Do the Right Thing: Police Brutality and Ideology

Although it’s been nearly 30 years since Spike Lee made Do the Right Thing, the film is still relevant today; unfortunately, it doesn’t feel as though much progress has been made in the last few decades regarding racial tension and police brutality. This article details some of the racially charged events in the 1980’s that inspired the film, especially the 1986 Howard Beach Incident, in which a confrontation outside a pizza parlor resulted in the death of 23-year-old Michael Griffith, who was hit by a car after being chased into traffic on the Belt Parkway. The film is also dedicated to the families of Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood and Michael Stewart, who were all black New Yorkers killed in the recent years before the film.

However, these types of events have even continued today; some recent events practically mirror the events in the film. Radio Raheem’s death by police chokehold is uncomfortably familiar to the the 2014 death of Eric Garner (often called the “Gentle Giant”), who was strangled to death during a police takedown. Shortly after the footage of Garner’s death went viral, Spike Lee posted a compilation video of Garner’s death and Radio Raheem’s death in the film

Warning – This video is very uncomfortable and shows Eric Garner’s death.

Unfortunately, although the use of force by police is poorly monitored/documented, it seems as though police killings/police brutality has hardly improved. This website gives some easy-to-read police violence statistics for recent years. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, 30% of black victims were unarmed, and 69% of the victims were suspected of a non-violent crime. In fact, levels of crime in a city do not even seem to have a correlation between the likelihood of police killings. Most strikingly, 99% of cases in 2015 have not resulted in the officer being convicted of a crime.

So why are we still having the same issues with police brutality that were present in a 29-year-old film? I suspect part of it is due to our society’s ideology. Beyond a police officer’s official duties, there is an ideological justification for police violence. A large portion of society expects this of police officers, and therefore gives them the authority to be violent. I recognize that there are many gray areas and case-by-case bases on this topic, but this ideology is so ingrained in our society that no matter how obviously avoidable a killing may be, someone will try to justify it. It’s admirable and important that Spike Lee steps away from this ideology to show what real experiences with racial tension and police violence feel like. It is also interesting that he does it in a way that lets the viewer reflect on their own views and beliefs without forcing them to change their ideology.

 

Brakhage and Experimental Film

The Film Experience describes the organization and types of experimental film; many are simply an exercise in formalism, which is an approach to cinema that emphasizes formal properties of the text or medium over content. This can be achieved by exploring light quality, motion, the juxtaposition of sound and image, and our way of seeing. Formalist strategies can include abstraction, which use color, shape and line to create patterns that are different from real object, as well as narrative experimentation, which uses non-narrative structures alongside unavoidable narrative elements to create a relationship between narrative and form.

Regardless of the formalist strategy used, experimental films can be further organized into associative, structural, and participatory organizations. Associative organizations use the associations human make between images to give films a dreamlike quality that engages a viewer’s curiosity or emotions. Structural organizations engage audiences through a principle, such as focusing on the material of the film itself. Finally, participatory organizations place the viewer at the center of the film, and allow them to participate in the meaning of the film.

Brakhage’s “From Metaphors on Vision” almost seems to be organized structurally, as it often mentions the idea of experimental cinema through camera techniques, such as spitting on the lens,  or the waltz of a tripod head. He seems to use the structural organization of camera parts as part of formalist strategy to emphasize properties of film. By talking about the mechanical parts of a camera, he allows the reader to realize that “absolute realism” that non-experimental filmmakers attempt to achieve is still an illusion, because it’s made with human intervention by a camera. By messing with camera conventions (through experimental film), Brakhage emphasizes the mystery of the camera that still exists, which allows for “magic” of film. He seems to suggest that experimental film techniques allow us to keep this magic alive. Interestingly, this is nearly a callback to Andre Bazin’s “Myth of Total Cinema” which states, as Brakhage emphasizes, that true cinema is yet to be achieved because realism has yet to be achieved.

Power Dynamics in The Gleaners and I

I found The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000) to be a pleasant documentary that actually taught me a lot about gleaning itself and those who partake in it. It also showed a glimpse of the filmmaker Agnes Varda, and made me eager to learn more about her (she seems like such a nice person). It was a modern-day explorative documentary, since the film was exploring the French countryside and encountering a new world of people who glean. However, it also seemed to be slightly reflexive; by filming herself and her house, and even discussing the exciting new handheld camera she would be working with, Varda calls attention to the film-making process and the filmmaker (after all, the title itself calls attention to the filmmaker by saying “I”). In a self-reflexive way, the process of gleaning and picking through leftovers is like Varda’s process of making a documentary film (she picks through leftover shots, even the ones where a lens cap is present or it’s just her hand closing around trucks, to make the film).

One of the things I enjoyed about the film was the lack of a power dynamic between Varda and the gleaners. Varda seems to put herself on the same level of the gleaners; she gleans alongside them, shows her aging hands and gray hair, and gives us a glimpse of her moldy ceiling. Again, she even seems to identify with them by hinting that documentary film-making is like gleaning. She doesn’t present herself as superior. She also presents many different sides of the gleaners- poor gypsies, thrifty families, chefs, oyster gleaners, rural gleaners, urban gleaners, artists- to show that they don’t all fall into one category with the same motivations that we can stereotype as viewers. Varda even mirrors how different they all are by showing a variety of animal shots in the middle of the film; just as all the animals she has encounters are different, so are the gleaners. Some are humble (like the single mother gathering potatoes), similar to the paintings of people stooping over, while others are prideful (like the man who wears rubber boots) similar to the painting of the gleaning woman standing straight up. However, all of the people shown have certain values in common, which shows that Varda does seem to have an opinion of an ideal gleaner – they are noble, thrifty, and a bit stubborn. They feel as if gleaning is their right. And Varda supports them. It is also interesting that she combines gleaners/gleaning with images of love: heart shaped potatoes, couples talking about how they met or how long they had been together, an urban gleaner teaching immigrants in his free time, singing families, etc. She seems to exalt humanity in this way.

However, she also presents her opinion of those who are against gleaning, and there does seem to be a slight power dynamic here – she voices her disapproval of them, shows high regulations against and distrust of the gleaners by farmers, and even shows a religious painting of those suffering before going to hell right before she talks about the town of Burgundy, where gleaning is forbidden. It’s almost as if she is saying that she and the gleaners are morally superior to the farmers who discard food that they cannot profit off of.

Do you think that Varda has a clear opinion on gleaners and those who are against gleaning? Are there power dynamics at play between her and the gleaners? Is she exalting humanity?

One last thing: This was a great dog.

Film Technique Innovations in Citizen Kane

I found Citizen Kane to be an interesting and intriguing film, and even though it’s been 77 years since it was made, I now understand why it continues to top “Greatest Films of All Time” lists. A large part of its draw is how innovative it was for its time. While we as a class are able to recognize the many techniques its uses (lighting, montage sequences, high angle/low angle shots, etc), it’s interesting to know just how innovative these techniques were 77 years ago. This blog post found online by Miss Cellania does a good job summarizing how the techniques in Citizen Kane continue to allow it to be viewed as one of the best films of all time:

http://www.neatorama.com/2014/01/13/What-Makes-Citizen-Kane-So-Special/

Not only does the article talk about the innovative techniques, but it give insight into how they were accomplished by Welles and others working on the film. A few interesting things struck me from the article.

  • The newsreel sequence resonated with audiences at the time, since they were used to this type of media. I found it interesting that 127 different clips were blended into the newsreel, some of which included actual news footage instead of staged footage. Welles even dragged negatives across the floor to “age” the footage he shot.
  • Deep focus was largely unheard of at the time, but Gregg Toland, cinematographer for the film, wanted to mimic what the human eye sees, and states that, “…in some cases we were able to hold sharp focus over a depth of 200 feet.”
  • The makeup used to age Welles was not just latex wrinkles and gray hair; the makeup artist for the film, Maurice Seiderman, invented new techniques. As Cellania points out, “Rather than just cover Welles with latex wrinkles and gray hair, he made a complete body cast and used it to create custom-fitting body pads and facial appliances that show Kane aging gradually over 27 different stages of his life.” These appliances included 72 difference facial appliances which would change Welles’ hairline, cheeks, jowls, and bags under his eyes. Special contacts were made to age Welles’ eyes, and he had 16 different chins.
  • In most films, there are no ceilings present, as this makes lighting difficult. However, Cellania points out that Citizen Kane used a cloth canopy to simulate a ceiling. According to Toland, “The sets have ceilings because we wanted reality, and we felt it would be easier to believe a room was a room if its ceiling could be seen in the picture.”

 

These interesting techniques not only help to advance the narrative by doing things like showing the passage of time or giving a character and a setting more depth, but knowing how innovative they were also help us understand how Citizen Kane is a cinema of attractions. Seeing a film using flashbacks to tell a story in non-linear fashion, seeing ceilings in a shot, or watching a 25-year-old actor age 50 years in a film were (and still are) a draw for audiences. The innovation of the techniques intertwine narrative and the cinema of attraction.

As a final note, I wanted include this short clip of Welles explaining what prompted him to take these risks and make these innovations in film:

His short answer: ignorance. He was too ignorant to know that most films didn’t use these techniques. Of course, he also gives credit to genius Gregg Toland for teaching him about camera work, but I found it funny that he claims he wasn’t trying to take big risks and make a film that would change the landscape of cinema- he was just ignorant. He also states that, “There is nothing about camera work that any intelligent person couldn’t learn in half a day.” Though this seems like a bold statement for someone to make, Welles expands on it more in the first 4 minutes of the following clip, which is an excerpt from the documentary Arena – The Orson Welles Story (1982).  Speaking 40 years after the movie was made, Welles seems more open and reflective, and I recommend watching the full video as well, as it gives insight into William Randolph Hearst and others who worked with Welles (not just innovative techniques).

Continuity vs. Disjunctive Editing

Editing impacts the perception of space and time in a film and the way an audience perceives emotion and ideas from a film. One of the most important concepts covered in this chapter is the way editing can either “emulate our ordinary ways of seeing or transcend them.” Editing meant to emulate our ordinary way of seeing things is called continuity editing. In this editing style, each shot has a continuous relationship to the next shot, and it is such a standard in the film industry that certain “rules” are followed to make sure the editing is continuous. A cut is largely unnoticed, and the space and time of the scene are believable and realistic. The following clip shows an example of continuity editing.

This first half of this clip from Titanic (1997) shows a conversation between Rose and her fiancé Cal. It begins with a dissolve transition, to indicate a change in space and time. Next, it follows common rules of continuity editing; an establishing shot shows the setup of the characters seated around the table, and then a shot/reverse shot pattern along with over-the-shoulder shots shows Rose and Cal’s faces as they speak. Reestablishing shots are thrown in to remind us of their orientation, but since the 180 degree rule is never broken, the action remains on one side of an imaginary line and the audience is never disoriented. As Rose and Cal look offscreen at each other, we observe eyeline matches, and the camera often shows reaction shots of Rose as she becomes alarmed at Cal’s anger.

However, as we know, realism and verisimilitude (the appearance of being true) are not always primary concerns of filmmakers. In disjunctive editing, the editing is visible, and attention is called to a cut through jumps in time or space or certain rhythms. The following clip shows an example of disjunctive editing.

This clip from Breathless (1960) shows Michael and Patricia riding in a car, and uses jump cuts, where the action is interrupted by a cut. The camera continuously breaks the 30-degree rule by containing a shot that is not at a position greater than 30 degrees from the previous shot. Patricia is shown doing different actions from similar angles, which draws our attention to the fact that there has been a cut and a jump in time.

Both editing styles succeed in generating emotions and ideas, but they are achieved in different ways. Disjunctive editing calls attention to editing itself to affect viewers, while continuity editing allows other elements to impact the viewer. In the clip from Breathless, the jumpy camera movements enhance the jumpy feel of the movie and enforce the urgency and distraction of petty criminals on the run. In the clip from Titanic, we can feel Rose’s sense of feeling trapped by Cal and by wealth by being able to focus on the characters’ emotions and actions rather than the editing. Furthermore, in the clip from Titanic, cinematography and mise-en-scene are also able to play a greater role in adding meaning to the film; long shots of the table are followed by medium close-ups of characters faces so we can sense their emotion. The wealth of the characters and their way-of-life is shown by their costumes and props.

Is one editing style more effective in adding meaning to a story? Will disjunctive editing become more popular and continue to “break the rules” of continuity editing as audiences crave new and exciting editing features, or will audiences continue to need films to mirror real life so that to a certain degree there will always be editing “rules”?

Scenery and Camera Shots to Convey Mood in The Assassin

Despite any confusion surrounding the plot of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, this film was beautiful to watch; it featured many vibrant colors and breath-taking camera shots of landscapes. These landscapes and camera shots were used to convey mood, tone, and emphasize the mystery and fantasy of the film overall.

The extreme long shots featured in The Assassin are immediately noticeable. Characters are barely recognizable as they walk in the middle of a field surrounded by mountains, and a colorful group on horses seems insignificant compared to the lush green mountainside. The deep focus of many of these shots allows us to see the people and landscape simultaneously, but main characters and action are often too far away to read facial expressions. Instead, the audience must rely on the camera shot to learn about the characters and tone.

For example, instead of showing the weary or worried faces of the soldiers on the horses, the large mountains represent the daunting task they are about to undertake, and as the camera pans across the small soldiers, it makes them seem insignificant and powerless despite representing royalty. Even if the camera pans across or tracks the movements of characters, the stunning scenery often overshadows them. This can present an interesting contrast between how important the government officials think they are, and how insignificant they are against a grand backdrop.

In another example, the extreme long shot showing the nun nearly on top of the mountain (instead of being surrounded by the mountains as other characters often are) demonstrates the power of the nun and the authority she has over Yinniang, who is approaching the intimidating nun to admit her failure. Furthermore, being unable to read character’s faces emphasizes the mystery of the film. Although tracking shots are often used to follow characters as they move, it is still difficult to get a clear picture of characters’ faces due to long and extreme long shots. Alongside a difficult-to-follow plot, this enhances the mystery and enigma surrounding the film and the characters, and leaves the audience craving more information.

Similarly, shots of nature with no people and little to no camera movement in them set the tone for scenes to follow. These shots can linger for several minutes, enhancing their importance.

A misty, blue lake with shadowy trees prepares the audience for the eeriness of nightfall; it also vaguely reminds us of the story of a trapped bluebird looking at its reflection, and prepares us for how the characters in the next scene feel similarly trapped. An outside shot of the imperial buildings crowded by mountains prepares the audience for the convoluted talk of government officials. Some shots are simply just trees calmly blowing in the wind, but the quietness and serenity of the shot remind us of the assassin’s quiet but constant presence; you can’t always see her, but she is there.

Do these grand, overwhelming nature shots present images in The Assassin as presentation or representation? Are the stunning images just a presentation of reality that make the film fantastical? Or are the images being used to represent the politics and characters in the film, and then leaving the interpretation of the conflicts in the film up to the audience? How do shots of nature compare to shots of characters when they are indoors, and what does this mean for the film?

Meticulousness and Perfectionism in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Not only was Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) enjoyable to watch, but the mise-en-scene added a lot of energy and meaning to the story. The performances, props, and frames all served to promote an image of meticulousness and perfection that Gustave strived so hard for.

Ralph Fiennes portrays M. Gustave, the meticulous concierge of the hotel. He controls its entire environment, from the employees’ behavior to the guests’ fingernails. His attention to detail and perfectionism also contrast his vulgarity. He presents himself with perfect service, perfect manners, a strong scent and a neat appearance. However, he is also foul-mouthed and has relations with his guests. This adds humor to the movie, but it also adds depth to Gustave. His fussy detail covers up the fact that he is also insecure, vain, superficial, and needy (this is how Zero describes him at the end), and focusing on every detail of the hotel allows him to largely ignore the encroachment of fascism in Europe. However, it also seems as if Gustave realizes his underlying vulgarity and insecurity; when he describes his reason for liking Agatha, he tells Zero that he admires her purity, and he seems as if he wishes he had this purity as well. This may also be why he likes Zero. He may feel deep down that he is not pure or authentic, and that fussy detail can mask this.

Metaphorical props also support the image of perfection Gustave wanted to achieve. The Boy with Apple painting was vibrant and colorful, and featured a perfect man with perfect skin and a perfectly shiny apple.

Gustave related to this image and wanted to preserve it. The painting is perfect, and Gustave strives for nothing short of perfection. Preserving the painting also preserved the relationship he had with the guests of his hotel- he provided such good (albeit, slightly weird) services to them, that a guest honored him with something priceless.

The Mendl’s cakes were also a symbol of perfection.

They are so neat and beautiful, even a gruff jail guard can’t cut them up. This perfectly crafted dessert helps save Gustave from prison, allow Gustave and Zero to enter the hotel, and save Zero and Agatha from falling. They were saved by beauty and neatness. This is reminiscent of the way Gustave’s politeness and service helped him escape from prison – meticulousness can be beneficial in many ways.

A final thing that struck me in this film was the way characters were framed in a shot. There are many instances of one of more characters looking like they are neatly in picture frame.

What purpose does this serve to the story, besides adding a distinct style and quirkiness? Does keeping characters neatly confined to a small frame connect back to how and neat and orderly Gustave keeps everything in the hotel? How does this relate back to the fact that a lot of the action is about a literal picture in a frame?