Realism in the Digital Age
For Bazin, realism is the aesthetic basis for talking about cinema, for both the visual and the narrative style. Many have taken Bazin’s argument to be that of the indexical, meaning that a photograph is a substitute for the real thing. Tom Gunning notes in his essay Moving Away from the Index that Peirce’s triad of signs (the icon, the index, and the symbol) interact in the process of signification. They don’t work in opposition to each other, but operate in varying degrees within specific signs. By narrowing our focus on just one aspect of the index, we limit our understanding of what a photograph, and by extension a moving picture, is or can be. I think Bazin understood this, which is why Daniel Morgan, Tom Gunning, and others consider the indexical argument to only partially represent Bazin’s ideas.
To understand cinema, we must move beyond this narrow definition of the index to account for what makes cinema a unique art form while keeping in mind cinema’s relationship to the indexical.
So what is cinema then? As Germaine Dulac said, “Cinema is the art of movement and light.” (p. 260)
What is so significant about movement though? Movement was the novelty of the moving picture when it was first introduced. But what made people jump from their seats as they watched a train move across the screen? To quote Tom Gunning, “We do not just see motion and we are not simply affected emotionally by its role within a plot; we feel it in our guts or throughout our bodies.” (p. 261) Cinematic motion is what absorbs us into those suspenseful plots and dramatic scenes. Compare a film, for instance, to a painting. While there is a “sense of motion” in a painting, nothing is actually moving. Motion in cinema asks us to participate with the film, we must watch these moving pictures unfold sequentially in time in order for any meaning to be created from them, much like watching events unfold in reality. (“The nature of cinematic motion, its continuous progress, its unfolding nature, would seem to demand the participation of a perceiver.” (p. 263)). How might the opening scene of Scorsese’s film adaptation of HUGO compare to a set of still shots of landmarks in Paris? It places us in Hugo’s present, in Hugo’s world, rather than a static past, while still photography is past tense. Spectator participation and investment in a film keeps it in the present. Therefore, movement creates a participatory effect, in turn adding to the realist effect of the film. (p. 263). As a visual experience, there is no difference between watching a film of a train moving down the tracks and seeing an actual train arriving at the station. (p. 264)
If cinematic motion (created by movement on the screen as well as camera movement) can “[thrust] viewers into unfamiliar explorations of flexible coordinates of space and time,” then what happens with digital cinema? Can digital cinema emphasize the diegetic absorption created by movement in films? In other words, if movement via the camera is so essential to what cinema is, what happens when a computer replaces the camera? Can it work in the same way?
Let’s consider for a moment what the computer does. In “Digital Cinema and the History of a Moving Image,” Lev Manovich asserts that with the computer, “…it is now possible to generate photorealistic scenes entirely on a computer using 3-D computer animation; modify individual frames or whole scenes with the help of a digital paint program; cut, bend, stretch, and stitch digitized film images into something with perfect photographic credibility, even though it was never actually filmed [.]” (p.246). Reality therefore becomes plastic. Digital cinema is made up of many elements now, with live-action footage being just one of them. What is realism then, if the indexical nature of photography is lost? Or is it lost? Is this new elastic reality a new form of realism? As Manovich points out, CGI creates “something which looks exactly as if it could have happened although it really could not.” (p. 249). Think of the opening sequence of Hugo for example. That long tracking shot, Scorsese’s signature zoom in close up from outside the Gare Montparnasse into the bustling crowds at the boarding platforms and up to the clock through which Hugo gazes. We are literally thrust into his world through the movement of the camera, accentuated by the movement of the city and the trains and the crowds of people within the train station. This shot also recreates 1930s Paris, a difficult feat if you simply recorded present Paris.
Cinema is no longer a new phenomenon. It has evolved quite a bit since its creation, and will continue to evolve as new inventions are introduced and incorporated into the medium. I will leave you with this to consider: “In what way has the impression of reality been attenuated by new technology, and in what ways is it actually still functioning (or even intensified)?” (p. 258)
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road is THE car chase scene.
It’s like how Birdman capitalized on that one aspect of the French New Wave films, taking the long shot to its most extreme point, and doing it well on top of that.
Fury Road captures all of the best aspects of a good car chase scene. Perhaps the reason this movie was/is so enthralling is the amount of effort Miller & Co. put into the design of the film. As evidenced by this behind the scenes look at the film pre-CGI, almost everything from the insane stunts to the fire-wielding Warboys is real. Even though the post-apocalyptic world George Miller presents to us is farfetched (but is it really…?) and as some have pointed out merely symbolic of the biblical apocalypse (with the 4 horsemen represented in the warlords and Max), I still want to watch it over and over again. I could probably write a whole book on the reasons I love this film but I’ll just leave you with this spectacular display of practical effects that dazzle as much as the actual finished/CGI production.
Given the fact that the plot is merely driving one way across the desert, then driving all the way back, Miller is able to keep us entranced in the journey, the characters, and the outcome.
Daughters of the Dust & Third Cinema
Third Cinema rose out of a need to address the exploitation and truth of inequalities occurring in “third world” countries caused by colonialism and neocolonialism. Arguably, the purpose of Third Cinema is to call into question the established forms of thinking and seeing surrounding neocolonialism. It does so in a way that is confrontational, more often than not, taking issue with the colonizers and their products, such as First Cinema. If this is truly the purpose of Third Cinema, then I believe it is still very relevant today.
Revolutionary cinema is still needed today because these neocolonial powers are still in place, exercising their control over many “less developed” nations. There are many social, political, and cultural issues surrounding these countries that might otherwise remain invisible if not for Third Cinema. It is needed to exploit inequalities and express frustrations surrounding these issues.
As an example of the legacy and relevance of Third Cinema, I would like to call attention to Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust (1991). Although it was released over twenty years ago, its relevance as an extension of Third Cinema is important. Dash borrows directly from third cinema to create an entirely unconventional narrative that places black women at the center. The film does not have a single protagonist, or rather, the protagonist of the film is the entire Peazant family. With flashbacks and a narrator that does not exist yet, the entire Peazant family includes past, present, and future. It addresses the issues of erasure in the cultures of people brought over from Africa and forced into slavery in a way that claims change is still necessary. In fact, change is at the heart of the story as the Peazant family moves from their secluded island to mainland America, away from their past and into modernity and a new life.
Fritz Lang: Master of Silence & Sound
M is the story of a German city haunted by a child-murderer that continuously evades the police. The film is considered to be a classic in the history of cinema, and notably so. Personal feelings aside (Lang will always be a go-to classic in my book), there are also great examples of his cinematic genius found especially in M.
Let’s take the opening scene as an example. We are first confronted with a blank screen, and the eerie sounds of children singing. The camera (an ever important character in this film) will gradually allow access to the source of the sound. But even when the image is revealed the camera captures the scene at an awkward angle. The camera has an observing presence, denying any relationship between the children playing and the audience watching. Sound and image are detached from one another.
The reliability of sound versus image is exemplified further by the competing investigation methods of the police and the criminals. The police conduct raid after raid only to come up empty handed. They rely on visual clues such as pencil shavings and handwritten notes. On the other hand, a criminal syndicate organizes the homeless population of the city into a network of informants. They are able to identify the killer by the sound of the song he whistled on the day the last child was murdered. Sound, in this case, proves to be more reliable than the visual.
As his first film with sound, Lang capitalizes on this new innovation to the greatest extent of his artistic capability. Like the camera, sound is just as important of a character. The story serves as a great backdrop to support the experimentation with sound while also critiquing the reliability of sound versus the image.
(I almost forgot to mention Peter Lorre’s “killer” performance in this film. Certainly, a very intriguing choice considering his Jewish background and the rise of the Nazi’s.)
Bus 174: Documenting & Storytelling the Invisible
A documentary film comprised of found footage and interviews creates a compelling story about the hijacking of a bus in Brazil that made national news. As we can see in the film, the found footage was not hard to come by since every news station and passerby was recording the event. The interviews are filmed post-event. We get perspectives from police, victims of the hijacking, family members that knew Sandro, the hijacker, and fellow street kids that Sandro grew up with.
Because of the way the story of Sandro is constructed, I found myself sympathizing with him by the end of the film. I shared his anger and frustration over the total incompetence of the Brazilian police force, illustrated in that single event. The film also takes a step back to look at events in Sandro’s life that might have led him to the situation on Bus 174. This story is so compelling and, as we can see in the film, this story may not be as unique as we might expect. Through his actions, Sandro was able to bring visibility to the situation of the street kids in Brazil.
This documentary is intense. Well made, well constructed, and addresses important issues that might otherwise remain invisible to the rest of the world.
Marcin Wrona’s Demon: Polish Ghost Stories
Demon is very much the vision of its director. Wrona draws inspiration from a variety of sources ranging from traditional Polish folk tales and ghost stories and a theatrical play to more contemporary influences such as the theme of the dance hall appearing in Polish films (see Fireman’s Ball).
It cleverly disguises its low budget with a complete lack of special effects, which is very refreshing in our CGI-overloaded cinema of the modern world. The lack of special effects has no effect on the impact of the story either.
The title leads us astray. Certainly for me, I expected possession, a priest, exorcism, and lots of violence and/or gore. In fact, the title is merely meant solely for audience appeal. It draws you in through a sense of familiarity and expectation only to lead you in a similar but different direction. The possession that does take place is the result of a Jewish “dybbuk.” The groom’s (Itay Tiran) choreographed spasms, twisting and contorting in the middle of the dance floor are incredible. The amount of control the actor possesses is what makes this film so great.
What really sold me on this film, other than Itay Tiran’s performance, was the camera work and editing. Just like the title of the movie, we are constantly led astray. The camera shows one thing, establishing our expectations, only to completely unsettle us by showing something unexpected. For example, as the groom looks down into a mud puddle, the camera follows his gaze, but the camera keeps moving past this until we are looking at the other side of the puddle. However, the editing (cleverly disguised) shows us the groom once again. The image seems to be flipped, like looking into a reflection in the water of someone across from you only to look up and see that it’s yourself.
Although cliffhangers always leave me frustrated and wanting more, this open-to-interpretation ending was satisfactory in a way. The film is deceptively heavy. I felt as exhausted as the bride looked by the end, but the mystery of what actually happened lingers in my mind, letting me reflect on the why/how/who/etc.
Wrona certainly had a vision with this film, and he would definitely have been on my list of director’s to watch. His ideas are refreshing. He is not afraid to take chances. He has left us with a spectacular film.
Connecting the Dots in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
After seeing this film twice, I have just a few thoughts on the film, the Star Wars franchise, and Darth Vader.
First off, this film looks great. It’s beautiful, the cinematography was spot on, and there was a good amount of nostalgia for the original trilogy. The nostalgia is one of my favorite aspects of Rogue One because it’s not just dropping names and hinting at what will happen with Luke Skywalker & Co., but the look and feel of it makes it fit perfectly into the Star Wars universe as a bridge between Episode 3 and Episode 4. I don’t want to get into specifics because of spoilers, but I will say that the locations used, the costume design, and even some of the camera work in the cockpits of X-fighters were particularly apt at capturing the original feel of A New Hope.
I don’t actually have too much to say about Rogue One. I found it to be good simply as filler. It was definitely not a satisfying standalone film and definitely needs the contexts of the rest of the Star Wars franchise to give it any sort of meaning or depth. Is this a bad thing though? Perhaps not. Star Wars is a money-making machine, and anything they put out will be sure to draw in a huge audience. Hopefully, the creativity and talent that made the brand so popular in the first place will not be forgotten in future films.
This brings me to my next point: the cast. Rogue One has an incredible cast whose talent was very underutilized by a lack of character development and story. I know, I know. This was just supposed to connect the dots of how we get from the end of the Jedi to the Empire’s rise to power in A New Hope. I’m kind of glad that they were pretty ruthless with the characters since this is a standalone film within the universe. We don’t necessarily need to see any of their journeys continued in the future, but that’s no excuse for not having interesting characters. I need more from them. Why are they fighting for the Rebel Alliance? No reason is ever given throughout the film for any characters. I don’t care about how long they have been fighting, I just want to know why.
As far as villains go in this film, they were kind of lackluster at best. Although he oversees the successful construction of the Death Star, Krennic is always one step behind Jyn Erso and the Rebel crew. He revels in destruction, but is no way as threatening as Star Wars villains usually are. On the other hand though, DARTH VADER IS SAVAGE. While watching the film I realized that we’ve never really gotten to see Darth Vader in action (minus the brief lightsaber duals with Luke and Obi Wan). I appreciated him being a minor character in the film, but it might have been more interesting to make him the main villain in this film instead of Krennic. Obviously, we get him taking over as a main villain in A New Hope, but I would have been interested in seeing his evolution from Anakin to Darth Vader explored more.
It seems like the franchise is leaning more towards exploring Jedi mythology. I really hope this is actually something that we will see more of in the following years. With references to temples in The Force Awakens and the guardians of the kyber crystals in Rogue One, I’d say they are off to a good start. The Jedi mythology is a huge underlying factor of the Star Wars universe that has always been at the center of the stories. It is definitely deserving of its own film (and dare I say it, trilogy). Perhaps a film that takes place before the prequels (although not too far in the past, maybe something within Yoda’s lifetime). It seems like it might fit in well with the development of Kylo Ren in the The Force Awakens and Luke’s comeback. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see how that pans out in Episode 8.
Some characters I would like to see more of: Chirrut/Baze and Saw Gerrera.
Anyways, that’s all I have to say for now. I’d love to hear what others think of Rogue One and the future of the Star Wars franchise!
Crimson Peak & Del Toro
How does one even begin to talk about a film from Guillermo del Toro?
I attended a special screening of Crimson Peak as a part of the Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters exhibit at the LACMA a few months ago and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. The museum was able to obtain a beautiful 35 mm copy of the film. It was introduced by del Toro himself and followed up by a Q&A with the director.
Basically, what I learned is that he makes whatever the hell he wants to make (“I wanted to see a movie about robots fighting aliens, so I made a movie about robots fighting aliens”—in reference to inspiration for Pacific Rim). He has a clear vision from the beginning of the filmmaking process and fights for it to be made according to this vision. He likes what he likes and he doesn’t care so much about pleasing large audiences and making a profit. His passion definitely showed as he answered questions during the Q & A so honestly and self-reflexively (“A lot of my movies are about loss, but not weight loss apparently”) and talked about his process with making a film. Not only does he direct, but he also writes and edits his own films. He is truly passionate about the work he does, and being able to hear him speak about his work was an amazing and inspiring experience.
As for Crimson Peak, I think this film successfully represents interests del Toro has explored throughout his career including the supernatural, loss, and strong female protagonists.
The supernatural comes out in the fact that there are ghosts and they are CREEPY. If there is one thing del Toro does well it is definitely creepy. But the creepiness is not just on the surface. These ghosts have stories that are gradually divulged over the course of the film thanks to Edith (Mia Wasikowska).
Discussing the theme of loss in Crimson Peak would give away plenty of spoilers, so I will just encourage you to see the film for yourself while keeping del Toro’s themes in mind.
If you enjoy watching Crimson Peak, I highly recommend you follow it up with two of del Toro’s personal favorites Pan’s Labyrinth and Cronos. Also, it may be intended as a kid’s show but Trollhunters (recently added to Netflix) is an incredible series that audiences of all ages will enjoy.
Exploring Interactivity & Narrative
What is interactive cinema? It varies depending on whom you ask, but for the most part the term “interactive cinema” tends to refer to a narrative that players or viewers can interact with. The degree of interaction differs based on the type of narrative presented and the technology used.
In Chapter 11 from The Video Game Theory Reader, Bernard Perron mentions early 1990’s computer games, which tended to be games with “embedded video clips that serve as informative sequences or simple transitions.” Alternatively, Peter Lunenfield discusses “The Myths of Interactive Cinema” in the book Narrative across Media: The Languages of Storytelling by offering examples that are more cinematic or could even be described as installation art. He gives us the examples of Gloriana Davenport’s physically interactive collages of video images, Grahame Weinbren’s retelling of older stories, and Bob Bejan’s short films that give viewer’s a choice in deciding how the narrative unfolds. All of these examples, according to Lunenfield, fail to be successful in their attempt at creating a truly interactive cinema.
I want to offer an addition to these examples. Let’s consider for a moment the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. This novel was published in 2011 and is in the process of being adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg. The film is set to be released in 2018. But more on that later…
For those that are unfamiliar with the story of Ready Player One, a quick Google search will take you to the Wikipedia page for the novel. For me, and for the purposes of this post, the summary on Wikipedia provides an accurate and succinct picture of the world in Ready Player One:
In the year 2044, the world is gripped by an energy crisis and global warming, causing widespread social problems and economic stagnation. The primary escape for most people is a virtual universe called the OASIS, which is accessed with a visor and haptic gloves. It functions both as an MMORPG and as a virtual society, with its currency being the most stable currency in the world. It was created by James Halliday, who has recently died. His will left a series of clues towards an Easter Egg within the OASIS that would grant whoever found it both his fortune and control of the OASIS itself. This has led to an intense interest in all aspects of 80s pop culture, which Halliday made clear would be essential to finding his egg. (Wikipedia)
I am not going to focus on the novel itself, but the idea of the OASIS and the Easter Egg Hunt presented in it as an example of a form of interactive cinema. I am specifically interested in the type of narrative created through this immersive virtual reality experience paired with the “narrative” of the Easter Egg Hunt.
What does the Easter Egg Hunt consist of? Players must find three keys in the OASIS in order to enter Castle Anorak, the home of Halliday’s avatar within the OASIS. To get each key, the player must defeat a gate or trial, based on Halliday’s love for 80’s pop culture. With each discovery comes a cryptic poem that provides clues to lead you on to the next stage of the game. For example, the first level of the quest requires players to decode a poem left in Halliday’s will. Once the player figures it out, it leads them to a recreation of the Tomb of Horrors from Dungeons and Dragons. Inside the tomb, the player must defeat an NPC character at Joust to get the first key that unlocks the first gate. The player then locates the first gate, which ends up being a simulation of the film WarGames, in which they must recite the lines of the lead character. As each player clears a gate, they are awarded points and placed on a leaderboard, visible to the entire world.
Lunenfield suggests an intriguing idea that with interactive cinema and evolving technology, there is a movement toward a new narrative, a referential narrative. He states that, “we simply have so much narrative surrounding us that it is often enough merely to reference it.” The Easter Egg Hunt becomes a highly referential narrative, in fact it depends on the references made in order to be successful. And we might even read Ready Player One itself as a referential narrative, since it too depends a great deal on the readers understanding and familiarity with 80s pop culture, not to the degree of participants in the Egg Hunt, but in order to be a successful and appealing story to that target audience that would seek it out. In addition (although this might be taking it too far), the book itself is a real life Easter Egg Hunt. Ernest Cline, the author, left a clue in the book that corresponds to readers completing a quest very similar to that of the characters in the book. It even comes with the real world prize of a DeLorean (which was won in 2012 by someone named Craig Queen). So Ready Player One achieves a rather Meta status of referential narrative that it seems to be dependent on at all levels.
Another intriguing point from Lunenfield is this idea of hypercontext. Particularly compelling in rethinking interactive cinema is the tendency of contemporary cultural production to follow a “Duchampian arc—in which the presentation of the object defines that object’s function within culture.” For those who are unfamiliar with Marcel Duchamp, he is notorious for his sculpture titled Fountain. The “sculpture” was submitted for an art exhibition in 1917, and is considered to be part of his readymade series, or more commonly “found object” art. As you can see, the sculpture is simply a urinal, placed on its side, with the signature R. Mutt on it. In any other context, we might see this as a discarded, graffitied porcelain urinal. But in considering the object as a piece of art submitted to be shown in a gallery space, our understanding of it becomes disrupted. The increasing presence of communication networks and computers has increased the creation of context, whether intentionally created to advertise for brands, or creating a more complex backstory for a movie such as Lunenfield’s example of The Blair Witch Project.
So, basically the idea of hypercontext accentuates the multimedia nature of interactive cinema. It allows us to consider it as transcending the limits of combining a movie with a video game by giving us a new context in which to interact with the narrative. Ready Player One gives us just that. The Easter Egg Hunt relies on “hunting” outside of the OASIS. For instance, hunters would need to be familiar with all aspects of 80s pop culture. That means they need to watch movies, TV shows, read comic books and novels. The interest in Halliday and 80s pop culture extends beyond just the context of the Egg Hunt. In fact, it takes over the entire world, creating resurgence in fandom of things like Star Wars, WarGames, Dungeons and Dragons…you get the idea. Halliday was a huge nerd and now the rest of the world is too.
In considering hypercontext outside of the Egg Hunt and OASIS, does the novel itself benefit from a hypercontext of its own? I think it does. Just like it depends on a referential narrative to be successful, it also depends on the hypercontext of media existing outside of itself to create a certain level of interactivity. Otherwise, how would readers get excited about the references? I think the book’s level of success depends on the reader’s knowledge of these references to something that exists outside of the novel itself. Compare, for instance, to the hypercontext created for The Blair Witch Project. A backstory and context was created outside of the narrative of the film to spark interest in the film on a level that allows the narrative of the film to seep into the real world. Hypercontext allows players and audiences to interact with the narrative of Ready Player One, the Egg Hunt, and The Blair Witch Project in a new way.
Let’s consider another possible layer of the hypercontext. The novel itself will be adapted into a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Similar to the hypercontext of The Blair Witch Project, marketing involves a website (enter-the-oasis). Currently the website is still in a “coming soon” phase, but its potential contribution to the hypercontext of the film is something to consider.
So, given all of that, do you think Ready Player One can be considered a form of interactive narrative? Is the addition of the film adaptation a contribution to this hypercontext? Or, how much hypercontext is necessary to make a narrative interactive?
Stanley Kubrick & Sci-Fi
Experiencing a film firsthand is an invaluable experience. Unfortunately, I wasn’t born until a few decades after Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as its successors, was released. Given all of that, I have approached my research for this project, writing of the paper, and formal analysis of 2001 with the critical mindset of an historian looking back in time. By examining the formal qualities and socio-historical context of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, I want to determine whether or not it truly revolutionized the Science Fiction genre in cinema.
What makes 2001 so unique? To answer this question it might be helpful to take a look at Science Fiction films that came before it. According to Carl Freedman in his essay “The Possibility of a Science-Fiction Cinema,” there are “two distinct periods of greatest prominence: the 1950s and the years from the late 1970s until the mid-to-late 1980s—the two most socially and politically conservative periods in postwar American history” (Freedman 301). Films from the 1950s include The Thing (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and Forbidden Planet (1956). These films aren’t especially known for being innovative aesthetically or even engaging in some kind of intellectual ideology. During this time period, Science Fiction had yet to be considered a genre of film in its own right; it was not taken seriously critically and only garnered “ordinary success at the box office” (Freedman 301). What these films were known for, specifically Forbidden Planet, is the inclusion of addressing themes morality, isolation, and love. These subjects were not included in earlier Science Fiction films, with the selling point being the unique adventure it has to offer audiences. Forbidden Planet also departs from earlier Science Fiction films in including science within the story, rather than presenting a futuristic world where technology exists without explanation, which makes the world in the film somewhat more technologically plausible (Taste of Cinema). Skipping ahead to the late 1970s and 1980s, we see the chronological successors to 2001. These films include Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Star Wars (1977), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). In considering this brief list of films, they represent a new trend in Science Fiction cinema, which is focused, in a sense, on aesthetics and special effects. All of the directors of the films listed claim 2001 as an influence on their careers. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Ridley Scott saw 2001 as an example of what “…a motivated director with a brilliant story can do” (Taste of Cinema). Following in the footsteps of Forbidden Planet as the marker of revolutionary Science Fiction, Kubrick certainly set a new standard with 2001 with the realism of technological possibilities.
Science Fiction as a genre in cinema goes hand in hand with visual effects. 2001 is no exception. And certain effects are only possible through the medium of film because of special effects. In Kubrick’s words, “…I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content…” (Banerjee 41). The long stretches of visuals, the lack of dialogue, and the slow pace of them all lend themselves towards a focus on the visual in the film. Kubrick seems aware of film history and theory, such as Andre Bazin’s ideas of using the camera to capture reality and the intervention of the photographer or filmmaker in capturing this (Bazin 93). Of course, Bazin puts more significance on the objectivity of the camera in capturing reality, unfiltered and unbiased, but the photographer has the ability to manipulate the image to create their own reality. Film creates a sense of a graspable reality that has been preserved by the camera, but this idea also suggests the “illusionistic power of film in all its fictionality, all its construuctedness…” (Freedman 305). Film is highly constructed to present a reality, and in considering Kubrick as auteur, 2001 is very much a reality constructed by him (Parrett 117). The reason I suggest that Kubrick is aware of all of this is the way he uses special effects in 2001. He uses special effects in three distinct ways: to emphasize continuity, to celebrate technology, and to emphasize the “real” in this futuristic vision. Firstly, continuity is exemplified by the transition from bone to spaceship in the beginning of the film. The effect of this transition is only capable through the manipulation of the filmic medium, but more importantly, emphasizes the crucial thematic point of evolution and invention that occurs in the film. Secondly, social effects are used to capitalize on the dependency of the visual in film to “self-consciously deconceal their own artfulness by overtly glorifying in the various technologies of filmmaking” (Freedman 307). So, the very use of special effects and emphasis on special effects in 2001 suggests a celebration of the technology of film itself, as well as the futuristic technology presented within the film. And thirdly, similar to the use of special effects used for continuity, Kubrick utilizes special effects to emphasize the ordinariness of the reality he has created. A specific instance of this is in the scene in which we see the shuttle transporting civilians to a space station. It is displayed as a commonplace occurrence in the lives of these characters. But the moment in the journey where the travellers experience zero gravity, is only possible through the use of special effects, and also calls attention to the very un-ordinariness of this technological capability for the audience watching the film.
Special effects certainly set up 2001 to be a great achievement. Not only did it win the Academy Award for best Visual Effects, it was also nominated for Best Director, Original Screenplay, and Best Art Direction. These nominations and awards suggest that the film’s impact on audiences and critics alike were the director as auteur and the special effects or technology of the film. There is not much mention of the narrative of the film beyond the mention that this was an attempt to capture the evolution of human kind through divine intervention (Parrett 117). The narrative or story is secondary to the visual impact on the audience. The story seems to deviate from the “typical” Science Fiction film, but it also follows generic conventions at the same time. It seems to simply readjust the genre to Kubrick’s style and intentions. There is the basic adventure of mankind seeking answers, but it does not really go beyond this much. But consider the importance of narrative in the overall plot of the film and its importance in determining the purpose of the film. The story is based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke, who also worked with Kubrick to adapt it to a screenplay and novel. Control over source material gives Kubrick the freedom to dictate exactly what is incorporated in the narrative as well as the pace of how the narrative unfolds. Attention is given not to narrative quality but to visuals. In comparing the film to the novel that Clarke wrote at the same time the film was being developed, the film is able to use power of abstract suggestion, unique to the medium of film. The narrative can be seen in the visuals in a sense; we see or understand subconsciously the irony, symbolism, and metaphor of the story through visual suggestions (Banerjee 41). In comparing Clarke’s novel and its precise reasoning and analysis to Kubrick’s work the “…movie is suggestive in operation, deliberately intuitive in its function, and mystically vague in the end” (Banerjee 41).
I want to take a look at three of the most quoted “successors” to 2001 to see how Kubrick has influenced, or not, the genre of Science Fiction film. I will look specifically at Star Wars IV, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner. In writing for the Science Fiction Studiesjournal in 1998, Carl Freedman examines these three films, among others, to support his claim that Kubrick did in fact revolutionize the Science Fiction genre. However, I hope to take a more objective approach in considering how Freedman sees these films as successors to 2001 to prove it as a masterpiece. As for Star Wars IV, Freedman considers the visual representation of space travel equivalent to the preciseness of 2001. This certainly seems like a plausible comparison to make in determining its influence. However, the manner of space travel in Star Wars is due to the fact that Lucas wanted a technological world that looked real and realistic. In fact, Lucas made it a point, perhaps limited by budget, to use physical special effects rather than computer generated. Compare, for instance to the clean and sleek spaceships in 2001. The white, gleaming interiors with their “newness” and futuristic qualities are literally shining. The idea of space travel as an ordinary aspect of life in both movies is the only comparison I can see in Freedman’s claim. Close Encounters is offered as another successor following in Kubrick’s footsteps. Freedman considers the end of the film to be “neo-Kubrickian.” For Freedman this means it is “atonally operatic,” the use of lights and visual effects creates a direct contrast to the mundane feel of the film up until the spaceship arrives. I would have to agree with Freedman on this comparison. The slow pace of 2001 achieves the mundane in its slow pace and approach to space travel and its ordinariness only to be completely turned around at the end with flashing lights and bizarre imagery. And finally, Blade Runner presents the best response to “Kubrick’s challenge” according to Freedman. He claims that, “In both cases, the human members of the two crews are essentially dupes of their employers, who entrust the most vital mission information to intelligent machines.” However, Scott goes further to engage a commentary on capitalist motives and corporate power that never comes up in 2001. Without considering that last difference between the two films, I would agree with Freedman’s argument for Blade Runner, and Ridley Scott, as successor to 2001. Although, I would go a step further to claim that Blade Runner achieves much more than 2001, with its commentary on capitalism, a more literary story to ground it, and a visual aesthetic that has more in common with Star Wars and Planet of the Apes than it does with 2001.
A quick Google search these days brings up 2001 in the midst of top 10 lists of Sci-Fi films or as the predecessor to a list of great Science Fiction films that would follow it. The connections and similarities to these films do seem to lend themselves to accurately claiming 2001 to be the determining influence on what is considered a golden age of Science Fiction films. But what about the first golden age that occurred in the 1950s? Perhaps 2001 set up foundations for certain aspects of Science Fiction film, specifically in special effects, that would later be riffed on by Lucas, Spielberg, and especially Ridley Scott. Reviews of 2001 tend to focus on the practicality or possibility of its technology or the ambiguity of the story. Critics of the film either like it or don’t. If it’s not in praise of 2001, reviews of the film usually note it’s boring, slow pace and ambiguity as hindering its success.
So, is 2001: A Space Odyssey a revolutionary Science Fiction film? Throughout this essay I have tried to focus on different aspects of the film that others have picked up on as well, such as special effects, ambiguous narrative, and the genre of Science Fiction. I believe the most obvious aspect of the film to be considered is its director. Kubrick is an auteur. In each of his films he sets out to reinvent a genre (Freedman 300). In comparison to the 1950s golden age preceding 2001, Kubrick sets out to make a Science Fiction film that is less about adventure and finding answers, and more about realism and celebrating technology. I don’t think this means he has revolutionized the genre, but rather, he has added to its evolving and continually changing framework to match the science, technology, and ideas of the time period. Kubrick’s entire filmography proves he is an auteur, and this close look at 2001 serves to define how he approaches thinking about filmmaking.
Artist as Messiah: Tarkovsky’s Icon Painter
In the fourteenth century, the Tatars invaded Rus’, sacking and pillaging the various principalities. It was during this time that the well-known icon painter Andrei Rublev was active. This also serves as the setting for Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of Rublev’s life as a conduit to depict Russia’s historical identity during a turbulent period of time. However, a recurring theme in Tarkovsky’s film of the artist as messiah, who is related to and shaped by his environment, also characterizes Andrei Rublev (Ratschewa 29).The character of Rublev encompasses ideals of monastic life both within himself as well as in his art. This portrayal of icons is on par with how they were perceived in the medieval eastern Orthodox world, as sacred, sometimes miracle-performing, objects to be venerated.
In the film, Rublev is portrayed as a humble man with a natural ability to paint. Other celebrated artists during this time, such as Theophan the Greek, are aware of his remarkable talent. Rublev also shows a great love for humanity, which he expresses in an argument with Theophan after agreeing to become his disciple. He is seen defending humanity, expressing his belief that people can be good. Theophan contradicts this with a negative view of humanity, claiming that ignorance produces sin. As the scholar Maria Ratschewa points out, both of their views are reflected in their art. Rublev’s figures appear more realistic and beautiful, while Theophan’s figures are depicted in a more severe and ascetic manner (Ratschewa 28). Through his art, Rublev is able is link spirituality with aesthetics. Rublev constantly strives to find beauty and inner peace throughout the film, even more so after the Tatars invade the town of Vladimir and burn down the church that he and fellow painter Daniil Chernyi had just completed. Rublev’s faith has been shaken by this harsh environment in which he lives. Sin, temptation, and doubt undermine his passion and spirituality.
The ending chapter of the film focuses on a young boy named Boriska who has taken on the task of casting a new bell for the monastery of Vladimir, despite his lack of skill and experience. Rublev, now aged, curiously watches over Boriska’s progress. Boriska is presented as an artistic genius, driven by the desire to create the best. His courageous and unselfconscious desire to produce inspires a renewed passion in Rublev. His quest for inspiration to create religious art in a time of turbulence and destruction is resolved as he sees that art does serve a purpose that is more than mere indulgence. In this sequence the bell becomes a glorified object. When the bell is finished and presented, the entire town has gathered around to witness the miraculous event. Through the story of Boriska’s creation of the bell, Tarkovsky is able to portray art objects as a medium through which spirituality can be achieved. Boriska’s success is able to revive the spirits of the townspeople, who erupt in applause after hearing the bell ring. The sound of the bell is heard throughout the film at moments when Rublev is confronted with artistic dilemmas. This can perhaps be seen as symbolizing intonation of the spiritual in art (http://www.d.umn.edu/~jrubin1/JHR%20Articles.htm).
In the eastern Orthodox world, icon painting was representative of their beliefs and spirituality. The tradition for icon painting developed in the early Byzantine world and was later adopted by Russian Christianity. The commonly held belief is that icons served as a direct connection to the divine, or figure that they represent. Consequently icons were worshipped, and the purpose for their creation was specifically for veneration (Espinola 17). However, icons were not considered works of art and could not be made simply by those with the ability to make them. The artist must be a morally upright person, blessed by a priest (Espinola 17). Icon painters were seen as highly dedicated, religious people who exhibited an enthusiasm for monastic life (Hughes). Andrei Rublev, a Christian monk, for example, would be an ideal candidate with these qualifications.
It was believed that icons were based on a prototype. Although copies of icons were made, the icon copied was not the original, which is considered to be the person that is represented (Gasper-Hulvat 177). For instance, an icon depicting the Virgin Mary is derived from the original, which would be Mary in the flesh. It was believed that the icon embodies the original source, so that the actions of the associated figure also become the actions of the icon, and vice versa (Gasper-Hulvat 177). Therefore, any miracles connected to the Virgin Mary are also the miracles of the icon. This creates a complex history of an icon, especially when copies of other icons are taken into account.
Fig. 1 The Vladimir Mother of God, early twelfth century. Tempera on canvas and wood. Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow
A popular example of a Russian Orthodox icon is the Vladimir Mother of God icon, which is now located in Moscow (See Fig.1). It was made in the early twelfth century in Constantinople, and given as a diplomatic gift to the Grand Prince of Kiev (Gasper-Hulvat 176). It depicts the Virgin Mary holding Christ as a child, who is gazing up at her with his left hand reaching out to embrace her. This image emphasizes the tender relations between mother and child. Many miracles performed by the icon were recorded, and the earliest miracle dates to the later half of the twelfth century when the icon was seen levitating at the center of a church. The most renowned miracle that the icon performed is when it intervened during a Mongol attack on the city of Moscow during the year 1395 (Gasper-Hulvat 176). Eventually, the icon became a sign for the Russian Orthodox Church. Its status as a miracle-performing object would elevate the icon to the status of a relic, an extension of the divine figure it represents.
Fig. 2 The School of Dionysius, The Vladimir Mother of God with Feasts and Saints, early sixteenth century. Tempera on canvas and wood. Dormition Cathedral of the Kremlin, Moscow
After the miraculous event in 1395, copies of the Byzantine icon were made for churches in Moscow and Vladimir Dormition Cathedrals, which previously shared the primary icon. One of these icons depicts a similar image of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, but is framed by images of saints and feasts (See Fig.2). The frame recalls images that occupied the iconostasis in the church where it was displayed. The primary icon continued to travel between these two cathedrals, and in its absence the copies were displayed (Gasper-Hulvat 177). The replicas allow the same access to the Virgin Mary, performing the same function as the primary icon from which they were copied. However, these copies also amplify the sacred quality of the original. Because the same action is repeated through each copy, and all are associated with the same divine figure, the Virgin Mary, the singular icon becomes associated with a collective history (Gasper-Hulvat 179). The primary icon becomes more significant as copies are continuously made.
Although icons like the Vladimir Mother of God are never explicitly seen in film, attitudes towards icons and icon painters are clearly portrayed throughout. Andrei Rublev is depicted as being highly dedicated to religious life, for even when his faith is shaken he remains at the monastery, doing penance after witnessing the tragic destruction of the church in Vladimir. Rublev exemplifies the spirituality thought to be inherent in an icon painter. Tarkovsky follows in the tradition of his other films as portraying Rublev as an artistic genius, struggling to find his inspiration. The film serves to provide a circumstantial and historical background to Rublev’s famous Trinity icon, which he sets out to paint at the end, and best exemplifies the spirituality that gives an icon its significance.
How to be a Successful Don Corleone (or Die Trying)
Francis Ford Coppola juxtaposes the stories of Michael and Vito Corleone explicitly in The Godfather: Part II by alternating flashback scenes of a young Vito with the present, showing Michael coming into power as the new Don. Through the contrasting use of lighting and costume, in regards to each of the Dons, Michael becomes a cold-blooded businessman while Vito remains true to his Sicilian roots.
The rise and fall of both Michael and Vito is told through the epic story of the Corleone family. Lighting plays a significant role in capturing the different characters of each of the Dons, which creates a clear juxtaposition between their stories. An example illustrating this is a comparison of Michael and Vito in their office as Don. Vito Corleone is introduced in the opening scene of The Godfather meeting with a minor, rather unimportant character, Amerigo Bonasera. The film opens with a close up on Bonasera, and as the camera slowly pulls away, Vito’s office comes into view. It is a dark and sinister room, draped in shadows from the low-key lighting, with figures looming in the background, barely visible as only a hand is seen or a voice is heard. There is a sense given of the business-like atmosphere of the office as well as the threatening nature of the business itself which Vito is head of. When Vito finally appears on the screen, he is also in shadow, consistent with the lighting in the rest of the room. His eyes are hidden by the shadows and the soft warm lighting highlights his facial features. In contrast to this, the scene immediately following this meeting takes place outside at Connie’s wedding. Vito is shown with his family surrounding him, gathered together to take a family photo. The daylight provides natural high-key lighting to illuminate the celebratory event. The contrast between the different lighting used in correspondence to Vito suggests the separation between his business and his family life. As it is revealed throughout the rest of the movie, family is very important to Vito, and this separation becomes a very important aspect of his character.
On the other hand, at the end of the film, Michael takes over as Don of the Corleone family in an act of extreme violence. While Michael’s order to kill off the other Dons of the rival families in New York is enacted, he attends the baptism of Connie’s son, renouncing sin to become the boy’s godfather. The crosscutting between these two events highlights Michael’s rise to power and the simultaneous fall of his morality. Close-ups of Michael reiterate this point even more. With his face completely in shadow, Michael has renounced any attempt to break free from the illegitimate business of the Corleone family. Since this is revealed at a significant family event, the separation between business and family no longer exists for Michael who has completely immersed himself in the underworld of criminal activity. This is again underscored in The Godfather: Part II as Michael struggles with making the family business a legitimate one. The flashback scenes of young Vito building the business and his family as an immigrant in New York call for a contrast to the story of Michael expanding the business and destroying his family. His continuous commitment to the business conflicts with family, which brings down the barrier between each part of Michael’s life. For instance, in the sequence of Anthony Corleone’s First Communion celebration, Michael is shown holding meetings in his office, calling to mind a direct comparison to the opening of The Godfather. While Connie’s wedding crowd consisted of family and friends, Anthony’s celebration appears to include politicians and business partners. And to emphasize the difference between the two Dons, the lighting is not differentiated between the two locations of outdoor party and interior of the office. Also, side lighting is often used in shots of Michael. Although it is softer in the beginning of The Godfather: Part II, as in the scene in which he meets with a politician at his house in Tahoe with soft natural lighting coming in through the office window, it gradually becomes a more stark contrast towards the end of the film. The shadows nearly envelope his entire face to mark his moral descent as he becomes a more powerful Don.
Another interesting point of departure between the characters of Michael and Vito is the role costume plays in portraying their values. For Vito, his immigrant background remains prominent throughout his life, especially at the end. The reference to his origins can be seen clearly in a scene from The Godfather when a meeting is held with Sollozzo over the Corleone family’s involvement in drug trafficking. Here, all of the men in the meeting are dressed in dark suits that are in vogue for businessmen during this time period. Vito, however, is wearing a brown suit, green shirt, and red tie. As author Anthony Julian Tamburri notes in his essay “Michael Corleone’s Tie: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather,” Vito is “dressed like any Italian immigrant grandfather.” In this meeting, Vito essentially refuses to become involved in the drug trade because his intentions as Don are ultimately about helping his family and community instead of making a profit. His intentions do not correspond with the business-like approach that the other men in the meeting represent. When Vito Corleone meets his end, he is also dressed like an Italian immigrant. His outfit consists of natural colors that indicate his closeness to the garden in which he is situated. The location speaks just as much to his Sicilian origins as does his costume.
In contrast to this, Michael Corleone’s wardrobe in both The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II reflects his affinity for the business side of his role as Don. Within the first two chapters of The Godfather saga, Michael’s changing wardrobe also reflects his moral evolution into the lone figure seated in his shadowy throne at the end of Part II. Michael is first introduced on screen in his United States military uniform at Connie’s wedding. Afterwards in following scenes, Michael wears outfits consisting of many shades of brown, reflecting close ties to nature like his father. When Michael sets out to kill those responsible for the attempted assassination on his father, he opts for a gray suit. However, he also wears a brown coat, which reflects his conflicted mindset. This outfit signifies the beginning of Michael’s descent into the criminal world of the family business. The dark gray suit he wears in the scene of the baptism marks his full transition to Don.
Although their approaches are different, Michael and Vito both succeed as Don of the Corleone family. Their success can be defined in different ways, as Vito retains his family while Michael ends up alone in the end. Even though Michael sacrificed his family, his path to success was intended to be a dark and lonely one from the beginning, signified by the use of lighting and costume choice for his character. The events that take place in The Godfather: Part III, especially Michael’s lonely death, are foreshadowed by the closing shot in Part II, which shows Michael as the lone ruler enveloped in the darkness that pervades his success as Don Corleone.
The Issue of Identity
In the early 1960’s there was an influx in immigration to Germany as guest workers. People from Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, and other countries began pouring into the country to take advantage of the abundant work opportunities. Eventually, these immigrants had children who grew up culturally and socially as German while still retaining their parents’ traditions. The immigration that took place led to the creation of fluctuating border zones as well as notions of identity as these children were tied to both Germany and, in the case of Fatih Akin, Turkey. Akin is the son of Turkish immigrants and was born in Hamburg. This duality of identity is frequently explored throughout his films that are often autobiographical in nature as he deals with this “tricky balancing act that shapes the existence of people like himself who juggle more than one language, tradition, and set of codes”. Akin often uses broad, recurring themes such as travel, identity, and multiculturalism, all which are enhanced by the use of music, to reconsider and reconcile what it means to belong. These themes and devices are exemplified by his films In July (2000) and Head-On (2004), through which Akin is able to explore a fluid cultural identity within the transnational spaces of the twenty-first century while redefining German identity in the film industry.
Places in Akin’s films are most often connected by the plotline, as opposed to geography or politics. This is achieved through the theme of travel. For In July, the protagonist Daniel embarks on a road trip with Juli, a free-spirited woman who plays a part in setting him on the journey, to Istanbul in search of who he believes to be his true love. The romantic comedy follows Daniel and Juli’s developing love relationship, which is central to the film’s story. Along the way Daniel meets a variety of characters and has many cross-cultural experiences. The theme of travel helps to create a sense of fluid borders where boundaries have been dismantled so that these cross-cultural encounters and alliances can occur. The use of the road trip in the plot of In July highlights the relatively short distance between Germany, the heart of Europe, and Turkey, which remains on the periphery. In this way, Akin’s film becomes slightly politicized, especially when considered in the debate over Turkey’s integration into the European Union. However, the story of In July focuses more on the deconstruction of fixed national identities. As Daniel and Juli make their way across Europe, crossing borders freely, they are also overriding the idea of rigidly defined boundaries and identities of nations based solely on language, culture, or ethnicity. For example, about halfway through the film, Daniel meets Luna, a mysterious woman driving a military jeep along a dirt road, there is a close-up shot of the back of the vehicle as they drive away. This shot reveals Luna’s national origins as Yugoslavia, but even more significant is the red “Ex” spray-painted over the sticker. Akin uses this to situate the film within an international framework by confronting Europe with its former East. Europe’s own identity is in flux, calling into question what exactly constitutes Europe. This ties in to the autobiographical nature of Akin’s body of work, dealing with the idea of a more hybrid or fluid identity influenced by many places and cultures instead of a fixed identity with set boundaries.
A narrative element that also lends itself to Akin’s exploration of identity is the focus on multiple, sometimes conflicting traditions. This is most evident in the film Head-On, a dark melodrama about two Turkish-Germans who are brought together by fate. This film is the first installment in Akin’s “Love, Death, and the Devil” trilogy. But more importantly is the way Head-On exposes the psychological strain of mixing cultures and what happens when Turkish-Germans do not adhere to cultural expectations. Sibel and Cahit, the two main protagonists, struggle with this very problem of living up to the expectations associated with being a German born Turk. On one hand, Cahit denies both German and Turkish culture, commenting to Sibel that he has all but abandoned his Turkish side. His apartment is decorated with posters of bands representing his subcultural tastes. On the other hand, Sibel is forced to adhere to the rituals and traditions of her Turkish family but seeks sexual freedom. As a result, they engage in a fake marriage as a form of mutual escape. The wedding scene exemplifies the expectations of Sibel and Cahit and how they comply to yet disregard them. For the protagonists, the wedding is only a show. They engage in the replay of rituals as a ruse for Sibel’s family. This is underscored by the shot of Sibel and Cahit taking lines of coke as the wedding continues on in the background. Also, their delirious, drug-induced dance anticipates their later interaction when they dance to a punk-rock tune in Cahit’s apartment shouting, “Punk is not dead!”. Inevitably, the couple ends up becoming emotionally reliant on each other, failing in their fake marriage and their attempt to escape adherence to both German and Turkish conventions. In the end, when Cahit and Sibel reconnect in a final sexual encounter, their physical transformations become a façade for their rebellion, indicating their failure to defy conventions as they are forced to re-assimilate into society’s social norms.
Creating a sense of character is a central focus in Akin’s films. The stories become personal and serve as insights into the lives of these fictional characters but also more generally the lives of immigrants dealing with a dual or mixed identity. The use of music in Head-Onprovides additional insight into the emotional and mental states of the main characters. For instance, at each critical transition point in the film, A Turkish chorus introduces and obliquely comments on the story. They are arranged in a line with their backs to the Bosporus River and performing for the camera. The chorus enhances the visual storytelling of the film by calling attention to important themes or elements of Sibel and Cahit’s struggle. Also, the soundtrack throughout the film is also in conversation with the characters, emphasizing certain aspects of images and content. In the beginning of the film, as Cahit attempts suicide by driving head on into a brick wall, the dark and moody sounds of Depeche Mode’s “I Feel You” echoes his unstable mental and emotional state. Music is employed again in a later scene when Sibel has finally realized her love for Cahit. The melancholic, bittersweet sounds of Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” accompanies Sibel as she is shown laughing and smiling, enjoying the thrills of amusement park rides. Music as a theme also occurs in relation to Sibel and identity in the digital age. In the scene directly following Cahit defending Sibel’s honor and accidentally killing a man, Akin contrasts close-ups of Sibel with a CD. The song that plays is Turkish, which speaks to Sibel’s family background and belonging to that culture. However, the CD also represents a new notion of identity in the digital era as one that transcends national borders. Sibel’s identity is a clash between her Turkish and German backgrounds; it is one that exists without borders because she does not identify as neither Turkish nor German but both. As Mine Eren argues in her essay on cosmopolitan filmmaking, the use of the CD “demonstrates the easy access to global culture and the transformation of national subjects into ‘hyperlinked’ individuals”. The use of international music, coming from Turkish, German, and American backgrounds for instance, in the soundtrack relates the characters of Sibel and Cahit to a bigger picture on transnational identity in a time when crossing borders has become an inherent part of immigrant experiences. As the shot of Sibel and the CD suggests, identity has expanded beyond national borders.
The reception of Akin’s films within Germany often ranges from an emphasis on his Turkish-German background to praise for the European dimension of his work. However, his films work within a broader context of German cinema that contributes to redefining how Germany is seen in the global arena. As a result of the guest worker program initiated in the 1960s, Germany has inevitably become a country of immigration. In correspondence with this, films often celebrate differences of those living in Germany, with a strong emphasis on successful integration into German mainstream culture by assimilation. Akin’s films fit into this context of German culture by moving beyond stereotyped or clichéd representations of immigrants to address broader human questions about love, pain, or self-discovery. For instance, In July deals with issues of border crossing within Europe, finding love, and for Daniel the road trip serves as a moment of self-discovery. Similarly, Head-On can be described as a “Turkish drama in Germany” but also deals with topics that could take place in any location because it deals with universally human issues actuated by the Otherness of the protagonists. Akin’s films, exemplified by In July and Head-On in this case, contribute to the changing notion of German cinema by creating a cinema of migration that is defined by the hybridity of the characters.
Akin often emphasizes the autobiographical nature of his films while also drawing attention to their status as a work of fiction as well. He draws on the familiar in order to create stories about outsiders, love and loss, as well as self-discovery in a world characterized by immigration, border crossing, and fluid identities. His characters seem to be perpetually on the move, either crossing borders or vacillating between identities. Drawing on the familiar from his own life, Akin places his characters in the same world, which is most evident in a shot from In July of a road sign pointing in opposite directions to Hamburg and Istanbul. He resists any notion of a fixed identity through this road sign by showing both aspects of his identity competing and intersecting in a single representative space.
Left 4 Dead: Zombies & International Relations
**This is a paper I wrote back in 2014 on the first installment of the video game Left 4 Dead for an American Studies class on zombies in popular culture.**
The video game Left 4 Dead is a co-operative first-person shooter game with survival horror elements. The story is set after the apocalypse has passed, and zombies have already taken over. The majority of the human population has been turned into mindless, flesh-craving creatures by an outbreak of the Green Flu. The virus manifests as increased aggression and loss of most brain functions. There are some that are immune to the virus as well as some who are carriers that don’t show symptoms but can transmit the virus. A group of four survivors, all of which are immune, work together to survive the plague of the undead.
Left 4 Dead is geared towards a very general audience. The four main characters, or Survivors, range in age, background, and physical appearance. There is Bill the seasoned war veteran, Francis the biker, Louis the middle-class office worker, and Zoey the young college student. Players can choose from any of these characters. This version of the zombie apocalypse narrative is not a unique occurrence. It is capitalizing on the prevalence of zombies in popular culture. The game draws on its cinematic predecessors, venerating the zombie film in many ways. For instance, the focus on a small group of random, regular people forced to survive together is an obvious continuation of the tradition started by Romero in Night of the Living Dead. The zombies, in particular, recall the creatures from 28 Days Later, which are fast, agile, and aggressive. And perhaps Louis’s attire is a nod to the parody film Shaun of the Dead. Left 4 Dead also follows in the tradition of preceding zombie video games, such as Resident Evil, which established the survival horror evident in Left 4 Dead, and also draws inspiration from the cinematic traditions of zombie narratives (Chien).
The popularity of zombies in popular culture has become a global phenomenon. Zombie narratives appear in many forms including films, novels, comics, and video games. The majority of zombie films, made in the last decade, have come from many different countries around the world. Most of these stories deal with a similar message: co-operation is necessary to overcome the global threat of a zombie apocalypse. This aspect of teamwork during the apocalypse is one of the main successes of Left 4 Dead.
Zombies in this game range from the typical horde to heavily mutated creatures with special abilities. While the typical hordes are generally easy to escape from, going up against the special infected zombies requires teamwork in order to make it out alive. The Boomer is an extremely bloated zombie that will vomit on a survivor. It is a rather fragile zombie that will explode when hit, spraying dangerous bile and fluids on the survivors. Getting hit by the vomit will not cause a fatality but will temporarily blind a survivor and attracts a nearby horde of zombies. The general purpose of the Boomer is to slow down survivors and create general confusion, since the survivors tend to spread out to avoid the mutated zombie. Teamwork is necessary to defeat the Boomer if any of the survivors have been vomited on. Because of the temporary blindness caused by the vomit, a player must rely on the survivors to continue attacking any zombies that might attack. Unlike the robust Boomer, the Hunter is extremely agile. Their agility as well as strength allows Hunters to do a lot of damage to the survivors. They will jump onto a player to pin them down and claw at them. The only way to break free from a Hunter once it has pinned a player down is to wait for another player to push it off or kill it. And to avoid Hunters altogether it is best to avoid becoming separated from the rest o the survivors. The Smoker is a mutated zombie with an extremely long tongue, which it uses to grab any nearby survivors and either drag them or choke them. Its mutations also include growths on its skin, which will emit smoke when killed, hence the name Smoker. When the Smoker catches a player they only have a small amount of time to react. If they are unable to break free from the Smoker’s grip then they have to wait for another survivor to save them. Also, once a Smoker grabs a survivor they become much more vulnerable and easier to kill, making teamwork not only helpful but beneficial as well. The Tank is perhaps the most powerful of all special infected zombies. Despite its abnormal amount of muscle mass, the Tank is fast and agile; survivors can only outrun a tank if they are at a good health level when they encounter one in the game. The Tank exhibits extreme amounts of rage and is easily provoked. And because of its extreme strength as well as agility, the survivors must work together in order to take it down. Although unfortunate for the victim, the Tank pursues only one survivor at a time, providing the other survivors with the opportunity to attack. Last but not least is the Witch. This is the most powerful of the special infected zombies, as she can take out a survivor with one hit. She is usually passive in the presence of survivors, but will attack when provoked. Usually, the Witch occupies narrow hallways so avoiding contact is not an option and the survivors must come up with a plan of attack. It is impossible to take on a Witch alone, so working with the other survivors is essential.
Gameplay is more exciting when multiple players are involved. Relying on the computer to control your teammates, with one player leading the group, will not get you as far. According to a review featured on IGN Entertainment, the game is built around co-operative multiplayer action. Editor and author of the review Jason Ocampo states “This is a game that comes to life when you play with at least one other human player, and it’s even better is there are four humans in each game.” Ocampo concludes that working with others in the game is what makes it exciting and ultimately succeed. He goes on to say that if there aren’t enough human players, the AI will fill in when necessary. But he claims that working with the AI can be problematic since they are passive and must be lead through each level (Ocampo). But, if you’re playing with other humans you can communicate with them to make it through the levels more effectively.
The heavy emphasis on co-operative multiplayer action in Left 4 Dead may reflect concerns over global politics. Daniel Drezner, a professor of international relations at Tufts University, took notice of this cultural phenomenon of zombies. In his article “Night of the Living Wonks,” Drezner claims that there are many sources of fear in world politics, but recently an unnatural problem has become a growing concern in international relations (Drezner 34). There are many possible reasons for why this obsession with the undead has become so prevalent, but Drezner is more concerned with how world politics would approach the problem if the dead do end up rising from their graves. Drezner provides three views of how world politics might approach a zombie apocalypse, which are realism, liberalism, and neo-conservatism. In the realist view, international relations would be largely unaffected by an invasion of flesh-eating monsters, viewed as just another plague (Drezner 37). Overall, global politics would remain unchanged in a realist view as countries deal with their own problems. The liberal approach to fighting off a zombie invasion would be working together is the best possible option. However, the liberal approach would become vulnerable in a post-apocalyptic world where there is no common threat to fight against. A neo-conservatism approach would involve an aggressive and militarized response, eliminating the zombie threat swiftly (Drezner 38).
It could be assumed that Left 4 Dead exemplifies, even advocates the liberal approach to a zombie invasion. The emphasis on multiplayer action supported by the various threats encountered by players throughout the game requiring teamwork to succeed is a perfect example supporting a liberal approach in international relations. The only way to succeed in the game is to work together. However, as Drezner points out in his article, there are flaws to every approach. Liberalism might work well during a zombie apocalypse, but what would happen to Bill, Francis, Louis, and Zoey once the threat is eliminated. Although the future already looks bleak in Left 4 Dead, with a severe lack of survivors, this diverse group of characters may not get along as well when they only have each other to deal with. Once the zombies are eradicated, there may no longer be a common threat that requires working together. In more general terms, Left 4 Dead reflects the popularity of the undead in today’s culture zeitgeist and possibly advocates for a certain approach to international relations if the threat actually manifested.
Gender, Identity, & Batwoman: Elegy
After the publishing of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, rumors regarding Batman’s homosexuality became a controversial topic. Consequently, Kate Kane and her alter ego Batwoman were introduced two years later to play the love interest of Batman and serve as his female counterpart. She ultimately served as an object of desire for the male gaze. Her weapons consisted of mostly stereotypically feminine objects including a purse, lipstick, jewelry, and hairnets (Les Daniels, Batman: The Complete History, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999). Moving forward to 2006, writers reintroduced her character, only this time as a lesbian. However, Kate Kane is still subjected to notions of gender conformity in costume and appearance (Paul Petrovic, “Queer Resistance, Gender Performance, and ‘Coming Out’ of the Panel Border in Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III’s Batwoman: Elegy,” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 2 (2011): 67). The history of the character is important in considering the latest reincarnation of Batwoman in Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III’s graphic novel Batwoman: Elegy. Both writer and artist are able to elevate her character to an “alpha superhero” (Caroline Hedley, “Lesbian Batwoman is DC Comics’ first gay superhero,” Telegraph, February 11, 2009). No longer stuck in her passive female role of the past, Kate Kane is now a powerful figure representing women, gender queer, and Jewish people. Rucka and Williams work together to create an emancipating story for Kate Kane, but the ostentatious design of the graphic novel is most representative of this. Through the mixing of different art styles, the exclusion of panel borders, and repetition of scenes, Batwoman: Elegy serves as an illustrative testament to the fact that Kate’s life is vastly improved when she no longer has to hide her gender queer identity, which coincides with her identity as Batwoman.
One of the most notable features in this graphic novel is the mixing of art styles. Not only is this a drastic departure from normal comic book visual design, it also serves as a representation of the fluid nature of Kate’s identity. The mixing of styles can be seen most clearly in a comparison of present day scenes to flashback scenes. The first time this occurs is just after Batwoman faces her nemesis Alice, a woman who speaks in riddles taken from Lewis Carroll’s novels. Directly after the climax of the battle, the story shifts abruptly to a flashback scene from Kate’s childhood. Her family background is explored, which reveals that she once had a twin sister who was kidnapped and presumed dead along with her mother, and also serves as a tragic backstory that sparks her intense desire to serve in the military. The story then shifts forward to the recent past where Kate is forcibly “outed” at West Point military academy. She then struggles with finding a way to fulfill her willingness to serve, just as her mother and father did in the military. Throughout this part of the story, the graphics are rather simplistic. There is very little realism attempted in these sections, where the colors are bright and flat and there is little or no shading. It is not until Kate’s first encounter with Batman that an attempt at realism is made. In this section Kate remains in the simplistic and cartoonish style previously used for the flashback scenes. On the other hand, Batman is more detailed, with shading and texture more evident to give a realistic impression. Although they appear in the same panels in some instances, the difference between the art styles is jarring and calls attention to itself as a significant point in the story. In an interview the artist J.H. Williams III insists that the choice of mixing art styles here symbolizes that Batman has found meaning in his vigilantism while Kate “has not fully realized herself” (Chris Mautner, “The Bat Signal: J.H. Williams,” last modified July 8, 2010, http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=26981). After she has lost her purpose and struggled with finding a way to work that would allow her to be herself completely, Kate is emancipated when she meets Batman because he has shown her how to reconcile her struggle with her identity.
The use, and sometimes exclusion, of panel borders in the graphic novel are representative of Kate’s expression of gender. Whether or not the panel borders are constituted relies upon Kate’s confidence in her identity. For instance, in the extended flashback scene the pages loosely follow a strict grid pattern typical of standard comic books. However, Williams omits a border on each panel, letting them run off the page, uninterrupted. With the scene where Kate first encounters Batman serving once again as a transitioning point, the style as well as the use of borders is symbolic of Kate finding her purpose. The panels with Batman in them have a thick black border around them, while those with only Kate remain unconstituted. Williams plays with the borders throughout the graphic novel, incorporating the Batman icon into the design or using a highly designed approach to make the pages visually appealing and add fluidity to the storytelling (Mautner, “The Bat Signal: J.H. Williams”). One of the best examples of the playfulness of the borders occurs on a two-page scene that takes place at the Annual Gotham City Police Department Charity Ball. Kate dons a tuxedo to the formal event, which is deemed inappropriate by her stepmother. The Captain of the Major Crimes Unit for Gotham PD, a woman named Maggie Sawyer, also shows up wearing a tuxedo. The two characters bond over their similar attire and eventually share a dance, which is the subject of the two-page scene. During their dance they discuss how long they have been out, past relationships, and being unchallenged in their display of sexuality. In this scene, the traditional panels have been abandoned and replaced by musical notes that flow across the page along with Kate and Maggie’s dance. This scene is important because it is symbolic of Kate’s fluid expression of gender. The tuxedo represents a queer or gender neutral aesthetic with the musical notes being symbolic of the fluidity of gender Kate expresses. In comparison to the flashback scenes it becomes clear that Kate’s gender identity is a part of her character, and hiding her sexuality while serving in the military is not possible.
The framing and repetition in the flashback scenes where Kate is forcibly outed at West Point and when she comes out to her father create an interesting parallel in the story. Shortly after receiving her honorary ring, marking her official membership into the West Point community, Kate is anonymously outed to Colonel Reyes who is forced to reprimand her. It has already been revealed that Kate is in a relationship with her roommate Sophie, which is in direct violation of a rule regarding homosexual conduct in the military. Colonel Reyes gives Kate the opportunity to deny her sexuality in order to allow her to continue to serve in the military. However, Kate chooses to recite the cadet honor code, “a cadet shall not lie, cheat or steal, nor suffer others to do so,” knowing that by doing so she is required to testify her sexuality. Colonel Reyes represents the patriarchal culture of the military when he enforces disciplinary action against Kate under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy even though he acknowledges that Kate is “a damn fine cadet.” The next scene shows Kate returning home after being discharged from the army and coming out to her father, Colonel Kane. Both of these scenes require Kate to testify her sexuality and the parallels between the scenes are unmistakable. Her face is framed the same way in each scene, in a square panel that focuses like a close-up shot on her face. She remains calm, silently contemplating the implication of her actions, but at the same time her declaration of her sexuality is resistant to the heteronormative discourse of the military. What is significant in these two scenes is the response from each of the Colonels. At first Colonel Reyes’ response suggests he is only there to execute disciplinary action on Kate, but when compared more closely to the response from Colonel Kane it suggests much more. By echoing the first scene, Colonel Kane commends Kate’s actions, stating that she kept her honor and integrity. The strong parallels between the two scenes focus attention on to the responses of the Colonel’s who might seem to represent the heteronormative discourse of the military but actually represent more personal response of individuals within the military. By including this into Kate’s background story, Rucka and Williams place Kate into the cultural and political context of the real world. The scenes of Kate’s coming out to Colonel Reyes and her father provide new insight into how individuals might have reacted to the discriminatory policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
By having Kate take over the role of Batman, she is inherently reclaiming the image of the superhero for women. Upon meeting Batman, Kate disidentifies with him, meaning that she reclaims and re-appropriates his ethics and purpose and transforms them into something meaningful to her (José Esteban Muñoz, “Introduction: Performing Disidentifications,” in Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 4). Through the process of disidentification she adapts characteristics of the Dark Knight to create her own image. Kate still dons the cowl and cape of the Dark Knight, but adapts some elements to make it her own. One of the most obvious differences is the inclusion of the color red that gives her an iconic image. Also, her female figure is clearly seen. Kate’s disidentification with Batman also relates directly to the history of the character Batwoman. Most notably Kate’s costume and appearance drastically depart from past incarnations of the character. For instance, her Batwoman costume as well as general appearance is not overly feminine or sexualized. While her female figure is still apparent, Kate’s Batwoman costume values practicality. Williams includes a character sheet at the end of the graphic novel explaining some of the costume choices for Batwoman. Her long red hair is part of the costume and is used as a detachable wig. Her utility belt is now tightly fitted and the cape is much longer, which are both direct references to the impracticalities of her original appearance in the 1950’s.
Rucka and Williams draw heavily on the past to create a new and inspiring incarnation of Kate Kane. The mixing of different artistic styles, use of panel borders, and repetition of scenes in Batwoman: Elegy allows it to serve as an illustrative testament to the fact that Kate’s life is vastly improved when she no longer has to hide her gender queer identity. Considering how the flashback scenes drastically depart from the ostentatious layout of the present day storyline and the lack of panel borders in these sections suggest that Kate lacks a cohesive identity. The constant dislocation from past to present makes the memories seem segmented and unconnected in a way that not even the order of military school can fix. However, once Kate meets Batman, he inspires a new direction for her life that empowers her and fulfills a solution to her identity struggle. Both Batwoman and Kate Kane provide positive representations of women and queers in comics. Her elevation to an “alpha superhero” is one that can finally be celebrated as a woman reclaiming her image in comics.
George Romero: Reiventing a Genre for a New Generation
In his book American Zombie Gothic, Kyle Bishop claims that Romero’s quintessential film Night of the Living Dead serves to reinvent the zombie. Based on the previous manifestations of the creature as products of voodoo and magic, Romero’s flesh-eating monsters are quite different. However, Romero does not necessarily reinvent the zombie as Bishop claims, but expands on and adapts the meaning of the zombie in a cultural context. By doing so, Romero’s use of the zombie in his film Night of the Living Dead is quite similar to the use of the same creature in White Zombie.
The origin of the zombie can be traced back to the island of Haiti. As a former French colony, Haiti had ties to African culture, where the majority of the slaves were obtained from, and Western culture. The religion that developed on Haiti reflected the hybrid nature of the population. The result was voodoo, a mixture of Western Christianity and African mysticism (Bishop 42). Voodoo beliefs and rituals deal directly with death. The zombie comes about by stealing the soul of a human and bringing their corpse back to life through the use of voodoo rituals. The creatures were then forced to serve their master as mindless slaves. The widespread belief in the zombie among the population of Haiti reflects the prominence of a cultural anxiety based on the history of slavery on the island. For the Haitians, the process of zombification reflects having your identity and autonomy unwillingly stripped from you, as in the process of enslavement. In White Zombie, this process is clearly shown when Madeleine is forced to become the slave of the wealthy landowner Beaumont who has tragically fallen in love with her. Beaumont seeks help from Legendre, a powerful sorcerer who practices voodoo on the victims of Haiti. When Madeleine is under Legendre’s spell he orders her to kill her lover, Neil, and willingly does so until an intervening third party stops her. She has no control over her actions and is subjected to the needs and wills of Legendre. Consequently, by turning Madeleine, an innocent white American woman, into a zombie rather than a local Haitian, White Zombie also reflects American cultural anxieties of becoming mindless slaves to capitalism as well as the fear of being colonized by a foreign Other.
On the other hand, the zombies of Night of the Living Dead deviate from the Haitian zombies in many ways. For instance, Romero’s zombies are flesh eating, reanimated corpses that can only be stopped by a blow to the head. In his book, Bishop notes that Romero’s reinvention of the zombie narrative combines elements drawn from “classical Gothic literature, vampire tales, and science-fiction invasion narratives” (Bishop 94). By combining elements from established texts and traditions, Bishop claims that Romero is able to author a completely original text, bringing a new sort of narrative to popular culture (Bishop 94). The zombie narrative may be assembled out of an existing monster tradition, but Romero’s zombies are no different from the zombies in Haitian folklore on a cultural level. Traditionally, the zombie reflects cultural anxieties of the contemporary culture that produces the narrative. For example, in Night of the Living Dead, the zombie as well as the zombie narrative has been adapted to reflect a change in the cultural anxieties in 1960’s America. There are many new fears that the zombies symbolize in Romero’s film, including the civil rights protests. This aspect of the film is most evident during the radio and television broadcasts, simultaneously providing an explanation of the zombie’s origin in the film. The broadcasts report that the zombies are coming from the southeast part of America, and that nothing west of the Mississippi River, except for southern Texas, has been affected yet. Evidently, these parts of America were the most active centers for civil rights during the protests. The difference between the zombies reflects the shift in cultural fears during the time when each film was produced. The absence of magic and voodoo in the creation of the zombie suggests that there is no master, and perhaps suggests that the zombies symbolize a mass rebellion that was feared during the civil rights protests. In comparison to White Zombie, the zombie narrative in Night of the Living Dead may also symbolize a fear of an invasion of the Other. Contrary to Bishop’s claim that Romero has reinvented to subgenre, Night of the Living Dead proves that Romero has instead adapted the zombie narrative to contemporary issues.
Ava Duvernay’s 13th
I don’t think I have ever more emotionally devastated by a documentary before.
Personal feelings aside, I still think this was a really well made documentary, incorporating interviews, found footage, contemporary media from every time period discussed (music, news reports, political speeches, etc.). It really uses everything at its disposal to create a sort of collage of history; a history of America that the history books leave out.
The 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution is what the documentary takes its name after. This amendment helped to abolish slavery in America, with one exception: prisoners. The documentary traces this loophole in the amendment and its effects on people of color throughout recent history to show how the mass incarceration (particularly aimed at non-white people) is basically a sort of postcolonial slavery. If imprisonment is now another word for slavery, then the war on drugs, segregation, and any other form of oppression is an excuse for being racist.
The most powerful point in the film for me was the sequence crosscutting between a speech Trump gives at a very recent rally for his presidential campaign with images of violence against black people from the 1950s. Literally, nothing has changed between then and now. It was so powerful for me because of how recent the events shown are and how much violence blacks and all people of color experience.
Whatever your political views are, I think it is necessary for everyone to watch this documentary. DuVernay interviews a variety of people, giving us a lot of different perspectives that all really lead to one conclusion: American politics are corrupt and are working against low class citizens and people of color.
Encounters with Herzog: Finding “Truth” at the End of the World
Werner Herzog’s impressive oeuvre includes a mixture of both fictional feature films as well as documentaries. There is no easy way to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction is his films because a mixture of both forms is always prevalent. Herzog works both within and against the context of documentary cinema in order to reach what he calls the “poetic, ecstatic truth” (Ames, ix). And this Herzogian truth is only attainable through the use of “fabrication and imagination and stylization” (Ames, 2). Encounters at the End of the World serves as a specific example of Herzog’s style in which he documents his experiences at the McMurdo Research Station on Antarctica. Here he chronicles the everyday lives of eccentric people who have chosen to live there as well as the beauty of a place far removed from any other people on the planet. The long, uninterrupted takes of life both above and below the ice, asynchronous music, and voice over narration characterize Herzog’s style and also sets the stage for a performance in which he sets out on a philosophical exploration of “truth” at the end of the world.
The characteristic long takes can be found throughout Encounters. The seemingly never-ending takes show life above, below, and inside of the ice that makes up Antarctica. Herzog employs long takes in order to establish the authenticity of his story. The camera remains a passive observer, letting the events unfold in real time. For example, the opening scene shows a diver under the ice of Antarctica (Encounters). The surreal underwater landscape is seen in only three different shots. There is no action occurring in these shots other than observation, either by the camera or by another diver seen on screen. Herzog’s narration is even kept to a minimum by providing the audience with simply the location and the source from which the images were captured. The long takes and objective source of scientists reinforce these images as being accurate depictions of Antarctica that were not constructed or reproduced on a studio set. Because there is minimal interference with events and long uninterrupted takes, the authenticity is established by just letting things progress naturally in a scene. It is a common element utilized in documentary films that set out to objectively observe. However, Herzog also uses long takes to establish a different sort of authenticity, especially in the interviews with the inhabitants of McMurdo. In interviews such as those with Scott Rowland, driver of Ivan the Terra Bus, or Douglas MacAyeal, a glaciologist and professional dreamer, Herzog’s presence is rarely ever invasive. He allows the social actors to talk about their experiences both past and present, thoughts, or observations, without directing the conversation in any direction. The camera tends to linger on them much longer than seems necessary sometimes, which leads to improvisation on the part of the social actor. A specific interview that stands out is with David Pacheco, who Herzog gives the title of “Journeyman Plumber” (Encounters). Pacheco talks about his supposed ancestral link to Aztec kings based on the way his fingers match up. Once Pacheco has finished talking, Herzog does not ask any more questions and simply lets the camera linger on him. This produces quite an awkward experience for the audience and presumably for Pacheco as well, who just picks up his tools and continues to work after a few awkward silent moments (Encounters). For Herzog, the awkwardness and improvisation on the part of the social actor produces a sense of authenticity, which allows the audience to connect with the character.
There is a focus on the audience that permeates throughout most of Herzog’s films, which is achieved through a variety of techniques. A subtle yet intrinsically important technique used is non-diegetic music. For Herzog, a documentary is a performance, and therefore moments of it are often staged (Ames, 4). Music helps to call attention to this staging by focusing on affecting the audience’s experience emotionally or sensationally with the images on the screen. In terms of Herzog’s attempt to portray “truth,” using music to create on affect adds to the stylization of a film. The music used in Encounters calls attention to the documentary as a construct produced by Herzog by highlighting his involvement in the creation of a specific meaning that accompanies an image. The opening scene, again, is a good example that illustrates this. By indicating that the footage seen on screen was taken by a professional diver working at a research station in Antarctica assumes that this footage is meant to be objective and factual like something from an observational documentary. However, Herzog adds in the soundtrack what sounds like a choir singing in church (Encounters). This immediately evokes a feeling of spirituality, making the experience seen on screen have a more emotionally affective impact on the audience. This technique is utilized again later in the film on the second dive (Encounters). The chanting choir of voices is not the same that is heard in the beginning of the film but undeniably evokes the same feeling. The dive becomes analogous to the spiritual or religious experience that one might encounter while in prayer. Another example of music used to add or evoke a specific meaning to an image occurs after Herzog interviews the cell biologist and professional diver Samuel Bowser (Encounters). Bowser has a personal affinity for science fiction doomsday films and sees aspects of these stories in the microscopic world of the single celled organisms he collects on his dives. He begins to compare the creatures to man-eating creatures from science fiction films, and even mentions that they are the reason life evolved and fled from water to seek escape on land after prompted by Herzog. This point coincides directly with the twelfth point in Herzog’s “Minnesota Declaration” that states:
Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species—including man—crawled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue. (Ames, x).
This shared view of the world beneath the layers of ice in Antarctica is immediately evoked as the camera follows Bowser into the water to explore the horrible world of these microscopic monsters. The music Herzog chooses for this scene sounds like someone is playing the violin off-key. It is loud and jarring and makes the images feel somewhat terrifying. For a moment this is no longer the surreal experience in the opening scene, but the underwater world as seen through Bowser and Herzog’s vision of it as “sheer hell.” The use of music lends itself to the ecstatic truth that Herzog is intent on portraying by revealing Herzog’s interpretation of the images for the audience.
Another technique characteristic of Herzog’s filmmaking style is the use of voice over narration. In his documentaries, Herzog often provides the narration to accompany the images, which implies his films come from a more personal point of view. More often than not, Herzog inserts opinions, thoughts, and personal observations into his narration to create a vocal presence (Ames, 33). Herzog’s experience becomes the experience of the audience. An explicit example of Herzog’s vocal presence through voice over narration appears just before the second dive takes place. Immediately prior to the dive, people were shown creating the hole that the divers would enter the water through, which gives a sense of simple observation. Next, the divers are shown preparing for the dive by putting on various layers of neoprene wetsuits, gloves, and hand warmers. During this moment Herzog’s narration picks up again, drawing comparisons between the silent preparations of the divers with priests preparing for mass. This personal insight from Herzog reshapes and contrasts with the simple observational technique used just before. It forces the audience to reconsider the importance or meaning of the role of the divers, McMurdo, and Antarctica. To reinforce his observation, Herzog continues to assert his presence and opinions through the use of the music that was previously mentioned. Herzog in a way forces his presence on the documentary. Encounters is as much about Herzog’s personal views and experiences as much as it is about life at the McMurdo Research Station, global warming, or Antarctica.
Encounters serves as a clear and concise summation of Herzog’s stylization techniques utilized in his documentaries. The long takes, asynchronous yet affective music, and voice over narration are undeniably characteristic of Herzog’s films, and all of these techniques assert his presence within the film. Even though long takes are meant to be objective and observational, Herzog uses this to create authenticity in the people he films by pushing them out of their comfort zone. The music is specifically chosen to evoke certain emotions or meanings to accompany an image. And the most explicit assertion of his presence is in the voice over narration where he freely provides his views, sometimes corresponding to the music and image. Herzog is able to use these elements in his documentary films to put on a performance for his audience. He stages scenes for the purpose of creating an emotional connection to the audience, to shock or irritate them into a new way of thought.
National Cinema: The Blue Angel
Two methods for establishing a specific national cinema includes a comparison to other films and looking at a film in relation to what defines a pre-existing cultural identity of a nation. A nation’s identity can be seen as a set of ideologies and values, and, as scholar Andrew Higson claims, cinema acts as a sort of advertisement for the cultural standing of a nation. Cinema acts as a business, using a nation’s identity as a marketing strategy to set up expectations of a film. In this way, a nation’s film can then be defined by a comparison to other nation’s films. To paraphrase Higson, national cinema can be defined by what it is not. But this does not take into account a nation’s identity based on existing economics and cultures of that nation state. National cinema must then be considered in relation to the prevailing political, economic, and cultural identity and traditions.
Another way to define national cinema is to look at the consumption and production of a film. For instance, to look at where the film was made and who made it might give us insight into how the idea of a nation’s identity might be explored in a film. We can see this in Josef von Sternberg’s film The Blue Angel. Sternberg was an American director brought over to Germany to work on The Blue Angel under the German production company Ufa. The director’s background as a professional from Hollywood can perhaps be seen as an influence on the highly narrative structure of the film, focusing on the love story between Professor Rath and Lola. The film also draws on German film history, particularly Emil Jannings previous films, and Weimar culture. But the focus on the exploration of sexuality encompasses both American and German concerns during the 1930s.
Modernity, beginning in the 1920s, was marked by the increasing power of middle-class women, among other things. In her chapter on The Blue Angel, Patrice Petro claims that female sexuality became a prevalent marker of what was deemed the “new woman,” which was aggressively publicized by radical new fashions that drew attention to the female form. Marlene Dietrich’s character Lola exemplifies the “new woman” very clearly in the film. She is first introduced through the use of a postcard that the Professor’s students are crowded around. These young men are continuously drawn back to the cabaret club where Lola performs and flaunts her sexuality, which is made explicitly clear through the lyrics in her songs. Lola is often seen surrounded by her admirers, but she is always in the position of authority. She controls their movements, clearly shown when she takes the Professor’s coat and places him the seat next to her, and has the ability to dispel them from her dressing room. Lola is aware of her effect on the Professor in particular and seems to enjoy his discomfort by her sexuality. Lola as the “new woman” type places The Blue Angel in the context and history of urban entertainment and the increasingly non-traditional expressions of sexuality that was prevalent in both America and Germany.
The film also reflects on the issue of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Lola is able to exert her power over her male audience even when she is not present. The postcard that the Professor’s students admire draws them in to the cabaret club to seek out the authentic source. However, the source of the original is questioned when Lola is constantly confronted with her own image. The walls of her dressing room are covered with these postcards and posters, leading to the question of which one determines the other.
Examining the Role of an Artist
Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon commemorates Napoleon’s self-coronation on a grand scale. The painting depicts Napoleon crowning his wife Josephine in the presence of his family, court, and Pope Pius VII. The meticulously crafted work was made to appease Napoleon’s wishes to have the painting serve as political propaganda. However, a closer look at the painting will show how David’s role in society, the dominant subjectivity of the time, and the organization and representation of figures influences the construction of meaning that is not directly apparent.
An analysis of The Coronation of Napoleon can be made through the use of ideas presented by Linda Nochlin in her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” T.J. Clark’s introductory chapter to his book Image of the People, and Michel Foucault’s chapter on the painting “Las Meninas” from his book The Order of Things. Nochlin reconsiders 19th and 20th century art in terms of the social conditions present during those times. Although Nochlin uses this approach in reference to feminism, specifically female artists, it is also useful in considering the role of male and female figures within paintings as well as the role social conditions play in the influence on artists. Clark’s analysis of Courbet’s art and life attributes the artist’s success to the social and economic forces of the revolution suggesting that his greatness is relative to and dependent on external forces. Clark approaches Courbet’s work by looking at the social forces in history that the artist engages with to produce his work. Taking this sociohistorical insight into consideration will prove useful in understanding and contextualizing The Coronation of Napoleon. Foucault’s notion of representation stems from his rejection of the concept of “context”. In his visual analysis of Las Meninas, Foucault gives a detailed account of how specific statements become possible through the painting as a representation of representation. By applying this approach to The Coronation of Napoleon, the structure and form of representation David employs provides another layer of meaning to the painting.
Approach #1: Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”
The dominant subjectivity of a culture or society influences the way people will perceive the surrounding world. Whether stated or unstated, it will have an effect on the thinking of the general public. For example, when Europeans began exploring the New World, they set off with the mindset that their subjectivity, or experience of reality, was acceptable so that anything differing from their way of life was seen as alien, incomprehensible, or hostile. The domination of one point of view has caused a distortion in the viewing of anything else. The influence of the dominant subjectivity shaped the way the explorers perceived any culture outside of Europe or European influence.
In art, a viewer’s experience with a painting is dependent on what they bring to it. To consider Nochlin’s essay, she examines the question presented in the title “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Nochlin discusses how this question is already problematic because of the assumptions that are already present in the question. Scholars will then try to answer this question by comparing female artists to male artists of the same time. However, male artists during David’s time were privileged to more artistic resources than women were. For instance, female artists were not allowed to draw from nude models, thus denying them the opportunity to develop their skills at depicting the human body. Having a knowledge of the human body, especially during the Neoclassical period, was important in being able to create historical works of art in which their was an abundance of nude figures. Nochlin observes, “Thus the question of women’s equality…devolves…upon…the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality which they impose on the human beings who are part of them” . Because of David’s privilege as a male artist, he was able to more accurately portray male figures in The Coronation of Napoleon, which far outnumber the female figures present in the painting.
Another contrasting note in gender depicted in The Coronation of Napoleon can be seen the arrangement of the figures. The men are at a higher level than the women. This is especially emphasized by Napoleon and Josephine, who are the main attractions of the spectacle. Josephine is shown kneeling in front of Napoleon, waiting to be crowned. Her passivity is juxtaposed to Napoleon’s active position as he holds the crown above his head. Similarly, all of the figures surrounding Napoleon are male and are placed above the women in the painting. The women, the majority of which appear at the left-hand side of the painting, all appear docile; they are all standing behind Josephine and even have to hold her robe as she kneels. The dominant subjectivity imposed by institutions of David’s time led him to be able to depict the male figure more proficiently thus he was able to convey the power of Napoleon over France, as well as women, through his active position contrasted by Josephine’s inactiveness.
Approach #2: T.J. Clark, “On the Social History of Art”
In a general summation of his approach to art historical analysis, Clark states,
“The making of a work of art is one historical process among other acts, events, and structures—it is a series of actions in but also on history. It may become intelligible only within the context of given imposed structures of meaning; but in its turn it can alter and at times disrupt these structures.”
To consider an analysis of a work of art a knowledge of the historical processes that influenced and were influenced by the work is necessary. A painting may construct a view of history that is not at first evident, but it may also be a response to historical events as well.
For instance, David’s status as official court painter is useful in understanding the structure present in The Coronation of Napoleon. David was appointed to be Napoleon’s official court painter once his Empire was established in 1804. Prior to that, David and other artists struggled under the state system of the arts when up until 1789 when France was a monarchy. In 1789, the French Revolution broke out. At that time David began supporting numerous reforms to the training and careers of artists. David was also elected to the legislature where he remained active as an artist creating many works of art that supported revolutionary causes. David’s service to Napoleon as court painter allowed him to thrive as an artist. Due to the fact that he was working for the Emperor of France, who was also a major component of the French Revolution, permitted him to most likely be treated more respectably.
David has constructed The Coronation of Napoleon as an ode to Napoleon’s power. He had his own ideas about how to paint the scene, which consisted of a more realistic portrayal of the event such as excluding Napoleon’s absent mother and depicting Pope Pius VII as an unenthusiastic participant. However, he has to modify this to suit the wishes of the Emperor. Instead, Napoleon’s mother can clearly be seen sitting in one of the balconies above Josephine. And David repainted Pope Pius VII to show him raising one hand in blessing of the self-coronation. David’s revolutionary ideals, of allegiance to his country, influenced his cooperation with Napoleon when executing a work that is fictional in some parts, but also a work of political propaganda.
Approach #3: Michel Foucault, “Las Meninas”
Foucault replaces the factors that motivate or cause a statement from the viewer with a detailed account of how specific statements become possible. He demonstrates this in his analysis of Las Meninas as showing representation. For instance, the simultaneous acknowledgement and dismissal of the viewer is made evident through the represented Velazquez. The attentive gaze of the artist reaches out to a point that Foucault takes to be the position of the implied spectator that converges with that of the implied actual painter, and with that of the model being painted by the represented artist. This gaze sets up an oscillation between signifier and signified.
To examine The Coronation of Napoleon through this approach it would, again, be helpful to consider David’s role as the official court painter to Napoleon. David has constructed a scene that is similar to the one in Las Meninas. Due to his role as court painter, David was expected to attend Napoleon’s coronation in order to make sketches and to witness the overall grandeur of the occasion. David has even included himself in the painting, and can be seen in the balcony above Napoleon’s mother. Because of the large size of the painting, measured at 6.2 x 9.8 meters, the figures appear life size. This, like the artist’s gaze in Las Meninas, both acknowledges the viewer, by giving them the opportunity to physically relate to the painting, and dismisses the viewer, through a degree of separation created between reality and the canvas, The Coronation of Napoleon is given the capability of becoming timeless. Napoleon clearly wanted viewers to experience the painting this way otherwise it would not have been completed as we see it.
Through the use of varying approaches from Linda Nochlin, T.J. Clark, and Michel Foucault, David’s role as the artist responsible for creating The Coronation of Napoleon is able to be better understood. The dominant subjectivity present within artistic institutions of the time influenced the portrayal of male and female figures within the painting. David’s role as a political activist led to the creation of The Coronation of Napoleon as political propaganda in favor of Napoleon. Also, David has created a scene that both greets and dismisses the viewer in order to represent an experience Napoleon wished the viewer to have. David’s role as the official court painter as well as in society led to The Coronation of Napoleon to be constructed in such a way that reflects his views as an artist meshed together with the wishes of the patron who commissioned the painting.
 “Napoleon’s Coronation.” Paris Muse. N.p., 2002. Web. 17 March 2013. <http://www.parismuse.com/news/napoleons-crown.shtml>.
 Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York City: Harper & Row, 1988. 147. Print.
 Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York City: Harper & Row, 1988. 158. Print.
 Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York City: Harper & Row, 1988. 152. Print.
 Clark, T.J. “On the Social History of Art.” Image of the People. 1st ed. Berkeley: University of California, 1973. 13. Print.
 Johnson, Dorothy. “David, Jacques-Louis (1748-1825).” Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. Ed. Jonathan Dewald. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. 109-111. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 17 March 2013.
 “Napoleon’s Coronation.” Paris Muse. N.p., 2002. Web. 17 March 2013. <http://www.parismuse.com/news/napoleons-crown.shtml>.
 Foucault, Michel. “Las Meninas.” The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. 2nd Ed. New York City: Vintage, 1994. N.Page. Print.
What’s So Interesting About Serial Killers Anyways?
A look at Tobe Hopper’s 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and why we are so intrigued by serial killers, blood, and gore.
Why is blood and gore so intriguing? It’s a question that plagues me whenever I am confronted with blood, guts, and the visceral on-screen. Even more so during this time of the year because this is time when The Walking Dead comes back into my life. Why do I let it come back though? Why do I want to see how many different ways a zombie’s brains can be splattered over Rick and the gang?
I’m going to attempt to answer this question by looking at the classic film Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I will, of course, focus on the original released in 1974. This is perhaps THE most gruesome film I have seen and hopefully this post will reveal why.
Carol Clover has observed, “…the emotional terrain of slasher films is pre-technological.” With this statement, I believe she is referring to weapons of choice in slasher films. For instance, we are more likely to see someone pick up a knife, or a hammer, or even use their bare hands to enact and satisfy their killer craving. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface chooses the chainsaw as his weapon of choice. However, the only appearance the weapon makes is a short scene in which Franklin is chopped in half. But in this short instance, we don’t get the blood and gore we expect (or want). Instead, we get our satisfaction earlier on in the film from the Hitchhiker picked up on the side of the highway (never a good idea, especially if you’re in a horror movie, but that’s another topic for another time). We get to see the Hitchhiker violate the body by slicing open his hand, letting blood flow past that invisible barrier. I believe the killer in a slasher film, in this case the Hitchhiker along with Leatherface, serves the role of breaking the barrier between the visible and the unseen for the audience. In the role of mediator, the killer breaks that taboo fascination humans have with what is hidden beneath our skin.
Franklin is awestruck, showing a lingering intrigue about the Hitchhiker’s act of violence. Clover remarks that Franklin is, “fascinated by the realization that all that lies between the visible, knowable outside of the body and its secret insides is one thin membrane, protected only by a collective taboo against its violation.” This shared fascination serves as a sort of link between the killer and victim in this film. Although deemed an outsider from the very beginning, Franklin is not the typical victim the audience would sympathize with. But the focus remains on Franklin, the audience relies on him to confirm their fears or revulsions towards the killer. But as Franklin is not so different from Hitchhiker, the definition of who is the killer and victim in this film to come into question.
The comparison between Franklin and Hitchhiker allows the line between killer and victim in Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be blurred. If Franklin represents “normal” society in this comparison, their similarities would suggest that both sides could take on the role of the victim, with Franklin as the victim of the cannibalistic Leatherface clan and Hitchhiker as the victim of the slaughterhouse industry (again, there is a lot more to be said here, but let’s save it for another post).
The State of Modern Day Hollywood Cinema
This new iteration of a cult classic horror film is certainly representative of the overall dilemma of Hollywood films these days: a decent concept, great talent, and a terrible plot.
However solid your cast is, there’s still a lot of moving parts that don’t seem to be prioritized the way they really need to be. A story is what carries a film along and keeps audiences involved and interested. But it seems as though a plague has swept over Hollywood that is causing films to be nothing more than mediocre at best.
To illustrate this claim, I want to turn to the recently released reboot of It.
First of all, this film is in the same vein of many films these days, a reboot or sequel to a predecessor removed by a decades. I do think reboots and long forgotten sequels are decent concepts to follow, there is a disconnect in rebooting films to appeal to a modern audience. In It, the film is set in the 1980’s, something which I believe holds back the entire story. Each of the kid actors lives up to stereotypical representation prevalent in 1980’s films, even calling out this fact with a “Molly Ringwald” reference to the only girl in the group who is in fact an homage to the Pretty in Pink star. Setting the reboot in the same decade the original Stephen King novel was released limits the potential of diversity of representation or anything really “new” that could be adapted into the reboot. Why are we seemingly stuck in a 1980’s plot line?
Second, if Pennywise the Dancing Clown is supposed to represent and feed off of fear, then why limit the story to only focus on this group of pre-defined, stereotypical nerds and outcasts (or “Losers” as they lovingly refer to themselves as)? The fears of these kids are so limited to this very specific group of kids, who are great representations of 80’s kids (according to audience reaction and some jokes being lost on the younger audience). Why not branch out to explore characters who have not been given a voice yet? The original novel has already been adapted into a film once before in the 90’s, so let’s modernize the story and setting to allow for more potential and maybe even a better story for new audiences.
With all this said, It still has some strengths. The talent, for instance, is very solid. All of the kid actors did a great job, in my opinion, with pulling off each of the personalities of their characters. I’m not sure if it was just great casting choices or if this young talent is actually just that impressive, but their performances were quite believable, something I don’t usually find myself saying about kid actors. And we can’t forget Bill Skarsgard’s terrifying performance as Pennywise. Honestly, my favorite parts of the film were any scenes where Pennywise makes an appearance in because of the way the kid characters are written and how their side plot lines are quite boring in comparison. I would rather explore what each of their fears are and how Pennywise pulls from their more personal experiences, making the manifestation of their fear all the more real.
Since these are just a few initial thoughts I had, I would be interested to hear what others have to say about this new reboot. How do you feel about the very idea of reboots these days? Does It pull off the reboot concept well? Were you just as annoyed with the incessant penis jokes pervading the entire film as I was?
Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: Part 1
I recently stumbled upon an awesome documentary series about the tumultuous and exciting 20th century. Dr. James Fox’s narration takes you on a journey through the century, stopping at three different cities that exemplify the radical changes taking place.
I will be posting some brief summaries of each of the three episodes. There’s not really any “spoilers” warning I can give because this is history, but I highly recommend watching these 50 minute episodes for yourself. The show provides some great film and imagery of what each city looked like during the specific year. You really get a sense of what life was like throughout the 20th century. With shots from modern day as well as recovered historical footage, you are able to be swept away into the world of Vienna in 1908, Paris in 1928, and New York in 1951.
- Hitler attempted to pursue a career as an artist, got cold feet, applied for art school, got shot down, turned to politics (influence by Karl Lueger’s antisemitism; “I decide who is a jew”); & the rest is history
- Hapsburg Empire: the largest and oldest empire in Europe; everyone thought it would last forever (pre-WW1); 1908 was the Emperor’s Diamond Jubilee
- Gustav Klimt premiered his world-famous painting The Kiss, Dr. Fox claims that the doubt surrounding the optimism of the era is evident in this painting because of the “ambiguous embrace”
- Adolf Loos’s Ornament and Crime manifesto was published this year; theories and ideas from the manifesto culminated in the Raiffeisenbank/Looshaus commission, which was marked as the first modern building
- Vienna is seemingly trapped between the past and the future, transitioning from the world of empires and monarchies to a modern society; 1908 had the highest recorded suicide rates
- Fabulous Freud introduced his Oedipus Complex Theory, and the world went crazy over it; although, in 1908 Vienna, this wasn’t the craziest idea to be suggested
- Artist Egon Schiele was developing a new expressionistic figural style, evident in a self portrait
- Arnold Schoenberg joined the expressionist art movement as a composer; his most well-known work is the Second String Quartet, which experiments with atonality
- Social issues were prevalent to say the least; prostitution (the dark underbelly of middle class men was called out by author Else Jerusalem in her novel Red House), poverty and homelessness was so severe people started taking up shelter in Vienna’s sewer system (documented byEmil Kläger & Hermann Drawe)
- October 6, 1908: Bosnia Herzogovnia/Balkans were annexed, which would lead to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914