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Month: December, 2014

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 By 1958’s Vertigo, however, those thrills have been replaced by an inescapable doom.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.
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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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