An Analysis of Mark Romanek’s “99 Problems”

romanek

It has been ages since I wrote an analysis of something, but here is something I broke down that’s important to understand in the language of cinema. I used Mark Romanek’s music video for Jay-Z, 99 Problems as an example as I find it to be a good, complex example. I know right? out of everything I could’ve used… well, it has to appeal to a large group of people right? You be the judge. My analysis is based on a lot of information I gleaned from reading various sources on cinema, and I’d like to think that I’m not just coming up with complete and utter BS, as you will see that these concepts and ideas are not necessarily new, and have been used for many decades. Which is why this video is a perfect example, because it’s modern, and uses ideas and concepts developed so long ago.

Video begins with an establishing shot which is intercut with the first shot of the stairs.

The first two shots of the video: Match visually – almost like a visual system

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Mark Romanek will match symmetries / shots that are alike, throughout.
Here are some of these moments in chronological order.


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Shots 6 > 7

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Shots 22 > 23 – both are tilted, therefore when he cuts, he affects us psychologically. Not only because of the tilt, but consciously we don’t see that at first, only when you analyse do you begin to see these things. He affects the subconscious – regardless whether there’s a point to the juxtaposition, or not.

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Shots 30 > 31 – are composed in one point perspective (Romanek is a huge Kubrick fan)

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Shots 54 > 55 – Albeit, these shots are NOT exact in terms of visual fidelity – they both have lines within them, and depth, perspective. The juxtaposition therefore is not as jarring – when two shots would not match. Notice the fact that the man on the left is in a somewhat medium long shot and Jay is in a medium shot. (shot sizes can vary throughout the industry)

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Shots 58 > 59 – while also not exact, notice the reciprocal of the shot size.

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Shots 74 – 76 – watch how the top half of the each image forms almost like one connected diagonal line going up and down – again, Romanek maps out the video through using various rules of graphic rules; lines, perspective, depth. The point here is for the visual experience to be smooth. Whether Romanek is planting hidden meanings or simply editing the video according to how shot-to-shot relationships work (aka, cut together) is beyond this analyst’s guess. It could very well be both.

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Shots 92 – 94 – watch how perspective fuses/ties all these shots together. It’s important to understand rules of perspective. Also, notice how the frame is “open” in all three shots – the depth can be felt throughout all shots. There are no moments when there’s a shot composed in depth, juxtaposed with a shot against a wall. Again, that doesn’t mean that you CAN’T do it…but it all depends on what perceptions you want to affect, what emotions you want the viewer to feel.

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Shots 141 – 143 – watch how this scene is constructed in three shots while having two first shots be opposing (you can even look at it as literally opposing, Jay vs Cop) and also continous in the third shot, continuous in the fact that it drives the story of this scene further, like a real scene should. Essentially this is a microscene from a film within a music video. To expand on how that third shot drives the story forward – after the shot of the cop, the third shot, Jay looks into rearview mirror which adds suspense. The first two shots are “opposing” in the sense that McTiernan spoke about in Die Hard commentary that when he shot people talking on the radio, he composed the shots so that they’re both facing each other. I do not doubt one bit, the intention was also similar here.

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Shots 155 – 157 – I wanted to specifically include this batch of shots even if all three are not exactly the same. In principles of cinematography, there is such a concept as a neutral shot – this shot is usually used as an excuse to switch the axis or to cut to a different angle of the same scene. The neutral shot is usually a closeup – but as we can see HERE. This is not one, but it works… because first of all – in the actual music video, it is part of a word-image association – where a specific lyrics is in sync with the image it represents. So for instance, in this case “bitch”. But to get to my initial point… this neutral shot binds two completely different shots however these shots are matched – both are one point perspective. It’s a good technique to cut smoothly.

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Shots 162 > 163 – once again, we have matched shots. Both are in one point perspective, yet they also retain a level of visual variety. One is an extreme long shot – another is in a medium long shot.

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Shots 174 > 175 – more diagonal shot matching, but not limited to; watch the perspective, watch the lines. The right side of 174 is a wall tying to the left side of 175 – in turn forming in depth compositions. With simple perspective and proper shot juxtapositions some very interesting perceptual / psychological / subconscious imagery is created. Eisenstein would be so, so proud.

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Shots 176 – 178. Watch how the previous two shots are continued. The body forms a neutral shot, so Romanek can cut back to Jay in the same exact take as the shot (175), he now cuts to a shot of Gallo (who was established to be walking with Rubin (the guy in shot 174) but not included in this visual breakdown for reasons of brevity and focus of the analysis of the editing patterns and shot matching). So then – if you look at the sequence of shots 174 – 178 as a wholeRomanek is 1.) telling a story and 2.) he is matching shots carefully while obeying editorial rules (such as the imagery acting as neutral shots)

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Shots 200 – 202 – if you refer back to shots 155 – 157 – you will see that this is a repetition of the same technique. Using the shot of the cross as 1.) word-image association and 2.) neutral shot which fuses two completely different scenes. In turn creating visual variety, moving the story forward, and obeying editorial rules (neutral image propelling the story forward by way of fusion of shots that come after)

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Shots 210 > 211 – for purposes of illustrating more examples of pure cinematic ‘microscenes’ in this music video (like the previous 141-143) I’ve included this scene, although if you watch the video, the entire narrative has them.

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Shots 224 > 225 – more perspective matching. Watch how the converging lines are present in these juxtaposed shots.

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Shots 226 – 228 – Dude throwing up acts as a neutral shot that binds 225 with 227, with a direct cut to a shot matching perspective, the same way there’s a match between all the previous shots I’ve pointed out. 174-178 has the same editing pattern albeit the imagery is different in what takes are juxtaposed. But that doesn’t matter – pay attention to editing pattern. Also don’t forget that some of these shots that are neutral (body, cross, dude throwing up) are also word-image associations. Usually you’ll find them in every video that tells some kind of a narrative. You’ll hear the lyrics, and the image referring back to the lyrics. I call them word-image associations – but that’s just my term, you can come up with any terminology that makes sense to you. It’s tough to remember a lot of the devices and concepts, so come up with your own terminology.

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Shots 252 > 253 – this is another example of opposing juxtapositions. Where in 252 lines mostly converge to the left. In 253, lines converge in one point perspective – yet, to be simple, just know that the left side of this shot converges to the right. This is somewhat similar to 174 > 175 juxtaposition. But for example, you can also see it in 226 – 228, but not limited to.

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Shots 318 > 319 – One point perspective is matched between two different (yet similar) juxtaposing shots.

So what exactly is the point of this analysis? You might be asking, “Well aren’t you just looking into a lot of this?” – in some cases, that could be the case, but when it comes down to mapping out a coherently viewable visual animation, film, scene – all of this is paid immense attention to. These concepts have been established, believe it or not, in the 1920’s during the days of Soviet montage – where Sergei Eisenstein (do yourself a favor and read David Bordwell’s book Cinema of Eisenstein) along with many other theorists, such as Lev Kuleshov, and Dziga Vertov came up with these concepts. You will often find that many of their first films, such as Eisenstein’s early films or most importantly Alexander Nevsky and Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera are some of the most important cinematic works of art, precisely because of the many concepts we now see in cinema that came after them. While concepts of perspective, or line isn’t necessarily even theirs – the way in which they were proponents of designing the moving image is attributed to them. The mapping out of a film – its visual design – is an important tool of a filmmaker in affecting his audience’s perceptions. As you can see, some 80 odd years after, these very same concepts and ideas are applied to a rap music video directed by one of the most stylish filmmakers of our time – Mark Romanek. If that doesn’t prove a thing or two about how solid these concepts – established during the forming of cinema – truly are, then I’m as perplexed as you are.

With that in mind, I recommend that any student of film pays more attention to solidifying their grasping of concepts and ideas before trying to make a film, or anything visual – because the filmmaking medium requires thorough understanding of ideas first and foremost and not being aware of them can take its toll on a beginner, leading them to give up easily. Mark Romanek along with his crew thoroughly understood concepts and ideas. Strive for the same.

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2 thoughts on “An Analysis of Mark Romanek’s “99 Problems”

  1. Pingback: Mark Romanek on music videos | filmschoolthrucommentaries

  2. Pingback: Mark Romanek on music videos – Part II | filmschoolthrucommentaries

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