BRAZIL’S REVOLUTIONARY CINEMA NOVO: A CONTEXTUAL LOOK

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During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Brazil suffered an intense process of industrialization that resulted in highly contradictory societal outcomes. The socioeconomic makeup of Brazilian society rapidly transitioned from agricultural to industrial, with a sweeping urbanization process set off by the migration of millions of people from the rural areas to the cities, most commonly to Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo. The job market and the consumer market rose together with the working classes, alongside the intellectuals and sympathizers of populist and left-wing sectors. Within this context, the intellectuals adhered to an equal reading of the Brazilian reality, characterizing the country as underdeveloped and culturally colonized, where the fundamental classes of society were strewn apart by social inequality. Meanwhile, during the sociopolitical turmoil of dictator-president Getúlio Vargas’ (named “Father of the Poor” by very few) death in 1954 until the military coup in 1964, the Brazilian Communist Party became one of the most important political actors in the country.

Brazil was seen as a country that was culturally colonized: the process of imperialist exploration radically seeped into its cinema, intimately subordinated by the ideals of the overpowering nations. For the development of Brazilian culture, not only was the reformation of national perception necessary, but an active change of attitude in dealing with the ongoing national crisis. The Brazilian cinema was an immigrant detached from its own country, destined to be consumed by the edges of the market, under the monstrous shadow of Hollywood cinema and the transnational influence of the American Way of Life. Now, more than ever, the Brazilian cinema needed to develop its own voice, and to occupy the expanding foreign film market. 

Amid the boiling hotpot of political euphoria and frivolous national identity, a group of young intellectuals began discussing the idea of creating a national cinema in response to the instability of classes and to the growing political polarization in Brazilian society, with the hard-knocking objective of producing a cultural-political identity of the Brazilian people, lost in the years of colonization and dictatorship. The starting point of Cinema Novo (“New Cinema”) would be a deep-dive into the socio-political-cultural reality of Brazil, containing a vastly anti-imperialist component, the identity of the people affected by the nation’s fragility was put on the foreground. Celebrated Brazilian director Nelson Pereira dos Santos said that Cinema Novo’s greatest contributions were to give cultural status to the Brazilian cinema, and to provide an opportunity for anyone to present his own social and/or political ideas (Viany 142). According to writer Frantz Fanon, the filmmakers believed that “fighting for a national culture signifies, above all, to fight for national liberation, for the essential foundation of society, for the construction of an underlying culture.” Subsequently, with the construction of the São Paulo Congress of Brazilian Cinema (Congresso Paulista de Cinema Brasileiro) in 1952, Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ directorial debut Rio, 100 Degrees F. (Rio, 40 Graus) premieres as the defining film of the newborn movement, dealing with the routine of a group of young black boys, residents in the favelas, who sell peanuts to tourists during a summer day in Rio de Janeiro. Showcasing the subtleties of Brazilian culture, from soccer to samba, Rio deeply reflects on the ideals of the new phase of Brazilian Cinema, inaugurating Cinema Novo with the malleability of non-professional acting and on-location shooting, and rendering the authenticity of a culture deeply ingrained in its roots, largely unseen by the foreign eye. Like François Truffaut’s seminal 400 Blows is to the Nouvelle Vague, Rio, 40 Graus was the first step toward the formulation of Cinema Novo, setting a crystalized precedent to an array of auteur filmmaking to come. 

Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s  Rio, 40 Graus  (1955)

Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Rio, 40 Graus (1955)

Though the nucleus of Cinema Novo was structured by the work of Nelson Pereira dos Santos and marked by the long-lasting presence of influential filmmakers Ruy Guerra, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Carlos Diegues, and Leon Hirszman, the denoted name of the movement is certainly Glauber Rocha, whose theoretical articulations and visionary eloquence in form and aestheticism defined the revolutionary ardor of Cinema Novo. Formulated by Rocha, the symbolizing motto of Cinema Novo’s cinematic bravura “a camera on my hand and an idea in my mind” (“uma camera na mão e uma ideia na cabeça”) best summarizes the new phase of Brazilian Cinema, as filmmakers embraced the visceral handheld camera in string-budget productions. For this reason, among other thematic elements and consistencies in style, many scholars compare the integrity of Cinema Novo to the cinematic veins of Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave, meshed with the forceful style and violent depictions of Eiseinstein’s films, and with the lyricism of Dziga Vertov’s city symphonies. However, speaking to the unique contradictions of Cinema Novo, in 1961 Glauber Rocha said, “We do not want Eiseinstein, Rossellini, Bergman, Fellini, Ford, or anybody else… our cinema is new because Brazilian man is new and Brazilian problems are new, and our light is new, and that is why our films are born different from European films… we want to make fighting films for a fighting age, and films to build a cultural heritage in Brazil.” Thus, the first films to come out of the period, sparked by Rio, 40 Graus, absorbed the despairing context of crumbled Brazil, and performed, in the most progressive and unrelenting manner, a singular vision of the situation of various people in the pit of hunger, violence, and religious alienation, and kickstarted a vessel of films that would become the first of three phases of Cinema Novo.

The first wave of Cinema Novo took place during and continued in the aftermath of the Juscelino Kubitschek administration (1956-1961) and included the tempestuous years of Jânio Quadros (1961) and João Goulart (1961-1964), which culminated in the military coup of 1964. For the time being, filmmakers were obliged to find State support, which censored and limited the exhibition and exportation of many films. The Support Commission to the Cinematographic Industry (Comissão de Apoio à Indústria Cinematográfica [CAIC]) was one of the principal state-owned allies. According to filmmaker Paulo César Saraceni “CAIC was, by far, the best governmental support that the Brazilian Cinema has ever received in all of its trajectory” (Saraceni 1993). Henceforth, the commission brought out regulations and mechanisms to incentivize the resurgence of the Brazilian cinematographic industry, formulating a decree that brought explicit rules defining a certain ideologic control to the productions. However, as Saraceni argued in his 1993 memoir Inside Cinema Novo: My Personal Journey, this state-supported ideologic vigilance showed not to be extremely rigid, even though many of the films that received support from the commission were considered leftist. 

Films to surge from this period largely take place in a rural setting, paying special attention to the inextricable crunches endured by most of the Brazilian population. Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ Barren Lives (Vidas Secas), a canonical adaptation of Graciliano Ramos’ novel, follows the lives of a poor family afoot in the Northeastern desert, battling dismaying hunger and exhaustion. Centralized in the narrative are Fabiano (Átila Iório) and his wife (Maria Ribeiro), both uneducated, easily manipulated, and physically weak, they roam nomadically through the landscape in search for food and a safe space to guard their kids. Their primal human instinct conducts the entirety of their frail journey, while concurrently taking over their own sense of humanity. Vidas Secas landed a Palm D’Or nomination at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival and stands as one of the highly regarded adaptations of Brazilian literary works. 

The resounding emphasis of the first phase of Cinema Novo was, most notably, on extreme violence. “Cinema Novo reveals that violence is normal behavior for the starving. The violence of a starving man is not a sign of primitive mentality” wrote Glauber Rocha on his 1965 manifesto Aesthetic of Hunger, “Cinema Novo teaches that the aesthetics of violence are revolutionary rather than primitive. The moment of violence is the moment when the colonizer becomes aware of the existence of the colonized.” Written and directed by Glauber Rocha, the 1964 film Black God, White Devil (Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol) is the most representative of the auteur’s unflinching manifesto. Both a depiction of the days of cangaceiros (rural thieves) and a flaming antithesis of religious indoctrination, the film follows gunman Antonio das Mortes (Maurício do Valle) tracking the descent of ordinary rural worker Manuel (Geraldo Del Rey) into a life of crime, as he joins the gang of Antonio’s long-standing nemesis Corisco the Blond Devil (Othon Bastos), and is given a brand-new name: Satan. At one point, after invading a cult gathering and killing dozens of people, Corisco spins around and shoots his shotgun in the air, declaring emphatically, “Here's my rifle to save the poor from starving. I won’t let the poor starve to death!” Glauber, a man quoted of saying that “cinema is the essence of the imprint caused by the reality lived by the filmmaker,” literally states, in exhaustive fashion, that the noblest cultural manifestation of hunger is violence.

The second phase of Cinema Novo, beginning in 1964 and ending in 1968, works within the tumultuous context of the military dictatorship under installment in Brazil. Proceeding the 1964 military coup that ousted popular democrat president João Goulart, to transform Brazil into a military dictatorship under new president Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco, many Brazilian spectators and filmmakers lost faith in the ideals established by Cinema Novo, a movement that promised to protect civil rights, but failed to defend the national democracy.  During this period, the predominance of active political commentary begins to lose steam, and gives way to developmentalist and populist projects, containing engrossed discourse surrounding social order, gearing toward the protection of the tenuous Brazilian democracy. This radical thematic change reflected the efficacy of instruments of censorship and repression established by the military dictatorship, as the penetrating criticism in the heart of Cinema Novo films prior to this period lost place to the representation of Brazil marked by its exuberance and typical figures in contemporary culture and folklore. And so, filmmakers began to shy away from the Aesthetic of Hunger agenda to devote themselves to commercial productions that would appeal to the larger movie-going audiences, and thus, assisted in the construction of a more profitable national-cinema market. Leon Hirszman’s Girl from Ipanema (Garota de Ipanema), based on the famous song by Antônio Carlos Jobim, was the first Cinema Novo film to be shot in color and to star middle-class characters in a romanticized narrative following the ultra cool lifestyle of the Bossa Nova generation. 

Grande Otelo as Black Macunaima in Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s  Macuinaima  (1969)

Grande Otelo as Black Macunaima in Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s Macuinaima (1969)

During this time period, Cinema Novo began to flirt with Tropicalism, a musical movement led by esteemed sambistas Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil that criticized radical nationalism and its fanatical aversion to the elements of foreign cultures, an asset that became primary during the third and final period of the movement. And so, the cinematic revolution gained a tributary soundtrack by Gil and Veloso. The song, rightfully entitled Cinema Novo, came out of the MPB album Tropicália 2, and describes the formation of Brazilian cinema, as well as its motivations and talking points: “the voice of the poor tore cinema’s screen, and started to configure visions of things big and small, asked for solutions and explanations, and that’s why the images of this country’s cinema entered the lyrics of songs.” The musicians, working during the same period and with similar intentions as the cinemanovistas, equate the cultural pillar and generational stamp of the important films produced during the movement to that of popular national music (MPB, Samba, Bossa Nova), representing the rich artistic makeup of the Brazilian people, and venerating both mediums for expressing the vivacity and struggles of the nation: “and samba wanted to say: I am cinema; and cinema said: I am a poem.” Gilberto declares, “I am samba, long-live the cinema!” 

On screen, tropicalism was a movement that mixed sociopolitical themes and historical contexts associated with the floridity of the Brazilian jungle, presented in a confounding controversial form, paired with cloudy colors, and often featuring cannibalism in literal and metaphorical meaning. Pereira dos Santos’ 1971 film How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, a work whose comical title gives away the nationality of the poor victim under its spotlight, employs both subversive connotations of cannibalism trailing the narrative of a foreign protagonist kidnapped and eaten by an indigenous tribe of cannibals, while suggesting that the Indians (that is, the Brazilians) should figuratively cannibalize their foreign enemies instead of becoming their victims. This concept of direct aggression and depiction of outright violence dates back to the arguments of Glauber Rocha’s Aesthetic of Hunger, calling for a necessary violence as a means of enacting social change and to represent and uphold these ideals onscreen. 

During the closing third phase of Cinema Novo, extending from 1968 to 1972, some filmmakers went into exile and many others adapted to upcoming audiovisual platforms and to the growing cultural industry in Brazil, resulting in a lesser volume of films released. Brazil was undergoing a process of modernization and globalization, producing more sophisticated films with higher production value and market reach, contradicting one of the founding ideals of Cinema Novo’s first phase; these discussions lead to the birth of Novo Cinema Novo (“New New Cinema”), also known as Udigrudi and Cinema Marginal (“Marginal Cinema”), an extension led by the objective of resuming the initial focus of the movement: marginalized characters and social problems, adjoined by an even grittier vèrite aesthetic. Notable films from this breaking movement include Julio Bressane’s Matou a Familia e For ao Cinema (Killed the Family and Went to the Movie Theater) and O Anjo Nasceu (The Angel Was Born), Ozualdo Candeias A Margem (The Shore), and Rogério Sganzerla A Mulher de Todos (Everyone’s Woman)

Though, the high-achieving production of third phase films, in which the rich cultural texture of Brazil was pressed to the limit, was able to adequately explore the aestheticism of the tropicalism movement, as well as question its political metaphors. Among the films of the third phase, Macunaíma, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s namesake adaptation of one of Brazil’s most beloved literary works, stands as one of the most important films of the time period. The film recounts the trajectory of the festive and sensuous hero of Brazilian literature through brilliant performances by Grande Otelo and Paulo José, while exhibiting a fresh filmmaking style not limited by former realist aestheticism. Macunaíma showed that the national cinema could bring questions of race and class in a lighthearted narrative about a black man who magically transforms into a white man before an adventurous journey, furnishing a family-genre commercial film with the vigorous discourse of Cinema Novo. 

With the creation of Embrafilme in 1969, the Brazilian national cinema began to produce an enormous quantity of feature-length films. Aligned with the military regime and worried about the censorship board, these films did not obey to the aesthetic or philosophic ideals of Cinema Novo. And so, the movement gradually dissolved during the 1970s, after being substituted by commercial and nationalistic productions. In 1970, Rocha published an article about the progress of Cinema Novo, writing that he was satisfied with the movement’s “critical acceptance as a part of world cinema” as its become a “nationalistic cinema that reflected precisely on the artistic and ideologic preoccupations of the Brazilian people.” Filmmakers inspired by the ideals of the movement at the start of the decade continued its confrontational stance and brought its sociopolitical questions further into the upcoming Marginal Cinema movement. 

Rocha speaks of the authorial roots of Cinema Novo on basis of the works by Humberto Mauro, Mário Peixoto, Alberto Cavalcanti, and Nelson Pereira dos Santos, and notes that many gems of Mexican cinema (essentially Que Viva Mexico and Raizes) largely influenced Brazilian modernism and Latin American cinema at large (13). The cinemanovistas were not the first filmmakers in Brazil to realize the importance of fighting for a strong national cinema. A full generation of work before them, critics questioned the dependency of the Brazilian market to imported films, the submission of the Brazilian filmmaker to the language produced in Hollywood cinema, and to other more developed hubs, and began fighting for the national cinema to become one of the main expressions of Brazilian culture, a mission that would be taken over by Cinema Novo. Neither the critics who preceded the cinemanovistas, nor the cinemanovistas themselves discussed the formation of the Brazilian people — a discussion exhausted by the modernist filmmakers of the 1920s — which constituted a fundamental category and an agent for sociopolitical change.

Today, Brazilian filmmaking is well known for its singular hits in the global distribution market, such as City of God and Elite Squad, and for internationally acclaimed filmmakers such as Kleber Mendonça Filho, José Padilha, Walter Salles, and Eduardo Cotinho, who broke the national boundaries with unique works exhibiting ideals and traits similar to the style and agenda of Cinema Novo. The movement in the center of this essay is little known by many moviegoers and film students, though it should be presented alongside the revolutionary initiatives in world cinema, on the same plane as the French and Czechoslovakian New Waves, Italian Neorealism, German Expressionism, as its continuing influence on filmmakers around the world generates exciting new work. The Brazilian people’s memory of the repressed years of military dictatorship lives within the dialogue of their family members and loved ones, in media and textbooks, and most importantly, in cinema. Fortifying a societal unity and exposing the deeply-rooted problems of the Brazilian nation, Cinema Novo impacted the national culture in an everlasting manner, and shall live forever in its fullest, revolutionary form. 

Written by Enzo Flores on June 26th, 2019.

 

ISAAC JULIEN’S LESSONS OF THE HOUR

Isaac Julien,  Lessons of the Hour–Frederick Douglass . Installation view, 2019. Metro Pictures, New York.

Isaac Julien, Lessons of the Hour–Frederick Douglass. Installation view, 2019. Metro Pictures, New York.

Through a work of seamless composition, unifying the inherent past-present distinctions and embracing the unwavering sociopolitical context on display, Isaac Julien’s Lessons of the Hour, on view at New York’s Metro Pictures until April 13th, offers a look at the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass: 19th-century abolitionist and activist, the most photographed man of his time, and subject at the heart of Julien’s multifaceted study. Douglass’ voice resonates in the large space of the white cube Chelsea gallery — a dominant typology for art-viewing not fairly ideal for the Julien’s highly didactic theses —  further leading attendees through the photo compositions on the main gallery floor, straightforwardly into an immersive film screening at a back room, fully enclosed by a whopping ten projectors and surround sound. The multitude of screens allows for the exhibition of excerpts from Douglass’ lectures to be intermittently shown with footage from the 2015 Baltimore riots following the killing of Freddie Gray: by the agency of reenactment and laser-focused historical assembly empowered by the medium, Julien bridges the former and current fight for civil rights in the United States with an astonishingly educational and poetic envelope. Transposed by cinematic technique and adjoined by fierce altruistic commentary, the imagery and representation of the notable subject acquire a life of its own, further synthesizing the present-day discord while memorializing the esteemed influence of Frederick Douglass. 

However unique the exhibition of the artwork may be, the independent life and discourse that erupts from the piece may diverge from the meaning intended by the Frederick Douglass speeches; while this poses problematic questions on the integrity of the artwork’s approach and showcase, the friction produced by the adaptation extends the trailblazing remarks on the entanglements of the black experience in 19th-century America into a work of contemporary comprehension, amassing masterly reverence in its digital scale. 

The Lessons of the Hour centerpiece film, as the title of the 1894 anti-slavery address enunciates, works through a scope of non-linearity, exhibiting fragmented time frames within each individual projectors. At times, the multiple large and small screens work together with the main scene by supplementing a variety of alternative angles and perspectives of the space and subjects, while other screens emphasize the leading incident by cutting away to diverging events and actual present-day footage, further shifting the focus to the implications of Douglass’ lectures as it seeps into the immediacy of present-day race politics. In the midst of the many vessels of interpretations elicited by the juxtapositions of the numerous screens, the multiple projectors impose a definite malleability in the work, presenting the viewer with a wide array of viewpoints to fixate on (or with a difficulty to focus on just one particular vein). This malleability of perspective and active dialogue between past and present is also a predominant characteristic of the photo compositions on the main gallery floor: daguerrotype portraits and family photos are positioned on the same plane as glossy, reenacted stills of Frederick Douglass (played on screen by Ray Fearon). The fact-and-fiction convergence and contrariness evoked by the filmic reproduction is at the center of Julien’s work, relying on the performance of actors to portray, and possibly, to shape the glorious efforts of the subject.

On screen, the elliptical narrative shies away from Douglass’ iconography to flow on a  personal level, romanticizing his home life, and cutting between his contemplative journeys through the country and monumental articulations at an assembly. The frame is often embellished by sunlight, portraying a reflective Douglass writing letters and drafting speeches, intercutting with his wife, Anna Murray Douglass, working on her husband’s clothing — the resounding noise of her sewing machine, overlaid with Douglass’ knockout address and the fulminating beats of Baltimore’s fireworks (as shown in separate projected screens), is employed concurrently as a device of amplifying tension. While many of these devices are at play in this dazzling technical feat, the fundamental words and implications from the Frederick Douglass address may fade beneath a layer of spectacle, as the arrangement of sounds and compositions is likely to detract audiences’ attention from the nuances of the speech and central purpose of the installation. 

The holistic meaning of the piece resides within the image and rhetoric of Frederick Douglass, however Julien’s cinematic experiment is geared toward the attraction of the former — based on a purely visual strategy — while the actual occurrence of the latter is not necessarily the center, as the powerful gist of the words is actively paired with a gamut of different angles and modern associations. The characters on screen appear as historical set pieces, fulfilling the mise-en-scène with their bodily austerity and not exuding much depth beyond their image, particularly with the Frederick Douglass character, as the substance of his figure is precisely based on his “Fourth of July” speech, as well as the audience’s prior knowledge of his legacy. This artistic approach is successful with the stills displayed around the gallery, though on screen it performs emptily, moving from image to image, gripping the audience to the installation aspect rather than the significance of the man at the heart of the exhibit. Ultimately, Lessons of the Hour  encapsulates a segment of Frederick Douglass’ impact within the national discourse, and renders an immersive viewing experience enclosed by the most highly recognizable man of the 19th century. 

This article was published on April 12th, 2019.

THE CLASH OF SAVAGERY AND INNOcence in lars von trier’s the house that jack built

The following essay is featured on the second volume of Cinema Skyline. Click here to access the online issue.

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“Remember... never another Trump.” Lars von Trier announces in an introductory video prior to the screening of The House That Jack Built,  a tormented portrait of serial killer Jack (Matt Dillon), whose revered art is the sophistication of killing.  If you’re familiar with some of the director’s late work (Antichrist, Nymphomaniac), then the gamut of paradoxical allusions and distressing graphic imagery of this controversial film might not surprise you. Trier’s allegorical trademark obsession is also present, as the overarching metaphor of the tiger and the lamb, savageness and innocence (good and evil), guides the thesis of Jack’s hideous practice. He claims that the two are necessary and must coexist in the world, for “the lamb was bestowed to live forever in art, and art is divine.” As a child, Jack catches a blithe duckling drifting on a lake and chops its leg off.Hence, the ostensible divine art that Jack practices creates a clash between his inhibited savagery and the innocence of his victims, both meshed in the same canvas. Savagery has many faces, while not being empirically evil, Jack self-defines his psychopathic personality with a tacky surname (“Mr. Sophistication”) and various displaying cards, denoting traits like narcissism and egotism. Particularly, artists are a perfect mirage between narcissism and egotism, as they attempt to achieve an outlining truth in art. Lars von Trier has famously declared that “this is the character closest to myself, except I don’t kill people.” In Jack’s case, the genuineness of his art is crystalized, for there is nothing truer than death (“Look at the work, not at the act!” Jack proclaims).

Another remarkably effective technique Jack has mastered over his reign of terror is based on sheer manipulation: he presents a fabricated image of himself, and through the sleek portrayal to his victims, he does not seem like a threatening guy at all. Most remarkable is the bullseye casting of Matt Dillon, whose crudely staggering  and malleable performance carries the allegory of the failed artist and takes the audience through his compulsive heydays to the unravelment of mayhem. On a post-screening Q&A, the star revealed a stark sense of freedom that was in constant breeding during production, despite the film’s incredibly dark narrative. Certainly, Dillion’s rugged malleability stemmed from extensive improvisation and complete absence of rehearsals, as well as many diversions from the original script.

Shot in Sweden and Denmark, the story takes place in a fictional 1970s America, while Lars von Trier, Cannes’ persona non grata, has never set foot in America. However, the director’s preceding statement in the beginning video addresses the film’s sociopolitical critique on aristocracy and civil authorities -- for instance, Jack directly states to a police officer that he has killed over 60 people only to be bluntly ignored, he later finds a parking ticket on the windshield of his van. 

Though it may require audiences to overlook the sensational headlines drafted at Cannes, The House That Jack Built is a crude contemplation of art and ranks among Lars von Trier’s very best work. 

This article was published on November 30th, 2018

Bill Morrison’s Beyond Zero: 1914-18 Essay and Interview

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Decaying reels of the deteriorating past are unraveled in Beyond Zero: 1914-18. The film showcases an unseen narrative of the Great War as documented on film by the lens of war correspondents. Through carefully composed visual abstractions, the authenticity of the stirring time period is on full display, offering a wholly tangible experience. Most of the film’s footage is in replete state of decay, rendering abnormal visual disturbances and capturing the unparalleled deformations of nitrate film near decomposition. By making use of footage deemed ineffective, director Bill Morrison (Decasia, Dawson City: Frozen Time) boosts the daunting legitimacy of Europe’s battlefields and draws attention to the preservation of the medium itself. 

At a short runtime of 39 minutes, Beyond Zero focuses on the rampant devastation caused by the conflicts and its collective enterprises, rather than the geopolitical complexities of the war. Mesmerizing texture is painted onto collapsing buildings in desolate cities. An unrelenting feeling of hopelessness exudes through the emergency parachuting of a pilot into the open sky, to further blur the line between the allies and enemies, patriotism and genocide. The score, composed by Aleksandra Vrebalov and performed by the Kronos Quartet, conducts the film’s frightening atmosphere as well as its profound experience. Ultimately, an unique artistry is built upon the montage and juxtaposition of factual events and their enduring cinematic preservation. Director Bill Morrison discusses the production of Beyond Zero: 1914-18 on the following interview: 

How did you come to tackle this project? Was there a pre-production process before acquiring the footage?

In November 2012 I was contacted by David Harrington, artistic director of the Kronos Quartet, who told me he was interested in commissioning a piece commemorating the first World War on its upcoming centennial. He told me that he was interested in my work with archival footage, and wanted to pair me with the Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, a composer who had already written many works for KQ and who lived in New York at the time. My immediate thought was to try to look for original footage of the Great War that still existed on nitrate, and for that I knew I would visit my friends at the nitrate vaults of the Library of Congress (LOC). 

I imagine you must have watched countless hours of WWI footage. What sort of elements do you look for in the archival footage that makes it to the final cut of the film? 

I was really interested in just using scans of original nitrate, and those were naturally in pretty rough shape. This meant that much of what I found would not be well known to the viewing public, and that it would have a connection to the actual cameras that were operating at the time. Of course the more deteriorated the better as far as I was concerned!

Were there any interesting components in the research room, such as a label on the film reel containers or an untouched print, that drew you to investigating them further? 

I found a newsreel of film by Chicago Tribune company that was labeled “The German Side of the War”. I was interested in how soldiers on either sides of any conflict are united by their class as disposable and replaceable cogs to the monied interests of their nations. 

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Aleksandra Vrebalov’s harrowing score is a vital element to the experience of Beyond Zero. How did you collaborate with her and your creative consultants to create the atmosphere and emotional nuance that envelops the film?

The story of WWI has it origins in Sarajevo, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914 by Gavrilo Principe, a Bosnian Serb seeking to end Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia-Herzegovina. As as Serb, Aleksandra has a unique personal relationship to war, in that she has actually written music while NATO forces bombed her hometown of Novi Sad in 1999. After describing the nitrate vaults at LOC to Aleksandra, she decided to join me on a research trip, and in early 2013 we went to Culpeper, VA together to see what we could find. To date, she is the only composer I have ever worked with who has accompanied me to the archive. All the footage in the film comes from the LOC collection, all of it in some state of deterioration. Aleksandra was able to find audio material pertaining to the War, including a speech given by the former American ambassador to Germany, James W. Gerard, in which he questioned the loyalty of German-Americans. propaganda recording heard in the middle of the piece around 21:21. She also made live recordings of the old nitrate film spooling through the viewing table as we watched them at LOC, which also found their way into her composition. Most notably, Vrebalov included a performance by the monks of The Brotherhood of Kovilj Monastery, Serbia, who are heard at the finale of the piece, and who also traveled from Serbia to perform at Carnegie Hall for the New York premiere. (photo)

This article was published on November 8th, 2018

BOOM FOR REAL SHOWCASES JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT’S LESSER-KNOWN WORKS

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A new documentary from the director Sara Driver showcases the early teenage years of a homeless Jean Michel Basquiat in the late ‘70s Lower East Side. Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat investigates the development of Basquiat’s prolific persona in the context of his time and place — a time of increasing discontent amid the failures of the New York City administration, wherein crime and poverty were rampant throughout Manhattan, as the streets were taken over by waves of homeless addicts and prostitutes. Boom for Real scrutinizes the intimacy of Basquiat and his surroundings, and reveals the artist’s identity through the lens of his close friends, lovers and collaborators.

Being the birthplace of the Downtown Manhattan arts scene, the spirit of the Lower East Side lives within the range of artwork produced during the 1970s and early ‘80s. Driver introduces Basquiat’s lesser known graffiti art, a language-oriented outlet that meshes poetic prose with an aesthetic derived from the texture of the city around him. The film pays special attention to the free spirit of the artist, introduced by an insurgency in graffiti art with the printing of four letters, SAMO (as in ‘same ol’ shit’), in several different surfaces around the neighborhood. “One didn’t know who SAMO was but his work was extraordinarily memorable, because frankly there was a lot of graffiti during that time.” Ultimately, Basquiat expressed the increasing need to free one’s art from rule of societal authority, as posted in one by the writings: “SAMO as an end 2 confining art terms.” Basquiat’s prose is known for sparking a concept that ought to be contemplated, as opposed to displaying a beautifully crafted piece.

The cliffhanger of Boom for Real is quite clear: would Basquiat have developed a consistent following of his raved body of work if it wasn’t for the circumstances and influences of the hostile Lower East Side in the 1970s? How different would Basquiat’s work have been if if he resided in a different sphere of urban spaces? The tough reality of the city at that time played a key role in the shaping of Basquiat’s identity, certainly expressing a form of authenticity in the work of an artist that thrives on the display of metaphors and euphemisms. Arguably, the driving force of gentrification has brushed the authenticity away, only to replace it with new sets of values and priorities.

Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat is now available on streaming.

This article was published on October 17th, 2018


A NEWLY-RESTORED VIGO OUEVRE IS BACK ON THE BIG SCREEN

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One of cinema’s most influential visionaries returns to the spotlight cast by the Film Forum in Lower Manhattan. Henri Langlois, a legendary French film preservationist, once regarded Jean Vigo as “cinema incarnate in one man,” similarly to François Truffaut’s 1970 unpublished article “Jean Vigo is dead at twenty-nine,” as a response to the allure of Vigo’s works, possessing cinematic perfection through their “great visual power and effortless poetry.” The Complete Jean Vigo program runs for 12 days at the Film Forum (September 21 to October 2) screening new restorations of Vigo’s pioneering works —in fact, you could watch the director’s entire body of work in one afternoon, not taking up two hundred minutes of projection time. Profoundly ahead of his time, Vigo’s L’Atalante is considered one of the greatest films of all time, and a vigorous influence to the iconoclastic spirit of the French New Wave. Facing severe tuberculosis during production, Vigo died at twenty-nine a few weeks after the film’s tampered release. The following text dissects the visual strategy of L’Atalante, and pinpoints the aesthetic qualities of Vigo’s effortless poetry, achieved through the filming of prosaic acts and words. 

“Wishing you a happy life aboard L’Atalante!” The cabin boy sprints across the field and hands an unwrapped bouquet to the newly married Juliette (Dita Parlo) and Jean (Jean Dasté), as they embark in their honeymoon aboard Jean’s river barge. Their journey is accompanied by an odd second mate, Le Père Jules (Michel Simon), a young cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) and a multitude of cats. A country girl shutoff from the outside world, Juliette’s greatest desire is to travel to somewhere new, perhaps a city or a riverside town. In turn, her growing discontent is clearly noticeable from the first moment she sees L’Atalante, as if she could foresee their imminently tumultuous honeymoon. Boris Kaufman, the Russian-born brother of Dziga Vertov and Jean Vigo’s cinematographer, is especially interested in capturing Dita Parlo’s staggering performance by always directing us toward her meek expressions and natural spontaneity. While the couple shares the cluttered space of L’Atalante, the focus narrows to incredibly compressed compositions, as contrasted by the wide expansive shots of the film’s opening. The camera is constantly steering around the narrow space, physically embracing the tension of conjugal love and desire that drifts the boat along the river. 

More than halfway through the film, the couple heads to Quatre Nations for wine and a dance; despite being bothered by a witty entertainer, they manage to enjoy themselves for the first time in their honeymoon. The stationary camera objectively peeks through doorways and captures the dancing crowd. Enclosed in this engrossing scene is the primary conflict of the film: the friction of their marital love with outside forces, being a natural or physical factor that intervenes with their relationship, or their own innate and individualistic desires that diverge from one another. Vigo formulates the dance between hope and desire, tenderness and despair, as Kaufman captures these contradictions in the most objective manner possible. Like all other of Vigo’s films, the endearing quality that sustains the authenticity of L’Atalante is somewhat unfinished, possessing the style of a string budget film and the vitality of a work of art.

In a moment of frustration, Juliette succumbs to her desires and leaves for Paris. A low-angle shot reveals Jean fiercely steering L’Atalante out of the dock and into the water; Juliette immediately regrets her decision, though the boat has already fled and she is forced to roam about the city, experiencing the spectacle of lights and affluence, poverty and thievery. By notably juxtaposing the couple in different settings, both Jean and Juliette long for their lost love in an abstracted montage. André Bazin referred to Vigo’s “almost obscene taste for the flesh” as carnal and lyrical, in like manner, he conveys sexual desires through the freedom of cinematic composition. Certainly, Bazin was commenting on the renowned underwater sequence, which features Jean in a moment of suicidal desperation, attempting to find his lost love through the reflection of the water. Additionally, the score by Maurice Jaubert plays a vital role in the shaping of this catharsis and draws out poetic effects throughout the film.

Needless to say, the poetry of L’Atalante is conveyed aesthetically and is underlined by the vision of Vigo himself and his collaborators. See the new restorations of this and other of Vigo’s masterworks to fully experience the emotional affect that cinema can provide. 

This article was published on September 21st, 2018.


Institutionalized Racism in Black Girl

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Ousmane Sembène’s La Noire De… (Black Girl, 1966) personifies postcolonial rage at its finest. Sembène’s overarching commentary on race politics begins early on its original French title, The Black Girl of…, suggesting that the Girl is a property to be possessed, manipulated, and abused. The first sub-Saharan film to reach an international audience tells the devastating story of a young Senegalese woman, Diouana (Mbissine Diop), that procures a job as a live-in maid and nanny for a white couple (Anne-Marie Jelinck, Robert Fontaine) on the French Riviera. The woman’s dreams of a better life are completely dismantled by the dissatisfactions of the job. The following text discusses the pertinent theme of racial exploration as it relates to Diouana’s unfortunate expedition.

The woman was never a cook, but prepares a bowl of rice and serves to a dining table full of French guests. By the bell ring, the white employer demands a glass of wine. Meanwhile, the guests share discriminatory remarks of Africa and African people, which instigate their treatment of Diouana as not only a servant, but also as an inferior creature. She sits in quiet grievance, embarrassed for being kissed on the cheek by one of the guests, only to be interrupted by a coffee order. This sequence establishes the set of relations that composes the whole picture, and succeeds in stratifying Diouana and the space that she forcibly lives in.  

Throughout the course of Sembène’s film, the audience follows the woman introspectively as she narrates her daily frustrations and farfetched expectations. “After this rice maybe they’ll show me the city. Maybe we’ll go to Cannes.” The internal dialogue established by the woman’s voice-over is delineated by the boundaries set in the post-colonialist purgatory, for the whites’ classification of the Black Girl is one of sheer possession. This perpetual forbiddance of self-expression flattens Diouana’s intricate outfit: the apron tied around her waist functions like a dog’s leash in the appropriation and restriction of her functions. In any event, Sembène leads the woman’s procedures through her reflections, but does not exclude the ignorant remarks made by the whites: the pictorial product of this association is apparent in Diouana’s expressions, dull and defeated, she bares the pain of exploitation. 

The French home fulfills the subtext of the scene with a living space constituted by white painted walls and plain-colored furniture. Uniquely, African culture is made “consumable” to the whites by the display of an aphrodisiac mask, a gift by Diouana and a recurring motif, that covers the living room wall as an “exotic” item of decoration. In light of the large living room, Diouana’s space in the kitchen is fairly small, as the resemblance of its size is comparable to solitary confinement — while the whites eat in the luminous dining room, Diouana is confined to the dim kitchen. This literal segregation chronicles the colonial relationship of the French and the Senegalese. However, Sembène carries this impulse in a personal narrative, by placing Diouana on the forefront of racism in order to embody the worldwide repression of people of color. She is seen as the lazy servant, whose speech is meant to be disregarded, and efforts should only please her owners. 

The rice that Diouana serves is spicy, and grounds a commonplace conversation about the stereotypes of African tradition. “Africans only eat rice.” Particularly, the elderly French guest (Raymond Lemery) suffices the discriminatory ideology of the household with the reiteration of offensive statements disregarding the woman’s presence; for instance, Diouana’s identity and restrained presence is especially attacked when the man ignorantly discusses how “their independence made them less natural.” Yet, the scene develops with greater disregard when Lemery kisses Diouana’s cheeks, as if the woman is an outlandish animal foreign to the European land. Sembène masterfully composes the climax with a medium close-up of Diouana, for her lack of expression manifests concealed bleakness.

Needless to say, the monumental mark of Black Girl in film history is validated by its ferocious appraisal of institutionalized racism that persists in post-colonial society. Alongside many stylistic aspects of the French New Wave, Sembène’s film incorporates simple mise-en-scène elements to tackle its objective message. Of course, the legacy of race discrimination is an aggravated subject matter to be tackled in a 60-minute picture. But, cinema allows for a formative understanding of its tragic and long-withstanding outcomes: Mbissine Diop’s performance is remarkable for its multifaceted layers of repression inherited upon a character that suffers from the trickery of slavery. All things considered, Sembène’s Black Girl is a treasure of African cinema. The film does not fail to remind modern audiences of the prejudices of colonialism and inherent racism, but also speaks truth to the ignorance of white privilege.

This article was published on May 1st, 2018.

the catastrophic attraction of king kong

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Cinema’s potential to mesmerize audiences has surpassed the boundaries of sensorial amusement with the development of filmic technologies and gripping action. The 1922 release of Robin Hood meant the trendsetting advancement of action cinema, with the illustrious appearance of Douglas Fairbanks in a character-driven narrative; by 1925, Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd had sophisticated the visceral experience of film with the emancipation of slapstick comedy; further in 1930, The Jazz Singer institutionalized the use of production sound, and auteurs such as Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor, and John Ford were perfecting the art of talkies. Though, in 1933, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack would formalize a genre constituted by the attraction of unmeasurable creatures in adversity to humans and their inherent perception of nature. King Kong hit the theaters, and with it came the delight of being horrified in the movies. The following text assesses Kong’s appeal to its spectators and attempts to formulate the boundaries broken by the pre-code film, as it identifies with the influential theses of James Snead’s Spectatorship and Capture in King Kong: The Guilt Look and Tom Gunning’s The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde.

Cooper and Schoedsack introduced a monster film that surpasses the fictional realm, as the thematic closure of King Kong provides an extensive commentary on contemporary society. Notably, the story sets off in New York City, as the film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) prepares to embark on open sea for his new picture. Venture, Captain Englehorn’s (Frank Reicher) ship, heads to Skull Island with the hopes of finding a monstrous creature named Kong. Aboard the ship, the actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) meets and falls in love with Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), the ship’s First Mate. At Skull Island, the natives kidnap Ann and take her to the altar as an offering to Kong, a giant monstrous gorilla. Kong takes Ann as hostage and manages to protect her while clashing with a Brontosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus. Finally, Denham knocks Kong unconscious with a gas bomb with the ambition of bringing the creature alive to New York City — this event triggers a city-wide catastrophe, when the uncanny force of the giant creature meets a modern cityscape. The amusement granted to audiences at a Broadway theater quickly turns into the horror of an unleashed beast, as the creature takes Ann as hostage and storms into the streets of Manhattan. Kong climbs the Empire State Building, followed by six airplanes with machine guns. The fighters shoot Kong, provoking his fall and subsequent death. “Jack climbs to embrace Ann while Denham stands over the fallen ape’s corpse delivering the final lines: ‘It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast’” (Snead 57). The beast’s outcome establishes a contrast of wilderness and the modern human race, for dying atop of a synthetic structure in a metropolitan city questions the brevity of nature when disciplined by humankind. 

“Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World” captures Ann, “the golden woman,” only to be defeated and turned into a trophy for Denham. Similarly, Snead argues that Kong’s tragic fall hones the relationship between Ann and Jack, as the characters survive “only at the cost of an execution” (58). The film’s paradoxical conclusion satisfies the redemption that the audience craves, allowing for a resolution to be brought to the sub-plot love affair. In effect, the creature’s death is foreshadowed by the ambivalence of spectatorship, as its interpretation can derive from nature’s tragedy (Kong’s death), man’s accomplishment (Denham’s expedition), or the intersection of both. All in all, the holistic interpretation of the picture leads to a clear depiction of its placement in history. In the same fashion, Snead regards the plot diversions with a thorough reading of its context, and comments on both the native islanders’ role, as well as Ann’s — the author entitles these classifications as ‘blackness captured’ and ‘endangered woman.’

Firstly, the natives’ biased depiction in the exploration of Skull Island serve a semiotic function in the portrayal of the South Pacific islander demeanor. The secluded tribe is seen as abnormal, and serves the sole purpose of disrupting Denham’s expedition. Cooper and Schoedsack place the black tribe as props, functioning no less than the grass huts or palm trees; likewise, Denham’s description of Kong as ‘neither beast nor man’ might elicit a racist description in the context of the narrative (Snead 62). In light of Snead’s arguments, one can safely theorize that no specific culture was adhered in the tribe’s depiction: the manner in which the blacks are embedded with the wilderness is denoted by its brutish elements. 

Secondly, the author provides an analysis to the woman’s placement in the narrative as a “justification for various kinds of subterfuge and violence” (63). Interestingly enough, Ann performs under the subtext of objectified beauty, for her role supplies the plot with much needed conflict: the actress is taken hostage, and vindicated by acts of violence coming from many directions. In any event, Snead purposefully relates the coding of Ann’s body as not just a ‘beauty,’ but an ‘endangered beauty’ in the midst of reckless action. To contrast with the aforementioned concept of ‘blackness captured,’ the agents that threaten Ann are condemned, and further coded as an exotic representation of blackness in the eyes of a white group. 

As shown above, one must consider the prominent societal views in order to place Kong in its time. “The rise of Black migration from the South to the North doubled between 1920 and 1930 as compared to the previous decade” (Snead 62). Indeed, with many unsolved questions of race at the forefront of white attention, racism became in part a collective belief. Thereupon, the representation of racist force in motion pictures came not only with the creation of stereotypical archetypes, but with the preposterous illustration of blackness in characters such as the natives and King Kong himself. Though, the 1933 audiences’ satisfaction with Kong’s rampage through the streets of Manhattan is associated with the frustration of the Great Depression; that is to say, the worldwide anger at the market crash could finally be released at the destructive hands of the creature. “What is the worst that can happen now that the monster-savage has come into civilization?” (Snead 62). Truly, the wave of homelessness and bankruptcy in the early 1930s professed no hope for those affected by the Great Depression. Plausibly could have Kong’s wreckage caused fewer monetary debt to the city of New York in comparison to the turbulence of the 1929 crisis.

Naturally, King Kong is praised for its noteworthy pictorial achievements. Beyond its technicalities, the cinema that Kong constructs is one of fantasy, as asymmetrical creatures walk among humans. Ray Harryhausen, the legendary stop-motion animator, has once regarded Kong’s size as “highly exaggerated” in comparison to the natural proportion of beings; in fact, the Cooper-Schoedsack craft of incomparable creatures establishes the contrast between human beings and parasites. Such notion is featured on the famous clash between Kong and the  Tyrannosaurus, as Ann witness the event on top of a tree branch that perfectly illustrates her size. Further, the mise-en-scène of the scene is composed by matte paintings of the tactile rainforest that surrounds the subjects, as if Ann is engulfed by the deathly nature of the environment. The woman’s romanticized placement on the forefront of the overwhelming action and her outcome in the hands of the threatening creature forms the core of the moviegoing experience. The narrative’s manipulation of the temporal, spatial, and natural boundaries sparks the formulation of a purely entertaining picture (Snead 53). As an illustration Gunning’s Cinema of Attraction, Kong is bound to perfectly demonstrate the interactive experience of cinema. 

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The spectacle of King Kong lends itself to the luring visual effects. The attraction that  Gunning describes is based on a narrative’s voyeuristic ability to stimulate the viewer and further instigate a subjective response. Although, Gunning’s analysis does not explicitly include the 1933 picture, hence his characterization of attraction is a trend limited to the years of 1895 to 1907. Films following the silent era have certainly superseded the notion, though, King Kong proves that the latter has always been present in the spectacle of cinema. Gunning affirms that early film’s ambitions transcended to recent spectacle cinema, in respect to “its roots in stimulus and carnival rides” (8). The Cooper-Schoedsack construction develops on the pure form of attraction, as it takes the spectator into the ‘carnival ride’ of events that are realistically impossible (Kong falls off the Empire State Building). The audience is taken into the voyage of the century for the very purpose of constructing a reality that is not present off-screen. André Bazin once wrote on the understanding of such ethereal qualities of film, and reached the simple conclusion: “The world of the screen and our world cannot be juxtaposed.”

King Kong sparked a revolution of visual effects and stop-motion animation. The film  marked a roaring decade that motion pictures rose to an upscale form of art, as pictures acquired high capital value in the market, and its formalities began to improve significantly. Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack operated a production that would influence decades of filmmakers to come. Ultimately, the prestige that King Kong holds in film history is not only regarded for its construction of gripping compositions, but for its extensive commentary on modern society at a tumultuous time. Though, the highly self-referential film does not fail to provide the spectator with the gist of merriment: Kong’s clashes and falls to the malice of mankind with the purpose of providing an unique cinematic experience. 

This article was published on April 13th, 2018.

Sources: Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde.” Selznick, David O., et al. King Kong. RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., 1933. Snead, James. “Spectatorship and Capture in King Kong: the Guilty Look.” Critical Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 1, 1991, pp. 53–69.


The Player's capitalistic mode of repression

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The bell rings. A clapper emerges on-screen. The self-referential deconstruction of the Hollywood studio system begins, as Robert Altman escorts the audience into a movie about movies, though, The Player torments this notion. One is bound to be bombarded by the eccentricity of the opening sequence, which develops on the fast-paced model of “elevator pitches.” Interestingly enough, the overwhelming irony that comprises the scene builds on the critique of Hollywood as an exclusive institution, and further develops against the ideology of capitalism. The following text scrutinizes the motion picture industry’s mode of production in contrast with the various elements of Altman’s famous opening sequence (note that this analysis focuses on the interactions of the first 2 minutes).

“Movies, now more than ever!” Moving on a crane shot, the camera booms down to capture the vastness of the studio lot during the beginning of a shift. Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a Hollywood studio executive, barely opens the door of his car to be bothered by a desperate pitch for a science fiction picture. Griffin ignores the poor man and wittingly rushes to his office to encounter another screenwriter who quickly solicits an absurd sequel to The Graduate. A mere voyeuristic look into Griffin’s office asserts the denouncing qualities of the film and its lead characters: the opening’s interactions present nothing but the repression of an artistry, exploration of labor, and stigmatization of speech. Correspondingly, these ideals are underscored by the hierarchal competition that drives the film industry, captured by characters’ needs to vocalize filmic knowledge and authority; for instance, Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward), the studio chief of security, mentions Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and its brilliant opening sequence, only to disregard the remarks made by the office’s production assistant, Jimmy Chase (Paul Hewitt).

Granted that the motion picture industry adapted its mode of production into the mass media market according to the content that “appeals” to the wide public, the complications that emerge in the Hollywood studios revolve around capital power. Altman best captures such desperate attainment in the mis-en-scène, which distinguishes the characters by the formality of their attires, and places a few trees around the studio’s office, adding to the belief of artificiality on a concrete backlot. Further, the continuous flow of the crane shot, coupled with continuity editing, reveals different segments of the setting and its characters, mimicking the pictorial simplicity of Old Hollywood and referencing to the renowned long take in the opening shot of Touch of Evil. 

The Player carries the critique of capitalistic standards further into the question of injustice. Indeed, Hollywood is the land where murderers walk free… not only on-screen. The opening sequence culminates into the foundation of a film that presents nothing in its natural form, as the plot follows the illustration of greed and corruption that inhabits Griffin — one that is bred by the sordid state of relations that comprises the venture of making movies. The film builds on the plasticity of a great enterprise that performs on a private basis, allowing for the exploration of its workforce that willingly aims to achieve the potential of their own artistry. However, the outsider’s perspective is most frequently discarded. After all, Hollywood adheres to the amplification of wealth and consumption.

This article was published on April 9th, 2018.


Sunset Boulevard and the Confounded Archetype of Hollywood

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“I guess I don’t have to tell you who the star was. They were always her pictures — that’s all she wanted to see.” Joe Gillis (William Holden) states in a postmortem voice-over, as he sits with Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in her mansion’s screening room. Desmond’s butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim), projects Queen Kelly (1929), a silent picture starring Gloria Swanson and directed by Stroheim decades prior. The verisimilitude of Sunset Boulevard (1950) establishes itself in form of delusional bitterness, as the characters find themselves living on the depravity of their own potential in the entertainment business. Wilder’s masterwork is achieved in basis of cynicism, as the stirring reality, palpable illusion, and filmic generations are confounded in the depiction of Hollywood, further yielding to the criticism of fame and power relations in the industry.

Sunset Boulevard, the celebrated road often occupied by flashing paparazzis and glamorous mansions, is struck by sheer pessimism through Wilder’s objective camera. The audience first glances at a gutter imprinted by the film’s title, to then observe the authorities rushing to find the screenwriter’s corpse, iconically floating in Norma’s pool. The ignorant fame in which the former star claims to herself, as well as the self-attributed success to Paramount Studios in the 1920s, is inherently present in the close inspection of her house. Joan Dean, author of the study "Sunset Boulevard": Illusion and Dementia, describes Norma’s house as a “wasteland,” developing alongside her grotesque refusal to accept the passage of time (92). The main characters, Norma and Joe, vain and egotistical, meet on the basis of an incident — Joe’s screenwriting career plumbs to failure, and Norma seeks for a reinvigorated role, completely certain of Cecil B. DeMille’s support. Dean argues that both characters are completely enveloped by a reciprocal relationship, further implicating that their “mutual exploitation and corruption is the analogous relationship between the star and her public” (96). While Norma finds herself inseparable from the kindness of her admirers, she despises them, hence neglecting the reconciliation with reality. She is surrounded by reflections of her own image, embalmed in her own illusion that she is still a great star. In the meantime, the screenwriter is drawn into her delusion, complementing Norma’s destructive personality by associating himself with an unattainable and insensible success. Wilder’s submission to wild depths of depravity and dementia develops on the artificial construction of reality by the movie business, one sought by many aspiring and established artists.

The most evident thematic closure in Sunset Boulevard is the clash of filmic generations. With the basic knowledge of Old Hollywood, one is able to pin-point many renowned personalities that play themselves in an “extremely unflattering fashion” (Dean 89). Not only was Gloria Swanson an actual star in the silent era, or Erich von Stroheim a legendary auteur, other major figures such as Buster Keaton, Cecil B. DeMille, H.B Warner, Hedda Hopper, and Anna Q. Nilsson, offer the unique insight of being engulfed in the grand illusion of Hollywood. Wilder frames the characters in relation to the pure fantasy of the movie industry, as Joe Gillis details the circumstances of his own death. As such, an analysis of power relations in the entertainment business can be formed through the contrast of Norma’s indolence to the mechanics of fame, Joe’s inherent failure as a screenwriter, and the lack of justification for the stars that play none other but themselves. Morris Dickstein, an American literary scholar, describes this intricate set of parasitical relations as a product of the emergence of stars in the midst Hollywood’s eccentricity (184). Wilder’s picture surfaced from the ruling of the industry’s “studio system,” which reasserted the wide production and distribution of mega-budget feature films, correspondingly creating and discarding stars throughout the decades. The manner in which Wilder explains the depravity of Hollywood was clearly bound to be received with hostility by studio moguls, such as Louis B Meyer: “We should horsewhip this Wilder! We should throw him out of this town! He has dirtied the nest! He brought disgrace on the town that is feeding him!” (Dean 90). However aggressive were Wilder’s intentions with the picture’s morale, Norma’s persona sustains itself underneath the egocentric pillars established by the film industry.

The non-linear narrative, as emitted through Joe’s grave, is lead alongside the bondage of the failed screenwriter and the demented star. The manner in which the screenwriter carries out the screenplay with Norma, intrinsically confident of the product, is the same manner that leads to his death — Joe is unable to perceive delusion, hence he is delusional himself. Such facets are clearly present in the multitude of characters in the narrative, as their roles are built around a one-dimensional archetype. In like manner, all characters remain unchanged from beginning to end: their motivations, functions, and modes of reasoning are plainly unaffected by the plot. This further culminates in an inconclusive end, when Norma descends the stairwell, completely immersed in the farfetched notion of her cinematic presence. Max, mildly aware of Norma’s delusion, contributes to her undefined sense of reality by directing her performance — here, Wilder’s cynicism is extended by placing Max in the spotlight, contributing to the character’s self-referential ego and signaling to Stroheim’s characteristic function. 

The pessimistic atmosphere and visual style of Sunset Boulevard can be compounded into the film noir label, in which the film’s identity is blossomed by high-contrast black and white and a thoroughly dark agenda. Although Wilder’s controversial picture can fall into the realm of satire, its display of morbid features ensures an apparent statement of the confusion of reality and illusion; Norma is the ultimate victim of the celluloid, serving as a representation of the conduct and norms of Hollywood. Norma states to herself in the film’s conclusion: “This is my life, the movies… there’s nothing else. Just me and the cameras” (Dean 97).  On the other hand, Joe is the laborer: his function is to trust the uncredited employer and to adhere to the institutions’ norms. Joe’s tragedy stems from the eccentricity that surrounds the institutions (the studios) and corrupts the enforcers (the directors, actors, and workers) — Wilder expands that one’s morale remains unpreserved in this process. 

“As writers from Shakespeare to Henry James have suggested, there is not so wide a gap between madness and art” (Dickstein 184). Madness, at its literal definition, is achieved through the combination of Norma’s corrupted ego and obsessive behavior, led by the monstrous influence of the celluloid. Sunset Boulevard, similarly to Citizen Kane at the time of its release, was overlooked as an agonizing picture sustained by the criticism of traditional entertainment. Beyond its masterful technicalities and wonderfully constructed storyline, Wilder’s picture is underscored by the intricacies present in the movie industry and marked by aching corruption, as a necessarily present aspect in one’s attempt of self-promotion. The decaying star is masked by her desire of glamour and fame, and even though she might despise the public, she still desires to be in front of them — that is, in the forefront of the camera. Much can be argued about the screenwriter, the scarred man on the unknown pathway of his professional ventures, who is led by his inhibitions, and discarded by hegemonic enterprises. 

Cinema is an art form led by its power to elicit a gamut of attractions and an infinite number of unique orchestrations. The gaze through the lens and the transposal of content into a film strip allows for the wide projection of images to an undetermined number of audiences. Dozens, thousands, millions, and presently, more than billions of people have the opportunity to interact with a motion picture, to dive into the filmmaker’s multifaceted layers of interpretations. Be that as it may, cinema will be closely related to one’s image as it is displayed on-screen, as well as the revenue produced by a film. These concepts further implicate that the complexities of egos and entrepreneurial desires dominate the level of artistry achieved by a motion picture, setting aside its ultimate purpose in order to introduce the madness and corruption by its parties. 

Sources: Dean, Joan F. "Sunset Boulevard": Illusion and Dementia. www.jstor.org/stable/20873130.  Dickstein, Morris. Grand Street. 3rd ed., vol. 7, Grand Street Press, 1988, www.jstor.org/stable/25007116.

This article was published on March 12th, 2018.


sequence analysis: desolation in citizen kane's el rancho

Praised as the pinnacle of the cinema, and important for the refinement of its pictorial language, Citizen Kane lands the crowned ranking in cinematic history for its masterful arrangement of plot and image. Orson Welles, frequently mentioned as the “man ahead of its time,” pushes the limits of the industry in the controversial portrayal of the rise and fall, as well as the intermittent struggles, of an eccentric newspaper tycoon, Charles Foster Kane. The following text further discusses pertinent themes and components of the picture’s display of desolation and remembrance, as it relates to Mr. Kane’s second wife, Susan Kane (Dorothy Comingore), in a particularly condensed sequence set early in the storyline.

The picturesque qualities of Citizen Kane are riveting, and aim strongly to achieve unique terms: the gist of Kane’s legacy (or perhaps, the gist of ‘Rosebud’) is achieved by the orchestrated assets of the production, ranging from Herrmann’s trombones to Toland’s jib. Significantly, Welles introduces the Kane marriage in an emblematic manner, through Ms. Kane’s account at the El Rancho nightclub. The audience primarily glances at a giant portrait of Susan Kane, displayed on the exterior of the concealed establishment, fully rendering the pitfall of her self-acclaimed career as an opera singer. Toland’s camera ascends in a boom shot to the building’s roof, revealing the name of the establishment and the “twice nightly” floor show of Susan Alexander Kane in an intricate flashing sign. The flashing lights signal to a decline in a performer’s career, being one solely dependent on contained audiences in nightclubs — notable to mention, the first-time viewer is unaware that Ms. Kane has once performed in nationwide concert halls amongst large crowds, through Mr. Kane’s sponsorship and peremptory behavior.

A lightning bursts once again, heavy rain falls, and finally, the camera dollies through the flashing lights to focus at a glass aperture on the ceiling. In an audacious movement, the camera dollies through the glass into the establishment, and continues to persistently reveal the widow in a crane descent; Susan attempts to contain herself in the dialogue as the men approach her, searching for particular accounts of her former husband’s life. Such mesmerizing camerawork combines the interior and exterior of El Rancho (consisting of two practical sets) through the initial boom shot (ascending onto the rooftop, and descending into the establishment) in complement with a dissolve. Most importantly, the swift editing technique combines the two spaces, and emphasizes the single-take illusion. The faint sound of music stems on the inside of El Rancho, as the camera initially portrays the sole subject on a wide, depicting her in the midst of empty tables; however, the camera eventually approaches the subject in a medium shot, further restricting one’s view on the desolate woman being enclosed by men with unwanted inquiries.

The stylistic choice of this particular scene, entrenched by dynamic compositions and high contrast of shadows, is usually associated with film noir in the 1940s. The cluttered interior of El Rancho demonstrates the chiaroscuro technique, emphasizing the usage of shadows in a deep focus frame. Coupled with the performance, the low-key lighting complements the director’s choice of blocking the actors in front of one another — in other words, Jerry Thompson (William Alland) directly confronts Susan Kane, and obliterates the spectator’s view of her through the cast of his shadow. At the same time, the vigorous rain continues to remind the audience of its participation in Susan’s anger. Indeed, the many lampshades and meticulous arrangements scattered atop of the round dining tables successfully envelop the dramatic mood of the scene and supplement the overall lighting composition. Other elements such as Ms. Kane’s pattern dress and jewelry, as well as her hair style and tearful eyes, delineate the picture of wealth and power in a slow, painful, decay. 

The sequence concludes with the men’s realization: nothing is disclosed by the woman in grief, but much shall be learned about her relationship with Charles Foster Kane. The camera ascends from the table and restricts the spectator’s view on the men. Mr. Thompson observes the woman once again, perhaps in order to fulfill his urge of extracting information. They proceed to slowly pace towards the door. The rest of the picture dives into the non-linear investigation of an eccentric businessman, from childhood to Xanadu, peeking into his ties with women and his “beloved” business. 

This article was published on February 22nd, 2018.


IN MY OWN WORDS - PERSONAL STATEMENT

“Don’t be a fly on the wall. Be a hornet that stings.” The world would be hollow without the presence of proactive individuals. Roads would have no signs, books would have no covers, and stories would lack development. Director Werner Herzog’s words have become a model for my sense of self and inspired me to tackle life in a systematic manner. In order to accomplish everything that I live for, I had to become a hornet.

One of my earliest memories is having a gun pointed at my head. I was five years old, and a group of armed robbers had entered through the front door of my house. In a single breath, we were surrounded. One of the men pushed his revolver against my father’s back, demanding all our wealth. On that day, he lost everything—including all the money he earned from working three jobs to escape poverty. Here, I was introduced to life’s reality, looking up at a wicked figure holding my loved ones’ lives in his right hand. This moment elicited a dichotomy of radical emotions within me. On the one hand, rage toward the men who threatened the lives of those I love; on the other hand, love, for the ambition that my father instilled in me to pursue a life of success and happiness. No piece of fine art, nor performance could ever depict the mark this moment imprinted on me. My fascination and fondness for motion pictures comes from sharing metaphysical sentiments such as these. I have always been enchanted by stories that are able to strike audiences with an emotion that is larger than life. My biggest ambition is to sting audiences with a loaded revolver pointed toward their inner mind.

Director Werner Herzog during production of FITZCARRALDO (1982).

Director Werner Herzog during production of FITZCARRALDO (1982).