Concerning Genre

Here is a little introductory statement from Barry Keith Grant concerning genre:

Stated simply, genre movies are those commercial feature films which, through repetition and varitation, tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations. They also encourage expectations and experiences similar to those of similar films we have already seen. Genre movies have impressed the bulk of film practice, the iceberg of film history beneath the visible tip that in the past has commonly been understood as film art. They have been exceptionally significant as well in esrablisjing the popular sense of cinema as a cultural and economic institutions, particularly in the United States, where Hollywood studios early on adopted an industrial model based on mass production. Traditionally, Hollywood movies have been produced in a profit-motivated studio system which, as the result of sound business practice, had sought to guarantee acceptance at the box office by the exploitation and variation of commercially successful formulas. In this system, praised for the “genius” of its efficiency by Andre Bazin, genre movies are the Model T’s or the Colt revolvers with interchangeable parts.1

 

1. Barry Keith Grant (ed), Film Genre Reader II, Austin: University of Texas Press (1999), p. XV.

Eastwood’s Position Concerning the Western and the Western Protagonist

In my post about Coogan’s Bluff i mentioned briefly the motivation for choosing the western protagonist. To back up my position that the Western is popular with both movie-makers and movie-watchers here is a short quote from Clint Eastwood concerning what he believes makes the Western so resilient.

I guess because of the simplicity of the times. Now everything’s so complicated, so mired down in bureaucracy that people can’t fathom a way of sorting it out. In the West, even though you could get killed, it seems more manageable, like a lone individual might be able to works things out some way. In our society today, the idea of one person making a difference one way or the other is remote.1

Essentially it is the dream of sorting things out and having a strong individual do it. Although in the mythic world of the West the western protagonist could exist without too much friction, in the world of today, like in Coogan’s Bluff, the existence of a loner clearing up problems is problematic.

1. Kenneth Turan ‘A Fistful of Memories: Interview with Clint Eastwood’ in Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman (ed), The Western Reader, New York: Limelight Editions (1998), pp. 245-249. p.249.

Clint Eastwood on Dirty Harry

This is an excerpt from an interview with Clint Eastwood, this concerns what he thought about Dirty Harry. I thought it was interesting that he wanted to communicate that Dirty Harry was not political. The introduction question seems to be a bit leading however that is the nature of the beast concerning interviews.

Gentry: All that business years ago, about Harry being a right winger or a neofascist, as some critics said, it seems to me that they were failing to see Harry in the larger context, this pattern where conventional references for morality is rather obscured.

Eastwood : Well, yeah, there were no conservative over- tones. Actually, it was just critical people who took everything in political terms at that time. We weren’t telling a conservative story. We were just doing a story that involved victims, victims of violent crime. Harry asks the authorities, How come you let the guy go? And they say, Because that’s the law. And Harry answers, Then the law is wrong. That doesn’t mean you’re a fascist. If fascism is blind obedience to authority, then Harry was really the opposite of fascist. He differs with the law in this case. And a lot of people differ with the law, have questions about it. We read about decisions every day that make us ask, How could they do that? There must be some kind of balance there where you can pre- vent a psychopath from going back out on the street and potentially committing another violent crime, which in the story he does. The times have caught up with Harry to an extent. Nowadays there’re organizations for the victims and the families of victims of violent crime. But in those days, when Dirty Harry was first released in theatres, there wasn’t any of that. The tendency was to look at it in terms of the rights of the accused, Miranda and all that. We were merely suggesting that this was a case, an extreme case, where no one was taking the victim into consideration, and there was a serious time factor pertaining to her survival. I don’t think anybody really believes a police officer would go that far for somebody in trouble. I mean, that’s kind of going overboard. Most of the time you figure, Well, you’re off the case. It’s closed. But here was this guy who lived alone and was obsessed with following it through. That was the romance, I think, be- cause who believes there’s some guy out there with that kind of tenacity? I don’t know necessarily agree with Dirty Harry’s philosophy all the way down the line. I don’t disagree with the importance of rights for the accused, either. But we were telling a story, an incident in one man’s life. It was a story worth telling. But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t turn around and do a story about someone who’s been falsely accused or something.1

 

 

1. Ric Gentry, ‘Clint Eastwood: An Interview’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Spring, 1989), pp. 12-23. p. 23.

Interesting Formal Features In Rocky

 

Rocky (1976)

Rocky contains several interesting formal features which attribute to the overall films’ communication of location, mainly an economically deprived Philadelphia. One scene that produces a sense of location is when Rocky approaches the “Lucky Seven Tavern”. The screen composition is interesting with the bar on the right and nothing on the left we are given several facts about Rocky and the people who live in this area of Philadelphia. The darkness on the left is pitch black, there are no stars, nothing to amaze or inspire. The lack of an alternative to the bar is also interesting because Rocky, and several bums on the floor, are offered either alcohol or pure darkness. The scene composition becomes a symbol of the darkness and uninspiring life of the protagonist Rocky, it also indicates that there is, at this time, nothing on the horizon to dream for. The character that represents this dreamless alcoholic life is Rocky’s friend Paulie Pennino. Another interesting formal feature is Rocky’s costume. He wears a dark leather jacket that reflects light slightly. As he walks down the dark road his jacket matches the tarmac exactly, producing an image which communicates that Rocky is at one with his surroundings; including its economic and social depression. Another indication of the economic situation of Rocky’s surrounding is the graphic match between the browns of the brick houses and the brown of the loan sharks’ car. The directing in Rocky is very sharp in creating both the sense of economic deprivation in Philadelphia but also in ensuring that Rocky is communicated as someone borne out of this deprivation.

Genre A Short Definition and Contemplation

Genre is a group of symbols, theories, perceptions, characters, locations and concepts which collectively provide a recognizable framework which helps understanding on the part of the audience and provides a framework of reference for the director so as to ensure the creation of a film in relation to cinematic history and production standards. Genre, and all it entails, also allows the director to deal with social issues in a concentrated form. A genre like Science fiction has always been a tool in-which the anxieties of society concerning technology and science are played out and the common symbols, characters and locations all relate back to this. Genre is not a fixed construct but rather a loose connection of images, ideas and articulations. Not all westerns contain the same images, concepts or perceptions about issues but they will share common elements; essentially genre is a family-resemblance concept. Essentially the western genre isn’t connected by one essential common feature but it is in-fact connected by a series of overlapping similarities, where no one feature is truly common to all.

Proto-Noir and Incomplete Character in the Maltese Falcon?

Maltese Falcon (1941)

Sam Spade isn’t the archetypal noir detective but he is close, he shows the cool command, the detective skills and the hard-boiled cynical nature found in the noir detective however his character lacks a certain trait. This trait is found in his partner but not himself. This trait is the doomed relationship with the femme fatal or the dark-ego female. Frank Krutnik explains ‘Spade is emphatically controlled in his relations with women: he is the master of his feeling and thereby can resist any danger of contamination and debasement through love’.1The ‘contamination and debasement’ though connection with the femme fatal is one of the central aspects of the true noir fiction detective’s personality. As I mentioned in my post about Coogan’s Bluff the interesting aspect of any character is the contradictions apparent in their character. The noir detective is interesting because he is both cool and in-command at the same time in-lust and hypnotised by the femme fatal. Again like the protagonist in Coogan’s Bluff he is both the rule-maker and rule-breaker. Sam Spade is too cool and too in control to be entirely interesting and entirely complete as a noir detective. This isn’t to say that his character doesn’t contain a dark side, he sleeps with his partner’s wife and doesn’t bat an eyelid when given the news concerning the same partner’s death. In combination Sam Spade and his partner create the archetypal noir detective. Stephen Cooper explains that ‘it can be no coincidence that the lascivious Mile Archer [Spade’s partner] is shot to death in the [scene] following’ the attraction and lust of Archer for Brigid O’ Shaughnessy.2Essentially and in concentration Archer suffers the fate that several other detectives will suffer when they become emotionally connected with the femme fatal or dark-ego female. Archer’s story is condensed compared to Walter Neff’s narrative of destruction in Double Indemnity (1944) however it is essentially the same. In many films the attempt to win a heterosexual prize comes along with the conclusion of a narrative, however: in film noir this always leads to death, either one’s own or hers.

Another interesting aspect concerning Archer’s death is that it is so brief, it hardly appears on the screen. We are not given time to build up an emotional state in either the killer or the victim. We are also not allowed to glimpse at the sad sight of Archer’s corpse as Spade refuses to witness it as he believes the police would’ve noticed everything he could have. The refusal to expose the emotional state of the crime in both the murderer and murdered is in fact a structural affect of the Hollywood system. Sam Spade is the focus point, the focalizer, and it is his emotions, his narrative that the camera follows and because he is indifferent to Archer’s death we aren’t given access to the emotional states connected to the murder. Structurally Archer is damned to suffer death and an obscure and unemotional one.

 

1Frank Krutnik, In A Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity, London: Routledge, (1994), p. 123.

2Stephen Cooper ‘Sex/Knowledge/Power in the Detective Genre’ Film Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3, (Spring, 1989), pp. 22-31 p. 24.

The Moral Ambiguity of The Detective Protagonist in Coogan’s Bluff

 

Coogan’s Bluff (1968)

The Western typically was a re-writing and re-imagining of America’s bloody heritage. This re-writing had the foolish Custer as a maverick hero for sometime and continually had the native American-Indian community as symbols of the dark side of ones’ psyche and as simple savages. Coogan’s Bluff and its successors Dirty Harry (1971) et al replaces the re-imagination of America’s past with the hope and dream for a better present which also returns to that re-imagination. One thing that is interesting concerning the appropriation or adoption of the individualistic western protagonist by the detective genre is the moral ambiguity of the protagonist. Robert Warshow comments that:

‘The Westerner at his best exhibits a moral ambiguity which darkens his image and saves him from absurdity; this ambiguity arises from the fact that, whatever his justifications, he is a killer of men.’.1

Essentially Warshow is highlighting that the western protagonist is always a killer and a trespasser of rules. This trait makes him attractive because he is effective in cleaning-up the sewers of a city. However his rule breaking also makes him an non-viable option as he punches, seduces and trespasses where and when he wishes and as Detective Lt. McElroy explains to Coogan “We have a system”. Essentially the switch from gunslinger to detective becomes difficult when one understands that it highlights the difficulty of the American past and American dream; to be both a rule keeper and a rule breaker. And as a detective and a gunslinger Coogan is both diametrically opposed sides at once. Coogan just can’t exist and that is just exactly what makes his character so attractive. Don Siegel’s film becomes an arena in which he can, in Coogan’s words, try “to picture it; the way it was” before and the way it is all at once.

 

1Robert Warshow, ‘Movie Chronicle: The Westerner’ in p. 475.

Character and the Hollywood Continuity System

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

As i mentioned in my post on The End of St. Petersburg (1927) Hollywood tends to concentrate on individuals rather than social or community-based forces as the engine for change and action. I have also mentioned here and there about the continuity system, which at all times hopes to ensure that the viewer identifies with, and understands, the motivations and nature of a central character. The Silence of the Lambs’  introductary scene is a clear indication of this form. The movie’s tagline ‘Clarice Starling, FBI. Brilliant. Vulnerable. Alone.’ is the exact concentration of what the continuity system has to communicate early to the viewer so that they can understand her character, motivations and conflicts. All of the characteristics (bar Vulnerable which is shown in the first scene with Hannibal) are instantly evident and are concentrated in a prolonged introductory first scene. Clarice is running alone, keeping time with herself, working hard beyond the call of duty. She is asked to see her superior for special assignment. Her loneliness and brilliance are both linked. This is proven as she walks into a lift. She is surrounded by people dressed in uniform red jumpers, she wears grey, she is an individual and alone amongst her peers. Her brilliance is proven by the use of a cut to her exiting the lift alone. Essentially the shot is symbolic of her reaching a level that none of her classmates reach. Again we are invited to infer that she is both alone and brilliant. We know she is FBI because she is training at their compound with the intent to graduate and we find out she is vulnerable later on with her meeting with Hannibal (and the use of Flashbacks to her childhood all centralized around her father). All important aspects of Clarice’s character are basically foregrounded in the first few scenes.

The Debt to, and Divergences from, Hollywood Cinema in Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle and Juzo Itami’s Tampopo

Hollywood cinema is a set of generic codes and conventions. These codes and conventions act as motifs which the viewer can understand and identify with. Hollywood cinema is spit into genres such as westerns, musicals and romantic comedies. These genres all adhere to conventions such as ‘clarity… unity… goal-oriented characters… and [narrative] closure’.1 The aim of these conventions is to ensure that the viewer can understand a film, its characters their aims and ambitions and the problems put before them, without difficulty which would inhibit the ability for everyone to potentially engaging with the film [Due to the sheer financial cost of making a film the need to ensure that people understand the narrative is important and this reason marks every Hollywood product].

A Bout de Souffle (1959)

Jean-Luc Godard dedicated A Bout de Souffle to the B-movie studio Monogram Pictures, this statement is indicative of the French New Wave Philosophy. The French New Wave were a loosely connected group of directors (and critics) who asserted that low-budget (B-Movies) American Cinema, often thought negatively as a wholly commercial product, can be equal to the traditionally venerated European Art-house cinema.2 The French New Wave treated Hollywood cinema with the same respect as Art-house cinema because they believed that Hollywood directors were also capable of creating individualistic pieces of art. Godard includes the dedication to Monogram Pictures because he wants to verbalise the influence Hollywood has had on cinema.

The star system is another aspect of Hollywood that Jean-Luc Godard alludes to in A Bout de Souffle. The central character the iconic looking Michel Poiccard imitates the physical mannerism of film star Humphrey Bogart by rubbing his lips with this thumb. Humphrey Bogart was a classic figure of film noir and Poiccard’s imitation of his mannerisms indicates that he believes Bogart to be a model of masculinity. The Hollywood star system ensures that ‘audiences do not just appreciate a stars’ performance on-screen; they also consume the public image’ which fans also attempt to imitate ‘the attire and mannerism’.3 The audience does this because they believe the personality the star exudes is the idea. Poiccard appropriates the mannerism of Bogart in an effort to become that ideal of masculinity. Again Godard is foregrounding the debt to Hollywood. What this allusion does is introduce the idea that France’s youth are being influenced by the cultural output of Hollywood and this cultural influence adds weight to the French New Wave assertion that commercial cinema is as important as Art-house cinema.

 

 

(A lack of emotional connection. As Poiccard looks at Patricia she can only look at herself, and her own emotional performance)

 

Jean-Luc Godard pays homage to Hollywood in A Bout de Souffle, but he also upsets the central principles of Hollywood cinema. Godard’s film represents a significant divergence from the continuity editing system, The basic purpose of the continuity editing system is to establish a smooth continuous flow from shot to shot.4 The graphic, rhythmic, spatial and temporal relationship is edited so as to look smooth and uninterrupted. The movement from shot to shot is edited so that at all times an aspect of a shot, such as ‘shapes, colours, tones of light or dark, or the direction or speed of movement’ is graphically matched to its corresponding shot, thereby ensuring a sense of aesthetic continuity.5 In A Bout de Souffle Godard uses the jump shot to create a sense of anxiety and dislocation. In a scene where Michel is explaining the physical aspects of Patricia he loves the camera jumps from shot to shot. The viewer becomes dislocated, unable to grasp the scene’s location: Godard is using the jump shot to replicate the character’s sense of isolation. Both Patricia and Michel are isolated from the culture they belong to, Michel is a criminal and Patricia is in a foreign county, and they attempt to find friendship in each others company. This attempt is futile because Godard refuses to use the shot-reverse-shot technique which would signify their connection; the jump shot ensures that both Michel and Patricia remain isolated individuals even when in each others company. The form of the jump shot ensures the characters in A Bout de Souffle remain isolated individuals without any hope of deep meaningful connection. This sense of isolation is repeated in the scene where Patricia and Michel making love, yet they still struggle to connect and ultimately remain isolated. Although they both constantly talk to each other they barely look at each other. Patricia looks past Michel as he talks to her, the scene then jumps to Michel alone looking into his reflection. This signifies the failure in communication that typifies Michel and Patricia’s relationship.

 

The Mise-en-Scene is also an indicator of the barrier between them; Michel puts on a dressing gown which contains vertical stripes while Patricia wears a tip with horizontal stripes, essentially they are going in different directions. Godard is communicating a sense of distance and isolation between the sexes and the editing technique of the jump shot communicates this perfectly. Because Godard doesn’t use the continuity editing system he Is able to communicate the sense of fragmentation and isolation through the form of the film. The continuity system advocates seamlessness between shots, but seamlessness would not be adequate as a tool to illustrate the fragmented and isolated experience that Godard is trying to communicate in A Bout de Souffle.

 

Tampopo (1985)

 

The western is a heavily stylized and conventional genre which relies on the regular and recognisable to create a frame through which narrative is communicated smoothly. Narrative is transmitted principally by the use of motifs, such as the six-shooter, the saloon, the isolated homestead, the prostitute and the drifter. The western genre (and most narratives) positions good against evil, civilisation against individualism. The film theorist Leo Braudy explains that directors use genre films, such as the western, because of their ‘ability to express the warring traditions in society and the social importance of understanding convention’ in essence a genre is a prefabricated framework in-which the auteur can explore and challenge assumptions and conventions.6 Juzo Itami uses the western genre because of its highly stylized from; he does this to foreground the highly stylized nature of Japanese tradition and etiquette. The tradition and structure of the western genre is repeatedly alluded to in the start of Tampopo. The character of Goro, dressed in a cowboy hat and shirt resembling John Wayne, represents the individualistic force that helps society thrive by teaching lessons learnt while in the wilderness. The first scene of Goro and Gun’s story starts with an exposition shot which introduces the isolated nature of the noodle bar. Inside the noodle bar generic bad guys, all dressed in black leather, loiter around, installing a sense that the good are outnumbered. Goro, as the traditional western hero, fightings to defend Tampopo’s honour. He walks outside for a fight, an allusion to the traditional fistfight outside of a saloon that features in many westerns. Itami constructs a world filled with stereotypical characters, actions and plot sequence. Itami does this not only as homage to the genre and tradition of the western but also as a device to get the audience thinking about traditions, structure and etiquette. Itami uses the structure of the western genre to make the viewer aware of the standards that are automatically accepted in genre, tradition and the closely allied etiquette. This point is illustrated in a scene in which a large group of Japanese women are listening to a teacher explain the etiquette of eating spaghetti. She explains that while you are eating spaghetti you should not make any noise whatsoever. Her advice is contradicted by a European-looking man’s noisy slurping of spaghetti, the whole group then comically attempt to create as much slurping noise as possible in order to mimic the European-looking man’s way of eating. Here Itami is exposing that we only eat the way we do because we are to taught to, etiquette and tradition is just a collection of arbitrary rules imposed by the past on the present and future. Itami is engaging critically with the tradition and etiquette of Japanese food culture by exposing it. In Tampopo Itami seems to be criticising those who use tradition and etiquette to stand in the way of enjoyment and pleasure that can be taken from food. He illustrates this point in a scene containing several Japanese businessmen. Most of the businessman order the same meal so as not to highlight their own and their business partners’ ignorance concerning foreign food. The youngest businessman breaks the rules of etiquette by attempting to sit down before his elders and by ordering extravagant food. The camera cuts to below the table to show the youngest businessman being kicked repeatedly in the ankle. Tradition demands that the youngest businessman order the same food as his elders but he doesn’t. Itami illustrates that tradition and etiquette can stifle personal pleasure and enjoyment by requiring the individual to adhere to a set of rules opposed to experimentation and freedom. Genre is at times a constrictive entity that imposes an ideology on film-making, hindering personal expression; yet Itami uses generic conventions and expectations as a structure in-which to foreground assumptions and expectations. Itami places the cowboy next to the cook in Tampopo and illuminates how we accept, and create, tradition.

Both Breathless and Tampopo pay homage to certain aspects of Hollywood cinema. Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless alludes to the strength of the Hollywood star system. Michel Poiccard’s attachment to and appropriation of the myth of Humphrey Bogart highlights the cultural influence America and Hollywood has upon France. Michel Poiccard appropriates Bogart’s mannerism in an attempt to create a person he believes the pinnacle of masculinity. Godard continues his homage to Hollywood as he dedicates Breathless to the B-movie studio Monogram Pictures. Godard seems to be highlighting that American cultural output is a highly influential force that is shaping the younger generations of 1950’s France. This could indicate that individuals are no longer seeing themselves as citizens of a singular nationality; instead individuals see their own personality as a fragmented performance alluding to contrasting cultural influences. In Breathless Godard seems concerned about the American influence. Both Michel and Patricia attempt to have a meaningful relationship relationship but find it impossible to communicate. This is signified by the use of the jump cut which leaves both characters isolated when speaking. Breathless seems to illustrate that the increased globalization of art and culture in fact leaves the individual more isolated and more alone than before. The nature of Hollywood’s influence on France seems to be both positive and negative. Hollywood offers the youth of France new heroes and systems of thought yet at the same time ensuring their isolation and loneliness. Juzo Itami also pays homage to Hollywood in his film Tampopo. Itami alludes to the western genre both by appropriating its narrative structure and iconography. In doing this Itami can highlight the structured and highly stylized nature of Japanese culture. Itami concentrates on illustrating how food etiquette is constructed. Because Itami is able to play with the structure of the western to create something new, the rules of etiquettes also seem open to play. Itami also criticises those who use tradition to hide their own ignorance in Tampopo, yet the films central message seems to be that the fulfilling enjoyment that good food brings is central to good hearty relationships. Both Breathless and Tampopo allude to the powerful cultural influence of Hollywood. They also use aspects of Hollywood cinema to create and illustrate aspects of their own culture. The constant allusion to Hollywood cinema seems to indicate that to make cinema is to instigate a dialogue with ones own culture and surrounding cultures, and in this way we are not totally isolated but connected by art and cultural products.

 

1Full quote ‘clarity (viewers shouldn’t not be confused about space, time or events), Unity (cause and effect connections are direct and complete), goal-oriented characters (they are active and invite identification), and closure (loose ends are tied up, often through romantic union).’ [M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis (ed), Film a Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing, (2007) p. 312.]

2Phil Powrie & Keith Reader, French Cinema: A Student’s Guide, Oxon: Arnold Publishers, (2002), p. 21.

3M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis. (ed), Film a Critical Introduction, p. 356.

4David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, Third Edition, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990) p. 218.

5David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, p. 210.

6Leo Braudy, ‘The World in a Frame: Genre: The conventions of Connection’ in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen, (ed) Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Second Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), p. 448.

The Communication of Era In Cinema

Directors wishing to portray a definitive era in a movie use certain techniques which also produce nostalgic emotions of a sense of authenticity which are both beneficial to cinema as art and a commercial product. In Films such as O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) the colour brown is used to produce an affect of a faded and lost past. This makes the film similar to looking at a very old photograph aged sepia-brown. This imbues the whole form of the film with a sense of a by-gone era. The use of browns also strips away, or inhibits, the editors’ [or whoever] ability to produce a slick glossy product as sepia-brown ensures an aesthetic affect which communicates a reality opposed to the whole editing process.

Another common technique, used more and more regularly due to the financial importance of a film having a commercially viable soundtrack, is the use of music. This is normally non-diegetic however occasionally this is a main part of the diegesis. One movie that uses music to produce a sense of era is Donnie Darko (2001). All through the film a classic eighties soundtrack is played which injects a sense of place, time and atmosphere. Using music of a definitive era helps communicate the atmosphere that the director wants as they can use a specific genre of music to imbue the film with an emotion. The music of the seventies can both be used to communicate a riotous sense of anger with a punk soundtrack and create a sense of love and romance with a use of disco soundtrack.

Blade Runner and the Postmodern use of Mise-en-scene

 

Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a film that explores contemporary theories of the postmodern. The film explores, through the detective figure Deckard, questions of authenticity. An aspect of postmodernity is the loss of faith in traditional meta-narratives [meta-narratives are the overarching stories that explains and legitimises knowledge or belief. Some traditional meta-narratives are Christianity, Communism and Scientific progress]. Questioning or losing faith in these narratives means that the individual inquires about their own subjectivity; and is left with no system of authentication. History, or how we have become to be, is a meta-narrative that is questioned explicitly in Blade Runner. History is a narrative which tends to explain events as linear, every event has its cause and affect; eras come one after another in dialectical progress. Even though in reality the change of era and cause of events are not easily understood the narrative of History constructs and validates a reality of existence which is understandable and rational.1


Blade Runner subverts our sense of history through the technique of mise-en-scene. In Blade Runner, Rachel, dressed as the archetypical femme fatal of film noir, goes to Deckard’s apartment with the intention of questioning him about the results of a ‘Voight-Kampff’. The scene moves smoothly into the new space of Deckard’s apartment with the traditional establishing shot, the framing of the important scene adheres to the Classic Hollywood continuity editing system. The use of the establishing shot gives the viewer time to process the alien-like mise-en-scene. The mise-en-scene combines the common domestic with the bizarre and unrecognisable, imbuing the scene with an eerie sense of the familiar, which raises questions about a disconnected sense of heritage. Although the domestic aspects are familiar with our own, the kitchen sink and cupboards, we are unable to relate the aesthetic and technological advances to our contemporary life. The mise-en-scene is important as it reveals that underneath all of the questions about Rachel’s authenticity there is a lack of rational connection with our society to the society shown. The structures that surround the characters are disconnected from any logical progression in fashion and science.

Ridley Scott raises problems concerning the conception of history as dialectical progress, cause and affect, in Blade Runner. Earlier in the film, during the opening scenes, we see that the future Los Angeles is a vision of an alien future disconnected from the present day geographic entity. Los Angeles had been transformed into a city splintering upwards with harsh vertical lines, dark shadows and bright lights; Los Angeles has been transformed into a city more reminiscent of New York.2 The philosopher Derrida once declared that nothing is outside the text; the use of continuity editing could itself be seen as an ironic example of this.3 The classical Hollywood system of narrative is itself an organizing system which explains and legitimises knowledge, and like the historical meta-narrative it orders events into cause and effect. Blade Runner critiques the use of meta-narratives to explain and rationalize while functioning from within one, therefore is a representation of postmodernity.

 

1R, Appignanesi & C, Garratt. Postmodernism for Beginners, Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd, (1995), p. 82.

2Scott Bukatman, Blade Runner BFI Classics, London: BFI (1997), p. 61.

3R, Appignanesi & C, Garratt. Postmodernism for Beginners, p. 79.

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.

Brief Notes On The Continuity Editing System

The continuity system is the common method that Hollywood employs when it produces a film. The continuity system is completely aesthetic. The continuity system produces films with a ‘editing [style] that is carefully calibrated with the action on screen.’◊ The action, movement is be edited so that the audience can understand at all times any conflict and any relationships – spatial or emotional. The continuity system is a guideline that helps produce a sense of correct spatial relationships. Eyeline matches between person and object help locate the audience in the scene and help highlight any importance object holds.

Another important note regarding the continuity system is that it holds that the narrative, and how the narrative is shown, should move in a linear fashion. That is; from cause to affect. Ocasionally this is disrupted, such as in the analepsis (flashback) style of narrative famous in Film Noir, however one thing that remains is that once in the action of the film the editing composes the film in a order so that every action is understandable. In Double Indemnity (1944) Walter Neff’s narration is composed so that every action he re-tells is rationalized and given a clear motive. This ensures that the audience at all times understands where and why the action is taking place.

◊ Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis (ed), Film: A Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing (2008) p. 213.

[On a side note my father is currently staying so full entries on individual movies is not easy, however i have several notes filled in a little yellow book and will be writing those up]

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.

Modern Hollywood and the Continuity System

Happy Gilmore (1996)

The continuity system, that Modern Hollywood adheres to, hopes to unite ‘the potentially dis-unifying force of editing by establishing a smooth flow from shot to shot’◊ Mise-en-Scene [basically ‘what you see’] is included into that continuity system. At all times in Happy Gilmore conflict, important to the narrative structure, has to be communicated to the audience. This is achieved by the simple technique of foregrounding diametrically opposed forces thrust together and unable to part. In Happy Gilmore this is the violent Ice Hockey-playing Sandler and the calm, mannered golf community thrust together by circumstance. His clothes, as indicated by the photo, are at odds with the pastel colours of the crowd and his mannerisms, extreme displays of pleasure, are at odds with the reserved displays of displeasure. This overt and rather brash technique is not just used in comedy films but all Hollywood films because at all times the audience must be aware of the tension and conflict that contributes to the narrative. In essence at no time in Happy Gilmore must the audience not know what the ultimate goal is and who the protagonist and antagonist are.

 

◊ Bordwell, D. & Thompson, K. , FIlm Art, (Reading: Addison Wesley: 1980) p. 163