Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Film Class Journals for 09/09-10/17

I've decided to put up these journals that I have to write for my film class, for no real reason but to have something on this blog during this incredibly busy semester. I have a major project in one of my English classes that concludes with a 30 minute panel during mid-November. Once that is over I plan to start writing on here a little more frequently. For now I've got these journals, which are very casual and slight, generally written in a mad hurry before being due in class each Thursday night. But at least it's something. 

Thomas Lowery-Journal for Sept. 12th: Psycho

Entry 1: I’ve seen Psycho a few times now, and I was struck by a couple of things this time around: obviously the plot twists are already known, and yet it did what few horror films can do, namely it still provided a sense of fear, dread, unease. That said, the shower scene is not quite as effective anymore, at least subjectively. Because the shock value of the scene is gone, maybe the most frightening image to me now is the way Norman simply rushes almost mechanically out of the bathroom once the killing is done. Rarely does a cinematic murder feature the killer rush away from the scene like that. It truly felt like a process, and was all the more terrifying for being so. Because of my familiarity with the scene, I also found myself just looking at each individual shot once Crane turns on the shower. The structure of the scene, the use of cutting, is sensational. As far as fear goes, I think the most terrifying moment in the movie is actually when the PI goes into the house and is murdered. I feel that scene always gets a bit overshadowed by the shower murder, but it’s just as incredible to me. The combination of the audience already on edge (compared to the shower scene, when, assuming they haven’t seen the movie before, are relatively calm) and the overhead camera shot, make it the real scare of the film, at least in my mind.
Entry 2: One thing that’s amazing about Psycho is how well the film plays despite the jarring moment when the protagonist is killed off early. Essentially what could have been a stellar morality melodrama becomes a horror film. The transition is brilliant, and perhaps the reason it works so well is precisely because Crane is killed so early. The viewer seems to be invested in the details of her dilemma, but perhaps not too deeply in the emotions she is feeling simply because that would take more time. Hitchcock’s leap into horror territory works very smoothly in part because the emotion of fear is instantaneous. After the shower scene, the viewer is filled with emotion, only a different kind, and is thus incredibly invested. Psycho never really has any problems with pacing. It sticks to its horror agenda once Crane is killed, and doesn’t hit any road stops. This time around I noticed this great pacing especially, yet I also saw something that suddenly seemed problematic, namely when the psychiatrist offers his lengthy explanation at the story’s end. I can’t help but think the movie would have been better had this scene been cut out. First of all, it messes with the film’s impeccable pacing and structure. More problematic is that it provides too much closure. Norman is no longer a mystery. Yet if Hitchcock had left out this scene, while Norman’s exact psychological state would have still been somewhat unclear, there would still be enough evidence to suggest that he had taken on his mother’s persona. In fact, the final scene of Norman in the jail cell would have told the viewer that his mother was inside him. The precise psychology wouldn’t be exactly straight, but there would be enough there to piece together the puzzle. Reading Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and the influence Ed Gein had on the creation of Norman made me wonder if that scene was there as a way to assure people that we understand, to an extent, psychotic minds, that whatever destruction they cause, we still have some sort of power over them because we can point out the problem. 

Thomas Lowery, Journal for September 18th, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Entry one: One thing I especially noticed this time around was the unusual framing of the images in the first five minutes or so. First we get images through the trees, which in and of themselves are very strange and aesthetically pleasing (the black and white visual scheme reminded me a bit of some of the forest scenes in Rashomon). Then once we see the preparations of the hanging, the camera is all over the place, generally to enhance the details of the scene (as when we get the low shot looking up at the soldier preparing the noose, which serves the purpose of giving the soldier a sense of power and takes us right in on a specific detail of the hanging process). I had remembered something strange about the music during that end scene, and as it was approaching I tried to remember, but I couldn’t. Once the guitar strums sounded, I still couldn’t pinpoint anything, yet because it was on my mind I actually noticed the disruptive fourth beat and then suddenly recalled that that was what I had been looking for. It was just interesting to see how it came back not because I remembered it, but because I had learned it and simply hearing it again signaled the recollection.
Entry two: I feel the idea of narrative desire works best with this movie during the first viewing-at least insofar as emotion is concerned. Once one knows the outcome, the film changes because while we would love to see the protagonist escape, we are already aware of his fate. There is no emotion attached to the desire. Instead, the viewer becomes a distant watcher, scrutinizing the film and analyzing the images and their meaning. And that’s the fun of the movie because it is filled with so many interesting technical aspects and images that the experience, while altered from the initial viewing, holds up. It’s a different experience, but no less fulfilling. One aspect that’s especially interesting is the film’s use of sound, relating both to the diverse soundtrack and the exquisite sound design. Concerning the latter, one notices the emphasis on sound most during the opening moments on the bridge as the prisoner prepares for death. As if there in person, we can hear the sound of rope being tightened, we can hear the sound of his pocket watch. The attention to sound though might not be so much to bring us closer to the world of the film (that would be for a movie primarily concerned with realism, which this movie is not) but rather to emphasize the prisoner’s psychological state. We hear these sounds so vividly because he does, because he knows he is about to die and thus everything is magnified, precious. And then there is the soundtrack, which is largely mood-based. When the prisoner first escapes, we hear a song play that embraces the desire to live. The music is slow and soothing, reflecting the relief that the viewer feels that the prisoner has escaped. And yet it is one of the first hints that something isn’t right: if a song were to play reflecting the prisoner’s euphoria over escaping, it seems it would not be slow and soothing, but fast and invigorating (relating not just to the joy of being alive but the adrenaline gained from almost dying). The same thing can be said for the guitar piece that plays when the man and woman seem to be uniting at the end. The music would work if they had been separated for years and he was returning, but as it is it’s too dreamlike and lyrical to reflect reality. The scene suggests a sense of wonder and awe, whereas in reality the mood would be one of shock and relief. 

Thomas Lowery/Film Journal for 26 September/8 ½

Entry One: What struck my as slightly ironic while watching 8 ½ is that it’s a movie about a director, based off Fellini, who is struggling with inspiration, and yet the movie itself seems to have an abundance of creativity. The movie has as much energy at its opening as most films hope to have by their end. I’m not sure how many intellectual ideas the film has, and I’m also not sure that it even needs them. This seems to be a movie about a state of mind, and the way to capture someone’s inner world on screen is through visual invention. As much as I love the movie, it also is an exhausting experience, simply because Fellini’s visual realm doesn’t let up. When Guido says at the end that life is a celebration, I immediately felt that that’s sort of what this movie is. A celebration of cinema’s grand capabilities. And again, it’s greatness ultimately seems to be in its ironies. It celebrates cinema but it hones in on an individual who, at this particular time, doesn’t know how to make a movie. The fact that Guido is lost on how to bring his ideas to life also raises the important point that just because cinema has these capabilities, they are still simply potentials, not absolutes. An idea and the realization of these ideas on screen are not the same. In any event, I got the feeling that as much as this celebrates film, it also presents it as a truly challenging medium: from Guido’s perspective, you realize how hard it is to make a film, and from Fellini’s perspective, you see simply get overwhelmed at how he managed to create this.
Entry Two: It seems that when dealing with 8 ½ the most difficult aspect to reconcile is what is happening visually. In the BFI text, Miller alludes to this on p. 74: “Any argument about 8 ½ ran the constant risk of being swamped by an incomparable visual spectacle that remained fascinating, seductive, ominous—unknown.” The film cannot be fully explained through its technical virtuosity precisely because its chaotic style mirrors Guido’s chaotic (or at least, lost, confused) mind. This seems to be a pretty good response to another point Miller makes at the beginning of the text, namely what Fellini’s film says about auteur theory. Miller notes that the movie took the theory to another level. Not only did it succeed in bearing a distinct visual mark, but it brought the author into the production itself. In How to Read a Film, James Monaco describes the theory as “a statement by another human being” (463). In other words, a film was not just an objective story, but something personal, something related to director. That said, I don’t think the fathers of the theory saw Fellini taking it to such an extreme level. After all, Monaco did not say “a statement by and about another human being.” And as far as the visual aspect of the film went, an auteur could have a visual stamp, yet it seems that Fellini’s flamboyance exceeds this notion. Miller points out that a common reaction to the film is that Fellini is merely a narcissist. When Antonioni displayed the post-modern narcissism and boredom of his characters in La’Aventura, he seemed to be breaking ground as far as what a movie could do and how it could be told. But it seems positively tame compared to 8 ½ . The question then is whether Fellini is crossing the line of auteur theory, whether he is making a legitimate work or merely screaming to the audience to notice that he’s really made a film. Ultimately it seems that he is justified because he is making a picture that, while showy, is also blunt about its subject. Movies are hard, it says. And if it really is narcissistic, then why does Gudio appear so worn and tired when we finally get a close up of his face? (as opposed to the typical delayed first glimpse of the classic Hollywood male’s face, which is usually striking and handsome).

Thomas Lowery/Film Journal for October 10/A Decade Under the Influence

Entry One: This was really enjoyable/insightful. One of the things that immediately struck me about it was first, how young all of these filmmakers were back in the 70s, and second, that they were pretty much the equivalent of the young Independent filmmakers today. And yet what’s amazing is that while most films by the independent directors today get the Art House label, back in the seventies this was the cinema. There wasn’t much else out there. It wasn’t an incredibly lucrative industry yet, so essentially a director could get away with making anything. It was also cool to realize how close knit these filmmakers were to one another. It was essentially a group of friends who were running the American film industry. It seemed like Robert Towne was showing up at everything back then. And the cool thing is that these movies made money. It was great to hear Monte Hellman say that Two Lane Blacktop would never have been given the green light had it not been for the box office success of Easy Rider. Also loved to see how much of this 70s film scene came out of Roger Corman and his production company, and yet they all ended up making movies that were far deeper and more profound than anything he ever made. While the end of the movie acknowledged that there were plenty of great films and filmmakers that were excluded, I did find it somewhat admirable that at the expense of those neglected titles, it did focus on some lesser-known films of the era, movies, such as The Panic in Needle Park, and Targets.

Entry Two: As we’ve talked about Psycho being the foundation for this course, I felt that A Decade Under the Influence brought some shape to that meaning. It was fascinating to see the inner-workings of the American film scene in the 1970s, but almost just as interesting is to think about how such a unique time in film came to be. While it didn’t spend too much time talking about the major influences of the dominant figures during the decade, I found the sequence that focused on the influence European cinema to be pretty great. It seems as if European film served two central purposes in affecting the American film scene: first, it inspired a stylistic method in which a movie’s structure did not have to follow a set template. Thinking about a film like Who’s That Knocking at my Door suddenly makes a lot more sense in light of the spread of the Europeans’ (particularly the French) style. And secondly, as James Monaco points out, it had a practical effect: “Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, and the others had demonstrated that it was possible to make films inexpensively, whether directed toward a commercial audience or toward a minority audience” (p. 371). The bit about making a cheap film for a commercial audience is especially interesting, and watching the documentary one gathers that filmgoers flocked towards movies that today would find a home strictly in art house theatres. I suppose the irony is that the shift was due to Jaws and Star Wars, two excellent movies that nevertheless put an abrupt end to what was a pretty special time for American cinema. Getting back to the point about Psycho, I found it pretty interesting to consider that the documentary stressed the freedom of content during the seventies, and yet watching Hitchcock’s film you see that liberties already beginning to take place, and as Amy Taubin points out in the BFI text, by the time the 70s arrived, 60s films like The Wild Bunch and The Graduate ensured a limited censorship.

Thomas Lowery/Film Journal for October 10th/Visions of Light

Entry One: Because this documentary, unlike A Decade Under the Influence, deals with no particular time frame, I ended up with a greater sense of the connecting links that the cinema has from its birth to the present day. What I found particularly striking was how Visions of Light captured the way in which cinematographers have always used light and interesting camera techniques. Haskell Wexler seemed to be pretty innovative in the sixties, and yet even he mentions that Gance’s Napoleon used the same kind of liberated camera methods. I also found it interesting that back in the early days of film, the cinematographer was arguably more inventive than later on because he was forced to actually design cameras for different effects, create dollies, swing cameras from ropes, etc… It was intriguing also that during the silent era the case could be made that cinematographers were at their peak because without sound the cinema was more pure, and because they had freedom of space that the early days of sound did not. And yet there is no question that cinematographers did develop in major ways from the time of Citizen Kane and into the 70s. Overall, this was a great documentary not just because it educated but because anyone who sees it won’t watch movies afterwards without considering the image, the light, and their impact on the story and characters. 
Entry Two: After seeing Visions of Light, I suppose one must consider then not only the possibilities of light and cinematography, but the way in which they are used. That is to say, what exactly is the function of cinematography, and how should a director and his cinematographer attempt to use it? There seems to be two broad answers to this question: first, the images should be objective, unobtrusive recordings of action so that the viewer does not get distracted by what the camera is doing and can thus focus entirely on the story. The second is that the camera can, in a way, speak. The nature of the composition can alter our perception of what we are seeing or contain representations of the story’s thematic elements. Reading through Monaco’s book, it’s interesting to find different theories on this subject. In the section on Mise-en-Scene, he talks about famous film theorist Andre Bazin, who was convinced that cinema’s function was the capture true reality rather than manipulate the viewer through editing (as the Soviets were prone to do with their theory of Montage, p. 454). Thus, Bazin found neo-realism to be wonderful, whereas I imagine he would have found something like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge to be a pretty cheap trick. In Visions of Light, there was a section on Gregg Toland and his creation and use of deep focus photography. (esp. in Citizen Kane). This seems to be the opposite of Montage Theory, as it allows a scene to play out with multiple characters and minimal cutting. It seems as if this is what Bazin would have promoted. And yet there is also something very appealing about using lots of images and interesting lighting and substantial cutting. While there is certainly a craft to more static compositions, it seems as if there is something to be said about obtrusive yet inventive cinematography. Scorsese seems to be a good example of this. His camera is full of energy, and yet there’s a deep craft to the way he sets up his tracking shots and even more ambitious tricks like his famous dolly zoom that was shown in Visions of Light. Both theories ultimately hold up as long as there is a reason for them and they can be defended by the filmmakers. 

Thomas Lowery/Film Journal for October 17th/2001: A Space Odyssey

Entry One: I hadn’t seen 2001 in years and had actually been planning to see it again all year, so I was thrilled to see it was included in this class. First of all, as a visual experience I found it to be amazing, regardless of the fact that it came out in ’68. It definitely helped that it was shown on blu ray, even if the screen was smaller. But to be honest, having a clear, slightly smaller image might actually be better than a full image on which the shadows of the auditorium ceiling could be seen. Partly because it was talked about it class, I think the most impressive images might have been of the matted space crafts in which actual people could be seen through the windows. That being said, just about everything impressed from a visual standpoint, from the scenes of space, to the tightly choreographed sequences inside the crafts, to the colorful special effects display during the final segment. 

Entry Two: In dealing with 2001, while the visuals are astounding, what’s most interesting still seems to be determining what the film itself means. In part this is because it an extraordinarily ambitious story, and also because of how careful it is about revealing information. One really has to piece the film together by its images. One of the greatest areas of interest seems to be the monolith. In the BFI text, Peter Kramer notes that these monoliths seem to signal developments in man. Just after the apes encounter one, they learn about violence and weapons and how they vital purposes. When we next see a monolith, it is in space during the first mission. Kramer notes that the result is less spelled out this time. The only immediate result is that there is a piercing sound. However, there is definitely no violence, indicating that man has matured and advanced to a state of discourse rather than warfare. The piercing sound is ambiguous, yet it does indicate that there is going to be a change, that man will still advance. It seems to me that the change is again what man creates, only this time rather than being a weapon, it is something created through the intellect. As seen in the next mission, this clearly would be the computer HAL. We see in HAL’s inconsistencies that man, even at this developed stage, still creates objects that are ultimately destructive. As the apes were able to use the weapon to gain food, it also led to strife and bloodshed. Kramer seems to suggest that the result of man’s creation this time around is isolation. Not only does the computer serve as a replacement for a person, but it literally isolates Bowman by killing the fellow astronauts. This theme of isolation is further developed in the sequence in which Bowman reaches the house and finds himself to be all alone, which, as Kramer notes, is completely the opposite of the man’s beginning when he was very communal. And yet there is a third monolith, meaning that man’s development is not complete. The result this time around is, of course, the Star-Child, which seems to signify a New Man, though its purpose and function remain ambiguous. This ambiguity is important because as intellectual as Kubrick’s film is, it’s also about the sheer wonder and mysteries of the universe. By using ambiguity, Kubrick is humbling himself and acknowledging that he really has no idea what the Star-Child is. He is merely musing at the possibility of another stage based off of the previous ones encountered.  

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