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!