Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Tess of the D'Urbevilles

A great clip to look at for social class and status; there's a lot going on with every technical element here to frame and comment on this aspect of representation, manipulating the audience towards a likely (preferred) reading through multiple, often combined, signifiers.

[alas, the previously embedded clip has been disabled]

A NOTE ON ABBREVIATIONS...I use them frequently simply because of the scale of blogging I do, as a 2-finger non-typist! You can use abbreviations in an exam, but should only do so where you've first used the full term (and put your intended abbreviation in brackets). Given there are different ways of denoting the same shot (some use 'big' as a step before 'extreme' for example) don't take the risk of losing marks by using abbreviations that some examiners may not understand and/or welcome.

This is a sequence which in some regards frames social class in a highly conventional, normative* fashion, employing common tropes or stereotypes (such as the drunken, unintelligent peasant, Tess' father), but also includes some more subtle, ambivalent elements. We start with a conventional establishing shot, an extreme long shot (ELS) foregrounding the rural setting. With the BBC logo, we might easily expect a costume drama centred on upper class characters, something the Beeb is internationally known for. The exaggerated diegetic sound of birds cheeping reinforces the signification of rural (this ambient sound also contributes to the smooth, unobtrusive continuity editing style), and the next shot, a medium shot (MS), helps signify the time period through the heavy garb and particularly the hat.

normative* the repetition of certain stereotypes has the effect of defining what is seen as normal, or common sense; if we see over and over again representations of gay men as effeminate, for example, this frames how many people will view gay men. You can also write of 'normativising'. Heteronormative is another specific use of the term. Consider the following shot:

Working class characters are routinely represented as of limited intelligence, and often with stubble (and filthy clothing) to further signify the shortfalls in their character/morality (they are often villainous as well as cretinous). We see this in many TV dramas (e.g. Zak Dingle in Emmerdale, Spike [Rhys Ifans] as working-class and Welsh in Notting Hill, one of many examples from WT/Curtis flicks). The combined impact of such representations is to encourage the perception of the working class as lazy, unintelligent, villainous, filthy etc; such discourses help enable political concepts such as 'dole scroungers' - you can see similar tropes in 'reality' shows such as Benefits Street.

THE PEASANT (working-class if modern) FATHER V PARSON BINARY
Conventionally, we might expect a character we follow from the outset to be a or the central protagonist. The editing style is unobtrusive, with classic continuity techniques of shot reverse shot (reinforced by framing the parson on the left third and the father on the right third, utilising the rule of thirds) and the 180 degree rule observed. Even before we get the stark use of angles, with the minister literally looking down on Tess' father and a corresponding low angle representing the father looking up to the minister, we see the father bow his head and touch the brim of his hat, denoting* his respect for his social superior.

denoting* this can be confusing: where the intended symbolic meaning (signified) is very obvious you can use either denotes or connotes

The audience are encouraged to identify and empathise with the father through editing choices; while we cut to MLS, and a relatively long take, to observe the father's quizzical reaction to the 'Sir John' comment, the minister is next shown in ELS. The ensuing shot reverse shot sequence subtly reinforces the class binary*, or power relations, at play, with a MS of the minister easily dominating the frame while Mr D'Urbeville (Mr D) is both literally and figuratively smaller, framed in a MLS (though when his emotions are emphasised he is framed in MCU).

binary* it may be a good idea to use the full term; you could also add the responsible theorist (Levi-Strauss) in brackets to make sure your use of terminology is recognised by the examiner!!! There are so many terms/concepts linked with Media Studies you can't always take this for granted.

It is also notable that the two are consistently separately framed; we only get one two shot, other than when initially framed in ELS as they pass each other, and this is a short take. This could be simply to reduce the repetition of the repeated shot reverse shot, or, as it coincides with the minister explaining that Mr D is of aristocratic heritage, could also be read (employing Stuart Hall's concept of the preferred/negotiated/oppositional reading) as subtly signifying the potential for equality of status between the two. However, the shortness of the take undermines that reading, and we're straight back to a shot reverse shot sequence again - Mr D is framed with the horse (which is better groomed than he is!), but not the minister.

The mise-en-scene further reduces any polysemy that might be read into the comparative status of the pair, helping to anchor the sense of a binary here: the minister is clean shaven and has an immaculate white collar, with black clothing and gloves further connoting his respectable, professional status, while Mr D is unshaven with greasy, lank hair, has a filthy collar, and heavy brown clothing signifying his manual labourer status. His bare-handed patting of the horse is a further simple but effective signifier of this difference, and of the probability that he works with his hands.

Despite this, we must note that it is Mr D that we follow through editing, not his social superior, with the ELS used to signify the long journey ahead. The non-diegetic strings-based music is quite downbeat and mournful, signifying that if Mr D is our central protagonist, he is likely to face tragedy on what Campbell, with his monomyth theory, denoted as 'the hero's journey', whilst also very simply signifying that this is a drama! The music is a combination of long drawn out violin notes and quicker harp notes, a combination designed to produce tension in the audience (through the physiology of unconsciously disrupting heartbeat rates). We have been provided with fairly minimal exposition through the dialogue with which to establish the equilibrium (using Todorov's narrative structure), but have swiftly been presented with one element of the dis-equilibrium, this potential shift in Mr D's family status.

Of course, the drama is an adaptation of Tess of the D'Urbevilles, clearly denoting Tess, his daughter, as the actual central protagonist. The white serif font used for the titles suitably denotes serious drama, with the particular serif style also signifying the past setting. As these continue to appear, framed with open countryside, there is scope for a presumably oppositional reading that this is a cheap, low budget production, with none of the village, town or castle settings that we might anticipate from BBC costume drama, only the costume itself establishing the verisimilitude of the historic setting.

NB: you almost certainly WON'T get titles included in the clip, as you are not being tested on INSTITUTIONAL knowledge
The music cuts to a contrastingly upbeat folk tune at the moment the 'Tess...' title appears, with the transition between the two scenes established both the convention of the upwards-tilting camera and the focus pull on the marching band, who initially appear out of focus. We get a fresh ELS as an establishing shot for this new scene, enabling us to see three distinct groups within the rural, apparently coastal, scene.

The actual dresses of the young women are themselves polysemic, and could be read as of any social class, dependent largely on the viewer's familiarity with period dresses, or the simulacra of these (as Baudrillard might say), but the pieces of hay they are holding provide anchoring connotations of working class, or peasantry, as does the clothing of the men in the marching band, with heavy brown material much like Mr D's. If we were in any doubt over this, we might consider that a commutation test would suggest that upper class female characters would most likely appear dancing in a grand hall or ballroom, not out in meadows.

The positioning of Gemma Arterton's Tess as the central protagonist, and the character the audience should identify with, is unsubtle, to the point of her central framing in a MCU (which simply cuts in on the preceding LS where she is centrally framed) where the actress' name is framed with her, and the other young women around her are out of focus in this very tight, shallow depth of focus. She also stands out from this group of five by virtue of her darker hair, which may be coincidental or may be one element of framing her relative superiority to the girls around her.

The ellipsis here (from walking along to dancing) is in keeping with the continuity editing and is disguised rather than a jump cut. Tess is continually framed in shots, with the variable focus often used as a tool to anchor her positioning as the central protagonist. This is reinforced when we consider how her father, who we might initially have read as the lead role, is framed in this sequence. He remains in ELS throughout, clearly relegating him to secondary status. The audience is positioned to empathise with Tess' shame and embarassment at her father's drunken ranting, playing into a very common working class stereotype (the seeming absurdity of his claims to grandeur connoted through the cart he is being transported on; no horse for him!) whilst also differentiating her from him. We repeatedly get Tess' point-of-view in this sequence, and her father is clearly framed as 'the other'* here. His accent was notably coarse and regional, and his language simplistic, compared to the minister, but here Tess, whilst having a regional, clearly rural accent, is to some extent differentiated as slightly more refined than her peers.

*the other: this is a very useful concept to help with understanding representations within a clip. In most cases 1 or more characters are clearly denoted as outsiders; different, excluded from the main group, with techniques such as cutting away when they speak (or simply giving limited speech) reinforcing this. look for character/s that don't comfortably fit within the group or culture represented as normal on screen, and consider how negatively they are portrayed. 
The band's music forms an audio bridge with the next sequence, another continuity editing device, and it is notable here that one of the three characters is positioned as more significant than the others. There are two and three shots, but only the character who remains standing is framed by himself, in a series of MCUs, including when the others are speaking, subtly denoting his importance and helping encourage audience identification with him. If were left in any doubt as to their elevated social status, which appears clear through their light-coloured, thin material clothing (in contrast to the heavy, brown clothing worn by Mr D and the bandsmen), and the book-reading, the derisive "dance with country hoydens" clearly anchors the binary here.

We get a series of group MLSs intercut with MCUs of Tess. There is a subtle, if ironic, link to her father earlier, as we see her bow her head and close her eyes, denoting her recognition of inferior social status, but also coy or virtuous embarrassment at the brazenness of her friend asking to dance. We see here that there is differentiation in the clothing; the prominent cleavage of the 'bold' woman who asks for the dance is similar to the common trope of the busty working class barmaid. We see this subtle positioning of Tess as being of higher moral standing by cutting back to her showing relief when the man fails to pick her bold friend. This remains rather polysemic at this stage, but alongside the basic class binaries of the father and minister and the dancers and young men we can also see some signification of binaries within the same social class; Tess and her father are differentiated, Tess is further juxtaposed with her bolder, coarser friend, and the young man himself is framed as a man of action while his two colleagues are rendered buffoonish comic figures. The pace of editing is fairly slow, with some faster sequences when the young women are dancing, which might suggest a mature target audience.

The assumed 'natural' authority of the wealthier characters would certainly be a theme to explore to help get into the wider issues reflected within the clip.

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