Tag Archives: film

Mean Streets (1973) & Hugo (2011)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast:

Mean Streets: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson

Hugo: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Invention of Martin Scorsese & the Invention of Hugo Cabret

In 1973, Martin Scorsese arrived on the New Hollywood train and opened up new tracks for himself, his contemporary peers, and the aspiring film-makers to follow. With Mean Streets (not his first feature length film), all the hallmarks of Mr. Scorsese’s craft and visual narrative-style are on display and in development. For me, however, the most notable of these traits is not the slow-motion tracking shots, not the inspried pop-rock soundtrack song selection, not the collaboration with Robert De Niro; it is instead his ability to present deeply personal films with such inviting sincerity as to make the characters and themes accessible to a range of viewers. Sure, there’s low-level gangsters and ejaculations of violence (by men against men and against women) and Catholic guilt and Sicilian modes of family dynamics, and I’ve never had to deal with any of those things. On the other hand, I’ve felt the muddy mixture of ambition and weakness that plagues Charlie; I’ve known people not as self-destructive as Johnny Boy but certainly with those tendencies; I’ve fallen for the wrong girl at the wrong moment. I can find my experience inside Mr. Scorcese’s Mean Streets just as clearly as he can find his in the characters of Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Teresa. The same is true of Hugo, so why didn’t I connect to it? Why didn’t I love it?

Hugo  is personal for Mr. Scorsese in an academic or intellectual way rather than in the visceral way of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver (1976),  Raging Bull (1980), and The King of Comedy (1983). There are some similarities thematically to most of his work: search for redemption, the boundaries of small communities, family and honour, but the over-arching theme of this film is much more self-referential. It is so not to Mr. Scorsese himself, but to the milieu he had a hand in transforming, the world of film. The power of cinema on both an individual and a culture, the art of film-making, the preservation of film, the wonder and child-like adventure associated with the craft and experience, the debilitating struggles of financing and fickle audiences, all of these are apparent in this movie. Film is so important here that the film academy library is housed in a building that appears are grandiose and large as the Paris train station where Hugo lives. The difference is that the library is full of light (and knowledge) it is silent and a place of serious study while the train station is a place of toil and threat for Hugo.

I wanted to love Hugo, but as beautifully crafted as it is, it feels like a clockwork invention or a wind-up movie. I’m sure this was most definitely deliberate: the tightening of the book’s narrative (such as, cutting out the character of Etienne, softening Hugo character, playing up the part of the Station Inspector), the intricacy and depth of 3D composition, and the family-friendly redemption and healing for all at the end certainly point to this conclusion. I hope Mr. Scorsese continues to make deeply personal films, but I also hope they are about life and people rather than work and hobbies.

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Overdose: Orson Welles, Part One ~ Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941)

A Note on Overdoses:

The idea is a blatant theft of the Filmspotting podcast’s Marathons. Every once in a while I will either gorge myself on or shame myself into (usually) a director’s work that I love or want to love. I thought the first Overdose was going to by Jean-Luc Godard (as it states on the Coming Attractions) page. However, while I did watch four Godard films over my winter break in January, I still have three more on my list to watch. And so, the honour of being the subject of my very first Overdose goes to the man who may just be responsible for the existence of the American Auteur and whose work is the greatest influence on many of my favourite films and film-makers: Orson Welles.

Not by coincidence, the class I am teaching this semester is opening our screenings with Welles’s first two films. I had seen Citizen Kane many years ago, but The Magnificent Ambersons is new to me. The whole experience (from discussing the basics of shot making and cinematography to watching the films) thus far has been thrilling. I am so glad that students approached me to open this course and grateful to the students preceding them that inspired me to strive for more. I’m also very lucky that I work at a high school that has a curriculum flexible enough to allow students to request courses that meet their own academic interests.

Now, on to Citizen Kane

It is perhaps difficult to appreciate Citizen Kane without paying attention to its mastery and innovation of film craft. That’s not to say that the narrative isn’t compelling; it is, and full of wonderful performances (Welles himself is charismatic, bombastic, blustery, commands the attention fitting to a character as large as Kane; Dorothy Comingmore is pitch-perfect as the increasingly hysterical Susan Alexander Kane; and Agnes Moorehead, as Kane’s mother, has only one scene (but what a scene!) in which to deliver to the audience her conflicted nature that is as icy as the weather beyond to window of the Kane ancestral shack). When you pause to consider the interaction between this narrative, the deep focus photography, the low-key cinematography, the sound, and the use of both long takes and montage, the true pleasures of the film are unfurled. There is far, far too much to be written about this film in a single blog post, so I will save myself and focus on what occupies my mind at this time: realism in narrative.

The narrative is told not in a straightforward, chronologically sequenced manner. This may not be such a big deal to audiences today with their familiarity with such looping and unreliable narratives as Memento(dir. Christopher Nolan, 2000) and Pulp Fiction (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1994), but I’m going to guess it was pretty ground-breaking in 1941. The difference, of course, is one of time, but not just of time; it is a difference of purpose or philosophy. Whereas, Pulp Fiction to a great extent  is a postmodern pastiche of winking self-awareness, Citizen Kane is a piece of modern direction in which the camera informs the narrative voice as much (if not more so) than the characters actions and words. Starting with it omniscient opening sequence of shots and then shifting from character narrator to character narrator, backwards and forwards through time, never giving the viewer anything other than one kind of or one person’s truth until the very end. Even then when we retreat out of Xanadu, borne away by Welles’s camera at a god-like perspective, we are given no real resolution. We have the identity of Rosebud, we have the fractured pieces of Kane’s life as told by the fractured parties who dealt with him, but we are also given the ambiguity of the film’s penultimate lines:

Female reporter: If you could’ve found out what Rosebud meant, I bet that would’ve explained everything. 

Thompson: No, I don’t think so; no. Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything… I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a… piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece.

And, it’s final words: “No Trespassing”.

Put together, the dialogue, the final frames, and the camera perspective provide a perfect example of Chekhovian irresolution. There are no answers here; Welles has aksed the questions and left us to contemplate and provide our own conclusions.

In Overdose: Orson Welles, Part 2The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil.

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A Return to School

This past week has seen the start of a new school year, and while it’s an unwelcome end to vacation time, I always look forward to reconnecting with students as they move up a grade and welcoming new students to my classroom. This year I’ve changed my non-credit film discussions classes to a more formalized credit project studies course called “Elements of Film”. I’ll be leading two groups of students (one in grade 11 and the other in grade 12) through a basic introduction to aspects of cinema in discussion-based seminars with the goal of each student producing a quality piece of film criticism at the end of the semester in June.

Here is the basic outline of the course:

A: Elements of Film Production

  • composition & cinematography
  • editing
  • performance
  • design & sound

B: Elements of Film Authorship

  • writing
  • directing

C: Elements of Film Criticism

  • realism
  • auteur theory
  • other perspectives — genre, psychoanalytic, cognitive, gender, gay

SCREENINGS

Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, dir. Orson Welles)

The 400 Blows (1959), Jules et Jim (1962, dir. François Truffaut)

A Hard Day’s Night (1964, dir. Richard Lester)

The Graduate (1968, dir. Mike Nichols)

Harold and Maude (1971, dir. Hal Ashby)

Mean Streets (1973), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990,  dir. Martin Scorsese)

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Certified Copy (2010) (2011)

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Cast: Juliette Binoche, William Shimell

If you have not seen Certified Copy, then you should immediately stop reading and see the film, and then you should come back and read my thoughts. I really knew very little about this film and do not want to take away the rewards received from it by anyone watching it for the first time. Needless to say, I think it’s marvellous, and I would  encourage anyone and everyone to see it.

The Art (or Forgery) of Marriage & the Art (or Forgery) of Europe

Certified Copy is the type of film that invites you to think rather than makes you think. It’s not because the film is full of big ideas, but it is because the film doesn’t explain itself. In fact, if it did try to explain itself and let the viewer explicitly in to what the characters and/or the filmmaker know, then it wouldn’t work nearly so well. At best it would end up like good M. Night Shyamalan; at worst it would end up like bad M. Night Shyamalan. I’m not suggesting that there is anything supernatural about the events depicted in this film (there absolutely isn’t), but there is something unearthly about the quality of this film. And so, I will attempt to explain the unexplainable and, in doing so, probably destroy the magic of this movie.

Central to the scenario is the relationship between the two leads, Juliette Binoche as the unnamed woman and English opera singer William Shimell as James Miller. This relationship can be summed up in two simple sentences and yet be unfathomable:

They are strangers. They are married.

Of course, these are not exclusive of each other. I’m coming up on eight years of marriage (a drop in the bucket for some, but a lot longer than many), and while I certainly wouldn’t describe my beautiful wife as a stranger, I also wouldn’t be arrogant enough to say that I know her completely and fully (and I think she would say the same about me). If the lead characters in Certified Copy are married (and I have no idea whether or not they are), then the notion of the individual and her/his existence within the environment of marriage is something the film is exploring. Do lives become more individual as marriage elongates?  Do we find excuses in work or the relationships with our children to justify a desire to retain our individuality just as money and child-rearing entangle us with tendrils of practicality and responsibility and love? Is the  nature of love (or a certain type of love) to be simultaneously estranged and intimate, to be hostile and forgiving? These questions and more are brought out not initially in the film, but after one absolutely brilliant scene: in the café where Juliette Bincohe’s character confesses or schemes or employs the ruse of her marriage. The owner of the café sees the couple in one way; it is a perspective we have not yet thought of. To her there is no doubt that they are married, yet for the audience it is the planting of the seeds of doubt since before this point we had accepted them as strangers. For the rest of the film we are not distracted by this question. For the rest of the film our attention becomes heightened to their relationship, and we have our ears pricked to pick out clues to satisfy our curiosity. It’s not a puzzle or a game; it’s a key idea of the movie.

So, are they married?

Their intimacy, Miller’s fluency in French, their shared memories of the night before and her drives from Florence (I think) to Rome all point to them, in fact, being married. There are subtler clues also, such as how Kiarostami brings us into intimacy with these characters as they begin their drive to the village. He starts the camera deliberately outside the car, shooting through the windscreen and then slowly, almost imperceptibly brings us into the car, into their relationship as it becomes more personal and less of a conversation between strangers and about art, but about marriage.

At least equally, however, there is evidence the other way: that this is all a fake and they are not married at all. Miller’s complete lack of memory of the village upon their arrival and the personal landmarks within the village (such as where they spent their wedding night). Also, the son at the beginning of the film displays neither recognition of nor interest in Miller. Does it matter whether or not these characters are married? To me, it does not, and if it does to you, then Certified Copy will leave you frustrated. What seems to matter is the attention placed on their relationship and the tension between the real and the unreal, the original and the forgery, and, in terms of art according to the James Miller character, the value intrinsic to both forms.

Now, briefly on to the other matter this film raised for me… Europe.

Let me qualify this by saying that I don’t think Certified Copy is an overtly political film. But, in these days of the questioning of the legitimacy and the existence of Europe, I think the politics are present with the question of what it means to be part of Europe.

Technically, I am a European… I was born in England. Of course, the UK is not really part of Europe, so for that reason I don’t count myself as European and I grew up in Canada, so that disqualifies me also, and I’ve lived a huge chunk of my adult life in Asia, so I’m disqualified again. So, definitely, I’m not European. Certified Copy, on the other hand, is European; French financed, French star, English leading man, Italian location, and directed by an Iranian. Yes, this is the new Europe, the 21st century Europe.

On one hand this plays into the clear theme of the film: the tension between the real/original and the fake/copy. Who can be a European? An Englishman? An Iranian? The European Union is politically experimental, but based somewhat on the model of the United States of America. How original is it? More than politically or economically, Europe is about culture and why, with its dealings with art and art criticism, I feel comfortable talking about Certified Copy as a statement on Europe even though it excludes the Germans. Clearly my thoughts on this topic are still embryonic and I’m not entirely convinced within myself that there’s anything more to them than just an inclination on my part to have them. But, as Juliette Binoche and William Shimell’s characters were arguing in the restaurant in the final act of the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if on some level this film was a statement on the moment of European existential crisis.

If it is or if it isn’t, it makes no difference. Certified Copy is a magnificent, thoroughly enjoyable film. Bravo.

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The Interrupters (2011)

Director: Steve James

Cast: Eddie Bocanegra, Tio Hardiman, Ameena Matthews, Gary Slutkin, Ricardo “Cobe” Williams

Apathy & Empathy

The Interrupters  is the latest documentary feature from Steve James, the celebrated director of Hoop Dreams (1994), which, I am embarrassed and ashamed to admit, I have never seen. The Interrupters highlights the work done by CeaseFire in Chicago and its dedicated violence interrupters as they attempt to mediate peace between individuals and within individuals on the streets and in the neighbourhoods of some of America’s most violence-blighted places. From a rhetorical perspective, the film posits that violence is a disease and, as such, that it is infectious, viral, and communicated in a hereditary manner. Being surrounded by violence creates acceptance of violent behaviour, witnessing violence instigates new violence. being a victim of violence spawns retaliatory responses, and having a violent parent creates offspring prone to violence. The interrupters of CeaseFire step in as social/community antibiotics  or antibodies and, by their own admission, are not trying to solve the root causes of violence in these Chicago neighbourhoods (poverty, education, political disenfranchisement), but the major symptom these factors lead to: violence on the street as it is happening.

The Interrupters is a movie full of emotions; anger, guilt, and regret are the most prevalent for the subjects of the film. For me, there is sadness here, too, and it is derived from my own reflection on this movie rather than the states of the lives depicted within it. Statistics presented in the film, such as more Americans being killed in these neighbourhoods than in the Iraq War, are sad, but sadder still is that it doesn’t shock me; it doesn’t even surprise me. My own apathy to the plight of urban America is also sad. I could excuse myself by stating that Englewood is so far away from me here in Korea and my white middle-class liberal upbringing and lifestyle. It is far away and far outside my experience and it doesn’t touch my daily life.  Could it be that I just don’t care?

Is this movie even asking me to care? I don’t think that it is. It doesn’t feel like a call for action from the intended audience as it is not an overtly political film. But, with its direct cinema style, it strives to present a truth by being in the situation. The film is successful in creating empathy for how these kids, mostly, see themselves and their futures whether it be at a funeral or from a little girl crying in a classroom or a troubled teen receiving a manicure at an up-scale suburban shopping mall. Indeed these most moving and powerful episodes in the film work precisely because the camera is there just as the Interrupters need to be there when violence erupts. The personalities in the film (notably Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie) are strong and wilful. They seem to be the best Interrupters not just because they can relate to the gang and violence stricken youth having come from these neighbourhoods and culture and having spent time in prison, but because they made the hard choice to activate their knowledge and experience to help. They didn’t “get out” of this culture, instead they are seeking to have the culture view itself in another way. The individuals Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie most closely interact with in the movie are being asked to make that choice, too. Mr. James and his documentary don’t offer up any greater answer than this: be there and choose. Or, as Spike Lee so magnificently demanded, do the right thing.  The film shows, in the complement of content and style, that individual actions make a difference to individual lives and if these actions are positive then instead of a cancer you have a regeneration of self, community, and society.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) ~ Part Two

Lisbeth & Victimization

Like most members of this film’s audience, I found the character of Lisbeth to be the most interesting aspect of the film. I don’t want to get into a debate as to which actor’s portrayal of this fierce creature is better. Both Rooney Mara in Fincher’s film and Noomi Rapace in the 2009 Swedish adaptation are excellent and both performances reveal Lisbeth in a unique light. I was thoroughly interested in this character in both films and found both actors to be fabulous. Ms. Mara’s take is admittedly softer than Ms. Rapace’s; this allows for the motivation for her actions in the film’s coda (which is much longer in Fincher’s version than in the Swedish version) to be understandable. I got the sense that Lisbeth was acting out not from her sense of right and wrong, but from her feelings for Blomkvist and it shows the lengths to which her loyalty stretch. The very ending of the film, however, collapses the newly emerged structure of security which she has built from her feelings for Blomkvist and Lisbeth is left, once again, betrayed, taken advantage of, and abandoned by an adult male/pseudo-father figure.

Lisbeth is capable, resourceful, technologically hyper-proficient, physical, and she expresses violence (all predominantly male traits). Lisbeth is also a victim, and as such, she engenders our sympathy. At the surface, Lisbeth is familiar, a bad-ass female hacker/assassin – see, Nikita in La Femme Nikita (1990), Mathilda in Leon (1994), Trinity in The Matrix (1999), The Bride in Kill Bill (2003), or, more recently, Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass (2010) and Hanna in Hanna (2011) — and yet she feels rare. Perhaps it is because of this rarity that I feel that the character (not the person who embodies the character) should be nurtured away from narrative victimization. That is, I don’t want this character to be trapped in the narrative desire of making women beholden to men, and I resisted all the moments and devices in this film that put Lisbeth in that box. My main problem is with the relationship between Lisbeth and Blomkvist. As partners (colleagues) their relationship is formidable; as friends, I see the trust and acknowledgement and equality. As lovers, however, things fall apart for me. My concern certainly doesn’t come from the idea of Lisbeth seducing Blomkvist and using him physically. Her motivation is, to my mind, perfectly valid. What I have to question is first the authorial motivation and then how Fincher’s film ensnares Lisbeth in a scenario in which, having gained trust and companionship, she is once again victimized. It’s not a stretch to suggest that the Blomkvist character is partially a stand in for the male author, and subsequently the male reader or viewer. If so, then the character of Lisbeth has no choice; she becomes victim of the desire to express the appeal of her character sexually. Once subjugated to the fantasy she is then, at the end, victimized by Blomkvist’s abandonment of her as companion, sex partner, lover, and colleague. This abandonment is not in the Swedish film adaptation (though it is apparently in the novel).

The passivity of the viewer is mirrored in Fincher’s film by Blomkvist’s disinterestedness in sex. The first mention of his sexual nature comes from Lisbeth when giving the briefing on her investigation of him in which she offers the conjecture of him being a distant or uncaring lover (not enough oral sex, in her opinion) in the sexual relationship with his publishing partner at Millennium (Robin Wright’s character). Later in the film when this character shows up at Blomkvist’s cottage on the Vanger estate, Blomkvist is practically ordered to provide sexual services; he is passive and indifferent towards sex. Again, later in the film, while Lisbeth is having sex with Blomkvist, he is so disengaged that she must order him to stop reading and speaking so that she can climax. On one level this is to enable Lisbeth as the sexual aggressor (I might be wrong, but she does come across as more forward toward the girl she sleeps with from the club, though that encounter is more equal with this character offering to remain as a protective presence when Blomkvist shows up unexpectedly the next morning), but it could also show Lisbeth as needy. In the just mentioned scene, Lisbeth is seemingly in control (she’s on top, her orgasm is of primary importance), but Blomkvist is so impassive that once she rolls off him he just continues with his reading and his vocal thought… who’s in control? In each scene of sex, it is Lisbeth who is depicted as naked, in need, and vulnerable. This works as a reflection of her vulnerability in the rape scene, which is shot with close-up similar to sex scenes later with Blomkvist, and it works as the female lead character pandering to the screen fantasy of female nudity, even if frontal, below the waist nudity is a rarity in mainstream American cinema.

There is certainly a lot going on with the character of Lisbeth Salander in both films of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There is too much to gather from a single viewing of each film and my thoughts will become more coherent as the films I process and reflect on them in the weeks and months to come, but it seems clear to me, as always, not to take any film at just the surface level. A film that intends to be about the violent victimization of women should be able to bear such scrutiny. Having seen all of Fincher’s films, I trust that he has made deliberate and purposeful choices in his depiction of Lisbeth.

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