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    Formalist Masterpiece: Shine

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    Directed by Scott Hicks, the drama Shine is a formalist masterpiece. Writing the piece as a fiction film gave the author license to alter the events in the story of David Helfgott, a real musician who had a nervous breakdown on his way to magnificence.

    Geoffrey Rush’s portrayal gave life and believability to David, and Rush won an Academy Award for his realistic method acting. He had not only to provide depth to the character, but had additional physical demands placed upon him due to David’s irregular speech and his tendency to twitch. Both setting and costume are unobtrusive, allowing the audience to focus on the characters rather than their adornments. The formalistic style allows for manipulation of time, and the film begins in medias reas, jumping back and then foreward as it progresses. The structure is highly fragmented, and much of the action is cyclical.

    Every element of film composition is elegantly intertwined in this picture, mingling together to form connections and patterns out of seemingly separated things. The film opens with a close shot side-view of the protagonist’s face as he smokes a cigarette, smoke drifting up from his lips and into the surrounding darkness. He is talking, but that soon is faded into thesound of rainwater. The rain becomes visible as it replaces David’s face in a fade technique, and David enters the frame and walks from the right of the screen to its left, suggesting change and action. He arrives at a restaurant window, peers in, and falls into a strange conversation with the employees. This is now the chronological middle of the story, and, while common in Medieval literature, is a highly unorthodox place to begin a picture.

    Though this film is more easily classified as a formalist piece, it has outstanding avant garde elements throughout. The transition from the restaurant to the car is masked by the dialogue covering it. Since the acting overrides editing as a way to convey meaning in Shine, Hicks employs many sound motifs to ease editing transitions and make them seem more natural. As the discussion fades and the rain again takes auditory prominence, the scene darkens and the water becomes the clapping of many hands.

    In this way David eases into a flashback of his childhood. He walks small and silent to the stage for his first competition, and a long shot is used to emphasise the fright and anxiety of the boy. Other transitory devices include David’s glasses, his hands on the piano keys, and sometimes a change in his costume, such as when he first plays the restaurant in rags. When he stands to receive his applause, he is dressed much more nicely, now an employee of the establishment. Hicks also employs classical cutting techniques, which depend on the content curve (the moment when the audience has had a chance to assimilate all information presented but not analyse or become bored with it) to determine breaks in scenes. One example of this technique is after David presents his professor with the Rack III and asks “Am I mad enough?” The scene is cut before the professor answers, and the following scene is the professor intensively training David on the very piece.

    Cutting for continuity is commonly used to condense time while maintaining a sense of the actions taking place between two major events. Preparations for one of David’s concerts are edited in such a manner, making a ritual out of the ordeal while not wasting too much time on it. Besides editing, relationships can be suggested through film devices such as proxemic ranges, angles, and reaction shots. After David loses his first competition, his father stares at the ground while walking well ahead of the boy. His father is disappointed, and David is rather unaware of any problem as he innocently plays hopscotch as he follows.

    The reactions of David’s father and his instructor are shown through parallel editing when the announcement of the National Champion does not coincide with their hopes for David. Both are displeased, but Mr. Helfgott simmers with barely restrained anger. Since he was denied music as a child, he forces it upon David and demands greatness from him. Later in the film, David is filmed standing on the second floor of a library balcony as his father calls to him from below. The low angle used when the scene is shot from the father’s point of view suggests his decrease in power and his growing respect for his son.

    Moments before they walked down the hall to the room, the father’s arm wrapped protectively and proudly around David’s shoulders. This relationship reverts to its former, however, as David’s father beats him for wanting to leave the family and study in America. Though no oblique angles are used, the effect of the handheld camera is enough to effectively portray the violence and confusion of the scene. This feeling is reinforced by the overlapping dialogue of the family and the tight framing. David is released and retreats into the pounding rain, but is unable to locate his teacher and so returns home.

    David sits crouched in the bathtub as time stops due to a combination of the silence and the slow motion of the scene. Water, as it drips from the faucet and David’s hair, is the only sound, untilhis father arrives and fills the air with his pointless talk. In the middle ofDavid’s biggest recital, all sound is blanked out and the scene slows down, andonly David’s sweat-soaked hair and his fingers provide movement. This lack ofsound and action serves as a tension-building device, since an audience isunaccustomed to and unsettled by silence. Further than that, however, is thefact that the silence makes clear the distinction between David’s art and hisreality. He has put such a great amount of time and effort into his playing thathe no longer can even hear it; he has lost all enjoyment.

    At the end of thebeautiful and perfectly played piece, the tragedy foreshadowed by the silencecomes to pass and David falls to the floor from a nervous breakdown. His glassesslide and rest away from him; the next scene opens with David in a mentalinstitution, lying on the floor, gazing at his glasses. They are photographed atan oblique angle (completely perpendicular) in order to reveal David’sperspective through his eyes. Mise en scene also can be used as an effectivemethod of foreshadowing. When David goes to the mailbox and receives the letterinviting him to America, he is caged in the foreground by the fence as thefamily house ominously fills the background.

    Low, somber classical music playsquietly, further reinforcing the reaction he will get from the letter. Anotherexample of layered frame construction is the first scene in which the audiencesees David at the college in America. Two professors discuss David’s possibletalent as he flounders around after scattering papers far beneath them,separated not only by the distance but by the pane of windowglass as well. Sincehe is several stories beneath them, David is shot at an extremely high angle,making the disparaging and doubtful remarks the first professor says about Davidall the more possible. The very next shot has David standing above his peers ona stairway as they call up to him, reversing the situation. The professors mighthave been superior to David (at least at that particular moment), but he was farmore advanced than any of his contemporaries.

    During the scene cementing Mr. Helfgott’s admonition to disown David for leaving home he burns the newspaperclippings he’d saved about the boy. This is one of the few extreme-close ups inthe film, and is repeated later when the same photograph is reprinted in anotherpaper and Mr. Helfgott sees it, deciding then to make amends. David gave thesame picture of himself to Katherine, his mentor, and receives it again in themail upon her death.

    The photograph serves as a connecting device and as areminder of the young man David once was, before stress set in and destroyed hislove and passion. The young David is associated with the sound motif of thepiano and the applauding audiences he played before, while the adult Davidmostly is introduced by the melancholy sound of rain against a windowpane. Atthe film’s conclusion he is again able to hear the music as he once did, and heis fairly healed. A piano, a violin, applause, and the voice of an announcermelt together in a sound montage that creates tension as David, his father, andhis instructor await the decision on the National Champion. The sound is veryloud and powerful during scenes of change or major development, and understatedin more stagnant scenes or those dependent on audible dialogue. However, thepolitical standpoint of the film, or its ideology, is not quite so clear.

    Hicksdirected the film to be of implicit nature, wherein the protagonist andantagonist represent opposing value systems. David’s father is obviously arightist in his beliefs, since he places worth in religion, custom, competition,and, above all else, family. While David believes in competition, he is not soset in religion and custom (he lives for an amount of time in a Christianchurch, while he himself is Jewish), he places the individual over the family. In search of his own fortune, David leaves after expressly being told not to.

    This one difference is strong enough to tear the family apart and create aconflict around which the story can revolve. The irony of the situation is that,while trying desperately to preserve his family, David’s father actuallysucceeds in alienating his son and putting undue stress on his relationshipswith the other family members. The music he counted on to bring David andhimself together also split them apart. Until his breakdown, David had all butadopted the old professor as his father because he understood David well and waskind to him. The literary aspect of this film comes not from the fact that itwas adapted from a novel (since it was not), but from its strong basis in theliterary convention.

    For example, the motifs of rain and applause are a commontechnique of literature, as is the shifting point of view. The story is toldfrom first a third-person limited perspective, then goes into personalflashbacks from David’s memory, and the remainder of the film switches back andforth between the two. Also, the film is rife with imagery and symbolism, bothof which are favourite literary devices. Such symbols can be interpreted fromthe viewpoint of the theories of Structuralism and Semiology. Water is the mostobvious of these symbols, and traditionally means cleansing, rebirth, andcalmness.

    However, rain means bad weather and difficulties, and dirtied water(such as that in the bath) is poison. Just before David’s first adult recital,all of his pages float in clear blue pool water as clouds drift by above them. This is finally the foreshadowing of a rebirth. While not a universal symbol,the glasses signal David’s dependency on things outside himself.

    Such thingseventually destroy him, since he is not able to break through the multitude ofwalls and fences that fill the screen and live for himself. A lion appearstwice, first when David describes his father to Katherine and later when heawakens at the base of a huge sculpture of one. Lions are typically strong andpowerful, the king of all they survey. The fact that David wakes up with onebehind him foreshadows his father’s return and his support of his son. The medalwon for the recital of Rack III and the composition itself both become symbolsof the father that was so bent on having his child son play the impossiblepiece.

    The fact that David chose that as his premiere work told of both hislasting devotion to his father and his determination to please. When Mr. Helfgott returned the medal he was recognising the accomplishment and forgivinghis disowned son at once. The closing shot is one of David and his wife as theyleave his father’s grave and the cemetery, the camera pulling back on a crane asthe two become lost in the vast stretch.

    No longer is the audience involved; thestory is over. The main themes of this film- complications, deterioration, andloss- are expertly portrayed through the harmony of all divisions of filmmaking.Both Hicks and Rush are excellent, and, despite herself, this eclectic criticenjoyed the film.

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    Formalist Masterpiece: Shine. (2019, Jan 02). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/shine-64067/

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