Friday, December 18, 2009

Motion Studies: The Action Image

It is heartlessly impossible to describe and analyze almost any image from Fritz Lang’s Spies. This is because they are clever pieces of bait that scream to be appreciated rather than explained. Unlike most action films made today—and Spies is a sincere, modern Mission: Impossible before there was a hokey, post-modern Mission: Impossible—we take the bait and love it.

That bait includes such images of a female hand holding a cigarette, while the other gently swings a gun in to the frame, a sinister icon-shot of one of the masterminds who keeps the main characters in his clutches, a Japanese diplomat committing slow Hari-Kiri, and an oncoming train barreling in to another train in a tunnel. All of it’s images are action images. They are obsessed with motion in it’s fastest, most sensational and outrageous forms, and they pursue all the details that are possible within these forms to build on the story. One of the more decorated of these images is an overhead shot of a boxing match that takes place in the ballroom a ritzy restaurant. An orchestra is accompanying the match. The area is lit with only two overheads, so that the flailing shadows of the boxers can be seen on the upper and lower sides of the ring. Shadows were an epitome of German Expressionism—a movement that was shriveling away by 1928 in the purest sense—but Lang made sure to reconcile it’s conventions with this quite new genre; the espionage thriller. This boxing image holds on to these expressionist notes for about ten seconds (and for several other quick, inserted shots), before pulling the rug out from under our eyes. A boxer is knocked over and he stays down for more than five seconds. The orchestra raises their violin bows and light floods the ballroom in a second. The bourgeois audience who has been sitting at their tables in a circle around the ring, in the dark, leap to their feet and crowd the ballroom, dancing waltzes around the boxing ring to the orchestra’s inevitable change of music. Then the camera has nothing else to do move in to the heat of the party and focus in on two pivotal characters, one of them a spy.

Cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner probably sensed these shots were a suspension of the story per se, but he probably didn’t care. It gave him a chance to light a scene more dramatically than anything else in the film. Lang must have known the boxing interlude, and the shift to the bright light and dancing was not a pivotal moment to the forward momentum of the story in and of itself, but he chose this moment—simply a weird introduction—in to a grand showmanship moment, where the audience would feel yet another thrill go down their spine. This is probably the essence of the action image: thrills at all times, and at all costs. As long as these thrills are playful, as long as the details are strange and unexpected, each thrill can do the last one one better.