Conflicting Ideologies in Do The Right Thing

Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing, is as relevant now in America as it was when it was created nearly 30 years ago. Racial tensions remain nearly as high, or at least they seem to, in part because of the intense media focus on racial tensions. Roger Ebert interviewed Spike Lee in 1991 about many things but some questions specifically referred to Do The Right Thing, and many questions dealt with race relations in general.

Lee stated that the majority of the white viewers primarily identified Sal as the most sympathetic character, but black audiences viewed him as exploitative and racist while instead identifying more with Mookie. It does not surprise me that white and black people identify more with the white and black characters respectively as that has a cultural basis. Sal is certainly more likable than Pino. I did not find Sal to be overtly racist, however, simply proud of his Italian heritage just as Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem are proud of thiers. The riot that occurs follows much conflict, but the first destruction of property occurs when Mookie throws the trash can through the store window. Mookie seems to align in his ideals more with Malcolm X than Martin Luther King Jr. and nonviolence. I found that aspect of Lee’s answer somewhat surprising. The cautious reconciliation that occurs at the end with Sal and Mookie is redeeming to both of their characters, however, and serves to show that despite each of their flaws, it is possible to move beyond the differences in race.

Experimental Film and the Avant-Garde

Experimental film differs from narrative and documentary film in similar way that in literature, prose differs from poetry. Experimental film is artful, poetic, and above all else, innovative. “Avant-Garde” literally means “advance guard.” Experimental avant-garde films have the duty to push the boundaries of film form and establish new practices and techniques in cinema.

Experimental films are generally organized in three categories: associative, structural, and participatory. Associative experimental films deal with the juxtaposition of different images or objects to synthesize a relation in the viewer’s mind. Experimental films constructed in an associative manner are very similar to Eisensteinian montage. However, experimental films organized structurally differ in that their focus is primarily on the physical film material or the projection method. The film Synchromy created by Norman McLaren that we watched a few weeks ago is an example of an experimental film that is structurally organized. Lastly, Participatory film focuses on the specific time or place that the film is screened, so that the physical location of the film takes on meaning and becomes an essential component of the film.

Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors On Vision is an essay describing his theory of cinema. It is supportive of avant-garde cinema; in his paragraph regarding artists scattering seeds among cabbages, Brakhage says, “Realize the garden as you will — the growing is mostly underground.” The artists plants the seeds which take a while to sprout and join the garden of mainstream cinema, but in the meantime, all the innovation in film is taking place in the avant-garde.

The Gleaners and I: Documentary and Cinema Verite

The Gleaners and I by Agnes Varda is a social documentary exposes the lifestyle of “gleaning.” It is amazing how different the many backgrounds and forces are that drive each subject in the documentary to glean. Forced to glean to eat, or chose to glean to find artful scraps, or because they support the ethics of it, each gleaner was very different.  But they all had striking similarities, too.  The one aspect that brought each of them together, which I was very surprised to see, was how nearly all of them were happy.  Many of them were extremely selfless and giving to their neighbors or immigrants. They also allowed Varda to glean the scraps with them at the same time they allowed her to glean information from them.  Another similarity between the gleaners, and it also connected the farmers and shop owners, was that no one really knew what the laws or rules stated about the legality of gleaning.  It was amusing to hear how each person had a different opinion that I assume had been passed down by word-of-mouth from their family history of gleaning.

Cinema Verite is school of documentary that forces the subjects of the documentary to acknowledge the reality of the camera that is recording the events. In a documentary film that has its purpose in recreating the real, I find this to be essential in grounding the film in reality. In The Gleaners and I, Varda makes constant reference to her ability to film one hand with the other using a digital camera, for example through irising with her hand the passing trucks on the highway shown below. By repeatedly forcing the viewer to acknowledge that you are watching a film, and forcing the subjects in the film to acknowledge the camera, it seems like a true recreation of how these scavengers really are.  They aren’t trying to fool the camera because they are welcoming it.  To me this technique is a truer picture of reality than the early documentaries, or actualities, like Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory.  In that case, none of the workers look at the camera as they leave, despite its obvious physical presence, which is the opposite of a natural reaction to seeing a camera one afternoon outside the place you work.

 

Citizen Kane in 1941

One thing I am always curious about when I see a film that has enjoyed critical and commercial success is whether or not it has the makings to be considered a classic. For that reason, I decided to look up The New York Times movie review for Citizen Kane from May 2, 1941.

I was surprised to read that despite the negative spotlight influenced by media mogul William Randolph Hurst, upon whom the character of Charles Foster Kane was based, the New York Times reviewer had a glowing review of the film, even writing, “it comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood.”  I am quite impressed with the reviewer’s ability to instantly foresee that the film had the makings of a classic.

One thing that I found to be especially relevant to our discussions on Tuesday is that the viewer found the spectacle more impressive than the narrative itself. Orson Welles’s seized the myriad of actions enabled by the medium of cinema to create, as the reviewer put it: “a motion picture that really moves.”  Watching the film for the first time in 2018, it is easy to forget how groundbreaking and revolutionary many of the techniques that Welles incorporated into Citizen Kane were.  In awe of the attraction on the screen, the reviewer is much cooler on the story itself.

Here is where I do not agree with the author as much. The reviewer’s main gripe with the narrative is that it fails to provide a clear picture of Kane and his motives. During this time period, protagonists of a film were generally one-dimensional characters with a narrative featuring a neat and logical conclusion.  Welles subverts nearly all the typical Hollywood conventions in developing his nonlinear narrative, and developing a central character with a very complex background and influences. This radical change was apparently too much for the New York Times reviewer to handle, but has been influential for 77 years now.

 

Utilizing Editing to Create a Mood

Editing is a key stage in the post-production effort of a film.  One of the more interesting aspects of editing that I had never considered was the 180 degree rule.  This is a law of continuity editing that states the camera needs to stay on one side of the action line.  I had trouble imagining how a scene that breaks this rule would appear on screen, so I found a couple examples to analyze below.  The video embedded below is an excerpt from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Kubrick crosses the line three times over the course of a single scene in the bathroom.  These cuts serve to exacerbate the suspenseful atmosphere that the film heavily employs.  Each reverse cut temporarily disorients the viewer; a feeling that is in line with the strange and unsettling conversation that takes place inside the bathroom.

Another example of the 180 degree rule being broken is in Quentin Tarantino’s classic, Pulp Fiction.  The scene in the video below takes place in a diner with Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, attempting to retrieve his stolen items.  While this scene is also tense, it does have an air of supernatural suspense like the scene above from The Shining.  The camera crosses the 180 degree line near the end of the clip, as all the characters start yelling and tension skyrockets.  Tarantino’s decision to break the 180 degree rule has an important effect on the viewer.  Since the rise of continuity editing in the 1950’s, the viewer now expects scenes to follow that accepted archetype.  Because it is so unexpected, when the camera angle is suddenly reversed, it serves to impress upon the viewer that anything can and will happen.  This editing decision elevates the tension of the scene above what simply the acting and sound can achieve on their own because the audience now believes an outbreak of violence is more likely.

 

Depth of Field in The Assassin

Despite my overall dissatisfaction with The Assassin, I was able to appreciate much of the cinematography from director Hou Hsiao-Hsien.  Playing with the depth of field was a technique that provided particularly stunning shots.  The shot embedded below occurs early in the movie during the black and white stage, and it is a slow pan of a sunlit crop of trees.  The camera is deliberately focused on the tree that is closest in the frame, and the trees that are further away appear unfocused.  The shimmering effect of the sunlight streaming through the unfocused leaves was a stunning view that I was able to appreciate and left me hopeful for more stunning visuals later in the movie.  (I also wanted to embed only seconds 5-7, so only pay attention to those. On a related note, if anyone knows how to do that and would be willing to share, I would appreciate it!)

Another scene involving the Lord of the Wiebo and his wife inverted this depth of field style.  Shown out of focus in the immediate foreground were flickering candle flames.  The characters speaking in the background are the ones in focus behind the orbs of light.  And then even nearer than the candles, billowing curtains obscure the scene in front of the camera even more.  What do you think the significance of the curtains shielding the scene from our eyes is?

Throughout the film Hou Hsaio-Hsien used extreme long shots during depictions of characters journeys or other scenes of the mountainous setting.  His choice in using these shots was three-fold.  First, and most obviously, it showed off the beautiful location that the film was set in. Additionally, the landscape has a vastness and an emptiness to it in an extreme wide shot.  When the characters appear as little more than the size of a fingernail, it emphasizes their journey – how far they have traveled and how far they still have to go.  Both the beautiful scenic shots, and the juxtaposition of the vast shots against the tiny characters completing a dangerous journey reminds me of the cinematography that Peter Jackson employs in his Lord of the Rings franchise.  Comparing images from the two films highlights their similarities.  Lastly, because the extreme long shot is captured from such long distances and because the music in the film was all diagetic, these shots invoke a calm and serene world, which is abruptly shattered by staccato sequences of violence.

Cool YouTube Channel: Every Frame a Painting

Hey all,

One of my friends told me about the YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting.  They have some really cool videos on different aspects of film.

This video about the silent film actor and director Buster Keaton contains references to Wes Anderson, the director of The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Anderson takes inspiration from Keaton during the prison escape with the unnecessarily long ladder.  The two men also share humor through geometry in their camera shots.

Another cool video is on a subject we have not yet discussed as a class: music.  This video compares the Marvel Cinematic Universe to other movie franchises in regards to the films’ scores.

If you have 15 minutes to spare, then give them a watch.

What is Said and Left Unsaid in The Grand Budapest Hotel?

In his 2014 film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson displays his mastery of mise-en-scene.  As the film progresses through each of its four layers from “present day” with the girl placing hotel keys on The Author’s grave, to the 1985 interview of The Author, to The Author’s stay in the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1962, to the main story taking place in 1932, costumes, sets, lighting and colors are all deliberately employed.

The beginning scene features cool colors ushering in a somber mood at the cemetery.  Warmer colors are present during the 1985 interview.  In the 1962 flashback, the Grand Budapest Hotel is clearly not visually grand despite its name as depicted in the derelict washroom of the hotel.  It starkly contrasts to Zero’s nostalgic memories of his experiences starting in 1932.  Zero provides an opulent image of the hotel and the time period.  The hotel staff are costumed in royal purple, and high-key lighting is used throughout the hotel to remove dark spots and the tension they create as shown in the image below.

The hotel seems so glorious because that is how Zero is choosing to recall it for his audience.  He focuses on the good of the hotel, while forgetting or ignoring the bad.  The extreme difference between the state of the hotel described in 1932 and the state shown in 1962 leads me to believe that Zero embellishes some of the stories of its grandeur.  In addition to embellishing some aspects of the hotel, Zero chooses to almost entirely leave out the parts of his story of which he can’t bear the truth.  Gustave’s death, as well as the deaths of his wife Agatha and their child are quickly skated over, and barely shown or mentioned on screen.  The atrocities of the fascists that take place during this time period are similarly “forgotten.  Zero refuses to revisit these painful wounds from his childhood while recounting the story, which shows how nostalgia can be employed to keep ones peace of mind.