Friday, July 10, 2009

Not for Educational Purposes: Ice Age Dawn of the Dinosaurs

The Cenozoic meets the Mesozoic in Dawn of the Dinosaurs, the third
installment of the Ice Age franchise. The prehistoric heroic trio, consisting of mammoths Manny (voiced by Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah), and saber-toothed tiger Diego (Denis Leary), embarks on a journey to save their sloth friend Sid (John Leguizamo) after an angry mama T-Rex captures him. Sid earns the theropod's wrath when he takes her eggs and attempts to raise them as his own. This and other disruptive behavior, we learn, is prompted by the impending birth of Ellie and Manny's new baby mammoth. Soon, a rescue mission unfolds in the land of dinosaurs, and we meet series newcomer Buck (Simon Pegg), a one-eyed scavenger weasel, who incites most of the film's humor ("Time to get buckwild!") and becomes an indispensable ally in navigating the perilous tropical getaway. Dawn of the Dinosaurs lacks the magic of the first Ice Age, but its story is more compelling than the inane but well-intentioned global warming-themed second installment, The Meltdown. One hopes, however, that parents won't use this film, in which dinosaurs live among Ice Age mammals, for educational purposes.

Courtesy of Independent Weekly.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Proposal I'd Say 'No' To

What does a Canadian editor-in-chief at a publishing house do if she is facing deportation? Marry her sexy American assistant, of course. So begins the ridiculous premise to director Anne Fletcher’s newest romantic comedy, The Proposal, which stars Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds as the masochistic lovebirds. Fletcher, who brought audiences 27 Dresses and Step Up thus establishing a track record of unparalleled sub-mediocrity), brings us another pityingly predictable love story.

After working three years for Margaret (Bullock), a Type-A uppity control freak, and hating every minute of it, Andrew (Reynolds) decides to marry her so she can keep her job and he can, thereby, keep his. The newly engaged couple travels to Alaska for a 90th birthday party for his grandmother (Betty White) in order to keep up the ruse for Mr. Gilbertson, the immigration officer (Denis O’Hare) set on exposing them. Mr. Gilbertson informs Andrew that he risks $250,000 in fines and five years in prison. Andrew is undeterred: Clearly, facing jail time is nothing compared to the fear of being jobless in this economy.

Nonetheless, Andrew and Margaret persevere with their scheme. And wouldn’t you know it, a weekend with Andrew’s family warms Margaret’s frozen heart, completely revolutionizing her outlook on life and her misguided values.

Still, there are several moments of broad comedy, however, that may amuse some viewers, as when Oscar Nuñez performs a bachelorette striptease, or when Betty White feels up Bullock’s breasts, or the accidental naked encounter between Bullock and Reynolds. Although some of this shtick succeeds, the film fails to bring something truly original and clever, which is the crux of the problem for the entire film.

It’s hard to dislike Bullock in any role that she plays, and Reynolds brings ample sex appeal, but in this film their chemistry is forced and unbelievable—a problem that seems to run deeper than being merely a function of their 12-year age difference. (Bullock, by the way, puts women half her age to shame by nearly baring all).

After such recent comic dreck as Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous and Two Weeks Notice, one wishes that Bullock would give up this genre and return to more dramatic roles of the sort that she excelled at in Crash and 28 Days.

Here’s a proposal: Skip this film and use your money to rent While You Were Sleeping, the romance that solidified her as a leading lady 15 years ago and remains one of her best.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Postcard to Jane Austen: Shot by Shot Analysis of Pride and Prejudice

In the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice (2005), director Joe Wright brings a more realistic and unconventional take to this period piece than his predecessors. Rather than idealize eighteenth century Britain and keep it within the usual picturesque traditions, Wright captures and romanticizes the filth, the economic hardships and societal conventions. Likewise our protagonists’, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, relationship seems to be far more convoluted and intense. In the 5-shot sequence, starting at 38:45 min of screen time and ending at 41:18, Wright attempts to feed the spectator’s voyeuristic need and manifest the sexual tension felt between the characters Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy through the use of editing and mise-en-scène as well as camera and character movement.

In this sequence Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are at a ball in Netherfeld, the country home of Mr. Darcy’s best friend Mr. Bingley. At this point in the story, Mr. Darcy has just asked Elizabeth to dance. She consents even though Elizabeth despises him because of his arrogance and treatment towards Mr. Wickham, a former acquaintance of Darcy and recent love interest of Elizabeth’s. The sequence begins as they both line up to dance at 38:45 minutes of film time and ends at 41:18 minutes, consisting of five shots.

Shot 1 is quite brief and expressed in only two seconds. We see a line of men, consisting of three eighteenth century British soldiers and five of the gentry, including Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, in profile facing to the left. The rest of the crowd, as well as the ballroom walls, can be seen vaguely in the background of the mise-en-scène. It is filmed at a medium oblique angle with the shot widening from right to left and the focus narrowing from left to right, particularly onto Mr. Darcy. Also, all the men next to Mr. Darcy are shorter helping to establish for his character an air of prominence and importance. As the men wait for the music to begin a lulling clatter of chatter can be heard. All the men are dressed in rather demure colors and are staring left off-screen, presumably to their dance partners as shot 2 reveals.

As the film cuts from shot 1 to shot 2, the music, Dario Marianelli’s “A Postcard to Henry Purcell,” begins. Shot 2 reveals what the men were gazing at with a row of female dance partners bowing and shown at a medium oblique angle. This shot seems to be the opposite of shot 1, thus paralleling the differences between men and women. Instead of a line of men, we have a line of eight women, including Elizabeth and her sister, Jane, in profile facing right. All of them are dressed in white with their hair perfectly coifed. Unlike shot 1, the shot widens from left to right and focus narrows from right to left perfectly onto Elizabeth. Similarly, however, the characters next to Elizabeth are shorter thereby drawing attention to her. What’s more, a very similar mise-en-scène can be seen in this shot to that of shot 1. This shot, too, is brief, lasting only three seconds.

As the ladies rise from their bows, the film cuts to shot 3. At first cinematographically it appears the same as shot 1 but then continues on as a long take, running about two minutes without any cuts, of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth dancing. In this shot, the camera is somewhat static, only moving laterally as the characters’ dancing gives the impression of a figure eight. Only Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are in focus. This is the first shot that has dialogue spoken and our two protagonists seem to dance around each other through biting banter just as much as they do via actual dancing. It starts off with small talk as the music plays softly and smoothly. However, as music begins to slowly swell the banter becomes more sarcastic as Elizabeth responds to Mr. Darcy’s inquiry of whether she speaks as a rule while dancing with “No, I prefer to be unsociable and taciturn.” Furthermore, the circles and turns of the dance increase with the sarcasm of the dialogue. The music of the violins soars as Mr. Darcy finally loses his cool and stops to confront Elizabeth when she asks about losing Mr. Wickham’s friendship. Through clenched teeth he retorts, “Why do you ask such a question?” This is were the tension between the two characters is at its highest. Both are battling with their desire to loathe and love the person standing before them.

Suddenly the director cuts into shot 4 as the music reaches it’s crescendo and Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth begin to dance again. However, the mise-en-scène of this shot is devoid of people. The people from the ball disappear and all that can be seen is the two of them dancing. They are fixed so intensely on each other that everyone else has disappeared from the dance. In fact, their stares are so powerful that the sexual tension can be felt through the screen. The camera in this shot becomes less stagnant and it seems to move around the two protagonists unlike it had before. This gives an otherworldly impression that they are flying and are not constrained to the floor.

Shot 4 seems more prominent and significant than the other shots not only because of the changed mise-en-scène but also because of Wright’s editing. According to Graeme Turner in his book, Film as Social Practice, he notes that a director “can use the timing of their cuts either to enhance the energy of the action, or to slow it down” (88) and in moments of action, cuts increase the drama. Because shot 3 had been so stagnant and fixed, as well as long, the cut to shot 4 was more apparent and jarring. This edit conveys the importance of shot 4 and thus the magnitude of its contents: the sexual tension between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.

The last cut occurs when the music ends and Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy bow to each other. Shot 5 resembles shot 2 with the ladies all in line except now they are in the same position the men were in shot 1. The sequence finally ends with Lizzie glaring off-screen, presumably to Mr. Darcy, and the other ladies clapping.

Based on this sequence, the camera seems to follow Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth without ever giving the spectator a real clear indication of who is watching, an important question that Daniel Dayan brings up in his essay “The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema.” Once that question is posed the spectator becomes aware of the mechanics of film and "[the film] must hide its operations, 'naturalizing' its functioning and its messages in some way" (126) in order for that impression of reality to work. Conventionally, in order to prevent this questioning of "who is watching" is to use “the shot/reverse-shot” and thus to suture “the hole opened in the spectator's imaginary relationship with the filmic field by his perception of the absent-one" (128), with the "absent-one" being the off-screen character that is viewing the scene unfold.

Because of this lack of suturing we are forced to identify with the camera’s viewpoint, as Christian Metz coins in his essay “Identification, Mirror,” as our primary identification. With no identification of who is looking, “the spectator can do no other than identify with the camera, too, which has looked before him at what he is now looking” (804). Our voyeuristic pleasure in this case is purely derived from just watching as the camera does. This is voyeurism at its most primal. Director Joe Wright purposely does this in order to increase the spectator’s viewing pleasure and enjoyment of the romantic sequence.

This dance sequence is one of the more beautiful scenes in the movie. Wright navigates the camera through it as smoothly as the music playing in the background. He wonderfully conveys, via film narrative, what Jane Austen tried to demonstrate in her beloved work of so many years ago, creating a visually pleasurable sequence for the spectator.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Enunciating Pleasure in a Nameless Hero

Before taking this "Intro to Film" course, I believed that my intense love for movies stemmed from the escapist aspects of films, of going to far off places and encountering people and situations that I have never experienced. However, throughout the course, it has surprised me to learn that this love has more to do with a narcissistic self-reflexivity and a voyeuristic need, according to most of the articles we have read. My identification with the camera and characters and the gratification I derive from watching the latter is what ultimately provides cinematic-watching pleasure. Of course, this requires accepting a certain reality within the story and ignoring the discourse, or production, that creates it. According to Christian Metz in his essay, "Story/Discourse: Notes on Two Kinds of Voyeurism" he explains that the "traditional film succeeds in giving the spectator the impression that he is himself that subject," and thereby derives pleasure, when "[the film] abolishes all traces of the subject of enunciation," that is to say when the spectator is unaware of the discourse.

While watching Yimou Zhang's film, Hero, I had this very idea in mind. First, I must say, this film was perhaps one of the most visually stunning movies I have ever seen since Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The mise-en scene in this film is spectacular and is meant to invoke visual pleasure for the spectator's wandering eyes. The spectator is mesmerized by the gorgeous colors, costumes, and settings, not to mention the acrobatic insanity that ensues for most of the film. All of these elements help to enhance the story and make it more pleasing to that ever-fickle moviegoer.

However, those same acrobatic feats are what make the movie suspend reality and introduce skepticism into the spectator's mind. The action in this film is so unbelievable and magical that the spectator wonders exactly how these amazing shots could be made. For example, the scene on the lake (shown below) is incredible.

Jet Li (Nameless) and Tony Leung (Broken Sword) share an epic battle while practically defying gravity as they fly over the water. Not only that, but the water itself serves as a balancing board for them to regain their battling composure. It's stunning! Yet as soon as the spectator starts questioning how the shot was made the illusion of the story is gone and discourse comes to the forefront. Therefore, the supposed reality of the film comes into question and the pleasure derived from self-identification is somewhat lost. Pleasure can be derived from the amazing visuals, but it is not as intense as primary identification would be.

On the other hand, if there are an abundant amount of gravity defying stunts in the film, there are just as many close-ups. I believe that is where the true pleasure of the film comes from and thus when voyeurism is at it's highest. The spectator is not only watching these characters and objects, but he/she can see also them in detail. In her essay, "The Close-up," Bela Balasz explains close-ups "radiate a tender human attitude in the contemplation of hidden things, a delicate solicitude, a gentle bending over the intimacies of life-in the miniature, a warm sensibility." It is this sneak peek into a previously "hidden thing," as Balasz says, that we enjoy in film. (Hidden in the sense that it is not as defined or able to be seen in detail in long or medium shots.)

In the first ten minutes of Hero alone there are at least 15 or more close-ups showing the spectator a hidden secret, hidden object, or hidden emotion that could not have been seen in a long shot. Throughout the film there are numerous more and each one provides a hidden insight. When they are all combined in the final product, the spectator can derive far more voyeuristic pleasure from the close-ups then he/she could from the discourse-revealing gravity defying acrobatic fights. It's possible that by juxtaposing these two opposites it enhances the visual pleasure even more.

Perhaps I am a bit biased since I was watching the film under the pretense of finding some kind of meaning in order to write this blog or to have something to say about it in class. If I was just going to see the movie in theaters maybe I wouldn't be focused on any of the technical aspects but would rather just be amazed by the extravagant beauty of the movements, settings, and costumes. Who knows? Maybe by studying film itself we are more attune to the discourse and often forget to just enjoy the story.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Instead of Doing Work I Watched the Oscars!

The 81st Academy Awards was doused with refreshing new cologne provided by Hugh Jackman's wonderful song and dance routines, the touching 5 person presenters for the acting categories, and beautiful movie montages. The Big Winner this year was definitely underdog favorite Slumdog Millionaire, which won in 8 categories. The speeches of the ceremony, Dustin Lance Black (winner Best Original Screenplay for Milk ), Penelope Cruz (winner Best Supporting Actress for Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and Heath Ledger's parents and sister (winner Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight), were really heartbreaking and emotional. The tributes to Jerry Lewis as well as those who have passed away this year added a sad little cherry to the festivities of the night. Cruz's "Art, in any form, is and has been and always will be our universal language" pretty much summed up the international ode to the night. Although there were a few technical flubs and several nervous actors messing up their lines, the show was touching and lots of fun! Old Hollywood glamour of cinema was truly paid an homage tonight.

Here are the winners:

Actress in a Supporting Role - Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)
Writing (Original Screenplay) - Milk
Writing (Adapted Screenplay) - Slumdog Millionaire
Animated Feature Film - Wall-E
Short Film (Animated) - La Maison en Petits Cubes
Art Direction - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Costume Design - The Duchess
Makeup - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Cinematography - Slumdog Millionaire
Short Film (Live Action) - Spielzeugland (Toyland)
Actor in a Supporting Role - Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Documentary Feature - Man on Wire
Documentary Short - Smile Pinki
Visual Effects - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Sound Editing - The Dark Knight
Sound Mixing - Slumdog Millionaire
Film Editing - Slumdog Millionaire
Music (Score) - Slumdog Millionaire
Music (Song) - "Jai Ho" (Slumdog Millionaire)
Foreign Language Film - Departures
Directing - Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire)
Actress in a Leading Role - Kate Winslet (The Reader)
Actor in a Leading Role - Sean Penn (Milk)
Best Picture - Slumdog Millionaire

Congrats to all the winners! 3 out of my 5 predictions is not bad...

Friday, February 20, 2009

Venetian Blinds and Chinatown: Conventions of the Film Noir Tradition

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

Roman Polanski's 1974 Chinatown, by far one of my newest favorite films, is carefully scrutinized by John Cawelti in his essay "Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films." He argues that despite the likeness to film noir, the movie is actually very far from this tradition siting that "Polanski carefully controls his spectrum of hue and tone in order to give it the feel of film noir, but it is nonetheless color with occasional moments of rich golden light" (499). However, by examining and concluding that the film's narrative structure is not in line with film noir, he fails to realize that film noir cannot be examined via its narrative, but rather it must be by its visual style.

(WARNING: Spoilers)

Set in 1937 in Los Angeles amidst the water drought, Chinatown tells the story of J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a private investigator, who stumbles upon a conspiracy when the wife of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the Water and Power Department's Chief Engineer, asks him to find out if he is cheating on her. After photographing Mulwray in the arms of a young girl and starting a scandal by having the photos published in a newspaper, the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up threatening to sue Gittes if he does not drop the falsely acquired case. This plunges Gittes into a "complex web of deceit involving murder, incest, and municipal corruption all related to the city's water supply" (IMDB).

According to Cawelti, Chinatown differs from the classic noir not only in appearance, but on three narrative points central to the "hard-boiled detective" stories that are found in noir films. First, the characters played by Nicholson and Dunaway "echo the archetypal hard-boiled duo in a superficial way" and "play characters which are very different" (501). Dunaway's toughness in the movie, he argues, is merely a facade for her neuroticism and anxiety rather than the actual strength and independence found in Lauren Bacall's character in The Big Sleep. What's more, Nicholson as the hard-boiled detective and "his attempt to be the tough, cynical, and humorous private eye is undercut at all sides" (501). Cawelti even asserts that by virtue of his name, Gittes, the character does not follow the traditional strong detective name, such as Sam Spade, which connotes "hardness and digging beneath the surface" (502).

Secondly, Gittes inability to expose or punish the guilty in the film reveals a "depth of evil and chaos so great that he is unable to control it" (502). This gloomy portrayal is atypical of noir, which sees that the good guys are rewarded and the bad guys punished. Also, he does not save the girl, but rather helps to cause her death and the triumph belongs rather to the power of Chinatown. Lastly, the "erotically potent figure" of the detective's sexuality is undercut when faced with the incestuous and perverse figure of Noah Cross (John Huston), Mrs. Mulwray's father. Cross's "overpowering sexual, political, and economic power" (503) tragically creates a sense of impotence for Gittes.

According to Thomas Schatz in Hollywood Genres, "A genre film, like virtually any story, can be examined in terms of its fundamental narrative components: plot, setting, and character" (646). From this perspective, Cawelti is dead on in his examination. But what Cawelti fails to realize is that he is analyzing film noir as if it were a genre film when in reality it is more of a visual style, as Paul Schrader in his essay "Notes on Film Noir" explains. Film noir, as he specifies, is not a genre and is not defined "by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood." In this regard, Chinatown can mostly definitely be labeled as film noir.

Narrative aside, the film follows many of the stylistic conventions of film noir delineated in Schrader's essay. First and foremost, the scenes in film noir are always lit darkly and when light does come in it is oblique and vertical rather than horizontal, creating a mood of instability and restlessness. For example, in Chinatown, we can see in the scene where Gittes is first talking to the supposed Mrs. Mulwray mirrors a scene from a classic noir film, Double Indemnity. In this photo still of Chinatown we see the rays of light obliquely cut by the Venetian blinds and thus cut across Gittes's face.

The same technique can be seen used in this still from Double Indemnity, just in classical black and white instead of color.
The use of color in Chinatown is the difference between the two stills, the tone is still the same. If Polanski had chosen to do the film in black and white rather than color, the same use of light and shadows could be seen within the film that was typical of noir. The fact that it is in color does not detract from the dark shadows that the characters and the setting have. The "fatalistic hopeless mood" that shadowy lighting creates, according to Schrader, can be seen extensively throughout the film.

Additionally, "a typical film noir would rather move the scene cinematographically around the actor than have the actor control the scene by physical action" (Schrader), which is how most of Chinatown is filmed. In the clip below (starting at about 2:56 until about 3:28), the camera begins to move before any action occurs, thereby creating the action via the camera movement.

The use of the close up and the shadow of Gitte's face coupled with the slow panning of the camera create a terrific tension and foreboding mood that is vital in film noir.

Furthermore, the most important noir themes, fear of the future and a sense of haunting from the past, are both present in Chinatown. Gittes is haunted by his past as a cop. Having worked in Chinatown he ended up hurting a woman he so desperately tried to prevent from getting hurt. When Mrs. Mulwray asked what he did in Chinatown, Gittes responds with "As little as possible" because to do anything would have meant people would get hurt. It is this past that keeps haunting Gittes and fueling him to prevent someone he cares about, Mrs. Mulwray, from getting hurt. It is also what creates a mood of hopeless and unease. 

The film ends with a hopeless and fearful look into the future. Gittes looks on despairingly at Mrs. Mulwray's dead body and is pulled away by his associates. With a final look and Walsh's, his associate, reminder of "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown," Gittes loses all hope. This last line finally solidifies the bleakness of the present and the inability to change the future.

Although this ending in not typical of noir, I think it pushes the tradition forward into a new phase that is even darker than the one before. One in which there is no hope for the future in a present that is so rife with corruption, despair, and inutility. In the end as Walsh says, "It's Chinatown" so there is no point in fighting.

This film is both, I believe, a furtherance of and homage to the noir tradition. Conventions aside, it is beautifully lit and portrayed, as well as directed. And despite its gloomy ending, Chinatown excellently romanticizes the hard-boiled detective narrative. Almost makes you want to visit.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Barcelona es Poderosa

The heat of Barcelona permeates through the screen in Woody Allen’s latest passion project, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a romantic comedy with tragic undertones. But what else can you expect from Woody Allen? Love stories for him always have their sense of tragedy.

The film centers around Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), two friends off to stay in Barcelona for the summer with some distant relatives of Vicky. Vicky is a serious and levelheaded graduate student of Catalan identity and hopes to further her research in Barcelona. Cristina, on the other hand, is looking to escape the end of her latest relationship and the dissatisfaction of another film project. The girls agree on most matters in life, except love, of course. While Vicky desires seriousness, stability, and commitment from a man, Cristina esteems the exact opposite and all-consuming passion.

Insert Spanish hottie Javier Bardem. Bardem’s character is charmingly deadlier in this film with just a look than he ever was with the cattle gun in No Country for Old Men. Bardem plays Juan Antonio, a talented artist who is perhaps best known for his steamy and tumultuous relationship with his brilliant artist ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). Their marriage came to a screeching halt when one night Maria Elena stabbed Juan Antonio in a crazed rage. Juan Antonio’s insertion into the Vicky and Cristina mix creates a delicious pie of steamy lust that only becomes steamier when Maria Elena is added creating a perpetual “ménage a quatre.”

The entire story is punctuated by our omnipresent fifth character’s (Christopher Evan Welch) sarcastic narration. Not only does he provide necessary exposition allowing the story to progress, but he does it in a way that is subtly funny, increasingly ironic, and slightly neurotic. It’s as if Woody Allen himself were speaking to his audience via the narrator.

All the actors play their parts beautifully. Hall manages to make negative and stern Vicky lovable; Johansson charms the audience as Cristina; and Bardem turns the Latin lover Juan Antonio into more than just a caricature and cliché. Nonetheless, it is Cruz’s portrayal of Maria Elena, the tempestuous, jealous Latin woman, that stole the show and nabbed her that Oscar nomination. Her fiery portrayal is believable and impossibly charming. Where as anyone else would have been contemptuous, Cruz is real and sympathetic. Plus, listening to Bardem and Cruz spew Woody Allen’s neuroticism in Spanish is by far the most amusing aspect of the film.

Of course, who could forget Barcelona itself, which is as much a character than our foursome? The romanticized city brings the characters closer and watches over them, providing the audience another visual perspective. It is always, as the repeated main theme song by Guilia y los Tellarini explains, “poderosa.” The power of the city is hypnotizing.

Beware, watcher. If you are expecting a typical Woody Allen film, you shall be sorely disappointed. The quintessential neurotic-New Yorker-director/writer/artist-type character that you might be keen on seeing is devoid in this film. Woody has grown and developed away from the typical neurotic New Yorker, but not completely since we do see some hints of it. Do not fear, though, there are some of Woody’s other favorite maladjustments: jealousy, cowardice, and infidelity.

Woody Allen is easily one of Hollywood’s most underrated directors. He has brought us so many Hollywood and cult classics (Hello Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Crimes and Misdemeanors) that you’d think it’d be impossible to be this prolific and talented. With Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen’s cherry on top of a huge mound of ice cream film, you’ll want to jump right into this tragically comedic story for some Spanish guitar and wine.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Never Expecting the Unexpected in Cache

A collective and incredulous moan could be heard from the class after Cache ended as everyone thought, including me, "What just happened? Who sent those tapes? Majid? His son? Georges's son? Ugh." The spectator is never given this answer, and it seems like director, Michael Haneke, revels in tormenting us with that fact. As I explained previously in another post, the classical Hollywood narrative neatly wraps up the film's story line in a sugar coated version of reality. Haneke's film, however, breaks all the rules when it comes to classic cinema conventions causing the spectator to question his or her own involvement with the film as well as the director's purpose in doing so.

Cache centers around an upper-middle class family in Paris, the Laurents, that continues to receive videotapes of the outside of their house and other various strange locations. Throughout the process of trying to figure who is sending them the tapes the audience gets a glimpse into Georges Laurent's (Daniel Auteuil) childhood, specifically relating to an Algerian boy that his family was going to adopt, Majid (Maurice Benichou). By the end of the film we are left as confused, if not even more so, as to who sent the tapes from when the film began. There is no resolution to the story line whatsoever (or perhaps there is, according to one blogger). However, the audience almost expects this absence after nearly 2 hours of unconventional cinema is thrust upon them.

According to Graeme Turner in his book Film as Social Practice, "as realism became the dominant mode of feature film production, editing was required to contribute to the illusion that the film was unfolding naturally, without the intervention of the film-maker" (87). Editing thus serves as a tool for enhancing the film and making the spectator feels as if what he or she is watching is actually real without question. If the spectator beings to question the reality of the film he or she is then fighting "against 'the impression of reality'" (Bonitzer 291) that is created. One such way that this reality can be broken is by the spectator questioning "Who is watching this?" as Daniel Dayan puts it in his essay "The Tudor-Code of Classical Cinema" (125). Once that question is posed the spectator becomes aware of the mechanics of film and "[film] must hide its operations, 'naturalizing' its functioning and its messages in some way" (126) in order for that impression of reality to work. Conventionally, in order to prevent this questioning of "who is watching" is by using the shot/reverse-shot (see this favorite example of mine from Pride and Prejudice starting at about 0:20 until 4:00).

In using this technique the camera occupies the space of one of the characters and thus resolves the question of who is viewing the scene. In other words, the off-screen space becomes on-screen and it reassures the spectator that what he or she is watching is real and not just what the camera is choosing to film. The idea of the camera is no longer in the spectator's mind. Dayan explains that the "reverse shot has 'sutured' the hole opened in the spectator's imaginary relationship with the filmic field by his perception of the absent-one" (128), with the "absent-one" being the off-screen character/viewer.

This idea of "suturing" in the spectator does not happen in Cache and that is what makes it so unconventional and jarring. Several times during the film the spectator wonders "who is watching" and it feels as if there is a constant camera present. This camera feels eerie to the spectator because if we never know who is doing the viewing we think that the characters are constantly being filmed by the person sending the tapes. By pulling the spectator out of the reality of the film we become the "absent-one." We hardly ever get those shot/reverse-shots that suture us in, instead we get lots of long takes, close-ups, and long establishing shots. Even in the shots that almost appear like the conventional shot/reverse-shot, such as when Georges and his son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) are in the car, we do not get the same technique. The camera pans from one character to the other, however the editing used was not that of the shot/reverse-shot because the camera does not take the position of either character, but rather some unknown "absent-one." Another example is of the dinner party scene. The camera is not taking the position of one person when there are close-ups but rather it feels like there is just a camera upon their faces and not the suturing affect of the "absent-one's" view.

With breaking convention, Haneke creates a film that encourages the spectator to rethink the narrative and the classic Hollywood ending. He does not want us to watch a film and know what to expect out of every scene or to expect an ending. He does not want us to look at the patterns of film and automatically use them as a cue for what is about to happen. Instead, I believe he pushes the spectator to form his or her own opinions about the film. The film isn't going to tell us who sent the tapes, but rather we are supposed to infer what has happened via all the information Haneke lays out for us in the film. If we closely examine his shots then we can certainly come up with answers for ourself rather than letting the camera and editing do all the work for us. Neither music nor the camera is going to tell us what to feel when we watch this film. Because of this, I hold an appreciation for the film itself and Haneke's unconventional filmic techniques. I might never figure out "whodunnit" but that's what makes the film so compelling, and it's ending so realistic!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

And the Oscar goes to...

In lieu of the Oscar Nominations announced on Thursday (Jan 22, 2009), I have thought long and hard about who I want to win and who deserves an Oscar. I have mainly staked my focus on Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Picture. After all, these are the only ones people really care about, right?

Actor in a Leading Role
Richard Jenkins - The Visitor
Frank Langella - Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn - Milk
Brad Pitt - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler

This one was a tough call. Some credence must be given to Frank Langella and Sean Penn for playing two real people so excellently. It's tough making Richard Nixon seem like a sympathetic character when most of history portrays him as nothing but a crook. Yet, it is no easier playing a gay activist as a very heterosexual tough guy. Both performances are stunning though. The audience seems to forget they are looking at two actors playing their roles but rather seem to get a glimpse into history. With that being said, I picked Mickey Rourke because despite Langella and Penn's fantastic portrayals, it is Rourke that outshines the rest with his vulnerability and complete immersion in his character. It was like he was no longer acting, but just being (perhaps he was "being" since the movie seems to almost reflect his acting career). Ultimately, as a spectator that is what you want from an actor, true honesty in the character. Of course, I must acknowledge Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins in their stellar performances, but I just don't think they hold a wick to Rourke's candle.

Actress in a Leading Role
Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie - Changeling
Melissa Leo - Frozen River
Meryl Streep - Doubt
Kate Winslet - The Reader

What can I say? Kate Winslet is a brilliant actress. In fact, all the actresses nominated did a wonderful job, but it's Kate's vulnerability in her portrayal that sets her apart. Every subtle emotion can be seen with just an expression of her face. She can express a thousand lines with just one glance and that is because she mastered actually feeling those emotions instead of acting them. What's more she portrays a Nazi prison guard so honestly that you can feel the humanity within that character. You want her to win the court case despite the atrocities. Lately it seems everything Kate does turns into gold and this performance is no exception.

Actor in a Supporting Role
Josh Brolin - Milk
Robert Downey Jr - Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman - Doubt
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon - Revolutionary Road

If Heath Ledger had not been nominated, Michael Shannon would have been my pick. He excellently plays a man jaded to the point of insanity by the culture around him. I could sense his madness without coming across as stereotypical or shticky. And for that matter, Robert Downey Jr's hilarious farcical character was so lovable he outshone all of his cast members. Nevertheless, Heath Ledger's performance as the joker was so maniacal and so psychopathic that you never saw Heath Ledger the person in there at all. With that being said, he was never over-the-top. He played this malicious character subtly and so psychologically that you could believe there is a man this evil. My choice is not based on the fact that Heath is gone, but rather on the fact that he truly deserves it as an actor. He delved so deep into the Joker that he ceased being an actor.

Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams - Doubt
Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis - Doubt
Taraji P. Henson - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei - The Wrestler

Viola Davis was golden in Doubt. She basically stole the scene from Meryl Streep and that is a very hard thing to do! Her screen time is probably less than ten minutes but her anguishing performance as a mother doing anything for her child, even accepting that he is a homosexual being molested by a priest, is the most memorable and most climactic moment of the film. The pain permeated from the screen and into every mother's heart that has had to deal with doing what's actually right and doing what's right for their child. This underrated actress deserves some recognition for a beautifully crafted portrayal.

Best Picture

This choice probably comes as no surprise to anyone. Slumdog's brilliance is incomparable. Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandeen (co-director: India) and Anthony Dod Mantle (DP) bring a visually magnificent film. The slums of India never looked grander, not to mention as romanticized. Boyle and Tandeen manage to pull performances out of their actors that are truly heart-wrenching and you can't help but want to adopt one of those cute little kids. The storyline itself is original and unique in subtly tracing India's tumultuous history. The love story is never overdone and despite it's expected "Hollywood ending" the means of getting their are exceedingly creative. All the films nominated are, of course, excellent. The special effects of Curious are mind blogging as well as it's innovative plot. The Reader is exceptional in it's treatment of a very sensitive era that seems to be overdone and yet it does not feel that way in this film. Milk is gorgeously filmed (did you see that reflective whistle shot?), but also sympathetic in its portrayal of a history. And Frost/Nixon is so exciting and well-acted that you almost think you are right there helping Frost nail Nixon. In the end though it is Slumdog that captured my heart and I think it deserves the win.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Unresolved Feelings in Cinema Paradiso

After seeing Cinema Paradiso for the second time, I think I enjoyed it even more. As I mentioned in my previous post, movies with atypical endings always appeal to me. These endings do not necessarily wrap the plot up into a neat package. As David Bordwell puts it in his essay "Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures," the Hollywood "classical ending is not all that structurally decisive, being more or less arbitrary readjustment of that world knocked awry in the previous eighty minutes" (21). Most Hollywood films have made it a point to give its audience a nice pretty ending in order to satisfy, in my opinion, some cathartic need. We would all like to think that if a problem arose in our lives that it would be solved as easily as it is in most films. 

However, Cinema Paradiso presents us with the story of Salvatore Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio), or "Toto,"a little boy obsessed with cinema. He befriends Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the town's only film projectionist, despite Alfredo's hesitation. We see the growth of this friendship through the years and Alfredo soon becomes a pseudo-father for Toto, who lost his actual father as a child. The story is presented to us as a flashback, but for the most part we do not see a clear cut problem that needs to be resolved by the end of the film. Instead we see Toto as a grown man (Jacques Perrin) remembering his experiences with Alfredo, particularly because Alfredo has died. Ultimately, there is no resolution to this "problem" of Alfredo's death.
Toto's life might have been "knocked awry" as Bordwell puts it by Alfredo's death, but that never gets resolved. Perhaps by the end, it has become even more awry with Toto feeling unsure about the life he has chosen to lead. Years earlier, Alfredo told teenage Toto (Marco Leonardi) to never look back, to never come back to their town of Giancaldo, because in the end the past will only hold you back from going forward. Toto never did go back and he never saw or wrote to Alfredo.  

Structurally, Alfredo's death was not the problem but the starting off point for the plot. By the end, we are not sure if Toto has accepted Alfredo's death, and thus in a way resolves his problem. The movie ends with Toto finally getting all the clipped love scenes that Alfredo had promised him when he was a boy. Their is closure for neither Toto nor for the audience. Alfredo died without seeing Toto ever again and Toto never saw him either. Most certainly, the ending is a bit gloomy. Yet, it seems fitting since other aspects of the film did not get wrapped up either, such as what happened with Elena (Agnese Nano). 

The movie veers from the typical Hollywood ending and leaves us with unresolved feelings. To me, this is more true to life. When someone important in our lives dies we often do not get closure. But I believe the movie ends in the way that it does with the clipped love scenes because ultimately the movie is  about the splendor of film and in leaving these clips for Toto behind, Alfredo reminds him of the bond they shared. 

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Film and Its Pretty Packages

According to Walter Benjamin in his article, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," film is all about the camera and that "the audience's identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera" (sec. VIII). This assertion that the audience is keen to the movements of the camera more so to an actor's performance intrigued me. As a theater enthusiast (and occasional actor), I have always thought that what grabbed me in a movie or play was the actor's performance. Yet, now I am beginning to reconsider this. 

I recently saw Doubt, a film adaptation of a play by John Patrick Shanley, and I commented to my mother that I although I enjoyed the film, adaptations of plays have to be treated differently cinematographically than any other type of film. Benjamin even says that "there is indeed no greater contrast than that of the stage play to a work of art that is completely subject to or, like the film, founded in, mechanical reproduction" (sec. IX). Because a play is written to work around the the problems of audience visualization, such as by complex staging or over-the-top acting (at least in comparison to film acting), this can be problematic in film which relies on the camera to give the audience its visualization. In a play, the audience's gaze can wander and take everything in, but in a film adaptation of a play the focus immediately is set by the camera onto the actors' interactions. This can prove to be dull especially since audiences are used to more fast paced cuts and displays of distinct images. Therefore,  I think it is important for a director and cinematographer to carefully plan how to bring a play onto a very different medium such as film, because it is possible to make great adapations. Plays turned into films, like The Laramie Project and Angels in America, worked beautifully because they were treated with film conventions rather than keeping theater conventions.

Mechanics aside, film for me is more than just how a camera moves or the quality of the sound. Film affects how I see the world in numerous ways. As Benjamin puts it, film "burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling" (sec. XIII). Movies always transport me to these other worlds that I might never get to experience in real life. I could be in London one minute fearing Jack the Ripper and then in a VW Bus driving to a beauty pageant. Movies let me explore on a far cheaper budget. Yet, movies have screwed me over, so to speak. They have made me believe that all of life situations have a happy ending. Prince Charming is indeed out there; back-up will come at exactly the right time, just before my head gets blown off by the villain; the bomb will be diffused with exactly one second left; and if kidnapped I will be found. I admit, I enjoy happy endings. After all, why do I need a reminder that life can be abysmal with a sad ending? Nevertheless, those movies lacking happy or concrete endings are refreshing because they are more realistic. At times you just want to blame movies for giving you these crazy expectations for life and so realistic endings can be comforting in the sense that life is not always wrapped up so easily. Movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Fight Club are some of my favorites because of their unconventional storylines but also because of their unconventional endings. 

When I first saw Fight Club at the tender age of 12, it really shook my perceptions of the world. Here was this cool and vastly different guy (wrapped in the gorgeous body of Brad Pitt), Tyler Durden, telling me that, "You are not special. You are not a butterfly or unique snowflake. You're the same decaying matter as everything else." Fight Club showed me the banality of consumerism and the freedom of accepting life for what it is, a harsh and sometimes unforgiving place with darkness all around. This is not to say that my whole world view changed after watching this movie, but I was still intrigued, especially after a lifetime of Disney movies and love stories. Fight Club was really one of the first movies that made me consider the merits of the weird and unconventional. Its assertion is that life is not always a neat and pretty package meant to be coped with by escaping into our mental caves, but rather embraced and explored for what it is. 

Ultimately, film will always be a form of escape for me because movies are, after all, fantasies: people we wish we could be, places we wish we could go, and things we wish we could do. Film enables me to see the world through a camera, but maybe someday I can see the real thing.