Th 1051: Introduction to Film

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Analysis of New Jersey Drive

by Zachary Quinn

The film I chose to analyze is the 1995 film, New Jersey Drive, which was written and directed by Nick Gomez, whose earlier work includes the 1992 picture Laws of Gravity. I have admired this film for a long time and for many reasons, beyond the plot and the characters the technical features of the film enhance the story Gomez is trying to portray to the audience. The story takes place in Newark, New Jersey, the car theft capital of the world. And in this urban setting we find the young African American teens involved in stealing cars and dodging police in what can be described as empty lives, no goals, no focus and no direction. The only thing that these young men are interested in is the ride. Gomez sets this rebellion against a dirty cop force which brings into play racial confrontation. The main character is a 15-year-old kid named Jason Petty, and in this film the director takes the audience through the life of a Newark youth, dealing with the pressures from his peers, his family, and the ever-testing Newark police.

The first, and most powerful, technical element that I noticed Gomez use throughout this film is the framing technique of the pictures on screen. In the opening scene Jason Petty walks into the frame and in the hands of correctional officers, turns, and faces the camera, his face is center and framed by the jail cell bars in front of him. I think that Gomez was using this framing technique at this point in the film to give a sense of foreshadowing, that events in the future that lead to Jason's jail time are bound to be this bleak and distraught, because as he walks into the cell area, Jason begins to narrate the movie and goes back in time to tell his story. The second use of framing that I noticed Gomez use was the scene of Jason and his friends sitting in the park talking about a shooting. As they sit they are framed by the tall court fencing in the background. The chain link fences frame them into the lower half of the screen. I think that Gomez made this choice to give the idea that these individuals are caged by their surroundings. The diagonal lines of the chain link also portray a sense of chaos in the city in which they live. As the film progresses and as Jason and his friends engage in more and more car theft, the pressures of the Newark police become evident when they come to his front door. This sequence of shots contains two scenes where Gomez framed the shot to express this pressure. The first is when Jason's sister Jackie opens the door to answer it and as she does her face is framed by the dark room and open door. The framing is located on the right side of the screen to give a sense of weakness to the police on the left hand side. The next shot is of Jason walking out the door being escorted by police, the camera placed behind the hand railing and never showing his face, only the handcuffs binding his arms behind his back. The vertical bars of the hand rail frame the cuffs around Jason's wrists as he walks to the cop car. I believe that Gomez used this framing technique to show capture and the mounting pressure piling up on Jason. The last use of framing that I noticed Gomez make was in the last scene of the film. The camera pulls away from Jason's face as he sits in a classroom; as it does, Jason's and only Jason's upper body is framed by the window frame around him. The white blinds and light shining through them frame jason in a lighter shot than the previous framing choices. I think that Gomez made a brilliant choice in this scene; it gives the viewer a feeling of hope and promise for Jason and his future. The framing choices made by the director give a number of emotions to the audience ranging from capture and despair to positive feelings and hope, adding to the whole of the picture.

The second technical element that Gomez used well was the angles at which he shot some scenes. The first use of angles done in the movie is when Jason and Ron Q are driving and come upon the police waiting on top of a hill overlooking the street that they are traveling on. The angles of the police viewing the two youngsters is very high, almost bird's eye, giving the sense of power and dominance as they drive by. In opposition is the angle of Jason and Ron Q, looking upwards at the domineering police offiers. I think Gomez made this choice of high and low angles so early in the film to facilitate the power struggle between the youth of Newark and the police. The angle choices make the audience sympathize with the teens even though they are committing a crime at the moment by driving around in a stolen car. The next scene is of Ron Q lying on the floor with a gun shot wound from the police. The angle is high, but not noticeably, yet still gives the viewer a feeling that he is going to die. Another scene in which camera angles are used very creatively is when Jason is sitting in the police station being asked questions about the shooting; the scene ends with a view from a black and white police camera in the room mounted from the ceiling looking down on Jason as he looks up at it. Again a feeling of dominance is given to the police and a sense of oppression and isolation played out upon Jason. So far throughout the movie I have noticed low angles giving a sense of power and high angles giving weakness, but the scene of Ron Q lying in a hospital bed and his friends around him has a high angle shot that is positive because the viewer thinks that he would have died from his wounds, but now that the audience sees him alive, the high angle loses its dominant characteristic and gives a grateful emotion. This altering of meaning of the high angle in the hospital leads to another scene of high angles in which Jason and his friends stand on the roof of a building. The camera's angle from the roof top looking down on a squad car from the point of view of the young men totally reverses the idea that the power and control is associated with the police is absolute. I think that Gomez chooses this shot to give the idea of building power struggle between the two sides in this movie, to confuse the audience a little to the face of whom has the power on the street. The most lasting shot that Gomez uses by shooting the scene at angles is the scene of group of friends mourning the death of one of their friends. The scene is shot at late dusk while they sit on a park bench. The low angle of the camera viewing the teens should imply strength, but Gomez instead gives the viewer a more melancholy feeling because the viewer only sees the outlined silhouettes of the boys. It almost seems that these people are just empty shells.

The last element of the film that I thought had the most impact was the movement Gomez incorporated into his picture. He varied it with fast and slow to give multiple impressions to the audience. The first example is when Jason is in jail and a fight breaks out; the movement across the screen is fast and in both directions. Arms, bodies, and heads move in and out of the picture. I think that Gomez chose this shot to prove the point that jail was full of tension and chaos. Along with fast movements and action, Gomez used the slow motion technique to give great attention to key parts of the film. One instance is when the young men try and steal a car planted by the cops. The scene ends with bullets flying and Gomez uses this slow motion of the bullets piercing the glass and hitting one of the boys, prolonging the agony of death. The next shot is of the antagonist police officer walking toward Jason in slow motion to arrest him. I think that Gomez used this slow motion to prolong the idea that the life Jason was leading, stealing cars and running from police, was over. Obviously in a story about car theft there is going to be a lot of movement from speeding cars throughout the movie but in the same way that Gomez shot the cars speeding away from behind, he also uses this shot for a more meaningful way. Near the end of the film this same shot shows Jason walking away from the camera, the only movement in the frame, maybe to emphasize the end of times and ways for this young man.

In conclusion, I believe that New Jersey Drive combines taseteful technical elements together with a solid plot and an even more worthy performance by the cast. Together, all of these components and the mind of Nick Gomez produce a film worthy of awards. The fact it was a story of urban conflict between African American youth and the law authorities puts it in a class not widely recognized for its artistic qualities, but this film breaks the status quo. It was even nominated for the Independent Spirit Award in 1996.

copyright 1999 Zachary Quinn

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