A Quick Film Roundup

So we write short things on the films we screen for my film class.

Cinematography: Vertigo

This sequence serves to situate us within the scene, the chase, before derailing us, leaving the chase behind and shifting the focus from the pursuit of the fugitive to the rescue of Scottie, who slips and hangs perilously from a gutter high above the ground. The importance of this scene, narratively, is to introduce Scottie’s acrophobia, which is why I end the sequence with the dolly zoom “vertigo effect,” which makes the ground appear both immediate and far away. In shot 1, the three characters jump from one rooftop to another: the first two make it, but Scottie, doesn’t. This stationary shot feels simply like another establishing shot, until suddenly it isn’t: Scottie slips and the focus is no longer on the forward motion of the chase, but on the backward and downward motion of the fall. All throughout this shot a neon light—“SP”—flashes just to the right of the center of the frame. In a shot so laced with suspense (the low lighting, building music, and quick action), the steady heartbeat-like pulsing of the light, though slow, serves to ramp up the tension. As Scottie falls in shots 2 and 3, he falls downward; the camera does not follow him, it seems uninterested in his fate as he slides out of frame. In shot 4, we center on Scottie’s terrified face as he looks imploringly up in the direction we know the policeman to have gone. In shot 5, we see the both the policeman’s face and the fugitive to highlight the decision the policeman makes in allowing the fugitive to reach the edge of the frame. As the policeman turns he is no longer moving up and forwards, but down and back. Shot 6 echoes shot 4, but now Scottie looks down—at the ground which we see in shot 7 through a POV shot which allows us to feel some of Scottie’s vertigo through the use of a dolly zoom. We, like Scottie, are disoriented and, through the movement of the camera (which is made more jarring because it follows a series of static, rather impersonal shots), we are made to visually and viscerally experience the feeling of falling, placing us directly in Scottie’s head and uniting us with him in his fear of heights.

Animation: Duck Amuck and Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons

While Duck Amuck pushes at the limits of cinema and explores the advantages of cel animation over live action film, it remains, steadfastly, a product of Hollywood and more traditional animation, without exploring the possibilities of cel animation itself, in the way of films such as Robert Breer’s. Technically, Duck Amuck adheres to most of the traditional “rules” for animation: continuity (and an illusion of seamless movement), representational drawing style, narrative progression. . . Duck Amuck has all these. We clearly recognize Daffy Duck (indeed, to some extent the film relies on our recognition of Daffy Duck and his place in our cultural canon as, in the film, he is sometimes presented to us by only one of his parts: his bill, his voice, etc.) and we follow the narrative of the story, as unconventional as it may be, as Daffy battles his offscreen nemesis in the form of the animator. Where Duck Amuck is exceptional is in its subject: its self-reflexiveness, its engagement with cel animation as a form with capabilities beyond that of live action film, and its exploration of film itself. In the film, Daffy finds himself grappling with the very nature of animation, of cinematic technique, and narrative form, as each element (framing, color, sound, setting, background) is isolated and deconstructed, much to Daffy’s frustration. However, despite its innovations, explorations, and devices, Duck Amuck remains thoroughly recognizable and understandable to its viewer. Nothing in its techniques is revolutionary; it is simply tradition cel animation being used to explore and deconstruct itself.

Robert Breer’s Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons*, on the other hand, is less radical in its subject and moreso in its exploration of animation technique. It dispenses with many of the concerns of traditional animation, distancing it from Hollywood products like Duck Amuck, concerning itself with motion, rather than continuity, association, rather than narrative. The animation of Swiss Army Knife is simpler, freer, than the style of Duck Amuck. Unburdened by ideas of continuity, it jumps from one frame to the next, implying motion, but not always representing it. There is no narrative to Swiss Army Knife; instead there is an exploration of the free association of objects. What we actually see of the knife, the pigeon, the rat, the tape dispenser is not important; instead, it is the impression they leave and the cohesion of apparently disconnected images it achieves by the end which stick with us, challenging the traditional notions of what hand-drawn animation can achieve.

*I absolutely love this title because I almost always think it’s “Still Life with Rats and Pigeons,” and I like to imagine Breer did that on purpose.

Further note: I was not allowed to, for this assignment, write about Breer’s Fuji which we also screened and which I loved (it’s absolutely beautiful). So have a picture from it, even though a single picture does not convey any of the actual beauty of the film. So go watch it.

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Mise en Scène: Playtime

In Playtime, Tati plays with many forms of mise en scène to guide the viewer’s eye around his carefully constructed shots, but he is particularly fond of using composition, color, and auditory cues to direct our attention. Tati’s composition is often untraditional, as he uses careful framing to guide our eyes to usually peripheral parts of the frame, rather than centering the frame on his subject. For instance, he splits a shot of the lobby between the gaggle of American tourists in the foreground and a mass of movement on the right side, which clears to reveal the subject of our attention “upstage”: the polkadotted woman, who moves across the emptier half of the frame, stealing our attention from the tourists, despite the fact that she is neither near us in the frame, nor directly at its center. Color, too, draws our eye to her as the brightness of her polkadots draws our eye to her. Tati produces a similar effect with the luminous green of Barbara’s dress which stands out from the dresses of the other tourists, capturing our attention. He plays with sound, too, using it to draw our attention to certain people, despite often mixing up depth cues by selecting noises or conversation for us to hear, though they are too far away for us to hear in reality. For example, as the polkadotted woman enters the dining room, she has our attention until, out of nowhere, the voice of the waiter before her suddenly rises above the din clearly (though he had been speaking before—one can see his mouth moving), causing us to seek the source of the sound and attend to him. Tati uses more normal auditory cues, too, as with the whistle of the passing boys which pulls our attention to Barbara—the cause of the whistle—emphasizing her importance.

Tati’s style is primarily denotative, as it guides us through his composition gently, as if taking us by the hand and saying “Look there!” but it also has a strong footing in the decorative, which operates alongside the denotive to draw our attention through color (the contrast of bright colors agains the largely somber palette) and creation and disruption of visual pattern. This last is largely what Tati’s gags arise from as with the short man interrupting the pattern of people being welcomed and the gliding woman, interrupting the pattern of normal movement.

Sound: Mulholland Dr.

Lynch’s use of sound not merely as support for the image, but as a medium equally important to the conveyance of themes and creation of an aesthetic, underscores Falsetto’s point that Mulholland Dr. takes as one of its subjects “the illusory power and potentially destructive effects that movies can have” and that its “narrative movement is hallucinatory and elliptical.”

Perhaps the most obvious example of Lynch’s aural exploration of the illusory power of cinema comes in the scene at the Silencio nightclub where Lynch very obviously plays with the idea of synchresis. He announces to us that we are about to partake in an illusion and demonstrates to us that, though we know this logically, we are not able to resist connecting the sound we hear with the image we see, resulting in our believing the mimed emotion of the singer because we connect it to the real emotion of the canned song. Cinema, too, is an illusion and an obvious one at that. No one goes into a movie expecting it to be real, expecting or believing it to be anything other than an illusion and yet people continue to be moved by movies.   Lynch encapsulates this idea through the allegory of sound and synchresis, demonstrating to us that our inability to resist the audiovisual contract by which we seek to connect what we see and hear even against the logic of what we know is parallel to our inability to resist the seduction of the illusion of cinema though we know it to be fake.

Lynch’s use of sound is not limited to the exploration of his themes, but extends also into the creation of an elliptical world of illusion and hallucination by flouting many of the rules of sound as set out by Chion. According to Chion, cinema is voco and verbocentric, however Mulholland Dr. is not defined by either of these. Often, ambient, atmospheric sounds take priority over or the place of dialogue or vocal sounds, in order to add to the hallucinatory, dreamlike feeling of the world the film inhabits. The screeching roar of the car leaving the airport which turns into a synthetic atmospheric rumble and replaces the maniacal laughter of the elderly couple is an instance of this. So, too, is the moment when Dan is confronted by his nightmarish vision and falls with an unheard scream, replaced by the rumblings of the soundtrack, which also obscure and modify the concerned dialogue of the other man, flying in the face of voco and verbocentrism. Even in scenes where we can hear dialogue, it is often prioritized below other sounds in the mix. This is especially true of the scene in which the director discovers his wife’s adultery and is beat up by her lover; though we can hear all the dialogue, the non-diegetic music of the soundtrack and the over-amplified sound effects of impacts take priority over and steal our attention from the dialogue. All these moments are ones in which the natural choice would be to prioritize the sound of the voice, whose importance is made clear both by the narrative and the image, but Lynch’s decision to prioritize the threatening, ambient entirely synthetic rumbles adds to our sense of unreality just as much as the constant wavering and circular floating of the camera.

[For the record: I really don’t like David Lynch.]

Expanded Cinema: In the House of Mr. X

In the House of Mr. X is nothing short of an experience. It requires one to give oneself up to it and its disembodied text-type/voice tour-guide completely, a surrender which is made possible by its black box presentation. Because it is is presented in a black box within a white cube, the shock of entering the black box is heightened by means of the contrast between the gallery-like feel of the white cube (which forces the viewer to navigate a physical space, all of which is clearly visible to them, and allows them to define the temporality of their interaction with the art) and the ability of the black box to prevent both navigation of and interaction with space in the physical sense, cutting the viewer off from their perception of and place in the environment, rather than heightening it. As one enters the black box, the rest of the world falls away. One may sit or stand, but the important thing is that one may not choose where to direct one’s attention, as is possible in the white cube. Mr. X proves Balsom’s point that the direction and allocation of attention is the most important factor in the white cube/black box debate. Were Mr. X to be shown in a white cube, it would be in constant competition for its viewers’ attention and it would not be able to exert the amount of power it does. Walking into the black box screening of Mr. X, one immediately feels as if they’ve left the white cube of the gallery far behind. The blackness upon walking in is total: unlike in a movie theater, there are no exit signs to orient oneself by, to remind one of the space one’s in, no little strips of lights along the floor. Instead there is complete, omnipresent, overbearing blackness, except for the screen, which, by dint of being the only source of light, is the only thing to look at. It has all of one’s attention immediately and holds it, because there is nothing to distract. This is the kind of dramatic encounter with film a black box can stage which a white cube or a traditional movie theater is not capable of. Even if the one small wooden bench does not encourage one to spend hours in the small space the way a comfortable movie theater seat does, one is not being constantly pulled away by peripheral attention and the simple awareness of the fact that there is more to look at the way there is in a white cube. Attention caught, one can fully experience the color, sound, and atmosphere of the film and feel that they are in it. The film, after all, is a complete immersion of the viewer into the space of the house. We are commanded by our text-type tour guide to enter, to sit, to enjoy, to sleep. To stay and watch the film is to surrender oneself to this tour guide, to the film.

The constancy of the presentation (in that it is looped) and the means of its presentation by projection add to this as well as it feels that there is no limit to the film, to the experience of it. Unlike on a monitor screen, it lacks visible edges, boundaries, and instead feels as if it is one’s entire field of vision because there is nothing to see around it. The sound, too, contained in the small world of the black box, is very immediate and overwhelming, overpowering one’s senses. In short, the lack of “real world” environment and complete immersion in the space of the film made possible by the black box, allows the viewer to feel give themselves over to the film and the viewing experience, feeling a connection to it much more viscerally than normally possible.

Spectatorship and Ideology: Daisies

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The obvious question after reading Mulvey’s essay is—I think—if it is possible for a film to be both feminist and pleasurable, if any sort of pleasure outside the patriarchal one is at all possible in filmmaking or must all feminist film exist in Mulvey’s idea of a “passionate detachment” and a destruction of pleasure. I think it is possible to take Chytilova’s Daisies as evidence of the possibility of non-patriarchal pleasure in cinema (though I can see possible arguments for the reverse, too). Daisies possesses and creates a sheer joy which is shared by the viewer in watching it, but in a manner which is not voyeuristic. We spend the entire movie watching the girls indulge themselves in a completely infantile manner. They do not, in their indulgence, seek to displace men in their dominant patriarchal role, but instead invent a new register in which to operate, a new space for themselves to inhabit, outside sexuality. Though they may dress in lingerie and short dresses, they do not do so because they are interested in sex or because the filmmakers are interested in making them appear “sexy” for the viewer, but because it is part of their larger game and creation of chaos in which they seduce, confound, humiliate, and overcome older men. The clothes are, for them, incidental instruments of a larger, destructive pleasure.

I think, though, one of the best scenes to discuss in terms of Mulvey and cinematic pleasure outside the masculine is the scene in which the girls cut one another up with dramatically large scissors (4:45-5:41 of “‘Nobody pays any attention to us’ and collage”). In this scene, the girls are wearing lingerie, but they might as well be wearing sacks for all the attention the camera pays them. What is really interesting here, though, is the literal representation of what Mulvey describes as the “fragmented body” close-ups lend to cinematic eroticism. Throughout the film, the girls have demonstrated a bizarre delight in cutting (particularly phallically shaped objects—sausages, pickles), but here they actually cut one another up, fragmenting their own bodies on screen in a literal demonstration of the cutting up of women Mulvey describes, parodying it to the point where it means nothing. For of course as we look at these disembodied heads and limbs, our view is not voyeuristic as we get no pleasure from the fragmentation as in a traditional Hollywood close-up of Marlene Dietrich’s legs. The sight is, instead, absurd and we revel with the girls in the destruction and absurdity of it.

Narrative Organization: Citizen Kane

The opening scenes of the film perhaps best encapsulate the dichotomy between plot and story, not just in Citizen Kane, but in film. The film opens with the death of an unknown man in an unknown setting with absolutely no context. We don’t even see the man’s face; only his lips and mustache as he whispers the word “Rosebud,” and his hand as he drops a snow globe, which smashes. This sequence begins the “plot” (as defined by Bordwell and Thompson as the presentation of the story) of Citizen Kane, but there is nothing yet of the “story” (the story being the chain of events in chronological order) of the movie in it. This scene of a man dying, smashing a snow globe, and then being covered in a sheet by a nurse does not let us into the story of Citizen Kane in and of itself, it requires later context to do so. Of course, a viewer might assume, based on the title of the film, that the dying man is the titular character, but this assumption is an injection of story into a scene which is unadulterated plot. In terms of the plot of the movie, the viewer is not supposed to understand this scene. We aren’t supposed to know for certain that this is Kane, but our curiosity has been raised. Welles’ camera work has drawn our attention to several things which cause us to ask a few questions: Who is this man (literally (beyond the lips and mustache) and more deeply)? Why does he say Rosebud? What does the snow globe mean? These are the questions raised by these first few moments of the film and they are the questions which drive the plot—but not the story—of the movie.

The scene that comes on the heels of this sequence is that of the newsreel, “News on the March,” which tells, in the most basic terms, the story of Kane as it  recounts the chain of events of his life in chronological order. However this scene is not unadulterated story like the earlier one was unadulterated plot. It functions in conjunction with the plot to raise further questions in the viewer, create further curiosity and suspense. While the plot of the movies seeks to answer those earlier three questions, the plot and the story work together to answer many smaller questions of story which are raised in the newsreel toward the creation and furtherance of the overall plot. For instance, we know that he will divorce Emily and Susan right from the first, but we do not know why until the plot reveals it to us. Welles’ juxtaposition of these two scenes sets up the structure of the entire movie, whose recalled flashbacks both seek to fill in the gaps of the newsreel and answer the question: who is Citizen Kane? The first part of this is story and is easily resolvable through the revelation of facts to fill in the chain of events. The second question, that of the plot, is harder as we get many different pictures of Kane, who is only ever filtered through the eyes of those around him. In the end, Welles gives us something of an answer in a shot in which Kane is reflected infinitely between two mirrors: there are infinite Kanes, each a facet of the protean man himself.

Non-Narrative Organization: Man with a Movie Camera

Title: MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA ¥ Year: 1928 ¥ Dir: VERTOV, DZIGA ¥ Ref: MAN297AB ¥ Credit: [ VUFKU / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

In his manifesto, Vertov declares that “for his inability to control his movements, WE temporarily exclude man as a subject for film,” as part of a break from what he calls “the old films” which were based on the romance and the psychological drama, in favor of a new, pure cinema, which is “an art of movement” (7). This rejection of man as a subject is evident from the very opening of the film, where Vertov tricks the viewer, giving him the figure of the cameraman to focus on, as if he were going to be some sort of main character, but immediately rejects him and turns instead to the camera, the process of filmmaking, and the machine.

The film itself begins with a shot of a movie camera pointed towards (but not at) the viewer and, a few seconds in, a miniature cameraman appears above it, wielding a movie camera, with which he begins to film something offscreen to the right. We cut to a shot of the roof of a building, which, according to normal filmic language, is the thing the cameraman is filming. We repeat a variation of this pattern again, cutting back to the cameraman and then to a shot of a lamppost, but the continuity here has been violated. In the second shot of the cameraman, he packs up his camera and disappears below the edge of the larger camera (which remains stationary) and then we get the shot of the lamppost, which we feel as if we are seeing through the cameraman’s camera because of the earlier match between camera and rooftop, but we know logically that we can’t be, since the camera has been taken away. Thus, Vertov has, in merely 4 shots, set up a pattern of continuity and subsequently destroyed it, signaling to the viewer that normal filmic language will not be at play in the film about to be seen, that mainstream methods of viewing and comprehension won’t work.

Through the creation and destruction of this continuity, Vertov has also rejected the cameraman (and thereby man) as a possible subject for his film. For the brief moment where we look at the rooftop as if from the cameraman’s POV, he is our subject, our means of orientation, but the moment this continuity is broken, so is our identification with the man. Instead, we are identified with the camera, and not the one he carries, but the one which has dominated most of the frame in shots 1 and 3. That the cameraman leaves the frame in shot 3 and yet we continue to see what the camera films eliminates him as a central figure and replaces his vision with that of the camera itself. Vertov’s focus then, is not the man operating the machine, but the machine itself and how that machine changes our view of the world, perfects it—which is where Vertov’s idea of the kino-eye comes in.

As we progress through the opening sequence, it becomes increasingly apparent that man is secondary to an examination of machines: the projector dwarfs the projectionist, the band’s instruments (which take on the feel of machines themselves) are the focus not their players, and even the cinema hall’s chairs appear as machines, opening synchronously of their own accord. Men will only become interesting to Vertov when they break from the “psychological” which prevents them “from being as precise as a stopwatch” (7), which explains why, later in the film, man becomes much more central when he begins to appear more and more machinelike (as in the sports sequence). Before that point, man is secondary to his achievements: elevators, trolley cars, automobiles, dams, and especially the camera. It is only when man approaches mechanistic perfection that he becomes interesting to Vertov, who films him simply as if he were just another machine, another set of chairs opening as one.

Modes of Documentary: Sink or Swim

Sink or Swim does not seek to explain the world to us. Instead, it attempts to arrive at a further understanding of aspects of the world by a complication of our understanding of familial and father-daughter relationships, undercutting our normal conceptions with ambiguous complexities and doubts. As such, the film does not seek reveal except in the most general sense: the gradual narrative revelation of the girl’s relationship with her father and her understanding of herself. Neither does it record, as recording suggests a sort of immediacy and contemporaneity which Sink or Swim does not pretend to. Nor does it try to persuade us of anything; indeed, it categorically avoids persuasion, allowing the viewer to draw his own conclusions. Rather, it is a film which seeks to interrogate and express. Renov, in describing the category of interrogation, asserts that it takes place often “through a layering and resonance of heterogeneous elements” and that “the analytical impulse is not so much enacted by the filmmakers as encouraged for the viewer” (32) in documentaries which interrogate. Much of the meaning of Sink or Swim is derived from just such layering: the scientific footage of a zygote dividing and becoming an embryo means very little on its own, but, ironically coupled with the narration describing the completely unscientific “birth” of Athena (fully-formed) from Zeus’s head, a tension is created, highlighting the struggle of the child to form herself, apart from her parents and the facts of the world which they present to her. This deeper layer of meaning is not spelled out, but simply created through the juxtaposition and layering of sounds and images; the work must be done by the viewer. Friedrich draws no conclusions herself, but simply lays out facts and stories bit by bit, with each piece complicating the image of the father-daughter relationship, as in the revelation of the accidental death of her father’s sister as a child and his blaming himself for it for years after, which follows directly on the heels of a tale of his abuse of she and her sister.

In order to achieve this invitation towards interrogation, Friedrich’s film is also expressive, utilizing the aesthetic towards the creation of meaning. This is evident in her layering and juxtaposition, but also in the graininess of her footage (giving it a “home-video” feel) and in such choices as to display the typewriter in the negative at first, but in the positive when it appears at the end of the film, demonstrating her emergence from the displacement of the black and white negative into the center of the film at its end. In this way, Sink or Swim functions not only as an exploration of her family and her relation with her father, but as a self-exploration made possible through the reflection of herself in her father which allows her to eventually come to terms with herself and her relation to him. The film, then, is her catharsis—it is her way of finally sending the letter to her father she never could.

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