May 29, 2009

Scene of the Day: Annie Hall

As of 1977, filmgoers had seen no less than ten years of Woody Allen's wacky comedies on film, but "Annie Hall" was probably the first time they saw his famously neurotic onscreen persona. In one scene of "Annie Hall," Allen (as Alvy Singer) complains to his friend, Rob (Tony Roberts), about the antisemitic comments he sometimes thinks he hears people mutter to him. Watch this hilarious scene with me now.


May 27, 2009

Random Musing: Pauline Kael/One-Minute Reviews

For some time now, I have been wanting to update my blog with a third sidebar. At first, about a year ago, I was intending to fill it with more advertisements, widgets, etc. However, at the end of this past January, during my independent study on film reviewing, I picked up "5001 Nights at the Movies" (for the Google Books version, click here) by former long-running "New Yorker" film critic, Pauline Kael. It changed a good number of things about the way I review. I was particularly impressed by Kael's (very) opinionated, sardonic writing style. Considering that I was studying my own writing and comparing it to the work of others, I found Kael far more "active" and unabashed in her criticism compared to the times I used to go "passive" in my reviews. She was a true critic, in every sense of the word, and she inspired me, though she has been deceased since 2001, to be a better critic. Therefore, yesterday I (with the invaluable help of Mr. Nathan Skky--to whom HUGE SPECIAL THANKS is due) added the third column, called "One-Minute Reviews," and I dedicate it to Ms. Pauline Kael, whose "5001 Nights at the Movies," culled from her writings for the "Goings on About Town" section of the "New Yorker," first introduced me to her and inspired me way back in January...

For those of you unfamiliar with "5001 Nights at the Movies," perhaps Kael's most famous anthology of her criticism, it collects shorter, more concise "write-up" reviews from her career. By "write-up," I essentially mean a review, of no more than a paragraph, that is intended for a sort of "what you should see" column. These "write-ups" can be read quickly, and Kael's best ones are those that economically summarize and criticize.

Fastforward to four days ago. I decided after seeing "Sordid Lives" that I wanted to make it my next full review, especially because of the ambivalent reviews floating around on the internet (though I loved it!), but I was having trouble making it work. I ultimately abandoned it. However, after seeing "A Place in the Sun" on Monday and seeing the overwhelmingly positive response to it (while mine was, at best, ambivalent), I decided I, as a responsible film critic, had to publish a review, as well as one for "Sordid Lives." Then, I remembered how much I had loved "5001 Nights at the Movies" and how it had ameliorated me as a film critic. I knew at that moment that I had to bring back to the blog my idea of a third column. I also knew that it would showcase what I would call "One-Minute Reviews," a collection of—well, you get the picture. But these would not be like my other reviews, just as Kael's reviews in "5001" are not like her others. These reviews would be critical, concise, and, above all, quick reads, in order to provide you, my dear reader, with more reviews and faster so you know just what to watch.

As a bonus, you will notice that if you click on any review in the accessible sidebar on the right column, you will be given the option, within the column, to also comment. Sounds easy? It is! Feel free to leave any feedback on the films reviewed, just as you do for the longer reviews!

Finally, just for kicks, I have noticed a certain coincidence for my blog. Its births and anniversaries all happen on the 26th of a given month: I created the blog on March 26, 2008, I officially debuted its new name (and celebrated its one-year anniversary) on March 26, 2009, and now, I have debuted the BRAND NEW third column with its "One-Minute Reviews" on May 26, 2009. I am proud to bring you them and hope to keep them frequently updated. Enjoy.

(NOTE: If you want to access the "One-Minute Reviews" alone, then feel free to go straight here. However, it is not necessary, as they are still entirely accessible on the main site.)


May 26, 2009

Scene of the Day: The Grapes of Wrath

The "scene of the day" comes from John Ford's 1940 masterpiece, "The Grapes of Wrath," a close adaptation of John Steinbeck's 1939 novel. When the Joads finally arrive in California and find their first Hooverville, a point-of-view tracking shot bleakly reveals the poverty and weariness surrounding them. This powerful shot, one of my favorites on film, has a documentary sensibility that seems to authenticate this cinematic story of the Great Depression. Watch it with me now.

NOTE: Unfortunately, I could not find a better clip on YouTube than the one I am posting. (The film is unavailable.) Watch this clip only from 2:08 to 2:16, and do not turn the sound on, please. I have not listened to this review, so I cannot say that it is my own opinion nor that I agree with it. I simply want you to get an image of the "scene of the day."


Song of the Day: I'll Never Fall in Love Again

"I'll Never Fall In Love Again" is a song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, originally written for the 1968 musical "Promises, Promises" and originally recorded as a pop song for Bacharach. Though not written specifically for a film, in 1999, the song re-appeared in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" performed by Elvis Costello and Bacharach while Austin (Mike Myers) and secret agent Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham) dance on the sidewalk. For some reason, this tune just so happened to be stuck in my head, so I thought I would share it with you, my dear readers. Enjoy.


Quote of the Day: Pee-Wee's Big Adventure

"I know, you're right, but..." ~ Diane Salinger as Simone

"But what? Everyone I know has a big but. C'mon, Simone, let's talk about your big but." ~ Paul Reubens as childlike Pee-Wee Herman from Tim Burton's directorial debut, "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure"

*see it at the 8:04 mark*


May 23, 2009

Random Musing/Song of the Day: In the Deep

"In the Deep" is a touching song written and performed by Bird York, which appears in the 2005 Best Picture, "Crash," and which was nominated for the Oscar for "Best Original Song" (and unfortunately lost to the underdog "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from "Hustle and Flow"). Interestingly enough, Wikipedia informs me...

There was some question as to the song's eligibility, as it had appeared in the film "The Civilization of Maxwell Bright" as well as [Bird York's album] "The Velvet Hour," both of which were released before "Crash." However, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences determined that the song had been commissioned in 2001 or 2002 by "Crash" director Paul Haggis for use in the film, prior to its other uses; thus, it was eligible. This was likely a precedent for 2006 "Best Original Song" winner "Falling Slowly," which was also used in other media before the film it was commissioned for, "Once," was released.
This brings me to another interesting point: "Falling Slowly." Yes, I ranted about its ineligibility once, but I see how Bird York's eligibility (at least under the Academy's conditions) would serve as a "precedent." However, I now do not see "In the Deep" as eligible for "Best Original Song" because it, in fact, is apparently not as "original" as I thought. Even if Haggis had commissioned the song before its uses in other films and media, it still doesn't make the song any more "original" (read: first, new) three uses later. But oh, well.

Anyway, I did not post this song as "Song of the Day" in order to tear it to shreds, so I will leave you with it. Every time I hear it, I get chills because it is so haunting. York's hypnotic vocals and the mellow instruments in the background are enchanting and perfect for the scene in "Crash" in which they appear—the scene that unites everyone. Enjoy. (I was unable to embed this scene into my blog, but to watch it, simply click here).

UPDATE (5/23/09, 4:01 PM CST): I just received a kind note from the Webmaster of! (This is a first!) Here it is:
Ben -

Thank you for your lovely comments on Bird's song IN THE DEEP. While Wiki is not completely inaccurate - it isn't exactly completely accurate regarding the origins of the song and the eligibility, either. However, that's not really why I'm dropping this line.

Your comments regarding the effect of the song are eloquent and heartfelt, and much appreciated. Thank you for taking time to highlight her work in your blog. I'm going to pass it along to her, as I know how much it will mean that it's still out there making ripples and people care enough to pass it along.

Best Regards,
I think it is interesting that both of us, the Webmaster and I, find the song's Oscar appeal noteworthy, but, in the end, we still come back to the effect of the song itself: pure magic. "In the Deep" is truly one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, and it continues to give me chills every time. Coupled with the footage from "Crash," it will certainly chill you (in a good way), too.


Quote of the Day: Airplane!

"Surely, you can't be serious!" ~ Robert Hays as Ted Striker

"I am serious... And don't call me 'Shirley.'" ~ Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Rumack in the hilarious disaster film spoof, "Airplane!"

*see it at the :09 mark*


Song of the Day: This Used to Be My Playground

For some reason, I was just thinking of this song. "This Used to Be My Playground," which plays over the closing credits of Penny Marshall's 1992 film, "A League of Their Own," is a beautiful song written by Madonna and Shep Pettibone and, notably, the song that introduced me, way back in the day, to Madonna, my favorite singer. (I have a lot of connection to this song besides Madonna, though.) I have a great deal of attachment to the film "A League of Their Own," in general, because a good portion of it was filmed in and around my childhood hometowns of Evansville, Indiana and Henderson, Kentucky. Indeed, as Wikipedia notes:

Many game scenes were filmed at Bosse Field in Evansville, Indiana. It is the nation's third oldest ball park (and the oldest minor league ball park), and was depicted as the home of the Racine Belles. The Soaper-Esser house (built 1884-87) in which the women lived is located at 612 North Main Street in Henderson, Kentucky, and is on the historic register. The roadhouse scenes were filmed at the Hornville Tavern (2607 Baseline Rd.) in Evansville, Indiana.
Therefore, because of the nostalgic connection between my childhood and "A League of Their Own," I also have a sentimental attachment to "This Used to Be My Playground," which continues to give me chills when I listen to it.

Listen to it with me now. (I could not find the closing credits of "A League of Their Own" on YouTube, but I found Madonna's music video, which features clips from the film.)


May 20, 2009

Random Musing: Meeting Oscar

...John Ford's third, that is. Yesterday, at Indiana University's Lilly Library, I stood one foot from it. Only a glass barrier stood between me and it, this "golden boy." Before yesterday, I had never actually seen an Oscar in person. Can you believe it? For about four years now, I have been obsessed with the Oscars, stuffing my memory to capacity with its winners and nominees, and I have never once seen an Oscar in real life. But yesterday, I became blessed enough to see what this hunk of metal—the ambition of thousands of actors, directors, producers, and others—is really like. It is as beautiful in person, I promise you. It was so beautiful that I could not take my eyes off of it. It is a moment I will never forget...

In 1941, John Ford won his third "Best Director" Oscar for "How Green Was My Valley" (following 1935's "The Informer" and 1940's "The Grapes of Wrath"). Ford won one other "Best Director" Oscar for 1952's "The Quiet Man."

Indiana University's Lilly Library is also the home to John Ford's second "Best Director" Oscar, as well as many other Hollywood treasures (including Rita Hayword's makeup case and personal articles and drafts of original screenplays, including those of the Garbo vehicle, "Anna Christie" (1930), the first "Best Picture" Oscar-winner, "Wings" (1927), and the first American "talkie," "The Jazz Singer" (1927)).


Song of the Day: Into the West

A beautiful, touching song, "Into the West" was written by Fran Walsh, Howard Shore and Annie Lennox and sung by the latter, the former frontwoman of 80s pop/rock duo Eurythmics, over the closing credits of "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King." According to Wikipedia:

The song was conceived as a bittersweet Elvish lament sung by Galadriel for those who have sailed across the Sundering Sea. Several phrases from the song are taken from the last chapter of "The Return of the King." In the commentaries and documentaries accompanying the extended DVD edition of the movie, director Peter Jackson explains that the song was partially inspired by the premature death from cancer of young New Zealand filmmaker Cameron Duncan, whose work had impressed Jackson and his team. The first public performance of the song was at Duncan's funeral.
"Into the West" won the Oscar for "Best Original Song" in 2003, one of the record-tying eleven Oscars ("Ben-Hur," "Titanic") won by "The Return of the King." Instead of leaving you with a clip from the film's closing credits, I shall post Annie Lennox's performance from the 76th Academy Awards ceremony.

Watch it with me now.


May 19, 2009

Quote of the Day: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

"That doesn't make sense to me, but then, you are very small..." ~ John Rhys-Davies as confused Treebeard the Ent, an eternal shepherd of Fangorn Forest, in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"

*find it at the 3:24 mark*


May 18, 2009

Random Musing: Anna Karenina (1935)

“Conducting” Anna’s Death: The Climactic Train Scene in “Anna Karenina” (1935)

Clarence Brown’s 1935 Hollywood adaptation of “Anna Karenina,” starring Greta Garbo, ignores the novelistic implications of Anna’s death by instating a new reason—as film scholar Irina Makoveeva indicates (pg. 56), “it is because of her unwillingness to free Vronsky the officer.” Anna’s death is, then, because of her attempt to defy patriarchal order. Therefore, as she watches Vronsky depart the train station for the Serbian War, she is wearing all black, a significant marker of death, hers being impending because of the “rules” of the “adultery myth” and because of her transgression against patriarchal order. In fact, it seems that in the way the train that takes Anna’s life is a force that is conducted, the train scene at the end of her life is also “conducted” by the score and sound effects (in conjunction with editing, framing, and performance). In essence, the tapping of the railway worker’s hammer puts him in control of the tempo of the music and the editing, so he is like the “conductor” of the cinematic “orchestra” leading to Anna’s demise. Thus, his role as the “musical conductor” fulfills the omen early in the novel (and film) that the railway worker’s death foreshadows Anna’s similar death. Basically, Anna’s “conducted” death, the film implies, is a result of forces far more powerful than her.

The climactic train scene takes place late one evening while Anna sits alone in the station, a small figure in the foreground while the omnipotent train stretches across the background. It is at this point that viewers recognize how insignificant Anna is in comparison to the huge train that will engineer her doom. Meanwhile, a railway worker taps the wheels and hitches of the train to check their soundness. Harp music plays non-diegetically, a sound that generally indicates something strange is “in the air.” In addition, it could be interpreted as “warming up” or “tuning,” as in the harps are preparing to begin the “orchestral movement” that will culminate abruptly with Anna’s impending death. The next shot is a medium one of Anna sitting expressionless listening to the hammering of the railway worker, which could be interpreted as the “conductor tapping his baton,” readying the “orchestra.” Anna’s eyes dash to the off-screen right, and viewers get a point-of-view shot as she studies the railway worker continuing his work on the train. The reaction shot is a medium-long shot of Anna still watching, her curiosity piqued. She slowly rises and walks towards the railway worker while a tracking shot follows her. In the score, the strings have been joined by trumpets, which have entered with steady quarter notes to signify the growing tension. The music begins to speed up as Anna goes to her mark on the platform. Another medium-long shot reveals the railway worker walking briskly around the train, continuing to tap the wheels and hitches, “keeping time,” while Anna looks down into the space between the two cars at which he had originally been standing. The next shot is a medium-close-up, point-of-view shot of that space—smoke billows out from under the car while the train whistles and the bell clings off-screen. The bell not only signifies the beginning of the train’s movement but also denotes the beginning of the next “musical movement” that will culminate with Anna’s demise. The next shot is of Anna peering down into the hole with her eyes betraying a look of desire. The music is continuing to speed up. From here, crosscutting reveals the train starting to move—a close-up shot shows the whistle going off again, and another close-up shows the train conductor’s hand moving. In fact, the conductor himself is basically anonymous—the conductor’s hand might as well be “the hand of fate” in action. The camera returns to a close-up of the train’s wheels continuing to move. The music is beginning to grow louder and louder as the wheels chug along, and the railway worker—the “conductor”—clanks steadily faster and faster off-screen, accelerating the tempo. The purpose of the speed is to underline how overwhelming and inescapable Anna’s fate is. The trumpets’ musical triplets, which, in effect, imitate the circular nature of the train wheels turning and, thus, the inevitability of Anna’s fate, are also growing louder in pitch and faster in tempo. Anna watches the wheels go around and around as the railway worker’s “conducting” makes the music and the crosscutting between the images of Anna and the wheels on the tracks grow ever faster. The music continues accelerating thanks to the tempo of the railway worker’s quickening hammering, and finally, a medium shot lingers on Anna as she suddenly leaps under the train in the off-screen right. The instruments in the score, especially the trumpets, sustain a screeching whole note during Anna’s leap—a sound that sustains the shock of the moment for audiences. Just as quickly as they built, the music and the rapid editing disappear immediately afterward, and the clanging ends abruptly with a different tone, as though the “conductor” has signaled the “orchestra” to stop with the sound of a dropped “baton” or “drumstick” (being that his hammer sounds more like that of a drummer’s stick than that of a baton, although the maestro uses a baton in his conduction). The scene concludes with the illuminated train chugging quietly into the night accompanied only by the sound of its whistle.

The tension built by the combination of music and sound effects (along with editing, framing, and performance) has done its job to see that Anna goes under the train to her fate. The railway worker, whose death foreshadows Anna’s death in Tolstoy’s novel, plays the role of “conductor,” ironically “conducting” the tempo of the score that will reflect the tension building until Anna’s death, just like a train conductor takes control of the train under which Anna’s life will be extinguished. In addition, everything about the train implies the idea of fate—for example, the anonymous hand of the conductor symbolizes “the hand of fate,” mapping the destiny of Anna the adulteress. Also, as the sound of the railway worker’s off-screen hammering “conducts” the tempo for the score, the repeated triplets of the trumpets reveal circularity much like the turning of wheels and indicate a propensity toward destiny. Therefore, the film’s score at the climactic train scene—a force greater than Anna, especially because it is external and off-screen—“orchestrates” the adulteress’ inevitable death.


May 17, 2009

Quote of the Day: Funny Girl

"Hello, gorgeous." ~ Barbra Streisand as endearing, effervescent comedienne Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl"

*see it at the :15 mark*

NOTE: This is the trailer to "Funny Girl," not the whole opening scene from the film. It was the best I could do.


May 16, 2009

Song of the Day: Tara's Theme

For some reason, I started humming this epic film theme in my head today, and it just would not go away. Indeed, Austrian composer Max Steiner's "Tara's Theme" from "Gone With the Wind" is perhaps one of the most memorable theme songs of all-time, and it is probably the most special to me. I do not know why, but every time I watch "Gone With the Wind" and hear this beautiful, sweeping melody, I get chills and tear up. Every time. The images behind the credits are definitely beautiful, but not without this tune. I could never explain why it is so beautiful—perhaps it is the gushing octave leaps of the violins, perhaps it is that soft horn in the background, or perhaps it is both. In any case, it touches something inside me. This one song is the doorway to a romantic, epic film that I love more than any other film I have ever seen.

Listen to it with me now.

(UPDATE: I watched it. I teared up and got chills, as usual. How many film themes affect you that way?)


May 15, 2009

Random Musing: Man Ray

To the right is the photo (special thanks to Antoine Alary - @², © 2009) that inspired this random musing. In fall 2008, I took a course on French film at Vanderbilt. Taught by Professor Lynn Ramey, the course began with the Surrealist movement in film. The examples she proffered included "Le Ballet Mécanique" by Fernand Léger, Vigo's "Zéro de Conduite," and Buñuel/Dalí's "Un Chien Andalou," one of my favorites. The other example, "Le Retour à la Raison," is by an American (Who knew?!) artist in Paris, Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Pennsylvania in 1890). The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he changed his name to Man Ray in 1912 and moved to the Montparnasse area of Paris in 1921. In the '20s, Man Ray took up with Kiki de Montparnasse, a model and muse who appeared in several of his films and hundreds of his paintings. One of these films was, you guessed it, 1923's "Le Retour à la Raison," which left a huge impression on me as a student of film...


This is Man Ray's film, for those of you unfamiliar with it:

At the end of the semester, our class was assigned a project. Reanne Zheng, Natalie Jones, and I chose to make a film based on Man Ray's influential work. We called it "La Perte de la Raison":

These are the words to explain our film (written 12/11/08):

The inspiration for our surrealist film comes directly from Man Ray’s 1923 “Le Retour à la Raison.” While the original film mocks the idea of “reason” with its juxtaposed senseless images and prominent surrealist themes, our film, “La Perte de la Raison” has been created as an homage and as a pastiche of that film. With the inception of his “rayograph” with “Le Retour,” we have also tried to mimic its effect for our film. Our film almost replicates the original film by timing, pace, image, and editing, but with some notable exceptions. While “Le Retour” prominently features a carousel, a poster for a dancer, and a spinning object, our film has added similar objects—a string of lights that mimics the carousel lights and a turning object with its shadow projected on the wall, in the style of the spinning object. To the original surrealist themes of chance and desire, we have also added some new elements of our own to fit our own modern-day criticisms. For example, we added a confusion of gender identity to contribute a contemporary taste of controversy.

In summary, we hope that viewers will quickly recognize the many allusions to the original film and furthermore be able to recognize that we understand the concepts behind the surrealist films of the 1920s.
Now imagine my surprise when I learned something new about "Le Retour à la Raison" that I had not realized. Taken directly from the write-up in the photo above:
In the 1923 silent short of this name, Man Ray filmed barely discernable Parisian nighttime scenes, his own mystery-laden photograms, and conglomerations of spiraling or gyrating objects--a sequence of near-total abstractions seemingly devoid of sense or purpose. The "return to reason" came finally in the form of an attractive woman's torso (modeled by cabaret personality Kiki of Montparnasse), turning to and fro beside a rain-specked windowpane: a congruence between abstraction and carnality. Man Ray fixed the enchanting finale, as well as other moments in the film, as photographs, singly and in strips. The innovative dialogue between the still and moving image (a film made from photographs, then "returned" to photography) also involved a conversation between photography onscreen and in print. This particular still, for example, appeared as an autonomous image the following year, in the first issue of La Révolution surréaliste.
I should have realized... Man Ray's self-titled "rayographs," the fuzzy negative images of nails and such, are photographs! His film is composed of photographs (and spinning things, of course)! But how did I not realize his film was made of photographs?! I suppose our film, then, is not quite a perfect shot-for-shot replication of Man Ray's "Retour à la Raison," at least not as perfect as we would have liked.

The information I was able to learn on Man Ray because of the photo has become invaluable, though. I had never thought of the nude woman's torso as being a "return" to reason—to the flesh. Our film's "loss of reason" is, curiously, because of the flesh. In our society, even flesh has been bifurcated into strictly male and female, though flesh is flesh. Perhaps I have stumbled onto something... Maybe there is a message in our film, "La Perte de la Raison," that I had never realized! Maybe the loss of reason is, as we intended, the blurring of social constructions, but maybe the loss is, furthermore, because of the blurring of the meanings of flesh. In this way, our film is the true loss of reason—symbolic order—and Man Ray's film is the true return to reason—return to order, to the flesh, to what we know. How very interesting...

And if you had not guessed, this publishing of the photo was just so I could have an excuse to talk about Man Ray! (And so you could see the film we made and that I am actually capable of filmmaking, not just blabbing about films.)


May 14, 2009

Quote of the Day: The 39 Steps

"I tell you, these men act 'qvickly'... 'qvickly'... 'qvickly'..." ~ Lucie Mannheim as mysterious spy Annabella Smith in Alfred Hitchcock's classic "The 39 Steps"

*see it at the :33 mark*


Random Musing: The 39 Steps

*“The 39 Steps” and Viewer/Audience Participation: The Epitome of British Hitchcock*

Without a doubt, “The 39 Steps” is the quintessential example of Hitchcock’s British work—a perfect, neatly-assembled combination of all of his themes and styles into one film. A certain overarching tendency of his work continues to be an awareness of his films’ viewers, particularly by including themes that center on “viewing,” such as spectacles and voyeurism. This awareness furthermore implicates his films’ spectators into the actions of his protagonist(s), just as, from a symptomatic, global perspective, all world citizens were being implicated into combating the rise of evil in the 1930s. Thus, in Hitchcock’s “light spy thrillers” of the 1930s (Hark 9), the recurring theme of “the wrong man” on the run who must stop the work of evil in order to free himself, I contend, runs parallel to and deals with fear of the growing world crisis from Germany. In any case, film viewers become as implicated in the idea of Hitchcock’s new film “citizenship” as the hero himself, thus acknowledging Hitchcock’s tendency toward making the incorporation of the viewer into this “citizenry” central to the film. Therefore, a recurring theme in Hitchcock’s British films concerns the way that he acknowledges his viewers by incorporating them into his films through parallels to on-screen audiences. He accomplishes this by comparing the two audiences through framing, which matches real, off-screen audiences to on-screen audiences’ political responsibility as “citizens.”

Before going too far, though, a working definition of Hitchcock’s “political citizenship” is necessary, especially for how it applies to on- and off-screen audiences. First, it is important to recognize that the film begins and ends in halls with viewers/audiences. Hitchcock’s propensity toward narrative circularity in his early British films returns to “The 39 Steps” to center the story on the on-screen viewers, thus acknowledging the real, off-screen viewers. Hark identifies the connection as “positioning the film’s viewer as guilty, voyeuristic spectator, [which] corresponds to the positioning of the acquiescent audience member within the film as ‘bad citizen’” (13). To explain the usage of this term, as Hark develops it, Hitchcock transforms the idea of an audience and spectacle into a political democracy where the spectacle is often an enemy who tries to lull the audience into a stupor of entrancement and passivity, usually by means of socially sanctioned silence (8). By the same token, Hitchcock “endorses participatory democracy” (12), where audiences become active. Activity involves fulfilling the duties required to combat an enemy who threatens the freedoms of democracy. For example, on-screen viewers fulfill their duty to becoming active by breaking their passivity, represented by silence. By extrapolation, Hitchcock wants to snap real viewers out of their own political hypnotization and passivity, too, in order to shape them into active viewers who analyze the images before them and glean a message.

However, before identifying the comparisons of on- and off-screen viewers’ political responsibility as “citizens,” the recognition of visual mutual identification between Hitchcock’s on- and off-screen audiences is warranted. This, in turn, develops audiences’ mutual identification as “citizens.” First, Hitchcock compares on- and off-screen audiences by way of framing; that is, the two audiences are frequently one and the same in a shot’s off-screen space. For example, in shots presenting the democratic relation between a given onscreen speaker and his audience, framing separates those two and tends to place on- and off-screen audiences together in the off-screen space, mutually identified. The on-screen speaker is usually presented alone in a medium or close-up, low-angle shot that both esteems him and maintains his separation from the spectators. In this way, the film’s two on-screen public speakers and audiences are all paralleled by identical framing. However, the real difference between the film’s two speakers, Mr. Memory and Hannay, is found in what they say. This difference thus brings about the different forms of political “citizenship.” While medium, low angle shots seclude Mr. Memory from his audience, his regurgitation of facts toward them in the off-screen space dupes them into a false sense of security and passivity. On the other hand, when Hannay addresses the crowd at the political function, he is also secluded from the crowd with medium, then close-up, low angle shots, but the recounting of his personal predicament excites the audience, transforming them from passivity to activity as they begin to fidget, murmur, then cheer. Thus, while the two examples of spectacles seem to be set up the same way visually, the activity or passivity of the audience hinges on the speaker’s words, activity being achieved through presentation of new information. Meanwhile, the film’s real viewers are engaged simultaneously because of the framing’s seclusion of the speakers—though viewers expect the reverse shot of a given speaker to be the on-screen crowd in both cases, the speaker, thanks to his isolation, is just as much addressing the real viewers off-screen as he is the on-screen audience in the off-screen space.

Besides comparison of audiences in a shot’s off-screen space, point-of-view shots, of course, serve to connect on-screen characters’ perspectives to off-screen film viewers. However, in the Hitchcockian sense, the characters share with viewers their feelings of paranoia or anxiety. They specifically share with viewers the anxiety of unabashed voyeurism, representing off-screen audiences’ cinema screen with on-screen windows or facilitative tools for seeing. As an example of transmitting paranoia, Hannay sits on the train after escaping his flat and listens to the men across from him discuss Annabella’s murder in the newspaper. With the camera showing his point of view, he asks to see the newspaper, and his perspective becomes that of the viewers, as well. A reverse shot shows Hannay from only the eyes up, hiding behind the paper, and then his eyes slowly rise up from the print and travel slightly toward the off-screen right. An eyeline match in the next shot identifies the man with the pipe as staring at Hannay and, thus, at viewers. Out-of-focus at the bottom of the frame, the newspaper article shows Hannay’s photograph next to an article declaring Annabella’s murder, but selective focus reveals the other passenger’s eyes just above the top of the page, staring straight into Hannay (and viewers) and articulating paranoia in both, as it seems he recognizes them both and might expose them. A shot/reverse shot combination of the same images continues to heighten the suspense as it seems that the passenger is wise to Hannay, and thus viewers, in their mission. Thus, mutual paranoia between on-screen characters and off-screen spectators conveys a fear of being found out as active “citizens” engaged in exacting their mutual political responsibility by way of voyeurism.

The previous example does one other thing besides simply comparing on-screen characters and off-screen audiences by way of point-of-view shots. It also features the reverse, which is a character “breaking the fourth wall,” where a character stares directly back at the ones who are doing the staring, the imaginary barrier of film is broken, and awareness of the spectator is generated. In point-of-view shots, off-screen audiences watch others from the perspective of a character, but a different kind of mutual comparison occurs because others are watching them. Because the man with the pipe seems aware of viewers watching him, they become paranoid and forced to feel ashamed for their voyeurism (and perhaps, activity). In another prominent example, awareness of the spectator by “breaking the fourth wall” also employs character identification by endowing the spectators, just like the protagonist, as active “citizens.” As Hannay looks at the map of Scotland that Annabella had been clutching when she died, her face is suddenly superimposed on it, and she looks directly at Hannay and at viewers, imploring both to help her mission. “The police will not believe me any more than you did,” she says, chastising both viewers and Hannay but also implicating them in her quest because she obviously cannot complete it. After she finishes recounting her former goals, her face suddenly fades away, and both Hannay and viewers have been left to her mission, now their mission.

At this point, comparisons of on- and off-screen viewers’ political responsibility as “citizens” can now be generated. Audience activity, according to Hitchcock, engenders “good citizens,” such as in The Man Who Knew Too Much, where the protagonists understand their entitlement to stop the spies upon becoming implicated in the web of espionage. However, the “bad citizen” becomes introduced to “The 39 Steps” because the on-screen audiences adhere to the “socially sanctioned activity” (15) of silence and passivity. For example, at the beginning of the film, the audience sits together as a “moron mass” (14) while Mr. Memory pacifies them into a false state of security with his “hollow reflection of free speech” (18). By extrapolation, off-screen audiences, with whom on-screen audiences are identified, are also pacified into inactivity by watching without thinking. On the other hand, at the end of the film, when Hannay’s forceful, directed question of “What are the 39 Steps?!” erupts from the mass, Mr. Memory is trapped in a low-angle close-up when he is taken aback by the question, and he is killed while enabling the now-active audience with information. By offering this particular shot of Mr. Memory, Hitchcock connects on- and off-screen viewers to Hannay’s perspective, negotiating mutual active spectatorship for all. By questioning everything, all viewers have become active. Thus, the on-screen and off-screen audiences, by way of Hannay, have finally become the ideal of a “participatory democracy.” (However, off-screen audiences, unlike the others, run away soon after, which will be explained further later.)

The differences between Hitchcock’s political activity and passivity can also be distinguished by way of the contrast between voyeurism and spectacles used in “The 39 Steps.” Voyeurism involves a character or audience thinking about what they see, which ultimately leads to knowledge. Spectacles, on the other hand, are simply entertainment that blind viewers, effectively incapacitating their thoughts and, thus, ability to gain knowledge. Voyeurism, then, is usually deemed “active” because it involves off-screen audiences and/or a given on-screen character hiding in an off-screen capacity and actively employing the power of unrestricted observation to study something without permission. Thus, the active voyeurs are usually off-screen, so as not to be seen. There, the resulting acquisition of knowledge which others do not share in essentially means “knowledge is power.” As L.B. Jeffries proves in Hitchcock’s later work, “Rear Window,” voyeurism can mean considerable knowledge and certainly power. Knowledge, unrestricted observation, and proper utilization of the cinematic screen actually endow the film’s most socially constructive voyeurs. For example, at the Palladium in the film’s final scene, viewers gaze through the opera glasses by Hannay’s perspective and see a visual exchange between Mr. Memory onstage and the Professor in a box as the “glasses” pan from one man to the other in a medium close-up. The glasses become a tool that also signifies the cinematic screen as viewers again become voyeurs aware of an interaction between two men whom are being spied upon unaware. Besides unrestricted observation permitting Hannay’s gain of knowledge, another factor benefits him: the power of the audience (democracy) surrounding him and his greater knowledge of the situation transpiring around him, which makes him the informed citizen of on-screen participatory democracy. In this way, on-screen Hannay and the off-screen audience have collaborated in the common goal of an active, participatory democracy.

As I already outlined in contrast to voyeurs, spectacles produce “passive” on-screen audiences who become so absorbed that they no longer think about what they are watching. Remember that the difference between Mr. Memory’s and Hannay’s speeches rests in the messages—a regurgitation of facts causes passivity, whereas the personal becoming political inspires activity. To outline passivity, then, an analysis of Mr. Memory is necessary. The first scene of the film, in which Mr. Memory appears, begins by presenting a pan of a flashing sign that reads “Music Hall,” indicating a spectacle. Inside, as Hark identifies, Mr. Memory is literally an enemy of participatory democracy, lulling his guests into inactivity as they ask non-pointed, insipid questions and he responds only to the questions to which he can respond with facts. When Mr. Memory performs at the Palladium at the end of the film, the fact that Memory’s purpose is to entertain is established by a detective who emphasizes, “You don’t want to cause any trouble and spoil these people’s entertainment,” arguing that Hannay’s decision to stand up as a “good citizen” would shatter the passivity—and thus, entertainment—of the audience. Hitchcock’s theme of “murder as entertainment” is invoked when Mr. Memory is shot in the process of revealing the secret of the 39 Steps. Remember that knowledge is power and leads to activity—thus, Memory’s divulging of information has led to activity and he is no longer a spectacle. However, the fleeing of the on-screen audience after his murder is very much passivity because they are choosing to do nothing with the information they have and, thus, are Hitchcockian “bad citizens.” This agrees with the way passive characters are generally considered “bad citizens” because they deny and ignore their implication into “citizenship” and responsibility in participatory democracy. In this way, perhaps Hitchcock is giving more credit to the off-screen, voyeuristic audiences than to the on-screen, spectacle-fixated audiences. It is because activity is better than passivity in participatory democracy.

As a result, a recurring theme in Hitchcock’s British films concerns the way that he acknowledges his films’ spectators by incorporating them into the films by way of parallels to on-screen characters and audiences. For example, Hitchcock employs various aspects of framing to ultimately generate a sense of mutual political responsibility for on- and off-screen audiences as “citizens.” Off-screen spectators are compared to “active” voyeurs, endowed with knowledge and quick to fulfill their duties as “citizens,” whereas on-screen spectators are frequently shown as “passive,” absorbed in a spectacle and trying to run away from their duties as “citizens.” In addition, Hitchcock also mutually identifies on-screen characters and audiences with off-screen audiences by way of point-of-view shots and characters who “break the fourth wall,” all of whom, respectively, either watch together or are watched as a collective. Certainly, Hitchcock employs collectivity, knowledge, and participatory democracy as a way of fighting the antagonists in the film, but the particular construction of his 1930s spy thrillers, such as the outlined “The 39 Steps,” likely deals with the symptomatic implications of evil in the real world of the 1930s, when fascism was a growing threat to the world. As a result, Hitchcock’s message of developing an active, participatory democracy in the film may be a message for global mobilization of off-screen audiences against the threat of evil. Like Annabella’s plea for help and the implication of Hannay and off-screen audiences in her mission, Hitchcock also begs off-screen audiences to listen to the information he presents. Like Hannay, his personal predicament is intended to excite the audience, transforming them from passivity to activity in the real world’s political stage. In “The 39 Steps,” then, the personal is political.

*NOTE: This musing finds much of its basis in a film article by scholar Ina Rae Hark. Citation: Hark, Ina Rae. "Keeping Your Amateur Standing: Audience Participation and Good Citizenship in Hitchcock's Political Films." Cinema Journal 29.2 (1990): 8-22.*


May 13, 2009

Character of the Day: Billy (Kramer vs. Kramer)

Character name: Billy Kramer
Actor/Actress: Justin Henry (Oscar nomination - the youngest person to ever be nominated, at age 8 years, 276 days)
Film: "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979)
Interests: Wanting mommy, sleeping, promptness, pink fabric softener, using the bathroom, airplanes, climbing the jungle gym, chocolate chip ice cream, riding bicycles
Significance: Justin Henry's performance as adorable Billy is, without question, one of the best performances by a child in film history. Henry captures the essence of childhood without looking transparent like most child actors. His age belies maturity that he surprisingly possesses, supposedly being a child emotionally wounded by his parents' split. The clip below has two scenes that exemplify his astounding realism (and childlike humor): the dinner scene (at the beginning) and the comically awkward scene with Phyllis (JoBeth Williams) in the hall (at the end).


Random Musing: Madame Bovary (1949)

*Center of Attention: The Ball as the Center of Minnelli’s “Madame Bovary”*

Conceived in the splendor of MGM and director Vincente Minnelli, it should be no surprise that the heart of 1949’s “Madame Bovary” lies at a grand-scale ball where the protagonist, Emma Bovary, becomes the indisputable “center of attention.” This idea is articulated by the notion of circularity, constantly putting Emma at the center of the dances, subject to others admiring her radiance and beauty. In addition, it is achieved with the help of pans that embody the grandeur of her surroundings, costuming that gives her white dress the advantage of standing out, and framing that deliberately places her “front and center.” Furthermore, the camera sometimes becomes Emma’s perspective, and a series of point-of-view shots reflect both her self-awareness (in the mirror) and her feelings (with the 360-degree shot). An interesting dichotomy also persists regarding her power and her being overpowered at the ball, but with the people around her desperate to get her attention and their actions subject to her whims (breaking the windows) and especially because the dances end with her departure, Emma remains the veritable center of attention.

From even the beginning of the ball, the notion of the center of attention is present. In the first shot, a beautiful woman is surrounded by suitors who admire her. However, this quickly changes when a zoom out reveals several female partygoers and even the woman herself turning to look off-screen. A cut reveals the new center of attention to be Emma Bovary, waiting at the entrance with Charles. The Marquis immediately strides over to greet them and quickly escorts Emma to dance. Not only does Emma wear a white dress that makes her stand out from the rest of the guests, the long shot of all of the dancers with Emma in the foreground reveals circular motion with her at the center. Emma dances with them, but they dance around her. In fact, as they turn, at every brief pause, a man near her will deliberately turn to look at her. In contrast, Charles sees the men engaged in a game of pool, but as he clumsily tries to enter the center of the group, thus becoming the center of the frame, he is ignored and shut out. He lacks the charm and beauty of his wife, who is intended to be the ball’s true center of attention.

Later, while dancing to an up-tempo song, the idea of circularity continues to be present, as Emma bounces from man to man in a circular dance motion, always the center of the frame’s attention thanks to crane shots and pans. During another dance, the camera is stationary near the floor, with Emma still prominently at the center. All of this importance is curious because subsequent shots of the guest reveal her to be called “some doctor’s wife,” the doctor being “a peasant.” However, she continues to receive the greatest amount of attention because of her radiant beauty, even though the guests curiously do not bother to extrapolate their sentiments of Charles onto his wife.

This is revealed when four suitors rush to her side at the beginning of the waltz, asking her to dance. When she turns down their proposals, she looks off-screen to the left. The next shot is her point-of-view, which has been absent until this time. Emma gazes up into an ornate mirror, a center of white surrounded by a throng of men in black suits. This shot reflects her beauty, but relays Emma’s first perspective of herself, engendering narcissism and self-importance since the men are no longer looking at her. However, a handsome man, who viewers will learn is Rodolphe, comes quickly from off-screen to the right and takes Emma’s hand, demonstrating that her beauty continues to verify her importance. Because she asserts that she cannot dance the waltz, she and Rodolphe become part of the crowd, though still maintained at the center of the frame and followed with sweeping pans. However, as the camera zooms closer, Emma has gained confidence enough to become the veritable center of attention again. The 360-degree shots that follow generate the idea of circularity, although the camera is technically at the center of the ball. However, Emma is at the center of the frame, and the camera’s perspective becomes everyone’s perspective as they watch her intently.

Meanwhile, the music gets faster and more bewildering, also reflecting how Emma is becoming more and more overwhelmed in the moment. The next shot is a 360-degree shot that spins around the room—things that spin so quickly convey feelings of physical sickness, so the camera, as Emma’s perspective, reflects her feeling somewhat out-of-control. She says, “I can’t breathe,” and in an orchestration as powerful as the one playing diegetically, the dancers, servants, and music cooperate in rhythm as the windows are smashed, Emma spins by, and the music swells. All the while, Emma is put in control of her surroundings as she watches them occur, having been because of her, even if she is simultaneously overwhelmed by them.

However, the shattering of windows and glasses also “shatters” her moment, as the inebriated Charles suddenly becomes coherent enough to step into the foreground, unknowingly stealing Emma’s spotlight. The whirlwind of music and dancing comes to its climax as Charles disrupts it, destroying Emma’s control, and she runs off, leaving him behind to accept the displeased stares of the dancers who have stopped off-screen. When Emma runs away, the party no longer has the power to continue. Emma has thus been the life of the party—the center of attention.

Thus, the clever combination of mise-en-scène, shots, and score exemplify the grandeur and exciting, overwhelming feelings of the ball as Emma controls it. Framing and circularity also prominently foreground Emma in order to propel her to stardom as the “center of attention,” and thus, “the center of the universe”—a universe of the elite that does not care who she is, simply that she is beautiful.


Quote of the Day: Bullets Over Broadway

"Don't speak! Don't! Speak! Don't! Don't speak! No, no, don't speak! Please, don't speak, please! Don't speak!" ~ the overdramatic, aging diva of the stage, Dianne Wiest as Helen Sinclair in Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway"

*see it at the 1:01 mark*


May 12, 2009

Random Musing: Quentin Tarantino

First, I am just going to say that you cannot be a good filmmaker if you are not also a bit of a film buff. It is impossible to make good films if you do not know any (arguably) good films. (I think Quentin Tarantino would agree. He once said, "When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them, 'No, I went to films'.") If good filmmaking ability is analogous to the amount of films stored in a filmmaker's brain, then Quentin Tarantino's films are the best. I had not thought about Tarantino in quite a while until seeing a photo from the set of "Inglourious Basterds" in "People" magazine the other night. Indeed, since becoming a film studies major at Vanderbilt, my attention has been placed more on directors such as Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, Godard, Lynch, and Allen, so Tarantino fell a bit by the wayside in my immediate memory. In any case, the other night, upon reflection about Tarantino (whose work I have seen all of, save for "Death Proof"), I remembered just how fantastic a filmmaker he is and how excited I am for the release of "Inglourious Basterds" in August. However, it could be argued that Tarantino, in being the film buff he is, borrows so much from other films (and pop culture) that he is not so original. Indeed, I can identify at least two scenes in "Pulp Fiction" that are "copied/pasted" from other films. So is he still a genius... or isn't he?

He is, so long as you accept that all films are adaptations of some kind (which I do). By adaptation, I do not mean the definition to completely and only encompass a film adapted directly from a novel or another film. If you, I, or Robert Stam (perhaps the leading scholar on film adaptation) believe the concept of adaptation extends further, then films based on ideas can fit the definition, too. Essentially, every film has to come from something before, no matter the size of the influence, be it the adaptation of a novel or of an idea. In this way, it could then be said that Tarantino is just like any other filmmaker, adapting ideas, borrowing shots, or paying homage to genres from films that preceded his work. Tarantino's brilliance comes from his way of sewing them all seamlessly into his films while making the film distinctly his own. Even if the scenes I have identified from "Pulp Fiction," the adrenaline shot scene and the scene where Bruce Willis is driving, are borrowed from the Scorsese documentary "American Boy" (the scenario) and Hitchcock's "Psycho" (the shots), respectively, the ways in which Tarantino includes them are still undeniably clever. What I love about Tarantino's films is how self-conscious they are in and of themselves as a medium—simply consider Tarantino's use of non-linear time (which a friend of mine humorously calls "to Tarantino something") and even repetitions of scenes from different perspectives ("Jackie Brown"). What first drew me to Tarantino is his clear ability to make films that stand out for their conscious artistry. As an amateur film scholar and critic, I am certain that you, my dear readers, have discovered by now just how much fonder I am of the artistry of films than of films made simply for entertainment. (Certainly, the latter is the result of Hollywood's post-1975 obsession with blockbusters.) Anyway, Tarantino is undeniably an artist and perhaps one of the greatest filmmakers living today.

Which brings me to another point. My partner, a semi-professional classical and opera singer getting his master's in early music (voice) at Indiana and something of a classical music scholar, defines all classical composers as "innovators" or "perfectors." For example, if Monteverdi is an "innovator," then Bach or Mozart are "perfectors," perfecting the style of the innovator with their new compositions. If we extrapolated this concept to film diretors and Hitchcock or Hawks are "innovators," then perhaps Tarantino can be accepted as a "perfector." It is true that Tarantino does utilize the non-linear storylines that characterize his work, but I think his work is more the result of perfecting the art of film as developed by others (and there is nothing wrong with that). For example, according to Wikipedia's page on the upcoming "Inglourious Basterds":

The title (and partial premise) of the upcoming film is inspired by Italian director Enzo Castellari's 1978 movie "Inglorious Bastards." The director has repeatedly stressed that despite it being a war film, the movie will be his "spaghetti-western but with World War II iconography". In addition to spaghetti-westerns, the film also pays homage to the World War II "macaroni-combat" sub-genre (itself influenced by spaghetti-westerns), as well as films by Jean-Luc Godard.
What a film buff. What a filmmaker.

I cannot wait for August 21st, 2009: the return of Tarantino. Expect a review soon after.


May 11, 2009

Star Trek

** ½ out of ****

A common approach to being “fresh out of ideas” in the film/media industry is to simply go back to basics, as evidenced by the many successful re-workings of film series that have appeared in the last few years, such as “Batman Begins,” “Superman Returns,” and “Casino Royale.” Returning to the drawing board to start from scratch also often means taking the films themselves back to the beginning. Six television series and ten films later, J.J. Abrams (“Mission Impossible III”) revamps the iconic television/film series “Star Trek” with a blockbuster prequel certain to appease the expectations of “trekkies” (unwavering “Star Trek” fans) and to provide a thrilling experience to audiences generally dispassionate about science-fiction films (and even “Star Trek,” believe it or not). Cleverly crafted, “Star Trek” soars on energy, talent, and imagination and is successful at what it sets out to do, even if it is almost all spectacle and little substance. Nevertheless, it is a blockbuster.

Think of this “Star Trek” as a prequel that fills in the gaps for the original series. In the beginning (if there can be such a thing for a film about the future), Robau (Faran Tahir) is the captain of the starship Kelvin, and he is killed by a ruthless Romulan commander named Nero (an unimpressive Eric Bana), who is searching for Spock (pun intended). George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) valiantly becomes the captain of the ship for twelve minutes and ensures the safe escape of all of his passengers, including his wife (Jennifer Morrison), who is in labor with his child during the getaway. After Kirk heroically sacrifices himself and the Enterprise in a suicide collision with the Romulan warship, his wife makes it safely to Earth with their son, James, who grows up and enlists in Starfleet. A cocky young adult, James Kirk (a formidable Chris Pine, who proves his acting ability beyond the shadow of Shatner and overwhelmingly smoldering good looks) becomes the only person to ever succeed at the Kobayashi Maru, designed by a half-human/half-Vulcan programmer named Spock (a surprisingly effective Zachary Quinto, perhaps the best actor in the film), who wrestles with his human capacity for emotion while trying to maintain his cold, logical appearance. Kirk’s success is only the result of cheating, and he is grounded when Starfleet arranges a rescue for the planet Vulcan, Spock’s home planet, after they send a distress call. However, Kirk, ever the hothead, is able to slip onto the ship ill, under the care of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), and he eventually becomes integral to helping the mission of the entire fleet, who discovers that Vulcan is actually under attack by Nero. When Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) becomes a prisoner-of-war on the Romulan ship, Spock and Kirk must work together against the odds and despite their differences in order to save the Federation from Nero’s threat.

Yes, the plot is quite predictable, even for someone as unknowledgeable about “Star Trek” as I am, but I am familiar enough with the characters that I know how this film has to end. When George Kirk becomes the captain at the beginning of the film and nobly saves the day, it becomes painfully apparent that Kirk the son will parallel his father’s bravery at the end of the film—this must be the plot’s direction. Surprisingly, though, the film throws in a multitude of twists and turns that keep things interesting, including the welcome return of Leonard Nimoy (whose capacity I am not at liberty to divulge; in the film’s promotion, his role has been kept under wraps, so I will continue to do the same). However, I am unimpressed with the plot’s fragility, at least at the midway point. In fact, the film depends on a deus ex machina in order to fulfill the story, and I am no fan of a forced hand in the works.

It hardly matters, though, because “Star Trek” is such a wild ride—a charge of adrenaline with visuals so engaging that they become helplessly entrancing. “Star Trek” will change no worlds, though, nor will it alter the course of film history. J.J. Abrams is completely successful in formulating “Star Trek” into a sensational blockbuster and nothing more. Indeed, the film is nothing really new—the story is not a new concept, and once you strip away the film systems, you see that the film has been layered together as a spectacle, not as substance. To truly enjoy “Star Trek,” you must sit back and enjoy the ride—no more, no less. And it is a ride that both “trekkies” and mainstream audiences alike will be able to enjoy.


Random Musing: (Queer) Vertigo

In his discussion of “Vertigo” with celebrated film critic and director Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock says of Jimmy Stewart’s character, Scottie: “To put it plainly, the man wants to go to bed with a woman [Madeleine] who’s dead; he is indulging in a form of necrophilia.” It is rare in film that someone has the accusation of necrophiliac levied against him, so I want to unpack this weighty statement. Have no fear—queer theory is here! (I took a brief look into queer theory last summer, but I have been unable to pursue it again until now. If you re-read that random musing from a year ago, you will see huge differences from between then and now in terms of how I study queerness and film. There, it was more about gay representation, and here, it is more theoretical.)

To put it simply and to offer a good working definition (because the concept can be difficult to grasp—trust me), queer theory is the study of all things non-heteronormative in film, meaning all kinds of sexualities and gender identities (not heterosexual), specifically those that resist definition. However, because of the non-heteronormative status of “queerness,” “label-able,” “unconventional” sexuality (or gender) identifications such as homosexuality, pansexuality, and paraphilia also fall under the category of “queer.” Necrophilia, the desire to have sex with corpses, which Hitchcock accuses Scottie of possessing, is technically paraphilia, defined by Wikipedia as “powerful and persistent sexual interest other than in copulatory or precopulatory behavior with phenotypically normal, consenting adult human partners.” Necrophilia could, then, also be termed a form of “deviant sexual behavior” since, in Freudian terms, it is also technically “perversion,” meaning it never results in propagation (although almost everyone in the world is technically “perverted,” since a good deal of sexual behavior is engaged in specifically for the pleasure, not for the procreation; however, here, I want to address “necrophilia” specifically as a form of Freudian “perversion” and general “deviancy” from standard, living human sexual partners).

In any case, to summarize the plot of “Vertigo,” detective Scottie “gets” his necrophilia after having fallen in love with “Madeleine Elster,” the woman that he is supposed to be following, and having suffered a horrible nervous breakdown after watching her fall to her death. When he finds Judy on the street and notices her uncanny resemblance to his “dead” love, he decides to reshape her into his object of desire: Madeleine.

With this point of departure, we can now interpret how “maniacal” (in the words of Hitchcock) Scottie becomes about this transformation. He wants so badly to recreate Madeleine that he essentially reconstructs Judy’s body—hair, face, clothes, and all—in order to get back his object of desire. In essence, the reconstruction of Judy’s body into Madeleine’s body recreates the appearance of a woman now dead and whose body should have long since begun decomposing. Thus, Scottie’s desire for Madeleine is so strong that his heterosexual impulse has transformed into a paraphilic desire for her dead body—into necrophilia.

He is finally able to act upon his new “queer” sexual desires when Judy finally completes her transformation into Madeleine. As she exits the bathroom in her small hotel room, Scottie “gets up” from his seated position. Essentially, he becomes immediately “aroused” at the sight of Judy as Madeleine. Judy is bathed in an eerie green light before she begins to cross the room. She has been officially reconstructed into Madeleine, the dead woman, and Scottie immediately embraces her and kisses her. As the camera rotates around them, Judy is basically limp in his arms—her body mimics the lifelessness of a corpse as Scottie continues to kiss her all over. Meanwhile, he looks around at his surroundings at one point to find himself in the midst of a fantasy. Because it is a fantasy, I think that it externalizes the sexual fantasies taking place in Scottie’s head. The setting is now the barn at San Juan Batista, the last place Scottie kissed “Madeleine” before she “died.” His fantasy returns the two to that nostalgic spot, but also transports them in front of a set of empty carriages, one of which they are standing before (the back seat, specifically) when Scottie starts to voraciously kiss Judy again. I would not put it past Hitchcock (always the perv) to have deliberately placed the back seat of the carriage in the rear projection directly behind Scottie and Judy at the moment of their return to kissing. This notable kissing scene, coupled with its sweeping music, seems to be the real moment of metaphorical sexual consummation for Scottie—he is taking the limp body in his arms and kissing her all the way to the back seat of a carriage. He is fantasizing making love to a corpse. End of story.

Therefore, I think Hitchcock makes a valid statement by deeming Scottie a necrophiliac. In fact, Scottie’s “queerness” could be argued in the way that queer theory supports the contention that sexuality can be a fluid thing (which is an argument that is far too lengthy to address here beyond noting it for our purposes)*. Although all of the film’s relationships are presented as heterosexual in the first part (meaning everything before the mental institution), the death of “Madeleine” brings about a change in the second part (meaning everything after) which leads to necrophilia in the film’s relationships, notably in the way Scottie interacts with the reconstructed Judy. Essentially, the second part of the film, in and of itself, is a “queer film.”

Now for the real question: Hitchcock thinks Scottie’s behavior in the second half of the film is quite obsessive and maniacal, so is it a by-product of a belief in the deviance of necrophilia as a sexual behavior? Hitchcock, though always famously interested in people of alternative sexualities, tends to endow said people as criminals, such as the “murderous gays.” Gay, maniacal, gay, maniacal… But paraphilic, maniacal, too?

* In addition, as specifically noted by Tania Modleski in her chapter on "Vertigo" (The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory), Scottie also has a “masculine bisexual identification” with Madeleine/Judy (in the sense that Freud’s women are essentially bisexual). Thus, Scottie’s “queerness” can also be identified in terms of a changing, fluid gender identity: a mix between masculine and feminine identification (Modleski notes the compositions with mirrors). However, I only want to address in this “random musing” the aspects of non-normative sexuality and “queerness.” Nevertheless, the argument of gender identity and “queerness” could also be applied to strengthen the argument of Scottie’s “queerness,” whose changing gender identity, if not begins, then becomes more significant, with the dream sequence.


May 4, 2009

Quote of the Day: Terms of Endearment

"If you wanted to get me on my back, you just had to ask me." ~ Jack Nicholson as womanizing former astronaut Garrett Breedlove in "Terms of Endearment"

*see it at the 2:47 mark*


May 3, 2009

Character of the Day: Dil (The Crying Game)

*To kick off the summer, I thought I would introduce a new subject for my blog, one that I have debated adding for some time now. At the present, I have decided the time is just right. To kick it all off, I present to you, dear readers, one of my favorite film characters of all-time.*

Character name: Dil
Actor/Actress: Jaye Davidson (Oscar nomination - and should have won!)
Film: "The Crying Game" (1992)
Interests: Cutting hair, avoiding Dave, mourning Jody, singing/listening to "The Crying Game," calling Fergus by terms of endearment, and drinking margaritas at the Metro.
Significance: Dil is definitely one of the biggest surprises in film history. (I refuse to explain why if you do not already know.) In addition, Dil is one of the most utterly fabulous characters I have ever seen on film. (The clip below might help you understand.)


May 2, 2009

Scene of the Day: Psycho

(But it's not the shower scene! Sorry, dear reader.)

Since I will likely be driving a long distance today while it pours outside, I thought this scene would be the most appropriate for a "scene-of-the-day." Indeed, a sinister smile might cross my face as I think in voice-over about the people I leave behind... In fact, I might just stop at the Bates Motel for a night.

Watch with me now this scene from Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece, "Psycho," where Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) continues her escape from Phoenix to reach her lover (John Gavin) with the $40,000 she stole.

(NOTE: I, however, have not stolen $40,000. No need to call the police.)

UPDATE: I was followed closely for about 45 minutes during my trip by an SUV with Jefferson County, Kentucky tags. Seriously... paranoia. How appropriate.


May 1, 2009

Terms of Endearment

** ½ out of ****

In 1983, “Terms of Endearment” clenched the Academy Award for Best Picture. Perhaps to the Academy, “Terms of Endearment” is a poignant, heart-wrenching drama that beautifully depicts a mother/daughter relationship over the course of thirty or so years. To me, however, it is a sappy, run-of-the-mill picture that is held together only by strong performances and occasionally absorbing sequences. This film does not feel like a “Best Picture” to me in the way that a similar film that preceded it by three years, “Ordinary People,” does. “Terms of Endearment” is an occasionally charming, often sentimental film, but in general, with its little real artistic weight, it feels as fluffy as the popcorn you chow down while watching it. (And it is for this reason that I find the selection of James L. Brooks over Ingmar Bergman (for “Fanny and Alexander”) for “Best Director” more than a little reprehensible.)

One of my biggest problems with the film is its insistence on crosscutting between characters, which makes it hard to attach too strongly to either of them. For a film about the bond between a domineering mother and her rebellious daughter who wants a life of her own, it barely bonds to the characters. In addition, the plot seems to lack a conclusive direction until over ninety minutes into the film, when viewers finally realize where the film is really going. Because of this weakness, it seems that the final scenes of the film become cheap shots at belated attachment and sentimentality. Indeed, it is only at the end of the film that Debra Winger’s performance as the daughter, Emma, really begins to shine through. I spent most of the film ambivalent toward her performance (and more than a little annoyed by her cackling laugh), but her role at the end of the film reveals a strength which really solidifies her character and which I feel was missing otherwise.

However, the scenes between Aurora and Garrett are perhaps the best in the film, and the scene where the two race his silver Corvette across the beach is perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in film history. Indeed, one could call Shirley MacLaine’s and Jack Nicholson’s performances the real heart and soul of the film, for it is through their roles that I derive the most enjoyment as a viewer. MacLaine deserved her Oscar for playing control freak Aurora Greenway, a woman who has tried to dominate her daughter since her birth, fears falling for her “arrogant, self-centered, and somewhat entertaining” neighbor, Garrett, and amusingly detests the sound of the word “Grandma.” Her compatriot, Jack Nicholson, as ex-astronaut Garrett Breedlove, plays a role that seems closer than most of his other celebrated roles to his own off-screen persona—that of a devilish, hedonist womanizer with a penchant for dark sunglasses. However, he remains enjoyable nonetheless, and, of course, perhaps playing yourself is the easiest role of all.

To the tune of Michael Gore’s memorable score, “Terms of Endearment” is, all in all, a treat for those looking for “a good cry” and mindless entertainment guided by emotion. However, it falls short in real artistic merit and exposes director Brooks’ amateurish, television-styled undertaking (something to which he was accustomed, having created and produced television shows such as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda,” and “Taxi”). However, “Terms of Endearment” has its own magical qualities that save it from complete mediocrity. For example, the film succeeds with the strong performances of Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson (and, to some extent, Debra Winger). So, indeed, “Best Actress” and “Best Supporting Actor,” but “Best Picture” or “Best Director”? I do not agree.