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.
Mad Max (1979)
The sense of a dislocated post-apocalypse society is communicated in Mad Max by the continued use of the road as position of action. The main community we see is the biker-gang of Toecutter. Their violent and brutal gang community is a significant signifier of the loss of respect and lawlessness of the future world being portrayed. The use of the bare road set amongst scrub ground also dislocates us from those structures of culture and the past. The bare vision of scrub ground is similar to the wide-vista’s of the western, however the function is radically different. As the western is set in the past the nothingness signifies at least something to conquer and build on. The small towns we know will develop into prosperous cities full of life, law and order (mostly). However because the nothingness of Mad Max is set in the future that nothingness doesn’t signify potential but rather something lost, something worryingly absent. Even the roads surrounded by structures are worryingly vacant as chain link fences occupy the space where houses and drives should be. A lack of work place and offices are also worrying as no driving force for change and redevelopment can be seen. The dilapidated “Halls of Justice” signify the loss of order and law. The damaged and rusted sign symbolises this. Mad Max communicates a dislocated post-apocalypse future world easily by continuously using motifs such as leaving the shots vacant of buildings that signify culture. The use of open roads and scrub land also communicate this a sense of nothingness.
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.
Will it Snow for Christmas? (1996)
The opening scene of Will it Snow for Christmas? is shot like a home movie. It begins with a handheld shot, filmed at the children’s’ eye level. The scene contains jerking movements, which replicates the rushing anarchy of children playing. Though the colours are saturated, the lighting of the scene is naturalistic. After an establishing shot, filmed from the perspective of the Father’s Truck – a fact we are not yet made aware of – we see a point of view shot from the children looking back towards the red truck. It then cuts back again to the fathers P.O.V, who again situates the viewer in the surroundings of the isolated farm – this isolation, introduced by the technique of loose framing, becomes a repeated motif. The continuity of the trucks continued voyage, between cuts to the children, is called Match on Action and is a traditional rule of continuity editing, which relates to spatial and temporal issues. These combined naturalistic techniques help to create an aesthetical sense of the real. This issue of the aesthetically real is combined with a concern to present normal diction and dialogue. The work of the farm is also represented as hard and the issue of immigration is treated as matter of fact. The use of exposition is characteristic of many films, and Will it Snow for Christmas? Is no different. It is this phase of the film that motifs are established; the irregularity of this film is that its aesthetics are more akin to documentary than other forms of French Cinema, such as the Heritage films, the Cinema du Look and French New Wave. 1.
The motif of the real is also encapsulated in the representation of time. The changing seasons bring corresponding activates and problems for the Mother and her Children. And in this way the story is represented as real through an episodic narrative, which moves along with simple cause and effect logic – a convention of most documentary films. The simplicity of seasonal change affecting the narrative ensures a sense of repetition is imbued in the films structure, along with a sense of the inevitable among the characters. We believe the films representation of life due to the seemingly logical procession of the seasons, but within this we also expect narrative closure with reference to the films title. As winter closes in we expect the narrative to change from an episodic collective into a neatly tied up ending, a closure of narrative found regularly in the nostalgia films of the 1980-90’s. 2. The last scene, where the mothers P.O.V shot shows the children enthusiastically playing in the snow, could be seen at a basic level as a tying up of narrative, the question in the title of the film is answered by its snowing on Christmas. In essence this ending is a continuation of the episodic nature of the film, all we were allowed to see before were episodes of experience, and the viewer can presume that as the seasons change again, the children, though older, will go through the same cycle every year.
1. Pramaggiore, M. & Wallis, T (Ed). Film a Critical Introduction, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2007). PP 286-289
2. Lanzoni, R.F. French Cinema – From its Beginnings to the Present, (London: Continuum International Publishing 2004) PP 299-347