Friday, 21 October 2011

Words as Visual Storytellers

One rarely come across discussions of the visual manipulation of words and letters in film. I am not referring here to the symbolism of naming characters or places (to denote personality, role, destiny and so forth) or of the sometimes unorthodox presentation of subtitles and unvoiced emotions (e.g. Night Watch or Crank 2 : High Voltage, Scott Pilgrim)

I am talking about putting words (and their constituent letters) on screen and altering them or presenting them in such a way as to add to, or comment on, the story. There is something in the world inhabited by the character, a world whose fabric, imbued with a new and nascent reality (effected by the character) communicates directly with us. An aside, if you will.

As a start, here are three examples I have mentioned in passing before. The first comes from Superman Returns. Superman is taken to hospital through the transparent doors of an operating theatre called "Trauma 1".

We see the name only from the other side, from which it reads "I AMUART". The film is about how the "father becomes the son" and "the son becomes the father". It is also about the ties of life between God and man and how we are made in his image. All that he is we can be. I AM U ART. I am, you are:

Click to enlarge

In a flash that may pass us by, much is encapsulated (like the inscription over church doors) with inconspicuous ease.

Olivier Assayas, in his film Demonlover, uses the same subtle technique, that of simply flipping a word back to front. The purpose this time is to reveal, to those sharp enough to notice, a hidden truth and an imminent danger. Diane is a conniving woman in a conniving business that thrives on back-stabbing. Repairing to an aeroplane restroom, she prepares to drug a colleague's (a superior) tub of water. She thinks, and we think, that she has the upper hand but as she plunges the syringe into it we see that she is:

Evidently Evian spelt backwards is naive, but flipped over visually the clue isn't at all obvious. A little work is needed to decipher this piece of dramatic irony.

A third example, found in a chase scene in G.I. Joe The Rise of Cobra (full analysis of the scene here), does not alter the word seen on screen but springs it into the frame at the perfect moment.

The scene involves Duke (part of a team of good guys) chasing Ana (and her team of bad guys) as she and her partners in crime attempt to blow up the Eiffel Tower. Duke and Ana used to be together and used to love each other, though we are led to believe that those feelings still linger beneath a new animosity. The chase through the streets of Paris (the city of love) can be seen as a variation on a romantic chase.

Duke gets to Ana just too late, as she already launched a missile at the tower. The missile's load, crucially, works over time, eating away at the metal. It can be stopped by a remote control that Ana wears around her waist.

Ana, fleeing from Duke, boards a craft. Duke leaps onto it and quickly reaches out to press the button strapped to her waist. The physical contact is brusque and Ana's gasp can be read as both one of frustration and gratification.

 He reaches to push the button...
Ana gasps.

The word that tells us everything both in terms of the bomb and Duke and Ana's future is on the screen of the remote control in bright red letters. The bomb and she have been :

The same double entendre, I suggest, could not have been done verbally.

The reconciliation is not complete, though, as the Eiffel Tower is already falling and beyond help.

*        *        *

Now for the transformation of Selina Kyle into Catwoman in Batman Returns. As she undergoes this change she does many outrageous things : gulps down cartons of milk, stabs her soft toys and sets fire to her doll's house.

She does one thing, though, that is a throwaway gesture. On one of her walls she has the words "Hello There" written in neon lights. Sashaying through her apartment she nonchalantly flicks at these letters, smashing two of the bulbs. She doesn't seem aware of what she is doing. We though are shown a long shot from outside the window of a new message she has spelt out that sums up the fieriness of her metamorphosis : "Hell Here".

The next example comes from an episode of the television series Moonlighting called "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice". One of the main characters, David, is a self-satisfied sort. In the dream of the title he is a horn player. We see him sitting on a window sill..."I always play my horn with my shirt off, late at night, by an open window  next to a flashing neon light, I know I look good that way".

Across from the window is a neon "HOTEL" sign. The camera slowly moves back and then stops. Now, next to this apparent paragon of manliness, with a couple of letters now obscured, is the flashing word : HOT.

One final example, not so much of manipulation but of subtle and amusing visual commentary, comes from Jean-Luc Godard's Une Femme est Une Femme. A young woman, Angela (played by Anna Karina), is waiting on the street at night. Before we see her, we are shown a large neon sign affixed to a building which we presume houses a beauty shop. The sign is in the shape of an arrow pointing down. On it is the word "Beaute".

We pan down the arrow...

...which points almost straight down at Angela:


  1. I've stayed away from here because I've been trying to think of examples other than my usual suspects, but unfortunately my depth of knowledge is rather shallow here. There's a bit of this sort of thing in "THX 1138", though on a limited scale-- Lucas zooms into displays of numbers and letters at key points of the film, going so close that they become abstract objects, devoid of meaning themselves, signage lost in a dystopian world. The best examples I can think of come from "Evangelion", where all those military units labeled with United Nations and Identification cards summed up as the abbreviations UN and ID take on a distinctly sychological air, especially with the name of the organization NERV.

  2. "Lucas zooms into displays of numbers and letters at key points of the film, going so close that they become abstract objects, devoid of meaning themselves, signage lost in a dystopian world."

    That's interesting. Not an example in the same vein as the ones I've posted here but one that does indeed use letters as tools for communicating visually beyond simple plot points (i.e. telling us where we are in a Bond film).