JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

Sequence A opens with a partial shot of the front of a bus painted with red and green stripes. Overburdened with bags and packages, wearing clothing that immediately codes him as being from the country, Ivan walks around the front of the bus and the camera pans with him, past the figures of several male bystanders who stand in the foreground [figure 1].

Figure 1: opening shot of sequence A

Several shots later we are introduced to the man in the gray cap, who in a medium, shallow shot stands before a set of vertical steel bars and a single row of clipped hedges. The shots preceding this one combine with this figure’s sightline to indicate that he is watching Ivan’s conversation with the young male thief from across the busy street. Further evidence for this occurs when the man with the gray cap reaches up with a level palm and shades his eyes against the sun [figure 2].

Figure 2

Later, after a few animated exchanges between Ivan and the young thief (in which Ivan is further coded as “country”), the thief looks off to the right of the frame, yells, waves an arm … and we cut to a shot in which the camera’s position is to the left and behind the thief, which allows us to look across the street that he is facing. The camera then pans quickly to the left and reveals that he is waving to the man in the gray cap, who then raises his arms in a gesture indicating that he has no idea what this young man wants with him [figure 3a and 3b].

Figures 3a and 3b

We cut again, this time to a shallow close up [figure 4] of the young man’s profile, during which the thief intimates to Ivan that the man in the gray cap owes him money.

Figure 4

Two edits later, we return to the continuation of the shot in figure 3; the man in the gray cap continues to gesture that he cannot hear anything above the noise of the traffic [figure 5a]. We then cut to a shot of Ivan as he looks back from the man in the cap to the thief [figure 5b]. Note that at this point, the man in the cap, despite the fact that he does not speak, is now undeniably part of the diegesis.

Figures 5a and 5b

We then immediately cut to the continuation of the shot in figure 4, as the thief motions at Ivan to cross the street and retrieve money from the man in the gray cap [figure 6].

Figure 6

Cut again, this time to the continuation of the first shot in figure 5, as Ivan walks away from the camera and heads across the street. Just as Ivan nears the other side of the street, the thief pushes his cart out past the left side of the frame [figure 7a]. A group of uniformed schoolchildren cross the frame from left to right as the camera zooms slightly and tightens on Ivan and the man in the cap, and Ivan explains that he has come over to retrieve the young man’s money [figure 7b].

Figures 7a and 7b

The shot continues as the man in the cap waves his arms suggesting he has no idea what is going on; his mouth moves as if he is saying something, but he remains without a voice, as what he says is either unrecorded or recorded too low to be intelligible. A bus (this one with white and green horizontal stripes) passes between the subjects and the camera. We then cut to a close up of Ivan and the man with the cap from roughly the same angle as but a closer position than the shot in figure 7, as Ivan implores the man in the cap to hand over the money [figure 8].

Figure 8

Six shots later, after Ivan notices that the thief has left and begins yelling and chasing after him, occurs a close up [figure 9], the first shot of the old, black, half-toothless man. In this shot, he is apparently mouthing words to someone — or something — off to the left of the frame as Ivan speaks off-screen. What this man says is either unrecorded or recorded too low to be intelligible, making him the second character in this sequence who (quite literally) speaks without the benefit of a voice. In fact, when his mouth moves, it is Ivan’s exhortation for the return of his material possessions that we hear.

Furthermore, the old man’s sightline is absolutely without reference; none of the shots that proceed or follow this one work to establish this character’s location or purpose in the scene. That his voice is unheard and his sightline is so completely without anchor is striking, as it makes this onscreen figure appear to be engaged with both everything and nothing in particular.

Figure 9

Three shots later, we see the same old, black, half-toothless man first revealed in the shot in figure 9; here, in figure 10, he moves left to right across the frame and again mouths something that we cannot hear. His sightline is once again left completely without anchor. A car horn sounds as the old man’s face jerks across the frame, making this the second time that any sound he makes gets covered up by someone or something off-screen.

Figure 10

The next shot [figure 11a] shows Ivan jumping back to avoid traffic as he tries to cross the street to chase the thief who has run off with his belongings. We then cut to a very brief close up [figure 11b] of the old, half-toothless man; this time he mouths something to someone (or something) at the right of the frame … but he is once again without a voice, and his sightline remains without anchor, as the final two shots of the sequence show Ivan crossing the street.

Figures 11a and 11b

Most of the formal elements that call attention to themselves in this sequence (like the complex sightline matching that lasts much of the sequence) would seem most immediately attributable to Kingston’s chaos and Ivan’s naïveté and bewilderment. But this explanation becomes problematic beginning with the shot in figure 9, which features an unidentified character whose appearance could be argued as essentially incidental were it not for his reappearance in the shots in figures 10 and 11b. These last two shots call attention to this character in a specific fashion, suggesting by their very inclusion — and the fact that they show the man speaking to someone we do not see, and looking at someone or something that we cannot identify — that he either will reappear later or currently figures into the narrative or theme of either the sequence or the entire film.

Neither, however, is the case. Considered within the context of the sequence or the entire film, this man’s appearance in these three shots is baseline for display. He is in this sequence, in other words, simply to be looked at and nothing else. Furthermore, and perhaps most strangely, the formal “grammar” of this sequence makes it clear that this man who is here to be looked at is not here to be observed by those around him. It is clear by the end of the sequence that this old, black, toothless man, who is notably without agency, who while in the film is so vividly disconnected from the world of film, is included solely for the benefit of observers located outside of the diegesis. In this instance, The Harder They Come most clearly succeeds in making an object or “passive backdrop” (Callenbach 59) of its subject matter, which is to say that here the film engages in and affirms the very process that it tries so desperately to avoid.

The second sequence (sequence B) is in a way a counterpoint to the first. It consists of one middling length take and begins shortly after Ivan avoids capture at the motel by gunning down three police officers. As Ivan leaves the motel in that scene, he encounters a drunk on his way home. The drunk verbally expresses surprise at seeing Ivan running from the motel with a gun and no pants (so even before sequence B, the film provides the drunk with a voice). Two scenes later, we return for the second and last time to the drunk. Here in sequence B, he is now home and in his underwear at the bottom of what is revealed to be a staircase.

We cut to a close up [figure 12a] of the drunk wearing a hat and no shirt, his head propped on one arm. The drunk appears weary and dejected. He moves his mouth occasionally but says nothing audible; the impression is of a man too inebriated to say anything and too familiar with the words he hears to do aught but mock the abuse. A woman’s voice opens the sequence and is the only audible, non-ambient sound it features. She is never onscreen, but the first line she speaks, along with the camera’s slow zoom out to reveal that the man sits at the bottom of a staircase, anchors her position as being somewhere upstairs.

Figures 12a and 12b

Woman: What you doing down there so long, you thinking? You mean you can’t think of a story to fool me with tonight? You go and make up your story, man.

The man nods slowly, as if in silent agreement with the woman upstairs.

Woman: What a day when I catch you out and no story to help you.

As the man rises, the camera zooms out and shows he is sitting at the bottom of a staircase. He turns away from us, and as the woman delivers the following line, he walks upstairs [figure 12b].

Woman: That is the day I’m waiting for.

At first glance, this single shot lasting roughly forty-five seconds might seems to support the claim at the end of my analysis of sequence A. Sequence B shows a man in a hat and situation closely matching those of cartoonist Reg Smythe’s “lovable” lush Andy Capp. This is a drunk coming home to a wife who has long since tired of him returning to her in such a state. The drunk’s function within the film’s narrative is similar to the function of that of the old, toothless man in sequence A: Both men are minor characters who appear more than once, a pattern suggesting to the viewer that they ought to be considered more than “passive backdrop.”

But sequence B features a scene that, though seemingly outside the narrative and themes of the film as a whole, works without objectifying the character onscreen because it presents a situation that does not necessarily depend upon cultural difference for its import. In fact, the scene’s import relies upon the trans-cultural phenomenon of men returning home drunk to wives who are disgusted with their behavior. In other words, sequence B depends upon the viewer identifying in some way with the character or situation onscreen. In contrast, sequence A presents little if anything at all that would catalyze or foster audience identification with the old, black, half-toothless man onscreen. So although both scenes feature extra-narrative characters who function primarily as artifacts, the man in sequence B is there to remind us all of what we are, while the man in sequence A is there to remind some of us precisely of what we are not.

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