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.
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.
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.’.These 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’.The 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.’ 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’. 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’ .
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.
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.
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