Archive for Throne of Blood

Additional dialogue by…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2015 by dcairns

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I was lucky enough to be invited to the UK premier of MACBETH, which made me feel quite the dude, until I looked at my wardrobe and realized I was going to have to take a whimsical approach to the dress code “smart”. I also met lots of people I know there, which made me feel well-connected. There was a splendid after-party and I utilised it in moderation as I had work the following day, so all in all it was a very good afternoon/evening, apart from the film.

The film isn’t too bad, though — that was a dirty trick I pulled at the end of  that paragraph. The crowd responded with enthusiasm, en masse, though I caught some mutterings later.

All of the acting is decent, though I didn’t love any of the actors. I love Martin Shaw in the Polanski version. I love Mifune and Mrs. Mifune in THRONE OF BLOOD, more for their pyrotechnic displays of theatrical technique than as characters, but they are close to my heart all the same.

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The accents are good, though Marion Cotillard’s is pretty different from everyone else’s. It’s a shock whenever Malcolm (Jack Reynor) speaks, because he doesn’t sound like he’s doing Shakespeare — he sounds like he’s saying something he just thought of. By this reckoning he’s probably the best actor in the film, but he creates a problem for everyone else, because if that’s what a person talking is like, what are these?

The film looks pretty stunning. The locations on the Isle of Skye are brooding and dramatic and spectacular, and it’s nice seeing my native country used in a cinematic manner. Some of the Northumberland scenes look exactly like Polanski’s version, though. The designers have perversely chosen quite a Russian Orthodox look for the architecture and costumes, but this mostly works quite well, apart from the kingly robes which seem a bit samurai to me. Stuff can be the wrong period or the wrong setting as long as it isn’t jarring.

What people said:

Alex: “Paddy Considine has the world’s most disapproving beard.”

Jonny Murray: “Who’d have thought the old man would have so much mud on him?”

Emma: “It’s a shame these things can only happen with big movie stars doing big acting. Ken Loach could do Macbeth.”

Me: “But look at Fassbender in FISH TANK. Why couldn’t he be as natural in this?”

Yes, this is another muddy MAC, calling to mind the classic MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL exchange (“Must be a king.” “Why?” “He hasn’t got shit all over him.”) — only in this version, even the king gets covered in shit. Michael Fassbender turns up plastered in peat in one scene with no explanation of how it got there, and you hardly notice, because everybody’s always filthy. And all the rooms are draughty. The Macbeth’s bungalow creaks in the wind like a ship in a gale. The scenery is splendid but I wouldn’t want to live here. Oh, wait,

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I didn’t feel like anybody in the film had a relationship with anyone else. Lady Macbeth seemed basically mad from the start, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) was a savage barbarian who then goes totally psycho. Usually you get the sense that Banquo and Macbeth are mates. I have to say — the continuing problem of the Festival Theatre’s accoustics and sound system meant that I may have missed stuff that would have helped forge this connection.

The adaptation is an odd one — lots of interesting ideas. I just didn’t think they worked. The film is at pains to answer that academic’s question, “How many children did Lady Macbeth have?” According to this film, two. We open on a dead baby, so we surmise that this tragedy isn’t going to be a comedy, and then there’s a teenage Macbeth Junior who dies in the opening battle. At the risk of coming over like Tom Stoppard, who has protested the tendency of directors to treat Shakespeare’s text as a sounding-board for their own ideas, I think a productive question for academics may not be so useful for filmmakers. The Macbeths have no children that we meet in the play. To create one for the film presents a challenge — he can’t say anything, and nobody can say anything about him. So the kid dies, and Macbeth writes a letter to his wife — about some women he met on the heath. No mention of son. When Duncan  congratulates Mac on winning the battle for him, he doesn’t add, “And by the way, sorry about Junior.” We need to talk about Macbeth Jnr!

The filmmakers bring this doleful kid on as a ghost, and have him holding the dagger which Macbeth sees before him. So the line, “Come, let me clutch thee,” is addressed to his son. Who then leaves — things were getting oddly homoerotic — and Macbeth continues talking to thin air, delivering lines written to be addressed to a dagger, as if to a dead son. Who isn’t there anymore.

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The most egregrious abuse of Shakespeare is right at the start, actually, when the witches say, “Where the place?” “Upon the battlefield.”

That’s right. I seem to recall that line once reading, “Upon the heath.” Which fits the rhythm, and has an assonant connection with the following line, “There to meet with Macbeth.” This feels like a Weinstein Bros idea. Macbeth has a vision of the witches while he’s in battle. Couldn’t the battlefield be on a heath? A kind of battleheath, if you will? Apparently somebody thought this would be confusing, so it was better to rewrite Shakespeare. “Additional dialogue by…” The Weinsteins have a long history of explanatory overdubs, with exposition blasting from the back of actors’ heads the moment they turn away, just to make sure we understand what Harvey wants us to understand. This fiddling has actually occurred at script stage, though, so we can have bad exposition with good lip sync. The filmmakers can’t hear will rotate in his grave because they’re simply not on his frequency.

There are other mismatches of word and action. When we are told that Macbeth “unseamed” the traitor “from the nave to th’ chops,” clearly stating, albeit in flowery language, that he splin him open from stomach to throat, we are shown Macbeth simply lopping the guy’s head off. It’s genuinely like the director didn’t read the play, or even the script. I wouldn’t like to suggest that this was a particularly Australian tendency (George Miller, for one, always matches word to deed with striking accuracy), but the last time I felt this weird disconnect was at Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! in which E. MacGregor sings “You see, I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue,” while looking straight into N. Kidman’s eyes. They’re blue, Ewan. She’s right in front of you. I’d be worried about that kind of memory loss.

When Macbeth talks to one of his murderers after Banquo’s assassination, he does it at the banquet, with everyone else standing around silently, listening to the secret murder plot echoing around the hall. You can play it that way, and it doesn’t necessarily contradict anything later, but that scene always seemed to work really well when nobody knew Macbeth had Banquo offed, and so his embarrassing flake-out when he sees his former chum’s corpse at table exposes a dirty secret and causes Lady M. to fly into hostess mode, trying to put an acceptable spin on things.

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One thing the movie works hard to fix is Shakespeare’s missing scene — Edith Evans always complained that it was impossible to play Lady Macbeth’s plunge into guilty madness right after the banquet. “She was perfectly fine at supper.” Using visual scenes, our Aussie director Justin Kurzel is able to suggest a credible, gradual descent — but then blows it spectacularly by killing her offscreen with no explanation of how she died. I do think we need to know. Wouldn’t her grieving husband ask?

It goes on… Macbeth and Macduff smash each other to pieces and disembowel each other, and only get around to the “untimely ripped” bit at the very end of the fight. Untimely indeed. I can’t even be bothered going over why that’s a goofy choice.

I said to a colleague, bright and un-hungover at work the next day, that the film was dramatically kind of dull.

“More of a Michael Slowbender?” he asked.

“Michael Grimbender,” I clarified.

Which doesn’t even mean anything. That’s me, full of soundbites, signifying nothing.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Gooble Gobble

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2009 by dcairns

We do love the quaint and curious use of intertitles in early talking pictures. And Tod Browning’s FREAKS is a particularly wild and off-kilter movie. It contains precisely ONE intertitle, a fairly unnecessary one from a storytelling point of view ~

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By refusing to repeat the device and make it into an integrated stylistic mannerism, the movie just throws it out there as yet another quirk in a film full of them: physical quirks, acting quirks, narrative quirks, dialogue quirks. The lone intertitle is like the film’s lone “supernatural” intervention (“How she got that way we’ll never know. Some say a jealous lover -” HUH? “Others, that it was the Code of the freaks” Sure, but HOW? “Others, the storm…” WHAWHOWHAWHUH???), an unsettling disruption in a film that makes uneasiness an aesthetic.

Viewing the movie again with students at the beginning of this month, I was struck by how underrated it’s been. It has a solid cult reputation which doesn’t show any signs of slipping, and which would be justifiable even if the film itself weren’t particularly well made. But it’s probably Browning’s most elegant and intelligent work, with, for instance, some amazingly powerful compositions ~

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Not only is this shot beautiful in itself (for sheer architecture I’ll take it over the last shot of THE SEARCHERS), it demonstrates conclusively that all stars of films in a 1:1.33 ratio should be shaped like Harry and Daisy Earles.

Early stuff I read about FREAKS suggested that it was a clunky, awkward film, but although it’s been much hacked-about (censored or at least heavily pruned), it’s full of strong visual ideas and sequences. For an early-ish talkie, it’s far from static. Much of the camera movement centres on the character played by Johnny Eck, the Man With Half a Body. Browning was smart enough to realize that the particular condition suffered by Eck (real name Echkardt, making him also the Man with Half a Name) was one that necessitated showing him in motion. Otherwise he would look like a special effect, like Cleopatra the Chicken Lady. We simply wouldn’t believe what we were seeing.

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The visual high points of the film are the above-mentioned Wedding Feast, and the climax. The feast features not only a commanding sound mix, with the circus performers’ chanting running under the dialogue, building to a crescendo, but effective use of angles looking directly at the singing sideshow people, while they look right back at us. Browning as Ozu. Some of these shots are linked by fast pans, although sadly insensitive editing has slashed many of these while leaving trailing fragments  of a few frames. Another great shot is the one where Angelo Rossitto, seemingly the leader of the troupe, walks across the banquet table from one side to another, carrying the loving cup for the guests to drink from. As he does so, the camera also crosses the table, but in the opposite direction. It’s a strange effect I’ve noted, that when a character’s movement pulls the camera but in a different direction, so that they pass “like ships in the night,” the effect tends to make the character seem more powerful.

vlcsnap-361781As far as seems to be known, the character on the table has no actual medical malformity. She’s NORMAL.

(An exception — in THRONE OF BLOOD, as Mifune backs away from his traitorous men, the camera advances towards them. Having at first been looking past Mifune as the men, it’s now looking AT Mifune WITH the men — the camera has literally changed sides. And when the camera goes over to the enemy, you know you’re in trouble.)

vlcsnap-362472Prince Randian — prince of WHERE???

The main factor that accounts for FREAKS’ devaluing, I think, is the performances, particularly the handling of dialogue. The primitive quality of sound recording technology in 1932 conspires with the thick accents of many of the stars, and the uncertain delivery of some of them, to make FREAKS a strange film in ways not directly connected to its subject. Of course, the variety of accents results partly from Browning’s decision to cast the most astonishing people he could get. If they happened to be from Germany (Harry & Daisy, real-life siblings and part of a troupe called the Doll Family), Austria (Josephine Joseph) or British Guiana (Prince Randian, who has neither arms and legs and wriggles around in a big sock, and whose sole line, the mysterious “Can you do anything with your eyebrow?” really does require the DVD subtitles to understand), then so be it.

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In fact, by setting the story in France (for no obvious narrative reason) and populating the non-freak roles with an ear-defying jumble of accents, Browning makes a virtue of necessity, capitalizing on the punchy sensation induced by his characters’ varied physical appearances. FREAKS is a film that keeps you off-balance, unable to believe what you’re seeing or hearing. As acrobat and strongman, Olga Baclanova and Henry Victor’s respective Russian and German accents, debilitatingly thick, can also be accounted for by the fact that they’d been silent stars (see Olga in Sternberg’s DOCKS OF NEW YORK), but I prefer to see their casting as a deliberate assault on the audience.

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That climactic storm scene also shows Browning in top form, testing our affection for the freaks, built up during the story, by casting them as avenging demons, and allowing them to mirror the insult slung at them earlier by Cleo — “Dirty, slimy freaks!” They crawl through the mud like angry earthworms to get even with their enemies. Prince Randian clutches a blade between his teeth like a pirate, although what he intends to do with it should he catch up with his prey is unimaginable (but we’ve seen him light a cigarette with his mouth, so anything’s possible — maybe he can do something with his eyebrow…).  Notably, in this scene Henry Victor transforms from possibly the world’s most grating ham — explosively bombastic and stilted, pointlessly loud and obnoxious even in his posture — into a very effective physical player, his body contorting to expressionist effect, his panic real and convincing. His sheer terror is the sole foreshadowing of the supernatural conclusion.

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It’s been suggested that Hercules was to have been glimpsed again in the penultimate scene, singing in a high voice, the strongman rendered castrato by the freaks. It’s also been suggested that a car crash that seriously injured Tod Browning earlier in his life (I’m not sure when — was he already a filmmaker, or still a circus performer himself, a contortionist and somnambulist billed as The Living Hypnotic Corpse?), may have left him in the same unfortunate condition.

Poetically, both these Kenneth Angeresque rumours somehow feel like they ought to be true.

Fallen on her feet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2008 by dcairns

Dangerous Curves 

I just read this fine piece on DAISY KENYON by Zach Gallagher Campbell, Dan Sallitt and Damien Bona, and then this nice review by Glenn Erickson, which alleges that Preminger’s 1945 noir FALLEN ANGEL, embodying his long-take, fluid style, has only ten shots in its first fifteen minutes. I was actually surprised, because I know the opening fairly well, I’ve studied it and taught it, but I’ve never counted the shots. It had seemed to me that while Preminger does sometimes go for pretty long takes, what’s most impressive is the way he makes the shots WORK HARD for him, with the camera moving for several different reasons at once. I don’t think the sheer bravado of his his shot duration compares to Ophuls’ monster sequence-shots, but the shots are complex and intricate in other ways. So I was tempted to go back to the scene, not to check the shot-count was correct, because I’m sure it is, but to analyse more closely how and why Preminger moves the camera, something which had distracted me from the actual length of the takes.

I think there are FIVE MAIN REASONS for a director to move the camera in narrative cinema. When I’m working with Scott Ward, a fine cinematographer, we often talk about the camera’s MOTIVATION for moving, in exactly the same way you’d discuss an actor’s motivation for doing something. A director might want to achieve a particular visual effect, but unless a lucid motivation can be devised for the actor or the camera’s action, the result will be phony. So, the FIVE MOTIVATIONS are:

1) Following a moving subject. This seems like the most basic and crude reason of all for camera movement, but it can be tackled in the most subtle and curious ways. It also includes moments where the camera might move COUNTER to the subject, but still in reaction to its movement. When Mifune backs away from his turncoat army in THRONE OF BLOOD, the camera moves FORWARD, following a parallel line but in the opposite direction. A shot that had been looking past Mifune at his men, taking in his POV, is now flipped so that we’re looking AT Mifune from an angle approximating the POV of his men — the camera has changed sides, and now Mifune’s REALLY in trouble.

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2) Giving us the POV of a moving character. Again, this seems simple enough, but it’s the essence of much of Hitchcock’s direction, forcing us into the character’s position (but for another view, see Mr. Sallitt again). Taking this to the kind of extreme that Hitchcock rather disapproved of, we get DePalma’s endless subjective stalkercam shots. I’d love to see BDP confronted with Hitchcock’s pooh-poohing of this kind of technique in the Hitchcock-Truffaut interview book. No doubt he’d have an answer, but I’d like to hear what it is.

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3) Exploring space. Most common in establishing shots, this use of the moving camera allows the audience to explore the scene in three dimensions. As a scene develops, narrative concerns often force this type of action to a halt, so that the audience can focus more on developing plot points. I’ve always had a suspicion that the Italian cinema has more of an investment in this kind of movement than any other, beginning with CABIRIA and the like, where the camera movement was a necessary device to allow the viewer to take in the size of the sets. Griffith adapted this for the tracking elevator shots of INTOLERANCE — crudely put, the shot’s purpose is to show of the scenery, but this has dramatic values too.

4) Telling the story. The camera can become authorial, prowling around IN SEARCH OF CLUES, as in the opening of REAR WINDOW. Hitchcock’s camera here becomes a curious observer, a character in its own right, gliding from object to object, gathering information that helps to bring us up to speed with the in media res narrative.

5) What am I forgetting? There’s always one… ah yes, the psychological tracking shot. A character thinks, and the camera moves towards them (usually), and their thought seems to acquire real importance. An early example of this might be Jannings reading his letter of dismissal in THE LAST LAUGH. The first Hollywood instance I can think of is in HAND ACROSS THE TABLE. Fred MacMurray smokes pensively and broods, and Mitchell Leisen pushes the camera towards him. Nothing is motivating this camera movement save THOUGHT ITSELF.

There are all sorts of other purposes behind camera movement, but I think of these as side-benefits. They may be incredibly important (adding excitement and animation, increasing audience identification) but they are not sufficient in themselves to actually get the camera moving. As Aki Kaurismaki once facetiously said, the camera’s a big heavy thing, and if you’ve been drinking the night before it’s going to take quite a lot of effort to get that thing moving. Also, I think a director who swings the camera about JUST to “create excitement” is likely to be a dumb filmmaker. See Michael Bay.

So, by way of that massive discursion, we return to the opening of FALLEN ANGEL.

The Driver

The Passenger

The Face of Another

SHOT 1. As the titles end, we find ourselves on a bus, looking at the driver’s back. Noticing something behind us, the driver parks the bus and gets up, passing the camera, which pans after him and follows him down the aisle (Motivation 1). The driver and camera both stop standing over Dana Andrews. The driver then shakes Andrews awake and tells him his ticket “ran out at the last stop”, at which point Preminger restarts the camera movement to get closer to Andrews and let us see his face (Motivation 4). This not only “establishes” the protagonist’s face, it also imparts some special significance to him. It’s some kind of a “hero shot”, you could say. Andrews then stands, forcing the camera back Motivation 1 again) and leaves frame, having retrieved his coat and bag from the luggage rack.

The Big Bus

The first cut:

Bus Stop

The big Street

SHOT 2 shows Andrews leaving the bus, and it’s a real beauty. Starting wide and high, we start to close in on Dana, fine fellow that he is, as the bus drives off screen right — that is the sideways bus movement triggers a forwards camera movement, towards Andrews, a weird abstract combination of Motivation 1 and 3 and 4 with maybe even a touch of 5 (I did say Preminger was fluid). Worse yet for my neat distinctions, Andrews, having paused for another heroic photo op, turns and heads off, and now we’re following him in a clear case of Motivation 1, until we reach the town signpost and he pauses to look at it — the camera has now framed Andrews and the sign, in something that could be read as Motivation 2 (POV) at one remove, or Motivation 4 (the authorial move, feeding us geographical info), but which was clearly just Motivation 1 at the time we were actually moving.

Our Town

SHOT 3. Dissolve to a seaside diner.

 On the Beach

Secret beyond the Door

Andrews walks into shot, forcing a pan, and we start tracking after him, nearing the door of the establishment. Opening the door, Dana gives us a nicely framed little scene at the counter, and we pick up a line of dialogue from proprietor Pop (Percy Kilbride). The frame has transformed into a sort of over-the-shoulder view, which is cut off as Andrews carries on inside and closes the door in our face, forcing a cut.

Juke Box

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SHOT 4. So far the film has been nothing but sequence shots, each scene a single take, but now comes a very complex scene of narrative set-up, character introductions and interaction, so the cutting hots up, understandably. The first shot of the scene shows Andrews finishing the shutting of the door, and follows him to the counter where we get another, closer OTS shot on the discussion between Pop and Charles Bickford’s detective. Here we learn there’s a missing person report being filed.

The Old Man and the Sea

SHOT 5. The first stationary shot of the film — Looking past Bickford and his cop pal at Pop. It establishes Pop’s appearance more clearly, and allows us to momentarily forget Dana, who has been set up as witness to all this but can now by sidelined.

Le Cop

Bruce LaBruce

SHOT 6 is a reverse favouring Bickford, but it swiftly develops beyond that. The cop exits and we pan with him to the door, where we find ugly old Bruce Cabot, seen in passing as Andrews entered, who now walks to the counter, necessitating a pan back the way we came. This is all Motivation 1, but it’s made satisfying and complex by the way we lose one subject and find another in a nicely choreographed fashion. Now we’re back on Bickford, who gets some dialogue that establishes him as something of a blowhard, then Cabot walks off, necessitating a Motivation 1 pan, which discovers Andrews again — the Motivation 1 has served the purpose of an authorial move, only more discretely. Andrews orders coffee.

Still the same damn shot!

And this

(Pause while Cairns goes and makes some too.)

Mmm, coffee.

Now, that shot on Andrews (still the versatile shot 6) becomes an over-the-shoulder when Pop steps in to take his order, which then allows us to cut to –

SHOT 7, a reverse on Pop, over Dana A’s shoulder (note: this is a different set-up to the previous Pop-shot, which was at the other end of the counter). Now we get a hairy moment — as Pop obligingly walks off to fix coffee and a burger for Andrews, his movement is meant to pull the camera off to one side to end up on a shot looking past Andrews at Bickford. I’m not 100% certain if this is Motivation 1 or Motivation 2, as Andrews shifts his attention to Bickford at the same time. It’s a nice move, but the ambiguity isn’t too helpful: maybe it would have been better to let Pop walk off then have Andrews’ shifting in his chair motivate the reframing?

Poppy

Cash on Demand

Jingle! Someone’s at the door.

Enter the Linda

High Heels

SHOT 8 and Holy Wow! It’s Linda “What I got don’t need beads” Darnell. A beautiful entrance, and then we follow her to a seat, the camera pivoting around Andrews’ back to keep her in view as she removes her feet. Linda is the former missing person, now the returning prodigal, with sore feet. Cut to:

Charley

Fists in the Pocket

SHOT 9. Preminger’s desire to make each shot complex and multi-functional becomes almost EXCESSIVE — rather than just have Bickford enter Darnell’s frame, he cuts to a medium-closeup expressive of lust and authority, pulling away from Bickford as he advances right at us, and slipping round the side into a sleazy two-shot. Just as we can’t bear looking at this a second longer, Pop’s voice is heard OS, motivating a cut to —

Coffee and Cigarettes

Three Men and a Little Lady

Good Burger

SHOT 10. Pop practically drops his tray when he sees Linda, ruining a perfectly good medium close shot almost immediately but pulling us into a really useful group shot that situates Andrews as outsider/observer. Linda steals his burger. Preminger reframes slightly after Bickford leaves, almost unnoticed (his sexual menace ignored by the contemptuous L Darnell) and D Andrews swaps seats to get his damn coffee. Then Andrews swivels on his bar-stool to frankly eavesdrop, and Preminger eases in on Linda as she stuffs her face with processed meat (Mmm, processed meat), a camera movement that simulates Andrews’ narrowing focus of attention (Motivation 2 crossed with 5, kind of). When Andrews gets up, the shot pulls back again, a straightforward Motivation 1 reframing. When Linda forces Andrews to break his last banknote paying for the coffee (this is where her unpleasantness of a character assumes strangely ALLURING proportions) the camera pulls back a tiny bit with NO MOTIVATION AT ALL, save a sort of abstract Motivation 1 response to  Pop’s exit, and we don’t seem to mind a bit, discovering only at the end of the move that this pull-back allows Pop to be seen as he works the cash register in the background.

Cafe Metropole

Dana exits.

Appearing in only three shots, Linda Darnell has neatly pocketed the whole movie, which will struggle to stay on its feet when she departs around the two-thirds mark. Meanwhile, Preminger has shown how comfortable he is moving the camera with more than one motivation, frequently creating subtle dramatic emphases while appearing simply to be following characters around…

Oh, I buzzed forward to the ten-minute mark, and I find Mr. Erickson’s shot-count slightly off — there are eighteen shots up to then by my reckoning, not counting the credits sequence which eats up the first of those ten minutes. But the general point is quite correct: Otto milks his shots until they squeak.