A Structural Approach to “Do the Right Thing”

In David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson’s discussion of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, I was surprised to find a very different kind of film analysis than I was used to reading. Where usually we read analyses intent on decoding or evaluating a movie, Thompson and Bordwell look to evaluate where Lee’s film stands in the grand scheme of film movements – how formally conventional is it compared to classical Hollywood cinema? Where does it depart from convention and why? What genre of film does it conform to?

To these questions, Bordwell and Thompson seem to explore how Do the Right Thing experiments with some of the theories discussed in The Film Experience chapter on critical theories – namely formalism and structuralism (if I am understanding each theory correctly). According to Bordwell and Thompson, Lee’s film is a “social problem” film, and they arrive at this conclusion through a structural and formal analysis of Do the Right Thing in relation to traditional Hollywood fare.

While Lee employs mostly conventional continuity editing techniques to build his narrative, Bordwell and Thompson note how Lee’s narrative structure is striking. Where a conventional movie focuses on one or two characters attempting to fulfill some defined goal, Do the Right Thing centers on a community of characters, each with vague goals of their own, none of which are necessarily fulfilled by the film’s end. It seems as if, while Mookie’s character moors the narrative, the film treats the Bed-Stuy community as its central character, exploring the conflicts that its constituents incite with each other.

As Bordwell and Thompson suggest, it is possible to find meaning in these structural departures that Lee makes. Lee likely wanted to work within the stylistic and narrative confines of traditional cinema to make his social commentary as accessible to viewers as possible. The lack of a clear resolution to any of the communal conflicts then twists convention from within. Lee seeds in his soundtrack and cinematography an emphasis on community to subtly apply traditional narrative arcs to a community rather than a single character. In doing so, he can leverage viewers’ natural engagement in a conventional character arc to the development of this Bed-Stuy community.

Through Bordwell and Thompson’s dissection of the film, I feel as if I have a more considered and defined structural understanding of what makes a “social problem” film. By their comparative analysis of how Do the Right Thing toes the line between the radical and the comfortable, it becomes much easier to see how a successful “social problem film” can become a template for future works. While I obviously have not yet seen Do the Right Thing, Bordwell and Thompson’s description leads me to see structural parallels in recent films like Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri which also attempt to tackle social commentary (perhaps less successfully) through an examination of a community’s interactions.

Holy Motors and the Reality of Acting

Throughout Holy Motors, we’re treated to a truly perplexing and compelling dichotomy between artifice and reality. Mr. Oscar is an actor, experiencing and enacting truly affecting scenes – evoking and feeling deeply before moving onto his next “appointment”. All this he does without an audience. So who is he acting for? Why does he continue? For him, as an actor, amidst the layers of artifice that he dons, what does he truly feel?

When asked these questions by the man with a birthmark on his eye, Mr. Oscar responds saying that he continues to act for, “the beauty of the act”.

This is a beauty that both Mr. Oscar gets to experience and a beauty that Carax seeks to present to us viewers. In the opening scene, a character played by Carax awakes in a surreal, dream like encounter where he walks through a hidden door in his bedroom and enters a cinema filled with a ghost audience. This is Carax’s concern throughout the film – that we as viewers are growing distant from cinema. Though Carax claims through Oscar that cameras are growing smaller to the point of disappearing, we are watching Oscar. We see him “acting” during each appointment, but in reality he is living through each of those scenarios. Each is moving and emotionally realistic for us viewers. When Oscar is fighting in MoCap, without any opponents, he is kinetic and engaging for viewers. When he is playing the accordion ebulliently, we can’t help be swept up in that as well. We are watching several lives that Oscar has lived, an entire lifetime, squeezed into one day, presented as “acting”.

Carax attempts to present a mirror to us. We each adopt layers of artifice as we interact with different people in different situations in our lives. We change from day to day and we are acting everyday. Just as Oscar acts alongside the woman playing Lea, we are all acting alongside other “actors”, living and experiencing sincerely despite the artifice we don. And, Carax posits that we are living cinema. We act to experience life, for the “beauty of the act” as Oscar does. The art we consume is indistinguishable from the lives we live.

This point is reflected in Oscar’s behavior as he proceeds through the day. As he grows more fatigued, the line between his identity and the identities he adopts blur. Oscar’s “real” self (whatever that means) is almost exclusively seen when he is in his limousine. But as the night proceeds, when he meets Jean and when he goes to his final assignment, we see the real self peer through and it becomes unclear when Oscar is truly acting. He speaks with Jean during the interim between assignments, but both are still in heavy makeup, different and detached from each other. When Jean kills herself as Eva, the air hostess, Oscar screams in anguish and runs back into the limo.  Regardless of the pretense Oscar may or may not have donned, his scream is visceral and very real.

He is growing fatigued, aware and weighed down by the profound feeling that he has experienced over the course of the day, from the unhinged, almost libidinal vulnerability of Merde, to the disappointment of a father whose daughter has lied to him. His “real” self catches a cold from one the bankers he kills in a previous appointment. We see the fatigue truly set in as he stands outside the door of the house for his final appointment. He smokes a cigarette (one of the few behavioral constants between his “appointments”) and just catches his breath. In this melancholic scene, it becomes clear that we are all of the faces we present to the world. We live through and internalize each of these faces, and we keep going.

As such, Carax seems to bring up some commentary on the digitization of society. In the final scene, the parked limousines lament that mankind no longer seems to have any use for physical, visible machines. Each of the lives Oscar lives are very archetypal, emotionally rich lives – entirely detached and unrelated to the digital realm that many of us occupy today. We present a different version of ourselves online and perhaps Carax fears that soon, we will immerse ourselves in a digital environment. Perhaps, as examined in Gravity, we will take for granted our physical existence – our physical ability to feel and experience something true. Or perhaps, Carax is simply lamenting further the digitization of cinema.

I’d certainly like to hear what you all think about Carax’s intention when he discusses the loss of physical machines.

Also, metaphorically, what do the limousines (and Celine) represent? Throughout, the limos are a sort of stasis chamber for Oscar and the other actors – a kind of isolated bubble in which they can rest and be themselves. Who are these actors when they are their real selves? Does it matter? Is there an analog to our own psychological states?

Agnes Varda and truth in filmmaking

When watching Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, I was struck by how prominent and integral a role Varda herself played in the narrative, as if drawing attention to the fact that she is the lens through which we are experiencing the lives of Gleaners. In this article by Violet Lucca, Varda discusses her approach to documentary filmmaking. Varda emphasizes how important it is to be aware of context when consuming film or photography – two media that are often erroneously interpreted to represent the truth. One of her projects, which presented a series of photographs interpreted and analyzed by anonymous speakers before revealing the creator and interpreter of each work, observes how viewers react to and appreciate works that they know nothing about. In doing so, Varda seeks to explore what we consider to be truth.

Though many may think so, a photograph is surely not truth. Rather, Varda claims, it is an interpretation of reality – interpreted at once by the photographer and by the viewer, each finding resonance to their own lives in different aspects of an image. In this manner, perhaps the subject of a photograph is not truth, but the Artist’s interpretation is. In The Gleaners and I, Varda finds poetry in how each different kind of gleaner (herself included) resonate with one another. That profound resonance that she herself feels is a truth – or at least it is intended to be such. She has interpreted the world in a certain way – finding beauty and rhymes where perhaps none exist, and the truth she presents is this perspective on her subjects.

Likewise, in this interview, Varda notes how in some of her works, like her film Kung-Fu Master!, she placed pauses between scenes, to force viewers to reflect and project themselves onto the events depicted – to interpret and find something real that resonates with them. Each person will see something different.

I find this question of interpretation very compelling. Is art, like Varda’s, most honest when it is most self aware? When it faces its own biases and perspectives and seeks to share a thought, almost as a personal essay rather than an expository one? Or is truth best grasped when filmmakers attempt (but inevitably fail) to remain truly objective in their depiction of their subject matter? And for us viewers, what truth do we want to consume? The most human truths or explicit, factual, concrete truths?

Narrative in Film and in Other Media

Many people complain when books are adapted into films that “The books are always better than the film”. While this certainly is not true, it sparks some interesting questions about the differences between narrative in film and narrative in other media. When materials from other media are adapted into film, often plot points, themes and characters are completely changed to fit a more “film-friendly” narrative.

The most obvious difference between film and other media is that a film’s narrative needs to fit in an approximately 90-120 minute time block. As such, adaptations like the Harry Potter movies will see characters, side plots and the like cut to expedite the plot. In other cases, like in the Hobbit movies, plot points, romance side plots, characters and villains are added to pad the story. In these cases, the original narratives are reshaped and twisted to create movie narratives that will follow a basic three act structure with a tidy resolution in the end.

Many times, this tactic works, and many times it does not. Nearly all comic book movies simply adapt vague match-ups of heroes and villains from comics and plop those characters into cookie-cutter plots. Heroes encounter a call to action of some sort, fails to defeat a villain, undergoes some hardship, and defeats the villain in the end. Because of the concision of film, the ease with which to build these formulaic narratives, and the predictability of these narratives is more apparent than other media.

Similarly, many of the best adaptations, like Kubrick’s The Shining or Full Metal Jacket, like comic book movies, do not strive to remain explicitly faithful to their source material. Rather, these successful adaptations co-opt the themes and characters of a novel to build narratives that better uses the affordances of film to serve Kubrick’s own commentary. One of the great strengths of film over other media is the power of the image. Where written media may need to establish descriptive details, internal monologues and symbolic elements to convey meaning, film can convey the same narrative through montage techniques, leveraging our ability as viewers to extrapolate relations between images and scenes. Further, a book’s pacing can be played with to fortify a director’s message within the time constraints of a film. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey relies far more so on image and montage than its corresponding book. Almost all scientific description and explanation of the film’s more mysterious elements are excised to create a narrative better suited to film.

Other films may rely on image entirely, eschewing typical narrative formats to simply present vignettes and striking visuals to audience members. Though it is not an adaptation, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain has a very loose narrative structure and  is nonetheless extremely potent in its narrative voice. There are no central characters whose development we are particularly tied to, and the narrative is disjunctive, focusing on scenes that each have figurative value. When watching a movie like this, we as viewers impose a narrative of our own on the film. We relate images and scenes and create a meaning, as opposed to being shown a chronological plot progression as observers. As such, the narrative world and narrative consistency is subservient to the narrative we actively infer as viewers.

In this respect, it is truly fascinating to see how the affordances of different media conflict and coincide to produce different kinds of narratives.

The contrast between image and sound in “Singin’ In The Rain”

Throughout Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In the Rain, images and appearances are constantly juxtaposed with sound. And, more often than not, Kelly leads us to take what we hear to reign supreme over what we see. From the very beginning of the film, it is posited that sound, words, music make a person, experience or feeling “real”, whatever that may mean. Kathy says as much to Don when she dismisses him as a two-bit pantomime during their first interaction. The key flaw of silent films, we learn is that once “you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”, presumably because of their lack of sound.

When Don is first introduced, narrating his life story, his words define “truth” to the film’s world though we see on screen that he is pulling his story out of thin air. Words, and later music, have the power to rewrite one’s perception of reality. Ebullient dance numbers like “Good Morning” and “Singin’ in the rain” contrast gloomy, dark or rainy backdrops with brilliant, joyous emotion through song. Though we see gloom, we hear joy and that is what we remember of each scene. That is what each character feels despite their “physical” reality in story. Movement on screen is dictated by the rhythms of the music playing. Sound dictates perception as the disjunctive soundtrack of the Duelling Cavalier repulses audiences, and Kathy’s singing voice strings together a montage of the film’s reshoots. During the song “Moses supposes”, one line even states “A rose is what Moses supposes […] It’s a rose cuz it rhymes with Mose”. If one opens themselves to song as Don, Cosmo and Kathy have, life falls in line with the rhythm and happiness can be fabricated out of despair’s heights.

The noticeably un-sunny 1:30 AM indoor setting of “Good Morning

 

This artificial nature of sound is reflected in the musical numbers occurring on sets. During the song “You were meant for me”, Don claims that he cannot confess his love for Kathy without “The proper setting”. On a soundstage approximating a beautiful sunset, moonlight and Himalayan Mist, Don sings to Kathy, and though they are standing on a decrepit ladder, the song transforms the scene. The song imbues Don’s love and figuratively animates the set behind them, making the scene and the characters’ emotions feel all the more real. Likewise, during “Broadway Melody”, we are absorbed into a song taking place entirely in a set, as if we were watching a film within the film. It is vivid, bright and completely immersive. We lose track of where it exists in the narrative or how it fits in, but the energy of the scene is palpable and absorbing. We later learn that this glowing dance number was a mere figment of Don’s imagination that R.F says he is unable to visualize. Yet, Don, and consequently we, are able to experience it fully through the song.

The immersive, colorful set of “Broadway Melody”

 

Ultimately, it seems that Singin’ In the Rain is attempting to discuss the role and the power of pure entertainment in our lives. It establishes subtly the importance of sound in how we as viewers experience our own reality and how we experience scenes within the film (Beautiful though she is, Lina is irritating because of her voice). Given the power of sound, the film posits that such sound should be tapped to create pleasure, as referenced by Cosmo in “Make them Laugh”. The Songs on set spill over into the characters lives and artificially establish happiness and love in their lives. Likewise, consuming song can do the same for viewers.

Don and Kathy, joyously dancing against a makeshift set in “You were meant for me”

 

That begs the question, though, whether pleasure should be the ultimate end of one’s manipulation of sound or even artistic media overall. In “Make them laugh”, Cosmo sings, “Oh, you could study Shakespear and be quite elite, / And you could charm the critics and have nothing to eat, /Just slip on a banana peel, the world’s at your feet”, alluding to the commercial nature of entertainment that is conveniently glossed over in this film (I laughed when R.F appeared to have a moral crisis regarding Kathy’s contract when Lena hijacks his publicity announcements). So how does the commercial aspect of entertainment factor into discussions of artifice and what art can or can’t make real?

 

Also, is there a difference in the intended effect of dance numbers filmed entirely within a set (like “Broadway Melody” and “Beautiful Girl”) and dance numbers existing in the narrative world?

 

Ultimately, if song can twist reality as the film suggests, what is real? Or rather, what should we consider to be real? Feeling or our physical, visual reality? Likewise, in other media, which sensory stimulus has a greater effect on our perception of reality? Image or sound?

Cinematography in East Asian Cinema

Much of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin focuses on the act of seeing – both in how Yinniang sees the world around her as she weighs whether or not to kill her cousin, Tian Ji’An, and in how we, as the audience, see her character’s struggles through symbol and image. In this vein, it may be valuable to look at some other East Asian works and see how their cinematography reflects this same theme of seeing.

Wong Kar-Wai, a Hong Kong director and member of the Hong Kong New Wave, produced one of my favorite films, In the Mood for Love. The film centers on Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, two neighbors living in Hong Kong in the 1950’s. Mr. Chow’s wife is having an affair with Mrs. Chan’s husband, and we follow Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan as they come to this realization and slowly develop a platonic romance of their own. Against the backdrop of a very socially conservative Hong Kong that frowned upon even platonic relationships between man and woman, we see the duo making a habit of meeting secretly in a rented apartment to simply talk and enjoy each others’ company.

The following two clips are remarkable examples of how Wong Kar-Wai and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, develop the isolation, loneliness, paranoia and lack of privacy that each character feels through their image composition.

One of the most interesting aspects of the cinematography in both clips is how constrained the characters are in the frame. More often than not, they are framed by hallways and windows, doorways and walls, squeezed into a sliver of the entire frame. It’s claustrophobic, and on top of that, the characters’ neighbors constantly pop into these slivers of space that the characters exist in, adding additional pressure and constriction. Only in the rented apartment, when Chan and Chow are together, do the characters have room to breathe and let down their guard.

In addition, this sense of constraint lends each shot the sensation that we, as audience members, are spying on the main characters – viewing them through windows and mirrors, seeing reflections, hints and images of the characters true selves. As such, Wong and Doyle create this overwhelmingly pervasive sense that the characters are being watched, and we are complicit.

In the framing, Chow and Chan are almost always separated, going through parallel motions in parallel hallways or parallel mirror panes, but irrevocably apart because of the society they live in. And the color and lighting reflect this sense of melancholic isolation. The backgrounds are painted with rich crimson hues, complemented by diffuse lighting and silhouettes trailing each of the protagonists. For as much color as there is in each frame, shadows dominate as well.

All of these compositional elements contribute to how we see Chow and Chan and how we understand their complex emotions and achings for each other without many words being exchanged by either character. While In the Mood for Love is nowhere near as abstracted as The Assassin in how it conveys its story, it is valuable to consider how the tools that Wong and Doyle employ have been used to even greater effect in The Assassin.

The Relation between Characters, their Surroundings, and the Pursuit of Perfection

In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson explores our standards and perceptions of perfection. One of the most interesting juxtapositions in the film is the perpetual contrast between characters and their environs. Anderson’s often symmetrical framing places characters in situations they can’t possibly live up to. The perfection of their surroundings accentuates their very human imperfections and ticks. Each frame is meticulous, orderly. The Grand Budapest in 1968, though in a state of drab decay, is orderly as well. It’s concierge, Monsieur Jean, is described as both lazy and quite accommodating. As the Hotel slowly decays, he, dressed in the same purple regalia as his predecessor, does the best he can to stay true to the standards of past perfection. He is introduced in the center of the screen, but he slouches. When a guest suddenly starts choking, all pretense and airs are dropped with a panicked, “Shit!” as he scrambles to his ailing guest. Through Anderson’s framing and direction, he is able to playfully illustrate the impossibility of attaining the material perfection that adorns his sets and characterizes his shots.

Still, we must contrast Jean’s characterization with Zero’s recollection of Gustave H. Zero’s story is painted with pinks and whites, miniature sets, all artificial and all conveying a sense of impeccable perfection. As viewers, we initially associate that perfection with the material perfection of the surroundings. We assume that Zero is truly recalling a more perfect time. However, as we are introduced to Gustave H, we see that is not the case. Much of the film’s humor and absurdity stems from Gustave’s vanity, his fickle nature, his vulgarity and the contrast between his many, many flaws and the perfection he demands from his surroundings. Where Jean (and several other characters in the film) tried and failed to attain the standards of properness imposed upon them, Gustave is characterized differently. For some reason, his pursuit of perfection and his own impropriety are depicted as, ironically, natural, as if he is the shape perfection takes. In tracking shots, the camera follows him and more often than not, he is framed in the center of the action, as if he is defining his surroundings. Indeed, as this story is a recollection of Zero’s, it is likely that Gustave is depicted this way, because Zero viewed him this way. While we see so many other characters trying and failing to achieve some arcane standard of perfection, in Gustave’s hotel, Zero assumes that Gustave has set the standard. And, thus, how could Gustave violate it?

The Grand Budapest is, for all intents and purposes, Gustave’s creation. It is a perfect container to reflect his aspiration for control. Throughout the film, boxes and box structures are used as containers for perfection – controlled environments, free of the blights in the outside world. These boxes frame characters and objects. Gustave is repeatedly framed in the red elevator of the hotel, seated as his employees stand. He is effectively in his element. In this small, controlled environment, he has found perfection and “civility” – where everything is proper and he is effectively served by his employees. As we learn later, Gustave has aspired to become the guest in his perfect hotel. Further, in the snow, after their prison escape, Gustave finds himself in a telephone booth, and is framed in the booth as well. While Zero waits outside, separated from Gustave by the phone booth’s walls, Gustave finds his control once more and regales Zero with the story of the Society of the Crossed Keys.

Only immediately after the prison break, when Gustave berates Zero, do the scenes colors turn dark, complemented by a dark blur around the frame. Here, there is no pretense and no perfection to hide the pain and frustration both Gustave and Zero are feeling. Here, neither are in control.

The important difference between Zero and Gustave is that Zero never aspired for perfection. Unlike any of the other characters, Zero is rarely a source of humor, because he is always authentic. He rarely aspires to any pretense he cannot achieve. While Zero’s story is materially perfect, we learn at the end, that the perfection of that time in Zero’s life came, not from control, but from the happiness of being with his mentor, Gustave, and his love, Agatha. In having this happiness and this peace, Zero finds a control and perfection he can attain. In Zero’s final scene, he enters the Hotel’s now yellow elevator, composed and collected, much in the same way Gustave once did, and bids the Young Writer farewell. Framed in a box, in his “home”, Zero’s happiness is his perfection.

However, since much of this analysis is based on Anderson’s mise-en-scene and his framing style, how much of the above analysis is truly intentional with regards to the Grand Budapest? The same framing and directing techniques are used to similar effect in Anderson’s other films, like The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. These are all very different films. Is it simply that Anderson applies the same style with different intentions in each of his films, or is that style largely inconsequential to the film’s subject matter? Even in the Grand Budapest, though the different narratives from 1932 to the present have different sets and aspect ratios, the directing style is very similar, to the extent that maybe it does not have the intentionality I have assumed it has.