Exploring Noir: Where The Sidewalk Ends

In the coming weeks and months I will be exploring some “film noirs”, sometimes focusing on just the film and others on how it fits within the noir catalogue. Some will be classics, others relatively unknown and even some thought not to be noirs.

Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Otto Preminger is often cited as an important director in film noir’s high period. This reputation was established in the “masterpiece” Laura (1944). This film is often regarded as Preminger’s best early period film and one of the greatest film noirs. Although I will explore Laura at another time this article is concerned with a lesser known – or praised – film which Preminger made using many of the same actors that starred in Laura. Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950) is often seen critically as less impressive – although it was praised at it release for its entertainment value – however, even if it isn’t as important as Laura in the film noir catalogue it isn’tdeserving of being overlooked critically. In this article I will explore the interesting formal features of the film and the striking psychological exploration of guilt, redemption, determination and being “hard-boiled” through the anti-hero protagonist Det. Sgt. Mark Dixon.

The film revolves around the cynical Dixon’s attempt to solve an out-of-towners’ death at the hands of an illegal gambling den’s owners. Dixon is warned, due to regular complaints concerning his violent temper, that if he utilizes “rough tactics” once more then he will be “back in uniform” walking a beat. However, while questioning an uncooperative witness Dixon’s character flaw re-emerges and the consequence is that Dixon kills the war-hero Paine. The subsequent narrative is Dixon’s attempt to deflect guilt away from him onto the gambling den’s owners.

An interesting formal element of Where The Sidewalk Ends is the establishment of a shady, unsavoury mood by the initial inhibition and refusal of an establishing shot which would locate and identifying the gambling den characters. A large collection of men surround a table yet the direction ensures they remain initially an incomprehensible crowd, adding to a mood of suspicion and unease.

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The direction then slowly reveals that the game is rigged. Every gambler, other than the out-of-towner seems in on the scam. Although the out-of-towner attempts to leave with $19K winnings, he is found later dead, stabbed in the heart: the house always wins. Another technique in establishing a dark atmosphere is the use of interplay between dark and light. Shadow is used in one scene to produce a silhouette around every face, almost communicating a dark aura that exudes from the pours of every individual trapped in this tense atmosphere of hate and despair.  

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Where The Sidewalk Ends is also shot primarily at night, adding to the atmosphere and feeling of claustrophobia – because everything is enveloped, choked by darkness. The city scenes are also left without much lighting, only a few sparse streetlights and windows are lit. The darkness is claustrophobic and the desperate isolation soul destroying. Where The Sidewalk Ends drips with a dark atmosphere. Janey Place and Lowell Peterson explain that film noir’s:

moods of claustrophobia, paranoia, despair, and nihilism constitute a world view that is expressed not through the films terse, elliptical dialogue, nor through their confusing, often insoluble plots, but ultimately through their remarkable style. (1.)

This film’s shady, dark atmosphere is represented in its cinematography.

The anti-hero protagonist Dixon is a compelling character. His father was an infamous criminal, something the mobsters refer to, and this fact, Dixon’s questionable heritage, haunts him. Dixon seems to overcompensate his disappointment and shame by engaging in rough tactics, hoping at every turn to be able to punish any criminal. He also desires to be punished; if the mobsters despise him and fight him it names him as a cop, an enemy – the polar opposite of his father. This fracture in Dixon’s character leads him, in the pressure of the filthy dark world of New York City’s underbelly, to develop distinctly sadomasochistic tendencies. Every punch dealt-out is the assault and destruction of his father’s legacy. Paradoxically, every blow received is like an emotional connection to, a surrogate replacement of, the loving attention due to Dixon from his father.

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In a fight with Paine – an interesting name – Dixon smiles a sadomasochistic smile after receiving a hard punch or two: the smile is seemingly a response to the pain and the anticipation in dishing out some punishment.  The consequence of his action, and his character flaw, soon pulls Dixon towards a his potential destruction. As Paine lays on the floor Dixon notices Paine doesn’t get up. Dixon kneels down, simultaneously the camera draws towards his panic-stricken face. This close-up allows us to examine and identify with Dixon’s horror and fear as he realises he had just killed Paine.

The character of Paine is also interesting as he was formerly a war hero who fell into crime and grifting, an indication of the loss of self suffered after world war II – a motif often recurring in film noirs. Down-and-out former heroes are just as often encountered where the sidewalk ends as professional criminals and hoodlums.

Understanding that he is staring into his own destruction Dixon attempts to steer the investigation, and suspicion, away from himself and onto the Scalise gang. His attempts in fact place pressure on the innocent cabdriver, and father of Paines’ wife Morgan, Jiggs Taylor.

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In a scene where Dixon and his partner question Morgan the direction is interesting. Dixon turns his back away from Morgan and towards the camera. Lighting a cigarette his mood intensifies as he struggles to deal with the guilt. The direction is important as it continues to allow us to identify and examine Dixon’s guilt. A guilt intensified by placing an innocent face in the whole case and the pain is noticeable – though only to the audience.

In another scene the direction illustrates how Dixon attempts, at a distance, to inhibit, “get in the way”, of the investigation. Physically he is in the middle of it all as well: not only because he is the murderer, but also because of his attempts to steer the investigation away from himself, Jiggs and onto Scalise’s hated gang. Interestingly the central antagonist, and head of the mob, Scalise was set up in business by Dixon’s father, and is therefore the heir and adopted son of Dixon’s father. This fact aggravates Dixon and explains his desire to destroy Scalise: the rival and symbol of Dixon’s dislocation and alienation from his father.

The role of Morgan is very important symbolically in Where The Sidewalk Ends. The character of Morgan offers potential salvation and redemption to Dixon; an escape from the edge of the sidewalk and the gutter than runs by it. Morgan is an escape from the cynical world of gambling dens and isolated alienation – even though that is where he encounters her.

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The restaurant scenes and Morgan’s company offers a safe port away from the dark storm brewing outside in the city and inside Dixon’s mind – although the city still intrudes through phone calls. Morgan also offers an introduction, an invitation, into the domestic sphere. Dazed and confused after a fight, Dixon heads for Morgan’s house – a safe port of domesticity to set his head straight. The love, care and warmth of Morgan offers Dixon something better than chasing two-bit criminals. Morgan is an offer of salvation but it is also an offer Dixon knows he cannot accept with the guilt of Paines’ murder hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles.

Just before Dixon has his final confrontation with Scalise Dixon writes out a confession – to be opened in the event of his death. In this scene he draws a blind down to block out the malevolent glow of the city. Dixon’s act protects Morgan from the place that he feels is corrupting. This paternalistic, loving heterosexual relationship offers a way out and a reawakening of Dixon’s humanity. Dixon has something more to protect other than his reputation. Something more to drive him to truth and justice other than a complex relationship with his father’s legacy and the sadomasochistic pleasure he derives punishing symbols of his father.

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The conclusion of the film allows Dixon his escape into domesticity. Although it is slightly disappointing that Morgan forgives Dixon, the murderer of her husband, it establishes that it is truth which sets Dixon free to engage in a loving relationship with Morgan. The truth sets Dixon spiritually and emotionally free. In the closing scenes we can see the film form illustrating the important symbolic nature of Morgan. As Dixon stares into Morgan’s eyes the camera cuts to a close-up of her face. As she replies that she will give him “every chance” in the world she is shot with high-key lighting and soft focus. The high-key lighting sets her apart from the rest of the film, which is shot in low-key lighting. The soft focus is more interesting: it gives Morgan a bright white aura: the direct opposite of the dark aura which exuded from every individual in the beginning of the film. Where The Sidewalk Ends is an interesting film through its adept cinematography and its striking exploration of issues such as the psychological pressure of guilt, determination, redemption and being hard-boiled.

 

1. Janey Place & Lowell Peterson ‘Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir’ in Alain Silver & James Ursini, Film Noir Reader, New York: First Limelight Edition, 1996, pp. 65-76 p.

A Couple of Squared Circles, Sarris and Kael – Part II

Part Two: ‘Circles and Squares’ – Pauline Kael

II

Pauline Kael’s acerbic reply to Andrew Sarris’s ‘Notes on The Auteur Theory in 1962’ starts by examining the basic method or concept of the proposed auteur theory. Kael explains:

Sarris has noticed that in High Sierra (not a very good movie) Raoul Walsh repeated an uninteresting and obvious device that he had earlier used in a worse movie. And for some inexplicable reason, Sarris concludes that he would not have had this joy of discovery without the auteur theory.(1.)

Kael is asserting that the auteur theory venerates directors who repeat uninteresting and obvious devices. The supposed “joy” of the auteur theory, to Kael, is the celebration of a director’s usage in a bad film of a technique used in another earlier worse film. Kael also takes exception at the tone that Sarris uses in relation to the importance of the auteur theory in examining a director’s work as an organic whole. Kael asserts:

In every art form, critics traditionally notice and point out the way the artists borrow from themselves (as well as from others) and how the same device, techniques, and themes reappear in their work. This is obvious in listening to music, seeing plays, reading novels, watching actors; we take it for granted that this is how we perceive the development or the decline of an artist.(2.)

As Kael notes artists have always re-used older material. Leonardo di Vinci reused several sketches in many of his paintings and reputedly used a sketch of a young man as a template for the face of the ‘Mona Lisa’ – even though the Mona Lisa was based on a woman. What Kael seems to be asking is whether this is really a good criterion for the critique of film. Although noting the continued development of increasing technical ability, or competence in Sarris’s words, over an artist’s lifetime is important it is not often the only criterion of judgement. To Kael, a better area of critique, and the ultimate function of a critic, is ‘perceiving what is original and important in new work and helping others to see’.(3.) To Kael, Sarris concentrates on what is established, unoriginal in a work and ignores new ideas, one-offs and innovations. Kael asserts that the auteur critic only identifies how a film relates to a director’s past canon or filmography and ignores the new elements: what is “important” and makes something a new or original film.

Kael proceeds by exploring the three premises or criterion of judgement that Sarris sets out. Sarris’s three premises are:  

  1. The technical competence of a director as a criterion of value.(4.)
  2. The distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value.(5.)
  3. Interior meaning… the tension between a director’s personality and his material.(6.)

To Kael the “outer circle”, or first premise , of a director’s basic technical competence, is either a weak premise, a commonplace attitude of artistic judgement – and therefore the auteur theory is not as radical or as “fresh” as it seemed to be as a critique of film in 1962 – or a complete misunderstanding of the necessarily talents required for the production of art. Kael notes ‘sometimes the greatest artists in a medium bypass or violate the simple technical competence that is so necessary for hacks’.(7.) Kael explains further that ‘the greatness of a director like [Jean] Cocteau has nothing to do with mere technical competence: his greatness is in being able to achieve his own personal expression and style’.(8.) Kael seems to arguing that although technical competence is important to a director its use as a criterion of judgement “misses the point” in the evaluation of director’s ability to make art. Cocteau once remarked that the only technique, in any art, one needs is the technique you invent for yourself and in relation to this Kael argues that ‘if [a director] can make great films without knowing the standard methods, without the usual craftsmanship of the “good director”, then that is the way [the director] works’.(9.)

The second criterion, and according to Kael the actual premise of the auteur theory, relates to the director’s distinguishable personality. Kael, in characteristically sardonic and bitchy style, explains that:

Traditionally, in any art, the personalities of all those involved in a production have been a factor in judgement, but that the distinguishability of personality should in itself be a criterion of value completely confuses normal judgement. The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?. (10.)

In essence Kael is arguing that the distinguishable personality of a director is a poor choice for criterion of judgement. One may be able to more distinctly distinguish the gaudy, accidental, clumsy hand of a second-rate director than the light, delicate hand of a first-rate director but it does not, or should not, indicate the better director between the two. Kael goes on to add:

When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don’t think about the director’s personality; when he makes a stinker we notice his familiar touches because there’s not mush else to watch. (11.)

Kael is asserting that the touch of a director – the evident touch – is an indicator of a poor film or at least a symptom of boredom and apathy towards the film’s narrative. If we can distinguish the director’s personality then it is not really a ‘part of the texture of the film’ and therefore it overrides and dominates the film itself.(12.) Kael also criticises Sarris’s second criterion of judgement, and the auteur position in general, by arguing that ‘it is an insult to an artist to praise his bad work along with his good; it indicates you are incapable of judging either’. Kael asserts that this form of analysis and criticism is similar to attitudes to fashion labels ‘this is Dior, so it’s good’.(13.) Kael position is that the auteur theory cannot, once a director is given the title of auteur, discriminate between the director’s good and bad work – especially if the director fulfils the criterion or premises of the auteur theory.

The third premise, or inner circle, is, according to Kael, ‘the opposite of what we have always taken for granted in the arts, that the artist expresses himself in the unity of form and content’.(14.) To Kael the auteur theory glorifies “trash”, ‘the frustrations of a man working against the given material’.(15.) The conflict of a director’s style with the content is what produces great art to the auteur, or at least to Sarris, but to Kael is it a weakness of a film. According to Kael if a director does not unify his style, the form, with the content of the script, then the director does not produce good art. Kael explains:

Their ideal auteur is the man who signs a long-term contract, directs any script that’s handed to him, and expresses himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots. If his “style” is in conflict with the story line or subject matter, so much the better.(16.)

The consequence of admiring the directors who shove style up a script’s crevasse is that ‘the director who fights to do something he cares about is a square’.(17.) This statement is related to Sarris’s criticism of Ingmar Bergman’s later work which Sarris felt had declined due to the absence of any progression of ‘technique’ which directly related to Bergman’s ‘sensibility’.(18.) Kael responds harshly – rather too angrily for a really rational debate – but does pose an interesting question wondering whether ‘writer-directors are disqualified by [the] third premise?’.(19.) Kael sums up her criticism by wondering why the auteur theory prefers certain commerical films – a saving grace of the auteur theory some will say. Kael expands on this point by asserting that ‘those travelling in auteur circles believe that making [a] purse out of a sow’s ear is an infinitely greater accomplishment than making a solid carrying case out of a good piece of leather’.(20.) Kael’s harsh criticism of the auteur theory continues into the very last vitirolic paragraph when she argues:

These [auteur] critics work embarrassingly hard trying to give some semblance of intellectual respectability to a preoccupation with mindless, repetitious commercial products… They’re not critics: they’re inside dopesters.(21.)

The auteur critic, according to Kael, prefers products made out of inferior products: mindlessly repetitious commercial films. Kael’s article is an angry, sardonic, reply to Sarris’s auteur theory – she even questions whether an auteur critic is a critic at all –  she has highlighted some problems and flaws in his conception of the primary criterion of judgement an auteur critic makes. In my next article (part III) I will conclude by examining both Sarris and Kael’s position. I will indicate where I feel both critics have got things right and got things wrong.

1. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), pp. 666-679. p. 667.

2. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, pp. 667-668.

3. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 669.

 4. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), pp. 650-665, p. 662.

5. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 662.

6. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 663.

7. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 669.

8. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 669.

9. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 670.

10. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 671.

 11. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 671.

12. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 672.

13. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 673.

14. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 674.

15. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, pp. 674-675.

16. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 674.

17. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 674.

18. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, pp. 662-663.

19. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 676.

20. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 678.

21. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 679.

Future Worlds: Sport Culture and Costume in Rollerball

Future Worlds: Rollerball (1975)

In order to create a critique of society a filmmaker will tend to focus upon a certain aspect of society or a social practice. In Rollerball sport is used as the vehicle for the film’s narrative. Rather than extending one particular sport to social dominance a new sport, a combination and synthesis, of several of the most popular sports in America, is developed. Costume in Rollerball is an important aspect in establishing the sport and the futuristic setting. The helmet is a direct replication of the NFL helmets worn in the 70s. The pads also replicate the image of American football athletes. The use of rollerskates produces a similar image, style of movement and tempo found in ice hockey – evidenced in the repeated “bodychecking”. The gloves the Rollerballers’ use, to pick up the ball after it is shot out of a cannon, are identical to contemporary baseball’s outfielder’s glove. The Rollerballer’s costume is a patchwork of several important parts of major American sports.

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The controllers of the dangerous sport, and society, are several multi-national corporations who provide essential utilities – such as energy – and are altogether under the command of an ultimate ‘Executive Directorate’: some shady controlling corporate power something similar in essence to the Gran Consiglio del Fascismo [Grand Council of Fascists]. I have read the shady Directorate as something like a facsist group in relation to what Franklin D. Roosevelt said concerning the strengthening of the anti-trust laws:

The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism; ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.(1.)

In the future world of Rollerball a grand council of corporate power has assumed total control over social practices, such as sport, and everyday life itself. Corporate power even extends to the ability to revoke a marriage and to take a persons’ spouse without question. In order to establish this sense of corporate cultural control the traditional national anthem is replaced with a “corporate anthem” and every member of the audience willingly stands and places their hand to their heart. The future world of Rollerball, a state dominated by fascistic corporations, is explored through the setting of sport. The sport is established by costume and the allusion to the most popular contemporary American sports. Rollerball, often seen as an anti-sport film – incorrectly as the last image is of the protagonist Jonathan E. finishing the game by scoring then walking away in disgust – creates a critique of the way corporate-media and power is welded to produce and provide the ability to dominate and control society and social practices.

(1.) Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Appendix A: Message from the President of the United States Transmitting Recommendations Relative to the Strengthening and Enforcement of Anti-trust Laws”, The American Economic Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, Part 2, Supplement, Papers Relating to the Temporary National Economic Committee (Jun., 1942), pp. 119-128, p. 119.

Short Note Concerning Action Driven Narrative

Action driven narrative is central to most films. The first thing that tends to happen to a film script is that the dialogue is reduced significantly. Film primarily is a visual medium and therefore actions automatically replace speech when something of significance has to happen. The essential character traits of a film’s protagonist is communicated and connected to the “agency” they have. Agency, that is; the ability the protagonist seems to have in controlling, shaping or driving action forward. As the protagonist does this they ‘reveal who they are in terms of their motives, their strength, weakness, trustworthiness, capacity to love, hate, cherish, adore, deplore, and so on. By their actions do we know them’. (1.) In other words actions are louder than words in communicating character; it is not what a character says but does that determines the reception and understanding of their character. In Man On Fire (2004) the protagonist Creasy’s actions and paternal relationship with Pita indicates his capacity to feel – as contrary to his own perceptions concerning himself. And his morality and strength of character is communicated by his attempts to revenge the kidnapping and assumed death of Pita. The action shows Creasy’s calloused heart warm up and ultimately catch on fire as he is unable to prevent Pita’s kidnapping. Pita teaches Creasy that it is alright to live again and her kidnapping pushes him over the edge into spiralling vortex of revenge and retribution. The films narrative is centred around the emotional journey of Creasy and his actions, and the action sequences, are that which communicates this journey – especially as he remains quite tight lipped throughout the film.

 

 

 

(1.) H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction To Narrative, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (2006), p. 124.

Discourse Ideology Myth: Hollywood’s Geographical Location

The Hollywood myth is well-known. Hollywood is a place of dreams. Celebrities dine in expensive restaurants. Fashion boutiques reflect the money, effluence and aura in their outrageous designs. Red carpet is always just a barricade away. Your footprints stalk those famous names on the floor. This surgery enhanced smiling glamorous Hollywood myth is sold like sugar sweetening millions worldwide. Yet even this myth seems openly a myth. Quietly, whispering – though sometimes louder – in our ears we hear the resonating truth and we acknowledge that Hollywood & Vine is not Hollywood; it’s up those fair hills. Beverly Hills is the real geographical location; Beverly Hills is that Hollywood myth of fashion boutiques and celebrities. The Hollywood myth exists but is just a few miles away…

 

This honesty concerning the “truth” of the location of the real Hollywood is an extension of the myth. Hollywood, the proper Hollywood, is in Hollywood. Hollywood isn’t the light, bright, young and beautiful of Beverly Hills. Beverly Hills is smoke and mirrors which distracts us from concentrating on Hollywood’s real element. Hollywood the place is the proper Hollywood as it’s filled with industrial-like complexes, studios, sound-proof booths, sound stages, offices and all aspects of the real capitalist process of film-making. On contemplation we understand that this is the real Hollywood: an industrial complex. The myth of Hollywood and the smoke and mirrors of Beverly Hills are used so that the real commercial industrial nature of Hollywood isn’t foregrounded. Hollywood is an industrial complex that produces cultural items – a factory of language but still a factory. We wouldn’t argue that an Ironworks is to be found in the dirt and sweat on the worker’s brow or the workers homes – signs of it true but if we asked for directions and were given this answer we would be angry and lost. The Ironworks would be explained as the physical location: the factory floor or site of production. The Hollywood myth like the continuity system attempts to hide or refract the signs of the mechanical production so as to communicate a more financially viable and sustainable magical atmosphere that doesn’t raise questions or at least subdues them.

 

Narrative Structure: Free And Bound Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures that develop and communicate a film’s major themes [Motifs are the discrete images or sounds, like a coin, where as themes are more general concepts such as greed]. Motifs are therefore essential in the language of cinema. Motif’s are often used to communicate character and to indicate and remind the audience of essential and important facts. The study of narrative, and in particular film narrative formation, indicates that there are two central motif types; free and bound.

 

Bound motifs are those which, according to the Russian formalists, cannot be removed from the narrative without radically changing the chronological essence of a narrative. In essence a bound motif is a motif that is essential to the explaining or telling of a story. In the film Escape From New York (1981) the motif of the wristwatch is a bound motif as the movement of time is essential to the understanding of the plot. The motif of the wristwatch is essential in understanding and remembering that Snake has only twenty-two hours to find the president. As the time slips away the motif is also used to increase the tension. The narratives sequence and chronological essence is produced by the deadline of twenty-two hours; the motif of the wristwatch is bound by its essential nature in the formation of Escape From New York‘s narrative. In the film Speed (1994) the motif of the bus is a bound motif as without it the film wouldn’t make any sense; the story could not be told without it.

 

Free motifs are those which aren’t essential to the retelling or explaining of a narrative. This is not to say that they aren’t highly important, but the chronological make-up of a narrative wouldn’t be altered by a free motifs inclusion or exclusion. A free motif is a tool often used to communicate character and create aesthetic complexity. The use of colour to indicate a sense of past or nostalgia isn’t essential to the retelling of a story however it produces an aesthetic more inclined to communicating that lost past or beautiful regretful age a film wishes to portray. Free bound motifs tend to create deeper meaning and communicate conflicts without the need to thoroughly establish character though screen-time. A film can communicate an ordered and synchronised character by establishing a motif; John continuously looks at his timepiece. A rupture in his character and life could be communicated clearly by the breaking, dropping or stopping of his watch. And although the watch stopping has no relevance to the plot per say it could communicate the loss of order in John. This fictional man loses his structure; he becomes de-constructed through the symbolic act of his timepiece breaking. The symbolic act communicates a loss because it was previously posited as a motif that indicated his orderliness. Although not essential to the plot, the free motif of the timepiece helps communicate the more general theme of the film concerning the man’s change in character and life. In the film Juno (2007) the central character, also named Juno, buys kitsch tat such as a faulty burger phone. This motif isn’t essential to the film’s narrative however it does communicate character quickly and clearly.

Domesticity and Mise-en-Scene in Juno

Juno (2007)

The language of cinema is composed of opposites. In Saussurian terms things are defined by negatives. The film Juno creates a sense of domesticity by positioning a house with a minimalist style as opposite. The domestic scenes of Juno’s family are opposed to the adopting parents’ more stylised and organised home. Conversely the adopting parents’ scenes are opposed by Juno’s family domestic space. The warm cluttered space is posited as not the colder organised space. The colder organised space is communicated as not the cluttered domestic space. These opposed spaces communicate the different lifestyles and characters of the two families. The two spaces seem to indicate the feeling of pre and post child rearing.

In this scene we see the composed organised nature. The fireplace creates a structure that is mirrored by the tables frame. The houses’ ordered and symmetrical nature is even mirrored in the body language of the central actors – the hands sit in a closed and defensive position. Every aspect of the mise-en-scene communicates the organised and ordered.

The domestic space of Juno’s house is shot with an orange tanned hint. This communicates warmth, as opposed to the cool bright light of the organised space of the adopting parents’ home. Even the shot position indicates a sense of disorganised – or at least something of a laissez-faire attitude – as we view over the shoulder with the head still popping in the scene occasionally. The sense of the domestic is further communicated by the collection of photographs sat in disorder, this is opposed to the ordered paintings and ornaments that fill the adoptive parents’ home.

Future Worlds: Violence As Release Valve in Running Man

Running Man (1987)

 

In the future world of Running Man we are shown a repressive society that uses the violent show of “Running Man” as a release valve to exert the pressures of living under a repressive regime. The film uses simple diametrically opposed classes of society, with their own lighting codes, to communicate clearly the conflict in the society. The dystopia is communicated by the contrasting mise-en-scene of the upper-class day scenes and the under-class night scenes. The day scenes are full of natural light and the streets are uncluttered and open. People are allowed to sit, wonder and go as they please. This is the opposite of the night scenes.

  

The night scenes portray the have-nots of the future world of Running Man. In the night scenes we see the under-class living in a polluted and cluttered area. The people are fenced in and contrary to the day scenes there is no casual idolatry admiration for architecture. The masses are penned in and huddled, their only source of light the brightly coloured television screens. The night scenes also consistently include the large television screens indicating the extent of the media’s influence on the masses.

 

In the introduction of Running Man we are told that the government has complete control of the cultural output of the society and that all television is highly censored. If all television is censored then we must assume that violence is allowed because of some controlling value it contains. The use of violence is a cathartic one. Violence is used to burn out the passions of the people so that they have no emotional strength left to challenge the wrongs committed by the oppressive government. Running Man playfully conjures up a society dominated and controlled by violent television. The use of violence as a controlling cathartic force is ironic in Running Man as the film is of the action Sci-Fi genre. Concerns about the corrupting nature of violence in film and television are well documented and Running Man is attempting to play with this notion by creating a world where violent television has enslaved America. Violence has morally corrupted America and it is now a fascist state. The punchline of the Running Man joke is that the destruction of the media controlled state is caused by the superhero protagonist’s ability to dish out equal amounts of pain, gore and brutality against the individuals that ensure the cathartic state of the masses. The future world that Running Man creates becomes a fertile ground in which to jest at the concept of violence as corrupter and as violence as a force through which freedom is gained.

Theodor Adorno on Mass Culture

The cultural philosopher Theodor Adorno was one of the Central figures in my attraction to philosophy and cinema – even though he was pessimistic about the cultural value of cinema. 

‘What is individual is no more than the generality’s power to stamp the accidental detail so firmly that it is accepted as such. The defiant reserve or elegant appearance of the individual on show is mass-produced like Yale locks, whose only difference can be measured in fractions of millimetres.’ (1)

An aspect of Hollywood is the adaption and capture of an individual trait and the use of it until it becomes cliche. The faces of many film stars are moulded to seem individual yet they are shockingly similar to either a contemporary or past film star. In the future I will write an article concerning Adorno and Horkheimer’s beliefs about the deceptive and degrading nature of cinema however i felt a tip-bit of their cynical outlook was interesting enough to post now.

 

(1) Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ in Simon During (ed), The Cultural Studies Reader, London: Routledge, (1994), pp. 29-43 p. 41.

Criticising the Critics: Misogyny and the Postmodernism in Fatal Attraction

Along with other styles of articles I will be running a series which looks at important readings of a film from a film critic. I will analyse and explain their position concerning a text and explore where they hit and miss. My first film will be:

 

Fatal Attraction (1987)

 

Leighton Grist’s article ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ looks at several films and examines the allusions to film noir. Grist examines the stylistic and thematic allusion to film noir in Fatal Attraction. Grist notices that Fatal Attraction contains ‘self-conscious references to film noir’ and that it is ‘overtly structured upon an opposition of day and night, ‘normal’ and noir worlds.’.1These opposing worlds are indicated by the radically different mise-en-scene. The day is linked to the domestic Beth and the noir is linked to the femme fatal Alex. The domestic scenes use a slight yellow hue to produce a warm, homely affect. The scenes tend to be cluttered with activity and life. Beth mirrors her surroundings; she is warm, homely and active. She is also passive and dependant on Dan. The noir-styled night scenes that belong to the femme fatal Alex include rather less life. Important are the ‘dark corridors of [Alex’s] reconditioned apartment building… the cage-like lift… [and the] barren, sterile white of Alex’s apartment’.2The industrial motif attempts to communicate the rather basic mechanical and physical elements of a relationship between a man and a woman. As Dan stares out of a window we are shown a meat packing factory. The structure of Alex’s environment, and her character, is built from this cheap, dark and a mechanical atmosphere; Alex is borne out of the shadows. Alex and Beth are both stereotypical characters that are surrounded by stereotypical settings. The femme fatal Alex comes from a noir-like atmosphere and the homely Beth comes from a warm family setting. Grist argues that this is an attempt ‘to naturalise a misogynistic denial of ‘transgressive’ female (sexual) independence before a championing of woman’s ‘traditional’ subordinate domesticity.’3 Grist is explaining that Fatal Attraction’s adoption of two opposing female ‘types’ not only naturalises the belief that a woman may be one or the other but it also reaffirms the reactionary position that an independent and sexual woman is the catalyst for man, and societies, destruction. Independent or sexual woman have lead men to destruction in films such as Double Indemnity (1944), Body Heat (1981) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Grist is arguing that Fatal Attraction is misogynistic. Grist explains that although what Alex says is ‘broadly feminist, such as her demand that Dan face up to his responsibilities when she finds she’s pregnant’ her actions undermine this ‘as she moves from sexual aggression through self-mutilation and harassment to acts of violence and open criminality’.4 Grist is arguing that Fatal Attraction explicitly links Alex’s feminism to her crazed behaviour. Another important point is that in one scene Alex stares through the window and is made to look longingly at Beth domesticity as if there ‘is no other satisfying female role’ and therefore, in Grist’s opinion, affirming the misogynistic opinion that ‘it is what every woman ought to do’ .5

Grist offers an insightful and comprehensive reading of misogyny in Fatal Instinct however I believe, due to the postmodern nature of the film, that Grist underestimates the self-criticising self-aware nature of Adrian Lyne’s film. Concerning Alex living near the meat-packing factory. As Alex is a successful businesswoman, who should be able to afford a good view, her rather industrial and symbolic view is evidently used for its affect; a ironic affect. Her character is produced in a environment where it would be impossible, structurally, to be anything other than a femme fatal. Hollywood’s heritage of thrillers, film noirs and action-movies almost demands her to be mad. Fatal Instinct is postmodern in its dealing with film noir because it takes the femme fatal and noir imagery to the extreme where it can only exist as clique. Because she has to exist in this clique all she can ever be is clique. Hollywood has made her who she is and trapped her into being just a femme fatal. Rather tellingly Alex screams at Dan “This is what you reduced me to”, Alex understands that she is locked into being a femme fatal and she could be as easily understood as screaming at Hollywood and the audience as much as Dan. The excessive foregrounding of misogyny and Alex’s structurally inevitable femme fatal character indicates that Hollywood cinema and film noir are being criticised, explored and taken to the extreme. Taking an element of film to an extreme becomes a device to highlight the regularly accepted aspects of that particular film element. In Fatal Attraction the structural devices used to define and create character are criticised and taken to the extreme and in this way the film produces a postmodern critique of Hollywood and the femme fatal.

 

A side note should be made that Fatal Attraction, and all postmodern critiques, do tend to get away with having their cake and eating it; criticising the treatment of women and characterization as brutal while brutalizing them.

 

1Leighton Grist ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ in Ian Cameron (ed), The Movie Book of Film Noir, London: Studio Vista, (1994), pp. 267-285 p. 275.

2Leighton Grist ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ p. 276.

3Leighton Grist ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ p. 276.

4Leighton Grist ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ p. 276.

5Leighton Grist ‘Moving Targets and Black Windows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood’ p. 276.

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.

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

Ford’s use of John Wayne’s Star Persona in The Searchers

The Searchers (1956)

John Wayne’s star persona, in John Ford’s The Searchers, instructs the viewer insofar as much as it builds expectations about the character he portrays; Ethan Edwards. The importance of John Wayne as a star is captured in the title sequence at the beginning of the film; John Wayne’s name is much larger than his characters, although normal and expected in most Hollywood films, this seems to be indicative of the Hollywood star system that invests more heavily in the actor rather than the actual character.1. Viewers come to a Hollywood text expecting the same tough, charismatic, paternal John Wayne they see in his countless Western and War films; though in the guise of a different character he continuously embodies the attributes of American Culture seen as positive and inspirational.2.

In The Searchers the director Ford subverts this expectation as he manipulates our trust and identification with John Wayne. Wayne’s character Ethan is an overtly racist character, this is a continuous motif of the film, and his actions after finding an Native American grave support this. The scene starts with the traditional continuity editing technique of Match-on-Action; this ensures the movement of the riders between two cuts to different scene locations seem smooth. Ethan shoots the eyes of the uncovered dead Native American, indicating the bitter hatred and anger he has; this act dams the dead warrior to an afterlife, according to his beliefs, wondering the wind and never reaching his Heaven. This violent act, signposts the nature of the journey Ethan is wishing to undertake; he wishes to take revenge on Native Americans beyond death and into the afterlife. This eternal vendetta indicates the mistrust Ethan has in the Western vision of the afterlife and judgement – Eternal Judgement is meant to be Gods.

The play on Wayne’s star persona also helps to create a tension when Debbie comes over the hill to see him: the normal expectation is that he will save her, though he pulls out his gun to shoot her. This is the reverse that you expect from a John Wayne character, and in many ways Ford’s use of Wayne helps the critical vision of the film. Due to the popularity of Wayne we automatically associate with the central protagonist Ethan, but are constantly challenged, through his racist outbursts and violent action, to question our association with him.3. We are also, due to the foregrounding of his racist ideology asked questions about the inherently racist genre of the Western.4. The conflict which arises due to his overt racism can only be effective if it was at first an institutional part of the genre itself. Fords use of generic characterisation and the star system indicates his understanding of Hollywood film as a genre itself, which is more prominent in the Post-Classical Hollywood films such as Deadman.5. Furthermore this understanding ensures Ford can, within generic restrictions of Hollywood and the Western, make political and social observations on the way America conceptualises its present and past.6.

 

1. M, Pramaggiore. & T, Wallis. (Ed). Film a Critical Introduction, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2007). PP 355-372

2. D, Thomas. ‘John Wayne’s Body’, in I, Cameron. & D, Pye. (Ed) The Movie Book of The Western, (London, Studio Vista, 1996), PP75-87

3. P, Cobley. Narrative, (London: Routledge, 2006) P69

4.  R, Maltby. ‘A Better Sense of History: John Ford and the Indians’ in I, Cameron. & D, Pye. (Ed) The Movie Book of The Western, (London, Studio Vista, 1996) PP34-49

5. Deadman. Dir Jim Jarmusch. Miramax Films, (USA) 1996.

6.  S, Hall. ‘How the West was Won; History, Spectacle and the American Mountains’ in I, Cameron. & D, Pye. (Ed) The Movie Book of The Western, (London, Studio Vista, 1996) PP 225-261

Interview with Jean-Luc Godard

In my rather long post about A Bout de Souffle I mentioned the affect on the film the dedication to Monogram Pictures had. Here is an interview in which Godard explains his reasoning behind dedicating A Bout de Souffle to Monogram Pictures:

Godard, why did you really dedicate Breathless to “Monogram Pictures”?

 

I did it to prove that you can do pictures that are both interesting and cheap. In America a cheap picture is not considered interesting, and I said “Why not?” because actually there are many American directors who do B and C pictures who are very interesting. Vivre Sa Vie I dedicated to B pictures, because in my opinion it is a B picture.

 

You’re being dead serious now?

 

If it’s less than $100,000, it’s a B picture. The trouble is that in Hollywood the B budget is all they consider; it can be a B or Z budget, but even with a Z budget you can attempt to make an A quality picture. If you talk to a Hollywood producer-if you make a B picture then you are a B director. You are only an A director if you make films with A budgets. … I think this idea is wrong. But if you go to see bankers or producers in America they still think in Hollywood’s way.1

 

1Herbert Feinstein and Jean-Luc Godard ‘An Interview with Jean-Luc Godard’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Spring, 1964), pp. 8-10 p. 8.