Sunday, May 18, 2008

american no-place: william arnold

[This entry is not part of Film Club proper but is part of the Production Design Blog-A-Thon, which begins today and runs through May 25th. Please consider joining us with your own post on the topic.]

I wanted to begin by discussing one of the films I used for the Production Design Blog-A-Thon banners, specifically "the blue one," which features a still from 2002's Punch-Drunk Love.

This film features production design by William Arnold, who has done production design or art direction for a number of notable features, including Pleasantville (1998) and Magnolia (1999). Both of these are fine films (and both would be rewarding to discuss in terms of their own production design) but Punch Drunk-Love features what I think of as his most impressive work. When thinking about the "look" of this film, many people might immediately recall Adam Sandler's blue suit, a memorable production design detail indeed, but what I really want to talk about is Arnold's skill in capturing the "look" of certain types of undistinguished everyday environments.

I call the aesthetic at work here "American No-Place," and once you start being attentive for it, you can see how accurately Arnold has nailed it:

No-places can be our workplaces:

or the places we shop:

or even our homes:

—and yet it's easy tune out these kinds of places, simply because of their genericness and their lack of beauty or visual interest. That makes them all the more difficult to recreate with significant accuracy, and yet in this film, Arnold succeeds at this task unerringly. For this reason, he has earned our salute.

Next time: Aline Bonetto.


jason sperb said...

Hello Jeremy,
A very apt description of the film's mise-en-scene (PDL's one of my favorites--and by complete coincidence, I am planning to blog on it tomorrow). Good work.

The production designers on the film also made a point to say that they changed very very little in terms of the sets they choose--with the exception of Barry's sister's house. A lot was shot as is (this fit with the larger aesthetic of also using real people in parts instead of professional actors).

How do you reconcile the "No-Place" aesthetic with the surrealistic colors of the Hawaii sequence in the heart of the film? One of my favorite lines in the film is when Barry looks over to Diamond Head and says "it really looks like Hawaii." Its a very jarring meta moment.


Ken said...

I'm a big fan of PUNCH DRUNK LOVE. As a Production Designer I've used this film as a reference demonstrating that "white" walls and empty (of set decoration) visual space are not something to be afraid of. Only William Arnold will know but I imagine that the most challenging part of this film for him would've been to sell this look as a design concept to the Producers, Director and DOP. The Director of Photographer's role in pulling off this look is critical. The composition of a shot is crucial and there is less room for error. This film truly demonstrates that "Less is more".

jpb said...

How do you reconcile the "No-Place" aesthetic with the surrealistic colors of the Hawaii sequence?

The Hawaii sequence is pretty interesting, and it does form a tension with this idea of the No-Place.

On one level, Hawaii doesn't entirely escape the no-place aesthetic: the very first screencap in the post, the most anonymous-looking of all the anonymous images, is from the Hawaiian hotel where they're staying. The film also takes pains to show them at the Hawaiian airport, which mostly looks exactly like every other airport.

On the other hand, there are moments when Hawaii's beauty does burst through (I think of the wonderful scene where they kiss in the doorway, silhouetted against the outside). And of course the film, to a degree, equates travel with adventure (although the insidous creep of no-place might undercut this: is it adventurous to go to Provo if Provo looks exactly like LA?).

I think these (irreconcilable?) ambiguities are one of the thing the film is really interested in. Looking forward to seeing your post about it!