Zodiac and the Reading

The reading this week had a great section about Zodiac, which is the feature for this week (pgs 83 – 87). According to the reading, Fincher uses the rich detail provided by a digital camera as a metaphor in Zodiac. The film is fundamentally about the search for truth, and the lengths people (in this case, the detectives and associated investigators) will go for it.

Though unlike most crime drama type films, the ending is anticlimactic, leaving the viewer without “catharsis” as the reading described it. Most films in this type of genre have the “bad guy” caught—even in a (fantastic) movie like Silence of the Lambs, a murderer is caught (well, killed) in the end. The audience gets to fulfil their sense of justice, while for most of the movie we get frustration, and anxiety about society’s failings: serial killers are perfect for this. How can a good society produce such a horrible situation? Normally, the crime drama reassures this fear: the wrongdoer is punished, killed, justice dispensed and we go home satisfied. Zodiac does the opposite: the only real suspect dies before he can be questioned, and even then, there isn’t enough evidence to draw conclusions.

Going back to digital film… Fincher strategically used the HD/sharpness of digital to manipulate the viewer: more intensely dramatic sequences, where the truth is just out of reach, have a higher resolution, “it makes you study the image more intently…it draws your eye even further into the drama.” As the reading put it. The reading essentially describes how digital film was used in Zodiac to provide further meaning, used as a tool for storytelling, and not just a tool to make pretty pictures look better.

Zodiac is a fantastic example of the power of digital film, and the new techniques available to filmmakers, as not only do we have the film media itself being used as part of the film’s larger meaning—physicality reminiscent of Dogstar Man—but digital film as another, powerful set of tools for compositing images, manipulating the viewer, and increasing “reality” within the film.

The reading discusses this aspect further, but the main idea was: digital film can be used to increase reality in the film, and get us closer to a cinematic “truth”. I thought that perspective was particularly interesting, as it’s in contrast to normal (negative) attitudes towards digital effects.

As a final note on compositing, a lot of concept art nowadays is done through composited images, allowing for hyper-realistic sci-fi art for example. While it’s not like the artist (and in the case of filmmakers using digital compositing) themselves drawing the character’s face, or the scene, they are still bringing to life their vision—getting closer to that total cinema, or the truth of what they want the viewer to see. So, ultimately, does CGI lower the quality of an artist’s craft? Or does CGI enhance it? What is “good” CGI vs “bad” CGI?

Also, here is an example of the composited sci fi concept art I was talking about. It’s just something I find really cool. As you can tell, I’m a bit biased in favor of digital effects.

Sci-fi city – Concept Art (#Photoshop) | CreativeStation Exclusive

Viewer Week 14 – Do The Right Thing 30 years later

Nearly 30 years later and Do the Right Thing is still as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. Many people believe racism is no longer a big issue in America, and yet while watching this movie I was struck by how the dialogue and images reflect on what I see in the news, on Twitter, and Facebook. Sal’s rage and exasperation at the destruction of his pizza joint was uncannily familiar to the attitudes expressed by some people in the wake of the Ferguson riots. While destroying property isn’t right either, it’s not nearly of the same degree as the police killing Radio Raheem.

The movie establishes the setting through a series of scenes depicting the enormous cast of characters. For a film that deals with such a chronologically short period of time, it does a phenomenal job of establishing the character of so many people. Each conflict feels like an escalation, and every character deals with some conflict or another, many stemming from racist attitudes. This establishes the overall tense racial situation between those living in the neighborhood and the white people.

The movie confronts us with the question: how do we do the right thing? What’s right? What is the best way of confronting racism? At the end of the movie, Sal blames Radio Raheem’s death on Buggin’ Out’s comments about putting brothers up on the wall, when it was Sal himself who escalated the argument by destroying the radio. As a white male, he perpetuates the power dynamic in American society through his racist attitudes. On the other hand, Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out also respond through violence as well. Mookie expresses a final sentiment: Yes, destroying the restaurant was bad, but insurance will pay it off and ultimately, Radio Raheem was murdered over a fist fight. Sal went unhurt.

The question is extended and broadened at the end up the film with the seemingly opposed ideologies presented by Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. The film then goes on to suggest that these ideologies can coexist to a certain degree. What did you all think? Did Mookie do the right thing?

Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Experimental Film

For my Searcher post this week, I wanted to showcase some more surrealist art. Salvador Dali, in particular, is one of the most famous surrealist artists, and we saw his experimental film in class on Tuesday. The motif of ants appear in much of his work, because Dali was actually terrified of insects crawling over his skin. Ants in his work also tend to symbolize death and decay.

The Persistence of Memory (1931) – You can see the ants crawling around in the lower left corner. 

The Temptation of St. Anthony (1946)

Surrealist art explores the human mind. Many of the artists of this time were moving away from “retinal” art, or art that exists to look beautiful, or to please the eye. Artists wanted to engage the mind, and this idea is present throughout much of art throughout the 20th century.

Finally, I wanted to showcase some of Pollock’s art, which I mentioned in class. I love, love, love Jackson Pollock. The problem with copying and pasting his work into this blog is that Pollock’s paintings really have zero effect when viewed from a computer screen. His work is enormous– when you stand in front it completely dominates your field of view and then you experience his work. Until I saw a Pollock in person I didn’t get that excited when talking about him, and now he’s my favorite artist. If you’re ever in DC, the National Gallery of Art is free and amazing. So definitely if you have 20 minutes to spare, go check out Pollock in person. It’s so much more powerful.

Autumn Rhythm (1950)

Lavender Mist (1950) – This is the one in the National Gallery of Art. It’s awesome.

His work is also important conceptually when talking about experimental film, because many abstract expressionists and surrealists (and really, many of the 20th century art movements) deal with self-inspection of what art means, and what art is fundamentally. It seems like experimental films do something similar: what is film? What does film mean? What can film do?

Week 9 Reader Post: Batman, Christopher Nolan, and Genre Films

The reading of Cinematic Faith discussed Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman. TFE describes how the definition and meaning of genre changed over time, and how really in the 60s and 70s blockbusters became more and more a thing. I feel like the 6 genres presented by TFE are not so rigid. Filmmakers can expand and blend these main genres and make something far more interesting. Christopher Nolan took the comic book movie “genre” and expanded upon it, bringing this reality to a type of movie narrative that is characterized by the fantastic, by characters with superpowers and abilities never seen in the real world. His film feels real, his villains speak uncomfortable (and warped) truths, and his heroes feel human. This was an effect he was going for, as he discussed in his interview. He layered realism and ensured details spoke to a world that could almost exist in our own.

I really liked the labels put on the three movies in Nolan’s Batman trilogy. We have three movies about a character owned by a company, a character who already has mountains of narrative around him. These movies all take that character, take the comic book movie genre (which, unlike today, hadn’t really exploded into the franchises we have now), and make three completely different feeling films. Like Nolan said in the interview, the first is an adventure film, the second is a crime drama, and the third is more social/political commentary.

So genre is this “type” of film, where we expect certain aspects or themes or plots to be more or less recurrent within that genre. Comic book movies have these cool people who can do these extraordinary things, who battle bad people who do extraordinarily bad things. Nolan’s Batman series certainly has those aspects, but they are rooted in this mechanical, “realistic” world that makes these fantasies all the more believable. I mean, we have a DA and a detectives office, we talk about accounting and banks in a lot more detail than say, Raimi’s Spiderman movies (correct me if I’m wrong, I don’t remember it being as “realistic”).

Why do you all think genre is important when discussing films? How do you think Nolan subverts our expectations of a superhero movie with his Batman trilogy?

Citizen Kane, Narcissism, and Narrative Film Week 7 Narrative

In Citizen Kane, we get an interesting view into a fictional narcissist’s life. We get all of the pieces in the end, but we are thrust into a meandering jigsaw puzzle first. Charles Foster Kane surrounds himself with beautiful art, “a horde of mankind’s riches,” building a monument to himself in the form of the expressionistic nightmare of a castle Xanadu. He piles gifts, superficial generosity, money, empty promises on those around him, in the hopes he will buy their love, as Susan puts so well at the end of the movie before she leaves, revealing the folly of his actions and warped view of love and relationships. That scene in particular tears into his character wonderfully, finally spelling out the reason why Kane is so unrelatable. Kane can only ever mimic love, and only does so to get love back. He doesn’t have any humanity. His narcissism is so deep that even when his second wife leaves him, he can only relate through the lens of his pain, what she is doing to him. Even Xanadu sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, the castle of some crazy alien overlord, except our alien overlord is a bitter old man who dies whispering a word symbolic of his childhood, a time when he was happy, living a simple, rural life with his parents, and even then “Rosebud” refers to a thing.

The camera plays an important role narratively. We have the satirical newsreel footage in the beginning of the film, “documenting” the news of Kane’s death. The film revolves around a journalist trying to decipher Kane’s last words, so there’s an investigative news air to it. Ironically, Kane made his name around yellow journalism, and it’s yellow journalism that brings his name back down. So while we have this ironic, investigative, “neutral” standpoint, we also get extremely subjective flashbacks.

I want to talk about a few scenes in particular: the scene during the picnic, the scene where Susan leaves, and the scene where Rosebud burns.

Kane’s empire is dying at this point. Susan doesn’t want to sing anymore, she’s really feeling the isolation and power Kane is trying to exert over her. Camera angles set up the power dynamic clearly, in stark contrast to objective, non-narrative film like the news, or like documentaries.

All of the camera angles in the shot/reverse shot sequence establish Kane as looking down on Susan, and Susan looking up at Kane. We see both through the eyes of the other: extreme high angle for Susan, and low angle for Kane. And then we have that awful, maybe diegetic woman’s screams overlaying their fight. The agony of their relationship grinds through.

Here we establish Susan’s powerlessness against Kane.
Susan is well below us, the viewer, in this shot. Kane looks down on her.


In the next scene I want to talk about, they camera establishes them on much more equal footing. Perhaps the actor for Kane is just taller, or maybe there is still some power dynamic happening here, but when Susan finally exerts some agency she is in a much more powerful position.

Susan has agency in this shot. She’s on much more equal footing.
Here we establish Susan’s powerlessness against Kane.


Further emphasizing the subjectivity of the narrative, this scene is implied to be a flashback of an older Susan. She’s talking about what happened.

Finally, we get the scene where the meaning of “Rosebud” is revealed. The journalist gives up—Kane’s final words are never understood. To establish that no one is seeing Rosebud, we have and objective viewpoint again. The camera is free and floats around, omniscient again.

And finally, a lingering shot on the burning answer to the burning question. We, the audience, know what Rosebud means, and what it references to. They toss the answer away, just another piece to the mountain of stuff and riches Kane amassed.
Unless there’s a 7 foot tall guy that I happened to miss the reverse shot of, this is pretty omniscient wide angle.
The camera floats high above the crowd.

So, what do you think the meaning of no one understanding Rosebud is? I didn’t really catch the larger idea there.
Also, how does the sort of mimicry of humanity and love reflect on Hollywood and cinema at large?
How else does narrative/non-narrative film come into play in the larger meaning of Citizen Kane?

Searcher Week 4 – American Isolationism

Casablanca takes place against the backdrop of World War II. Rick is characterized early into the film by his neutrality, sharing no drinks, giving no opinions on current political affairs, and only reluctantly helping his ‘friend’ hide letters of transit. He doesn’t “stick his neck out for nobody,” A line he repeats after this friend was arrested.

The Rick we see before Isla and Laszlo enter Cafe Americain is representative of American Isolationism, but we see this facade crack the moment his old flame enters the bar.

American Isolationism was a heavily criticized policy. The linked article, The Debate Behind U. S. Intervention in World War II by Susan Dunn outlines American Isolationism during World War II, but to me the most interesting aspect deals with Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats on the subject, as well as Lindbergh, spokesperson for the “America First Committee.” (Sound familiar? Emphasis is my own.) 

The earliest fireside chat I want to draw attention to occurred on May 26th, 1940, and discusses the refugee situation in Belgium and France, talking about how on the “once peaceful roads of Belgium and France, millions are now moving,” to escape the horror and violence brought on by the invading Nazi forces. This is shown in the beginning of the film, outlining how refugees have a hard road ahead of them to Casablanca, and ultimately to Lisbon, Portugal.

The second fireside chat I want to draw attention to further establishes FDR’s view on Isolationism, and occurred on December 29th, 1940. He describes how the Nazis in Germany will not stop until they enslave and dominate the rest of the world, how their philosophy of government and ours will never have peace, and how the Nazis in Germany are an undeniable threat, unlike any other since Plymouth Rock. 

Rick, neutral until confronted with helping someone he loves, immediately breaks from neutrality when he shares a drink with Ilsa and Laszlo when they enter the bar. I mean, early in the film the rival bar owner tells him that neutrality just isn’t a good policy anymore, not in the world they are in now. 

He also breaks neutrality when he helps the young Bulgarian couple win (by cheating, really, since he is the house) enough money to get their visas. He lets the band and Laszlo sing the anthem of France over the German anthem. In the end of the movie, he shoots a Nazi, ensuring the passage of Isla and Laszlo, freedom fighters and people who inspire rebellion. His character arc goes from rebel (intervention) to neutral (isolationist) to rebel again (intervention). When confronted with people he cares about, and staring Nazism and the threat it poses in the face, he finally acts and fights back. 

This film is a criticism of isolationism, and in many ways still relevant to issues our nation faces today. 

Anyways, those three links I’ve given are to help set the backdrop of American Isolationism, and the context for the movie and Rick’s character arc. Keep in mind The Atlantic (linked article) tends to have a slight liberal bias, if that concerns you. 

Nostalgia, Storytelling, and Boxes in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a brilliant exploration of the meaning of storytelling, nostalgia, and audience. The story of Gustave and Zero is filtered several times, as we go deeper, we get more and more absurd: the story told by Zero, recounted by the author, read by the girl, and finally viewed by us, the viewers, takes on more and more fantastical details. Ultimately, we can’t tell how true this story is, I mean obviously Zubrowka isn’t real, but in the context of the movie it is, and the story takes place during a very real time of turmoil for Europe. 

Each character is the audience for the preceding layer. We are viewers into a four level story: each a window and an interpretation of the last. Photographs, paintings, and movies crop reality. Wes Anderson uses boxes (both real, as props, and metaphoric) throughout the movie to frame. He includes many details in his cropped window into the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel, each aspect of mise-en-scene deliberately revealing the world our characters inhabit. We have the drab “modern” day starting, and ending, scene, featuring the girl and cemetery: very significant since nostalgia for a long-dead era is a major theme throughout, the very “smart and successful author” author’s office, the shabby, comparatively simple and poorly mannered 1965 Grand Budapest Hotel, and the pastel, pristine, well taken care of 1932 Grand Budapest Hotel. The scenes all feel like dioramas, particularly the scenes inside (any) hotel. The Hotels, part of the Crossed Key Society, are isolated from the outside world, and whenever the new society represented by the fascists (double Zs an obvious homage to the SS and swastika of the Nazis) invaded into that world, we get conflict and violence. The boxes inhabited by the characters that represent that era of good manners and kindness are both literal and figurative, throughout the film we get windows looking out of those boxes, and we see the hints of war, fascism, and that polite era dying out. In particular, I’m thinking of the scenes on the train, when we stopped by the barley fields.

Here we have the warmly toned train cabin interior, good wine plainly visible.
And here Gustave is looking out of the cabin, and we see this cold, dreadful world on the brink of war.


Later on in the movie, we have the black and white shift, and a scene deliberately echoing the previous train cabin scene both thematically and stylistically (cinematography, framing).

Now we have the sudden, jarring shift to black and white. Notice how the cabin window has hints of frost, a harsh “winter” for the world looms.
This time Zero looks out. There’s some awesome character development here, now Zero is the Hotel’s Concierge (based off of his update uniform and the dialogue hinting at Zero’s inheritance). Also, there are a lot more troops, again reinforcing this looming war, and dying polite society. 

Characters seem to be closing, opening, or peering out of the windows/doors of their boxes throughout the film. Agatha, when packing to flee towards the end of the film, shuts out the cold winter world in a moment of (wise) paranoia. The dirty curtains into the storage room of the hotel are opened, then quickly closed with the police arrive to arrest Gustave. And of course, we are peering into their world through the camera, through the story told by Zero, recounted by the Author, and read by the girl. 

All of this is shown by Wes Anderson’s very deliberate mise-en-scene, through costuming (the opulence of the elderly in the hotels and the pretty, colorful uniforms of the hotel staff: which is looked down on by the people wearing the drab black of fascists), the box motif I’ve discussed, framing.. And ultimately, we are the audience, peering into the camera’s window into what was actually the start of a violent era that brought about the end of this pleasant, well-mannered society exemplified by the Grand Budapest Hotel staff, as well as the end of millions of lives. This nostalgia seems to be summed up in what Zero says about him and Agatha: “We were happy here, for a time.” So was everyone.