I will be comparing two clips featuring Jessica Lange from American Horror Story. These clips are from Season Two Episode One and Season Three Episode One.
Both scenes feature the same actress, Jessica Lange, in some sort of lead role. This re-using of actors is part
of the premise of American Horror Story; the same actors are retained, but the stories are changed from season to season. In the second season, she plays the lead nun of the asylum. Her first act of the
season is to shave a female inmate’s head as a punishment, followed by verbally berating a subordinate. The scene is designed in a way to give a negative first impression of this character. That her subordinates react with fear whenever they cross her, and her comments to the journalist, such as “Mental illness is a fashionable word for ‘sin’”, are intended to create a negative view of this nun in the viewer’s eyes. The journalist in the scene is used as a foil for Lange’s character: she dresses comparatively brightly and licentiously, compared to the severe clothing of the nuns and the female inmate, wearing her hair in a more relaxed style than either, and wearing makeup on her face. The small “L” on her lapel, in gold, indicates that she is materially comparatively rich (Especially for a woman in the 1950s in America), and that she is spending time and money on material goods, a sharp contrast to Lange’s crucifix (a purely religious article) and life of devotion. This builds a contrast between these two characters in the viewer’s mind.
In comparison, the character Lange plays in the third season is a witch, historically and morally the antithesis of a nun. She is also absent for about half of the scene, with the younger leads taking over. The first obvious role is the girl walking towards the camera after a few seconds, played (I believe) by Emma Roberts. She begins by turning off a television that other people are watching, immediately setting up a negative first impression. The dialogue, where she rhetorically questions why they’re watching it at all, indicates to the audience that she cares little for their opinions, reinforced by her general demeanor. This is in comparison to the foil character from the previous season, which is generally normal in demeanor and attitude; we are meant to have a slightly negative first impression of this one, which we weren’t in season two. This character is intended as less of a foil to Lange.
The character Lange plays appears around halfway through the scene, and again is intended to give a negative first impression. This begins by how she walks in uninvited and unannounced, and immediately begins criticizing the (up to now) lead character for her actions, in the process proving she cares little for human life with how she brushes off the news of a bus crash. The response of “Who are you?” indicates that the girls have no idea who this is. Her general attitude is similar to the nun from the previous season: both are heavily sardonic, although this character appears to be taking pleasure in being unpleasant (Noting the smile she gives while smashing a teenager into a wall, and when she discusses the deaths of nine boys), while the nun seemed to be doing it out of convenience. The scene is designed to endear her to the audience with her attitude, which I can only describe as ‘sassy’, but also to make clear that she is not on the side of good. Compare this to the nun from the previous season, which comes across as merely doing her job, unpleasant, but not actively malicious.
The props used in each scene help with the establishment of character, as well as the time period of the work. In the first clip, the best shot of the props is this overhead view. The room is relatively sparse: this further establishes the severe character of the nun as somebody who has committed to a life of servitude to God. The props that are used are mostly to further establish her character. The cross shaped candle holders arranged on the wall, the various religious trappings in the back corner and the crucifix she wears are all used to further push the religious feelings the room gives, in order to further push the religious vibes of the character who inhabits it. There is an old style rotary dial telephone on the desk; these were common in the 1950s, and this one is used to show the general time period that this is set. Finally, the letter opener situated centrally on her desk is used to hint at the ferocity of the nun. The implications of keeping knife shaped objects in easy reach are obvious, and are intended to enhance the violent reactions of this character.
In comparison, there are many props in the season three episode, although many more of them are for the establishment of the location rather than the characters; things like the plates on the table hint more at the time of day and the affluence of the house than they do at the characters. This image shows one of the main props in the scene: the television. This is an old cathode ray tube device, which places this story at some point around the mid to late 1990s. Compare to the previous clip, which took place in the 1950s, or thereabouts. In the image above, in the previous section, the rest of the room is visible to the camera. The number of props, along with the comparative extravagance in their design, shows that the characters that live here are a far cry from the nuns and mental patients of the previous season.
In the first clip, the costumes are used to show the differences in character between the two leads. The sheer style of the nun’s habit, contrasted with the extravagance of the other lead, visually surmises their characters in seconds. This is useful in scenes like the one pictured, as they can be compared visually and easily, coming to the correct conclusion in the viewer’s mind. The crucifix worn by Lange’s character also furthers the religious iconography associated with her character (more on which later). In comparison, the clothing worn in season three is far less sheer. Although it is still all black, the shorter skirt and more shapely appearance are designed less to invoke severity, as they are to invoke mystery and intrigue.
The clothing of the other girls in the scene also hints at their characters. Two wear typically girlish clothing, with a pink dress on one and an over vest type thing on another. These are the most innocent-seeming and youngest members of the group, respectively, so the clothing may be indicating at their innocence. Another wears a university shirt, possibly as a foil to the clothing of Lange’s character, which commands her to change her clothes at the end of the scene. Finally, the first girl seen is immediately indicated to be non-cooperative and rebellious; she wears a shirt that reads “BITE ME”, a term used to dismiss others in a less than polite manner. This is a long way from the semi formal clothing, prisoner uniform and outright religious clothing of the previous season.
The sets used for each scene are used to show the differences in both character and time between the clips. The sets used for the nun’s room are very plain and austere; they are used to show (again) that she is living a life of devotion and rejection of material goods. Compare to the house of the third season. The house has luxurious furnishings all over the place, hinting at affluent owners, along with the size of the place. While the nun’s room was cramped and dark, a single shaft of light falling onto the plain wooden chairs set before the desk, the kitchen in the second clip is easily four times the size and well lit. The walls are decorated richly, again to show the wealth of the house’s owners, and in contrast to the nun the room is filled with material goods.
There are examples of both diegetic and non-diegetic sound in both clips. In both, the non-diegetic sound is at the start of the clip, and in both it serves the same function: it builds tension. Each is suited to the time period, so a more orchestral piece is used in the 1950s story while the late 1990s story uses a synthesized electronic soundtrack. There are obviously the voice recordings, required for any clip with dialogue. The diegetic sound used in the first clip also includes the sound of the razor, which is louder than normal to put the audience on edge. Both scenes are similar in this respect, possibly due to having the same producers.
The camera work on both clips is also similar. The camera is often dynamic, shaking around slightly as if someone were holding it rather than using a tripod, which creates a feeling of unease in the audience. Close ups are used liberally in both clips, to bring attention to faces. Jump cuts between close ups are also common, which adds to the unsettling atmosphere. The first clip also includes a high shot, visible above in the “Props” section. This odd perspective allows the audience to view both the room and the characters from on high, which helps to show the props and costumes and so forth; it also may add to the religious theme, as it is reminiscent of the view that God would have of the situation.
As stated above, religious iconography is used liberally in the first clip. The most obvious is the crosses and crucifixes all around the room, which is literally the logo of several branches of Christianity, and is heavily associated with religion. The shaft of light falling onto the chairs is also iconographic; Christian architecture has long employed tactics like this in churches to draw attention to altars and baptismal fonts and so forth. All of this reinforces again that Lange’s character is deeply religious. By comparison, relatively little iconography is used in the second clip. The word “Hogwarts” is derisively used to refer to the school, a clear use of the Harry Potter franchise as an example of a similar situation. Far less iconography is used in this scene in comparison to the first scene.