Thursday, 24 November 2011

Image systems

Having slept through the TV showing of Forbrydelsen 2 (the Danish original of The Killing, season 2), I went back to watch the first episode again, and was pleased to see that they've got a big image system thing going. 
Image systems, for those not familiar with the minutiae of fiction, are used, often unconsciously by writers, more often as a conscious part of the storytelling by filmmakers, to hint at secrets, and to express the theme and to make a coherent emotional whole of the story.
Hitchcock was the boy for image systems - if you look at his Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, etc, each one has its own image system - dank in Psycho, vertiginous in Vertigo, sneaky in Rear Window. The Psycho image system is cogged to some extent from Henri-Georges Clouzot's spectacularly nasty Les Diaboliques, in which the plan to murder a woman gradually seeps up through the chinks in the audience's subconscious through the use of endless watery images: a dripping tap, an emptying swimming pool, a murderous bath.
But probably the most famous image system is that in Casablanca, which Robert McKee uses as his illustration in his useful seminar Story. Casablanca is riddled with subtext, both in the text and in the visuals: it's full of arches, the costumes of the lovers Rick and Ilsa grow closer in design as they grow closer to each other; a conversation about clothes in the market is a coded love scene.
Time is also a constant image - even the theme of the song is As Time Goes By. Ratcheting up the tension of the fast-approaching Nazi victory (as it seems in the film), an adorable old couple who are supposed to leave for America the next day explain that they are speaking only English now, to practise. "Sweetness heart, what watch?" the gentleman asks, and the lady answers: "Ten watch." "Such much!" he exclaims. Knowing as we do that these, as with millions of their like, are more likely to be murdered, the conversation has an extraordinary bittersweet horror.

And when the Germans in Rick's Café Americain strike up a pugnaciously anti-French Die Wacht am Rhein, and having stood it for long enough, Ilse's Resistance hero husband tells the band to strike up the Marsellaise and every liberty-lover in the café sings along - even, in the end, the girl who's getting off with the Nazis - you'd need a heart of stone not to be moved.

So it's pleasing to see that Forbrydelsen II is riddled with an image system whose meaning will become clearer as the episodes go on. So far, it involves a particularly bloody colour of red, in curtains, in heroine Sara Lund's blood-red jumper, on the walls, in hints of the blood-red Danish flag with its Crusader's cross, in a disturbing spiral staircase filmed from above, and in the curtains of rooms, in rectangles or squares in the background of many scenes.
The rain pours and pours down out of the heavens - or rather, it seems as if the world is just full of rain without it actually coming from anywhere. No one wears a hat or a hood or puts a newspaper over their head, they just stand stoically in it like cows in a field. (Why don't cows get shelters in fields, by the way? Surely they're just as miserable as the rest of us in the fleeping rain?)
There's also another dominant image: big wedge-shaped buildings, seen first from the outside, then entered to find that some organisation is leaning down on a fragile human; or big wedge-shaped tunnels down which the heroes must venture. And there's another rectangle that joins both systems: the military dogtags, sheared in half so that the numerals on them echo the slit windows of those buildings. 
It's also full of roads, bridges, railways, slick with rain, dividing one part of the story from another. 
And last, there's a forest glade with brutally broken-off stumps: we see it first at the very beginning, with the corpse of the first victim tied to one of these stumps, in a memorial garden - to Resistance fighters, the underground army that fought the Nazis who occupied Denmark, a powerful image, since the Danish army and its deployment in Afghanistan is already making itself clear as a large part of the story. This glade is echoed in the visiting room of the prison, where a psychologically scarred ex-soldier has, first, a conjugal visit with his wife, then a visit with a friend who is fleeing back to Helmand to escape whatever's going on; in that innocent-looking room with its mural of forest trees, he tells Raben - the ex-soldier that "it's not over". But soon he will be dangling like a blood sacrifice too.
There are the books, like the cowboy novel by Stetson Cody slapped on the desk by the pudgy but hardass new justice minister; the Chagall coffee-table book, the meaningful (I assume) Danish titles briefly lingered on in the bookshelves of various characters. 
Then there are the pictures: the new Minister for Justice's office is decked with black-and-white photos of his predecessors; his greeting present from his party is a framed photo; he finds in a briefing document the police stills of the murdered woman in the memorial park. It turns out that her killer has videotaped her. The strong and fierce and solitary Raben, alone in his cell, has covered the wall with his little son's pictures of dragons, strong and fierce, blu-tacked on the cement. 
What do the images mean? Already the heart knows; as you watch, your heartbeat speeds up when certain colours or shapes appear, your mood sinks at others. Ten episodes to the end of this series; the story will have borne out the warning of the images.

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