Starting Conversations

Spike Lee looks back upon the impact of Do the Right Thing and its impact on society in this 2014 interview.  He makes a claim that his movie simultaneously predicted events like the LA riots and started the conversation that would begin racial reform.  However, in hearing these statements, I can’t help but ask whether Lee and the host are giving more credit to this movie than it has earned.  There is no doubt that this film began talks around the nation that we were in desperate need of.  How long does a conversation last, though?  Considering none of my peers or I had seen this movie before beginning this class, I have to wonder if the conversation associated with this film died before it had run its course.

I think perhaps the more likely scenario is that the conversation got sidelined by the very events which Lee claims it predicted.  Perhaps we stopped talking about Do the Right Thing because the conflict had moved from the cinema screen to our television screens.  Can a film, which though based on reality is innately fiction, ever hope to create action?  Conversation is great for opening the eyes of the people, but conversation alone does not create change.  Maybe the populous needs to see the true oppression in order for those that are willing to take action to rise up and make change.

Experimental Film-Attempting a Return to Innocence

Stan Brakhage claims in his piece from Metaphors on Vision that our view of cinema is tainted by our loss of innocence from the moment we are born.  However, in order to overcome this loss of innocence we must push through to full enlightenment over the medium, but Brakhage states that we have forsaken this pursuit of the refinement of the mind and of visual perception in our modern age.  The beauty of the state in which we enter the world is that it is unaware of trope and form in film, it has not fallen under the spell of modern editing and cinematography which seeks to enchant us and remove us from the world we live in.  However, there is no way back to that state once we enter the world, every breath we take in renders us more a victim to the spells of the cinema, and convinces us more that we have found a true “recreation of reality” upon the silver screen.  Just as Bazin claims in Total Cinema, Brakhage says that cinema has yet to be invented, that we are fooling ourselves if we ever state that a film has reached any semblance of reality.

We are the only ones responsible for our acceptance of film as religion, as some beautiful, representative being.  Film is only ever becoming, it has never become, and it is never making an argument of its own authority on its own accord.  It is those who display and make themselves audience to the film who are making these claims, who attempt to lull the audience into accepting the camera, projector, and film as our new Holy Trinity.  This is where experimental film takes its roots in Brakhage’s argument.  He claims that all one needs to do to begin to remove the veil of cinema is to mess with the methods of its creation, to crack the lens, or to speed up or slow down its recording.  If the creator can make the audience aware of the nature of the film as human machination, or can somehow interrupt their awe and acceptance of the film as truth, then maybe they can begin to understand its representation more honestly.

Redeeming the Scraps: The Gleaners and I

Agnes Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I is as charming as she is.  She takes a very different approach to capturing the subject than I have typically seen in documentary works, not even attempting to be a fly on the wall, but instead relishing in the opportunity to enter into communion with these peoples and make them aware of the camera.   At numerous points throughout the film we hear her voice, as she asks questions of the gleaners of all kinds she meets.   It seems that she realizes that there is almost no way to entirely remove the subjects knowledge of the camera without lying to them or being dishonest in some similar way, so she lays everything out on the table in front of them and the audience, allowing the work to be truthful to what it is, a film.   She even makes reference several times to how much she enjoys the act of filming and shows the audience the hand held camera she is using to capture much of the film.

As she displays her camera to the audience, she also makes herself seen in numerous parts of the film.  This in part shows her knowledge of the nature of documentary as a person choosing to film a group of things and assemble it in a way which they feel depicts it properly.  Due to this, any documentary is by nature partially untruthful to the real nature of its subject, as its creation is reliant on the subjective interests of the team filming and assembling it.  Instead of attempting to circumvent this truth, she simply points it out in the film by filming her hands, and pointing out how flawed she is, and making her fears and opinions about the subject known.  She reveals her subjectivity so the audience knows how to remove it themselves piece by piece from the film where it exists.

Her style of documentary is fascinating, for as she reveals these facts to the audience, she also reveals them to her subjects, and yet they seem to open up and show her honesty as people typically don’t in front of a camera.  It may be that this only works with her chosen subject, as she is revealing her nature as a gleaner of her own objects, and thus she is like them.  She gleans her souvenirs from various countries such as Japan of course, but she also gleans images and stories.  She comments throughout the film how much she loves filming, and how fascinated she is with the art of capturing people and nature in an image or a moving image.  Maybe these gleaners she talks to see that, and see her as part of their community, an artist, “tidying up ones inner and outer worlds,” picking up the pieces that are left behind as we live our lives.

During a typical day of searching through the garbage on my YouTube recommended feed at work, I stumbled upon this charming gem by Felix Colgrave:

Though it is an animated work, his use of color and and emphasis on symmetry in the frame is quite reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s films with a pop art style twist.  It is intriguing how Colgrave’s artistic style can make a story about regicide, filled with so many images of violence, death, and decay still seem so charming and quaint.

Citizen Kane as a Social Document

in this interview, Welles discusses Citizen Kane and reveals many of the things we discussed in class, such as his being given complete control of the film by RKO, it’s basis upon the life of William Randolph Hearst, and the loss of control over his works after Kane.  While all of these points are very interesting, I find it more meaningful to examine his description of the making of Citizen Kane itself and his reasons for attempting it before he had begun.  He claims he had never even wanted to make a film, and had no passion for it before he was deep into making Kane.  “I didn’t want money, I wanted authority,” he states in elaboration of the nature of his contract of total control with RKO.  Hearing these two points in particular, I cannot help but to see a parallel between Welles and the young Kane at the beginning of his career.  Each only wanted to enter their career to make a point, something which Kane echoes numerous times throughout the film, how important it is to him to make a point.  Kane and Welles both enter fields of great influence and permeation in society, and both were eventually attacked by their peers in that field.  It seems ironic then that in consciously making a “social document” as Welles calls it, which attacked capitalism and the “acquisitive” persons of that society, he also unconsciously inserted a critique of himself within the film, and of the instability of any work which seeks only to “make a point.”  As any film is influenced by the director’s lens into the world, it seems inevitable now that at some point he/she leaves some fragment of themselves within the film, either in a character or setting.  Further, the unearthing of and examination of that element and their implications on society or the world of the film may reveal the true psyche of their creator.

Editing as Art

Editing forms the basis of how we interact on an emotional and visual level with any film.  An editor’s style and choice of techniques decide which characters we side with, how well we are able to follow the plot, and even allows certain thematic elements to seep into the image itself.  Christopher Nolan’s film Memento (2000) is an excellent example of the power of editing.

Throughout the film, his editor (Doddy Dorn) makes frequent use of eyeline matches and POV shots to put the audience in the shoes of the protagonist, a man struggling with his recent loss of short term memory.  We share his confusion and struggle to ascertain fundamental truths about his situation as the editor makes continuous use of sharp cuts to temporally ambiguous scenes.  We as the audience struggle with every sequence to piece together where it fits into the timeline of his life just as he does.

Though Memento plays with the techniques of temporal editing, it falls in line with the modern style of continuity editing within each sequence, obeying the 180-degree rule and the 30-degree rule, ensuring that during the portions of the film in which the protagonist is able to begin to piece his story together, we as his companions can also piece together his life alongside him.  Though the overall plot is muddled by his memory issues which are reflected in the editing, it is never unclear to us who is speaking, where they are located in the set, or their physical distances from other characters.

However, some films abandon with this modern style of continuity all together, seeking to blur the lines between even the characters themselves.  Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) uses this technique, or lack thereof, to great effect.

In the third act of the film, his editor (himself) begins to entirely dispose of the current “rules” of film editing throughout sequences that become almost impossible to follow.  He frequently cuts to inserts of scenery or random objects as one of the characters speaks, making it difficult to even tell who is telling these stories that become retold repeatedly.  He also does away with the 30-degree rule in most of the sequences which frame both of the protagonists together in conversation, making disjunctive cuts between shots which are only a few degrees apart, sometimes even canting the camera even between shots.  All of these methods combined together act to distract us and rip us away from any hope of following the dialogue between our protagonists, usually making these cuts at the precise moment we have just begun to latch onto the continuity.

Alone in the Frame – Cinematography in The Assassin

The Assassin is utterly confusing.  The movie spends most of its time in very long takes with very little dialogue or exposition in the midst of what tends to be a fairly complex plot mired in political intrigue and family promises.  However, amidst all of the confusion of the movie’s long shots, I found particularly taken by every shot any tighter than a medium-long.  The cinematographer does some truly beautiful things with depth of field, framing and movement which allow the emotions of the characters to seep into the camera.  The most significant of these to me was his use of isolation.

 

I began to notice this during the scene which follows Yinniang (the assassin) returning home.  She steps into what I believe to be her mother’s room for the first time in what must be years, for all of the other members of her mother’s residence seem quite shocked and excited that she has returned.  However, instead of what we expect to be a scene of tender reunion, we are greeted by a scene of bitter isolation.  Throughout their entire dialogue, there is not a single shot in which the two of them share the frame.  This scene continues to build in potency of emotion, cutting back and forth between the two of them until it climaxes in Yinniang weeping silently over a gift of jade her mother gives her, still alone in the shot, her mother just out of frame, doing nothing to comfort her.  This scene fleshes out each of their individual characters and the painful relationship they share quite quickly without even the need for words.

Throughout the movie, Yinniang continues to be isolated in the frame, except in moments of violence and in a scene towards the end of the film as she returns to her friend.  What continues to make these scenes of isolation so powerful is the contrasting cuts to wide shots of her cousin’s family.  In every shot he occupies, he is accompanied by his son and/or his wife (sometimes even his concubine).  Cutting rapidly between these two images reinforces the pang of her separation from family that she loved, and her reluctance to carry out her mission of killing him. 

Nostalgia and the Nature of Story Telling

Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, much alike each of his other films, is a delightfully charming and lively movie.  So far of all the Wes Anderson films I have viewed, not a single one has allowed me to stop grinning like a child throughout their entire run time, and Grand Budapest may be my favorite of the lot.  Grand Budapest, on many levels, feels like a self examination of the nature of Anderson’s own work.  Each frame, meticulously crafted as it is, seems to paint a picture of the nature of constructing a fiction by hand, or by mouth and print, as it were in the narrative.  The construction of the plot, as a window back into the past through the framework of the aged Mr. Zero’s story drips with nostalgia.  Every word out of Zero’s mouth and every scene built around it seems untrustworthy, and straight out of fantasy.  From the ridiculous moments in the plot which seem to be ripped straight from an summer spy flick to the vibrant and overly memorable characters, everything is perfect.  One of my favorite examples of this is Zero’s love, Agatha.   The birthmark on her cheek is claimed to resemble Mexico, but in the images we are given of her, it is a perfect photocopy of the country.  Of course it is, because this is his memory of his one love, and he remembers her as she must have been to him, perfect.  As we discussed in class, memory is messy, thoughts of the past get mixed up in our mind until we can barely distinguish on moment from another.  But when telling a story, we get to put the pieces back together and doctor an image of how we want the past to have been.  And yet, every time Zero thinks back upon her, he cries.  Because the true pain in nostalgia is the knowledge that the things that happened in our past, no matter how actually messy or painful they were initially, will never happen again.

Towards the end of the film, the writer asks Zero if he kept the hotel to keep a piece of Gustave’s world with him.  Zero responds with, “To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it.”  Just as much as Zero is an image of the fiction of the worlds that Wes Anderson weaves together with his bare hands, Gustave is an image of the construction itself, of the control which Wes Anderson seeks over his constructs.  Anderson creates worlds which cannot possibly exist but in film, and uses his sets and characters to reveal the ridiculousness of his fiction.  Every miniature and set piece feels just as toy like as it is.  You can feel the fiction rich in every frame.  Take the sled scene for instance. 

The actors representations throughout this scene feel ridiculously tiny, and the obvious miniatures point out the ridiculous fiction of this shot.  As the narrative moves deeper into Zero’s story, more and more of these miniature set pieces pop up.

Though Wes Anderson’s fantastic version of the 1930’s and before is long past, the cinema allows us to join Anderson as he “sustains the illusion with a marvelous grace.”