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.

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-

Friday, March 6, 2009

Funny Games (1997) / (2007)

This is going to be a completely different type of film review. For my film class, I am supposed to write "short responses" to 5 different films by Michael Haneke. Since the intended audience is my professor, I wrote the essay assuming the reader has seen the film. This is not a film review, this is not a plot summary and this is not for people who haven't watched the film.

First, a short introduction: Funny Games (1997) was originally intended for American audiences. Due to certain restraints, the Austrian filmmaker (Haneke) was unable to find English-speaking actors. However, Haneke directed a shot-for-shot remake of the film [Funny Games (2007)] starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Michael Pitt. If you have seen one film, you have seen the other. For all practical purposes, they are the same film. The only differences are the actors and the language.

With that said, MAJOR SPOILER ALERT. My essay in its entirety is below.
Click to read spoilers

Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) may seem like it is a conventionally violent thriller film, but in reality it is Haneke’s attempt to criticize the thriller genre and its audience’s lust for violence and blood. Haneke utilizes cinematic techniques that are unconventional to the thriller genre in order to emphasize the obsession with violence in contemporary Hollywood cinema.

With Funny Games, Haneke criticizes what the protagonists of contemporary cinema have become: ultra-violent murderers who hold the Machiavellian view that the end justifies the means. Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering), the protagonists and murderers of Funny Games, are not meant to be sympathetic characters. This notion is contrasted, however, by their clothing; they wear white throughout the whole film. In classical Hollywood cinema, the heroes always wear the color white, ride a white horse, etc. In Funny Games, the murderers wear white. Through this device, Haneke relates Paul and Peter to the protagonists of conventional violent thriller or action films. Whereas violence is usually accepted by mainstream audiences as long as it involves the hero of the film killing antagonists, few viewers will agree with Paul and Peter’s actions. Haneke might not be implying that violence is always evil, but he is rather challenging viewers to think carefully about the morals in the films they see.

Funny Games is an exceptionally violent film, but very little violence is seen on screen. This is one of the key differences between Funny Games and most other ultra-violent films; it denies the mainstream viewer exactly what he is expecting from the film. By denying the viewer on-screen violence, Haneke is condemning the audience’s desire for such violence. When violence occurs off-screen, the viewer may feel cheated by the film; in traditional cinema, the camera would follow the action of the scene. However, this technique challenges the viewer to think about why he wants to see the violent acts that are occurring off camera. This in turn forces the viewer to reconsider the presumably violent actions of his favorite cinematic heroes.
Not all protagonists in contemporary “thriller” or “action” films commit actions of extreme violence, but Haneke may be responding to such ultra-violent films as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). The film viewer may begin to see some similarities between Paul and Peter from Funny Games and Vincent and Jules from Pulp Fiction. Whereas in Pulp Fiction the viewer identifies with the main characters (who commit multiple murders) the viewer does not want to identify with the main characters and their atrocious actions in Funny Games.

Haneke’s criticism of violence in cinema is ironic considering the savage content of Funny Games. However, he uses unconventional cinematic techniques to challenge viewers’ preconceived ideas about morality and violence. For example, after Anna (Susanne Lothar) kills Peter, Paul picks up a television remote and rewinds the movie, reversing Peter’s death. This not only reminds the viewer that he is watching a film, but that he is watching a film that criticizes certain aspects of cinema, namely the violence of contemporary Hollywood cinema.

Funny Games (1997): A-
Funny Games (2007): Unnecessary films receive no grades.
Pulp Fiction (1994): Coming soon?