Just a little addition to my Cross Of Iron (1977) article concerning slow motion. In The Defender (1994) [Zhong Nan Hai Bao Biao] slow motion is used for a converse reason. The protagonist John Chang [Jet Li] is a specialist bodyguard and an expert in fighting. The technique of the slow motion is used not to expose the violence as shocking but rather so that the audience can wonder and understand the fast movements and skillful attacks. John Chang strikes so fast even his victims do not realise they have been hit and where from: therefore the use of slow motion enables the audience to wonder at his skills that are so good that to be able to comprehend them time must be slowed down. The technique of slow motion can also further augment the character of fighting skill as it produces a sense of invulnerability and brilliance in the one character who continuously dishes out punishment rather than receives it.
Communicating Character In Hollywood Cinema
The physical construction of an actor is a telling sign of the character they are chosen to portray. The continuity system aims to communicate clearly the narrative function and attributes a character symbolises. In Mississippi Burning (1988 ) the physical make-up of the two central characters communicates the opposing attitudes or techniques they wish to employ in the apprehension of the group of racially motivated murderers. Gene Hackman is the rougher, tougher, old-school veteran. His face represents this but so does his hair, receding it is also slightly curled and unordered. His clothing is also chosen specifically to represent his character, his suits do not shine, indicating his disdain for veneer and artificial gloss, packaging or PR.
Gene Hackman is the converse to Willem Dafoe’s character. Hackman is an old-school cop whereas Dafoe is new-school. We are informed that Dafoe has recently left “FBI School” and therefore is a representation of the new, glossy, packaged, PR friendly FBI investigator. Dafoe’s appearance is also representative of this, his hair is slicked back and always collected and neat, his glasses represent a more bookish version of a FBI agent, his suits are well presented and are slightly glossy and reflect the light well. His looks and appearance are of a clean-cut average man. The two opposing “schools” and the corresponding attitudes of the two FBI agents are represented in the agents’ appearance, therefore Mississippi Burning communicates clearly the differing attributes the characters symbolise to the audience instantly and without difficulty. Mississippi Burning adheres directly to Hollywood’s continuity system concerning the communicating of character. It is important to note that because Hollywood tends to produce character driven narratives it is best, or most efficient, that character is communicated clearly and quickly so that the plot surrounding the character can unravel.
The Debt to, and Divergences From, Hollywood Cinema in Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog
This article continues on from my earlier post: The Debt to, and Divergences from, Hollywood Cinema in Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle and Juzo Itami’s Tampopo. I have decided to produce a full range of reviews and analysis’s of non-Hollywood film. As the title indicates I will start with the brilliant Stray Dog.
Stray Dog (1949)
Akira Kurosawa’s film contains both allusions to and major differences from Hollywood cinema. One major divergence is the disturbance of graphical clarity. A common aspect of the continuity editing system graphical clarity ensures that the mediating nature of film and the camera are allowed to remain hidden and unacknowledged. Kurosawa’s Stray Dog disrupts clear graphical construction in a scene by filming through a beaded doorway, therefore creating a disrupted and blocked view of the film’s two main protagonists. In the continuity editing system ‘the camera remains relatively unobtrusive, seldom drawing attention to its mediating presence.’ (1) to facilitate this unobtrusive camera style directors’ choose clear and unobstructed views of action which won’t draw attention to the fact that we are watching a film. Even if a director chooses an obstructed view we tend to be given a subjective position, one that does not bring attention to the fact that the screens’ images are mediated through a cameraman. If we are given an obstructed view we are given a reason behind the blocked view. The collection of conventions concerning graphical clarity are contradicted in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog. Because we are viewing the action through a beaded doorway we notice our disadvantaged position; we notice how hindered and disrupted our view is and we are offered no reason why we should view from this particular angle. We become conscious of the mediating force that is cinematography. Kurosawa uses this to remind us of the conventions of cinema. Kurosawa uses the technique to disturb our position of knowledge by inferring that all we can perceive is that which the camera, and director, wishes to. Our experience is defined by the mediating force in the same way the characters are defined by what they see. Kurosawa seems to be highlighting this because experience and subjective perception is important in the narrative of Det. Murakawi, both as he learns from the sage Det. Sato and in the revelation of his own similar experiences to the antagonist Shinjiro Yusa; the man with Murakawi’s gun committing the crimes that rack Murakawi with guilt.
Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog alludes to the Hollywood cinematic forms of Film Noir and the Gangster Film. In one scene a villain, Honda, is called to a front gate of a Baseball stadium by a tannoy system. As he walks down a flight of stairs the screen composition changes and the lighting produces a dark Noir-like affect. Honda, dressed similar to many an archetypal gangster, enters the scene in a normal naturalistic light, however the further he descends down the stairs the further Akira Kurosawa intensifies the sharp contrasting tones producing a chiaroscuro-style scene. Honda wears a white linen pin-stripe suit, as he becomes aware he may be walking into a trap the Camera reverses position and shows only a black silhouette of Honda enveloped by the darkness; his fate is sealed, his relationship with the gun-girl leads to the police locating him, just like many gangster films and film Noirs Honda’s cool command and apparent invincibility is breached through a contaminated relationship with a woman. Honda is a small homage to the doomed antagonist/protagonist of the Noir and gangster films of Hollywood.
The skilful use of lighting in this scene is also an allusion to German Expressionism and the stark contrast between subject and surroundings symbolised by Honda’s change from white linen suit to dark silhouette is a typical chiaroscuro technique found in films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1920). Paul Schrader notes that a common trait of Film Noir is the use of ‘Shadow effects [which are] unlike the famous Warner Brother’s lighting of the thirties in which the central character was accentuated by a heavy shadow; in Film Noir the central character is likely to be standing in the shadow.’ (2) Kurosawa is using this exact technique in the scene with Honda, he is defining Honda’s character and fate as one in the shadows.
Another allusion to Film Noir stylistics is the use of water. Film Noir is noted for an ‘attachment to water. The empty Noir streets are almost always glistening with fresh evening rain… and the rainfall always seems to increase in proportion to the drama.’ (3) As the film moves to a conclusion rain starts to pelt down relentlessly, The rain increases as the potential confrontation between Murakami and the desperate thief Shinjuro Yusa becomes more and more likely and it is in fact the rain, and the mud that sprays onto Yusa’s trousers as he flees after shooting Sato, that allows the confrontation and eventual capture of Yusa.
Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog both alludes to Hollywood cinematic genres and contains major divergences from the Continuity System. In this aspect Akira creates a film that contains both national elements of note and internationally recognizable symbols and allusions and therefore Akira has created a brilliant film.
1. Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, (2003), p. 312.
2. Paul Schrader,’Notes On Film Noir’ in Barry Keith Grant, Film Genre Reader II, Austin: University of Texas Press, (1999) pp. 213-226 p. 219.
3. Paul Schrader, ‘Notes On Film Noir’, p. 220.
Focalization, Narration and Perspective in Cinema
Focalization is the perspective through which a narrative is presented. The style of focalization produces different styles of narrative and different conceptions of character. Hitchcock’s use of focalization ensured a sense of suspense and drama was produced. Hitchcock explained that a ‘Superior range of knowledge creates suspense [the essence of drama] because we can anticipate effects that the character cannot.’1 Essentially this is dramatic irony. Suspense and drama is produced when the audience knows the outcome or some alternative knowledge concerning the action on the screen. The perspective through which narrative is presented is important in the production of this superior range of knowledge. In the film Psycho (1960) when Lila is upstairs searching we are allowed the knowledge that Bates is downstairs. Lila doesn’t know this but we do. We hold our breath hoping that Lila gets out in time and every slow movement that Lila makes intensifies this panic. Hitchcock uses a objective, distant perspective to produce suspense and drama.
The range of knowledge and information we receive concerning that which affects the characters of a film is controlled by the type of narration and the style of focalization. In The Big Sleep (1946) we are given a fixed viewing position. An objective and closed-off focus on the protagonist Marlowe. We don’t get the same form of suspense as in Hitchcock’s Psycho because we never see more than Marlowe. We also rarely let into his thoughts or rationalizations. This can be explained by the attempt to make the film and Marlowe ‘more mysterious …[and interesting because] we do not know his inferences and deductions before he reveals them at the end.’2 However I personally believe this is the incorrect style for the film. I would assert that the The Big Sleep‘s style is incorrect because Chandler’s book and his Marlowe is interesting because of his continuously rationalizing and editorializing narrative.
Another similar film but one with a different style to The Big Sleep is Double Indemnity (1944). In this film we are given both the objective distance of The Big Sleep and a subjective style of focalization. We are also allowed the position of knowledge that Hitchcock utilized in Psycho. The beginning of the film we see a stumbling shot Walter Neff, we are given important information concerning his fate. The film proceeds by telling us how Neff comes to be shot through the technique of analepsis (flashback). What this does is create a marked reading of the events that follow. Our understanding of the chain of events that led to Neff’s destruction are coloured by our privileged position of knowledge. Although I dislike the production of The Big Sleep and its style of focalization it is not because the technique is flawed but rather because the style of the original text, Chandler’s novel, would lead itself to be more subjective and to contain the same style of rationalizing focalizer or voice of the novel.
1David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990), p. 66.
2David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, p. 67.