled internet-machine, Jesse James’ story is a much older, but still recognizable, tale of fame and popularity damaging a well known figure and the dark psyche of a stalker (which is what Robert Ford basically was).
In a film that critically examines iconography, it’s not difficult to pick out some beautiful shots that play in to this theme. Given the fact that Roger Deakins was the cinematographer of the movie, the emphasis can definitely be placed on beautiful. The Assassination… is consistently filmed with an eye for beauty, poetry, nostalgia and taste. It’s never showing off, but always eye-catching. Deakins uses a slew of techniques to bring the story across. He uses a lot of darkness and silhouettes to give the West a more looming, depressing atmosphere. And when we enter daylight, autumn and winter colors dominate. Grey, brown and yellow dominate. It never feels romantic or like a particularly tempting time and place to hang out in, but it intrigues and thus draws you in.
When the focus is on Jesse James, Deakins manages to film him in a constant state of ambiguity, sadness and just tiredness. His most heroic, and possibly most iconic image comes early in the film when he and his gang rob a train at night. Deakins films the arrival of the train as a magical play of light and shadow. The light of the train glows across the branches of the trees as the hooded faces of the gang are momentarily illuminated. Then Jesse climbs up the rail block to welcome the approaching train, a lantern in his hand. We only see his silhouette, contrasting against the bright light of the train…
That is an iconic shot. Silhouettes always work well in iconography, but this one is up there with the most beautiful of them. It becomes even more arresting when the train comes to a halt and smoke envelops the figure of Jesse James. Here, the man literally disappears in the clouds of his fame. He’s untouchable simply because he cannot be grasped. As he walks through the train his face remains covered by his handkerchief and he remains ambiguous in his intent. How aggressive is he? How dangerous? How much of a Bad Guy?
The film basically takes the next 2+ hours to slowly deconstruct and destroy that iconic image. Jesse gradually is portrayed more and more fragile and unhinged. He looks tired, weary and, as I noticed, is often filmed through distorted glass panels further suggesting his broken-down character.
Then the assassination comes and Jesse James is gone. Which finally brings us to the One Shot. When he dies he’s turned into a public trophy. He’s put on display in his coffin and is famously photographed in front of a group of spectators. That photo has become famous and timeless and can be found all over the internet when you google ‘Jesse James Death’. It is the re-enacting of this photo that gives the movie its One Shot.
Deakins decides to frame Jesse James’ corpse through a reflecting lens. It’s not a complicated metaphor, but it’s a very potent one. The man, Jesse James, dies at the expense of the myth of him. He is literally captured by the lens and has become ‘an image’, literally. The framing and technical craftsmanship are magnificent in this shot, as is to be expected, but it also says a profoundly sad thing about iconography, fame, and media.
It’s these type of shots that I really admire. There is a very clear and strong visual motive present in its use of reflection and creative framing, but it’s not just an effect, it’s not showing off, it’s fully grounded in the themes and narrative of the movie and actually emphasizes them.