Thursday, August 30, 2012

ENG 281 Ethics/Film: 3rd Week -- Hunger

Hunger (UK/Ireland: Steve McQueen, 2008: 96 mins)

Addley, Esther. "A great right hook of a role: Michael Fassbender tells ... how he braved controversy and lost 16kg to play hunger striker Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen's new film." The Guardian (October 31, 2008)

Bennett, Ronan. "Life and death in Long Kesh: Held in the notorious Northern Irish jail in the 70s, Ronan Bennett recalls the gas attacks, the beatings, the smell - and the jokes - and applauds Steve McQueen's haunting new film about its best-known inmate, IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands." The Guardian (October 22, 2008)

Bradshaw, Peter. "Hunger." The Guardian (October 30, 2008)

Cox, David. "Hunger Strikes a Very Sour Note." The Guardian (November 3, 2008)

Darke, Chris. "Hunger: On the Threshold." The Current (February 17, 2010)

French, Philip. "Hunger." The Guardian (Nivember 1, 2008)

Gregory, Derek. "Legendary Comedian Dick Gregory on Hunger Strike to Protest Capital Punishment, Death of Troy Davis." Democracy Now (October 3, 2011) [Cites Bobby Sands and IRA prison hunger strikes as inspiration]

Hoberman, J. "The Excruciating Details of Death-by-Starvation in Hunger." The Village Voice (March 18, 2009)

"Hunger: Life Inside the Maze." Channel 4 (2012)

"Hunger Q & A: Steve McQueen at New York Film Festival." (Posted on YouTube: October 6, 2008)

"Hunger: The Morning Routine." Channel 4 (2012)

Lim, Dennis. "History Through an Unblinking Lens." The New York Times (March 8, 2009)

"McQueen, Beyond Hunger." The Current (March 2, 2010)

McQueen, Steve. "On Hunger." Channel 4 (2012)

Morgan, Jason. "'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland." History for the Future (March 2, 2010)

O'Hagan, Sean. "Hunger: The Real Maze Men Speak." The Guardian (October 19, 2008)

---. "McQueen and country: He has won the Turner Prize, been a war artist in Iraq, and is campaigning to put the heads of dead British soldiers on stamps. Now Steve McQueen has made a stunning film about the harrowing lead-up to the starving to death of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands, including a scene that moved him to tears on the set." The Guardian (October 12, 2008)

Onesto, Li. "California's Pelican Bay Prison Hunger Strike: "We Are Human Beings!" Global Research (July 18, 2011)

Shelton, Lynn. "The Film That Changed My Life: Hunger by Steve McQueen (2008)." The Guardian (April 3, 2010)

"Steve McQueen: 5 Minute Guide." Channel 4 (2012)

Beginning Discussion on the British Film Institute's Global Poll of Critics and Filmmakers for a List of the Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time

Original Post: The British Film Institute conducts a global poll of critics and filmmakers every decade and for the first time in a long, long time, Orson Welles Citizen Kane is not the number #1 film. To check out the 50 films that made the list and to see what film is now #1: The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time

Olivia: I liked this list very much! It gave me some good tips for classics I hadn't heard about.

I just can't help but feel that it may be a bit too guided by the idea that "if it's an old classic it is better than a modern work". I think that a lot of modern day film directors are somewhat disregarded because they live in the modern day and what they produce isn't the same kind of artistic expression as it was in the past. It seems that as soon as you see a movie is in black and white there is automatically more respect for it.

I think the list is missing films by Inarritu, Almodovar, Malick, the Cohen brothers, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Wes Andersen, Wim Wenders, and so on... One of the most beautiful films I have ever seen was "Eternity and a Day" by Theo Angeolopos but it was totally skipped over.

Anyway, my point is some modern day film makers' work isn't given as much credit as I believe it objectively deserves because it isn't called a "classic".

Michael: I agree with you on this and all lists of these sorts are problematic (even our own) because they reflect the biases and perspectives of the "chosen" participants (in this case we can see a strong emphasis on the "classics" and films that reflect on the art of filmmaking -- as we would expect from "professional" critics and filmmakers).

I must admit I haven't seen any Angeolopos films yet (although I almost bought a european box set of his films earlier this year) -- thank you for the recommendation. Maybe we should engage the class in a poll and see what we would come up with as the best films... we could publish the individual lists and the cumulative results (kind of like BFI?)

Thank you for your thoughtful response -- as for the other filmmakers you mentioned, my favorites are:

Innaritu -- Amores Perros
Almodovar -- The Skin I Live In
Malick -- The New World
Coen Brothers -- Miller's Crossing
Jeunet -- Amelie
Anderson -- The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Wenders -- Until the End of the World (although I just got a British DVD of Alice in the Cities so this may change)

As you can see, these choices are idiosyncratic and they probably reflect my feelings and experiences when I saw them ... and as I re-experienced them.

Michael Benton's Top Ten List:

Apocalypse Now (USA: Francis Ford Coppola, 1979: 153/203 mins)

Ran (Japan/France: Akira Kurosawa, 1985: 162 mins)

2001: A Space Odyssey (USA/UK: Stanley Kubrick, 1968: 141 mins)

The Battle of Algiers (Italy/Algeria: Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966: 121 mins)

La Commune: Paris, 1871 (France: Peter Watkins, 2000: 345 mins)

Heaven's Gate (USA: Michael Cimino, 1980: 149 mins)

Shortbus (USA: John Cameron Mitchell, 2006: 101 mins)

Matewan (USA: John Sayles, 1987: 135 mins)

Harakiri (Japan: Masaki Kobayashi, 1962: 133 mins)br />
Dead Man (USA/Germany/Japan: Jim Jarmusch, 1995: 121 mins)

Olivia Schroeder's Top Ten List:

1. City of God/Cidade de Deus (Brazil: Fernando Meirelles, 2002: 130 mins)

2. Amores Perros (Mexico: Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000: 154 mins)

3.The Seventh Seal/Det sjunde inseglet (Sweeden: Ingmar Bergman, 1957: 96 mins)

4.Apocalypse Now (USA: Francis Ford Coppola, 1979: 153 mins)

5.Suzhou River/Suzhou he (China: Ye Lou, 2000: 83 mins)

6.Ran (Japan: Akira Kurusawa, 1985: 162 mins)

7.Never Let me Go (USA: Mark Romanek, 2010: 103 mins)

8.Eternity and a day/Mia aioniotita kai mia mera (Greece: Theodoros Angelopoulos, 1998: 137mins)

9.Double Indemnity (USA: Billy Wilder, 1944: 107 mins)

10. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Shannon Barnett's Top Ten List:

1. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

2. Fight Club

3. C.R.A.Z.Y.

4. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

5. Little Miss Sunshine

6. 50/50

7. Breakfast at Tiffany's

8. Chinatown

9. Titanic

10. Shutter Island

Jason Matthew Harris's Top Ten List

1. Lady and the Tramp

2. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

3. Peter Pan

4. Toy Story

5. Mary Poppins

6. Gangs of New York

7. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

8. Monty Python and the Holy Grail

9. Pirates of the Caribbean the Curse of the Black Pearl

10. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Joseph Decinque's Top Ten Film List

1. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

3. Psycho (1960)

4. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

5. The Thing (1981)

6. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

7. Taxi Driver (1976)

8. The Exorcist (1973)

9. Halloween (1978)

10. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Tyler Salyers' Top Ten Film List

1. Halloween

2. American History X

3. Fight Club

4. Inglourious Basterds

5. The Dark Knight

6. Pulp Fiction

7. The Royal Tenenbaums

8. Eraserhead

9. The Departed

10. Boogie Nights

Andy Yate's Top 10 Film Lists

1. Star Wars Return of the Jedi

2. LOTR: The Return of the King

3. Taxi Driver

4. The Godfather

5. Night of the Living Dead

6. Full Metal Jacket

7. Nightmare on Elm Street

8. The Exorcist

9. Jaws

10. Psycho

Tessa Folsom's Top Ten List

1) The Labryinth (1986)
2) The Nightmare before Christmas (1993)
3) Zeitgiest (2007)
4) Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
5) Cigarette Burns (2005)
6) Ten Little Indians (1965)
7) The New Rulers of the World (2001)
8) Ink(2009)
9) Harold and Maud (1971)
10)Dark City (1998)

Lucille Watkin's Top Ten List

1) Cinema Paradiso
2) American Werewolf in London
3) Silence of the Lambs
4) Blazing Saddles
5) Casablanca
6) Resevoir Dogs
7) Princess Bride
8) Cannonball Run I (no, I'm not kidding, I love this movie)
9) Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
10) Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Emily Barron's Top Ten List

1. Casablanca (1942 starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, directed by Michael Curtiz)
2. The Breakfast Club (1985 starring Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, and Molly Ringwald. Directed by John Hughes)
3. Psycho (1960 starring Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles. Directed by Alfred Hitchock)
4. The Godfather (1972. Starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. Directed by Francis For Coppola)
5. Schindler's List (1993, starring Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. Directed by Steven Spielberg)
6. Dial M for Murder (1954 starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelley. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
7. Pay It Forward (2000 starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment. Directed by Mimi Leder)
8. Finding Nemo (2003 starring Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres. Directed by Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich)
9. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002 starring Elijah Wood and Sean Astin. Directed by Peter Jackson)
10. The Dark Knight (2008 starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. Directed by Christopher Nolan)

Lindsay Scott's Top Ten Films

1) National Lampoon’s: Christmas Vacation- 1989- Comedy. Directed by Jeremiah Checkik Starring Chevy Chase
2) Dumb and Dumber-1994- comedy. Directed by Peter Farrelly. Starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels.
3 Tommy Boy- 1995- Comedy. Directed by Peter Segal. Starring Chris Farley and David Spade.
4 Happy Gilmore- 1996- Comedy. Directed by Dennis Dugan. Starring Adam Sandler
5 Rushmore- 1998- Comedy. Directed by Wes Anderson. Starring Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray.
6 Ace Venture: Pet Detective- 1994- Comedy. Directed by Tom Shadyac. Starring Jim Carey.
7 Beetlejuice- 1988- Comedy. Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Michael Keaton, Alec Baldwin, and Geena Davis.
8 Team America: World Police- 2004- Animation/Comedy. Directed by Trey Parker. Starring Trey Parker and Matt Stone (these are also the writers)
9 Who Framed Roger Rabbit? - 1988- Animation/ Comedy. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Starring Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd and Joanna Cassidy.
10 The Royal Tenebaums – 2001- Comedy. Directed by Wes Anderson. Starring Gene Hackman, Gweneth Paltrow, and Anjelica Hutson.

Alexander Gray's Top Ten List

1. Garden State (US, Zach Braff, 2004, 102 min.)
2. Shaun of the Dead (UK, Edgar Wright, 2004, 99min.)
3. The Nightmare Before Christmas (US, Henry Selick, 1993, 76 min.)
4. Clownhouse (US, Victor Salva, 1989, 81 min.)
5. Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (US, Rachel Talalay, 1991, 89 min.)
6. Tombstone (US, George Cosmatos, 1993, 130 min.)
7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (US, Milos Forman, 1975, 133 min.)
8. Jurassic Park (US, Steven Spielberg, 1993, 127 min.)
9. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (US, Robert Zemeckis, 1988, 104 min.)
10. Snatch (UK, Guy Ritchie, 2000, 104 min.)

Faith Diamond's Top Ten List

1. Streets of fire
2. Princess Mononoke
3. Hackers
4. The usual suspects
5. Moulin Rouge
6. Trainspotting
7. Equilibrium
8. Girl with the dragon tattoo (Swedish version)
9. Hellboy 2 the golden army
10. Amelie

Fall 2012 ENG 281: Introduction to Film Studies Poll

#1 (17 points) Apocalypse Now (USA: Francis Ford Coppola, 1979); Fight Club (USA: David Fincher, 1999); The Nightmare before Christmas (USA: Tim Burton,1993); Psycho (USA: Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

#5 (16 points) Casablanca (USA: Michael Curtiz, 1942)

#6 (15 points) Ran (Japan/France: Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

#7 (14 points) The Godfather (USA: Francis Ford Coppola, 1972); One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (USA: Milos Forman, 1975)

#9 (12 points) Halloween (USA: John Carpenter, 1978); Taxi Driver (USA: Martin Scorsese, 1976)

#11 (11 points) Night of the Living Dead (USA: George A. Romero, 1968)

#12 (10 points) Cinema Paradiso (Italy/France: Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988); City of God/Cidade de Deus (Brazil: Fernando Meirelles, 2002); Dawn of the Dead (USA: George Romero, 1978); Garden State (USA: Zach Braff, 2004); The Labryinth (UK/USA: Jim Henson, 1986); Lady and the Tramp (USA: Clyde Geronimi, et al, 1955); National Lampoon’s: Christmas Vacation (USA: Jeremiah Checkik, 1989); Return of the Jedi (USA: George Lucas, 1983); Streets of Fire (USA: Walter Hill, 1984)

Other Vote Getters

9 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (USA: Richard Fleischer, 1954) 9 American History X (USA: Tony Kaye, 1998) 9 American Werewolf in London (UK/USA: John Landis, 1981) 9 Amores Perros (Mexico: Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000) 9 The Breakfast Club (USA: John Hughes, 1985) 9 Dumb and Dumber (USA: Peter Farrelly, 1994). 9 LOTR: The Return of the King (USA/New Zealand: Peter Jackson, 2003) 9 Princess Mononoke (Japan: Hayao Miyasaki, 1997) 9 Shaun of the Dead (UK, Edgar Wright, 2004) 9 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (USA: Tobe Hooper, 1974) 8 2001: A Space Odyssey (USA/UK: Stanley Kubrick, 1968) 8 C.R.A.Z.Y. (Canada: Jean-Marc Vallée, 2005) 8 Hackers (USA: Iain Softley, 1995) 8 Peter Pan (USA: Vincent J. Donehue, 1960) 8 The Seventh Seal (Sweeden: Ingmar Bergman, 1957) 8 The Silence of the Lambs (USA: Jonathan Demme, 1991) 8 Tommy Boy (USA: Peter Segal, 1995) 8 Zeitgiest (USA: Peter Joseph, 2007) 7 The Battle of Algiers (Italy/Algeria: Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) 7 Blazing Saddles (USA: Mel Brooks, 1974) 7 A Clockwork Orange (UK/USA: Stanley Kubrick, 1971) 7 Clownhouse (USA: Victor Salva, 1989) 7 The Dark Knight (USA: Christopher Nolan, 2008) 7 Happy Gilmore (USA: Dennis Dugan, 1996) 7 Inglourious Basterds (USA: Quentin Tarantino, 2009) 7 Moonrise Kingdom (USA: Wes Anderson, 2012) 7 Precious (USA: Lee Daniels, 2009) 7 Toy Story (USA: John Lasseter, 1995) 7 The Usual Suspects (USA/Germany: Bryan Singer, 1995) 6 The Exorcist (USA: William Peter Blatty, 1973) 6 Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (USA: Rachel Talalay, 1991) 6 La Commune: Paris, 1871 (France: Peter Watkins, 2000) 6 Little Miss Sunshine (USA: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006) 6 Mary Poppins (USA/UK: Robert Stevenson, 1964) 6 Moulin Rouge (USA/Australia: Baz Luhrmann, 2001) 6 Rushmore (USA: Wes Anderson, 1998) 6 Schindler's List (USA: Steven Spielberg, 1993) 6 Suzhou River (China: Ye Lou, 2000) 6 The Thing (USA: John Carpenter, 1981) 5 50/50 (USA: Jonathan Levine, 2011) 5 Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (USA: Tom Shadyac, 1994) 5 Dial M for Murder (USA: Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) 5 Full Metal Jacket (UK/USA: Stanley Kubrick, 1987) 5 Gangs of New York (USA: Martin Scorsese, 2002) 5 Heaven's Gate (USA: Michael Cimino, 1980) 5 Pulp Fiction (USA: Quentin Tarantino, 1994) 5 Resevoir Dogs (USA: Quentin Tarantino, 1992) 5 The Royal Tenenbaums (USA: Wes Anderson, 2001) 5 Ten Little Indians (UK: George Pollock,1965) 5 Tombstone (USA: George Cosmatos, 1993) 5 Trainspotting (UK: Danny Boyle, 1996) 4 Beetlejuice (USA: Tim Burton, 1988) 4. Breakfast at Tiffany's (USA: Blake Edwards, 1961) 4 Equilibrium (USA: Kurt Wimmer, 2002) 4 Monty Python and the Holy Grail (UK: Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, 1975) 4 Never Let me Go (USA: Mark Romanek, 2010) 4 A Nightmare on Elm Street (USA: Wes Craven, 1984) 4 Pay It Forward (USA: Mimi Leder, 2000) 4 The Princess Bride (USA: Rob Reiner, 1987) 4 Shortbus (USA: John Cameron Mitchell, 2006) 4 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (USA: William Cotrell, et al, 1937) 4 Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (USA: Robert Zemeckis, 1988) 3 Cannonball Run (USA: Hal Needham, 1981) 3. Chinatown (USA: Roman Polanski, 1974) 3 Eraserhead (USA: David Lynch, 1977) 3 Eternity and a Day (Greece: Theodoros Angelopoulos, 1998) 3 Finding Nemo (USA: Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, 2003) 3 Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Sweden/Denmark/Germany/Norway: Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) 3 Ink (USA: Jamin Winans, 2009) 3 Jurassic Park (US, Steven Spielberg, 1993 3 Matewan (USA: John Sayles, 1987) 3 Team America: World Police (USA: Trey Parker, 2004) 2 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Germany: Robert Wiene, 1920) 2 The Departed (USA: Martin Scorsese, 2006) 2 Double Indemnity (USA: Billy Wilder, 1944) 2 Harakiri (Japan: Masaki Kobayashi, 1962) 2 Harold and Maude (USA: Hal Ashby, 1971) 2 Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (USA: Guillermo Del Toro, 2008) 2 Jaws (USA: Steven Spielberg, 1975) 2 Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (USA: Gore Verbinski, 2003) 2 Titanic (USA: James Cameron, 1997) 2 TLOR: The Two Towers (New Zealand/USA: Peter Jackson, 2002) 1 Amelie (France/Germany: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) 1 Boogie Nights (USA: Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997) 1 Cannibal Holocaust (Italy: Ruggero Deodato, 1980) 1 Dark City (Australia/USA: Alex Proyas, 1998) 1 Dead Man (USA/Germany/Japan: Jim Jarmusch, 1995) 1 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (USA/UK: Stanley Kubrick, 1964) 1 Shutter Island (USA: Martin Scorsese, 2010) 1 Snatch (UK: Guy Ritchie, 2000) 1 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (USA: Mel Stuart, 1971)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dan Akira Nishimura: Anthony Perkins -- Forever Psycho

Anthony Perkins: Forever Psycho
by Dan Akira Nishimura
Bright Lights Film Journal

When Alfred Hitchcock wrapped Psycho (1960), it was years before the sequel became commonplace. No one expected Ben Hur (1959) or Spartacus (1960) to continue on with new adventures. "The End" meant just that, for the story and the characters. So it may have come as a surprise to Anthony Perkins when his Norman Bates character was revived thirteen years later in Psycho II (1983). In some ways, however, he had never stopped playing him.

A dreamy-eyed staple of fan magazines of the late 1950s and early '60s, Perkins was cast against type as the psychotic killer. Because of the enormous success of Psycho, he immediately became identified with the role. Although he at first resisted, Perkins returned to Norman Bates again and again, in one form or other. Norman's twitchy eccentricity seeped into many of Perkins' post-Psycho performances that preceded the run of sequels. His paranoid bank manager Joseph K. in The Trial (1962), the preppy-with-a-secret Dennis Pitt in Pretty Poison (1968), and the amnesiac sculptor Charles Van Horn in Ten Days Wonder (1971) all bear the mark of Norman Bates. In this essay, we'll look at how Perkins became indistinguishable from Norman and why he was never "finished" with him. Perkins set the stage for the emergence of the creepy but sympathetic pretty-boy psychopath next door. Without Psycho, sweet-faced Tony Curtis may have had a difficult time convincing producers he could play Albert DeSalvo in The Boston Strangler (1968). Another real-life Norman, serial killer Ted Bundy, was celebrated in books and a television miniseries. Anthony Perkins was born in 1932, the year Adolf Hitler seized power. Perkins was the son of the actor James Ripley Osgood Perkins, who died onstage when Tony was five. Growing up in the shadow of the Second World War and surviving the death of a parent must certainly have affected him. In any case, there's an unease built into his screen personae whether he's playing high-strung baseball player Jimmy Piersall in Fear Strikes Out (1957) or Norman Bates.

"Psycho begins with the normal," writes Robin Wood, "and draws us steadily deeper and deeper into the abnormal; it opens by making us aware of time, and ends with a situation in which time has ceased to exist."1 It's difficult to imagine the world before Psycho and its countless imitators. Known as the eccentric director of big-budget, wide-screen Technicolor spectacles, Hitchcock planned to make Psycho for $800,000, even then not a large sum for a major motion picture. It was shot by John L. Russell with a get-it-done-quick sensibility learned from television. From the success of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Hitchcock sensed that movie audiences were ready for a good scare. The slashing violins of Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack were vital to creating tension in the viewer. Although cinematic innovations were few, the film was notable as a triumph of marketing and for elevating Anthony Perkins to screen immortality. It also marked a shift in attitudes about sex as the 1960s began. David Thomson writes:

The subversive secret was out — truly this medium was prepared for an outrage in which sex and violence were no longer games but were in fact everything. Psycho was so blatant that audiences had to laugh at it, to avoid the giddy swoon of evil and ordeal. That title warned that the central character was a bit of a nut, but the deeper lesson was that the audience in its self-inflicted experiment with danger might be crazy, too. Sex and violence were ready to break out, and censorship crumpled like an old lady's parasol. The orgy had arrived.2

No matter the subject matter, Hitchcock stressed the idea of "pure film" where the pictures tell the story. Perkins, with his expressive face and physical style of acting, is well suited to a Hitchcock movie. As Norman, he's full of nervous tics one moment and longing gazes toward his female co-stars the next. As such, he's the perfect foil for Hitchcock, who was known to be uncomfortable with women. Writes Robin Wood: "Hitchcock isn't interested in acting, certain actors, left to their own devices, are able to seize their chances and create their own performances independently; there is more reason to deduce that there are certain performances — or more exactly, certain roles — which arouse in Hitchcock a particular creative interest."3

As a child, Hitchcock was required to stand at the foot of his mother Emma's bed and report on his perceived transgressions, something that continued into adolescence. In Joseph Stefano's screenplay of Psycho, the mother of Norman, or at least the part of her that survives in his head, is all-powerful. "A boy's best friend is his mother," he says. Perkins plays the dual role of Norman and the deceased Mrs. Bates. The homicidal maniac as cross-dresser is another aspect of Psycho that wasn't "finished." Twenty years later, Michael Caine would put on the wig in Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980).

In the Franz Kafka source novel for the Orson Welles film The Trial, Joseph K. is an innocent man wrongly accused. Perkins plays him as a tightly coiled nervous wreck who's oddly attractive to women. His interpretation makes it appear that Joseph must be guilty of "something." Presumably to escape typecasting as Norman, Perkins fled to Europe, where Welles had also taken refuge during the years of the Hollywood blacklist.4 In The Trial (1962), Welles had creative control, and stylistically it was one of the best of his European films.5 An irrational universe with its rows of desks manned by overworked clerks is depicted in stunning black-and-white by Edmond Richard's camera. Location shooting, including what was then the Gare dOrsay train station, only adds to the surreal quality. Reflected light, something that Welles perfected with Gregg Toland shooting Citizen Kane (1941), is used extensively. At the center is Perkins as Joseph K., a man put through a trial (Le proces in French) not limited to a courtroom. Just as Norman is shocked by what he considers the outrageous accusations made against him, Joseph feels put upon and harassed by an incomprehensible bureaucracy. There are some differences, though. With Norman, the Mother is a constant presence watching his every move, whereas Joseph lives in fear of the Father as represented by the State. Welles is The Advocate, who seems more like an adversary. As portrayed by some of the most popular European actresses of the time including Jeanne Moreau and Romy Schneider, women are drawn to Joseph as to an abandoned infant. He appears to be able to consummate some of these encounters, yet he remains unsatisfied.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Monday, August 27, 2012

Paul Oliver: Michel Foucault on the Socialization of Individual Identity

According to [Michel] Foucault, the individual identity is not self-determining. The subjective self does not exist because of the free will and autonomy of the individual. Rather our identity is created through a system of socialization over which we have relatively little control. We are born into a particular social setting, a political setting, a society with a particular set of values, and a religious system. All of these conspire to forge and mould our subjectivity. The individual looks out at the world with a vision that tends to reflect the surrounding ideological system. (17)

Oliver, Paul. Foucault: The Key Ideas Blacklick, OH: McGraw Hill, 2010.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Rob White: Into the Past

Into the Past
by Rob White
Film Quarterly


Lee Chang-dong’s glorious new film is a major step forward for an already accomplished Korean director. Whereas his previous films are dominated by harrowing psychic and linguistic breakdowns, Poetry involves emotional restraint and a profoundly moving emphasis on eloquence. And while trauma in the earlier films leads to isolated suffering, in Poetry there is solace in a strange, spectral companionship.

“I am in so much pain,” says the bereaved mother in Secret Sunshine (2007), and she is not the only one. In Green Fish (1997), an apprentice gangster messily commits a murder and afterwards calls his brother from a phone booth. He tries but fails to fight back tears, his voice trembling as he reminisces feverishly about a fishing trip. Later another character finds an old photo that upsets her so much she writhes around desperately in her seat. Peppermint Candy (1999) begins with suicide; a close-up shows the protagonist howling in front of an oncoming train before the reverse-chronological narrative relates scenes from the etiology of his torment. An accidental killing during the man’s military service is the final trauma to be dramatized—except that the film’s coda shows him quietly crying for no good reason. Perhaps what burdens him is not ordinary grief but some primal angst that predates any horrifying experience.

Time and again in Lee’s films the misery is such that it disrupts speech, reduces it to mere screaming, or makes any communication simply impossible. The man’s wife in Peppermint Candy starts to sob while saying grace at a family meal and is hardly able to get the words out: “May this family…continue to love…each other.” The disabled woman in Oasis (2002) is so unnerved in a police station by false accusations leveled at her lover that she loses any ability to protest vocally. All she can do to try to express herself is maneuver her wheelchair with all her strength into the furniture; but no one understands. Having briefly found religious consolation after the death of her son, the protagonist of Secret Sunshine relapses into wild agony when the child’s murderer himself professes a newfound Christian faith. She shrieks at the sight of an earthworm in her kitchen and later, dazed and weak from self-inflicted wounds, wails as she staggers along a dark street. (She gets help but nothing suggests that her grief will ever abate.)

Poetry opens with the body of another dead child, a schoolgirl called Agnes, drifting downstream. When her mother watches in shock as her daughter is unloaded from an ambulance, an elderly woman walks past. This is Mija—played in an absolutely transfixing performance by Yun Junghee—who will soon learn that her grandson, whom she is raising, was one of several boys who repeatedly raped Agnes in the months leading up to her suicide.

The fathers of the other boys gather at a restaurant to explain the situation to Mija and request she pay a share of the financial settlement which, if accepted by the mother, will allow the assaults to be kept secret. The silence with which Mija responds to this corrupt proposition is entirely different from the inarticulacy to be found in Lee’s other films— instead of trying but failing to communicate, she simply refuses to. She goes outside to study a flower, penciling in a notebook while she does. It is not that she is repudiating what she has heard—she will confront her grandson more than once with what he has done and plead with him to acknowledge the crimes—it is that, as will become clear in Poetry’s conclusion, she feels a duty of remembrance toward Agnes that is at odds with this coverup.

To Read the Rest of the Response

Friday, August 24, 2012

Beat the Devil (USA: Tony Scott, 2002: 9 mins)

The recently departed Tony Scott directed this excellent 9 min short film called Beat the Devil and starring (no kidding) James Brown, Clive Owen, Gary Oldman, Danny Trejo and Marilyn Manson. Oh yeah, and the original concept for the story is by director David Fincher (Fight Club):

Zadie Smith: Generation Why?

Generation Why?
by Zadie Smith
The New York Review of Books

How long is a generation these days? I must be in Mark Zuckerberg’s generation—there are only nine years between us—but somehow it doesn’t feel that way. This despite the fact that I can say (like everyone else on Harvard’s campus in the fall of 2003) that “I was there” at Facebook’s inception, and remember Facemash and the fuss it caused; also that tiny, exquisite movie star trailed by fan-boys through the snow wherever she went, and the awful snow itself, turning your toes gray, destroying your spirit, bringing a bloodless end to a squirrel on my block: frozen, inanimate, perfect—like the Blaschka glass flowers. Doubtless years from now I will misremember my closeness to Zuckerberg, in the same spirit that everyone in ’60s Liverpool met John Lennon.

At the time, though, I felt distant from Zuckerberg and all the kids at Harvard. I still feel distant from them now, ever more so, as I increasingly opt out (by choice, by default) of the things they have embraced. We have different ideas about things. Specifically we have different ideas about what a person is, or should be. I often worry that my idea of personhood is nostalgic, irrational, inaccurate. Perhaps Generation Facebook have built their virtual mansions in good faith, in order to house the People 2.0 they genuinely are, and if I feel uncomfortable within them it is because I am stuck at Person 1.0. Then again, the more time I spend with the tail end of Generation Facebook (in the shape of my students) the more convinced I become that some of the software currently shaping their generation is unworthy of them. They are more interesting than it is. They deserve better.

In The Social Network Generation Facebook gets a movie almost worthy of them, and this fact, being so unexpected, makes the film feel more delightful than it probably, objectively, is. From the opening scene it’s clear that this is a movie about 2.0 people made by 1.0 people (Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher, forty-nine and forty-eight respectively). It’s a talkie, for goodness’ sake, with as many words per minute as His Girl Friday. A boy, Mark, and his girl, Erica, sit at a little table in a Harvard bar, zinging each other, in that relentless Sorkin style made famous by The West Wing (though at no point does either party say “Walk with me”—for this we should be grateful).

But something is not right with this young man: his eye contact is patchy; he doesn’t seem to understand common turns of phrase or ambiguities of language; he is literal to the point of offense, pedantic to the point of aggression. (“Final clubs,” says Mark, correcting Erica, as they discuss those exclusive Harvard entities, “Not Finals clubs.”) He doesn’t understand what’s happening as she tries to break up with him. (“Wait, wait, this is real?”) Nor does he understand why. He doesn’t get that what he may consider a statement of fact might yet have, for this other person, some personal, painful import:

ERICA: I have to go study.

MARK: You don’t have to study.

ERICA: How do you know I don’t have to study?!

MARK: Because you go to B.U.!

Simply put, he is a computer nerd, a social “autistic”: a type as recognizable to Fincher’s audience as the cynical newshound was to Howard Hawks’s. To create this Zuckerberg, Sorkin barely need brush his pen against the page. We came to the cinema expecting to meet this guy and it’s a pleasure to watch Sorkin color in what we had already confidently sketched in our minds. For sometimes the culture surmises an individual personality, collectively. Or thinks it does. Don’t we all know why nerds do what they do? To get money, which leads to popularity, which leads to girls. Sorkin, confident of his foundation myth, spins an exhilarating tale of double rejection—spurned by Erica and the Porcellian, the Finaliest of the Final Clubs, Zuckerberg begins his spite-fueled rise to the top. Cue a lot of betrayal. A lot of scenes of lawyers’ offices and miserable, character-damning depositions. (“Your best friend is suing you!”) Sorkin has swapped the military types of A Few Good Men for a different kind of all-male community in a different uniform: GAP hoodies, North Face sweats.

At my screening, blocks from NYU, the audience thrilled with intimate identification. But if the hipsters and nerds are hoping for Fincher’s usual pyrotechnics they will be disappointed: in a lawyer’s office there’s not a lot for Fincher to do. He has to content himself with excellent and rapid cutting between Harvard and the later court cases, and after that, the discreet pleasures of another, less-remarked-upon Fincher skill: great casting. It’ll be a long time before a cinema geek comes along to push Jesse Eisenberg, the actor who plays Zuckerberg, off the top of our nerd typologies. The passive-aggressive, flat-line voice. The shifty boredom when anyone, other than himself, is speaking. The barely suppressed smirk. Eisenberg even chooses the correct nerd walk: not the sideways corridor shuffle (the Don’t Hit Me!), but the puffed chest vertical march (the I’m not 5'8”, I’m 5'9”!).

With rucksack, naturally. An extended four-minute shot has him doing exactly this all the way through the Harvard campus, before he lands finally where he belongs, the only place he’s truly comfortable, in front of his laptop, with his blog:

Erica Albright’s a bitch. You think that’s because her family changed their name from Albrecht or do you think it’s because all B.U. girls are bitches?

Oh, yeah. We know this guy. Overprogrammed, furious, lonely. Around him Fincher arranges a convincing bunch of 1.0 humans, by turns betrayed and humiliated by him, and as the movie progresses they line up to sue him. If it’s a three-act movie it’s because Zuckerberg screws over more people than a two-act movie can comfortably hold: the Winklevoss twins and Divya Navendra (from whom Zuckerberg allegedly stole the Facebook concept), and then his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (the CFO he edged out of the company), and finally Sean Parker, the boy king of Napster, the music-sharing program, although he, to be fair, pretty much screws himself. It’s in Eduardo—in the actor Andrew Garfield’s animate, beautiful face—that all these betrayals seem to converge, and become personal, painful. The arbitration scenes—that should be dull, being so terribly static—get their power from the eerie opposition between Eisenberg’s unmoving countenance (his eyebrows hardly ever move; the real Zuckerberg’s eyebrows never move) and Garfield’s imploring disbelief, almost the way Spencer Tracy got all worked up opposite Frederic March’s rigidity in another courtroom epic, Inherit the Wind.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

John Bleasdale: Avengers Dissemble

Avengers Dissemble: A Polemic
by John Bleasdale
Alternate Takes


So, what’s my problem? These movies are big, noisy, intelligent, often well-made fun. It’s entertainment. Am I a snob? An elitist? Am I going to start quoting Saint Paul - ‘But I am a man now and I have put away childish things'…? Am I set to get in your face about maturity, high art and the death of the novel? Again I repeat: I don’t dislike these films. I quite like some of them; but I despise them as well. George Orwell once said that, as a critic you can’t just admire a well-built wall without taking into account whether it surrounds a garden or a concentration camp. Likewise, comic books movies are well-built walls. They do what they do well, but we have to ask what they are doing - ideologically, culturally. What do they surround?

My argument would be that they are almost fundamentally bound to be mendacious and reactionary. All superheroes have big lies in their DNA. The secret identity is one such lie: Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spiderman Peter Parker, and Clark Kent Superman. Another lie is that humanity is helpless to stand up against problems without the super-powerful intervening, and thereby as often courting our ingratitude as our acclaim. These lies of the superhero film essentially evidence a distrust in society. In The Dark Knight, Batman conspires with Commissioner Gordon to cover up Harvey Dent’s crime, laying the blame on Batman. Why? Because the people need to be protected from the truth, we are solemnly told in the film’s final moments, via a child. But, again, why?

Society has to be passive at best, or a corrupt stew of villainy and vice at worst, in order to justify the intervention of a caped saviour. Gotham doesn’t need Batman half as much as Batman needs Gotham. The virtues of the superhero would mean nothing without the passivity or corruption of the society in which he finds himself. With The Avengers, Nick Fury is a politicization of this concept. He guides a shadowy paralegal security agency (S.H.I.E.L.D) with global reach, taking its orders from a committee of shadowy figures who can’t seem to get their web cameras to work. Throughout the film he employs a vocabulary of war and emergency, and once more the big lie comes again as he manipulates the death of the one heroic small man to motivate the Avengers. Human sacrifice becomes a convenient ingredient to a team-building exercise. The small man with his comic book geekiness is also the inscription of an ideal audience member into the film. So we (the geeks) have to die in order to be reborn as… take your pick.

Another lie is that these films are about saving the world. They are not. They are about blowing the world to smithereens. They revel in destruction, especially of urban spaces. Initially we were horrified by 9/11, but now we seem to keep wondering what it would look like if this happened to this sky scraper or to that. It is as if we want to relive 9/11, but this time to survive it. We want to be in the Twin Towers - but as Thor, or Captain America.

And what about the Nazis? The original ubermensch is a disconcertingly fascist creation, via Nietzsche, but many comic book films can’t help going back to the subject. X-Men uses the concentration camp as part of an origin story, but it’s for the baddie. Admittedly, there is more than a little ambiguity here. The mutants are seen as the Jews who need to be protected, and to protect themselves, from a similar persecution happening again. But there are two things wrong with this picture. First of all, the Jews weren’t mutants who had superpowers and were physically different from the surrounding populace - despite, it should be said, anti-Semitic propaganda. Secondly, the view of humans as a feral populace with itchy genocidal fingers surely shouldn’t go unchallenged. Professor Xavier’s relatively optimistic view of human beings is seen as more a result of his superhuman goodness than a realistic view of humanity. In Captain America the Nazis aren’t bad enough, so we get Red Skull and his ridiculous Hydra organization, with its two-fisted salute (not one hand, mind, but two fists). This little bit of fun shouldn’t be taken too seriously, we are encouraged to assume. All history is just a playground for this kind of postmodern romp. The film even includes a bit of knowingness about the propaganda origins of Captain America, so all is well.

To Read the Entire Polemic

Thursday, August 23, 2012

ENG 281 Ethics/Film: 2nd Week -- Fight Club

Fight Club (USA: David Fincher, 1999: 139 mins)

Baughman, Rhonda and Jonathan Beller. "Fight Club's Utopian Dick." Pop Matters (October 14, 1999)

Diken, Bülent and Carsten Bagge Laustsen, "‘Enjoy your fight! – Fight Club as a Symptom of the Network Society," (Published by the Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, UK: November 13, 2003)

Eig, Jonathan. "A beautiful mind(fuck): Hollywood structures of identity." Jump Cut #46 (2003)

“Entertainment Media Analysis Report: Fight Club.” ChildCare Action Project: Christian Analysis of American Culture (2000)

Erickson, Steve. "Fight Club." [Personal Website: 1999]

Frazer, Bryant. "Fight Club." Deep Focus (October 1999)

Gargett, Adrian. "Doppelganger: Exploded States of Consciousness in Fight Club." Disinformation (August 22, 2001)

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2011. [Was reading the 1st chapter of this book at the same time as I was preparing for the Fall 2012 Ethics/Film screening of Fight Club -- it changed the way I conceived of the meaning of the dramatic ending of the film: "By the same token, for the last five thousand years, with remarkable regularity, popular insurrections have begun the same way: with the ritual destruction of the debt records--tablets, papyri, ledgers, whatever form they might have taken in any particular time and place. (8)"]

Hulsizer, Tim. "Calvin & Hobbes vs Fight Club." Blogsizer (no date)

Lizardo, Omar. "Fight Club, or the Cultural Contradictions of Late Capitalism." Journal for Cultural Research 11.3 (July 2007)

Probst, Christopher. "Anarchy in the USA." American Cinematographer (November 1999)

Rothe-Kushel, Jethro. "Fight Club: A Ritual Cure For The Spiritual Ailment Of American Masculinity." The Film Journal #8 (2002)

Rushkoff, Douglas. "They Say." Coercion: Why We Listen to What 'They' Say'. (NY: Metropolitan Books, 1999: 1-26)

Zavodny, John. “I Am Jack’s Wasted Life: Fight Club and Personal Identity.” Movies and the Meaning of Life: Philosophers Take on Hollywood. eds. Kimberly A. Blessing and Paul J. Tudico. Chicago: Open Court, 2005: 47-60. [Professor has copy]

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Adam Cook, Mike Archibald and Josh Timmerman: The Big Murk - A Conversation About Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises

The Big Murk: A Conversation About Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises"
by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Adam Cook, Mike Archibald and Josh Timmerman
Notebook (MUBI)

The Dark Knight Rises: a big pop-cultural event, the epicenter of a tragedy that has (unfortunately, inadvertently) become 24-hour news cycle fodder, an illustration of what is (and isn't) meant by the word "ambitious" in today's Hollywood, a much-anticipated sequel to a film that's popularly seen as the superhero-flick-to-end-all-superhero-flicks, a major talking point in the ongoing discussion of what film criticism means to audiences at large. It's easy to forget that it is, first and foremost, a movie. And as a movie, it happens to be a mess—long, loud, and full of seemingly contradictory ideas and plot threads.

In the following exchange, Adam Cook, Mike Archibald, Josh Timmermann, and I try to make sense of the film, its politics, and its director.


Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: Positives first. I liked the first half of the film the most. It has all of these different threads of intrigue going on: Jim Gordon hunting criminals down drainage pipes, Bane putting together his master plan, Bruce Wayne living as a doomed-romantic recluse in his mansion, Selina Kyle's burglaries, corporate skulduggery. I like the crazy-quilt way in which Nolan uses IMAX, switching aspect ratios shot to shot. I like the Revolutionary Tribunal-style courtroom scenes with Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow presiding as judge, even though the narrative context within which they appear leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I like the image—almost Monty Python material—of policemen living in sewers, huddling together, keeping their uniforms clean for the day when they can step out into the daylight again and arrest people. In other words, I like the silliest, cartooniest, most out-there things about the film. I like the detailing. The grand design is a totally different matter.

The three most common complaints about Christopher Nolan's movies that you're likely to hear are: (1) they have a shoddy grasp of space and time, despite always being centered around chronologies and intercut action; (2) they use political issues and reference-points and take contradictory stances on them (this point applies only to The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises); and (3) most of them use personal traumas (more often than not, Nolan's "dead wife" motif, which appears twice in The Dark Knight Rises) and public tragedies as plot points, but have no sense of the emotional. I think Nolan's best movies are the ones that turn points 1 & 3 into strengths; to me, the appeal of The Prestige, my personal favorite of his films, rests in its which-story-within-a-story-is-being-told? spatial slipperiness and its coldness. In The Dark Knight Rises, however, all three of these points are liabilities.

Since it's specific to Nolan's Batman films, I'd like to start with point 2: the politics. I know that for some people, the ending of The Dark Knight was a big problem; it appears to celebrate surveillance and the necessity of lying to the general public for their good (through the Joker / Batman / Harvey Dent narrative thread) while at the same time preaching about the general goodness of people and the ability of a group to make the right decision (the "two boats, two detonators" dilemma).

The Dark Knight Rises is even more self-contradictory. The images of this film are constantly cancelling each other out. There is Bane's attack on the stock exchange, while plays out as an Occupy-era revenge fantasy—and yet, of course, Bane is the bad guy. Group solidarity is celebrated (the marching policemen, for example) and many jabs are taken at wealth and business, yet the hero is a lone billionaire. Batman operates outside the law, yet law enforcement is fetishized. Scarecrow's revolutionary court is presented as a sort of nightmare—yet it rightly convicts a slimy villain. You have the suggestion (which I actually think is a smart move on Nolan's part) that The Dark Knight's "print the legend" ending was a bad idea—and yet when the Joseph Gordon Levitt character essentially repeats the same "lie to give them hope" move late in the film (to a busload of orphans, no less!), it's presented as the right thing to do. Every image seems charged for maximum political impact—with references to the images and words of the French Revolution, fascist Italy, the Bush administration, the War on Terror, the Occupy movement—but there is nothing like a coherent ideology. Nolan strikes me as either apathetic—using whatever ideology fits for any given scene—or politically schizophrenic.

To Read the Rest of the Conversation

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

James MacDowell: John Cazale -- Stepped Over

John Cazale: Stepped Over
by James MacDowell
Alternate Takes

John Cazale has what is probably the most impressive complete resumé in Hollywood history. He appeared in only five films before succumbing to bone cancer at the age of 42; those films, however, were The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part 2 (1974), The Conversation (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and The Deer Hunter (1978). Whatever one may personally think of them, it is difficult to think of another actor who appeared solely in movies that have been so consistently highly praised; apart from anything, each one was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and three won. In 2009 a short documentary called I Knew It Was You was made about Cazale’s life and career (watch it here). It features interviews with those one would expect, including Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Meryl Streep (whom Cazale was dating at the time of his death), and Al Pacino - who claims he learned more about acting from Cazale than from anyone else he has ever worked with. It also features testimonials from a number of younger actors equally eager to praise him for his craft, such as Steve Buscemi, Sam Rockwell, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The overall thrust of the documentary, hinted at in its title, is to suggest how unfair it is that Cazale is not more well known, given his talent and track record. While I certainly agree with this, I would also suggest that it is in a sense unsurprising - and even somehow perhaps sadly fitting - given both the roles he played, and his films’ treatment of his characters.

In his seminal book Stars, Richard Dyer writes that, “Stars… are the direct or indirect reflection of the needs, drives and dreams of American society.” Cazale’s career suggests that this holds both for those figures who are constructed to embody such dreams, and for those who are required to embody their lack or failure. While Cazale was emphatically not a ‘star’ in the conventional sense, this fact is in itself telling in relation to the kinds of roles he played, and holds a special significance for Cazale’s relationship to the kinds of needs and drives Dyer refers to.

All of the five films John Cazale appeared in during his short career can be seen as indicative of the well-documented sense of national malaise that was so observable in certain corners of the post-Vietnam American cinema. They are all films that, in different ways, asked demoralising questions about what it meant to achieve that form of success so often referred to in mythic terms as ‘The American Dream’. In each film he plays a supporting role to a major Hollywood star which, in pre-Vietnam cinema, could perhaps quite easily have been comic: each has the potential to be the role of the dim-witted friend or side-kick who amuses with his charming ignorance. These, however, were films of the 1970s so-called 'Hollywood Renaissance' - films that often attempted to reflect the extent to which Vietnam and had given the U.S. a sense of its own mortality, and the possibility of failure: films in which pursuit of the American Dream was a dangerous, and perhaps doomed, matter of “life and death”. I want to look briefly at how Cazale’s characters are treated in two of these films: The Godfather Part 2 and Dog Day Afternoon. (I should say, if such a warning is needed for these films, that there will be spoilers...)

In both The Godfather Part 2 and Dog Day Afternoon Cazale's characters are continually being undermined, in different ways, by the star of both films, Al Pacino. This happens on the level of plot, but it is also happening consistently stylistically. For instance, one way in which The Godfather Part 2 often communicates Cazale’s inferiority to Pacino is through framing. We can see this, for example, in the scene in which Michael disowns Fredo (watch a portion of it here). In the scene’s long shots Fredo is seen sprawled on a recliner along the bottom right-hand side of the frame while Michael towers over him, commanding the eye.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Films We Want To See #9: Robot and Frank

Mark Chapman: Clashing Harmonics -- The Characteristics of Sound in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil

Clashing Harmonics: The Characteristics of Sound in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil
by Mark Chapman
Bright Lights Film Journal

Although much has been written about the expressive visual language in the films directed by Orson Welles, comparatively little attention has been paid to their sensual auditory landscapes. Critical analysis of Touch of Evil (1958), a film Paul Schrader famously described as the "epitaph of film noir" (Schrader 1972: 61), has tended to be no different in perpetuating this apparent domination of the image. In this article, I will identify Welles' auditory strategies through a discussion of their formal characteristics and then examine how they elucidate the film's narrative and thematic concerns.

When film sound is discussed, it is most often referred to in terms of what it adds to the image, so my comments in this essay regarding the film's visual qualities will be purposefully limited in order to counteract this tendency in film scholarship. Aside from innovative and detailed work by Rick Altman and Michel Chion,1 the vocabulary of sound theory is not as established as the accepted visual terminology of cinematic discourse. This perhaps suggests that our auditory imaginations are not as well developed with regard to filmic technique. Chion argues that one of the reasons for this is that sound has no audio unit comparable to the specifically cinematic unit of the visual "shot." Instead, the listener has to break a film text down into elements of everyday experience such as verbal sentences, musical themes, and individual noises (Chion 1994: 45). Therefore sound will remain perceived as secondary to the image even though it is audio, to a considerable degree, which gives the cinema's large flat screen its three-dimensionality by way of the illusory audiovisual contract with the spectator.2

Touch of Evil is a heated crime noir story of police corruption and murder set against the seedy backdrop of a fictitious Mexican American border town called Los Robles. After a car bomb kills an influential local businessman and his young girlfriend, newlyweds Mike (a Mexican narcotics enforcement official played by Charlton Heston) and Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh) become embroiled in a furious chain of events that leads Mike into a direct confrontation with the town's morally and physically grotesque police captain, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles).

The main obstacle in building a consistent discourse on Touch of Evil is that there are three versions presently available; the original theatrical release, the "preview version" discovered deep inside the Universal archives in 1975, and the 1998 "restored cut" produced by Rick Schmidlin and re-edited by Walter Murch following notes made by Welles in his now legendary 58-page memo. The document was written after Universal had dismissed Welles from post-production but was contractually obliged to show the director a studio-approved assembly of his footage — for a single screening. The version I have chosen to focus on is the 1998 re-edit because, though not a complete director's cut, it is the closest to Welles' intentions for the film.3 For this important restoration, Murch was able to obtain an original monaural optical print that had been created from a magnetic mix consisting of three separate tracks: music, dialogue, and sound effects (Murch 1998: 83-102). This simple component breakdown will inform the structure of my essay.

One of Welles' primary audio strategies in Touch of Evil is the use of acousmatic source music to create a sense of depth and perspective to articulate the fictional border town of Los Robles. After the brief overture accompanying the Universal logo, Welles makes extensive use of diegetic music (all compositions by Henry Mancini) from local bars, nightclubs, and car stereos as the camera weaves through the border town, switching perspective from the unidentified bomber onto the car as it steadily moves through the town, finally settling on Mike and Susan Vargas before the explosion.4 As Welles described in his memo, "Underscoring... is to be most sparingly used, and should never give a busy, elaborate, orchestrated effect. What we want is musical color rather than movement; sustained washes of sound rather than... melodramatic or operatic scoring" (Tully 1999). This multileveled mix of rock and roll and Latino dance numbers effectively comes to replace conventional "thriller" underscoring, and it is a full twenty minutes before the first non-diegetic music is used, occurring during a verbal confrontation between Vargas and Quinlan. The harmonics of these culturally distinct musical styles are clashed forcefully together to create a thematic foreshadowing of the divisive role that race will have in the story, whilst at the same time revealing the director's hyper-realist sensibility. Welles' technique — a kind of deep spatial and temporal focus — pursues realism only to exaggerate it and draw attention to itself as a filmic construct.

Welles familiarizes us with the geography of the town largely through source music. Los Robles is presented as a labyrinth, an inter-place where physical and moral borders are erased. There are few conventional transitions; scenes tend to leak into each other. However, the acoustic space is often divided within scenes, the music synchronously creating a sonic partition that is slowly erected as the narrative progresses. The breaking down of physical borders is, throughout the film, used as a metaphor for the moral crumbling of its protagonists. In the final sequence, Vargas and Menzies (Joseph Calleia) are required to lure Quinlan away from Tanya's (Marlene Dietrich) bordello in order to obtain a clean recording of his confession (because Quinlan would "never stand" for the music to be turned off). At the end, we are cut adrift from the music and lost geographically in a field of oil derricks indicating that each character is collapsing into their own moral abyss. The musical compositions gradually become leitmotifs assigned to a particular character or thematic idea. For example, the pianola theme is continuously linked to notions of nostalgia and usually precedes an appearance of Tanya — except when it is played in a modified form in the bar as the scheming Grandi feeds Quinlan shots of bourbon. The theme is reprised for a final time after Quinlan's death; as Tanya walks away into the night, it becomes a shatteringly poignant coronach for lost innocence.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Addendum to ENG 281 Syllabus

Addendum to ENG 281 Syllabus: You need to set up a blog on Blogger

The blog will be your online journal and you will post your responses to/analysis of the films you view.

Basic requirements for written responses for credit in the course:

1) Develop an understanding of the film's themes and/or meanings

2) Develop your critical perspective on/about the film

3) Frame your response around a specific point you would like to make, or theme you would like to discuss, or a particular scene/aspect/aesthetics of the film

4) Make sure to refer to the film and directly connect your argument to the film.

5) 300-500 words (but you can always feel free to write more). These responses can always serve as the basis for the longer essay assignment.

6) Give all film responses a title (feel free to be creative).

7) You are required to do 9 responses on films that are required viewing during the semester.

Grading of your film responses will consist of:

Credit = contains critical thought and a clear discussion of the film with a focused statement/analysis/argument

Revise = a good attempt, but some problems (which will be explained by the professor) that need to be addressed before you can receive credit -- you will be required to revises the response and repost it if you wish to receive credit

No Credit = sloppy writing (repetitive basic writing mistakes), failure to develop a clear statement/perspective in your response, lack of reflection on the film and/or no attempt to seriously address it.

During the semester there will be opportunities for extra credit. These are a list of the opportunities:

1) Any response beyond the required 9 responses on the required course films that is accepted for credit will be counted as extra-credit.

2) The films screened for the Fall 2012 Bluegrass Film Society
. Attend any film and write a response on your blog.

3) I will mention films that are screening in town from time-to-time if I think they are relevant to our course. I will also mention films on DVD that can be watched and responded to for extra credit.

You need to write a post on your blog (300-500 words) of your extra credit film response (make your title to the post like this: “Extra Credit: ‘title of the response’). Similar to the regular film responses, I will comment on the extra credit responses and state whether you will receive credit for it (see “no credit” description above for why you would not receive credit).

Each extra credit can count toward one point on your final grade, with up to 10 extra credit points possible.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Fall 2012 ENG 281 Course Blogs

Recommended Student Posts/Comments (rotating):

Jacob's Film Blog: Response to Hunger

Matthew on Movies: V for Vendetta -- Birth by Fire and Rain

Movie Blog: V for Vendetta Post

International Film Studies: Beginning Discussion on the British Film Institute's Global Poll of Critics and Filmmakers for a List of the Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time

Filmeter: Revolution: the right kind?

Course Weblogs:

Oi (Folsom) [1 response]

Sean Bolton's Blog (Bolton)

A Pop Culture Junkie's View on Film (Gray) [1 response]

Asynchronous Life (Barron) [1 response]

Film Blogs (Scott) [2 responses]

The Filmeter [3 responses] (Schroeder)

Movie Blog (Mangine) [1 response]

Movie Critiques (Greenhill) [1 response -- last read Fight Club]

English 281 (Mingua) [1 response]

Going to school, watching movies (Vaughn)

Looking for the Sun (Barnett)[2 Responses -- Last one top ten list]

Matthew on Movies (Harris) [2 Responses -- Last one was Lady Vengeance]

Gentlemans Quarterly 91 (Andrews) [2 responses]

ENG _281_Film_Blog (Watkins) [1 response -- last read V for Vendetta]

Jacob's Film Blog (Arnold) [3 responses -- Last read Pan's Labyrinth]

Foul Film Reviews (Decinque) [1 Response]

The Movie That You Thought You Saw That One Time (Diamond) [1 Response]

movie time (Edwards)

ZaneThinking [1 Response] (Salyers)

The Water Cooler (Valente-Johnson)

Fatty Soaps (Yates) [1 Response]
Hunger (Blakeman)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

ENG 281: Ist Week -- V for Vendetta

[Reminder: set up your own weblog for journal responses at Blogger; read the V for Vendetta handout; read the 1st chapter on "Authenticity" in the course text; and, if you choose to, post a response to this week's films and/or readings on your website. If you have immediate comments/questions about this week's films, about the course, about film and/or writing/thinking about film, you can write them in the comments to this post and I will reply asap]

V for Vendetta (USA/UK/Germany: James McTeigue, 2005: 132 mins)

"Another pro-terrorism film: V for Vendetta." The Anti-Jihad Pundit (March 22, 2006) [This is an anonymous rant that provides a lot of other anonymous rants -- I usually don't use unsubstantiated or unverifiable sources, but I felt that this one was a good example of extreme right-wing reactions to the film]

Beasley-Murray, Jon. "Vendetta." Posthegemony (April 2, 2006)

Boudreaux, Madelyn. "An Annotation of Literary, Historic, and Artistic References in Alan Moore's Graphic Novel, V For Vendetta." (April 27, 1994)

Call, Lewis. "A is for Anarchy, V is for Vendetta: Images of Guy Fawkes and the Creation of Postmodern Anarchism." Anarchist Studies 16: 2 (2008): 154 – 172.

Denby, David. "Blow Up: V for Vendetta." The New Yorker (March 20, 2006)

Faraci, Devin. "V for Vendetta is the Most Dangerous Film of the Year." CHUD (February 27, 2006)

Hoberman, J. "Anarchy in the U.K.: The Wachowski brothers' supremely tasteless take on a visionary 1980s graphic novel." Village Voice (March 7, 2006)

Images of the V for Vendatta mask across the world

Itzkoff, David. "The Vendetta Behind V for Vendetta." The New York Times (March 12, 2006)

Paik, Peter Y. Excerpt from From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010: 150-184. [Available in BCTC Library PN3433.6 P35 2010]

"They are Legion." Best of the Left (January 6, 2011) [Collection of media coverage of/statements by the group Anonymous -- Anonymous members don the V mask when they are in public -- for more articles/essays about Anonymous]

Williams, Tony. “Assessing V for Vendetta.” CineAction #70 (2006): 16-23. [Professor has copy of this]

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

James Mooney: "Epistemology: Dreams and Demons -- Abre los ojos (Open your eyes)"

Epistemology: Dreams and Demons -- Abre los ojos (Open your eyes)
by James Mooney
Film and Philosophy

My aim here is to examine the arguments of French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) through the contemporary viewfinder of Alejandro Amenábar’s Abre los Ojos (1997). The intention, however, is not to use the film as a mere vehicle for conveying Descartes’ thought, but rather to consider whether the particular context that Amenábar provides, and the nature of film itself, can enhance our understanding and and provide fresh insight into the issues that Descartes raises.

Descartes is writing at a time of scientific revolution and upheaval – many doctrines which have hitherto been accepted as most certain have been overturned and, as such, he is struck by the instability and unreliability of scientific ‘knowledge’. In his First Meditation, Descartes aims to sweep away all of his previously held opinions and start afresh. Descartes’ ‘method of doubt’ entails that if anything can be doubted, however slightly, then we are to treat it as if it is manifestly false and reject it outright. It is not, however, necessary that we subject each and every one of our opinions to this hyperbolic (exaggerated) doubt, as this would be a Sisyphean task. Rather, Descartes aims to test the ‘foundations’ of what we claim to know – ‘as the removal from below of the foundation necessarily involves the downfall of the whole edifice’.

Descartes’ claim is that one of these foundations is the senses – that is to say, if we can cast any doubt whatsoever on the reliability of the senses then we should reject as false whatever we learn from them:

All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.

After briefly considering optical illusions and madness, Descartes goes on to provide one of the most famous arguments in philosophy: the dream hypothesis. What Descartes hopes to establish via this argument is that, given any particular experience, we can never know that that experience is not a dream.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Owen Weetch: Prometheus

by Owen Weetch
Alternate Takes

Prometheus renegotiates the events in the Alien franchise, presenting a creation myth that interweaves the birth of the xenomorph with the evolution of humankind. This piece will explore how this creation narrative moves Prometheus away from the horror conventions in which the original Alien (1979) traded. I’ll also consider my own negative response to what is admittedly an adequately constructed and beautiful-looking science-fiction adventure film. I think this might not be solely down the filmmakers’ failure to meet my own (probably unfair) expectations: it might also have something to do with the different industrial practices of 1979 and 2012, and the pressures that today’s filmmakers face when blockbusters are constructed a priori to be part of a franchise.

Both commercial demand and fandom culture have clearly influenced the production of Prometheus, and the curious intertwining of these two pressures is symptomatic of wider industrial trends. When The Avengers was released earlier this year, ‘Drew McWeeny’ wrote a piece called ‘The Bigger Picture: Muppets, Avengers, and Life in the Age of Fanfiction’, in which he opined that these films are indicative of a systematic shift in Hollywood: “we seem to have handed over our entire industry to the creation of fanfiction on a corporate level, and at this point, I'm not sure how we're expecting the pendulum to ever swing back.” Not to do a discredit to fanfiction as a whole, but it is interesting to note that the most financially successful mainstream blockbusters of this year, such as The Avengers and The Muppets, are essentially the results of what happens when creators finally ‘get their hands’ on the properties that they loved from their youth. New instalments in franchises are now produced by those who cut their imaginative teeth watching the earlier instalments, and function as articulations to a mass audience as to why the property deserves that audience.

Prometheus is no different. While directed by Ridley Scott, it was written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, both whippersnappers when the first film was released. Their previous work - much of it in the science-fiction thriller genre - suggests the influence of Scott’s cinema, and they have now been charged with creating something new out of the pre-existing Alien property. As Spaihts and Lindelof admit in this fascinating interview, “There’s a cult of existing intellectual property in town.” The mysteries of the original Alien are thus investigated and accounted for by imaginations sparked by that very film, so that the latest movie seems guilty of tracing over its originator rather than expanding upon it.

The xenomorph in the 1979 film was indeed a fundamentally alien presence, unpredictable and unknowable; the Weyland-Yutani corporation was hubristic and imbecilic to think that they could harness it as something as crassly utilitarian as a bio-weapon. In Prometheus, we are informed that this alien was actually created as a bio weapon in the first place, making it little more than sentient pesticide. The entity that many have referred to in the first film as the ‘Space Jockey’ is similarly reduced: when Dallas, Lambert and Kane stumbled upon its inter-galaxial dirigible in Alien, the corpse they discovered within was an unfathomable portent, a giant simultaneously elephantine and deific. Here, it’s an etiolated bodybuilder man in a nappy. What’s more, his narrative simply repeats that of the franchise’s human characters, so that the series folds in on itself: ‘The Engineer’ is a cryosleeper who fell foul of the things he created, just as the crew of the Nostromo fell foul to Ash, the android, and in just the same way as the scientists aboard the Prometheus are (along with many audience members) unable to work out just what in blinking hell it is that David is up to.

There is the counter-argument that this objection is churlish, that one shouldn’t criticise a film for not being another film. Furthermore, perhaps these riffs on the original are meant as rhymes and resonances, intended to be expressive in their allusion. In the above interview Lindelof says that Scott is, “very interested in ambiguous sci-fi, or think-piece sci-fi, where all of the dots are not connected for you” and Spaihts observes that “there’s an art to leaving yourself open.” The original film is a prime example of this because its chthonic weirdness is readable in other terms than those that Prometheus prescribes.

While the first film hints at investigations of sexuality, capitalism and humanity’s place in the universe, it never provides any answers. Nor does it presume to ‘ask questions’ as such, which would imply the possibility that they be answered. Prometheus, however, not only keeps shouting at you through a foghorn every step of the way that it’s asking you big and highly important questions about the provenance of humankind, but its evocative title functions as both a question and an instruction manual on how to answer that very question.

In fact, the title is worth further consideration in relation to its forebears. Each of titles in the series is telling, in terms of both the respective films’ concepts and expressive qualities: Alien is a noun and an adjective, referring to not only the threat but also the investigation into its otherness; Aliens (1986) removes the adjective and rams the plural down our throats, anxious like that movie’s frantic marines to descend into furious shock and awe; Alien 3 (1992) betrays both Ripley and the filmmakers’ resignation to the creature’s self-perpetuity, an absurd hopelessness that sowed the franchise’s end; Alien Resurrection (1997) is a title that sounds pretty cool but doesn’t really make much sense if you think about it in terms of the other ones; and Prometheus is a portentous-sounding proper noun that refers to something which isn’t technically in the film. Lindelof has stated in interviews, “part of the fun of the movie is understanding exactly why we called it Prometheus. And also, it sounds really pretentious […] so we were just like, 'Yeah, that makes the movie sound really smart!'” Blog writer Cavalorn here unpacks the title’s allusions to come up with an interpretation that is in many ways more exciting than the film itself.

The intended ‘ambiguity’ of the whole enterprise is further compromised by other agendas: the filmmakers have stated that they had to bow to commercial pressures in order to provide a film that also functions as an entertainment. In this interview Scott acknowledges that with such a large budget there is a pressure to provide entertainment as well as explore the weighty issues in which the film trades, and that he feels his job is to make sure the film is at the least “communicating.” Lindelof’s comments elsewhere are also telling, and highly indicative of the results that this had on the film, when he says things like: “Just when the movie is getting lost in its own sense of importance, then the fuse gets lit, and you’re like, ‘Well those questions are going to have to wait for another time because now we’re in survivor mode.’” Prometheus polarises ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’, seeing the former as self-important and laborious. The result is an oddly staccato experience: a film always in two minds as to what it should be doing at any particular moment, so that it ends up doing little convincing of either.

To Access the Rest of the Essay and Hyperlinked Resources

Friday, August 10, 2012

Carl Freedman: Hobbes After Marx, Scorsese After Coppola -- On GoodFellas

Hobbes After Marx, Scorsese After Coppola: On GoodFellas
by Carl Freedman
Originally published in Film International 9.1 (2011): 42-62.

From Coppola to Scorsese

GoodFellas--which I take to be the absolute summit of Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking career, surpassing even Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976),Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Age of Innocence (1993), Casino (1995), and Bringing Out the Dead (1999) among his other strongest works--came out in 1990, the same year as the final third of Francis Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. Though the timing is almost certainly a co-incidence, it is a highly appropriate one. For Scorsese’s film of 1990 is, like Coppola’s, defined--though of course it is much less obviously or directly defined--by the first two installments of the Godfather series. This is not to deny that some of the seeds of GoodFellas can be found in Scorsese’s earlier work and also, for that matter, in films by other directors as well. Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), in which James Cagney’s character is clearly the direct model for Joe Pesci’s in GoodFellas (and also for Pesci’s character in Casino), is one especially pertinent example. But GoodFellas is a mob movie in a way and to a degree that White Heat and even Mean Streets are not, and, indeed, that hardly any really first-rate Hollywood film before The Godfather (1972) is. In White Heat, for example, there is no real “mob,” no large-scale criminal organization--just a small, mobile band of robbers. As for Mean Streets, most of its action (like some of the action of Raging Bull) takes place on the fringes of the Mafia. But the inner workings of organized crime are incidental--not, as in the genuine mob movie, central--to the film’s narrative and character development. Indeed, Coppola’s overwhelming success has made it easy to forget that, prior to 1972, the mob movie was a relatively minor genre. It had a certain presence in the Hollywood repertoire, but had never attained the kind of major success enjoyed by the Western or by film noir. As a matter of fact, the genre’s relatively undistinguished history helped to make for considerable studio resistance, at first, to turning Mario Puzo’s novel into a big-budget film.

The Godfather and its immediate sequel, The Godfather, Part Two (1974), changed all that, of course; and by 1990 the pre-eminence of Coppola’s masterpieces within the genre of the mob film was incontestable (though Brian De Palma had made an important contribution to the form with Scarface [1983]--a remake vastly superior to Howard Hawks’s 1932 film of the same name--as had Sergio Leone with Once Upon a Time in America [1984]). The best way, I think, to understand GoodFellas is to see it as the only successful attempt to make a mob movie of stature truly comparable to that of the Godfather films: and, moreover, one that understands that it would have been quite impossible to rival Coppola’s work by attempting anything profoundly similar to it. Samuel Beckett famously maintained that James Joyce had written literature that expanded the resources of language to the utmost, beyond what any other author could hope to do; and that, therefore, the only way to follow Joyce’s incomparable achievement was to go in the exactly opposite direction and to contract language to the maximum extent feasible. In somewhat the same way, Scorsese (whether with full self-consciousness or not) implicitly offers to rival Coppola by making a mob movie that is as much opposed as possible to the Godfather films.1 Scorsese himself has, in fact, more than once seemed to imply as much.

In the following pages I will keep the antithetical precedent of the Godfather trilogy steadily in view as I analyze what seem to me the three most important aspects of the mob lifeworld as represented by GoodFellas: the essentially proletarian nature of the stratum of the Mafia inhabited by the film’s characters, where the rewards of crime generally turn out to be considerably more meager than they may at first seem; the Hobbesian near-anarchy of violence, fear, and insecurity that characterizes everyday life in this proletarian stratum of the mob; and the attendant solitariness in which the characters of GoodFellas necessarily live.

The View from the Mafia’s Factory Floor

Perhaps the most obvious way that GoodFellas adopts a strategy opposite to that of the Godfather films concerns the radically different coigns of vantage from which the two filmmakers examine the workings of the Mafia. Coppola’s interest is almost entirely in top management: the Corleones themselves are the main examples, of course, but other examples include such secondary characters as the Tattaglias (the Corleones’ arch-rivals in New York in the first film), Virgil “the Turk” Sollozzo, Moe Greene, Don Barzini, Don Tommasino (Michael’s protector in Sicilian exile in the first film, who returns in the third), Hyman Roth, Frankie Pentangeli, and, in the third film, Don Altobello and Don Lucchesi. Such ruling-class types prefer to conduct business in private, and the spaces most prominently featured in the Godfather films are indeed private ones: especially fortress-like mansions, but also the offices, suites, and conference rooms of the mighty. In few respects is Coppola’s trilogy more profoundly a saga of American big business from the perspective of the boardroom than in the rigorous separation it observes between the machinations of the top bosses and the actual work on which all the wealth of the enterprise ultimately depends. Don Vito Corleone’s fortune is based primarily on businesses like bootlegging and illegal gambling; but never do we see a bet taken or a drink served. Coppola’s interest in the Mafia is macroeconomic (and macropolitical). GoodFellas, by contrast, is very much a street-level film, with a keen interest in the microeconomics of organized crime.3 Much of the action takes place literally on the streets of New York City (mainly the unfashionable borough of Queens), and most of the rest is set in places like bars, inexpensive restaurants, airports, and prisons: all public spaces in which privacy is at a minimum. The highest-ranking Mafia executive in the movie is Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), a mere neighborhood boss who, on a hypothetical organization chart of the mob, would surely be placed at least two or three levels below Michael Corleone; and even he is a secondary character. The protagonist is one Henry Hill (based on an actual person of the same name and played by Ray Liotta as an adult, by Christopher Serrone as a youngster), a proletarian type who, far from being born into Mafia aristocracy, is not even born into the Mafia at all. Coming from working-class poverty in a mixed Irish-Italian family, Henry as a child just happens to live across the street from a cabstand and a pizzeria that function as mob fronts and hang-outs for lower-level Mafiosi. Observing the goings-on there from his parents’ front window, Henry aspires to what he imagines to be the free, easy, and glamorous life of the mobsters: “I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double-parked in front of a hydrant, and nobody ever gave them a ticket. In the summer, when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.” It is striking how pathetically modest are these examples of privilege, cited by Henry in voice-over, that convince him that being a gangster is somehow “better than being President of the United States.” As a schoolboy, he crosses the street to join the mob at the lowest possible level--doing such odd jobs as parking cars, serving food, and delivering messages--and gradually works his way up to modest success as the owner of a mob-connected restaurant and, later, as a dealer in cocaine.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Steven Benedict: The Techniques and Themes of Steven Spielberg

[via Film Studies for Free]

The Techniques and Themes of Steven Spielberg from Steven Benedict on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

James Zborowski: The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises
by James Zborowski
Alternate Takes


Near the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, we learn that we are rejoining Gotham City’s storyworld eight years after the events shown in The Dark Knight (meaning that roughly twice as much time has elapsed in the world on that side of the screen as in the one on this). At the end of that film, we saw Batman (Christian Bale) vow to Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) that he would take the blame for the murders committed by Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the city’s one-time ‘White Knight’ politician driven to the dark side by the Joker (Heath Ledger). Here is Batman’s justification for what he proposes:

‘They must never know what he did. Gotham needs its true hero. You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. I can do those things, because I’m not a hero, not like Dent. I killed those people. That’s what I can be. [...] Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.’

In a recent feature published on this site, John Bleasdale suggests that superhero movies ‘are almost fundamentally bound to be mendacious and reactionary.’ He cites the conclusion of The Dark Knight as ‘evidence [of] a distrust in society’:

‘In The Dark Knight, Batman conspires with Commissioner Gordon to cover up Harvey Dent’s crime, laying the blame on Batman. Why? Because the people need to be protected from the truth, we are solemnly told in the film’s final moments, via a child. But, again, why?’

One way of answering this question is provided by an intriguing recent book written by Robert B Pippin, a professor of philosophy, entitled Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy. One of the films that Pippin examines is John Ford’s great Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). In that film, John Wayne’s cowboy character Tom Doniphon shoots dead the murderous dandy Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), but he lets the world believe that Eastern lawyer Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) was the man who fired the fatal bullet. Ranse learns the truth shortly after the event but, with a little convincing from Tom, goes along with the story (which becomes a legend), and builds a long and successful political career on the basis of his false reputation as the man who shot Liberty Valance. When, towards the end of the film, Ranse tells the truth to the reporters at the newspaper of the town where the events occurred, the editor decides to consign the notes to the flames. Like Batman, he offers words that suggest, somewhat cryptically, what value there might be in perpetuating an untruth: ‘This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’

Pippin’s interpretation of Liberty Valance is conscious of the fact that in most Westerns (and arguably, all great Westerns), what is at stake is never simply violence, but the meaning of violence - which is rarely simple. More important than the fact of Liberty Valance’s death is the meaning of this fact, which depends crucially on who killed him. By posing as the man who shot Liberty Valance, Ranse appears to synthesise two sets of qualities which are seen as valuable, but which are rarely found together in one person. As Dutton Peabody, Ranse’s most eloquent advocate at a political rally, tells the gathered crowd:

“He is a man who came to us not packing a gun, but carrying instead a bag of law books. Yes! He is a lawyer. And a teacher! The first west of the rosy buttes. But more important! He is a man who has come to be known throughout this territory, in the last few weeks, as a great champion of law and order!”

We see a similar thing going on in relation to Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight when (in a slightly hokey passage) he disarms a man who has managed to smuggle a gun into a criminal trial and barely stops to draw breath before continuing his display of legal brilliance. As Richard Dyer’s foundational work on film stardom demonstrates, the near-‘magical’ synthesis of the contradictory demands of a given culture is one very compelling way of explaining that elusive phenomenon called ‘charisma’.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the death of Valance (or perhaps one should say, of Liberty) is shown to pave the way for the establishment of the rule of law and order, creating, eventually, a clean and prosperous town where, to quote another classical Hollywood Western, to which we shall return, a decent woman feels safe walking down the street. Robert Pippin has this to say about why it is crucial that it be believed that Liberty Valance was killed not by tough, self-reliant Westerner Tom Doniphon but Eastern attorney-at-law Ransom Stoddard:

‘A victory over Liberty Valance […] by Tom Doniphon would be just one more episode in a cycle of violence, revenge and intimidation. Valance must be killed by a representative of a new order; his death must mean that. So since Tom is unseen and quickly vanishes, everybody can think that Ransom Stoddard killed Valance and so can distinguish this act of violence from a personal one by associating it with Ranse’s ideals, can believe that the rule of law and democracy triumphed. Violence before there is law is unavoidably lawless, but if it is for the sake of law the paradox can be lessened if not eliminated.’

The legend of the man who shot Liberty Valance is used to help found a community based on values of property ownership, rule by law, and so on. Returning to The Dark Knight Rises: what is the legend of Harvey Dent used for? During Commissioner Gordon’s speech to mark ‘Harvey Dent Day’ (a public holiday - for Gotham City at least) he makes reference to the ‘Harvey Dent Act’. Although the details of this piece of legislation are never clarified, what does become clear is that it has extended the powers of the police, and been instrumental in ‘cleaning up the streets’ of Gotham. That is, this particular ‘champion of law and order’ is being used to shore up not liberal democracy, but something edging towards a police state.

The film’s attitude towards this (as towards many other things) is not one hundred per cent clear. Gary Oldman’s Gordon is unfailingly dignified, and his competence and fairness make it virtually impossible to imagine him arresting an innocent person. He expresses misgivings over his actions, but these misgivings seem to relate more to the lie behind the Harvey Dent Act, rather than what the Act has achieved. An analogous problem underpins another moment in the film, when Bruce attempts to justify his holding of extra-legal supergadgets and his withholding of them from others by declaring that ‘one man’s tool is another man’s weapon’. In both cases, the characters seem to believe that it is OK that these laws or weapons of mass destruction exist, as long as you have the right people in charge of them. Or the right country, perhaps: in this attitude to jurisdiction and weaponry, we can see an echo of American exceptionalism. It is a viewpoint that the film does not distance itself from, and therefore might be taken to tacitly endorse.

To Read the Rest of the Essay