Welcome to Framed, a new column at Cinematical that celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
I've always been fascinated with the idea that any film I watch is really thousands of individual photos. And I'm one of those people who often pauses movies to marvel at things in a scene -- or snap a screenshot of curious things going on in the background. The purpose of this column is to select great frames from many different movies and discuss why they're so compelling, what they mean in the context of the film as a whole, and countless other things depending on the individual image selected. I have a background in fine art and a keen interest in the technical side of filmmaking. I hope to bring these interests together and showcase not only some amazing shots, but some fantastic films as well.
Enough about that, though. Let's jump in and talk about my first selection -- a great shot from Duncan Jones' sci-fi flick Moon (spoilers ahead).
Moon is filled with some amazingly beautiful images. Duncan Jones and cinematographer Gary Shaw have gone to great lengths to create a film that is sparse yet visually arresting. The duo captures the actors and their small moon base in a way atypical of most sci-fi films (there's nothing inherently futuristic in this film -- everything looks not only normal, but well used), but it's a great decision because it allows us to focus more on the characters than the setting. The fact that there's just one central character in the film early on -- and that he trumps the sci-fi trappings and the vastness of space itself -- demonstrates the logic behind this choice.
Without getting too in-depth, the film's plot revolves around astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) -- a technician overseeing a corporation's harvesting interests on the moon. Sam has signed on for a three year tour -- and he only has a robot/supercomputer named Gerty (Kevin Spacey) to keep him company. When Sam wrecks his lunar explorer after seeing something that couldn't have possibly been there, he awakens to find that he's not the only person on the base -- there's another Sam Bell standing right in front of him. What follows takes us inside the spatial psychologies of the unknown: identity, time, memory, and dreams.
This idea of doppelgangers and twins runs throughout Moon. Jones and Shaw return to it time and time again in the film's visuals, sometimes subtly, sometimes in a more obvious fashion. Because this concept is so central to the film, I've decided to discuss a shot that illustrates it nicely, but in a rather understated and simple way.
The frame in question appears at 34:34 on Netflix Watch Instantly, where Moon is currently available. It's a deceptively simple image of Rockwell -- who's battered and exasperated by trying to figure out what's going on around him -- sitting on a seat in the corner of his living quarters. Unlike the rest of the base, this wall is a reflective, metallic gray instead of the more utilitarian white -- although the white that colors nearly every frame of the film is present here in the form of Bell's robe. Jones and Shaw give us a medium shot that allows us to see the character, the wall to his left, and the wall behind him. It's a nice set-up, but the true beauty of the image is hidden in the details.
What makes this particular frame stand out for me is that it says so much about the rest of Moon's story. Sam's trying to discover who he is, but he may not like what he finds -- or worse, lose himself completely in the process. With his hand on the wall, it's as if Sam is reaching out to himself -- only that self is vague and ill defined because the metal isn't exactly a mirror. Meanwhile, Sam has his back turned to another of his reflections, one that also has its back turned to him, yet is also reaching out to this other Sam. The visual juxtaposition is fascinating because the Sam we know is in the middle. The reflected Sam becomes the Sam he's looking for, but he isn't really sure who that person is. Having his back turned on the other Sam is largely symbolic of how he was a short time earlier in the film -- certain that he knew himself. In this one simple image, Jones has captured his character's arc up until this point in the film.
In Portraits and Repetition, Gertrude Stein once asked, "Is there repetition or is there insistence? I am inclined to believe there is no such thing as repetition." For Stein, repetition is bound to time and memory – and she believed that any form of artistic endeavor tied to those concepts lacked a spark of creative genius because they revolved around acts of identification and not perception. I'm inclined to think that Stein would have been pleased with the work of Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker on Moon because it's clearly a film about perception.
When one thinks of "clones", repetition is a phrase that almost immediately springs to mind. Clones, by their very nature, are supposed to be exact copies of something. However, the Sams in Moon might have sprung into existence from the same genetic material, but they're really quite different individuals. The first Sam is a relatively laid back and jovial fellow. The second is quick-tempered and prone to violent outbursts. Jones and Parker are far more interested in these nuances and perceptions than they are in recounting the events that happened to two people who were carbon copies of someone else. In fact, I'm willing to bet if the film introduced the real Sam Bell, he'd have been different than both of these men.
This fascination with perception affects the Sams as well -- particularly the first Sam. Even after he knows he's a clone, and knows that every memory he has is something that happened to someone else and was then uploaded into his head, he grieves for the things he lost and the life he never really lived. He longs to "go home" when he's been home all along. The truth doesn't matter, though -- it's the perception that does, something Moon drives home in this still frame. Stein's belief that the essence of things was more important than anything appears to be echoed here. The reflections aren't "real", but we perceive them as signs that Sam isn't just one individual, but many.
The director plays with these visuals in other images as well, notably in a scene with a real mirror, a scene where Sam plays ping pong against the other Sam, a beautifully conceived dream sequence, and even a fight scene between the two men. All are effective, but none are nearly as poetic as the shot of Sam touching that wall. There's a sense of pathos that comes through in that shot, even though a word isn't spoken. It certainly demonstrates Jones' ability to tell powerful stories through imagery and nothing else.
The other element that stands out is the way this image uses shapes and architecture. There's something visually interesting about the odd piece of metal jointing where the two walls meet and how everything reflected in it seems to run vertically. It's another mnemonic of the divide between Sam and his other selves that may be out there -- they may never be able to truly connect. Even more noticeable is the eye-like object on the wall behind Sam. It becomes a subtle visual reminder of all the unblinking camera eyes following Sam's every move through the base. Even here, in a moment of sadness, it's as if he's being watched.
Whether one looks at this particular screenshot from Moon and finds symbolic meaning buried in its imagery or merely appreciates it as a fine example of the art of filmmaking is largely irrelevant. Beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder -- and to my eye, Moon is overflowing with images that will be frozen in my memory for some time to come. Jones has crafted a hauntingly beautiful film -- one that I hope people will see not only for the great story and performances, but for the breathtaking visuals as well.