The Visual Hero

There’s a moment like it in every heroic action movie, at least every heroic action movie worth watching. It isn’t a fight scene. There’s rarely any dialogue. For all intents and purposes, nothing happens. And yet the music swells, your pulse picks up, and there is an undeniable sense of the heroic radiating through the air. Why? How can a break between moments of action carry such a distinct and exhilarating emotion? It’s more than the music, influential as it is. And it’s more than the narrative situation, which can generally best be described as the calm before the storm. Films like this use a number of visual tricks to quickly ratchet up the tension in a heroic direction. Certain camera angles, central framing of the hero, and stark color contrast can all help produce such an emotional shift. But here I want to talk about another visual technique, one with interesting implications for how we interpret heroism in the first place.

Let’s start with an image that you’ll undoubtedly find familiar. The bad guys are doing their thing: villains bullying  their helpless victims. They’re in total control, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Suddenly, a voice from off-screen pulls our attention away from the sinister relationship playing out in front of us. The next shot shows a figure standing alone at the center of the frame, calm and poised, ready to intervene. Our hearts surge with a sense of the heroic.

The ingredients of that emotion are probably obvious. There’s the situational: we see an injustice, and then we see someone with an opportunity to correct it. But there’s also the simple numerical contrast. In one shot we see the villains, who are generally numerous. In the next we see the hero standing utterly alone. As the Musketeers would say, “All for one”.

We can look to old Westerns for particularly skillful uses of this two-shot technique. In recent action films we generally see the hero on-site, already arrived to save the day. But in old Westerns, the second shot would often feature no more than a faint figure appearing out of an empty horizon. The villains hesitate; they turn in confusion to address this intrusion, preparing themselves even as the hero approaches.

This change on the two-shot pattern has a couple effects. First, it makes us wait. As anyone with a fondness for Westerns knows, the genre is defined by its empty spaces, by its ability to ratchet up tension and emotion simply by postponing action. By putting the hero further away on the horizon, the filmmakers make us wait for the confrontation we know is coming, and in so doing they amp up the suspense. Second, this change makes the hero start out small on the screen and grow larger as he comes closer.

Another way of achieving the same effect, often even more powerfully, is to situate these different elements within a single shot. Take a look at the following shot from Once Upon A Time In The West

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It is probably my favorite example of this kind of a shot. The opening of the film shows three hard-bitten men waiting in a train station. The train pulls in, and they all approach, hands held close to their weapons. But it seems that no one is going to get off the train, so the men assume that their quarry has not come after all. In one shot we see the three men relax and start to turn away as the train pulls out of the station in the background, revealing a lone man standing behind it. The three assassins notice him at the same time that we do. All in the same shot, they turn, placing their hands by their weapons, and setting up the three-on-one duel to follow.

The brilliance of this shot lies in the complexity of emotional storytelling that it conveys with relatively little narrative information. We know nothing about the man that these assassins are hunting. To this point we haven’t even seen his face. We only know what the shot tells us visually: three men have come to kill one. And that simple fact, together with the imbalance inherent in it, makes us feel a kind of heroic attachment to the man on his own.

Take another example, this one from the climax of Kill Bill Volume One

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What are the elements of this shot? The camera is placed over the shoulder of the film’s direct antagonist, O-Ren. Tarantino thus shows us that what we are seeing is from her perspective, but he does so without exactly asking us to sympathize with her (as using a Point-of-View shot might in this situation). We see the Bride standing below, situated away from the center of the frame but with a direct line between herself and O-Ren’s eye line. A massive semi-circle of people surrounds her, staring at her in shocked silence (she did just cut off another woman’s arm after all). As the Bride moves towards the center of the frame, the crowd breaks and runs for the door behind her. The next several shots show the Bride advancing while the crowd rushes in the opposite direction.

So what does all this add up to? The fact that all of the characters stare at the Bride at the beginning, when everyone is standing still, centers our attention powerfully on her, despite her position out of the center of the frame and her small size (groupthink for the win). That alone wouldn’t be enough to create the sense of the heroic that the scene carries. It simply tells us, “Look here. Everything that’s happening turns on this person.” O-Ren’s position above the Bride and in the foreground makes her seem bigger and more powerful within the frame, which creates a sense of imbalance between the two. We have the little Bride in the background moving toward and taking on the huge and foregrounded O-Ren. Finally, the mass outflux of people from the room creates contrast within the visual movement of the shot. We have one character moving forwards and to the right, while many characters flow around her in the opposite direction.  This last point suggests a different kind of imbalance. Instead of an imbalance of power, it hints at an imbalance of will. The majority flee danger, while the minority moves towards it. The two concurrent flows emphasize that contrast.

All of these different examples of how heroism is expressed visually can be summed up as follows: heroism = one against many. We interpret heroism as a solitary quality. It’s about being outgunned and outnumbered, and moving towards the danger anyway. It’s about moving against the grain. Heroism is all about being alone. The caveat to that observation, of course, is that a small group can be heroically solitary together, provided the odds against them are obviously and visually greater than they are. This imbalance can be portrayed numerically (how many people are physically on each side). It can also be portrayed through differences in size and elevation (ironically, the smaller and less highly positioned in the frame a character is, the more heroic they will often seem). And finally, it can be portrayed indirectly, by showing a crowd of bystanders fleeing something that the character moves towards.

In all of these cases, the visual portrayal of heroism is a matter of contrasts: we compare the hero’s power to the power of the forces opposing them, and we find the hero wanting. And that’s what I find fascinating about this as a topic. Little about the emotion we interpret as heroism is actually moral in scope. Justice coming up against injustice helps, to be sure. But it isn’t the central feature. In Kill Bill the moral balance can go either way. There is a certain kind of quasi-moral satisfaction in the Bride’s revenge story, but it isn’t the cut and dry justice of more traditional adventure stories. In the example I chose from Once Upon A Time In The West the amorality of the situation is even more profound. We know nothing about any of the characters onscreen. We don’t know if the three men are justified in trying to kill the man on the train, or if they are simply thugs and assassins. All we know is what’s visually in the shot, and that’s enough. Taken together, these examples suggest that heroism, as a cinematic emotion, is not a matter of good or evil, truth or justice. It has little to do with right or wrong. In some ways it is only a matter of numbers.

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