mikeyzjames

Just another WordPress.com site

Eden

Eden Title

Balanced between dark, pulsating night clubs and cramped, bland apartments, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden manages to both embrace and elide expectations: yes, there’s sex and drugs and partying, but rarely in the ways films about music tend to show them. This is mainly a result of Hansen-Løve’s leading man Paul, played by Félix de Givry. He’s a lithe, cat-like figure, comfortably gliding through the burgeoning dance scene like it’s his childhood bedroom, more content than enraptured. While the setting might hint at something energetic, this is a fairly mellow, contemplative film.

Although Eden is a semi-auto-biographical story based on Mia Hansen-Løve’s co-writer and brother Sven’s experience as a DJ in the early 90s, there is no mythologizing here. There are no bombastic sequences of Paul creating music, no montages of a genius in action to illustrate his talent; in fact, we rarely see Paul create at all. Paul has neither the genius of his friends Daft Punk nor the ambition to become financially successful. Paul is as much a consumer of music as a producer; perhaps he only produces to consume more of what he likes to hear, as few other Parisians were working in garage house.

This is established in the film’s counter-intuitive opening sequence. It begins on a group of young people heading towards a rave in a refurbished submarine. As they near, an off-screen voice offers them drugs and a pulsing bass can be heard emanating from the ship. In silhouette, one of the kids climbs up the sub’s bridge. He has to make way for someone exiting; rather than descending into the party, the camera follows this emerging character, Paul, as he walks off into a surrounding park. The music is fades away and Paul falls asleep against a tree. When he awakes, he looks to the sky and sees a colorful cartoon bird strobing through the sky. Because of the drug reference, it seems like we are in store for yet another hallucinogenic drug movie. Paul returns to the boat (and dying party) and walks towards the DJ. Shyly, he asks him about a song he played earlier in the night, one that was “sort of happy, with a gentle melody.” As the DJ finds the song and puts it on, a playful flute overwhelms the soundtrack and the camera cuts to a smiling Paul. It sounds like birds.

Eden Bird

These glimpses at Paul’s interiority are brief and fleeting. His ambition never moves beyond the individual parties, and as a result, he stays in a strange stasis. The film could be read as a series of missed opportunities for Paul, if it ever seemed he was interested in them in the first place. The movie takes place over two decades, but aside from slight stubble, Paul never seems to age. As Hansen-Løve elides through time, sometimes a year, sometimes three, Paul stays the same, while the world around him moves on or fades away: friends die or disappear, ex-girlfriends start families, thesis advisors let him go, and Daft Punk get famous. Even the bank manager who gives Paul a break through his constant financial problems is replaced by a straight-laced enforcer who finally lays down the law.

Eden High

Paul’s demeanor is mimicked in the rave scenes. They never descend into the sweaty, sexy dance orgy you would expect. Rather, they are beautiful, affective experiences. Hansen-Løve and her cinematographer Denis Lenoir alternate between long, snaky tracking shots through crowds of party-goers and wide overhead shots from the DJ’s perspective. While the rest of the film is shot fairly conservatively, these sequences often take an impressionistic turn, as dancers meld together in the darkness and the neon lights of the clubs take over. Like the music being played, these sequences follow a general rhythm, broken up by subtle variations of location, character, and sound.Eden Low

The achievement of Hansen-Løve is that she manages to reveal Paul’s development through means other than plotting. The repetition of the dance scenes provides one insight. For a while, they are incredibly exciting sequences, but in their repetition, they become rote and bland. In certain ways, they even become mildly comedic (the way we keep repeating the line of guests trying to convince security they are on the VIP list). The other characters seem to have realized this dissipating return, which is why they often disappear through the leaps in time. Only Paul remains, and he remains as the settings become less and less exciting until he’s playing for a handful of people in the rain. In this sequence, near the film’s end, Paul seems to finally realize his grand mistake; the music still brings him joy, but he recognizes that joy is nearly all it brings him.

Port of Call

Bergman #2: Port of Call (1948)

port of call 0

This is a real mess of a film. Generally, the film follows Berit (Nine-Christine Jönsson), a depressed young girl who falls in love with Gösta (Bengt Eklund) after a one night stand. She has some baggage and his spent most her teens living in a reformatory school. The film follows the couple as they try to deal with her history.

Bergman is throwing a lot of strands on the screen, but none of them are really followed through in a meaningful way. It is at turns a film about suicide and depression, masculinity, sexism, abortion, parenting, and governmental control. Some of these ideas seem quite progressive for the time, particularly the ways Bergman approaches the role of women in contemporary society and abortion. These are probably the strongest elements in the film [and the sequence dealing with Gertrud’s (Mimi Nelson) botched abortion is easily the most compelling in the film].

One issue is perhaps cultural. The root of Berit’s problems stem from her time in reformatory school. Even though she’s no longer there, it seems like the school still has some legal control over her (sort of like she’s on parole), and things like sleeping around are grounds to getting sent back. I have no real concept of how this system works, so I was confused on the narrative problems she runs into. It also makes it very difficult to gauge how old this character is supposed to be. More than likely, someone over the age of 18 couldn’t still be restricted by the state in this way, yet she’s in love with a 29 year-old, which would raise all kinds of other issues. For a 1948 Swedish audience, this probably wasn’t a confusing thing, so the baggage here is mine.

The other issue is a lack of subtlety. The film begins with Berit attempting suicide, which should be enough to cue us in. But in one particularly eye-rolling sequence, she stares mournfully at a mirror. She picks up a tube of lipstick and draws a sad face with the word “lonely” under it on the mirror. In another sequences, Gösta gets really drunk and throws himself around a hotel room melodramatically in a way that goes against everything we’ve seen from the man thus far. Kudos to Bergman for tackling such huge issues, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

port of call 1

There are some themes that seem to carry over from Crisis, particularly the way Bergman navigates parent-child relationships. Here, the root of Berit’s pain stems from her parents’ quarrelsome marriage and the relationship between Berit and her mother. In particular, Berit’s mother is completely incapable of empathizing with her daughter and resorts to caustic remarks and threats of turning her in to the reform school. In Crisis, the root of the “crisis” was whether Nelly was going to choose to live with her real mother Jenny or her adopted mother Ingeborg. Although the choice seemed clear, Jenny’s promise of luxury and excitement held more sway than Ingeborg’s simple love and affection. With these two films, Bergman seems particularly interested in parental duty and even the responsibility of children to their parents.

Bergman is also very interested in relationships. In one of the film’s stronger sequences, Berit opens herself up to Gösta about her past. He initially says it doesn’t matter, but she is adament that there be no surprises between them. Although he thought it wouldn’t matter, hearing about her past really troubles him, and for the rest of the film, he struggles with why he can’t accept her flaws when he expects her to accept his own. This is one of the more honest, thoughtful plotlines in the film. This is very similar to the way Crisis deals with its familial conflicts: as flawed human beings, how do we enter into relationships in an honest, accepting way. Certainly, this is a theme that I hope Bergman explores throughout his career, especially with the expectation that his approach becomes more nuanced and focused with time.

Bergman and other stuff

Teaching two Intro to Film classes this last quarter really reinvigorated me to watch more movies. I’ve been watching fewer and fewer movies every year since I graduated, so I decided this year I was going to change that. I’ve really been focused on watching films that are new to me, to choose films on instinct, and to explore broader ideas or concepts that interest me. This has lead me to three particular focuses.

First, I’m trying to go back through Jean-Luc Godard’s career, filling in blind spots and re-looking at things I haven’t seen for years. Godard is my favorite director, and I’ve found watching his later work really rewarding. My goal is to create a fairly comprehensive list of Godard’s career. There are things I won’t be able to get my hands on, but I’m hoping to hit most of the major stuff. This is a slow process because I’ve found myself watching his films multiple times. With his later work especially, multiple viewings are crucial to parse out what he’s going for. Godard’s just one of those filmmakers where the films get better every time you watch them so I’m content to really take my time.

Second, I’m trying to watch more Chinese films, particularly modern Chinese films (Hong Kong films too). I’ve sort of honed in on Jia Zhangke, as he’s probably the biggest non-action Chinese director in world cinema. Modern China is a fascinating subject to me, and Zhangke approaches its development in a way that is provocative, nostalgic, and political. So far, I’ve really enjoyed his films, and hopefully I’ll have a longer write up once I get through all of them (again, some are more difficult to get your hands on). I’ll also be looking to Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang to round this out. I’ve seen a couple films from each of those directors, and their style is right in my wheelhouse.

Finally, I’ve decided to fill in a major blind spot in my film education, Ingmar Bergman. I know that Bergman sort of became a cliché, but his films had an undeniable impact. Strangely, I’ve only seen Wild Strawberries and Persona. I watched both of them so long ago it’s as if I haven’t watched them at all. So I’m really approaching his work completely blind. I’ve never really read anything in-depth about him, and probably my greatest exposure is through Woody Allen’s films. Because so many of Bergman’s films are available through Hulu, I’m going to try and approach these chronologically. I’m not sure there is a filmmaker of Bergman’s esteem that I’ve been able to really approach from the beginning and with a clear palette, so I’m interested to see how this goes. I’ll be trying to update this with each film or two I watch, and we’ll see what happens. Again, this is a more long term project, as Bergman made a ton of films, so let’s hope I can stick with it! If it does, I might try this with some other directors I’m ashamed I’m not more familiar with, particularly Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. But that’s getting way ahead of myself.

So, to get this ball rolling:

  1. Crisis (1946)crisis 0

Crisis is Bergman’s first film. A renowned director’s first film is always fascinating, but generally more so in retrospect. Most directors don’t come out guns blazing like Welles, Godard, or Truffaut. This is definitely more inauspicious than guns-blazing. The story follows Ingeborg (Dagny Lind), a poor piano teacher in a small Swedish town (presumably up north). She has been taking care of her sister Jenny’s (Marianne Löfgren) daughter Nelly (Inga Landgré) since she was born. Her sister moved to Stockholm and led her own carefree life. After 18 years, Jenny returns and wants Nelly back. She brings her conniving beau Jack (Stig Olin) with her, who gets Nelly drunk at a town party, which disgraces her in the eyes of the conservative town. Ashamed, Nelly decides to leave with her mom.

It’s a melodrama (of course, Ingeborg is suffering from an unnamed, terminal illness) that initially feels like something Hollywood would have produced. By the end, though, it twists the conventional melodrama into a really dark, disturbing picture. It becomes clear that Bergman is really interested in the power relationships; the twisted plot allows him to explore how people use other people for their own gains. Jenny is attempting to buy Nelly’s affection with gifts and money, Jack is using Jenny for her wealth all the while getting close with Nelly, while Ingeborg is struggling with the child she raised.

After Ingeborg makes an impromptu visit to Stockholm, the tension boils over. Jack seduces Nelly and Jenny catches them in the act. We learn that the sob story Jack used to seduce Nelly is just that, a fictitious story (one he presumably used on Jenny as well). At this point, all three characters realize the sham that their lives have been. Nelly, initially presented as a strong-willed but naive teen, quickly realizes how she has been easily duped by the lure of “modern” life promised by her bio-mom; Jenny realizes that Jack has just been using her all these years, but that she’s also been using Jack (and that really she is using Nelly as well); and Jack, well, Jack realizes that he’s a parasite. It’s clearly been eating at him, but this chain of events pushes him over the edge and he makes a drastic decision to kill himself.

The film ends with Nelly returning to Ingeborg and their small town. Although this is clearly a “win” for Ingeborg, it doesn’t seems as if it’s Nelly’s ideal. She has an older man, Ulf, waiting for her, but she doesn’t love him. The final shot sees them walking down the street, not too close, but together nonetheless (to paraphrase the voiceover). It’s a hardly a happy ending, and although Ingeborg will be able to live out the rest of her life with Nelly, we know that Nelly’s struggles have just begun. What she learned in the time away has profoundly impacted her relationships. Even if she marries Ulf, it’s unlikely it will be a profoundly happy union.

Stylistically, there’s nothing to remarkable about the film. Everything is shot fairly conventionally. There is one interesting montage sequence where Ingeborg is lying awake thinking about Nelly that becomes increasingly frantic until she leaps out of bed claiming she doesn’t want to die. But it is really the beauty shop scene that hints at what I hope is coming from Bergman. The cinematography in this scene is fantastic:

crisis 1  crisis 3 crisis 2crisis 4

This is really the only scene in the film that feels at all stylized. The use of shadows is pretty fantastic, and we get the great shot of Jenny behind the curtain surrounded by mannequin heads. And I’ve also heard just enough about Bergman to know this isn’t the first mirror we’re going to be seeing.

Overall, a interesting if not spectacular beginning. I like the way it twists the family story, poses questions about parenting, power, sex, and death, and blooms into something original. I’ll probably watch this again once I’m done with the whole project as sort of a final capstone. For now, onto Port of Call.

Punch-Drunk Love

Punch-Drunk Love may be the most divisive film I’ve shown in class. About 1/3 of my students HATED it, 1/3 seemed to love it, and the other 1/3 just seemed baffled by it. And it was often the same elements that led each group to its judgment. Certainly, it has an abrasive style: Jon Brion’s manic score, the over-exposed lighting, and Barry Egan’s visible anxiety all coalesce into a roller-coaster viewing experience. I can understand why some people wouldn’t want to inhabit that world, if only for 90 minutes, but for me, it’s a thrilling experience.

I want to focus specifically on my favorite sequences in the film: Barry’s sister Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub) brings Lena (Emily Watson) to meet Barry and see if he’d like to get breakfast. This sequence is perfection. It’s crucial to note that Jon Brion’s frantic “Tabla” theme is playing throughout, which amps up the intensity of what’s happening:

pdl 1

It begins with Barry stepping outside while drinking his coffee. Variations of this shot are repeated throughout the film. The outside world is always overexposed and bright. For Barry, terrifying things happen outside of his cool, blue shop, so Anderson makes sure it always appears alien. Sure enough, as he looks down the drive, he sees Elizabeth and Lena approaching. He frantically backs up (a recurring tendency), turns, and starts sprinting towards his office.

pdl 2

Here, we get a play on the horizontal tracking shot Anderson has been using throughout the film. Usually, the camera is set-up on the opposite side of this table, but here we’re looking into the warehouse as Barry trips over an unknown object. This shot serves a few purposes. First, we get a slapsticky fall, as a funny Adam Sandler film should have. Second, we establish Lance’s location. Finally, we establish the forklift that will play a role later. This shot is particularly great for the way Barry pops right back up and continues into his office while telling Lance to keep the floor clear.

pdl 3

I love this shot. This is the position Barry puts himself in to receive his sister and Lena. A recurring theme of the film is that Barry takes his job very seriously (hence dressing up in his suit) and he is desperate that people view him professionally. Obviously, this is how a boss hangs out in his office.

As Lena and Elizabeth enter, we get another variation on the tracking shot. The camera picks them up as they walk in, wraps back behind the table, and tracks back as they walk towards the camera. About halfway down the Funger line, the camera rotates 180 degrees and picks up Barry as he approaches the two women. In one swoop, the camera has become Lena and Elizabeth. We cut and see the three in profile.

pdl 4

pdl 5

pdl 6

During this initial exchange, Elizabeth is bombarding Barry with questions about his piano, the pudding, and breakfast. Her assaultive dialogue mixed with Brion’s score is nerve-scraping. It’s crucial, though, that Lena is quiet a reserved, and when she talks, it’s almost in a whisper.

As they are talking, Barry gets a phone call, and the camera squares up on Barry between the girls’ shoulders. As Barry walks back to answer the phone, the camera slowly tracks in on him. It’s the phone-sex girl from the night before and Barry is understandably confused on how she got his number.

pdl 7 pdl 8b pdl 9 pdl 10

As Barry looks back at the women, Lena suggests that they come back later, as Barry is clearly busy, and the two walk outside so Lena can go pay for her car (that’s in the repair shop next door). As Lena leaves the frame, Elizabeth angrily turns around and storms back into the office. I love the intensity of Mary Lynn Rajskub as she walks. She deserved an Oscar for this 10 seconds.

I love the interaction between Barry and his sister’s in this film. They are an insane family, and it’s clear that as the only boy, Barry suffered. And although they are mean to him, it’s also clear that they love him. They are worried about him. And in the case of Elizabeth, her instincts were right about Lena. They do make an amazing couple. But Anderson does an amazing job of displaying the power-dynamics of their relationship through the basic staging of these scenes. As Elizabeth gets into Barry’s office, where he’s still on the phone with Georgia the phone-sex operator, she gets as close to him as she possibly can. Instictively, Barry tries to get away from her, but there’s just not enough room to escape. pdl 11 pdl 12 pdl 13 pdl 14

It’s actually a really complicated scene to shoot because they are in an incredibly tight space. They are also dealing with the telephone cord which Barry has to navigate around the harmonium perched on his desk. And the whole time, Elizabeth is just trying to make eye-contact with Barry who is avoiding it like death. Finally, she traps him in this corner where she asks him why he needs to see a therapist: “What’s the matter with you? Are you ok?” She’s genuinely scared for him. Naturally, Barry deflects the questions and is only saved by the returning Lena, who suggests they better head out.

pdl 15

Elizabeth gives her a “Yep..no..” and leaves to get something from her car.

pdl 16

Finally, we think we are going to get a one-on-one sequence with Lena and Barry, but just as Elizabeth leaves, Lance walks in to clarify something Barry mentioned earlier about a guy in Toledo.

pdl 17

This simple shot is a perfect example for how PTA is able to get across character information in a purely visual way. First, Barry is sitting down in his chair because that’s what bosses do. Like standing with the harmonium, he’s trying to show Lena that he’s in charge. But by shooting over Lance, who is standing, Anderson robs Barry of that power. The power dynamic is off here. We get a reverse-shot emphasizing this:

pdl 18

Barry can’t clarify about the man in Toledo, because there isn’t a man in Toledo. He made it up to seem important. Crucially, Lena is staring over Lance’s shoulder to see how Barry operates, which only amplifies his insecurity.

This is a crucial tactic in Anderson’s approach to the romantic-comedy. He actively works to delay the expectations we have of the genre. Although he hits all the necessary plot moves, they always happen after they are supposed to. We just want to see these two talk already! And finally, Lance leaves, but we don’t get the sort of payoff we want because Anderson distracts from the two in the sound mixing. Just as Lena begins to apologize for missing the party the night before, the forklift overwhelms the soundtrack and its movement distracts us visually

pdl 19

Just as they finally start to talk, they get interrupted again with a worker telling Barry he has another phonecall.

pdl 20

I love how Lena is starting to get a little overwhelmed here. Throughout the film, she is the picture of calm, but the way she scrunches away from this guy indicates that even she would be affected by this setting. This is a crucial little moment because the key between her and Barry is that she truly understands and appreciates his experience. She sees how the world affects him and admires the way he is able to deal with it, whereas his sisters think he’s weird.

pdl 21

As Barry answers and quickly hangs up the phone, Lena takes the opportunity to actually sit down. Again, given the way Anderson has established the power dynamics with Barry sitting and his workers standing, it’s a key gesture that Lena wants to get on his level. But she does so tentatively, carefully reading his body language to make sure she isn’t overstepping. The whole film has been building this way incrementally. When Lena and Barry first meet, they are actually outside the building. When they meet again, they are about half-way into the building. And then she’s at the door. And now she’s in the chair.

But of course, we aren’t getting a break. That forklift from earlier zips across the background and slams into the wall of pallets to Barry’s right. Lena jumps up to look at the crash, but Barry jumps up to maintain eye-level with Lena. He’s so focused in on her that he is oblivious to the chaos in his shop.

pdl 23 pdl 24

Elizabeth returns, but still, Barry is only focused on Lena, even after another catastrophe involving the forklift in the background.

pdl 25b

Even Lena has given up by this point, and she sort of stumbles out of the office and Elizabeth follows. The world has overwhelmed her, in much the same way as this sequence of the film overwhelms the audience. All Barry can do is watch with regret as she leaves, the harmonium providing his only relief.

pdl 26 pdl 27 pdl 28

But there’s a twist here. Again, so much of this sequence works on repetition: the phone ringing, the tracking shot from the front of the office to the back, the score, Elizabeth’s circular questioning. So we get the same shot that originally sent Lena next door, only now they are leaving for good. But the camera does something unique. It follows Lena all the way to her car where she hesitates before turning around and returning to the warehouse.

pdl 30 pdl 31

We get another variation on the tracking shot here. Instead of following her from the inside, we track along the outer wall, only catching up to her at the other garage door. Here, the camera moves into the warehouse and frames everyone perfectly as Lena finally asks Barry out. It’s a great shot. I love Barry’s just watching this date proposal unfold. Usually, this would mortify Barry (he’s already told his sister he didn’t want her to bring Lena to the party because everyone would be looking at him), but here he’s just happy. He’s so focused in that he doesn’t even register how incredibly awkward this is.pdl 32

Finally, the two move to a workbench so she can write down her number and address. As she’s writing, Barry, unprovoked, finally answers all the questions that his sister had asked in the previous 8 minutes. It’s a great little monologue that Lena doesn’t seem to even notice. It’s crucial that the score has slowly faded away now. Finally, it’s just two people talking. As Lena walks off, the phone rings again. It’s Georgia again promising Barry a “war” and we transition to Provo, site of D&D Mattress Man.

pdl 33 pdl 34

For me, this is just a bravado sequence. The core conflicts and stakes of the film are established in just 8:09 of screen time. The use of repetition and variations help establish both the rhythm and the tone of the film, but also provide a satisfying arc to this particular sequence. It almost works as a short film in and of itself. Punch-Drunk Love builds a set of expectations that are really firmly established in this sequence. In particular, the phone ringing and its implications will pay off in a variety of ways. But also, through the mise en scène, Anderson is able to visually establish character relations and power hierarchies that are going to be played with throughout the second half of the film.

Wes Anderson

For some reason, I had originally planned for my classes to each watch a film by Michael Haneke. Obviously, I am an idiot. During the course of the class, it quickly became apparent that they wouldn’t necessarily produce a productive class conversation. Most of my students are fairly new to looking at movies the way I’m asking them to, and Haneke is clearly a step too far. So, I reworked my schedule and replaced him with two films from Wes Anderson. I thought I’d lighten the mood while also working towards an easy example of an auteur. We watched The Royal Tenenbaums  in my first class and Rushmore in my second.

As prep work, I also watched Bottle Rocket, The Darjeeling Limited, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. I had never seen Fox, and the other two maybe only once. I’ll probably have a “best of” list later once I can catch Moonrise Kingdom again.

I was struck by a few things in this Wes Anderson binge. First, it’s incredible how much of a leap he made from Bottle Rocket to Rushmore. There aren’t a lot of signs in his debut film that he would become one of the most visually distinctive directors in the world (maybe in film history). Largely hand-held, there are only a few smattering hints at the visual proclivities he’d become famous for. Instead, it is the thematic things that are forming: mental illness, perpetual adolescence, grandiose plans, failed potential. All of these things will be dealt with more overtly as his career continues.

Between Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, something clicked. Suddenly, his camera is purposeful and directed, not the handheld, verite style of the earlier film. This is a director’s movie. Although he occasionally uses over-the-shoulder shots in conversations, they are increasingly replaced by dead on, fourth wall breaking portraits. Conversations are done in shot/reverse-shot with the camera taking up the position of each speaker.

And he’s initiated his horizontal tracking shots, perhaps most effectively when Max is attempting to build an aquarium on Rushmore’s baseball diamond. As Max walks parallel, he is forced to stop to take care of minor issues with minor characters, a tendency that Anderson will come back to again and again in his career. These tracking shots are supplemented with his 90 degree angle pans that sweep the screen and replace a more conventional cut. Quickly, these pans won’t just move left or right, but up and down as well.

What’s great about Rushmore is how this style serves the comedy; the pans and tracks and dead-on framing embellish the material and make it feel alive. My favorite example of this is a sequence between Mrs. Cross and Max in the library. The scene begins square on Mrs. Cross as she reads at a desk. When she runs out of water, Max’s hand enters screen left with a pitcher of lemonade. As he leaves, we get a reverse shot of Max at his desk. The editing reveals that they are sitting right across from each other, but it seems to have happened without Mrs. Cross noticing. Thus, the editing and framing cue us in to Max’s creepy, stalkerish obsession. He could have cut to a two-shot parallel to them, but that wouldn’t have been as funny as it is now. When Anderson isn’t on his game, his idiosyncratic camera-work happens in spite of the script, rather than in aid it (something I would say The Life Aquatic suffers from). But in Rushmore, everything just clicks.

The Royal Tenenbaums is a heightened continuation of Rushmore. In Rushmore, what will become Anderson’s hallmarks are localized in Max; in The Royal Tenenbaums, every character is their own, weird little person, complete with costume and affectation. In many ways, this is the film’s weakness. Whereas Rushmore really pushes its worldview through dialogue and interaction, so much of The Royal Tenenbaums is obvious visually. Only Royal seems really to carry the screen the way Max was able to. He’s also the least “curated” of the characters, and we learn about him through action less than affectation.

But I was struck by how much of The Royal Tenenbaums has stuck with me, even though I hadn’t seen it in so long. When Nico’s “Some Days” started playing, I was all in. It doesn’t matter how much he uses that slow-mo, I will love it every time.

I fell out with Wes Anderson after The Royal Tenenbaums. I like The Life Aquatic, but not as passionately, and The Darjeeling Limited just didn’t work for me (I like it much better now than I did then). I never even saw Fantastic Mr. Fox until last week. But I’ve loved his new films, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. In particular, I think Budapest is a real step forward. It’s the most pristinely photographed of his films (in class, I just randomly went from scene to scene thoughout the film, and every one was a perfectly framed image), but it also has one of the best performances in any Anderson film: Ray Fiennes’s Mr. Gustav. Somehow, inexplicably, he doesn’t feel like a character at all. And its emphasis on plotting is also an interesting development. I hope this is just a signal that Wes Anderson is going to continue pushing himself while maintaining his own style.

Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing is a beautiful example of the American independent film movement of the 80s and 90s. Its provocative story, unique aesthetic, diverse cast and production crew, and singular vision are unimaginable in a big studio film. There’s a momentum to the film where you can feel that Spike Lee is just going for it. He isn’t censoring anything and he’s taking experimental risks that, through their assurance and bravado, come off spectacularly.

Lee calls his shot in the film’s remarkable credit sequence in which Rosie Perez dances solo for the nearly 5 minute running time of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”. The dance is clearly a riff off of the title sequence to The Cosby Show, where the various cast members dance on a blank stage.

Watching Do the Right Thing, it isn’t hard to imagine the Lee might have a problem with the way The Cosby Show depicted modern black life. While The Cosby Show‘s intro is antiseptic and benign, Do the Right Thing’s is antagonistic, with Perez’s exaggerated, overtly sexual moves playing off Public Enemy’s anger. It’s clear we aren’t going to get a sugar-coated picture of Black American experience.

The artificial, meta nature of these titles gets replicated a few times throughout the film, most famously in two sequences: the first, in which five characters give racist monologues against another racial group, and second, when Radio Raheem preaches about love and hate. In this particular sequence, Lee begins by framing Radio Raheem and Mookie in a two-shot from the side, but as Radio begins, the camera slides into Mookie’s place so that the soliloquy can come straight to the audience. When Radio finishes, the camera slides back and Mookie retakes his place. He could have simply cut to the first person perspective, but there’s something beautifully performative about letting the camera do that work. Although the film is known for its Dutch angles, it is the way Lee selectively uses camera movement that I think is more interesting and playful.

The film is designed on a foundational level to provoke discussion and opinion. Although many feared it would cause riots and racial unrest, the strength of the screenplay is its ability to present a clear, nuanced portrait of each character and their actions. It invites judgment only to immediately complicate that judgment. Of course, most discussion centers around the film’s famous climax and whether Mookie’s decision to throw the garbage can through Sal’s and the resulting riot were justified. But throughout the film, we are given similar sequences. When a yuppie white resident scuffs Buggin’ Out’s Jordans, it seems like Buggin’ Out might be overreacting. Yet, the yuppie doesn’t seem to care about the brazen way he ran into Buggin’ Out, and his sense of entitlement quickly sides us with Buggin’ Out. Part of me wishes that Spike Lee would just take a stance, but that would defeat the provocative purpose of the film.

My favorite aspect of Do the Right Thing is the way it depicts a neighborhood. This feels like a real, lived-in world, with each character playing a unique role to Bed Stuy. I love the way characters float in and out of the backgrounds, even if they don’t have lines or any part of the narrative action. Lee establishes these characters so quickly: sometimes it’s through clothing, and other times through dialogue. But he doesn’t waste any time, even if it feels like the movie is mostly plotless. Each sequence serves a purpose in illustrating the psychology of the neighborhood. You just feel that these are all people the Spike Lee grew up with; they’ve been living in his head for decades and he was just waiting until this film to let them out. Luckily, he gets great performances across the board from people that also seem to intimately know the people they are playing.

IMG_0814.PNG

Breathless

As my film classes moved into the sixties, I thought it was essential that they get exposed to the French New Wave, thus we watched Jean-Luc Godard’s debut Breathless. Now, Breathless isn’t my favorite Godard; it probably isn’t even in my Top 10. Stylistically, it doesn’t really resemble the rest of his work, and it certainly doesn’t resemble his more important work thematically. But there’s a spirit to Breathless that is undeniable, and that spirit definitely lingers throughout Godard’s films and the rest of the New Wave (especially his pre-1968 work). There’s an antagonistic, revolutionary spirit that has always been why Godard is my favorite director.
IMG_0805.JPG
Breathless is probably most famous for its use of the jump-cut, an editing trick that was supposedly the solution to an over-length first cut. With the rise of YouTube and Vine, the jump-cut has become so superfluous today that I’m not sure the impact is still tangible. But even so, it isn’t really used the way Godard uses it. I find most Vlogs insufferable for a number of reasons, but the biggest is the use of the type of jump-cut employed here:

I can’t figure out the logic of this type of editing. The practical answer would be that the edits are linking together distinct “takes”, but it seems clear that this is a single take, with small bursts edited out. Perhaps, then, the goal here is just to shorten the video by taking out any gaps in speech or action.

The logic is that the YouTube audiences are easily bored, and any unnecessary screentime increases the likelihood of someone clicking off the video. But again, it seems like the amount of time actually being edited out is minuscule and time isn’t actually being saved. For me, the edits are purely stylistic and serve more to create the illusion of speed than to actually save time. Often, the edits happen after every sentence, so 1 sentence = 1 shot. The edit, then, really just serves as a visual period marking the end of a single thought, and a new thought gets a new take. This doesn’t actually condense time, it just creates a jarring hiccup that makes us feel like we are jumping forward when we actually aren’t.

Godard’s jump-cuts don’t work like this. Most of his jump-cuts are non-sequitors. They don’t move us more quickly to the point of a scene, but rather, they often move us further away from it. My favorite example is a sequence in which Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is attempting to steal a car. As he investigates the dash of a convertible in the foreground, we can see the car’s owner emerge in the background. He sizes up Michel and moves towards him. There’s a sudden cut, and Michel is now at a different car. Through the jump-cut, Godard has implied a conflict without actually showing one. Throughout the film, his jump-cuts are jarring, in that they move us significantly forward in time and space, not just a few seconds, but they don’t propel us towards plot developments or action. In this case, they actually eliminate it.

Throughout Breathless, Godard plays these kinds of games. That’s what made the film so appealing to me as an angsty teen. Godard is screwing with his audience and testing the conventions of films. If most films use plot points to move the film, what happens when I spend all my time between those points? What happens when a “major plot point” drops, but I pretend it didn’t, such as the scene where Patricia (Jean Seberg) reveals she’s pregnant, and the characters basically ignore it?

Viewers respond to this in two ways (generally): they either see it as a joke and fall under the film’s spell or they get frustrated at the lack of plot or character development. For Godard, plots are arbitrary (and actually suspicious), so their absence shouldn’t really matter. Getting over these things is probably the biggest hurdle to diving into non-Hollywood cinema. The great directors of Europe and Asia just aren’t as interested in plot as we normally conceive it. For many, the things they were interested weren’t best explored through conventional narratives. Like Breathless, the plotting often just serves as a backdrop for larger philosophical, moral, or aesthetic concerns.

Vertigo and Rear Window

It seems natural that a director like Alfred Hitchcock, who was so cued into how his audiences viewed his films, would make two films explicitly about the act of watching. In Rear Window, voyeurism is presented as a natural human impulse, a response to the world that Hitchcock mines for cinematic thrills. By 1958’s Vertigo, however, those thrills have been replaced by an inescapable doom. Here, to watch is to destroy.
IMG_0803.JPG
Like Rope, Rear Window initially seems to be primarily a cinematic exercise. Hitchcock places technical restrictions on himself and uses those limitations as a creative instigator. How do you make a movie when your main character can’t move? And more importantly, how do you make a movie that feels cinematic, that doesn’t feel like a stage play, with a main character who can’t move? His answer is quite simple: make the world around the protagonist a character. The courtyard outside Jeff’s (Jimmy Stewart) window has its own vitality, and each apartment carries its own narrative: the songwriter suffering from writer’s block, the newlywed couple who can’t even come up for air, the lonely woman desperate for love. While Jeff can’t move, they can, and as he watches, their stories unfold.

Hitchcock forces his camera into this narrative logic. He maintains long-distant shots that mimic Jeff’s own point-of-view. When he wants to move tight to accentuate a detail, he has Jeff pick up his telephoto lens. The resulting close-up is meant to be the view of the long-lens (replete with iris effect). Now, this isn’t to say that Hitchcock always sticks to his rules. In one sequence, the camera pans around the courtyard, catching us up-to-date with each of the apartments, but by the time we get to Jeff’s apartment, we realize he wasn’t looking out at all. Instead, he was facing into the apartment talking with Grace Kelly’s Lisa. In another key sequence, we see Thorwald leaving his apartment late at night with a woman. When we cut to Jeff, he’s asleep in his wheelchair. That bit of voyeurism, it seems, was meant just for us.
IMG_0797.JPG

Read the rest of this entry »

Citizen Kane

In the words of Scott Aukerman, I like films like Citizen Kane and The Godfather; those are the kinds of films I like. But as cliché as it seems, I couldn’t avoid screening Citizen Kane. Most people have heard of it, but not enough people have actually seen it (and not one person in either of my classes had), so for my students, it wasn’t a cliché.

I remember watching Citizen Kane for the first, after having read all the hype, and feeling like, really? This is the greatest film of all time? It’s really hard to appreciate what Welles did when your frame of reference is Fight Club or Pulp Fiction. But every time I’ve watched it since that first viewing, it’s only grown in my mind (and it’s a really weird thing to watch a film twice in two days, but I actually enjoyed it more the second time this week). There’s an economy to the film that is really remarkable, the way Welles mixes single-shot scenes with more traditional shooting, and the brilliant way he manages time and space. It’s easy to see why the French fell so hard for it: they already latched on to the auteurs of the Hollywood system, and Welles was given all the artistic power that people like Hawks or Ford were denied, so of course you end up with the auteuriest of Classical Hollywood films.

Of course, Kane is known primarily for its cinematography, and undeniably, Welles with cinematographer Gregg Toland created something truly special. There really isn’t anything new to add to the mountain that’s been written about it, but I’ll just say, my favorite moments involve Welles playing with the sensation of depth of field. If you simply read a discussion of Toland’s use of deep-focus, you’d have the impression that Kane was almost a 3D film. But that’s not really accurate. Weirdly, the deep-focus only emphasizes the flat, two-dimensional nature of the screen. Even in the justly famous Boarding House sequence, although you have four characters occupying four different “levels” of the image, they all really appear to on the same plane.

IMG_0794.PNG
Recognizing this, Welles works to emphasize the depth in different ways, to create a sensation of 3D that the flat image doesn’t really do. In the Boarding House scene, he moves the camera from the window to the back room, showing us the approximate depth of the shot. In other scenes, he has characters walk from foreground to background (or vice versa), and in doing so, we realize the true depth of what we’re seeing. My favorite of these scenes is the one in which Kane’s financial control is being handed back to Thatcher’s bank after the crash of 1929. As Bernstein reads the legal document, Kane wanders towards a window pane in the background.

IMG_0792.PNG
Initially, it’s hard to tell the height of the panes. We think he’s going to gaze outside (as a man contemplating his downfall would do), but as he keeps walking, we realize how truly tall these panes are. When he finally arrives at them, he can’t look out at all and is forced to turn around or stare dead-on at the wall.

IMG_0793.PNG
What really grabbed my attention on these viewings, though, was the specific ways that he employs more conventional editing and even montage sequences. We often get these montage sequences, frequently using newspapers as time-stamps, that move us forward in time. (But this isn’t to say we know when these sequences take place; in fact, that was one of my dominant impressions from re-watching the movie. You never have a real sense of when, specifically, things are happening, but you can feel that time has passed.) At other times, he’ll slip into more traditional editing with shot-reverse shot, but always with a little acknowledging nudge. For me, this was most prominent in the musical sequence after Kane has hired away the best newspaper staff in New York City for the Inquirer.

Although it stops short in this clip, this is the scene where Jedediah begins to question Kane. The camera is over Jed’s shoulder as he attempts to talk to Bernstein about his worries, but because of the racket happening behind him (in the vicinity of the camera), you can’t quite make out what he’s saying. So Welles reverse-shots over Bernstein’s shoulder looking at Jed and out onto the spectacle of Charlie dancing with the showgirls. Now, as Jed leans in (towards the camera), we can make out exactly what he’s saying. To hear Bernstein’s response, Welles reverse-shots again, but this time tighter on Bernstein, and now he doesn’t have to shout for us to hear him. I love the way this sequence, while employing more traditional techniques, still has a sense of realism to it that most movies don’t. Here, the camera really mimics the viewer. It takes up the positions we would want to take up if we were going to try to have a conversation with these people in this overly loud spectacle (and this is a loud film, full of yelling and screeching: think of the squawking parrot transition). And maybe it rings true to me because my whole life is about rearranging myself to hear better (or not, should I feel like not hearing) because I’m deaf in my left ear.

So in the end, I don’t think Citizen Kane ever quite hits the level of realism that someone like André Bazin credits it, but in contrast with the other Hollywood films being made at the time, it’s a real grenade. Sure, I like Touch of Evil more, but Citizen Kane ain’t half bad. And if my students have learned nothing else, they at least know the truth behind Rosebud.

Children of Men

This quarter, I’m lucky enough to be able to teach two film classes (really, the same class but two times). It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I graduated, but the opportunity hadn’t presented itself. The classes meet once a week for nearly 4 hours. During that time, I will lecture, we’ll view a film, and then we’ll discuss it together. One of the major, ongoing assignments of the quarter is to respond to at least 4 of the films we watch together. In solidarity with my young charges, I thought it only fair that I try to write a little something about each of the films as well. I’m really hoping to get into why I picked that particular film and some of my general impressions having watched and discussed it in a group. Generally, I’m a solitary watcher. Most of the conversations I have about films happen in my own head, so it should be interesting to see how this translates to a group setting.

First, before I get into the film, a little bit about how I’ve set up the class. After talking with a couple teachers and looking through the book, I had to determine an angle for the class. Technically, the class is labelled “Film History and Appreciation”, so I knew I wanted to organize things chronologically. But the book is broken up by film techniques (cinematography, editing, acting, etc.), so I tried to come up with a way to sync these. I spent way too much time debating what to screen or not screen, and what to pair with what readings. Some films were obvious (as you’ll see), but I also realized I needed to put my own little spin on things (which will also be obvious). I guess for me, by the end of the class, I want 3 things: 1) for the students to have a basic understanding of film history and how it has developed, 2) for the students to have the technical knowledge to discuss and analyze films in a serious way, and 3) for the students to be exposed to forms of cinema that challenge their conceptions of what movies are or can be. For #3, I guess I was working under the assumption that most of the students’ relationships with film would be casual and Hollywood based. For the most part, having met the students, this is generally true.

So, let’s get into it. For our first class, I screened Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men. This was one of the first films I put down on the list, but I only decided to open with it a few days before the quarter actually began. I’ve used this film in my classes before, and I often show the opening sequence in my English classes as a way to talk about introductions. When I shut it off after that opening few minutes, they usually groan and beg me to let them keep watching. It’s a film that grabs you instantly, throws you into a fully realized world, and escalates the tension and emotion until it nearly bursts. It sucks you into its story in the way a good Hollywood movie can. I wanted the first film to give my students a more traditional movie-going experience, something they could accept within their normal viewing habits. At its core, Children of Men is a very conventional film. The narrative is fairly straightforward, with the twists and turns you would expect from any modern thriller.

But the way it presents that narrative is anything but ordinary. One of the major themes I want to get across in the class is that all films have a specific idea of their audience, and as a result, as viewers, we should be very conscious of ourselves in the viewing experience. While Children of Men tells a fairly conventional story, it does so in a radical (relative to 99% of sci-fi/thrillers) way because it has a faith in its viewers that most films don’t. Unlike any Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich (although you know I love you, buddy) film that begs you to turn off your brain for the running time lest you realize how empty it truly is, Children of Men encourages and rewards careful attention.

The primary way it does this is through its justly famous cinematography and set design [our first two classes are covering cinematography as a technique, so it just makes sense]. Working with DP Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón employs the floating, documentary-style style that he used in his previous film Y tu mamá también. Like that film, the camera in Children of Men has a mind of its own. It often wanders off from the main characters to focus on something happening in the background that it finds more important. Early in the film, as Theo, played by Clive Owen, walks through London, the camera lingers on the enforcement of Britain’s radical immigration policies: the ransacking of a project and the cages used to hold people speaking unfamiliar languages. Theo ignores them, but the camera refuses to [of course this works thematically: eventually, the camera won’t have to wander off to show us these things because Theo will be unable to avoid them]. In overtly stopping to show us what’s happening in the background, the filmmakers are encouraging us to do some investigating on our own.

IMG_0790-0.JPG
The best way that this investigation pays off is through the use of the screens and newspapers that proliferate in the background. There are two great examples of this: first, after Theo is kidnapped by the Fishes, he is held in a cell that’s walls are plastered with newspapers. Through the newspapers, we learn of the widespread nuclear war, scientific experimentation, and obsession with youth that has impacted the globe. Each viewing, I see a new headline that brings the larger setting into clearer focus. Second, when Theo first visits Jasper (Michael Caine), the camera focuses on a wall of newspaper clippings. Through these, we figure out who Jasper is, a general timeline of the infertility, and more interestingly, the cause of his wife’s catatonia: she was tortured by the MI:5. Her condition is never discussed or even alluded to; if you miss that newspaper clipping, you might be totally confused why this silent woman is present at all.

IMG_0791-0.JPG
Before screening the film, I emphasized the need to pay close attention, take diligent notes, and to engage critically with the film. That’s a skill that will be important throughout the class, and because of its richness (I haven’t even scratched the service of allusions, references, artwork, advertisements, or propaganda that populate out this movie) Children of Men makes the perfect first-class film. I was happy because my classes caught a lot of stuff, but I think they were all shocked at how much was really available to them on the screen that they flat-out missed. Hopefully it can be an object-lesson as we move onto films that are perhaps more subtle and nuanced in their approach.

%d bloggers like this: