A postmodern case study: “Pleasantville”

•April 25, 2013 • Leave a Comment
Pleasantville (2008)

Pleasantville (2008)

Following what Frederic Jameson suggested, it can be argued that the contemporary consumer society is a culture mainly characterised by being postmodern. But the way Jameson defines postmodernism is much more than just being something that succeeds modernism, but a movement that rises from its very opposition. According to Belton (1994), although modernist work had once been considered to be revolutionary, because its canonization, “artists were forced to revolt (against it) in an attempt to say something new and different” (307). As a way of rebelling against modernism, postmodernism ignores all traditional distinctions between high and low culture. From a stylistic point of view, further following Jameson’s account (as referenced in Storey 2005), it represents a culture of pastiche, mutilated by the “complacent play of historical allusion” (135). It is seen as a world where there is no space left for any kind of stylistic innovation, as there is no longer the ability to “say anything that has not already been said” or “to create or to express that which is unique or novel” (Belton 1994: 308). Creativity is seen to have been replaced by a “culture of quotations” (Storey 2005: 135), where cultural productions created out of other cultural productions have replaced pure creativity.

Jameson further describes postmodernism as a culture of unrefined superficiality, characterised by images and surfaces that have no depth and only derive from other images and surfaces. Although he does acknowledge the fact that modernism itself ‘cited’ from other cultures, he insists that there is an elementary difference between the two: “postmodern cultural texts do not just quote other cultures, other historical moments, they randomly cannibalize them to the point where any sense of critical or historical distance ceases to exist- there is only pastiche” (136).  This particular feature of postmodernism arises from the fact that the authentic ideas that have been expressed in the past have now been replaced by indirect references and hints to those unique representations (Belton 1994).

Jameson links this incapacity of being original with another feature of postmodernism, which is nostalgia for the past. What he calls ‘nostalgia film’ is probably one of his most well-known examples of postmodern culture of pastiche. He defines this type of film as trying to “recapture the atmosphere and stylistic peculiarities of America in the 1950s” (Storey 2005: 136). However, he explicitly insists on making a distinction between nostalgia films and historical ones, as the first ones do not attempt to recapture the true ‘reality’ of the past, but only certain stereotypes and myths about what characterised it. This is what Jameson calls ‘false realism’, a “random cannibalization of the past” (Storey 2005: 136).

Intertextuality is another feature of postmodern films mentioned by Storey (2005) which, in his opinion, cannot be simply understood as pastiche or recycle of nostalgia. He argues that intertextuality should be seen as borrowing something that already exists in order to make new combinations of what is old. Old is therefore “not simply replaced by new, but is recycled for circulation together with the new” (Storey 2005: 139).

Lastly, postmodernism is seen by Jameson as a schizophrenic ordeal, as he believes that people can’t handle past, present and future only as linear, which is why they can only live in a series of perpetual present. This leads to an increasing fragmentation of the self and, according to Belton (1994), as a results of this layered self, postmodern artists only manage to convey “the incoherence of their internal reality” (308-309).

It is in relation to these elements (and not only) that this essay will try to analyse Pleasantville as a postmodern text. Although the arguments will mostly be developed around aspects of Jameson’s critique, they won’t necessarily be approving or disapproving of his argumentation.

The films begins with a series of short clips taken from news and statistics presented in various classrooms about unemployment, AIDS and famine predicted to happen in the close future, which are all depictions of the current society’s distress. David (Tobey Macguire), “a devotee of cable reruns, (…) is an arch consumer of 1990s nostalgic camp” (Grainge 2003: 204). Part of a dysfunctional family (which can be deducted from his mother’s phone conversation), he seems to be looking for some sort of refuge. He finds his hide-away in watching ‘Pleasantville’, the 1950s sitcom, as by doing that he can drown out the problems of his own life. Nostalgia is therefore set up at very beginning, in the opening sequence.

The channel hopping, the multitude of voices and noises, the quick pace, the colours and the flashing lights are all in opposition with the black and white and the slow pace of the show.

Balanced breakfast: a pancake in each hand

Balanced breakfast: a pancake in each hand

Just like emphasized by Grainge’s analysis (2003), colour is a central element in how Pleasantville structures its narrative. As such, black and white is a “visual index of the (…) caricatured morality of the 1950s” (205), the monochromatic aspect of it being a depiction of that society’s codes and conventions: sex and sexuality as taboos, the conservativeness of fashion, family values at the core of everything, the lack of concern with body image and eating patterns etc.

Mary Sue: “Are you sure I’m supposed to wear this? I could like kill a guy with these things.” (Jennifer, as Mary Sue, while getting ready to go out with Skip Martin, the basketball team’s captain)

Bud: “He won’t notice anyway.”

Mary Sue: “Why not?”

Bud: “Well, they just don’t notice that kind of thing around here.”

“Pleasantville is (thus) a place without double beds, working toilets or domestic arguments” (205), a place where everyone has the security of their own home.

Pleasantville house

A typical quiet day in Pleasantville

 “Nobody’s homeless in ‘Pleasantville’ because that’s just how it’s like

 (David, while watching his mom put her suitcases in the booth of her car and drive away).

The ideal nature of life presented in the sitcom is further emphasized by the scene when David (who had just become Bud Parker) realises he can actually play basketball, as he manages to score from every single position. Even though parody becomes more apparent as the film unfolds (as it will be further discussed), it is lying underneath all scenes, highlighting the artificial construction of the so-called perfect society.

If colour is at first associated with realism and is used to frame David and Jennifer in the reality of the 1990s, it starts to gain dramatic meaning as time gradually unfolds itself in Pleasantville. As previously mentioned, monochrome was associated with the values and conventions of the idealised 1950s society. However, as soon as the two intrude and disrupt the normal unravel of events, colour begins to appear. The moment Jennifer and David introduce the people of Pleasantville to pre-marital sex, rock ‘n’ roll music, modernist art, literature and a very different way of acting in the society, their entire life changes and it can thus be argued that richer and more intense colours are in this case synonym to the awakening of the community. The use of black and white and colour stops therefore being just a way of demarcating past and present, but is instead “used as form of spectacular excess in a black and white past that is itself fantastical” (Grainge 2003: 205).

Infiltration of colour

Spectacle of colour

The spectacle of colour doesn’t bring all the changes without the protest of the people resilient to changes to their “norms of domesticity, fidelity, property and pleasantness” (206). In the end, however, the protest is suppressed and changes are embraced.

There are many elements discussed at the beginning of this essay that can be found throughout the film, two of them being pastiche and parody. As previously mentioned, the concept of pastiche refers to the ‘random cannibalization’ of elements of the past, without questioning them in any way, while parody additionally requires critique (which involves a deeper level of analysis). It can be thus argued that Pleasantville starts out as a pastiche (the codes and conventions of the 1950s presented at the beginning don’t provide a penetrating insight), but turns into parody as the film goes on. However, it can also be argued that because it doesn’t address or explore any of the society’s problems mentioned at the very beginning (unemployment, AIDS, famine), Pleasantville represents a superficial postmodern cultural text which depicts “superficiality in the most literal sense” (Storey 2005: 136).

Another element is nostalgia, which is apparent since the very first scene, when David, in an attempt to escape the reality of his own life, refuges himself in the 1950s sitcom. He seems to be running away from the aspects of the contemporary world. This might be because of his dissatisfaction with where he is at the moment and the pressures of his current life or maybe because of all the rejections he seems to be facing. He might also be against the advanced consumer society, which is why he might be longing for a more simple way of life, regulated by a structure at the foundation of which there are reasons and motivations. The 1950s society presented in the Pleasantville sitcom is a world of plastic harmony and dependability which strongly contrasts David’s messy life. Interesting to notice, although the feelings of nostalgia and longing for that better time are very prevalent at the beginning, the perspective seems to change and the values of the 1950s society that David is nostalgic about start to somehow be critiqued. A relevant example is the scene with David and Bill, when the latter expresses his dissatisfaction with the monotonous unfolding of his life:

David and Bill

David and Bill

David: “You make hamburgers, that is the point!”

Bill: “I know I do. It’s always the same, you know? Grill the bun, flip    the meat, grill the cheese…it never changes! It never gets any better or worse.”

This particular scene can therefore be seen as a critique of the dullness, routine and lack of diversity that characterised the society of that time.

Truly worth of postmodern definitions is yet another shift in perspective, illustrated by the scene where, after being introduced to the world of sex, Skip Martin goes to pick up Mary Sue. In a totally uncharacteristic manner though, she refuses his invitation, arguing she is busy studying. This particular scene marks a turnover in what the film criticises, as it now seems to be women’s sexuality that is being rejected.The explanation for this change might be the self-discovery journey that David and Jennifer are embarking to, while themselves changing the lives of other people. During the time David and the people from Pleasantville are learning their lessons from the modern life, Jennifer discovers the world of books and the importance of education in the process of women’s emancipation (there are many instances that contribute to her desire to change something in the way women are being treated and the rights and freedoms that they’ve got). All these elements seem to fit Jenck’s definition of postmodernism, who defines it as an eclectic mix of any tradition with that of its immediate past.

The ‘Burning Bush’ scene can also be seen as a conservative way of suggesting that female sexuality is destructive. Masturbation is therefore seen as a sin, as the fire that breaks out in the tree is symbolic of hell. However, this scene can also be interpreted as a postmodern preoccupation with showing the taboos of women.

A further reference to women’s rights, freedoms and their place in the society is the scene when George comes home only to find that Betty is gone. However, his shock doesn’t come from realising he had been left by his wife, but from the fact she hadn’t made him any dinner.

The end of the film is an ambiguous one, as it suggests that although it is normal to be resilient to it, change represents something good and it is okay to accept it even if not knowing what it might bring.

David: “Nothing went wrong, people change.”

Bill: “People change?”

D: “Yes, people change.”

B: “Can they change back?”

D: “I don’t know, I think it’s harder.”

(…)

B: “It’s not fair, you know? You get used to one thing and then…”

With regards to intertextuality, which is believed to take place of historical texts, Pleasantville contains a lot of cultural references. According to Aichele and Walsh (2002), “it is common in fantastical narratives for a magical gate or passageway to connect the realistic world to the fantasy one” (103). There are thus many familiar examples that Pleasantville makes references to, including Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz. Furthermore, it is not only the existence of the connecting gate between the two worlds that is common, but also the employment of both black and white and colours. From this point of view, Pleasantville can be compared to The Wizard of Oz, where colour represented the magic world of Oz, whereas the dull reality of Kansas was illustrated in black and white.

Further examples of intertextuality include all the artworks featured in the film, such as: Masaccio’s ‘Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’, Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’, Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’, Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’.

Another postmodern element that Jameson would have criticised is the way the 1950s society was portrayed in the sitcom, as it seems to be the perfect example of what Jameson calls ‘false realism’.  It can be argued that the sitcom presents a flattened history, only emphasizing some of its parts and only constituting a representation of that time and not that time itself. It is just a simulation, an aesthetic nostalgia of the 1950s. The flattening of history is illustrated by the mix of rock ‘n’ roll and jazz that are presented simultaneously. A further example of this lack of depth is the fact that neither the film nor the sitcom has black or gay characters, which is thus far from being an authentic depiction of society.

Whether it’s nostalgia, intertextuality, pastiche or parody, Pleasantville represents the embodiment of many characteristic features of postmodernism. And even though it contains a wide mix of elements that can be argued to simply be part of a superficial collage, the film does go a bit deeper than most postmodern texts, managing to creatively blend two opposite worlds (a monochrome and a coloured one), while speaking volumes about values, prejudice and diversity.

REFERENCES:

AICHELE, G. & WALSK, R. 2002. Screening Scropture: Intertextual Connection Between Scripture and Film. Philadephia: Trinity Press International.

BELTON, J. 1994. American Cinema/American Culture. USA: Belter Graphics, Inc.

IMDb. 1998. Pleasantville. [online]. IMDb. Available from: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120789/ [Accessed 17 April 2013].

JAMESON, F. 1991. Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. USA: Duke University Press.

STOREY, J. 2005. Postmodernism and Popular Culture. In: SIM, S. (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

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‘Moonrise Kingdom’ (Review)

•April 9, 2013 • 1 Comment

Real life can at times be a challenge to cope with. It can be boring, sad or hurtful, which is why all Wes Anderson’s films represent a fairytale, as he tries to provide viewers with a way of escaping the real world. His unique style may not suit everyone’s taste, but those who can get lost and find pleasure in the universe he creates, will find his ‘bizarreness’ truly fascinating.

New Penzance Island

New Penzance Island

Anderson usually leaves the modern world behind, as he loves creating his own one from scratch. Taking us back to 1965, ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ is therefore no exception. We are being introduced to the island of New Penzance by a quirky looking man, who informs us of it being “famous for the ferocious and well documented storm which will strike from the East on the 5th of September, in three days’ time.” Oddly enough, we’re being told about an event about to happen that has already taken place, a sign we’re definitely in one of Anderson’s bizarre creations.

Suzy and Sam

Suzy and Sam

Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman), the main characters, are two unpopular and misfit kids, extremely smart for their age, who fall in love with each other. Suzy lives with her parents and siblings in an extremely quirky house, the type of picturesque setting you would only see in paintings or postcards. The opening scenes illustrate Suzy’s three brothers playing, eating, and keeping themselves busy, and you can easily tell, from the very beginning, this isn’t the depiction of a typical family.

"I'm going to find a tree to chop down."

“I’m going to find a tree to chop down.”

From the music they voluntarily listen to (Britten’s ‘The Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra’), the way they play and eat, to the pastimes their parents are separately involved in (while still being in the same house), are all elements that suggest the presence of one of Anderson’s prevalent themes, that of a dysfunctional family. The same theme is also reflected by Sam’s condition, an orphan who is part of a local scout troop. Interesting to note though, Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) only finds out about that when he calls what he thought to be his real parents to let them know Sam had run away from the camp. Even a simple fact like that says something about his place within the group of people around him. Furthermore, relevant to how Sam’s character is depicted is the question one of the scouts asks after being told they would have to go on the mission of finding him: “What if he resists? (…) Are we allowed to use force on him?” The disappointment on their face when the answer is negative is more suggestive of their relationship than any direct statement.

Characteristic of Anderson’s narrative is the nonlinear aspect of scenes and the lack of chronology in their unfolding. It is thus only after Sam and Suzy meet at the arranged time and place of their elopement that we are being introduced to the circumstances of their first encounter, the backstage of a play that Suzy takes part in. The moment Sam sets his eyes on Suzy for the first time is an instant of a pure and simple charm that only Anderson could have managed to create so gracefully. It is the chemistry between two young adolescents who are almost unanchored from their childhood but not yet experiencing adulthood, which is exactly what makes the connection between them so unique. His way of approaching Suzy is of a charming bluntness, which fascinates her and stirs her curiosity:

Sam: “What kind of bird are you? (…)”

Girl: “I’m a raven, she’s a…”

Sam: No, I said what kind of bird are YOU?”

Suzy:  “I’m a raven.”

(…)

Sam: “What happened to your hand?”

Suzy: “I got hit by a mirror.”

Sam: “How did that happen?”

Suzy: “I lost my temper at myself.”

The summer after their first encounter, after an extensive and detailed planning, they secretly meet and run together. Back at Suzy’s house, her parents realize she is missing, find out about her plans to run away with Sam after discovering all the letters they had been sending each other over the year and thus start tracking them.

'Inventory'

‘Inventory’

The time Sam and Suzy spend camping together represents not only an opportunity for them to get to know each other better, but also a self discovery journey, both for the characters, as well as for the viewers.  The moment Sam writes down everything Suzy brought with her (for the purpose of an ‘inventory’), is symbolic for learning about her past, family connections and her character, as every item she carries in her bag represents a little strand that ties back to her life. For instance, her favorite music record is a French one, a gift from her godmother who lives in France. I believe this specific aspect to be exemplifying the ‘impaired’ relationship she has with her parents (and in particular, mother), as most girls would have chosen as a favorite object something their mother had given them. Furthermore, the fact that she likes “books with magic power in them” symbolizes her need of escaping a reality that does her free spirit no good, a cruel reality in which she finds her parents reading books like “Coping with the very troubled child”.

'Moonrise Kingdom' painting

‘Moonrise Kingdom’ painting

The two kids are hunt down by an entire army of people and separated. However, felling guilty for the way they had treated Sam, the scouts decide it is their moral obligation to give him a hand and thus help him reunite with Suzy. As the predicted storm is approaching, Sam, Suzy and the entire troop is being chased by everyone. The two manage to hide in the storm rescue headquarters, but they are quickly spotted. They run to the roof and plan to jump into the storm’s violent flood, but in the end they agree not to. Before going back safely though, the building gets hit by a lightning and the two kids are left hanging from the roof. They do, however, manage to survive by holding on to each other.

Suzy gets back home safely, where Sam, most probably in secret, visits her daily. The final frame of the film illustrates a painting that Sam made for Suzy, representing the bay where they spent most of their adventure and where he spelled with stones in sand two words: Moonrise Kingdom.

Although the only characters I mentioned details about were Sam and Suzy, I believe Donohue (2012) manages to express perfectly another strong feeling that the film transmits. It is the idea that the film is not just about kids at an age of transition, but also about their parents and the development of their relationship: “The scene between the mother and the daughter where the daughter is in the tub, and the scene with the mother and father in bed-those scenes give the film its sense of maturity.” Francesca McDormand as Laura Bishop, along with Bill Murray as Walt Bishop, make you question everything you’ve ever known or experienced about marriage and parenthood. As a child, it must stir a certain curiosity and make you wonder about your parents’ struggles, about their love, about all the years they’ve spent together and how this has moulded their personalities. In a similar manner, as a parent or spouse, they probably make you ask yourself endless questions about the way you’ve been raising your children, whether it’s because of some mistakes you had done that they’ve developed certain characteristics, whether you could or not have made them grow closer to you and if there’s anything that might have made you grow apart from your wife or husband or is about to.

‘Moonrise Kingdom’, as well as Wes Anderson’s films in general, represents the most complex kind of escape from reality. What he skillfully manages to create is a type of journey where you discover not only a truly unique universe and the inside world of the characters he populates it with, but also a version of yourself. You lose sight of your own persona when the characters’ feelings intensify, but you quickly rediscover yourself as soon as they are dealing with a situation you can easily relate to. You laugh out loud one second, almost cry the next one, reflect intensively upon your life for the following five minutes and admire with pure fascination his artistically crafted universe for another ten. I would have never imagined that watching the world and love unfold through the eyes of two kids can be so captivating and engaging. In a society where every aspect of life is drenched in political connotations, ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ represents a truly invigorating breath of fresh air.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

IMDb. 2012. Moonrise Kingdom. [online]IMDb. Available from: http://www.imdb.co.uk/title/tt1748122/ [Accessed 5 April 2013].

Donohue, W. 2012. Love on the Run. [online]. Filmmaker Magazine. Available from: http://filmmakermagazine.com/53944-love-on-the-run/ [Accessed 7 April 2013]. 

Implicit and Explicit Ideologies

•April 9, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Ideologies refer to certain belief systems that all individuals have, systems which function based on principles and ideas that are usually unquestioned. Based on this definition, it can be argued that basically every film showcases a way of acting in a certain situation, either positive or negative and thus implicitly or explicitly reflecting an ideology. Just like everyone has his/her own definition of right or wrong, so does the director. The film therefore represents a pretty biased depiction of the world.

According to Comolli and Narboni (1992), “every film is political, inasmuch as it is determined by the ideology which produces it (or within which it is produced, which stems from the same thing) (683)”. It was said that cinema does not make up reality, but reproduces it. However, the tools and techniques that filmmakers use are themselves part of ‘reality’, thus cinema is just a way of expressing “the prevailing ideology” (683).

Turner (1999) further argued that “ideology is read from film texts, consciously or unconsciously, and the relationship between each text and its culture is traceable to ideological roots” (171).

Important to keep in mind when analysing a film, ideologies are not direct declarations or reflections, but can be found in the structure of the narrative and discourse. Elements such as “images, myths, conventions, and visual styles” (Turner 1999: 173) are thus essential in decoding the meaning of a text.

A great example of a film which expresses a certain ideology in an implicit manner is ‘Pretty Woman’ (1990). 'Pretty Woman' Poster Edward, a rich business man, travels to Los Angeles, where he ends up hiring Vivian, a prostitute. However, he quickly realises that the connection between them has the potential of becoming something more, which in the end proves to be true.

The storyline is very similar to the classic Cinderella fairytale which, according to Green (1998) is where the box-office appeal comes from. “Pretty Woman” showcases a significant array of ideologies related to women and their sexual and romantic relationships.

The way Vivian’s character is depicted throughout the film is essential in identifying the set of principles related to social class ideals.

After driving him back to his hotel (he gets lost and pays her just to give him directions), he decides to ask her to spend the night with him. Before, however, going in, he gives her his jacket and asks her to put it on: “Why don’t you put this on? (…) This hotel is not the type of establishment that rents rooms by the hour”.  All the heads she turns around and the looks she gets in the hotel’s lobby are depicting of the 90s, perfectly illustrating the judgemental society of that time.

Furthermore, having been ‘hired’ by Edward for a further week and having been given money to buy some “conservatory” clothes, she goes to an expensive shop from where she is asked to leave. Judging her by her look, the sales assistants tell her everything is too expensive for her and that she was “obviously in the wrong place”.

Edward’s attitude towards Vivian when they first walk into the hotel room is also very representative of society’s preconceptions. He displays a certain smugness when he sees her so impressed by the luxurious space, as if it was a given that, being a prostitute, she had never experienced anything similar (and thus, she now has the privilege of a man showing her what the good life looks like).

The moment Vivian walks into the same shops with a man on her elbow (and a big, fat wallet in his pocket), she ends up with an army of people at her feet, overwhelming her with attention and ready to pamper her and fulfil any wish she might have (whether that’s a slice of pizza or the tie around one of the assistant’s neck).

With an army of people at her feet

With an army of people at her feet

Sexuality is another aspect with strong ideological constructions, as it is implied that promiscuity is not something accepted by society and thus women have to be monogamous and in love in order to fit within the accepted ‘standards’.

Furthermore, similar to the story of Cinderella, it is implied that all the problems a woman has can easily be solved by the perfect man (rich, handsome, respected), who comes to the rescue, saving her from poverty and turning her into a princess.

What Green (1998) argues is that “women watching ‘Pretty Woman’ can dream of trading their bodies (the only commodity that women possess) for money and love” (108), while men can dream about having both a lover without reserves and a wife (two fantasies in one).

Classic antiwar film

On the other side of the spectrum are the films which express ideologies in an explicit manner, a classic example of that being Kubrick’s antiwar ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957). The film presents the absurd military mission given to the French troops in World War I, whose main aim was getting positive publicity, regardless of the number of lost lives. It was highly controversial, especially for the fifties, and because of “the strong a stand against military order” (Kolker 2011: 130), it was banned for years in France. The period the film was produced in was a time when any structures other than the ‘free-market’ status quo were aggressively rejected. ‘Paths of Glory’ thus works as a critical device, as it reflects the end of what Kokler calls “ideological paralysis” (2011: 130).

One of the film’s main themes is definitely the dehumanizing nature of wars, as well as their costs. Kokler (2011) also argues that “into that space are thrown questions of their stupidity, bravery, foolishness, banality, childlike nature (…) and function as tools” (131). All these are clearly and explicitly illustrated through the character’s conversations.

The foolishness of the war and the (so perceived) disposable nature of soldiers are exemplified by early scenes, when the orders of attacking Ant Hill are just being made:

Colonel Dax: “You know the condition of my men, sir.”

General Mireau: “Naturally men are going to be killed, possibly a lot of them. They absorb bullets (…) and by doing so they make possible for others to go through.”

Dax: “So you’re saying that half of my men will be killed, sir.”

Mireau: “It’s a terrible price to pay (…) but we will have the Ant Hill.”

The biggest price soldiers have to pay during the war is not getting used to the idea of dying, but more with the way they’re going to. The following conversation between two soldiers is a clear depiction of the director’s antiwar view (as he suggests it to be of incomparable cruelty):

Soldier 1: “I’m not afraid of dying tomorrow, only of being killed.” /“Which would you rather be done in by? A bayonet or a machine gun?”

Soldier 2: “A machine gun, naturally.”

Soldier 1: “Naturally, that’s just my point. They’re both pieces of steel ripping into your cuts, only the machine gun is quicker, cleaner and less painful.”

The attack of the Ant Hill fails miserably, as not only most of the soldiers die, but one of the companies doesn’t even leave the trenches. As a result, Generals Broulard and Mireau decide to trial a soldier from each company under penalty of death for cowardice.

Colonel Dax's defensive plead

Colonel Dax’s defensive plead

Colonel’s Dax defensive plead summarizes perfectly the ideology behind this antiwar film and emphasizes the dehumanizing nature of war: “Gentlemen of the court, there are times when I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion. (…) The attack yesterday morning was certainly (…) no disgrace for the fighting men of this nation. But this court is such a disgrace. The case made against these men is a mockery of all human justice.”

The soldiers, however, are found guilty.

The moment one of the trialled soldiers, Arnaud, breaks down and hits the priest (who came to hear their confessions before the execution) represents the symbol of the disastrous effects of war on the human being. He is left without any control over his life, the way he acts or what he feels.

The conversation Generals Mireau and Broulard are having over dinner, after the execution had taken place, reiterates the director’s view of the sadistic nature of military order:

Gen. Mireau: “The men died wonderfully. (…) We couldn’t have asked for any better.”

Colonel Dax loses his temper

Colonel Dax loses his temper

Truly reflective of the antiwar ideology and summing up all the points made throughout the film, is Colonel Dax’s flare after General Mireau hints to a promotion: “Sir, would you like me to suggest what you could do with that promotion? (…) I apologise for not telling you sooner that you’re a degenerate, sadistic old man! And you can go to hell before I apologise to you now or ever again!”

REFERENCES:

COMOLLI, J-L., NARBONI, J. 1992. Cinema/Ideology/Criticism in MAST, G., COHEN, M. et al. 1992. Film Theory and Criticism. Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press.

GREEN, P. 1998. Cracks in the Pedestal: Ideology and Gender in Hollywood. USA: The University of Massachusetts Press.

KOKLER, R. 2011. A Cinema of Loneliness. New York: Oxford University Press.

TURNER, G. 1999. Film as Social Practice. London: Routledge.

Counter-Cinema: ‘Natural Born Killers’ & ‘Antichrist’

•March 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

There are many conventions that the Hollywood mainstream films rigorously follow, conventions that audiences “have grown to accept as natural or typical in certain contexts” (Phillips, 2005: 368). But, just like Brakhage argues, “everything we have been taught about art and the world itself separates us from a profound (…) vision of the world. We are strait-jacketed by myriad conventions that prevent us from really seeing our world” (quoted in Phillips, 2005: 368).

What Peter Wollen analyses are the counter-cinema values that Godard has developed in opposition with those of “orthodox cinema” (2002: 74). It is from this perspective (and not only) that I will thus discuss the manner in which “Natural Born Killers” (Oliver Stone, 1994) and “Antichrist” (Lars von Trier, 2009) subvert the conventions of the mainstream.

  • Narrative intransitivity

According to Nelmes (2003: 84), the action in the mainstream cinema has “a clear developmental pattern and a cause-and-effect chain”. In counter-cinema, however, the clear patterns don’t exist anymore, as the narrative is broken down by breaks, gaps and excesses.  Definitely not your typical love story (boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love etc), “Natural Born Killers” creates its own version of this classical Hollywood narrative: boy meets girl, boy kills girl’s dad, boy and girl go on a killing rampage. It also represents the perfect example of a narrative structure that is continually crosscut by television commercials, sound effects borrowed from cartoons and sitcoms canned laughter.

The “Antichrist” is also a great example of an unconventional structure. The opening scene, filmed in slow motion, (the baby climbing up the windows and falling off, while his parents are having sex) weights heavily in all that it signifies and is followed by numerous jump cuts and scenes filmed with a shallow-focused, handheld camera.

  • Estrangement

If there is something that both Stone’s and von Trier’s films are doing through their characters, that’s definitely making the viewers heavily question their own lives, their own character, their own way of feeling and acting.

Assisting to the evolution of “Antichrist” characters (in terms of the intensity of their feelings) is like dissecting our own self. It’s more than just putting ourselves in the skin of one person, as throughout the film, they’re never just one and the same. They’re fragmented characters whose struggles and grief are constantly changing who they are. At the beginning of the film, we find ourselves condemning of her choosing physical pleasure over her own child. But as guilt starts biting into her, our damn slowly turns into compassion for her grief as a mother and the wife of an estranged husband. However, the deep distress causes her to turn into this possessed woman, making us wonder whether it’s sympathy or blame that she deserves. It is clear that Lars von Trier likes to shock and builds his characters in a way that makes the audience process his ideas and provoke an incredibly wide array of human emotions.

  • Transparency

While “in mainstream cinema the film-maker hides the work of film production” (Nelmes, 2003: 85), “Natural Born Killers” is a good example of a counter-cinema film in which the means of production are apparent in more than one instance. All throughout the film, flat objects are used to project images (for example, movie clips from western films), while the lighting techniques are a constant reminder of the artificial use of light (a good example is the opening scene which takes place in the diner).

  • Multiple diegesis

While mainstream films are built on a “coherent storyline” (Nelmes, 2003: 86), all the elements they present on screen are part of the same world and they make sure they let the audience know when making temporal and special changes, it is clear that “Natural Born Killers” and the “Antichrist” are subversive to all these conventions. The world presented in “Natural Born Killers” is definitely not a homogenous one, as changes of settings (eg: from color to black and white) and drifts into dream scenes are made without any warnings. Similarly, the latter one creates a universe in which there are no delimitations between concepts of reality and delusion, as scenes of auto-mutilation are easily blended with hallucinating scenes of a deer with a newborn still hanging out of her and a fox which not only speaks, but also eats itself.

  • Intertextuality

Like in any script written by Tarantino, “Natural Born Killers” encompasses a large number of references. However, the most obvious ones are the chainsaw scene from “Scarface” and the tongue-biting one from “Midnight Express”, both films written by Oliver Stone (clips of these scenes can be seen when Mickey and Mallory are in the hotel room). Lars von Trier also found inspiration in other people’s work. In the dedication at the end of “Antichrist”, the director mentions Andrei Tarkovsky, gesture which draws attention to all the ways in which von Trier has been influenced by Tarkovsky. The most recognizable one is represented by the similarities and resemblance between the cabin in the wood where Von Trier’s characters retreat and the setting, imagery and color palette from “The Mirror” (1975).

  • Displeasure

According to Wollen (referenced in Fowler, 2002: 79), what counter cinema is trying to do is to provoke with the aim to “dissatisfy and hence change the spectator”. “Natural Born Killers” and “Antichrist”, by exploring unpleasant and uncomfortable areas of life, are doing just that. Provocation is the name of their game. Stone’s film raises a lot of issues about the contemporary society, one of them being violence and its glorification in the media. It is definitely not the most comfortable film to watch, especially when extreme brutality and aggressiveness are shown in such a visually explicit manner. However, I consider the “Antichrist” to be one of the most distressing films I have ever seen. On one hand, the discomfort comes from the mutilation and self-mutilation that the characters are shown doing, as she smashes his testicles and cuts her clitoris off with a pair of scissors. On the other hand, it’s their relationship and every words exchange that weights heavily on the viewer, as the couple is in total despair.

The two films seem to follow many of the rules drawn up in ‘The Vow of Chastity’, confirmed by Dogme 95. What the directors of this collective faught against was the “predictability (that) has become the golden calf around which we dance” (Utterson, 2005: 87), the superficiality of action and the heavy cosmeticization of film. They also battled against the “supreme task of the decadent film-makers (which) is to fool the audience” (87).

There are many questions that both films are asking. There are however no clear answers. Every viewer decides for himself. Because, just like Bergman argued, films shouldn’t be a pre-packaged view of the world.

REFERENCES:

FOWLER, C. 2002. The European Cinema Reader. London: Routledge.

NEMES, J., 2003. An Introduction to Film Studies. London: Routledge.

PHILLIPS, W.H., 2005. Film. An Introduction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

UTTERSON, A., 2005. Technology and Culture, the Film Reader. London: Routledge.

Wes Anderson & Auteur Theory

•March 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

According to Dick (1990), what is now known as the theory of authorship has its roots in World War II, when during the German occupation, France had no access to American films. However, after the end of the war, their “rediscovery (…) led to a reconsideration of the director as artist” (145). Dick argues that what truly impressed the French was the fact that despite being handed screenplays and casts they had no role in choosing, the Hollywood directors could still leave a traces of their personality all throughout the film.

In 1951 Andre Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze founded ‘Cahiers du Cinema’, “which quickly became the major reference for major French Film studies” (Lanzoni, 2004: 206). In an article published in ‘Cahiers du Cinema’, ‘Une certain tendance du cinema francais’ (1954), Francois Truffaut attacked the old French film directors for their literary adaptations which, he believed, looked more like theatre pieces than screenplays. It was thus Truffaut’s call for the directors to be the authors of their films that gave rise to the French New wave. It is within this particular context that I will try and demonstrate the author qualities of Wes Anderson, using “Rushmore” (1998), “Bottle Rocket” (1996) and “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012) as examples of his work.

The members of the ‘Cahiers’ group were tired of how, within the French Film System, the emphasis was put more on the script rather than on the cinematic elements and thus tried to change this perception. What they wanted to create was films that were interesting, stimulating and thought provoking, films that were unique and had a personal touch. And in order to create this personal touch, French New Wave directors either worked with each other or used certain actors that would put across and play with their own character.  And this is exactly what Wes Anderson is doing as well, surrounding himself with a cast that almost has the feel of a family. Ever since his first film, “Bottle Rocket”, Bill Murray has been in every single one of the following ones, Schwartzman featured in five, while Owen Wilson co-wrote three and played in five. In an interview published in the Guardian, he explained the reason behind this. He argued that between friends there is always a certain energy that turns into a unique unpremeditated on-screen chemistry and which the audience enjoys seeing (Anderson 2012).

All his films represent a fairytale, an escape from real life, which can at times be boring, sad or hurtful. It is the view of a world through young and immature eyes. Furthermore, Anderson’s characters never follow any of the Hollywood’s canons, as their travel always turns into a self-discovery journey. Prevalent themes in his films are: alienation, the childlike man, dysfunctional families, relationships (in which, making reference to his own childhood, he always emphasizes the lack of one of the key parental figures), sentimentality, dealing with death.

As for the technical elements that make his films easily recognizable, Anderson uses specific framing, color and sound techniques. On a wide shot, the characters are almost always positioned in the corner of the image, while during close-ups they face the camera directly.

Color wise, every film has a particular hue scheme (yellow in “Bottle Rocket”, yellow-green and pale blue in “Moonrise Kingdom” and beige in “Rushmore”). The soundtrack also plays a very important role, sometimes even acting as a separate character (for example, mostly symphonic and orchestra in “Moonrise Kingdom”).

Another feature that can be found all throughout Anderson’s films that is worth being mentioned is the fact that he always uses the same font, Futura. It is thus another one of the characteristic elements that make his work easily identifiable and strengthens his auteur qualities.

REFERENCES:

ANDERSON, W., 2012. Interview by Francesca Babb on 19 May. [online]The Guardian. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/may/19/wes-anderson-moonrise-kingdom [Accessed 1 March 2013].

DICK, B.F., 1990. Anatomy of Film. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

HILLER, J., 1985. Cahier Du Cinema, the 1950s: Neo-realism, Hollywood, New Wave. UK: Harvard University Press.

LANZONI, R.F., 2002. French Cinema: from its beginnings to the present. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group.

Pre 1930s Cinema

•March 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

According to Dancyger (2011), 1895 marks the beginning of film. However, at that time, editing was still nonexistent or minimal, as because of the novelty represented by the movie image, a story wasn’t really necessary.

The earliest films were as short as not even one minute long and consisted of a series of single shots. Composition and emotions were not yet taken into consideration and lightning was only used for its most basic purposes. On the French film stage, George Melies represented a breath of fresh air for the medium and turned it into a very popular form of entertainment. Even though the first films he created were almost reproductions of what the Lumiere Brothers had produced, his creativity quickly kicked in made him achieve his very first special effect (Lanzoni, 2004: 34). During the shooting of “The Conjuring of a Woman at the House of Robert Houdin” (1896), by interrupting the scene with the actress for a few seconds and then following with a second take without her, he creates the impression of her disappear (which later gave birth to the stop motion visual effect).

It was, however, through the work of Edwin S. Porter that editing started to be given even more importance. Inspired by Melies’ use of “theatrical devices and a playful sense of the fantastic” (Dancyger, 2011: 3), Porter realized that the way he organized the shots could contribute to the story become more dynamic. Based on his argument that films must therefore be formed by the assembly of single shots, it can thus be argued that he is the one who founded editing’s basic principle.

A first example of his work is “The Life of an American Fireman” (1903), in which Porter presents a six-minutes story of how a mother and a child are rescued from a burning building. The novelty that he brings to filmmaking was the alternation of shots of outside of the building with shots of the inside of it, creating the impression of motion and dynamism. Overall, the meaning that the story is trying to convey comes from the grouping of shots in such a way that they create a “narrative continuity” (Dancyger, 2011: 5).

It was D.W. Griffith who started to experiment more with the way the medium was used. He moves the action closer to the audience, he starts fragmenting the scenes, so that spectators start feeling the emotions he is trying to transmit. Good examples of emotionally involving the audience into the plot are “The Greaser’s Gauntlet” (1908) and “Enoch Arden” (1908), the latter one showcasing innovations such as the close-up.

However, it was with “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) that Griffith achieved an impressive narrative and complex emotional quality, being a two hours showcase of all the editing techniques he had acquired in his shorter films. It is not only the story of the Civil War, but also about the destiny of two families in the setting of Lincoln’s assassination and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.

The beginning of a new era is marked by Friday August 1926, when ‘Don Juan’ is released on Broadway (Fairservice, 2001). Although it wasn’t very different from previous silent films, what made it stand out was the fact “it was the first studio-backed picture to be made with sound” (Fairservice, 2001: 203), being a clear indicator of the big changes that were taking place. However, it was Warner Brothers’ second film, “The Jazz Singer” (1927) that illustrated more clearly these changes with the use of synchronized songs and the character’s two short dialogues.

The impact that this particular film had within the industry is perfectly illustrated by Fairservice, who argues that many silent films that were still in the production stage when “The Jazz Singer” was released had some parts adapted to the new techniques. Hitchcock’s “Blackmail” is the perfect example of this, as many parts of it were re-shot and attached dialogues, making it a great success at its release in 1929. The silent version was also launched in order to be shown in theatres not yet prepared for sound screenings.

REFERENCES:

DANCYGER, K., 2007. The Technique of Film and Video Editing. History, Theory and Practice. Oxford: Focal Press.

FAIRSERVICE, D., 2001. Film Editing: History, Theory and Practice. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

LANZONI, R.F., 2002. French Cinema: from its beginnings to the present. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group.