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Shameless Self-Promotion June 16, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in Uncategorized.
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My article on the absence of Jews within Hitchcock’s WWII films was released today on PopMatters.  Link is below:



A Subjective List of Books about Film May 5, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in Film.
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Last week, Jessica Barnes on Cinematical posted a query asking readers about their favorite books about film.  Instead of posting in the comments section, I figured that it would be best to make my own list with explanations for each on my own blog.  Other blogs, like The Dancing List, have created their own exhaustive lists, I wanted to limit my list down to books which both personally inspired me and fit under a few other limitations:

A)     No biographies (sorry, but I prefer reading analysis over an individual’s story no matter how talented that individual may be)

B)      Nothing in the canon of great books.  Great works like Hitchcock/Truffaut have gotten enough press and they don’t need any extra help from me.  I’d rather find my own influences than just reiterating others’ selections.

C)      No edited collections of previously existing works.  It would really be too easy to list Barry Keith Grant’s Auteurs and Authorship:  A Film Reader or Braudy & Cohen’s Film Theory and Criticism which include some of the seminal works of film criticism that have ever existed.  Of course these are essential articles that are included, but they can be found in various collections.

D)     The book must discuss cinema.  Baudrillard, Freud, and Lacan are all essential reading for film students, but they don’t discuss film on their own.

With that said, let the list begin…

1.  Lester D. Friedman, The Jewish Image in American Film (1982) and Hollywood’s Image of the Jew (1987)

It would be completely remiss of me to ignore these two works since they both strongly contributed to my decision to go into film studies in the first place.  Both books are great overviews of how the Hollywood industry has presented Jewish characters throughout its history.  Of particular importance is how the early Jewish immigrant producers like the Warners, Fox, and MGM presented Jews in their films when they were so willing to assimilate into American society.  Freidman also doesn’t shy away from negative portrayals of Jews on film, such as Jewish gangsters.

2.  Murray Smith, Engaging Characters:  Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema (1995)

Smith’s book focuses on the concept of audience empathy, particularly analyzing the hows and whys of a viewer’s connection to a fictional film character.  Smith details the aesthetic decisions filmmakers make in order to strengthen these connections (editing, cinematography, etc.).  He centers much of his discussion on Hitchcock’s works and incorporates numerous stills to emphasize his case studies.  It’s a very easily digestible book and really helps tell viewers the reasons for their engagement with cinema.

3.  Paul Wells, Understanding Animation (1998)

While I have heard Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s The Illusion of Life to be the Bible for animators, I find Wells’ Understanding Animation to be the Bible for animation studies.  Wells breaks the medium (not genre!) down into different approaches (narrative, technical, representation, audience reception, comedy) and seamlessly moves from one approach to the next.  If you’re interested in studying animation or just interested in animated films, then this book is a must-read.

4.  Mark Allinson, A Spanish Labyrinth:  The Films of Pedro Almodovar (2001)

While numerous books breaking down Almodovar’s work exist, Allinson’s seems to cover the career of the Spanish auteur most thoroughly.  Instead of a chronological study of Almodovar’s films, Allinson breaks them down according to content and visual construction.  It requires a greater knowledge of Almodovar’s films since he jumps from one film to another within his analysis, but it’s easier to read about one topic before moving on to the next.  In fact, this approach reminds me of the dilemma I had while writing my thesis, when I originally structured my argument by film before revising it to cover each main topic.

5.  Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener (eds.), Cinephilia:  Movies, Love, and Memory (2005)

This is the only edited collection on my list, but each essay provides a fascinating look at cinephilia both within films and within audiences.  My favorite, since it applied the most to my thesis, is Jenna Ng’s “Love in the Time of Transcultural Fusion:  Cinephilia, Homage, and Kill Bill.”  I also found intriguing works in de Valck and Hagener’s introduction, Elsaesser’s “Cinephilia or the Uses of Disenchantment,” Sutanya Singkhra’s essay on Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, Elena Gorfinkel’s essay on Todd Haynes, Wes Anderson, and Paul Thomas Anderson.  Lucas Hilderbrand’s work on bootlegged films also provides an interesting look at a neglected (and illegal) part of the cinema-spectator relationship.

6.  Karen Paik, To Infinity and Beyond!:  The Story of Pixar Animation Studios (2007)

Most of the Pixar-related books out right now cover the history of the studio from its humble beginnings to Hollywood’s most interesting current studio.  Unlike many of its peers, Paik mixes the history with analysis of the work.  Paik mostly uses interviews with the filmmakers involved with each creation to form this basis, but it provides a fascinating look at the studio’s short films and features up through Cars (2006).

Adapted 10/40/70: The Simpsons – “The Greatest Story Ever D’Ohed” April 30, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in Adapted 10/40/70 Experiment, Television.
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A couple of weeks ago, I posted a 10/40/70 analysis of The Simpsons season one episode “Krusty Gets Busted” which earned the following quote from the blog Dead Homer Society:  “This is a more detailed animation analysis that I like to get into.  But it does show just how much care and thought used to go into the show.  One suspects that Zombie Simpsons would flunk this kind of test miserably.”  They define “Zombie Simpsons” as anything from season 12 forward where the show “has no pulse and no intelligence but it just won’t fucking die.”  Certainly the point of my analysis was not to privilege earlier Simpsons episodes over the newly released shows and I don’t even know if it’s possible to “fail” a 10/40/70 analysis (perhaps just having uninteresting mise-en-scène).  However, it seems that the only way to demonstrate my own thoughts on this popular split is to analyze one of the “Zombie Simpsons” episodes.  Thanks to online streaming, I was able to watch this season’s “The Greatest Story Ever D’Ohed,” an episode where Ned Flanders takes the Simpson family with him to Israel to undergo a spiritual journey and gain religious enlightenment.  The episode runs a total of 22 minutes, so I used my original framework to set times of 1:50-7:20-12:50:


Unlike Bird’s episode which works in triangles, this shot seems to be built out of straight lines.  Reverend Lovejoy and Ned are both the same height, which sets them as equals to each other.  We can see the different connections between them in lines:  their eyeline, hairline, chin-line, and the backdoor fence behind them that connect them.

The shot also shows Homer’s slip and slide in the background, which works for two reasons.  First, it keeps Homer’s immature activities in the back of Ned and Lovejoy’s mind since that is what inspires Ned to try to help Homer.  Second, it works as a visual joke when Homer goes sliding by naked later in this shot.  The camera doesn’t have to cut at all; Homer can merely slide through the frame which provides an added humor since we can see Ned and Lovejoy’s disgusted reactions.  Incidentally, I happen to love Ned’s facial expression in this still, with his eyes fully on the left side of the whites, and the full-toothed grimace as he is thinking about Homer.


This shot continues the theme of straight lines, but this time uses them diagonally to show some depth between the Israeli tour guide and the person who is listening to him for free.  While this shot is a part of the traditional shot-reverse shot relationship, the camera is placed at a lower angle to make the pushy tour guide seem bigger.  It certainly seems to express more than a regular over-the-shoulder shot.

The high level of detail in the background of this shot is also quite intriguing.  We can see the multiple curves in the ceiling drawn with great precision, as well as the off-colored bricks located in the ceiling.  Certainly when compared with “Krusty Gets Busted,” the level of draftsmanship seems to be much better.


Like the previous frame, the draftsmanship is the first thing to stand out from this frame.  There are details on the walls that make the frame look extremely murky, and even a gap in the doorframe on the right side of the frame that add to the pristine aesthetics of the frame.  Another major noticeable difference from the early Simpsons episodes is the use of shadow on the back of both Homer and Ned.  It helps make the frame looks more realistic and separates the two characters from the background.  Ned’s positioning above Homer places him in a position of power over Homer and his body language certainly conveys his frustration with Homer.

There is also an interesting triangular relationship that appears in this frame for the first time, which I have marked below:

The figure of Jesus in the background, with Ned and Homer in the foreground creates a play on the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  Since triangles have not appeared in this episode, this religious connotation can be seen as quite important.  In fact, it certainly foreshadows Homer’s pending “Jerusalem syndrome,” when he believes himself to be the next messiah.

Despite the added triangle, the bulk of the shot still seems to be conveyed in lines.  Ned’s eyeline and hand-line include the portrait of Mary into the shot as well when extended across the frame.  Homer seems to be stuck in between traditional religious reverence which Mary represents and Ned’s aggressiveness.

Overall, there still seems to be a high level of interesting mise-en-scène in The Simpsons despite its so-called “Zombie” status.  While the show may have gotten into a bit of a rut due to its longevity, the visual aesthetics are still as fascinating as ever.

A Tribute to Dede Allen April 20, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in Film.
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The passing of famed editor Dede Allen the other day is unfortunate news for the world of film.  Allen was one of the leading editors from the New Hollywood and helped to bring an artistry to film editing through her use of jump cuts and added emotions.  Her resume includes such luminary films as Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973), Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975), and Reds (Warren Beatty, 1981).  Movieline.com has created their list of five iconic clips from Allen’s career, which contains perhaps her most memorable scene – the closing massacre at the end of Bonnie and Clyde.  However, my personal favorite sequence from Bonnie and Clyde occurs far earlier in the film and truly demonstrates how Allen’s editing is able to create an added subtext to the film’s themes.  This scene takes place right after Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde (Warren Beatty) meet for the first time, when Bonnie catches Clyde in the middle of stealing her mother’s car.  They take a walk on the town’s main street and Bonnie begins to show an attraction to Clyde’s darker side, such as the time he chopped off one of his toes in order to get off of work detail.  As they are talking, Clyde admits to committing armed robbery and Bonnie convinces him to rob a general store to prove that he isn’t lying.  Through Allen’s editing, the viewer can understand the film’s mixture of sexual attraction and violent acts.

The first shot in this sequence begins with a close-up of Clyde’s face.  Clyde’s mouth is dominated by phallic objects, both the Coke bottle and the match, which demonstrate his sexual experience.  It is also intriguing that Allen begins this sequence with a close-up instead of the standard wide shot in order to emphasize this aspect of Clyde’s personality.

While Clyde drinks from his bottle, Bonnie rubs her lips over the edge of her bottle and flicks her tongue in her mouth to give the scene an added sexuality akin to Freud’s oral stage.  Once again, the shot is a close-up to emphasize Bonnie’s sexual curiousity.

Allen finally cuts to a wider two-shot in the third shot of the sequence.  The audience is finally allowed to get their bearings on the physical proximity of the scene.  The frame is slightly condensed by the poles on each side of the frame, pushing the two characters closer together in the middle.  Both Bonnie and Clyde are still holding their bottles of Coke, with Clyde’s bottle erect in the air, while Bonnie is still seductively holding hers against her lips.  From this angle, she mysteriously asks him “What’s it like?”  While she could be referring to either prison (which Clyde thinks she is talking about) or armed robbery (which she is actually talking about), her very general statement could also refer to sex, especially given the number of phallic symbols in this scene and her nudity in the film’s opening.

From this angle, Bonnie clarifies her position (“No.  Armed robbery.”) to Clyde, but never removes the bottle from within an inch of her lips.  This inaction once again promulgates the sexual undertones of the scene.

Clyde looks around nervously as he thinks of what to say…

…and Bonnie takes a drink from her Coke bottle as she takes over the power in this scene.  She is now steadfast and confident in her sexuality and controls it by holding the erect bottle to her lips.

Clyde finally regains his composure as he replies to her “It ain’t like anything.”  His gaze is noticeably not only looking at her, but also looking past her into the camera lens.

She dismisses his answer by removing the Coke bottle from her lips and teasing him – “Shoot.  I knew you never robbed anyplace, you faker.”  Both of these actions, as well as her turning away from him in the next frame suggest her sexual disinterest.  If he had been able to provide a good answer regarding his violent acts, then her interest would still be piqued.  However, since he disappoints her with his answer, she stops her flirtatious actions.

In a longer shot, Bonnie both turns aways from Clyde, but then turns back toward him in order to give him another opportunity to prove his violence and thus regain her sexual favor.  Clyde responds by pulling out his gun and clandestinely showing it to her.  The wide shot allows this action to play out on screen – both her change in attitude as well as his last effort.  The wide shot also manages to obstruct the gun from the audience’s view by not showing it in close-up until later.  From this still frame, it’s even difficult to see what the object that he pulls from his pocket is exactly.

A quick close-up of Bonnie’s face presents her intrigue at seeing Clyde’s gun.

Allen finally cuts to a close-up of Clyde’s gun as he holds it at his waist and points it in her direction.  The gun blatantly stands in for his phallus and connotes his sexual interest in Bonnie.  The Coke bottles (as I previously mentioned as being representative of Freud’s oral stage) are now put away and missing from the last couple close-ups as their relationship moves onto the phallic stage.  The metaphoric genitals are the new focus of their connection.

Bonnie looks up at Clyde’s face with both shock and intrigue across her visage as he has made a strong sexual advance toward her.  She looks up at his face…

…and he is looking away from her, letting the gun-phallus speak for itself.

Allen cuts to a different two-shot as Bonnie continues her turn toward Clyde and reaches out for his gun-phallus.  This angle is particularly interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, it differs from the earlier two-shot from street level.  This one allows the viewer to see both Bonnie and Clyde’s faces as this event transpires.  Second, the high angle blocks Clyde’s gun-phallus from the camera’s view, thus placing the act in the viewer’s mind.  The gun’s visibility only in close-up also allows the viewer to ONLY see it as a phallus, since this high angle would disrupt the analogy.

Allen then cuts back to the close-up to show Bonnie tenderly touching Clyde’s gun-phallus.  This shot represents the metaphoric copulation between the couple.  The flirtations from the earlier parts of the sequence finally pay off in what is essentially “the money shot.”  Allen then emphasizes the sexuality of the scene by cutting to both Clyde and Bonnie’s euphoric faces:

This fantastic sequence shows how important editing is to the film process and how additional thematic meaning can be derived from the construction of a scene.  It is not merely the acting or the cinematography that creates these shots, but how they all work together in order to form the film as a whole.  No two editors will construct a scene in the same way, and Dede Allen was once of the best in the history of cinema.  This sequence is just one example of the great work throughout her career.

Adapted 10/40/70 – The Simpsons, “Krusty Gets Busted” April 13, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in Adapted 10/40/70 Experiment, Brad Bird, Television.
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More details about this experiment in my previous post.  I’ve always been fascinated by mise-en-scène within animation since the director or animator can place the camera at any position and draw in whatever details they want to put in the frame.  The Simpsons has been a hallmark of television for the past twenty years and I picked the episode “Krusty Gets Busted” from the show’s first season because it was directed by Brad Bird.  Since his beginning on The Simpsons, Bird has gone on to give audiences some of the best animated films created, including The Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004), and Ratatouille (2007).  Bird’s work demonstrates a tendency to push the boundaries of animation, something which I hope is prevalent in analyzing this episode.

Since Simpsons episodes are 23 minutes long, I am adjusting the variable formula to times of 1:55, 7:40, and 13:25.

Variable Analysis:  1:55-7:40-13:25

This frame from the episode’s first scene establishes the conflict between Krusty and his assistant Sideshow Bob.  Krusty is celebrating the young girl’s birthday that is in the frame with them.  The eyelines of the characters really dictate the action of the sequence.  Bob is looking down at the show’s guest, trying to appease her by playing his whistle.  The young girl is looking up at Krusty with admiration, while Krusty (ever the showman) is looking directly into the camera trying to pander to the television audience.  Connecting these eyelines emphasizes this relationship:

The characters are set up to form a triangle (which the eyeline match), creating a structure throughout the shot.  We also see the differences between Krusty and Bob.  While Krusty’s microphone bisects his half of the triangle, Bob’s whistle is parallel to the other eyeline match.  Each is a symbol of their work ethic:  Krusty relies on his voice, whereas Bob relies on the whistle and other silent tools within their act.

This shot occurs later in the storyline, when it is revealed to Bart and Lisa that their hero, Krusty, has just been arrested.  They are watching a news program that shows this footage of Krusty being arrested.  The mise-en-scène is meant to parody what an actual news clip is supposed to look like.  We can see that the camera is set higher than ground level, meaning that the camera is supposed to be elevated, possibly on the news truck looking down.  The high angle also suggests the disgrace Krusty feels at this point, as the camera is looking down at him.  Of course, we also have to remember that there are two “cameras” within this scene:  the first capturing Krusty’s arrest and the second shooting the actual television screen that Bart and Lisa are watching.  We are, in fact, seeing what Bart and Lisa are seeing, which is why the black sides of the television cut down on the outer edges of the frame.  This keeps us firmly connected with the two children who, by now, are the focus of the episode.

This frame is from Krusty’s court case, when he is placed on the stand to plead his case.  The Krusty in the frame truly contrasts the Krusty from our first frame at 1:55.  He is not wearing his clown makeup and is wearing a blue jumpsuit instead of the pink shirt he wears during his program.  His eyeline is looking down to the left side of the frame, connoting his unhappiness.  We can also see the now-famous “A-113” reference to Cal-Arts which Bird includes in all of his the things he has directed.  Once again, Bird uses a triangle to center the action on Krusty’s face:

As in the first frame, the triangle focuses the audience’s attention on the emotional center of the frame; in this case, Krusty’s downtrodden facial expression and lack of make-up.

Although the three frames are fairly nondescript, Bird’s use of triangles within his work presents a fairly interesting aspect of his mise-en-scène, which I would like to see if it carries over to his feature work.  Perhaps later on, I will do a traditional 10-40-70 on Bird’s other films to see if this triangle theme is continued.

Reversals in Reception: 180-Degree Film Opinions April 9, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in Film.
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One of the truest clichés in film criticism is that a viewer can never watch the same movie twice.  Due to either your foreknowledge of what will occur in the film or personal changes within the viewer, there will always be different parts of a text that will stand out to a member of the audience.  I was reminded of this concept the other day when I screened Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) for my history of cinema class, as I recall not liking the movie when I first saw it five or six years ago, but really gathered a critical appreciation for Weir’s ability to create a mysterious atmosphere and include subtle subtextual themes of love.  I had missed all of these nuances the first time I watched it since I was more concerned with finding out what was happening instead of how the story was being told.

I find that by analyzing ourselves as viewers in relation to the films which cause these subjective reverses in opinions, we can look deeper into ourselves to see the changes that we have gone through and how these changes are reflected through the culture we consume.  Of course, it would be impossible to create a purely objective list, although certain movies like Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) and Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) are known to have failed commercial releases before being critically re-appraised years after their original release.  As such, I can only look at myself as a viewer and analyze some of my own varying opinions on movies to see why I went from such a strong opinion one way to an equally strong opposing opinion later.

One of the first movies I thought of in regard to this topic was Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987).  I first saw the movie for my Advanced Film Theory class and really disliked the languid pacing, the inability to follow a lead character since they are constantly hearing the thoughts of others, and the occasional jumps between color and black-and-white.  I spent the next few years remembering my disappointment, but soon opened myself up to reevaluating the work after enjoying Wenders’ other truly extraordinary road movie Paris, Texas (1984).  After re-watching the movie, I found myself enjoying the things that I originally hated.  First and foremost, the storytelling pace truly matches the life which the angels lead, as they are spending their existential eternity watching and observing humanity.  Similarly, the jumps into others’ thoughts remind me of the micro-actions which Zavattini argued for in his neorealist manifestos.  Each thought is meant to summarize their existence and, yet, be something that the average person would be thinking about at that moment.  The brilliant (and oft-talked about) library scene is perhaps the pinnacle of this great movie when the angels are seemingly overburdened by hearing the overlapping thoughts of humans while the spiritual soundtrack plays behind the whispering noise.  It is perhaps the most breathtaking and poetic scene I have seen shot on film:

My changes in viewing Wings of Desire seem to reflect my personal acceptance toward art cinema.  My original concern with plot and pacing are in-line with the traditional American way of viewing a blockbuster film.  However, Wings of Desire needs to be unfolded slowly and thought about more often than a blockbuster film, and that is a skill I garnered with age.

I certainly remember the first time that I saw Jules and Jim, once again in a class for school.  Once again, the film’s breaks from conventional Hollywood cinema seemed to be the things which dissuaded me from enjoying it, specifically the unforeseen ending.  I only began to appreciate the film by exploring more about the French New Wave and specifically Truffaut’s auteurist signature on his works.  The use of stills, documentary footage, and other non-traditional narrative techniques now spoke to me as ways of changing the Hollywood structure and creating something other than classic genre films.  The ending also doesn’t bother me now as it is necessary for this arrangement to be unstable.

Since I have done a couple of “hate-to-love” films, it’s imperative for me to include one which goes the other way.  While I can’t say that I hate Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, it is certainly a movie which disappointed me on a second viewing.  Perhaps I got older and the idealistic romance portrayed in the film strikes me as naïve, but it doesn’t appeal to me anymore.  L’Atalante is a movie which I will need to watch again to better evaluate my own thoughts on the movie, but for now it seems to be a disappointment in my mind.

Moulin Rouge was a movie that I had disliked so much in theaters that I very nearly walked out of it.  Amazingly, the things I didn’t like about the movie are the things which appeal to me about Tarantino films:  the never-ending blend of postmodern references and the surreal barrage of images and editing.  After seeing the film multiple times, those elements stood out to me as being intriguing instead of annoying.  Additionally, learning about the film’s connection to Bollywood musicials provided me with another way to critically analyze the film.  Once again, my gaining some extratextual knowledge about the film allowed for my own re-evaluation of the movie.

I don’t think this list could be complete if I didn’t put in a movie like Armageddon, whose blockbuster sensibilities appealed to me as a high schooler (which is how old I was when the film was originally released), but truly put me off of the movie and others like this now.  I can now see how manipulative the techniques of directors like Bay are in order to garner sympathy for the characters in completely incomprehensible situations.  I fell victim to these techniques as a younger man, but now understand how/why they work on audiences and simultaneously put me off of enjoying these works.  Plus, Ben Affleck’s teeth are far too white to accurately represent any hardworking individual.

I would love to see the comments section grow on this topic as anybody can critically discuss this change within themselves.

CFP: Adaptations – MPCA/MACA, Oct 1-3 2010, Minneapolis March 29, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in CFP.
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Passing along the word for my friend and colleague Scott Balcerzak:


I am currently seeking original work in the area of FILM ADAPTATIONS for the annual Midwest Popular Culture Association/Midwest American Culture Association Annual Conference. Abstracts can include a wide variety of approaches to Adaptation Studies. These may include research on film adaptations of literary works, comic books, video games, television shows, mythology, other films, radio shows, cartoons, nonfiction books, etc.,

Please email a paper abstract by Friday, April 30, 2010 to . Along with a paper description, include university affiliation, professional address, and email address. I also welcome panel proposals, with three or more participants, consisting of a panel description along with a full list of presenters and paper titles. Please include university affiliation, professional address, and email address for each presenter and the chair.

Scott Balcerzak
Assistant Professor of Film and Literature
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, IL 60115
Midwest Popular Culture Association/Midwest American Culture Association Conference
Sheraton Bloomington Hotel
Minneapolis South, 7800 Normandale Boulevard
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55439

1-3 October 2010

Adapting the 10/40/70 Experiment to TV (The Office – “Business School”) March 27, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in Adapted 10/40/70 Experiment, Television.
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One of my favorite critical blogging experiments is Nicolas Rombes’s 10/40/70 experiment to film criticism.  He suggests that to create a subjective form of film analysis, we as scholars should freeze a film at predetermined arbitrary time codes (he suggests 10 minutes, 40 minutes, and 70 minutes) and then analyze the mise-en-scène of these images.  The times Rombes suggests are important to a film’s structure, as we normally have a good idea of the hero’s conflict by the 10 minutes mark, finish the first act by 40 minutes, and have the hero reach his lowest point by 70 minutes.  What I would like to do is adapt Rombes’s formula to the television medium and see if the same arbitrary analysis can work for a different form.

Of course, since TV shows are a lot shorter than the traditional 90-120 minutes for a film, the time codes must be changed as well.  To maintain the 10-40-70 relationship, there are two formulas from which we can choose to adapt it to a 30-minute sitcom.  First, since a 30-minute show is ¼ the length of the standard feature, we can divide the 10-40-70 numbers by 4 to result in times of 2:30-10-17:30.  Of course, a 30-minute TV show does not actually time out to 30 minutes exactly since there are commercials during the broadcast.  In fact, a show like The Office runs for about 22 minutes, allowing for 8 minutes of commercials (yes, over 25% of what you watch during a single timeslot is commercials).  Thus, if we want to maintain the same dramatic high points like in Rombes’s original proposition, we need to create a variable formula for television which results in (x/120)*22, in which x stands for either 10, 40, or 70.  With this formula, we get time codes of 1:50, 7:20, and 12:50 for the 22 minutes of story content.  In order to show the differences between these time slots and the effect they have on analyzing the story, I’ll take a look at both sets of numbers.

For my first experiment, I’m going to look at one of my favorite episodes from the American version of The Office called “Business School.”  In true Office fashion, there are two storylines in the episode: the main one following Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) as he is invited to be a guest speaker in his employee Ryan Howard’s (B.J. Novak) emerging enterprises class, while the B-story follows the rest of the Dunder Mifflin employees after Dwight (Rainn Wilson) finds a bat in the ceiling and accidentally lets him loose in the workspace.  A minor story running concurrently follows the receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer) as she tries to get her co-workers to attend her art class’s art show.

Analysis #1:  2:30-10-17:30

The first frame follows Michael and Ryan as they are driving to Ryan’s class.  The mockumentary style camera sits in the backseat and films them from behind as they begin their journey.  This shot is particularly noticeable since the production crew had introduced lipstick cameras in the employees’ cars in the earlier episode “Traveling Salesman,” meaning that this particular camera angle must contain distinct meaning.  Two things stand out about this shot.  First, the camera is positioned perfectly to see Ryan’s reactions to Michael’s random comments in the rearview mirror.  Although Ryan is driving and is starting out of the front window (as he should be!), the audience can still see his eye movements and facial expressions in the reflection.  Second, the empty road ahead of the car brings to mind the “long road” ahead of Ryan.  He will have to endure Michael’s idiocy among his peers and has to make it through this long, empty road in order to survive the experience.

The second frame follows the B (or actually the C) storyline, when Pam is trying to recruit H.R. representative Toby Flenderson (Paul Lieberstein) to go to her art show.  He can’t make it since his daughter is performing in a school play, but he maintains that he will show up “in order to support local art, since what they [his daughter’s school] do is not art” in a vain attempt to flirt with her.  Most interestingly, this image is a solo shot of Pam, despite her ongoing conversation with Toby.  The framing of this shot, with the doorframe and wall cutting Toby out of the picture, shows Pam’s isolation from her co-workers.  Many of them have shown only polite faint interest and, by this point, Pam is starting to get the idea that nobody from the office is going to show up.  Although at first glance this would seem to be a throwaway transition shot, the mise-en-scène actually implies Pam’s deeper feelings of separation and isolation.

Another intriguing shot, since this one once again focuses on Pam, even though she is the lowest of the three storylines.  In this shot, she is saying goodbye to her boyfriend Roy (David Denman) after he is leaving her art show.  The most he can say is “Your art was the prettiest art out of all the art,” demonstrating that he doesn’t seem to “get” Pam’s artistic outlet.  While he shows up to support her, there is a divide between the couple.  This shot emphasizes Pam’s artistic enlightenment since she is bathed in the overhead light, while Roy is covered by shadows, a sign that he is “in the dark” when it comes to art.  There is also a pole that dissects the frame with Pam and Roy on opposite sides of it.  The shot implies a disconnect between them which culminates in their breakup in the very next episode “Cocktails.”

Analysis #2:  1:50-7:20-12:50

Using the variable formula, the first shot begins earlier in the episode when Dwight is giving his “talking head” interview to the camera explaining the best advice Michael ever gave him – “don’t be an idiot.”  The mise-en-scène is fairly standard, with the mock interview being set up in the way a documentary would follow a subject.  The focus, therefore, doesn’t seem to be on the image but on what Dwight is saying.  The initial joke seems to be at Dwight’s expense, in which the viewer laughs at Dwight for taking the colloquial phrase “don’t be an idiot” so seriously.  However, we also have to ask ourselves whether this advice is the best Michael has to offer.  And if it is, then what is he going to say to Ryan’s class?

This shot is taken from Michael’s presentation, when he takes a student’s book and rips out the pages, suggesting to “replace [them] with life lessons.”  Although Michael dominates the frame, he appears to be out of focus in this shot, suggesting that he may be out of his element in front of a classroom.  The frame also shows the high volume of laptop computers in the room, which becomes a sticking point between Michael (the manager of a paper company) and the younger generation who is accustomed to using electronics.

The third frame catches the beginning of a tilt-up that ends on Michael’s face after he has heard that Ryan feels the company is heading downhill due to the rise of electronics and the lack of a need for paper.  The shot begins on Michael’s feet as he walks over the pages of the business book that he ripped out in the previous frame.  The trampling of these pages is fairly significant and something that I had missed on previous viewings.  The book pages espouse the traditional way of business, something which Michael – on many occasions – doesn’t seem to follow at all.  They are also representative of collegiate business education, which Michael never had, and whose structure Michael is currently fighting against.  After all, the students like Ryan have learned that the world is becoming increasingly paperless and that paper companies like Dunder Mifflin are subsequently becoming obsolete.  The shot emphasizes Michael’s feelings to either walk on or trample the educational system that is suggesting Michael’s existential meaninglessness.


The dichotomy between the two sets of time codes is fairly interesting as each tells a different story.  The first group seems to follow Pam more than Michael, whereas the second series follows Michael’s story completely.  In fact, the second set tells a mini-story as we question Michael’s advice, see him giving fairly inconsequential and abstract advice, and then his irate reaction to hearing about the students’ negative, fatalistic view of his company’s prospects.  The first set uncovers the importance of Pam to both the episode and to the season in general.  In an episode where she should be a supporting character, the three frames suggest a dominance over the episode’s story that would otherwise be unnoticed.  Overall, I feel as if the second group (the variable formula) gives a greater narrative coherence to the episode’s story structure.  However, as I continue doing this analysis in future blog posts, I will continue to look at both sets of frames since each group provides distinct insight into the episode.

The Death of Torture Porn: What’s Next for Horror? March 24, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in Horror Films.
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For the last decade, the horror film genre has been dominated by the ultraviolent “torture porn” subgenre with franchises like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) topping the American box office.  However, as the calendar turned to 2010, torture porn films have been severely outpaced in their gross figures when compared to other horror films.  The Saw series has slowly fallen off from its peak with Saw II (2005) which grossed $87m, to $80m (Saw III, 2006) to $63m (Saw IV, 2007) to $56m (Saw V, 2008) before finally falling off a cliff with Saw VI’s (2009) gross of only $27m.  Other franchises have also seen their profits diminish such as Hostel (from $47m to $17m) and The Hills Have Eyes ($41m to $20m) while torture porn movies like The Collector ($7m, 2009), Turistas ($7m, 2006), and Captivity ($2.6m, 2007) barely made a dent in the U.S. box office.

I tend to usually ignore the numbers when studying cinema (after all, gross has little to do with quality), but the box office numbers for horror films are important since, as Robin Wood finds, horror films demonstrate a “collective nightmare” of society and the numbers can show what is popularly considered scary.  Since audiences are moving away from torture porn movies, it means that the fears provoked by these movies (torture, mutilation, etc.) are becoming less relevant to today’s cultural zeitgeist.  In his thorough examination of torture porn, David Edelstein finds that “Post-9/11, we’ve engaged in a national debate about the morality of torture, fueled by horrifying pictures of manifestly decent men and women (some of them, anyway) enacting brutal scenarios of domination at Abu Ghraib.”  Torture porn movies illustrated this fear throughout the Aughts and become a forum among to discuss these problems in popular culture.  However, the quick declining box office grosses of torture porn films suggests that American society is moving past the fears associated with the War on Terror.

Instead of torture porn, the new popular horror films of the last couple of years include the remakes of supernatural 1980s slashers like Michael Myers (Halloween, $58m, 2007) and Jason (Friday the 13th, $65m, 2009), as well as the extraordinarily popular Paranormal Activity ($107m, 2009).  In the upcoming year, we will see the return of Freddy Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Street) and the Scream series, which is a tribute to the 80s slasher film.  While the focus among all of these movies is still body horror, the location has changed from the foreign countries of Hostel and the desert landscape of The Hills Have Eyes (referencing the regions of Iraq and Afghanistan) into the American home.  Instead of focusing on horrors from afar, it seems as if society is now concerned with problems at home.

Fear at Home in Paranormal Activity

(All movie gross numbers from BoxOfficeMojo.com)


Edelstein, David.  “Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex:  Torture Porn.”  New York Magazine (28 Jan 2006).  <http://nymag.com/movies/features/15622/>.  Online.

Wood, Robin.  “Return of the Repressed.”  Film Comment 14.4 (July-August 1978):  25-32.  Print.