Future Worlds: An Introduction

In several articles I have spoken about the cinematic and rhetorical device of taking an element, filmic or social, to its extreme to produce a critical reading or fertile ground for critique. In essence all Sci-fi does this. It could be taking the threat of Communist invasion to a symbolic level where the Communists are replaced and the threat transformed into fearsome aliens from outer-space. It could also be taking the environment’s health to an extreme where in we are shown a society which can only feed its populace with a synthesised form of meat produced from deceased Humans. The setting, and the symbols used to produce or communicate this, in Sci-fi, reflect the central concern of the film because the setting of the film is created rather than reproduced. Although obviously the Notting Hill of Notting Hill (1999) is a filmic white-washed version of the geographical location it is only in film genres such as Sci-fi that the setting itself becomes truly and consistently symbolic and a reflection of the central concern of the film and an important vehicle of plot communication. In my ‘Future Worlds’ articles I have, and will, attempt to further communicate this point.

* A side note: the setting of Notting Hill is more important as an ideological study of the white-washing of a predominantly mixed race cosmopolitan area into an upper-middle class white English haven of yuppies and celebrities.

Basic Film Techniques: Elliptical Editing

There is a difference between the “natural” story time and narrative, plot or screen time. Essentially recording natural time would require filming every movement in real time. If a woman leaves her house after receiving a phone call. If this sequence was recorded in natural time it would require at least 30 minutes. This would include collecting her keys, her handbag, putting her shoes on, going to the toilet, walking to the door, opening it, locking it and walking to her destination. Instead of showing all this extended action in natural time the director can cut out all of the ‘unnecessary’ action and reduce 30 minutes into 1 minute.  A simple cut, fade or dissolve [All indicating different amounts of time passes] can facilitate the movement in natural time. Instead of the long sequence we could be shown the end of the phone call, a cut to her placing her shoes on then a cut to her walking down a highstreet into a block of flats. Three simple cuts reduce the screen time but, one logically accepts, retains natural times’ affects on the temporal environment of the screen world and the characters’ involved- in essence if it was twelve at her leaving then it should be half twelve at her arrival at the flat. This simple and basic technique allows narratives to span large spatial and temporal distances without the need to follow dull action. This editing technique could transform a boring home movie of forty minutes length watching a whale performing tricks into a snappy interesting scene of a few minutes; the manipulation of time, through elliptical editing, is central to the movement of a narrative. Elliptical editing at its most extreme can be used to make two vastly different spatial and temporal arenas collide. This technique is famously used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey(1968), in which the spatial temporal environment of the ape is linked, or matched to give its correct term, to a space station orbiting around earth. [ A match-cut is where two spatial environments and actions are linked by a cut, however I will explore that basic film technique in another post].

Excerpt on Lighting and An Exposition of Godard’s Use of Lighting in The Opening Scene of Alphaville

Here is a short introductory excerpt on Lighting:

The manipulation of an image’s lighting controls much of its impact. In cinema, lighting is more than just illumination that permits us to see the action. Lighter and darker areas within the frame help create the overall composition of each shot and hence guide our eyes to certain objects and actions. A brightly illuminated patch may draw our attention and reveal a key gesture, [similar to the function of a close-up] while a shadow may conceal a detail and build up suspense about what [or who] may be present there. Lighting can also articulate textures: the soft curve of a face , the rough grain of a piece of wood… the sparkle of a faceted gem. (1.)

 

Alphaville (1965)

In the first few introductory scenes of Godard’s Alphaville we are not allowed to see the face of Lemmon until he lights a cigarette, and when he closes his lighter his face again disappears; Godard is using the brief glimpse of light that uncovers Lemmon’s face to make a point concerning intertextuality. The voice-over croaks that “reality is too complex for oral communication. But Legend embodies it in a form” this could be taken to refer back to the casting of Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution. Lemmy Caution was a popular character from what has been called ‘French pop thrillers’ and Eddie Constantine played the role in several of those pop thrillers. (2.) Robin Wood explains that you could ‘compare him [Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution] to a cut-out photograph inserted in a painting… no one [of the original French audience] would mistake this for a detailed portrait of a human being: rather, it is a reference’ essentially Wood is saying that Godard’s use of Eddie Constantine is a reference to pop-culture and a well-known, nearly worn-out character of cheap French detective Noir. (3.) Godard uses the brief glimpse of light because he knows too well that all the exposition the character needs is a few seconds on screen before the audience knows everything it needs to know about the character and the characters’ screen personality. The use of lighting further extenuates, and foregrounds Godard’s belief that Constatine is a “Legend” that embodies everything one could say about French Detective Noir just in his “Form”. This intertextual reference to the “Legend” of Eddie Constantine and Lemmy Caution is an ironic act as Lemmy Caution is, in this film, the only character who threatens the robotic, logical Alpha-60 [the machine who runs Alphaville] with his understanding of emotion and humanity. What Godard may therefore be implying is that the logical formalism of high art may be worse, or at the very least just as bad, than the flat but emotional pop-art of the Pulp-like Lemmy Caution.

1.  David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990), p. 133.

2. Robin Wood ‘Alphaville’ in Ian Cameron, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, London: Studio Vista, (1969), pp. 83-93 p. 85.

3. Robin Wood ‘Alphaville’ p. 85.

The Function of Chiaroscuro Lighting and Analepsis in Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity is a classic film noir. The film noir is a hard genre to define, but it is commonly said to be a collection of Aesthetical Principles and a more cynical outlook during and after WWII.1. Double Indemnity starts with non-diagetic music which installs a sense of urgency and action that mirrors a speeding car. The editing is smooth, as each cut dissolves into another, ensuring a clear understanding that time and space has moved in a linear fashion. The establishing shot of Walter Neff’s workplace stunts this fluid action, the camera then pans right, slowly following Neff into an office; which, conversely to building drama and frenetic action, constructs a sense of suspense. The editing, although linear, manipulates clock time, as the frame speed and scene change slows down as he enters the insurance building, this technique is the editing of a frames’ rhythm between shots. What this editing technique does is change the rhythm and pace of our perception, ensuring we gain a sense of drama and suspense.

 

In film noir lighting is an important aesthetical principle as this give clues to the characters’ function. As Neff enters the office we only see thin bars of white light, projected across his chest, as if he was in a jail. As he switches the light on, the room is flooded with white and all shadows are removed. This technique is called Chiaroscuro2, the artful use of shades in black and white photography. This technique gives the viewer clues about the nature of Neff’s actions; that he is seeking redemption, bringing himself out of the shadows metaphorically, in the form of a confession, into the light. This functions as an instantly identifiable trope which helps the viewer to understand Neff’s character and narrative function as the Male Protagonist – a key component of the film noir. The understanding of characterisation is essential in Classic Hollywood cinema; the opening scene unmistakably uses generic conventions of the film noir to construct Walter Neff, from the lighting of the set, his bare and uninspiring office, the mise-en-scene, and the continuous motif of lighting a match between his finger and thumb.

 

In film noir the narrative is always centred on partial redemption and rationalisation of the male protagonist’s actions. In Double Indemnity this is done through the narrative technique of analepsis, or the flashback. The narrative device of analepsis is a classic film noir device which critic Schrader tells us creates a sense of ‘an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate, and an all-enveloping hopelessness’3 this outlook is culmination of the pre-war depression and WWII. As Walter Neff starts his confession the camera focuses on his face with a medium close-up. The camera position is mimicking the relationship between police and suspect, and although he’s talking into a voice-recorder, we can assume that we are meant to be placed in that moralising position. The combination of chiaroscuro and analepsis gives Double Indemnity a dark, unsentimental vision of America and in this way Billy Wilder’s Film is a classic film noir.

 

1. Michael Walker ‘Film Noir: Introduction’ in Ian Cameron (Ed) The Movie Book of Film Noir. (London: Studio Vista) 1994 PP 8-38

2. Billy Wilder was earlier in his career a German Expressionist, and the expert use of Chiaroscuro is most likely due in part to this fact.

3. P, Schrader. ‘Notes on Film Noir’ in B.K, Grant. (Ed) Film Genre Reader II ( Austin: University of Texas Press) 1999 PP 119-221 P220

Francois Truffaut on Film Criticism

Personally i found this highly interesting and thought it was worth posting.

Before beginning to make films, you wrote film criticism for the periodical Arts. How would you evaluate your former critical beliefs today?

In my articles in Arts, I would essentially repeat and popularize the critical positions taken in Cahiers. This happened especially at the start, for little by little my criticism became more personal, especially since I began to be interested in films that wouldn’t have interested Cahiers in the least. At the same time, I learned to submit myself to certain obligations. In Cahiers, telling the story of each film could easily be dispensed with. In a weekly journal, the story must be told, and for me, this was an extremely good exercise. Also, I think that in Cahiers, the critic feels the obligation to criticize each film on its own level, that is, to try and adapt the critical criteria to the film. For one film it may be necessary to speak abstractly of the directorial concep- tion, for another, to analyze the scenario itelf – each film demands its own particular treatment. In any case, the necessity to tell the story of a film every week was very good for me. Before that, I didn’t really see the films. I was so intoxicated with the idea of “cinema” that I could see nothing but a film’s movement and rhythm. In fact at the beginning I had such trouble summing up the stories that I had to consult a plot synopsis. This experience helped me to realize the faults of certain scenarios, certain gimmicks, certain easy ways of telling a story. I began to recognize anything in a film that had been copied from another film. For me this was an immensely worthwhile period – my experience in it corresponded with what must be the experience of a scriptwriter. It helped me to see things more clearly, and to become more aware of my own values, tastes, and proclivities. However I ended up becoming much too cutting in my criticism. During my last year with Arts, my criticism was no longer that of a film critic, but already that of a film di- rector. I would only get excited by those films related to what I myself wanted to do. I became too partisan, and, as a result, too vicious. Paradoxically, in my directing today, there remains something of the critic’s frame of mind. For example, when I’ve finished working on a scenario, I feel that I know, if not its faults, at least its dangers- especially in regard to what is trite and conventional in it. This knowledge guides me, gives me a direction to take against these dangers during the shooting. With each film I have done, the danger has been different. In the 400 Blows, the danger was becoming overly lyrical about childhood. In Shoot the Piano Player, it was creating too much hero-worship for a man who was always right. In Jules and Jim, it was portraying the woman as an exquisite shrew who could do no wrong. I was well aware of these dangers while shooting these films, and a large part of my work then consisted of trying to keep each film from succumbing to its inherent weakness. It so happens that my efforts in this direction caused all three of my films to end up being sadder films than planned, since seriousness, it seems to me, permits greater sublety of expression. Something that becomes more serious becomes more true. If one were to read, for example, the original scenario of the 400 Blows, one would discover the plot of a comedy. And in Shoot the Piano Player, where the danger was having the central character become too sympathetic, I tried so hard to point up his artist s egotism, his desire to isolate himself from the world, and his cowardice, that I made him finally rather hard and unattractive  – almost antipathetic. Doubtless this is one of the reasons for the film’s failure. The same thing happened with Jules and Jim: since I didn’t want the audience simply to adore the character played by Jeanne Moreau, I rendered her finally a bit too hard. Nevertheless, my improvisation on the set has always been in an effort to counteract the danger I sensed while reading the finished scenario. That’s what still remains of my formation as a critic.1.

1. François Truffaut and Paul Ronder, ‘François Truffaut: An Interview’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Autumn, 1963), pp. 3-13 pp. 4-5.

Critique of the Western Genre in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man

 Dead Man (1995)

Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man critiques the myth of the western, principally the westerns’ conceptualization of white American protagonist as a competent, fearless and free thinking individual. Jarmusch does this by exploring the generic conventions of the western and ultmiately by altering and subverting its traditions. The cinematic genre of the western is typically defined by it’s strong protagonist and setting. The environment or setting of the western is traditionally a spacious post-civil war frontier in the south-west of America. This setting is a mirror image of the central protagonist; the vast open isolated desert reflects the individualistic pioneering character of the western figure. The shot selection also further augments the feeling of isolation and rugged individualism. A convention is the use of the extreme long shots to portray panoramic, expansive open spaces – even when the film is exclusively from the perspective of the protagonist, this open space, which overshadows the individual, is prevalent. The fact the protagonist survives in this space is what makes him admirable; that the protagonist sits on the border between civilisation and the wild and survives (whilst others shrivle up and die) proves his rugged pioneering independence.1


If a traditional western protagonist is a tough pioneer, then Dead Man’s William Blake [Johnny Depp] is the antithesis. A symbol of virginal inexperience Blake jumps in fear at the government sanctioned shooting of buffalo, and is surprised at Thel’s ownership of a pistol. The short lived relationship between Thel and Blake highlights the feminine aspects of the protagonist. While in her bedroom she controls the dialogue, and it is her sexuality that commands the screen space and camera’s focus. Thel’s ownership of a pistol, symbolically phallic, is metaphor of her strength and dominance over the more feminine Blake; it may even be representative of his lack masculinity, a traditional aspect of the central protagonist in westerns is the ownership and ability with firearms. Blake doesn’t sit on the barrier of civilisation and the wild, but the barriers of masculinity and femininity.

As well as character, the setting no longer reflects that rugged isolated individual thought of as so admirable, the landscape is seemingly a representation of paranoia and neurosis. The form of Dead Man creates a close, claustrophobic vision of the American with close-ups, point-of-view shots and landscapes with vertical lines that splinter and fragment the screen. This reversal of generic convention foregrounds the error of the traditional perceptions of the west and conceptualized heritage of America. The west wasn’t a large expanse with a sparse handful of Native Americans littering the horizon but an area with colonists, nature and Native Americans in direct competition with each other for breathing room, Dead Man represents the colonists as the trespasser rather than as the trespassed. Most westerns, as in John Ford’s The Searchers, the Native Americans are represented as trespassers encroaching on in the homesteads of the European settlers. Jim Jarmusch highlights the cultural conception of the west as a rugged place of individualistic through manipulation of generic conventions, by exploring convention film becomes a space in-which a director can explore and expand on ideas of critical and theoretical principle.

1M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis. (ed), Film A Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing, (2007), pp. 397.

Hollywood’s view of the close-up

The Untouchables (1987)

In this film, as a man falls off a roof top to his death, i am reminded of the philosophy of the close-up and Hollywood’s reliance upon it. As he falls we are given a close-up [a rather cheap looking one] of his face showing the fear in his eyes. He is an evil man so we are not welcomed into feeling pity or regret.

Bela Balazs said that the close-up ‘radiate[s] a tender human attitude in the contemplation of hidden things, delicate solicitude, a gentle bending over the intimacies of life-in-the-miniature, a warm sensibility. Good close-ups are lyrical; it is the heart, not the eye, that has perceived them.’♣

Although the falling of a man to his death is not ‘warm’ but cold it is true that the close-up communicates the hidden nature of things. The tough-rough “anit scared of death” man has been exposed by the close-up, his fragile human nature is uncovered. The close-up becomes a tool in-which the director can show that hard-nosed ultra-violent policing is correct because only when faced with their death do the gangsters show any morsel of humanity. Good policing is bringing back the humanity in a convict either through prison (rather tellingly called a correction facility) or death and according to this movie, death, is the only way that one is brought back to their own humanity.

Hollywood cinema relies upon the close-up to communicate human attitudes tender or not however the consequence is a continouous message of individual responcibility when outside forces should take a portion of the blame/credit for the production of an individuals morality. The close-up focuses upon the eyes and lips and therefore aesthetically removes the outside world from the production of that emotion. The man who falls to the floor falls isolated emotionally because of the close-up technique and the only time he is reunited with society is when he hits a car roof.

♣ Bela Balazs ‘Theory of the Film’ in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism, Oxford: Oxford Uni Press (1979), pp. 288-298. p. 289.