The following article is part of an ongoing series exploring visual homages, themes, and motifs. For the rest of the articles in this series, click here.
The concept of “controlled chaos” is by its very nature, a very cinematic notion. Taking dozens or hundreds of individual components and somehow focusing them all into one direction is basically the job description for a director, and yet so few of them manage to present turmoil on screen well. Go too far in one direction, you’re just showing disaster, shaking the camera, throwing information at the audience with little care to how the audience perceives it. The other direction gives you something simple, straightforward, and essentially boring – IE, not chaos at all. Guy Ritchie loves the idea of “controlled chaos” as a theme in his films, they often feature slick editing and fast pacing, with camerawork that achieves a certain indescribable level of “cool.” I won’t use the word “effortless”, however, as it does a disservice to the amount of work Ritchie and his cinematographers put into making sure you, the viewer, gather exactly the information he wants you to, even if it is only on a subconscious level
Ritchie’s 2000 sophomore effort Snatch (d.p. Tim Maurice-Jones) features multiple tenuously related storylines and an ensemble cast in constant interaction and frequent opposition to each other. The storyline is difficult to put into words, but it essentially involves underground boxing promotors Turkish (Jason Statham) and Tommy (Stephen Graham) who suddenly find themselves in trouble with murderous gangster Brick Top (Alan Ford) when their promised fighter is hospitalized by a freakishly strong gypsy named Mickey (Brad Pitt) during an altercation over a trailer purchase. Meanwhile, a slew of other characters including Dennis Farina, Vinnie Jones, and Benicio Del Toro, are in an extended fight over a stolen diamond.
A common thread in the film is the need for protection or security:
More precisely, a common theme in the film is the inevitable failure of everything which we consider an element of “safety” or “security.” Common recurring elements of the film are dogs, guns, safes, security cameras, fixed bets, bodyguards… all things that people use to make them feel safe and secure. Turkish encounters Brick Top when he goes back to check his safe, Vince and Sol find their bookie hold-up foiled by a security system button and get their gun stolen, Brick Top attempts to rig a fight which is ended in three seconds. The film even opens with a group of men passing through standard security protocols before stealing a diamond. The illusion of protection powers and pervades through the arc of nearly every character. Some of them benefit from it, but mostly it leads them to ruin.(But especially Tommy.)
The first time we see Tommy, he’s introduced like this:
Which is an early visual cue and small foreshadowing that introduces Tommy’s main role and essential characteristics within a two-second clip. His job is to support those around him, but his over-active sense of self-preservation makes him useless at it and eventually gets him hurt anyway. In these two shots, we’ve told a very small story and established this character in the audience’s mind, so it comes as no surprise to us later on when Tommy finds himself with a gun that doesn’t fire and a bodyguard who is knocked out with one punch. It should be noted that the only time Tommy’s gun serves any purpose whatsoever is when he is using it to put himself in harm’s way and protect Turkish:
But enough about Tommy (The Tit), he’s not the only character whose false sense of security is used against him:
That top photo is particularly noteworthy because the ridiculously oversized gun is not the only security device in the shot. Dogs are also a common sign of protection and security, which is why there are so many references them in the film. Mickey asks Tommy if he likes “dags”, Brick Top compares the first people we see him kill to dogs, and Turkish loses a bet on a pair of dogs chasing a rabbit. Then of course, there’s the hungry dog that Vinny attempts to adopt. Dogs, like guns, offer plenty of security, but are also potentially dangerous to their owner. Well that’s easy enough, right? You can make the dog safer by placating it using a ball….
To give us visual clues to this theme beyond what is just in the script, Guy Ritchie plays around with one specific non-standard form of video that we’re all familiar with, namely security footage. Security camera footage is an instant clue to the audience’s subconscious that something bad is happening, because to the 99.9% of the audience which aren’t security guards, the only time we see this footage is when we’re watching something bad (or comically karmic) happen. The opening credits happen through a carefully-planned series of security camera screens:
Even if we can’t see character’s faces because their back is to us, we can see their reactions and entrances through security cameras like the ones in Sol’s pawn shop. This is also an effective way of drawing the audience’s eyes precisely where Ritchie wants them. (More on that in a later chapter.)
And sometimes Ritchie will shoot sections of scenes through security footage, then re-visit that scene from the perspective of another person viewing the footage we the audience have already watched:
That last clip is interesting, because it’s a character (Brick Top) getting to see a combination of points that the audience has already witnessed. Namely, the camera footage I put directly above it, and this shot:
Note that this scene is shot from a very low angle in contrast from the security footage version. Specifically, the camera action here is looking up and to the right, whereas the security footage that Brick Top sees is looking down and to the left. We the audience already know this because we’ve already looked through the lens of that particular camera, we saw it just before the moment pictured here.
This is noteworthy because one of Guy Ritchie’s favorite techniques is playing with hard, harsh angles to keep the audience’s eyes (and brains) from growing complacent. Ritchie’s films are very active, and require an active viewer. To make this easier on us, Ritchie keeps things moving so we can’t help being actively engaged. This is another reason why security camera footage meshes so well with the style of Snatch, it’s something we’re used to seeing at high, wide, exaggerated angles. We expect security camera work to look like that, so by sneaking it in throughout the film, Ritchie keeps it from being too jarring when he makes one of his normal-camera shots look like it came from a security-camera angle, like this:
We’ll talk more about the use of angles in Snatch in the next installment, but for now let’s just leave it at this:
“False sense of security” and “controlled chaos” are two practical themes of Snatch, and to achieve this on some level within the audience, Guy Ritchie plays with what we think of as “safe and secure”, both on a symbolic level and within what an audience expects of a film.
If you’re still not convinced, consider this: In the entire film, only one character has a plan go exactly the way they wanted it to, and that character is Mickey, the travelling gypsy. Mickey is essentially an Agent of Chaos in this film, he has no home, nothing to protect him, and doesn’t fall for any kind of security sense. The closest thing he has to a constant secure presence in his life is his Ma… and he only acts in any premeditated manner when that is taken from him.
That’s it for this installment of It’s A Visual Medium! Next time, we’ll go into Ritchie’s heavy use of camera angles and what this means combined with the ideas I just mentioned.
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