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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).


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.

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.