Sunday, 19 February 2012

I Need Somebody: "The Help"

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

As a film viewer I always try to view a film as what it is rather than what it's not. This becomes a little difficult with a film like The Help where, regardless of how good the acting and how earnest it's intentions are, it's hard not to be aware of some of the problems in its depiction of the era in which it takes place. In this review, I'll try to balance a reading of the film just as it is but also address the film's more controversial aspects.

The Help is based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett and is essentially about a young woman named Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) in 1960s Mississippi who returns home after graduating journalism school. She wants to write about what concerns her and decides to focus on black maids who are mistreated by their employers. She writes down the stories of numerous maids, anoymously publishing a book called The Help. Now, with just this short synopsis, the main problem people have with The Help becomes apparent, which is it sounds like another film where a black person's story is told through the perspective of a white character who becomes a saviour figure. I think the emphasis on the white characters is an enevitable problem in a story like this where the focus is on the relationship between these women, both black and white. But while The Help does have this "white emphasis" problem, it doesn't completely define the film.

The reason it doesn't completely define the film is because despite Skeeter being the writer of the book, the only character who narrates the film is Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), one of the maids Skeeter interviews. She's the first face we see in the film and the character who finally closes the film with both her actions and her narration. Essentially, Aibileen is spiritually the main character. In fact, I find the Skeeter character  more of a device for the Aibileen character's journey than the other way around. The most interesting thing about The Help, I would say, is while it seemingly tells its story through a white perspective, the real journey at the film heart is Aibileen's

The one sub plot which I really felt had to go was the one between Skeeter and her love interest Stewart (Chris Lowell). While I can understand this subplot is used to give the character of Skeeter some texture, it feels beside the point of the film. It also lends itself to the "white emphasis criticism." I did like the story between Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), another maid Skeeter interviews and Aibileen's friend, and Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain). Celia is an outsider from the circle of society women because she was born working class. She also married the ex boyfriend of Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). Both Minny and Celia are outsiders in their own ways. Minny is fired by Hilly after she uses Hilly's bathroom. Being outsiders is what draws Minny and Celia together thematically and personally. Some have said the Minny character is a caricature more than character but I thought Spencer brought a lot of wisdom and authentic humour to the part. Chastain, who appeared in quite a few films last year, is a wonderfully versatile actress. Like Spencer, she takes a character who could be a caricature and makes her in to someone lovable, sweet and very human.

The outsider relationship between Minny and Celia is a parralel of the relationship between Aibileen and Skeeter. While Aibileen isn't fired like Minny, she's still an outsider among outsiders, black maids working in a white world. Skeeter is more of a mental outsider. While she's part of the circle of society ladies, she represents a modern woman who wants to bring about change. Ironically, it's her inclusion within society which allows her to subltly go about deconstructing it.

Returning to the notion of Skeeter being a device for Aibileen, I didn't mean this as a negative in regards to Skeeter's character, just that I think Aibileen's journey is more important than Skeeter's. I also  think Aibileen and Skeeter both need each other. Skeeter needs to connect with Aibileen in order to understand what it means to be a black woman at this time. At the beginning of the film, we see Aibileen's face and Skeeter's voice asking what it feels like to raise white children while your own child is at home. This question seems to be the most important question in the film and what Skeeter needs to understand yet paradoxically can never understand. Aibileen needs Skeeter to give her a push to tell her story and an outlet in which to do so. The closing narration implies Aibileen is the real author of the book or at least will become a real author after her relationship with Skeeter.

Viola Davis gives a really lived in performance. From her first moments on screen, you feel this is an authentic human being and a woman who has been a maid for much of her life. Emma Stone is beautiful and sexy as always. She's possesses the charm and energy and make us fall in love with Skeeter. But in contrast to Aibileen, Skeeter and Stone are not old enough for the character to feel as lived in as Aibileen. That's not a knock against Stone nor is something negative. The contrast between the two, one who has truly lived a life and one whose life is only just beginning, make a interesting partnership.

Bryce Dallas Howard has the sweet faced innocence which contrasts well with her character Hilly's ugly personality. I wish the character had been more complex instead of merely being the villain.

Minny tells Skeeter and Aibileen how she got back at Hilly for firing her. Minny baked a pie made out of her own shit. It's a funny scene but it represents the problem this film has with tone. On the one hand, the film does have some nice comedic moments, including a scene where Aibileen and Minny make fun of the society women, but it's also trying to be an honest drama about the time period. The pie scene feels out of place in a film which is dealing with racism, an assissination and the fear of death.

The film also suffers from being all over the place with its focus. This does give the film a lived in quality and allows us to feel like we're part of this world but I felt sometimes the progression of scenes and events don't feel organic. This stalls the momentum. I would have liked for the emphasis to be more on the writing of the book and the aftermath of it being published. By the time the book is published, there's a confrontation between Skeeter and Hilly and then between Aibileen and Hilly, then the film ends.

Still, I enjoyed this film due to its humour, characters and performances. I think the director Tate Taylor, who is Stockett's childhood friend, gives his actors breathing room within the frame and a scene. He's not intrusive and I feel hs direction is more subtle than his script.

And when Aibileen walks away at the end of the film down a symbolic open road, I think you truly want to know what happened to her. That's a testament to the story, which does make Aibileen the most soulful and interesting character, and of course, to Davis' performance

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Thoughts on The Best Actor Race

While I don't know if I'm ready to call it a complete lock, I think The Artist's Jean Dujardin may be the one to take home the Best Actor Oscar this year. For a while, it definitely seemed like Clooney's to lose. But then the SAG Awards happened. Dujardin won that night and then won last Saturday at the BAFTAS. I think these two wins suggest where the race is heading. There also seems to be a lot of love for The Artist this awards season, which may also lead Dujardin to victory. I think if it wasn't for Clooney or Dujardin, it'd be Brad Pitt's to win. He's excellent in Moneyball. And again, in another year Gary Oldman may have been the winner- but hey, can't count him out yet. I think Demian Bichir will get a boost from his Oscar nomination but I think he's the least likely to win.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Top 11 Films For Valentine's Day

This is a little late but here's my movie playlist for Valentine's Day:

1. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943)
The Rest (Alphabetically)
2. An Affair to Remember ( Leo McCarey, 1957)
3.The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
4. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
5. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)
6. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
7. Make Way For Tomorrow ( Leo McCarey, 1937)
8. Romeo + Juliet ( Baz Luhrmann, 1996)
9. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2002 & 2004)
10. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
11. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton)

Saturday, 11 February 2012

A Daring Experiment in The Macabre: An Essay on Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope"

            This is an essay I wrote for a film class in 2009
                  In 1948, what is arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s most innovative film was released. The film was Rope. The film is based on an English play by Patrick Hamilton entitled Rope’s End. The play and the film are also based on two real life murderers named Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. They were college students who killed for intellectual thrills. In the film Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) kill their friend David Kentley (Dick Hogan) because they feel they are above society’s laws. They hide him in a chest and have a dinner for his friends and relatives in the very apartment where they killed him. This macabre set up is not unlike Mr. Hitchcock yet Rope was a daring experiment for him and everyone involved. Through discussion of the film’s experimental nature, intriguing casting choices, and themes, this essay will argue that Rope, for the audience of its time, would be an exciting and sometimes unsettling film experience.

                 A big part of what makes Rope a daring film is its visual technique. Arthur Laurents, playwright, and the screenwriter of Rope, recalls Mr. Hitchcock telling him his idea for the film: “Right from the beginning he’d tell me he was going to do it as a play and with, I think, nine takes or nine reels, something like that” (“Rope”). Upon watching the film he was bothered by the fact that when the film runs out in the camera, the camera closes in on someone’s back.  When this happens more film is put in and then the camera pulls out from the back (“Rope”). This technique creates the illusion that the film is in one take; aside from a few visible cuts. This adds a play like feel to the film, which is appropriate considering its stage origins. At the same time, this technique does not hinder the film as cinema. What this technique does is allow the story to feel like a play and a film at the same time, creating the atmosphere of a four dimensional play. The audience sometimes feels that they are “on stage” with the characters. This visual technique is daring because the camera movements had to be choreographed in advance. As Mr. Hitchcock recalls in his 1948 essay “My Most Exciting Picture:” “To shoot Rope with stage technique under sound stage conditions but with continuous action called for months of preparation and days of exacting rehearsals. Every movement of the camera and the actors was worked out...” (Gottlieb, 276). 

If anything was to go wrong during the filming of a segment then the entire segment had to be reshot.

                Of course, reviews of the film take note of its innovative visual technique. The best way to understand an audience’s reaction to the film in 1948 is to read reviews from that time. Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, did not give the film a favourable review. In regards to the filming technique he says “one must bluntly observe that the method is neither effective nor does it appear that it could be,” and “[t]he physical limitation of the camera to one approach compels it to stay as an eavesdropper on a lot of dialogue and lots of business that are dull. And the yarn, by the nature of its writing, is largely actionless.”  Still, this review would not necessarily keep audiences away. The mention of the film’s visual technique would be intriguing to a reader not already familiar with this aspect of the film; and even Mr. Crowther says the “Hitchcock camera is not inflexible.” Another reason why a filmgoer would not stay away altogether is Mr. Crowther’s dislike with the elements of the macabre in the story: “Also—and this may be simply a matter of personal taste—the emphasis on the macabre in this small story is frightfully intense.” Depending on whom the reader is this mention of the macabre may sound very exciting.

                A more positive review came from an anonymous writer in Time Magazine. He says of the filming technique that “[i]n photographing the action, Director Hitchcock brought off a tour de force... This Hitchcock stunt also required of the actors a sustained discipline that is fairly new to the screen. The result is quite exciting. Continuous action builds a tension all its own.” Continuing on with the actors he says “[t]he players, too, are keyed unusually high by the intensity and interest of trying something new, so that, although their performances are elementary, they have a vividness and vitality which are rare in current movies.

                These two reviews have contrasting opinions. Mr. Crowther believes the film is not cinematic while Mr. Anonymous believes the film is a tour de force in terms of its visual language. The fact that two reviewers could have differing opinions about one film is an exciting prospect for filmgoers. It suggests that the film can spark arguments about its quality. It will not be a film where everyone either likes or dislikes it. Most importantly, these two reviewers focus on Mr. Hitchcock’s directorial innovation. In fact, even Mr. Hitchcock thought this film was exciting.

Mr. Hitchcock dictated an essay in 1948 entitled “My Most Exciting Picture.” The film discussed in the essay was Rope. He recounts a prop men’s exhaustion while working on this film:

“This,” he announced, “is the damnedest picture I ever worked!”

All of us, including myself, seemed to agree with him.

Yet Rope was probably the most exciting picture I’ve ever directed.  Observers called it “the most revolutionary technique Hollywood had ever seen” (Gottlieb, 276).

It is quite interesting that Hitchcock picked Rope as his most exciting picture up to that time since he already had a strong body of work, including Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Notorious (1946). The fact that he thought it was his most exciting picture at that time suggests that an audience would be excited as well; especially since Mr. Hitchcock was a director interested in how to manipulate his audience.  

Another reason why this film would be exciting for the audience at the time is the use of Technicolor.  In the essay, Mr. Hitchcock brings up the fact that this was his first film in Technicolor and the role it played in the film:

Technicolor helped but it wasn’t the star of the picture. Rope, incidentally, is the first time I’ve ever directed a Technicolor picture. I never wanted to make a Technicolor picture merely for the sake of using color. I waited until I could find a story in which color could play a dramatic role, and still be muted to a low key. In Rope, sets and costumes are neutralized so that there are no glaring contrasts. The key role played by color in this film is in the background. I insisted that color be used purely as the eye received it (284).

Part of what makes Rope an exciting film is the contrast between its subject matter and its use of Technicolor. The first interior shot in the film, inside Brandon and Phillip’s apartment, is darkened by closed curtains. There are shadows as well, suggesting film noir rather than a Technicolor film. Brandon and Phillip’s jackets are brown and dark blue. The contrast between the subject matter of this film and the use of Technicolor is very effective in showing the audience that Technicolor can be used in films with dark subject matter. At this time Technicolor was used for films that were fantasy or had an epic scope. Dramas were black and white affairs. The use of Technicolor in this film foreshadows how colour would eventually become common in dramatic films, especially with the emergence of Eastman Color in the 1950s.

The marketing of this film emphasizes the authorship of Mr. Hitchcock. In the theatrical trailer the film is called “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope” when the title is first seen on the screen. This relates to what the auteur theorists thought about some filmmakers, that they were the principal authors of a film; but that is beside the point. This moniker suggests that the people behind the trailer knew Mr. Hitchcock’s name was a huge selling point for the film. The name “Alfred Hitchcock” means excitement and suspense and would suggest that audiences of the time would be excited to see his new film. The trailer shows Brandon and Phillip’s former house master Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) confronting them at the end of the film. In some respects this spoils the film; though the trailer almost seems to be saying that because the director is Alfred Hitchcock the audience will still see the film. Also, the trailer cuts to black as Rupert and Phillip wrestle with a gun while shots are fired. The element of suspense is still there. What is also interesting about the trailer is how it does not reveal the visual technique of the film; almost as if it should be a secret to audiences walking in. If some audience members did not read the reviews or hear anything about this technique, the visual language of the film would be quite shocking.

In the trailer, James Stewart’s name is also emphasized. Mr. Stewart became a frequent collaborator with Mr. Hitchcock, starring in three subsequent films for him; Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958). In Rope, similar to Vertigo, Stewart is cast against type as Rupert Cadell. In Brandon and Phillip’s college days he talked about the idea that murder is an art form and only the privileged few should be able to commit murder; the victims being “inferior” individuals. At the party he talks callously of how murder could solve everyday problems; no waiting in line, and so forth. His callous nature towards talking about murder during Brandon and Phillip’s college days leads to the death of David Kentley. Mr. Stewart was known for playing more wholesome and idealistic characters than Rupert Cadell, such as Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939), and George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946). Both films where directed by Frank Capra, who was a more sentimental director than Mr. Hitchcock. In his review for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent says of Mr. Stewart: “As Jefferson Smith, James Stewart is a joy for this season, if not forever.” Mr. Crowther said of his performance in It’s a Wonderful Life that “[a]s the hero, Mr. Stewart does a warmly appealing job, indicating that he has grown in spiritual stature as well as in talent during the years he was in the war.” Both of these quotes demonstrate the type of actor he was, one of warmth, an actor who epitomized “the good guy”. Rupert is more morally ambiguous than either Jefferson Smith or George Bailey. While he does become a hero figure at the end of the film, he is still partly to blame for David’s death. He did not think what he said would be taken very literally by Brandon and Phillip. Seeing Mr. Stewart in a role like this would have been fascinating and sometimes unsettling to an audience who see him as a more wholesome figure.

Farley Granger, who plays Phillip, played a Russian in The North Star, a film about a Ukrainian village protecting itself from Nazi invasion. In the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers Mr. Granger is compared and contrasted with Gregory Peck. Both made their film debuts in wartime epics “as youthful romantic and Slavic figures;” Peck in Days of Glory (Jacques Tourneur, 1944) and Granger in The North Star (Lewis Milestone, 1943). Mr. Granger is blinded in that film, made into a figure of pity. Granger’s next film was The Purple Heart (Lewis Milestone, 1944). In the film he plays a bomber crew member captured and interrogated by the Japanese. While the IDFF says that unlike Peck, “Granger’s screen persona suggested neither confidence nor the power to lead,” as weak as Phillip is, the casting of Mr. Granger would be a little saddening after seeing him as a hero in a film like The North Star. Phillip is not a romantic figure at all. He is someone who seems powerless in the presence of Brandon. While the audience may pity him, it would not be the same pity as in The North Star, where he is a heroic figure.

The characters of Brandon and Phillip are at the heart of why this film would be unsettling and even controversial. The idea of two people believing they are above moral values is a theme that would have been shocking to audiences; especially if they were familiar with the Leopold and Loeb case. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two college students who murdered a 14 year old boy named Bobby Franks in order to try to commit the perfect crime and, as Alan M. Dershowitz puts it in his book America on Trial: Inside the Legal Battles that Transformed Our Nation, “to prove their perverse misunderstanding of Nietzsche’s philosophy of the “superman,” who was above all laws so as long as he made no mistake” (256-257). The story of Rope, disturbing by itself, is even more effective with the knowledge that real people actually thought like this.

Rope was actually a film that caught the attention of the censors during the time of its release. In an article from The New York Times Thomas M. Pryor discusses how censors wanted the strangulation at the beginning of the film removed. It’s one of the first images the viewer gets in the film and is quite startling. The fact that the censors wanted it removed suggests the audiences would be shocked by it. The fact that a dead body is in the room at all times would also be unsettling to audiences.

Another element of the film that was controversial was the fact that Brandon and Phillip are gay. Mr. Laurents discusses the subtext of the story and the censoring of it:

Rope really comes from an English play by Patrick Hamilton called Rope’s End. And I thought it was going to be easier than it was to make it American. The trouble was when you translated the English dialogue, it became very homosexual, unintentionally...What was curious to me was Rope is obviously about homosexuals. The word was never mentioned...It was referred to as “it.” They were going to do a picture about “it,” and the actors were “it”... The picture was much more successful in Europe ’cause I suppose in Europe, they were used to “it,” and we weren’t here...At that time, because of thing called “a legion of decency” and the Catholic Church, they had a watchdog of censors. And you had to be careful. There were certain rules... With Rope of course, you could never say that they were “it” (“Rope”).

Rupert was also supposed to be gay and to have had an affair with one of the boys. Mr. Laurents believes Mr. Stewart never had that subtext when playing the character: “He was very good as a detective but he had no relation to those boys at all” (“Rope”).  People may have caught on to the fact that Brandon and Phillip are gay. This would be quite shocking to them at the time, especially since Brandon and Phillip are central characters in the film. What also may have shocked them is, as Mr. Laurent says, that the film is a sophisticated portrayal of two gay men (“Rope”). Fortunately, they are not reduced to stereotypes.

                What made Rope exciting for its time were its experimental nature and the casting against type of James Stewart as the morally ambiguous Rupert Cadell. The themes of killing for intellectual thrills and of homosexuality were also elements that would have shocked audiences. The elements that were exciting for its time are still exciting today. Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers have this quality. Rope is sometimes thought of as a failed experiment but the film is a daring experiment in the macabre if there ever was one.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Shakespeare on Film: Akira Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" and "Ran"

            This ia an essay I did for a film class in 2010
Akira Kurosawa’s films Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985) are quite dissimilar at first glance. Throne of Blood is from the 1950s, photographed in black and white, and is in the academy ratio (1:33:1). The film is also very foggy in terms of the weather onscreen. In contrast, Ran is from the 1980s, photographed in colour, and filmed in the scope ratio (2:35:1). In fact, the film is quite colourful despite its dark tone. Despite these dissimilarities the films are also quite similar. The most important similarity is how they are both based on plays by William Shakespeare. Throne of Blood is based on Macbeth and Ran is based on King Lear, even though Kurosawa did not start out writing the film as an adaptation of King Lear. Another important similarity between the two films is the fatalistic qualities. There are two scenes in Throne of Blood and Ran that emphasize the fatalistic qualities of the films and which are not present in Shakespeare’s plays. In Throne of Blood it is the final sequence in which Lord Taketori Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) is killed by his own soldiers’ arrows. In Ran, it is the sequence in which the castle that Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) goes to after being betrayed by his two sons is attacked by those same sons. These two sequences give the viewer the feeling that within the worlds of these films chaos is an agent of fate; because of Kurosawa’s visual strategies and also the reasons behind these events.

Both Macbeth and King Lear have fatalistic elements, which are accentuated by Throne of Blood and Ran. Macbeth’s rise to the throne of Scotland and eventual downfall are prophesized by the three Witches. These developments provoke the audience to think about the role of fate in the play. There is a question of whether or not Macbeth has a choice or if he is trapped in the web of fate.  Judith Buchanan, in her book Shakespeare on Film, believes Throne of Blood makes clear the ambiguous nature fate plays in Macbeth because of the opening and closing chorus:
The framing of the narrative by coolly uninvolved retrospective comment at its opening and close generates a sense of inevitability about the drama that plays out within its bounds. Moreover, nothing occurs between these end-markers to destabilise the sense of inevitability. Washizu, the samurai reincarnation of Macbeth, is caught within a prescribed fate already written into the history books and narrated in ballads [...] The ambiguity sustained in the Shakespeare play is resolved in Kurosawa’s film. Washizu’s fate, as the forest spirit makes clear and the ensuing action confirms, is not his to determine.  (74-75)
In King Lear the role of fate is more ambiguous than in Macbeth. Nevertheless, the audience, as with Macbeth, is asked to think about fate and how it plays into Lear’s choice. His banishment of Cordelia at the beginning seems like a choice which is like a domino effect, setting in motion practically everyone’s tragic fate. At one point in the play the blinded Gloucester says: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods, / They kill us for their sport” (IV.i.36). This scene is paralleled at the ending of Ran. The Fool character in Ran, Kyoami (Peter), curses the Gods for what he believes they have done. While the Kent character, Tango (Masayuki Yui), refutes the Fool’s curses one still has the feeling that fate does play a factor in the film; especially when one considers the shots of the heavens during the castle sequence, which imply that some unearthly force is behind these chaotic events.

                Not only is fate a crucial factor in these two films but so is chaos, especially the idea of chaos as an agent of fate. Kurosawa uses a number of visual techniques to suggest this idea. The most elaborate visual technique in each film is the location of a castle as the place where chaotic events take place. The reason why the location of a castle relates to this idea is because Washizu and Hidetora find it very hard to escape these locations, though Hidetora eventually succeeds whereas Washizu fails. In these two sequences chaos attacks in a place that at first seems like a refuge but eventually becomes a trap.

                Kurosawa trained as a painter and, as Stephen Prince recounts in The Warrior’s Camera: the Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, many of the images in Ran are based on paintings drawn by Kurosawa when he did not believe he would ever make the film (32). This painter sensibility makes the visual style of Ran and Throne of Blood very arresting. The idea of these castles being traps is emphasized by Kurosawa’s compositional style, which comes out of his painterly sensibility. Take for instance the arrow sequence. The shots are kinetic because of the rapidly fired arrows and Washizu’s frantic movement but the camera does not move very much. This intensifies the claustrophobia of the situation. The camera is frequently up close in this sequence, which also adds to the feeling of claustrophobia. The fact that the film is in the academy ratio make the shots feel even tighter. The compositional style, the closeness of the camera, and the added closeness of the academy ratio contribute to the effect of fate closing in at a place of supposed safety.

In contrast to the closeness of the camera in the arrow sequence from Throne of Blood, the camera is more distant in the castle sequence from Ran. The distance the camera keeps from the chaos in this sequence gives the audience a feeling that the events are being viewed from an unearthly presence as they are happening. There is also the possibility these events have already happened and are being viewed from the present. The fact that the camera, as in Throne of Blood, is mostly static can also give the audience this feeling of events being viewed from Heaven. Another element of the scene that supports this view, which was mentioned in passing earlier, is Kurosawa’s insertion of shots of the heavens between the chaotic images. As Donald Richie recounts in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Kurosawa once said that he viewed Ran as human events viewed from heaven (Richie, 214).

The shots of sunlight coming through the heavens are in contrast with the fog in this scene.  This is another visual technique Kurosawa uses in order to emphasize this theme of chaos. Throne of Blood is in black and white and Ran is in colour but both use the visual technique of fog. Director Sidney Lumet mentions the fact that despite the dark material the film is in fact very colourful (“An appreciation”). Ran itself almost becomes black and white through the use of fog and flushed out colour in this sequence. The fog provides a strong contrast with the colourful nature of the film itself, which emphasizes this idea of chaos as an agent of fate. The fog, like fate, surrounds the characters, ensnares them, and the fog appears once Hidetora has made too many poor decisions. The partial use of fog in Ran is also in contrast with the constant use of fog in Throne of Blood. Ritchie says of Throne of Blood’s visual style:

There is a visual sameness which enforces the visual style. It always rains. There is always fog and wind. The only two scenes where the sun is allowed to shine are, first, at his mansion where Washizu still has a chance, and- second-when he is leading his men, and may still turn back (120).

The constant use of fog in Throne of Blood creates a dark, fatalistic world. The contrast between the constant use of fog and the brief use of sunlight, in contrast to Ran, provides a contrast necessary to suggest the presence of fate in this world.  Also, in a dramatic context, wind and rain are the kind of weather one could associate with chaotic events.

In both these sequences Washizu and Hidetora look out a window and see fate closing in. Washizu sees that “Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane” and Hidetora sees Taro and Jiro out of separate windows. Washizu hides in the corner, similar to the sequence with the ghost of Miki (Akira Kubo). This image of Washizu in the corner is another way Kurosawa emphasizes the claustrophobia of the situation, especially when taken with the idea that the moving forest is the sign of his downfall.  Kurosawa’s compositional style is again demonstrated when these two characters, Washizu and Hidetora, look out of windows. Kurosawa also uses composition in these films to suggest a sense of order. In Throne of Blood a symmetrical visual style is mostly used in the scenes that deal with the non-spiritual world. Kurosawa also uses this visual style in the first scene with the forest spirit (Chieko Naniwa) and in the final sequence. There is something symmetrical to these images of the window and the moving forest. The entire forest seems to move in harmony within a symmetrical shape, which is the window. Kurosawa gives chaos a sense of order, of being an agent of fate. This symmetrical visual style is also found in the castle sequence from Ran. Hidetora looks out both windows and sees a son’s army out of each one. Again, Kurosawa is giving order to chaos. Also, as Buchanan notes, in the sequences from Throne of Blood and Ran Kurosawa gives a sense of order to groups of people.

The bristling, quivering mass of the soldiers parting like a sea to let Hidetora through is almost a signature scene for Kurosawa [...]  In Throne of Blood, when Washizu addresses his massed army near the end of the film, the men shuffle uncomfortably, causing their banners to flutter. Once again it is the tiniest of individual movements that generates the drama of the collective effect- expressive on this occasion of a collective scepticism in the face of their leader’s hollowly triumphalist talk. (84)

The movement of the soldiers in Throne of Blood Ran give a sense of order to these chaotic events. In gives these a soldiers a sense of unity. In Throne of Blood the uncertainty of the soldiers eventually leads to a collective strike against their master. In terms of emphasizing chaos as something ordered these are not both visual and dramatic techniques.

The films use dramatic and thematic techniques to complete the idea of chaos as an agent of fate. This completion of the theme can be supported by discussing why the events in these two scenes are happening. The final scene of Throne of Blood, the arrow sequence, is chaotic yet there is a purpose to why this chaos is happening. Washizu is impaled by arrows because it is a suitable fate for him. He killed his lord and by the end of the film he is killed by his own men. He is also killed because of the moving forest, which is the sign of his downfall. He is too proud to believe what the forest spirit tells him about the forest moving. By the time the forest begins to move it is too late for Washizu to escape his fate. The moving forest is what leads his men to kill him. In a dramatic twist of fate it is not the actual forest which causes his downfall, but the reaction of his men to the moving forest.

In Ran, the besieging of the castle occurs after Hidetora has given up his power to his two treacherous sons, Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Taro (Akira Terao), and after he has shown his frailty towards them. In King Lear, after Lear is humiliated by his daughters Goneril and Reagan, he goes out into the storm. In Ran, the final cause of Hidetora’s madness is in the castle sequence. The reason why this scene is included is that it reflects Hidetora’s past. Kurosawa once said he was troubled by the lack of the past in King Lear:

“What has always troubled me about King Lear is that Shakespeare gives his characters no past. We are plunged directly into the agonies of their present dilemmas without knowing how they came to this point” [...] “How did Lear acquire the power that, as an old man, he abuses with such disastrous effects? Without knowing his past, I’ve never really understood the ferocity of his daughters’ response to Lear’s feeble attempts to shed his royal power. In Ran I’ve tried to give Lear a history. I try to make clear that his power must rest upon a lifetime of bloodthirsty savagery. Forced to confront the consequences of his misdeeds, he is driven mad. But only by confronting his evil head on can he transcend it and begin to struggle again toward virtue.” (Cardullo, 125).

Throughout the film the audience learns that Hidetora was a brutal conqueror.  Lady Kaede’s (Mieko Harada) father and brothers were murdered by Hidetora after she married Taro. Hidetora also killed the family of Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki), Jiro’s wife, and blinded her brother, Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), whom he meets again after the castle sequence. Lady Kaede now resides with Taro in her family castle. In one scene she mentions to him that they are in the same room where her mother took her life. In the castle sequence Hidetora sees his concubines commit suicide, which reminds the audience of Lady Kaede’s mother. This scene is present because in this scene Hidetora sees the same kind of carnage he caused when he was younger. This event must happen in order to show Hidetora the error of his ways and, as Kuorsawa says, move towards virtue.

The theme of chaos as an agent of fate is emphasized by the claustrophobic surroundings of Throne of Blood’s finale and the castle sequence from Ran. The shots of the heavens in Ran give the audience a feeling that these events are being watched by an unearthly presence. This theme is completed by the reasons behind these events. Washizu betrays his master and is too confident that he cannot be defeated. Ultimately, the moving forest, something Washizu cannot think will happen, turns his men against him. Hidetora must see the same type of carnage he unleashed in his younger years, and to work towards being a better man, which is why the castle sequence is so important to that character. Kurosawa was troubled by the lack of the past in King Lear. In Ran he does give Hidetora a past, and by doing so provides an answer, in this context at least, to Lear’s claim that “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning” (III.ii.56-57). Kurosawa says this is not true and by doing so the film seems to speak volumes about King Lear, ones that in the play were hardly spoken.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Why Won't You Talk?: "The Artist"


Warning- Potential Spoilers

Going to see The Artist yesterday, I wasn't sure how I'd react to it. Since it took a while for the film to come to my city, I feel I've been in a tug of war between those that have really responded to it and those who, like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, are kind of a buzz-kill, telling audiences to lower the expectations, "It's okay... I guess" etc.

To put it simply, I liked the film, and it's stayed with me, but it's a little different than what I expected, which is probably why I'm still thinking about it. While going in I knew it was a homage to silent films and the stars of that era, it also has it's own vibe. I wouldn't call it modern. I think it's more of a case of the director, Michel Hazanavicious, who wrote the screenplay, both homaging the silent film era but also bringing in some of his own style. More on that later.

What makes the film sparkle are the two performances at the centre: Jean Dujardin, who plays the silent film star George Valentin and Berenice Bejo, as Peppy Miller, who becomes the hot new star on the scene as sound films become the fad. Both actors are going for a similar style, that of silent film acting, but are also on different ends of the spectrum thematically and physically. Dujardin seems to have walked out of the era. He perfectly captures the charisma and suaveness classic movie stars had. Bejo, on the other hand, doesn't look exactly like a silent film ingenue (hate that word), which some have pointed out as a negative. Personally, I think that's what makes her a great choice. Peppy is supposed to be fresh and different from George. Looking back at the film, George does appear old fashioned when compared to Peppy. 

This is emphasized when George writes, directs and produces his own silent film after "talkies" become the rage. Hardly anyone comes to see it and the movie ends with George's character disappearing in to quicksand, symbolizing the death of his character as well as his career. George wanting to keep making silent films reminded me of Charlie Chaplin fidelity to the silent film art form.

I thought the transition from something more lighted to the melodramatic tragedy of George's downfall was handled very well, probably because the film is never so comedic that the darker elements of the story feel like a complete 360. 

My favourite sequence in the film is when George has a nightmare where sound invades his world. The nightmare ends when a feather hits the ground and it sounds like a cannon just went off. It brings me back to the point I made about the Hazanavicious bringing his own style in to the film. In this sequence, Hazanavicious perfectly captures the fear stars probably had around this time of having to adapt to sound. But while the film captures this fear, it also says it's possible for an actor to adapt to a different style.

The one choice that Hazanavicious makes in the film which I don't think works is his use of Bernard Hermann's score for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. You probably already heard about Kim Novak saying she felt raped when she heard the score used in this film. I feel that may have been too dramatic a reaction but I think it's a little distracting to hear the score during what is the dramatic high point of the film. I don't blame Hazanavicious for loving the score but the music is so firmly attached to Hitchcock's images that it's impossible to separate them. It's the one choice Hazanavicious makes in the film which feels off. I hope he pulls George Lucas and changes it later. But of course Lucas always makes changes you don't want!

I wished the film would have explored more of the grey areas, like George's marriage, Peppy's backstory, George's relationship with Al Zimmer (John Goodman) as well as more of the relationship between silent films and sound. Still, this film has a lot of charm and genuinely moved me. What's interesting about it is that while it has a male protagonist, Peppy becomes the hero of the story. She reaches the top but is still able to help give a man a second chance. The message of The Artist seems to be that every performer deserves and needs a second chance. Despite homaging a past era, this message is very modern... and very moving. 

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Shakespeare on Film: Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "Julius Caesar"

This is a revised version of a review I posted on another blog in the summer of 2010

When one reads a play of Shakespeare, there is usually one defining element that resonates in our consciousnesses. In the case of Julius Caesar, for me it's the theme of distrust and envy of those in power. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1953 film version of Julius Caesar stays true to this theme and communicates it powerfully and precisely. The film is well acted and while it has a modest visual scale, the art and set design (which won an Oscar) immerses us in the world of ancient Rome. The film is a straightforward take on the play yet it never feels dated, rather the film feels quite modern.

One reason for this sense of modernity is the performance of Marlon Brando as Marc Antony. His performance in A Streetcar Named Desire established him as new, more "realistic" actor. Seeing him in that film, I don't think audiences would think Brando, especially with his signature “mumble,” would be well suited to speaking Shakespearean verse; yet Brando  gives what is arguably the best performance in the film. He is naturalistic yet also poetic. I think the oration speech is my favourite scene in the film and the big scene for any actor playing Marc Antony. Brando is skilful in this scene in how he builds upon each repetition of “ambitious” and “honourable men.” He brings genuine emotion, the loss of a friend and disgust at the ones who condone his assassination, into the speech. Even if the movie falls flat for you, this is a scene to admire.

The acting is very strong all around. Similar to Brando’s performance, while the acting is formal, it's not strained.  John Gielgud, who would go on to play Julius Caesar in Stuart Barges’ 1970 film version, is suitably bitter as the envious Cassius. Edmond O’Brien gives the role of Casca some personality, and James Mason, who had one of the best voices in movies, is eloquent as Brutus.

Now, I want to discuss a problem with the genre of the play itself and how it relates to this film. Julius Caesar, if taken as a tragedy, has a case of "whose tragedy is it anyway?" Brutus can be seen as the tragic hero of Julius Caesar.  At the same he seems a more modestly drawn character compared to Hamlet or Othello. He does not dominate the play like those characters, which makes his death less powerful than Hamlet or Othello. If Julius Caesar is taken as a political/historical play, then this isn't such a drawback. I think this film version of Julius Caesar is a historical/political tale. It puts focus on the ensemble rather than trying to be Brutus centric.

Another problem I have with the play, and this film version as well, is how the female characters are given little to do. I wished this film would have given us a visual aftermath of Caesar’s death in regard to Calpurnia, or Portia’s suicide. Two smaller visual quibbles I had: Cassius’ speech at the end of Act One, Scene Two is shot in close-up and pulls back as Cassius walks towards Caesar's statue. I would have just kept the camera on Cassius for the duration of the speech. I also did not like the way Caesar’s ghost was done. It is done as a special effect. I think just having Louis Calhern walk in to the tent would be creepier, more surreal.

I left out Calhern’s performance earlier, which I shouldn’t have. He is majestic as Caesar, able to convey the humanity of Caesar, which is important to the moral and political complexities of the play and the film.

As a performance piece. Mankiewicz was a very actor focused director, which shows in films like All About Eve and this film. Visually, as I mentioned, he is modest; yet this film never feels stagey. Rather, Mankiewicz knows how to move the story and the action forward and for Shakespeare this is absolutely essential.