Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Life and Films of Federico Fellini

Many of the films of Federico Fellini were influenced by events that happened in his childhood. His mother, Ida Fellini, made sure that he and his siblings were brought up Catholic (Alpert, 17). Fellini was often intimidated by religion and on one occasion he was made to keep a candle lit at a vigil, or risk disappointing Jesus, or so he was told (Alpert, 18). Alpert observes that “[s]uch early religious memories would have their later effects” (18). Another influential item in Fellini’s early life was the circus. He loved the circus, and visited it often (Alpert, 19). The circus had a strong influence on La Strada (1954), which focuses on traveling performance artists. One of the episodes in (1963) shows a young Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) and his schoolmates going to see a “prostitute” dubbed La Saraghina dance. Fellini recalls a nearly identical episode in his own life and identifies it as “his first image of sexuality” (Alpert, 21).

Fellini broke into the film industry through screenwriting. He had previous experience with writing scripts for radio broadcasts, but did not write for film until adding to the script for Roberto Rosselini’s Open City (Dixon and Foster, 212). He continued writing films, many for Rossellini, and worked as assistant director as well (Dixon and Foster, 212). One of his earlier films, I Vitelloni (1953), was partly influenced by his younger years (Alpert, 81). However, his first major exposure came from La Strada, for which he won his first Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. He reached the height of his fame (and infamy) with La Dolce Vita (1960), and won his third Academy Award for best Foreign Language Film with (Alpert, 3).

Federico Fellini’s La Strada begins and ends at the ocean. It opens on a shot of Gelsomina (played by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina) and her siblings gathering reeds on the beach. Donald P. Costello notes that the sea is associated with “security and naturalness of youth” and is “a natural symbol for the beginning of life” (6). After Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) is released from jail, he and Gelsomina drive to the sea. In the scene, Gelsomina is framed with the sea in the background, just as she was at the beginning of the film. The contrasting reverse shot shows Zampanò with land behind him. Zampanò then wades into the water and as he is framed with the sea in the background for the first time; he experiences a rebirth of sorts. However, he rejects this rebirth by urinating in the sea (Costello, 24). The Fool (Richard Basehart) has already suggested that Zampanò may be attracted to Gelsomina, and he shows that he was hurt when she tried to leave him. But being the brute that he is, and not willing to openly show emotion, he insults her family. Nonetheless, his character has changed, if only slightly. Fellini’s symbolic composition and Nino Rota’s romantic, lyrical score cause the viewer to begin to feel compassion for him.

The only other scene with the sea is the final one. Zampanò has drunk himself into a stupor after finding that Gelsomina, has died. Again, Zampanò wades into the sea, and when he comes out receives an intimate close up. As the camera pulls back, and the scene is accompanied by a stirring full orchestra version of The Fool’s “very sad song” the viewer can see how desperate and pitiful Zampanò is without Gelsomina. She was his only chance of escaping the literal and figurative shackles of his one-trick act.

Zampanò uses Gelsomina in an attempt to branch out from his “iron lungs” act. With her he is able to try new routines, and perhaps change his reputation so he will not be made a laughingstock by people like The Fool. However, it becomes apparent to him that while his domain is the road, Gelsomina lives for the sea. It is then, an act of selfless compassion, that he leaves her; Zampanò sets Gelsomina free while dooming himself to the captivity of his act. Gelsomina’s freedom acts as a beacon of hope for Zampanò. As long as she is free, Zampanò has hope for freedom though her. Once he finds out that she has died, however, all such hope is gone and all he can do is walk into the sea in the hopes of rebirth or, perhaps as Costello stated, “the security [. . .] of youth” (6).

Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is an aesthetically gorgeous film with the most repugnant of characters. A Vatican publication called the film “obscene,” “lewd” and “depraved” (Murray, 113). However, the film condemns rather than advocates the debauched lifestyle—“the sweet life”—of the Roman upper class. Near the beginning of the film, Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) tells Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), “You know what your problem is? You have too much money.” This foreshadows the unhappiness and depravity of the ultra-rich that Fellini demonstrates throughout the film. Such immorality is represented by a clash of cultures: the old Rome, a religious city, and the modern Rome, a frivolous and debauched “jungle.” This is most obviously demonstrated in the opening scene as a helicopter carries a statue of Christ above the city of Rome. Not only is the modern (helicopter) juxtaposed with the old (Christ), but, as Edward Murray observes, Roman citizens pay little or no attention to the statue; those that do notice it are apathetic (116). Modern Rome has no use for the church or its traditions.

The culture clash theme is developed in the first nightclub scene as “Fellini replaces the image [. . .] of Christ with a shot of two muscular [. . .] Siamese dancers” (Murray, 116). After their performance, the dancers bow and politely relinquish the stage to a rock band. Again, the ancient has given way to the modern. This is also demonstrated in the scene at Trevi Fountain. Sylvia is “surrounded by her friends—Neptune and several tritons” (Costello, 45) which act as symbols of paganism and of the past. Just as Marcello and Sylvia are about to kiss, the fountain ceases to flow representing the changes Roman society has experienced. Attending church is replaced with ritualistic nightclubbing, miracles are replaced with greedy hoaxes, and love is replaced with meaningless sex.

La Dolce Vita dispels all notions of glamor in the lives of the upper class. While the nightclubs appear to be fancy and luxurious at the beginning to both Marcello and the viewer, this façade soon dissolves as Marcello and Maddalena have sex in a prostitute’s dilapidated, flooded apartment. At the beginning of the film, Marcello simply observes “the sweet life.” This is accentuated by the fact that he is a journalist, always watching, never participating. By the final party, however, Marcello has been completely drawn into the depraved lifestyle; he is “no longer objective and no longer an observer” (Costello, 69). He is the first to break into the house and he takes control of the party, even though it is not at his house. Fellini’s camerawork seems unattached and spectatorial; the point of view is often that of a person passively sitting in the circle. A few shots place the camera outside of the circle, further detaching the viewer from the scene. Although Marcello is lost to “the sweet life” (consummated by his rejection of the innocent Paola (Valeria Ciangottini) on the beach in the next scene) the viewer still has hope to reject the empty lifestyle.

One of the many important themes in Fellini’s is the nature of dreams. Not only are nocturnal dreams discussed, but daydreams and fantasies appear in the film as well. Fellini has stated that is not a direct autobiography, but does contain some of his life’s experiences (Ketcham, 66). Therefore, the dreams of Guido are not necessarily those of Fellini, but they may share some similarities. The link between Fellini’s life and work is demonstrated in his cataloging of dreams. As Peter Bondanella notes, “the period when Fellini was most involved with the exploration of his dream life” coincided with when he “was in the process of preparing ” (94). The specific dream Bondanella writes about directly correlates to Guido’s “blockage of artistic creativity” (Bondanella, 94). Such a lull in creativity is not only something that Fellini may have experienced, as most artists do, but is something that he often dreamed about (Bondanella, 95). While the episodes in are not dramatizations of specific events in Fellini’s life, he most certainly can relate to them.
“Guido seems to have divided women into sexual creatures and ethereal Madonna figures” (Murray 145). This is best exemplified in how he treats his wife, Luisa (Anouk Aimée), and his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo). As Charles B. Ketcham observes, Luisa and Carla are polar opposites—at least in the eyes of Guido (72). However, women do not always conform to his dichotomy: Carla plays the role of a prostitute for Guido, but states that she would like to be a “homebody” instead (Murray, 145). This references a theme seen in La Strada and La Dolce Vita as well: modern man’s inability to love. In La Strada, Zampanò has sex with a prostitute and refuses to marry Gelsomina. In La Dolce Vita, Marcello rejects Emma for Maddalena, who subsequently rejects him. In , Guido’s Oedipus complex and categorization of women prohibit him from love. This is directly stated in the film by Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), Guido’s ideal woman; she states that, “he doesn’t love anyone,” and that, “he doesn’t know how to love.” This theme that has been hinted at in two of his previous films is explicitly realized in .

From the beginning of the film, Guido is portrayed as an everyman character. In the first scene, Fellini does not show his face. He could be anyone (including the viewer or Fellini), and the viewer is encouraged to identify with him though point of view shots (Murray, 138). Throughout the film, Guido’s actions are not necessarily those of Fellini, nor those of the viewer. However, both parties will, in most cases, be able to relate to Guido. takes elements from different parts of Fellini’s life including his dreams and his previous films to create a semi-autobiography that can apply to more than just himself.

In many ways Fellini was a part of the neorealist movement in Italy. André Bazin notes that in La Strada, “there is no mise-en-scène” and that the events in the film are merely shown to the viewer (200). In this way, Bazin states that Fellini has not “departed from Italian neo-realism” (201). Much of the camerawork in La Strada and the other films discussed above further exemplifies the seamless techniques of neorealism; the viewer can nearly forget he or she is watching a film. However, Fellini still creates stylish and aesthetically pleasing compositions. Fellini, especially in later films, strays from certain neorealist conventions. For example, he cast professional actors instead of amateurs. Rather than shooting on location, he had grandiose sets created at Cinecittà (Bondanella, 65). While his films appear visually real, his narratives are sometimes fantastical and symbolic. Fellini did not reject Italian neorealism, but rather expanded from strictly documentary style filmmaking to a more poetic type of cinema.

A theme that is often seen in Fellini’s films is that of religion, or, more specifically, the impotence of the Catholic church. In La Strada, Zampanò steals, or attempts to steal, from a convent whose Sisters had given him food and a place to sleep. In La Dolce Vita, modern society has no use for religion; miracles only exist as pitiful grabs at fame and money. In , Guido searches “in vain for spiritual nourishment from the church” (Murray, 142). Fellini’s religious upbringing and confrontations with the church has clearly influenced his filmmaking. He does not present the struggle for “spiritual nourishment” as unique to Guido or himself. Instead, he encourages the viewer to relate to the struggles of the characters in his films. He does this through subtle editing and realistic composition. There are no disorienting close ups or alienating wide shots. Fellini visually places the viewer in his films, whether it be on the road, in the sweet life, or in his dreamworld.


Works Cited

Alpert, Hollis. Fellini, a life. New York: Atheneum, 1986.

Bazin, André. "La Strada." Cross Currents 6.3 (1956): 200-03.

Bondanella, Peter. The Films of Federico Fellini (Cambridge Film Classics). New York: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Costello, Donald P. Fellini's road. Notre Dame [Ind.]: University of Notre Dame P, 1983.

Dixon, Wheeler Winston, and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster. A Short History of Film. New York: Rutgers UP, 2008.

Ketcham, Charles B. Federico Fellini the search for a new mythology. New York: Paulist P, 1976.

Murray, Edward. Fellini, the artist. New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1976.

An Education (2009)

Jenny (Carey Mulligan), the Russian cigarette-smoking, French music-listening, Latin textbook-studying, British-born schoolgirl must make the hardest decision of her young life. She must choose between what her father (Alfred Molina) wants: a boring education at Oxford (that he would pay for) followed by a boring career and what she wants: moving to France, wearing black, drinking and smoking.

Jenny is not the most sympathetic of characters, especially when viewed from the context of the recession. Not very many people get private education paid for, nor do they get the chance to marry spontaneous, rich and attractive men with a penchant for traveling and the arts. Jenny has the option of either, yet she seems to take it all for granted.

POSSIBLE SPOILERS | Click to read

She abandons her banal life of British schoolboys, Oxford and Camus and cafés for David (Peter Sarsgaard), her older, richer, more exciting lover. And when her plans are ruined, it is hard to feel compassion for the naïve girl. But, in a standard coming-of-age twist, Jenny admits her stupidity and mistakes and is allowed to attend the prestigious Oxford, schoolboys and all.

The story is a simple, typical bildungsroman, and the director, Lone Scherfig, supports this; there are few shots that suggest individuality. Barney Pilling’s editing is predictable, and Paul Englishby’s score could have been taken from any other drama film that tries just a little too hard. These aren’t necessarily bad things. Rather, they enforce an important theme in the film: Jenny’s struggle with the uniformed, prescribed life that has been placed on her by her father. When she is studying, imprisoned by the unoriginal subjects, she is visually imprisoned by the latticework of her bedroom windows. However, when David whisks her off to France, the frame rate is cut, the mise-en-scène becomes more spacious and varied and the camera pans, tracks, and zooms quickly, much like Jenny’s favorite films of the Nouvelle Vague. Back at home, in the suburbs of London, film becomes less creative and the editing returns to a more conventional style.

Carey Mulligan’s superb performance is perhaps one of the only things that keeps An Education from becoming a trite, out-of-touch tale. Her acting is sincere; Jenny’s tears and occasionally clichéd dialog (thank you, Nick Hornby) do not seem forced. In the film’s final scenes, it is Mulligan’s genuinely humbled demeanor, not any cinematic technique or musical cue, that shows the viewer that Jenny is not looking for pity.

Jenny questions her teachers (and the audience) about the importance of education. She inquires as to why it is so important that she finish her exams and attend Oxford where they “don’t want you to think for yourself.” At the end of the film, once she has obtained her education, she does not ask the audience to learn from her mistakes. She asks that they learn from their own mistakes.

Grade: B-

Monday, October 12, 2009

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Paranormal Activity (2007) is almost interesting. Unfortunately, the only thing that is interesting about it is its style of release. Paranormal Activity was premiered at the 2007 Screamfest Horror Film Festival, but has not yet been given a wide release. (Paranormal Activity hits theaters nationwide on October 16). On the weekend of September 25, The film was released in thirteen cities in the United States, generating a massive amount of word-of-mouth buzz. The cities in which the film was released was determined by voting on eventful.com, something that has never been done before with a movie. Many of these screenings have sold out; the film has grossed an estimated $8.2 million.

If you have heard anything about the film, you probably think it will be the scariest thing you have ever seen. Stories of people running out of the theater crying come by the dozen. The most hardcore people you know admit to not being able to sleep after attending one of the midnight screenings. Even Steven Spielberg is convinced the film is haunted. Immediately after he watched a DVD screener of the movie, Spielberg found the door to his bedroom mysteriously locked from the inside. He allegedly returned the film to the studio in a garbage bag claiming the DVD was cursed.

Spooky.

The film itself, however, is not as frightening as Spielberg and everyone else will have you believe. Sure, it has a few genuinely creepy moments. And sure, it isn’t exactly a formulaic horror film. However, it does not transcend the limits of the now-stale genre as is often said. Paranormal Activity is an impressive debut effort from Oren Peli considering the extremely low budget (estimated at $11,000) and seven day shooting schedule. It would seem as if he knows a little bit about what he is doing. He establishes the meticulously designed staircase as a constant source of fear throughout the film. Not only is the ominous sound of some unknown being plodding up the stairs frightening, but the way Peli shoots through the three banisters adds a subtle sense of dread. Most of the film is shot from a tripod pointed at the main couple’s bed. The stationary, security-camera style footage is brilliantly creepy. There is not a central focal point for the viewer to look at. Should you watch the actors lying in bed or concentrate on the open doorway? What was that shadow in the corner? Although these scenes are mostly static, the viewer is kept in suffocating suspense.

The film is suspenseful, but scary, it is not. As A. O. Scott says,
“There is no lingering dread. You are not likely to be troubled by the significance of this ghost story or tantalized by its mysteries. It’s more like a trip to the local haunted house, where even the fake blood and the tape-loop of howling wind you have encountered 100 times before can momentarily freak you out.”
It seems as though Paranormal Activity’s near-notorious degree of scariness is due to audiences so badly desiring to be frightened out of their minds. Unfortunately, after the hype of Paranormal Activity dies down, it will become clear that the film is not “the scariest movie of the decade” as so many hope and exclaim. It is doubtful that you will have any real trouble going to sleep after watching it. That is, of course, unless your house is haunted.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Nine to Five (1980)

Once again, I am going to stray from more academic writing in favor of a quick movie review of a fun 80s treasure. Nine to Five revolves around the work lives of three women: Judy (Jane Fonda), Violet (Lily Tomlin), and Doralee (Dolly Parton). They work at Consolidated, just your generic (evil) corporation.Their boss (Dabney Coleman) is a total douchebaggy perv with a thing (of course) for his assistant, Doralee. Without giving too much away, madness ensues and their boss finds himself being held hostage by our three stars in his own house.

I know the movie seems ridiculous, and it most definitely is. Still, it is worth watching. I wouldn’t say it is campy, but there is some slapstick humor that was lost on me. Lily Tomlin, however, is the source of some fantastically dry humor. It is entertaining to watch Jane Fonda act as an innocent, oblivious secretary and (I never thought I would say this) Dolly Parton was adorable as well.

Cinematically, there were a couple of aesthetically pleasing shots, the most notable of which occurs during the Xerox scene, but the real impact of the movie is made on the narrative level. The film blatantly exposes the glass ceiling and the presence of misogyny in the workplace. As these issues still exist today, the film remains relevant on two fronts: comedic entertainment and social commentary.

Grade: B

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

I'm not a Trekkie. I'm sorry if this film destroyed your previous image of the TV series/movies/what-have-yous. I really didn't even know what Star Trek was about before I saw it. I'm a Star Wars guy. With that said, even I knew that J.J. Abrams "reboot" of the popular series/movie/what-have-you was nothing like its predecessors.

According to /film, this separation was accentuated by the fact that the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" was used in the soundtrack within the opening minutes of the film. I was naturally put off by the use of the song; it felt completely out of place (along with the rest of the car chase sequence). Perhaps the scene (and the song) is included in the movie for a specific reason: to reiterate that the film is a reimagination of the original series/movie/what-have-you.

I'm sorry to let my faithful readers down, but this post will be nothing more than a colloquial discussion about the film. It is a summer blockbuster, and one without any kind of substance. Luckily, I was able to shut off my brain and simply enjoy the ride.
Star Trek is like one of those dumbass motherfucking hollow chocolate bunnies. It looks pretty on the outside, and is fun to consume, but it is empty, meaningless fluff.

Speaking of looking good on the outside, Star Trek (2009) is possibly the sexiest thing to come out of the franchise. The bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise looks like the inside of an Apple Store (hint: its sexy). (Fun fact: /film notes that props used in the film are actually barcode scanners from Staples (strangely sexy).) Adding to the sexiness were the stars: Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Morrison...and Leonard Nimoy of course (rawr! :P). Hell, even the Enterprise looked seductive. Chris Pine, however, managed to turn Kirk into a total douche. But maybe he was in the original series/movies/what-have-yous. I wouldn't know.

Would I reccommend seeing Star Trek in theaters rather than on DVD/Blu-Ray? Yes, yes I would. Is it worth the $7.50+ ticket price? Eh...maybenotsomuch.

Grade (based solely on entertainment value): B-

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006)

Fur is simultaneously conventional and unconventional. It is an unconventional fictionalized “biography” of a period in famed photographer Diane Arbus’s life. However, it is presented in a rather conventional way (Thanks, Hollywood!). It stars Nicole Kidman as the title character, and Robert Downey Jr. as her mysterious something-or-other. I would recommend becoming acquainted with Arbus’s work before watching the film if you want to understand how it relates to her life. However, it is not essential to the film. I can fill you in on the important bits: she took an interest in photographing marginalized individuals.

In 1941, Diane and her husband, Allan, opened a commercial photography studio. In the film, they primarily shot magazine advertisements most of which forced “normal” (read: white, middle-class Americans) people into sets with sickening amounts of symmetry. I really don’t know anything about Diane Arbus, but I assume that this is the exact sort of thing she rejected in her work.

While her photograph of the twins (above) might seem to display symmetry at first glance, a closer look reveals that this is incorrect. Only one of the twins is smiling. In addition, the line where the sidewalk meets the wall is slanted. The still frame from the film (a composition for one of Allan’s photo shoots), however, conveys nearly complete symmetry even though the subjects are not twins. In a similar way, the film rejects the conventions of the biopic genre, creating a fantastical world. According to the film’s opening intertitles, it is a “tribute to Diane: a film that invents characters and situations that reach beyond reality to express what might have been Arbus’s inner experience on her extraordinary path.” The premise is unconventional; the film however, is not.

Fur is simply a genre film. The genre it inhabits, however, is unexpected. Instead of being a documentary, Fur falls into the category of fantasy. This departure from reality seems to be an attempt to capture the imagination of Arbus. In other words, Fur is seen through Arbus’s eyes. Rather, it is seen through what the director Steven Shainberg thinks is Arbus’s point of view. While Fur as a tribute is a noble gesture, it only ends up pigeonholing Arbus in demonstrating a singular aspect of her life.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Lionel, a man who suffers from hypertrichosis. In other words, he looks like Chewbacca in the way he is covered in hair. Lionel is an eccentric hermit who introduces Arbus to what will be her future subjects: circus "freaks." His apartment is full of mysterious gadgets and it seems as if it is in another dimension. He is originally presented as an enigmatic individual, but as he gets to know Arbus (and her family), he loses his mystique. Perhaps this essential to what Shainberg wanted to convey: as you get to know individuals like Lionel and Arbus’s marginalized characters, it becomes clear that they are still human and do not deserve the title of “freak.”

As Fur is a film seen through the eyes of a photographer, it seems fitting that meticulous care went into the composition of the mise-en-scène. Nearly every shot, and every frame, seems as if there could be a print of it hanging in an art gallery. Shainberg utilizes unique perspective in addition to the meticulous composition as a tribute to the influence of Arbus. Shainberg toys with symmetry, a tactic reminiscent of Arbus’s photo of the twin girls.

The film is worth watching for its picturesque qualities and its unconventional look at the life of a 20th century icon. However unconventional it may seem, there really is nothing special about the film. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with conventionalism, except that it is an unfair portrait of such a unique, influential woman. I doubt that Fur as a tribute truly does Arbus justice.

Grade: C+

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Jean-Luc Godard and a Different Kind of Feminism

Below is my final research paper for the film studies class I took this year. Its goal was to discuss a trend in the oeuvre of a specific director, and I chose Jean-Luc Godard. Its pretty long, so I won't blame you if you don't read the whole thing. But you really should. Whether or not my arguments make sense, it may help you think more about his movies.

Jean-Luc Godard is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. He is also often thought of as a misogynist. Many of his films, such as Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) feature attractive actresses and focus on their bodies. Godard’s male characters seem to focus on the body parts of the females. In Tout Va Bien (1972), Jacques (Yves Montand) states every body part of Suzanne (Jane Fonda) that he loves. This is extremely reminiscent of a scene from Le Mépris where Camille (Brigitte Bardot) asks Paul (Michel Piccoli) if he likes certain parts of her body, listing them one by one (“Do you like my ass? Do you like my breasts?”). This theme is also repeated in Masculin Féminin: 15 Faits Précis (1966). Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) lists the parts of Madeleine (Chantal Goya) he likes. While at first glance, it may seem that Godard and his characters are objectifying women, upon closer reading of the films, it becomes clear that the women call the objectification upon themselves. In each case, they ask the men to list the body parts they like the most. This is not to blame women for their objectification, but in the world of Godard, they must use their sexuality as the only means of domination over men. This may appear to be a misogynistic perspective, but it is really a criticism of the society in which women are only valued for one feature. In order to have any power, women must exploit their sexuality. Instead of presenting strong, multifaceted female characters who are able to succeed in the world, Godard portrays women as only having power because of their sexuality in order to criticize the society that encourages and enforces such ideals.

Camille’s objectification in Le Mépris is her own doing. “Examination of this scene demonstrates that Camille's materiality belongs to her, and not to the male gaze or touch” (Vegari, 2005). She controls her own objectification and uses it to her advantage. When she invites Paul to objectify her, she breaks herself down into separate body parts: “You like all of me? My mouth? My eyes? My nose? And my ears?” Paul replies affirmatively, to which Camille says, “Then you love me totally?” Camille does not acknowledge that she is more than her individual body parts. Since she lives in a society that does not value her for more than her separate body parts, Camille is not able to acknowledge any other aspect of her being.

Le Mépris is Godard’s most expensive film, mostly due to the contract of Brigitte Bardot (Morrey, 2005). He was under much pressure from his producers to exploit Bardot’s sexuality. In response to such pressure, Godard mirrors the situation in the production of Fritz Lang’s film within the film, The Odyssey. Paul attempts to use Camille to get more money from the American producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). However, this is the very deed that facilitates the end of their relationship. This narrative device, however, can be lost on the viewer. In order to combat this, Godard employs a number of cinematic techniques to remind the viewer that they are watching a film and to thoroughly analyze the images they are seeing. The opening sequence, in which the viewer ends up looking straight into the lens of a camera, the abrupt changes in color and the discontinuity of the score serve to jolt the viewer from the film and back into real life. Godard never stops reminding the viewer that they are watching a film. Contrary to classical Hollywood cinema, Le Mépris lacks the cinematic continuity necessary to be completely enthralled with it. Instead, the viewer is forced to think about the film analytically and thus can more easily recognize the satirical way in which female characters, especially Camille, are presented. If it weren’t for Godard’s unique style in Le Mépris, it would be very hard to read the film as a feminist work.

There are other clues that suggest feminism in Le Mépris. In the film, Paul says, “‘Show women cinema and they show their behinds,’ exactly as Bardot has done for Godard and his backers” (Coates, 1998). Just as Godard’s producers wanted him to exploit the body of Brigitte Bardot, Prokosch wants Fritz Lang to exploit the woman in his film. Both directors submit, but the exploitation is limited. Apart from the opening scene, Bardot’s sexuality is rarely exploited. She appears nude in a few scenes in the film, however, her body is often obscured. Just as the body of the mermaid in Lang’s adaptation of The Odyssey is obscured by the ocean waters, Bardot is at the end of Le Mépris. In one scene, Camille is sunbathing nude except for a book resting on her rear-end. The scene is shot with a wide angle; while Bardot’s body is the center of attention, it does not take up much space in the frame. Even thought he is under pressure from his producers, Godard is avoiding the complete exploitation of the actress and his female character. Later in the scene, she goes swimming and is obfuscated in the same way as the mermaid in Lang’s film. Godard’s refusal to exploit his female characters (and actors) displays a certain degree of feminism; at the very least it does not implicate Godard as a misogynist. The female characters in his films are not under the control of the dominant male. They are independent, and use their femininity in specific ways. Often, they reverse typical societal roles and have dominance over the men in their lives.

Masculin Féminin presents a strong, dominant female character in Madeline. She is strong, domineering, and aware of her effect on men, especially Paul. During their encounter in the bathroom, Madeline asks Paul what he likes about her. He replies, “Sure. Everything.” She asks him to elaborate, and he does by saying that he likes her “hair, eyes, nose, mouth, hands.” As seen in Le Mépris, the female character explicitly invites her objectification and uses her femininity to her advantage. Later on in the film, she acknowledges her dominance over Paul in saying, “I’m glad Paul’s in love with me. I might even let him screw me. But he better not become a pest.” She does not state whether or not she is in love with him, but it is most likely that he is more attached to her than she is to him. Madeline is very aware of this imbalance in their relationship, and is able to use it to her benefit. Unfortunately, it is only her sexual prowess and beauty that allows her to assert such dominance over Paul.

When they are at a bar, Madeline aloofly rejects Paul’s offer to talk yet makes him pay for her drinks. This not only demonstrates her dominance over Paul, but how she knowingly uses it to her advantage. The other women in the film, including minor characters, are also powerful. For example, in the first scene, a woman shoots her husband after a dispute. Just before killing him she shouts, “Find yourself another maid!” To the viewer, their relationship is not clear. Madeline later assumes that the couple was married, but the maid comment seems out of place. It is likely that the woman is referring to the fact that she is the only parent expected to take care of the child. In any case, it is clear that the woman is not in a dominant role in the relationship. She acts as a maid, who is presumably dominated by her husband, and is a woman. As she is in what is usually considered a societally subordinate position, it is unexpected for her to control the man. Later in the film, however, Madeline sees her with a man and notes, “She’s playing the hooker.” This is another example of a woman being defined only in terms of her sexuality.

In Masculin Féminin, Madeline is a rising pop star. She is one of few Godardian women who have successful careers. Her status however, is not necessarily linked to her talent. One of her friends is a cover girl for the magazine for which Madeline used to work, Miss 19. Presumably, the model would not have been selected as “Miss 19” if she were not attractive. In the same way, Madeline might not sell as many records or be offered as many contracts if she did not embody the society’s ideal of beauty. As unfortunate as it may seem, this is often the case with any industry; women are more likely to have successful careers if they are more physically attractive (Senior, Thompson, Badger, and Butler, 2007). This is simply a harsh truth that Godard criticizes, rather than endorses, in his films.

Godard is not asserting that women should only be valued for their sexuality, rather, society dictates this fact, and Godard wants to raise the viewers attention to it. This is most obviously demonstrated in Le Mépris when Camille is sunbathing. As stated above, she is lying nude with a book on her buttocks when Paul comes and gazes at her. He says, “I’ve been watching you as if seeing you for the first time” and proceeds to remove the book, exposing Camille completely. This exemplifies how the patriarchal society requires that women be objectified and use their sexuality as their only measure of worth.

Throughout his oeuvre, Godard comments on the dynamics of the relationship between men and women by exploring the differences between the two genders. He makes this obvious in Masculin Féminin from the start of the title sequence. “The opening credits present the title of the film in two parts: first, the French ‘Masculin’ is fragmented into ‘ma/scu/lin’; second, ‘Féminin’ appears in its own frame as one uninterrupted word” (Vegari, 2005). Later in the film, Paul discusses how the French words for “mask” and “ass” can be found within the word “masculine.” However, they cannot find any phrases hidden within “feminine.” This is a symbolic fragmentation of the male gender; Godard is presenting men as simple, easy to understand individuals while women are harder to comprehend. While Godard’s films often star women who are products of a society that values them only as sexual objects, he acknowledges that this is wrong and that it is not possible to assess a female merely by her body parts. Godard shows this in the tragic conclusion to Mascuiln Féminin. Paul dies in an accident and Madeline is left alone with her and Paul’s unborn child. At the very end of the film, the word “Féminin” appear onscreen only to have letters drop away leaving “Fin” (the end). The only word that can be found within “feminine” is only accessible when important segments of the word are done away with. In this way, Godard demonstrates that the way in which society ignores all but one aspect of a female, her sexuality, ultimately has disastrous consequences.

The split between the two genders is also represented by the characters seen in Masculin Féminin. “The masculine-feminine divide signaled in the title is laid out relentlessly: boys talk politics and paint slogans, while girls play with their hair and shop” (Martin, 2005). While Martin’s essay suggests that this is perhaps an effect of Godard’s misogyny, it is more likely that once again, Godard is simply stating, or rather lamenting, the fact that the gender roles of society do not allow for women to “talk politics and paint slogans.”

Many of Godard’s female characters are prostitutes, or at least sell their bodies. To Godard, the prostitute, represents a strong female character. The prostitute sets her own price and maintains complete control of the relationship with her customer as seen in Masculin Féminin. In his films, he does not condemn the prostitute, but rather blames the customer for participating in the larger societal issue. Godard does not see prostitution as purely literal; he demonstrates the selling of creativity and the selling of the body, respectively. Godard shows movie directors, metaphorical prostitutes, that sell their talents to tasteless producers, or metaphorical customers. This is shown not only in the production of Le Mépris, but in the film within it as well. Just as Fritz Lang sells his talent to an American producer to make The Odyssey, Godard sold his in filming Le Mépris.

The difference between the prostitution of the body and the prostitution of the mind is another way in which the split between male and female is seen. Female characters are often presented as committing prostitution of the body, but only male characters are able to sell their creativity due to the patriarchal society in which they live. In this way, Godard demonstrates that women are only valued for their sexuality, not for intellect, creativity, or other talents.

The relationship between Jacques and Suzanne in Tout Va Bien, is a satiric representation of the relationship between men and women in mainstream cinema. The satire is demonstrated in the title sequence as Godard exposes the filmmaking process to the viewer: “Actors want to see a story...a love story.” This desire is also seen in the audience and in society in general. People want to see a happy, heterosexual couple on the screen. Similar to Le Mépris, in which Godard only exploits Brigitte Bardot in the first scene, Godard betrays Hollywood cinema by only showing Jacques and Suzanne as a happy, loving couple in the first scene. In doing this, he is showing how reality differs from mainstream cinema. He does not give in to the expectations of the viewer and the producer so he does not portray an unrealistically stable society or relationship. Godard’s films expose reality in order to criticize it. This is also seen in the piece accompanying Tout Va Bien, Letter to Jane: An Investigation About a Still (1972). In Letter to Jane, Godard and his co-director, Jean-Pierre Gorin, criticize a photo of Jane Fonda that had been exploited and misinterpreted by the media. With both Letter to Jane and Tout Va Bien, Godard (and Gorin) attempt to display a more accurate version of reality than is usually seen in mainstream cinema. Godard also shows this in his other works as he exposes the societal issues of the construction of gender roles. Instead of allowing the viewer to escape into the world of the film, Godard forces him to confront the issues in society, namely how women are viewed.

If the films of Jean-Luc Godard are viewed in the same way that a Hollywood film is watched, his stance toward his female characters may be interpreted as misogynistic.
However, he does not allow for this. In films such as Le Mépris and Tout Va Bien, Godard exposes the filmmaking process in the films, and in doing so he forces the viewer to think critically and closely analyze the images being seen. Upon close analysis of his films, it is evident that Godard’s representation of women emphasizes the fact that society only values them for one aspect of their person: their sexuality. Godard is not presenting this as his point of view, rather, he is simply demonstrating the true state of society. His type of filmmaking is the antithesis to Hollywood cinema; he uses film to expose reality not to conceal it. If he were to present strong, average-looking, successful females in his films, it would be a complete departure from reality. A patriarchal society does not allow for women to be valued for their skills or other talents and he heavily criticizes this.

References
Coates, Paul. "Le mepris: women, statues, gods." Film Criticism 22 (1998): 38-50.

Le Mépris. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Brigitte Bardot and Michele Piccoli. DVD. Criterion Collection, The, 1963.

Martin, Adrian. "Masculin féminin: The Young Man for All Times." The Criterion Collection. 20 September 2005.

Masculin Féminin: 15 Faits Précis (1966). Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Jean-Pierre Léaud and Chantal Goya. DVD. Criterion Collection, The, 1966.

Morrey, Douglas. Jean-Luc Godard (French Film Directors). New York: Manchester UP, 2005.

Rowe, Kathleen K. "ROMANTICISM, SEXUALITY, AND THE CANON." Journal of Film & Video 42 (1990): 49-65.

Senior, Carl, Karly Thomson, Julia Badger, and Michael JR Butler. "Interviewing strategies in the face of beauty: a psychophysiological investigation into the job negotiation process." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1118 (2007): 142-62.

Tout Va Bien. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. Perf. Yves Montand and Jane Fonda. DVD. Criterion Collection, The, 1972.

Vegari, Amy. "Calling the Shots: Women as Deleuzian Material in the Cinema of Godard." Michigan Feminist Studies 19 (2005): 91-105.

Willoquet-Maricondi, Paula. "God, Art, and the Gospel: The Construction of the Heterosexual Couple According to Godard." Literature Film Quarterly 27 (1999): 301-10.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Choke (2008)

Choke (2008) is not worth the time or effort to review or write about in any detail. This was the worst film I have seen in quite a while.

Grade: D+

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Le temps du loup (2003)

Homework; spoilers ahead.

Le temps du loup (The Time of the Wolf, 2003) opens with a scene that could have been from Funny Games (1997). A bourgeois family arrives at their weekend home only to find that it is already being inhabited. The conflict that ensues is shot in Haneke’s signature cold, unattached style. The two families confront each other in the house, but keep their distance from each other. This sequence is presented using the shot reverse shot technique, but in every frame, the physical distance between the families is visible. This suggests that the two families are completely disconnected from each other. Even though the homeowners present a peaceful option, the patriarchal squatter kills Georges Laurent (Daniel Duvall) without explicit cause. With this, Haneke demonstrates just how little one can trust other people, especially during post-apocalyptic times.

The film seems to be split into two parts: when the family is on their own and after they discover “civilization.” At first, it seems as if the only way for the family to survive is to convene with other people who were also displaced by whatever apocalyptic event occurred. Once they come across a group of people living out of a train station, it initially seems as if their situation may improve. However, the mise-en-scène suggests otherwise. Just as in the first scene, the two parties sit on opposite sides of the room. In addition to this, the room is cluttered, with boxes, a stove, and other items separating them. While this visually represents a disconnect between the characters, it still allows for a semblance of order. When the other characters, including Koslowski (Olivier Gourmet), return, the mise-en-scène loses all semblance of structure and order. It is ironic that the more people there are, the more chaotic the society seems.

In contrast to the civilization is the young boy (Hakim Taleb) who rejects the rules of the larger community of people. He is content to live both physically and morally outside of the society and steals water, a goat, and other supplies from them. He seems to have no morals; he does not care if his stealing will harm another individual and he even goes as far as to kill the stolen goat so he is not found out. In living amorally and in disjunction with the larger society, the boy at first seems to be better off for it. As the film progresses, however, there are tiny glimpses of hope for the larger community. Supplies, food, and other necessities are obviously very scarce, but that does not stop some from sharing what they do have.

In one touching moment in the film, a man uses the precious battery power of his radio in order to glean knowledge for the good of the group. While he is listening to the radio, a heated argument takes place; individuals act less than civilized. Only when it is brought to their attention that he is sacrificing something for the good of the group does the argument cease. The only way a civilization can survive is if its members make sacrifices for the good of the group. Ben (Lucas Biscombe) was even willing to make the ultimate sacrifice by jumping into a fire. As stated by the man that saved him from jumping, the fact that he was willing to kill himself is in itself enough. This is also demonstrated in the film as the viewer sees the last shot: an optimistic point of view shot from someone riding on a train, presumably to safety.

Haneke takes a genre, in this case post-apocalyptic drama, and presents it differently from mainstream cinema. This film is a wonderfully bleak work of art and is worth watching even just for the cinematography. With that said, The Time of the Wolf has much more value than that; the film exposes issues within "civilized" society.

Grade: B

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Homework, you know the drill.

In The Piano Teacher (2001), Haneke comments on how gender affects dominance and desire in a relationship. Walter (Benoît Magimel ) wants a relationship with his piano teacher, Erika (Isabelle Huppert), and pursues her adamantly. Initially, it seems as if Walter will be the dominant force in the relationship, but their interactions are not as simple as that. During their first sexual encounter, in the bathroom of the music hall, Erika seems to take charge, ordering Walter not to move or even speak. Even though she seems to be dominative in the encounter, she assumes a submissive position on her knees in performing oral sex. When he resists her domination, she punishes him by not allowing him to orgasm until he agrees to comply to her wishes. In showing this, Haneke demonstrates that their relationship will be a power struggle that revolves around the fulfilling of sexual desires.

Early on in the film, Haneke presents Erika as a sexual deviant when she smells a used tissue in a pornography arcade/shop. Another instance in which her deviance is demonstrated is at the drive-in theater as she urinates while watching another couple have sex. Instances such as these happen throughout the film, and escalate in aberrance to the point where Erika initiates unsolicited sexual contact with her mother. Haneke presents Erika as a sexual deviant in order to highlight the difference between her and Walter’s desires. In the film, Erika asks Walter to perform a very specific list of sexual tasks including bondage and other masochistic acts. In doing so, she is really displaying a type of dominance over Walter, always telling him how to command her. However, just as in the bathroom scene, Walter resists Erika’s desires. In denying Erika the gratification she seeks, Walter is also denying himself sex with her. Ultimately, however, Walter rapes Erika, both denying her of her desires while fulfilling his own.

The Piano Teacher suggests that in today’s society, only masculine desires are achieved. Erika’s wishes represent stereotypically feminine desires and female sexual gratification, while Walter’s wishes represent masculine desires. This is not to say that female desires include Erika’s deviations; Haneke uses this deviance to exaggerate the differences between Erika’s and Walter’s desires. While The Piano Teacher is often read as misogynistic, perhaps it should be read as a criticism of misogyny. Just as Funny Games (1997) has violence and is a criticism of violent films, The Piano Teacher both contains and criticizes misogyny.

There is little nudity in the film considering the substantial amount of sexual content. Whenever Erika and Walter have sex, they are almost fully clothed. In one scene, Walter is even wearing a hockey uniform. Also, and perhaps because of this, none of the sex scenes are erotic. Instead of titillating his audience, which is exactly what would be expected with such a sexual film, Haneke bores them with mundane sex scenes. In doing so, Haneke suggests that sexual gratification is not being reached for Erika. In a less mundane scene, Walter runs and jumps around giddily after having sex with Erika in the bathroom, suggesting that his desires have been met. Erika however, is seemingly never pleasured even during her own deviant endeavors; her desires,(representing female desires), are not met while Walter’s, (representing male desires), are fulfilled.

The Piano Teacher is a decent, compelling and entertaining film with strong acting. It is provocative and will make you think twice about the nature of desire.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Code Unknown (2000)

More homework. No real spoilers here as there isn't really a plot. Still, you might want to watch the movie first.

One cannot help but notice the cinematic similarities between Michael Haneke’s Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages (Code Unknown, 2000) and his 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments, 1994). Both of the films lack a continuous Hollywood-style plot and are presented in short, seemingly disconnected episodes each separated by a cut to black. In 71 Fragments, the unrelated characters converge in an event at the end of the film, while in Code Unknown, the characters meet in a conflict at the beginning. This conflict happens when Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) throws a piece of garbage in the lap of a beggar, Maria (Luminta Gheorghiu). Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke) confronts Jean and the two begin to scuffle, only to be separated by the police.

In watching the film, it becomes clear that main characters come from very different cultural backgrounds. A few of the characters are immigrants: Amadou and his family immigrated from Africa, and Maria is a Romanian immigrant. Both presumably immigrated to France in hopes of finding a better life, but instead were faced with much difficulty. Amadou, who is black, encounters racism as seen in the opening conflict during which he is taken to police station, and Jean, a white Frenchman, is ignored by the authorities present. Instead of a more prosperous life, Maria found herself begging for money on the streets of Paris which ultimately leads to her deportation. The presence of cultural differences in the film demonstrates that in a multicultural city, Paris, unfortunately the only time different cultures interact is in conflict.

One of the most striking ways in which Haneke demonstrates this cultural disconnect is through editing. As stated above, Code Unknown is presented as a series of unrelated episodes. The fact that very few of the scenes (and characters) appear to be directly related shows just how little the myriad cultures present interact with one another. The editing (or, rather, lack of cuts within each episode) gives the film a cold and impersonal feel; the viewer feels just as disconnected from the characters as they are from each other due to the wide angles and long takes. The episodic nature of the film also shows the different effects of culture by allowing the viewer glimpses into the lives of the main characters. For example, Amadou is seen giving music lessons to deaf children. He has them play what is presumably traditional African percussion. This manifestation of his culture is very different from the racism seen at the beginning. However, most of the film seems to assert that immigrants are persecuted for their native culture and their non-assimilation.

With Code Unknown, Haneke confronts many issues that are often ignored. Racism may be disregarded in many situations, but the racism in Amadou’s experience with the police is impossible to ignore. He also presents Paris in an unconventional manner: as a clash of cultures rather than the stereotypical city of love. Culture and its effects are inescapable. In the case of Code Unknown, the effects begin and end in conflict.

This is another difficult film to process, much like 71 Fragments (1994). I don't feel that it is Haneke's best work, and it might not get the point across to the viewer. If you have to choose, watch 71 Fragments instead of Code Unknown.

Grade: C+

Friday, April 3, 2009

Otto; or, Up with Dead People (2008)

The brilliance of some films is visible on multiple levels. Films such as Network (1976) and American Beauty (1999) are both satirical, yet they can be simultaneously viewed as good cinema. Bruce LaBruce’s Otto; or, Up with Dead People (2008) is not such a film. It can be read as a satire, Bruce LaBruce’s whorish attempt at an instant cult classic, or simply as an entirely original work of art. Actually, it seems more like a combination of the three. Otto satirizes the zombie crowd’s lust for films that only have merit for their shock value. In case you aren’t familiar with him, Bruce LaBruce is famous for (infamous for?) his no-budget B films. He is one of few directors to have directed a porno and had a film premier at Sundance. Without seeing the film, Otto often comes across at an extremely misguided attempt to corner a niche market—gay zombie horror porn. With that said, the film is neither a horror film nor a porno. There is relatively little gore, and much less sex than the right wing IMDB trolls would have you believe. Otto may be a satire; Otto may be an attempt into instant cult status; but in any case, Otto is art.

Otto; or, Up with Dead People was shown at the Sundance film festival. However, simply being accepted into Sundance does not mean a film is good. Otto was also shown at the wonderful MoMA in NYC. Once again, this does not mean that it is a perfect film, but it should be noted in what way the film is being perceived: as a work of art. Most people will dismiss Otto as a pointless B movie, but in reality it is not pointless. Otto is one of the most original works of feature length cinema from the past decade that I have seen. And this is not simply based on the subject matter. LaBruce utilizes his distinct style and unique cinematic techniques to make Otto a truly fresh work of art.

Now onto the film. Otto (Jey Crisfar) is convinced that he is a zombie who just recently was resurrected. Stumbling around town, he comes across a flyer for auditions for a zombie movie, Up with Dead People. At the audition, the director of the film, Medea (Katharina Klewinghaus), is impressed with Otto’s commitment to the character. Otto of course truly believes that he is a zombie, while Medea is sure that Otto is just a regular guy who always seems to be exceptionally dirty. Zombies are often presented as allegorical to “the ultimate consumers who all eat the same things, congregate at the same places, act the same” (Fangoria). With Otto, LaBruce completely reverses this idea. Otto is a complete outcast. Not only is he a zombie, but Otto is gay. He experiences what is either gay-, zombie-, or gay zombie-bashing and generally not accepted by society.

Another of LaBruce’s interesting cinematic choices is presenting Medea’s lesbian lover, Hella (Susanne Sachße) as a silent film character. Hella is always presented in grainy black and white and her dialogue is even replaced with intertitles. Medea and other characters are still presented in full color even while the black and white Hella is sitting right next to them. As a film studies major, I am forced to attempt to find the symbolism/hidden meaning behind presenting Hella as such. However, I have come to the conclusion that LaBruce was simply attempting to present Hella as a specific type of character from the silent film era and he does so with clever blatancy.

Otto is not what most people would consider as entertaining. Otto is not what most people would consider as art. If you watch the film thinking that you will hate it, I can guarantee with complete certainty that you will hate it. Watch this film with an open mind, and don’t take it too seriously or literally. Network and American Beauty are praised because they work on two levels. They exaggerate the existing conventions of Hollywood cinema in order to criticize whereas Otto cinematically breaks free of the zombie genre in its criticism. As Dr. Marco Abel would say, whether or not you like the film is irrelevant. Otto is a entirely original piece of art.

Grade: B

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

More homework! Yay! The title character in Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) is a fashion designer living in an apartment with her assistant, Marlene. The entire film is set solely in this apartment. A quick plot outline for those who wish: (minor spoilers ahead) Petra has just divorced her husband, but soon finds a woman, Karin, with whom she becomes involved. However, after living with Petra for awhile, Karin leaves to visit her husband, never to return. Petra is left emotionally distraught.

You will find my essay below. You might not want to read it if you haven't seen the film.
One of the most noticeable elements of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) is the fact that no male characters are present in the film. Just because there are no men seen on screen does not mean that men do not influence the lives of the female characters. This film is about the effect that men have on women’s relationships. Petra von Kant’s (Margit Carstensen) stagnant relationship with her ex-husband, Frank, has influenced how she sees her later relationships with Karin (Hanna Schygulla) and Marlene (Irm Hermann). Instead of choosing stable options, Petra gravitates toward more dynamic relationships. Karin is unpredictable and unreliable, and eventually Petra tries to adjust her relationship with Marlene to avoid such stasis in that relationship as well. Even Sidonie (Katrin Schaake) has recognized a change by saying, “The whole thing has hardened you. It’s a pity.” Instead of offering a verbal response, Petra replies by putting on makeup—both a literal and a metaphorical mask. She has been hardened and she wants to protect herself from being “stuck in the mire” in her future relationships. She finds stagnant relationships, such as the one with her ex-husband, to be the most oppressive. Ironically, Petra is the dominant party in an extremely oppressive relationship with Marlene. Marlene, who does not speak for the entirety of the film, acts as Petra’s servant. At the end of the film, however, Petra offers her freedom in an attempt to break the cycle of domination that she experiences in relationships.

The fact that the women in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant are oppressed and so heavily influenced by their relationships is reflected by Fassbinder’s masterful posing of characters in the film’s mise-en-scène. On the wall of Petra’s home is a large mural of a party or feast. At the focal point of the piece is a large nude man, towering over the rest of the subjects, visually oppressing them. Not only does he overshadow the individuals in the painting, but he is often found dominating the film’s characters. In the film, it is very common for his penis to be the focal point of the scene even when the main characters are conversing in the frame. This is Fassbinder’s visual representation of the oppression that women receive from men even when they are not present.

Often, the way that characters are posed mimics the figures in the painting. In her first scene, Karin kneels on the bed while Petra reclines. Karin is posed next to the man in the painting and looms over Petra who is in the same position as a woman in the painting. This shot is key in the demonstration of Petra’s seemingly worshipful attitude toward Karin. Even though she is older and wiser than Karin, Petra seems to be more submissive. Petra stares intensely and in awe at Karin and seems visibly dejected as Karin discusses her husband. This denotes one of the recurring themes in Fassbinder’s films: relationships are never equally reciprocal. One partner always loves the other more, causing an emotional imbalance. In the film, Fassbinder renders this disparity physically with the composition of the characters in the frame. For example, in the first scene with Karin, her and Petra sit on the bed facing in the same direction. Marlene, who is in the background, is facing opposite them. This shows the (currently) mutual relationship between Petra and Karin and how Marlene is excluded from it.

As their conversation progresses, Karin moves to sit on the bed in the same visual level as Petra. In doing this, Karin is visually implying that she has feelings similar to Petra’s. However, the omnipresent nude man in the painting is literally between the two female characters demonstrating how the men in both of their lives are inhibiting their relationship with each other. Even though no male characters appear onscreen, Fassbinder does not let the audience forget that they still influence and hold power over the women. Karin is still married to her husband and Petra’s past relationship with Frank has changed her emotionally.

The characters’ poses are not the only visual cue Fassbinder uses to demonstrate the convoluted relationships in the film. The dynamic and complicated relationships are often represented by mannequins. In the first scene with Karin, three mannequins are standing together and because of the way they are posed, it seems as if two of the dolls are excluding the other one. Presumably, the two mannequins represent Petra and Karin, who act friendly and amicable toward each other, and the other represents Marlene, who is only allowed to watch from the outside.

The next scene, however, has the mannequins placed far away from each other, representing the emotional disconnect that Petra and Karin are experiencing. Karin has slept with another man and for a moment seems to enjoy Petra’s pain. However, it seems that Karin soon realizes that she still needs Petra to advance in the fashion world and attempts to make amends. Later, they find out that Karin has had her photograph published in the newspaper and immediately afterward she leaves to visit her husband. In the background, Marlene is dressing one of the mannequins in an extravagant outfit while the other two are either naked or wearing solid colors. The well dressed mannequin is mirroring Karin’s character. Just as Karin is advancing in the world of fashion this mannequin is advancing in style in relation to the others. Using this visual cue, Fassbinder calls attention to what is happening in the relationship between Petra and Karin: Petra has become boring to Karin. Due to this boredom, Karin leaves Petra for her husband; Petra has been considered second-rate compared to a man. This is another way in which Petra’s life has been affected by men. Even through her attempts to seclude herself, Petra has felt the effects of men within her relationships. Though he never shows it directly, Fassbinder never lets the viewer forget the omnipresence of the dominant male.

Grade: A-

Monday, March 16, 2009

Watchmen (2009)

Zack Snyder (300, Dawn of the Dead) was caught between two geeky, unrelenting worlds. The world of comic book fanboys and the world of his followers. The comic book fanboys wanted a perfect rendition of the novel, while Zack’s fans wanted slow motion pornography. Zack pretty much was able to please everyone. Diehard Watchmen fans got a faithful adaptation with a few changes and there was a ridiculous amount of slow motion.

A few quick notes: I’m not going to write about the plot/storyline of the film. It was already presented in a much better way in the graphic novel. There is a lot to talk about too: morality, the criticism of the superhero genre, etc. I will leave the discussion of the content to comic book snobs.

Watchmen is better than Iron Man (touted as the best superhero movie ever when released). Watchmen is better than The Dark Knight (touted as the best superhero movie ever when released), which is not a tough feat to accomplish. With that said, is its superiority mostly due to its challenging, engaging, and revolutionary content? Definitely.

Hollywood is notorious for putting a certain gloss over all of its films. With Watchmen, however, this simply goes too far. Everything in the film looks plasticky. While the novel was more of an anti-superhero realist work, the film tries to be exactly that which the novel is criticizing: the mainstream superhero genre. Zack really missed the point with this one. I realize that money has to be made, (and as of this writing, the film is still in the red), but this was one of the worst aspects of the film. I know that all films use computer generated effects nowadays, but in this case, the film was cheapened by all of the “slick” slow motion, interminable choreographed fight sequences, and absurd makeup (see Nixon, Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre II, etc). In addition, very few of the actors gave good performances. The cast as a whole was very mediocre, emotionless, and altogether unconvincing, mirroring the film as a whole.

I’m not sure if Zack is aware what things in the real world sound like. He makes fisticuffs sound like the Saturday morning cartoons. I discussed this with a friend after seeing the film and we concluded that the sound effects were purposefully over exaggerated to create a more superhero-like feel. Once again, this is the exact opposite of what the novel was trying to achieve.

MINOR SPOILER ALERT | Click to read spoilers
The biggest difference between the novel and the film is the ending. In the graphic novel, Ozymandias orchestrates a fake alien invasion which results in a giant squid-like creature destroying New York. In the film, however, it is made to look as if Dr. Manhattan was behind the attack. My biggest problem with this is how boring (that’s right, boring) it was to watch New York get destroyed. Yes, I am aware that you are capable to render realistic particle physics. However, it just comes across as uninventive and unimaginative, an antithesis to the novel. The point is, we have seen this before. Any disaster movie (no, not Disaster Movie) features CG special effects just like those in Watchmen. For a novel that was so earth-shattering, revolutionary and now adored, this tiny detail is a huge injustice.

Watchmen is exactly what it is marketed as. It is fun to watch, and stays surprisingly faithful to the novel. True comic book fans will much rather reread the graphic novel than see the film, but it is definitely fun to see the characters come to life. Zack Snyder fans will enjoy this film immensely. It is “cool” and “slick” and uses just as much slo-mo as 300. What I guess I’m saying is that this film is a success. It achieved exactly what it set out to do. Now we just have to see if it makes any money.

Grade: C+

Saturday, March 14, 2009

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)

According to the acclaimed online film journal Senses of Cinema, Michel Haneke's 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance is "one of the most challenging narrative works of the 1990s." That is one helluva claim. While I do not agree that it is the most challenging narrative work of the 90s, it certainly is tough to follow especially on a first viewing.

71 Fragments is about a bank shooting. Well actually, it is about the events leading up to the shooting. As the title suggests, the film is presented in a series of 71 seemingly unrelated vignettes. As with most of Haneke's films, there is not a complicated plot. The film simply shows random events in the lives of a few characters before the shooting. The way that the plot is presented is what makes the film so challenging.

Welcome to episode 3 of Mitch's homework. As the entire plot is laid out via intertitles at the beginning of the film, I don't think there are any spoilers. With that said, you might not want to read this if you haven't seen the film.

Michael Haneke’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) is as fragmented a film as the title suggests. At the start of the film, an intertitle tells of a massacre at a bank in Vienna, Austria. The audience is given very few details about the murder-suicide except that the perpetrator is 19 years old and is presumably male due to his name, Max. Aside from this, the identity of the shooter is a mystery to the viewer. The rest of the film in one of two ways: as a news story, or as a short and seemingly random scene. Together, Haneke uses these two narrative elements to challenge the viewer about the true definition of tragedy.

Even though the film is about a brutal murder-suicide, Haneke’s wide-angle cinematography lacks both personality and emotion. 71 Fragments is mostly void of emotion, and as a result, it comes across as a cold and cynical reflection of the lives of the characters leading up to the massacre. Rather than encouraging the viewer to identify with or sympathize with any certain character, Haneke’s cinematic choices hold no bias toward any of the characters. The audience is aware that a massacre will occur at some point during the film, but they are not aware as to who the murderer will be. This anonymity allows the viewer to view all of the characters on the same unbiased level; this is echoed with Haneke’s emotionally disconnected camerawork. Even when Max (Lukas Miko) kills three people in the bank, it seems matter-of-fact, no strong emotion is felt. This is achieved through the camerawork: Max is the only character seen in the shot and there is no reverse shot to show the victims. It merely seems as if Max is firing into nothingness.

Throughout 71 Fragments, the main characters rarely receive close-ups while interminable shots of Tangrams and Pick-Up-Sticks dominate the conversations of certain students. In doing this, Haneke shows that actions, rather than appearances, define a person. As a result, the viewer remembers these characters for what they did, not for who they were or for what they looked like. Even the Romanian refugee (Gabriel Cosmin Urdes) is defined as a vagabond in the first scene before the audience learns anything about him.

71 Fragments is interspersed with clips from what seems to be a local news channel. As with most news programs, the headlines are always presented in the same unprejudiced manner. Stories about war and death are presented in the same way as a story about Michael Jackson. Not only do these news clips add a realistic element to the film, but they further demonstrate the objectivity Haneke is attempting to achieve with the film. Images of guerrilla warfare and murder are juxtaposed with the images of banal everyday tasks being performed by the main characters. Haneke presents war as a constant, an item that appears on the news every day. The general public has become desensitized to mass murder in the form of war, but still sheds tears over the murder of a few civilians. In stripping the emotion out of the latter event, Haneke calls attention to the neglect that the former receives. 71 Fragments is Haneke’s challenge to reconsider the definition of tragedy: four random, unrelated people dead in a bank shooting or thousands displaced and massacred at the hands of international governments.


71 Fragments really is not a fantastic film. Its message might be important, intelligent and insightful, but it is extremely hard to interpret especially when the viewer is simply attempting to figure out the narrative. The film fails to make its point while simultaneously failing to entertain.

Grade: B-

Monday, March 9, 2009

Yella (2007)

Taking film studies courses means that you write about obscure films. A lot. So I apologize if you dedicated followers can't read my ramblings because of all of the spoilers. This short essay about Yella is a 2007 German film by Christian Petzold, a contemporary of the Berlin School. According to IMDB, "Yella is estranged from her possessive and violent husband; but he can't quite bring himself to give her up. When their fraught interaction finally comes to dramatic conclusion, Yella's life takes an odd shift." While this is an acceptable summary of the plot, it leaves out a few details that are necessary to understand my essay below. If you are interested, I do summarize the plot in the spoilers below.

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT
Click to read spoilers

You should really only be reading this if you have seen Yella. But just in case you haven't or you need a refresher on the plot, I'll fill you in: Yella is in a car accident near the beginning of the film. Afterward, she begins to have strange experiences/auditory hallucinations and believes that her ex-husband, Ben, who was also in the crash is stalking her. She meets Philipp, a venture capitalist who needs her to accompany him to a meeting. Yella shows proficiency at her new career and becomes Philipp's permanent accomplice. And, as abrupt as this sentence, Yella/the audience realizes that she died in the car accident.

The essay for my film studies class is below.


In Christian Petzold’s film Yella (2007), there is an element of repetition. Throughout the film, Yella repeats certain aspects of her life twice, but with key differences. Yella (Nina Hoss) makes questionable decisions with two untrustworthy men, Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann) and Philipp (Devid Striesow). Repetition is also seen in Yella’s career: she works with Ben at a floundering startup that declares bankruptcy and is later employed by Philipp, a suspicious man who embezzles from his equity firm. In both situations, the circumstances are strikingly similar. Ben and Philipp look very much alike and Yella’s new job involves interaction with businesses such as the one at which she used to work with Ben.

Ben and Philipp may look alike, but they could not be more emotionally different. Ben is an emotional, dependent and pitiful man while Philipp is a calm, collected, and unattached individual. It seems as though Yella’s experiences in life inform her ghost in death. Instead of repeating a mistake by marrying a man similar to Ben, Yella chooses to become involved with Philipp. While Philipp is not a completely trustworthy person by any means, he is undoubtedly an improvement from Ben who stalks and abuses her. Whereas Ben is a weak and needy individual, the last thing that Philipp wants from Yella is commitment. After her death, it seems that Yella finds a way to improve her love life by finding a man who does not possess the same foibles as Ben.

The company at which Yella works with Ben eventually goes bankrupt and is forced to sell. Ben is livid about the fact that he can only get €2,000 for software that cost €80,000. Later in the film, during Yella’s endeavors with Philipp, Yella comes across a company claiming €80,000 in assets for their network and software. Yella announces that the company’s network is probably only worth €2,000. The ghost Yella has learned from her past experience and uses this knowledge to her advantage in her newfound career.

One of the biggest differences between Yella’s life and her ghost’s life is the location in which they take place. Yella lived (and died) in Wittenberg, a town in eastern Germany, while after she dies, she moves west. This east-to-west movement correlates to Yella’s rebirth in character and body and is often demonstrated through the right-to-left movement of the cars and trains in which Yella rides. The lateral motion in which Yella travels is echoed in Petzold’s camerawork with lateral tracking shots. Whereas eastern Germany is usually considered antiquated and many of its towns have been abandoned, the western area of the country is more modern, thus more inhabited. This is essential to Petzold’s message. Paralleling the events surrounding Yella’s death, contemporary German citizens have learned from the pasts of those that have died and have relocated to the West.



To wrap things up (and to make this seem more like a review) Yella is a decent film even if you don't recognize it for its importance in contemporary German cinema. It manages to be suspenseful, charming and intelligent and is framed by Nina Hoss's brilliant performance. To some, the plot twists will be too much to handle. The viewer can easily get stuck thinking, "How?" or "Why?" or mostly, "WTF?" but once the viewer realizes that the answers to the questions do not exist and do not matter, the film hits it's target.

Grade: B-