Sunday, May 23, 2010

Fritz Lang’s M

Fritz Lang opens his film M with a striking illustration of a grasping hand with the letter M scrawled onto the palm. The opening title foreshadows the identity of the murderer who will later be revealed. After the next title card (which declares this to be a Fritz Lang film), the scene turns to black with a dramatic musical note and the sound of children reciting a grim nursery rhyme about “the nasty man in black” who will come and chop you up. Interestingly, Lang chooses to open on black, and then cuts to an over the top shot of a girl reciting and pointing to each of the children who surrounds her in a circle. The game emphasizes the murderer’s randomness when choosing a victim. This shot almost takes on a point-of-view quality, yet it immediately tracks upward to a mother who overhears the children and asks them to stop singing the macabre rhyme. It appears as if someone (like the murderer) is overseeing the children’s interaction. Once the mother departs, the children hypnotically continue their rhyme as if this was their predestined fate. It seems that these children are already aware of the dangers that lie ahead and have little to declare in their defense and protection. There is a certain resignation within the children, as if they are purely awaiting their own demise.

Fritz Lang’s stark black and white takes on a German expressionistic quality, especially with the next couple of shots. First there is a mother who awkwardly ascends the stairs with a basket of laundry, bearing the burden of motherhood, who then passes the laundry to another mother who is washing the clothes in a big basin. Though we see the woman climbing the stairs, the destination is filled with darkness. This scene cuts to another scene of a little girl almost getting hit by a speeding car; her vulnerability is then protected by an on duty police officer who steps in to assist. Lang then cuts again to the mother setting the table for dinner and then back to the little girl bouncing a ball. The ball eventually is bounced against a poll that has a reward sign for the identity of the killer at large. As the girl’s ball ricochets against the reward sign, the shadow of the killer appears, as if summoned by the girl’s nursery rhyme.

Fritz Lang’s opening to M, is one of the most well-crafted scenes found in a thriller. It says so much with little dialog, and yet, being an early sound picture, it uses sound in important ways. Later in the film, the use of sound acts as a motif and clue to help solve the murders, for the killer is revealed to be constantly whistling the same song. Lang emphasizes emptiness in certain scenes, with the abstract stairwell, the barren landscape with the rolling ball, the lonely balloon tangled in the telephone line and the untouched dinner plate where the missing girl was to eat. Fritz Lang’s message of detachment and emptiness is further exemplified by Peter Lorre’s performance of a man who is as missing and hidden from the world as his victims.

Like Lang’s previous film Metropolis, M’s world is made up of that of the people versus the authority. Where Metropolis’ despotic world is challenged by the factory workers, M’s lynch mob challenges an ineffectual police force. However, it seems as if Lang finds both sides to be unsatisfactory, for he creates a humorously cynical vision of both. At the end of the film, it is clear that Lang’s sympathies have been with the killer the whole time, for he is the true outcast who doesn’t fit with either side. He is the real victim who is incapable of stopping his actions due to illness, not by choice. When looking at M, it is clear to see how German Expressionism influenced the form of American Film Noir, with its doomed protagonist and the use of lights and darkness of shadows.

Giallo: The Mystery of Transgression and Attraction.


Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s Italy produced some of the most extreme and bizarre genre films the world has ever been assaulted with. The peplums, spaghetti westerns, gothics, polizieschi, zombi, post-apocalyptic and fumetti films were made extensively throughout this era, yet most were seen as inferior rip-offs of popular American films of the time. The giallo (or gialli in its plural form) is one of the most controversial genres Italy has produced, yet also one of the more critically recognized in terms of stylization and originality. Once ignored directors such as, Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, Sergio Martino, Antonio Margheritti and Umberto Lenzi, are finally becoming more recognized in cinema criticism. Directors like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci have amassed a huge following in America, specifically Argento, who to this day still makes films (with diminishing returns). All these directors come under critical attack for their use of excessive sexual violence and praised for their stylish inventiveness.

The genre takes its origins from the Il Giallo Modadori paperback mystery novels (from the 50s) that were usually yellow bound; for “giallo” is “yellow” in Italian. The novels could be any mixture of authors, from Agatha Christie to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Raymond Chandler, yet the covers often suggested a salacious or sleazy read. The color yellow is often connected to ideas of illness and sickness, which could be seen as a color metaphor for the mental state of the killer. While other Italian genres borrowed heavily from American products, the giallo film takes its tonal influences from the German Krimi films of the early 60s (which usually adopted some Edgar Wallace mystery novel), and expressional influences from Alfred Hitchcock. Though, the giallo is more psychological with a deeper aesthetic that utilizes all the best aspects of Italian cinema; such as baroque settings, surreal cinematography, lush soundtracks, mixed chronological editing, kitsch interior design and fashion, visceral violence, beautiful international actors and actresses, and highly charged eroticism.

The giallo film genre lasted through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and each decade offered a very different product. The 60’s giallo was more of a mystery melodrama, which mixed erotic lesbianism and greedy seducers usually trying to drive a woman insane, to gain an inheritance. The 70s giallo however, usually had a black cloaked killer knocking off the cast one by one, as they’re presented as red herrings. The murderer is almost always revealed through an unmasking, and the explanation is often to do with childhood trauma of sorts. As the popularity of porn films increased in the later 70s, gialli reveled in sleazier material. The nudity became more frequent, the deaths more sexual, and some went so far as to insert porn shots to enhance profitability (as well as make for dubious entertainment). In America, the slasher horror film craze was getting started, and this influenced Italy’s 80s gialli output. Gone were the baroque settings, travelogue footage, lush soundtracks and modernist landscapes, instead replaced with an MTV video style, Flashdance numbers and American TV cop show heroes. By the 1980s, the giallo had finally run its course.

The sleazier aspects of a giallo confronts the viewer with an uncomfortable position, that of voyeur, assailant and victim (depending on the camera placement). The sexual violence has created a controversy surrounding this genre, which has been criticized for its lowbrow attempts at luring audience. Though such attempts at using sensationalism to make a buck is nothing new, similarly the short films from the late 1800s to early 1900s produced what was known as cinema of attractions. Fragmented moments of a curious nature were captured for cinematic exhibition. A train could rush towards the audience, or possibly something morbid or ghastly like a mutilated body. These short films were made to exploit ones curiosity of the unordinary, and were thus titled curiositas The giallo’s moments of thrills and excessiveness can be compared to the quick exploits presented in these short films. Gunning’s description on cinema of attraction’s emphasis, relates well with the confrontational nature of a giallo:

Confrontation rules the cinema of attractions in both the form of its films and their mode of exhibition. The directness of this act of display allows an emphasis on the thrill itself---the immediate reaction of the viewer. (Gunning, 743-744.)
The visceral thrill contained in the giallo elicits a reaction from its audience who view the shocking moments with indignation and fascination. Though, we should not discount the mystery element found in the genre, for it propels the audience’s desire to know more, while violence acts as a cathartic release.

Like horror films, the giallo can be described as a body genre. Where gratuitous imagery of bodily mutilation and death can create an emotion, where the metal stimulation can be attributed to problem solving. At the time of the 60s, moral codes had loosened up as sex and violence became more on display in all genres. The giallo’s message (though conservative) appears to have manifested from Italy’s deep connection to Catholicism (and possibly from Mussolini’s reign with Fascism).

The development of sex, violence, and emotion would thus seem to have very precise in the body genres. Like all popular genres, they address persistent problems in our culture, in our sensualities, in our very identities. The development of sex, violence, and emotion is thus in no way gratuitous and in no way strictly limited to each of these genres; it is instead a cultural form of problem solving. (Williams, 611- 612.)

The giallo contains a need to solve and a fixation on the body and sexual identity. To begin to decode its many mysteries, the viewer needs to first factor in Freudian theory, gender transgression, gaze, fetishism and investigation. Using two quintessential films, Blood and Black Lace (1964) and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969), I’d like to investigate some of the key themes that are presented in these films while connecting the re-occurring elements of the genre.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

The first giallo is attributed to director Mario Bava and his film The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). Literally picking up where director Alfred Hitchcock left off (who directed the similarly titled The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 and in 1956, Hitchcock’s early influence of German expressionism informs the giallo cinematic style. Bava’s Hitchcockian thriller sets the stage, of a noir, dolce vita-mystery, which plays upon the victims’ psychosis. Shot in black and white. The Girl Who Knew Too Much signaled the beginning of Italy’s fascination with Hitchcock and noir, yet it is really Bava’s next giallo; Blood and Black Lace (1964) that establishes the fetishistic traits that were to follow within the genre. The typical darkly cloaked assassin, with fedora, black leather gloves and a blade, all originate in this film. The film’s setting in a fashion house, would also lend it self to future gialli (such as Crimes of the Black Cat (1972) and Fashion Crimes (1989)) Throughout the film, scantily clad women are knocked off one by one, by extremely cruel means. One female victim is smashed in the face repeatedly with a spiked glove, while another has their face held into a fireplace, as well as a drowning. All of the proceedings are presented in Bava’s most colorful excursion, with a splashy decor that border on the artificial.

The film’s opening credits present the actors as if they were in a play, frozen motionless like mannequins (reoccurring objects in this genre) in a fashion house. This is substantiated by the opening shot of a bright red sign that reads, “Christian haute couture.” The sign blows in the storm, until one side breaks, symbolizing the fracturing of the aristocratic fa├žade. We see a darkened figure appear waving beneath a tree in the rain, as a woman runs to him. The man is revealed to be a junkie needing a fix, and the girl asks him to just hold out for a while, they disappear. A taxi appears and a woman dressed in a striking red rain coat steps out into the darkness, as a darkly concealed killer lurks behind the trees stalking her. He comes up behind her with a stalking and begins to strangle the woman, while repeatedly smashing her face into a tree. After the woman is dead, the killer picks up her legs and drags her into the bushes, while her stocking straps are revealed by her lifted skirt.

The extreme six-minute opening of Blood and Black Lace (which wallows in cocaine addiction and a sadistic murder) was truly jaw dropping in 1964. Though the film is beautifully shot, the colorful allure does not hide the morbidity. In fact Bava is celebrating the murders as a cinema of attractions, with his use of a colorful set design and beautiful females. Bava’s film bears little of Italy’s former neo-realism period and appears to be ushering in an artificial counterpoint. We don’t see Italy’s war torn state of poverty; instead we are offered fashion houses and the elite. Bava is cynically and systematically killing off his characters or revealing their illness that is bred from the greed of money. Yet, Bava compromises any political or ideological message by the fact that the majority of the victims are women. Bava specifically chooses to mark his female victim as unsympathetic and sinful by dressing the victim in red (later we find that she was a cocaine addict and a blackmailer). The killer motives appear to be that of a moral avenger, set in the confines of an exploitative fashion house, with a shady cast of characters. Investigations and suspicions continue, as the body count piles up.

Humphries writes:
Sei donne per l'assassino [Blood and Black Lace] has at its core the theme of sexuality based on profit and exploitation—the exploitation of the female body for profit, whether by a ruthless male or his equally ruthless female partner who in no way yields to him when it comes to getting the most economically out of patriarchal capitalism. For Cristina sadistically punishes the body of any woman who refuses to be passive, thus behaving in a masculine fashion that aligns her unconsciously with patriarchy. It is significant that the first victim wanted a share in the money the couple makes from drugs and was blackmailing the villain. Bava shows that the economic dimension of sexuality is where true morbidity lies. (Humphries.)

The last quarter of the film plays homage to Double Indemnity (1944) as it turns out that there are two killers (a couple), who inevitably kill each other off with their own greed. Unlike Double Indemnity though, Blood and Black Lace revels in the sexual brutality of its punishment to its beautiful cast. A particular scene that is worth pointing out has a female victim, being suffocated by a pillow. As the killer smothers her, her legs don’t spastically kick as much as they writhe. This over sexualized murder is meant to arouse the male audience with death, and this would become a reoccurring motif within the genre. But what message does it send to the female audience? That submissiveness to the male sexual desires extends as far as death? But when the murderer is revealed to be one-half woman, how then does this connect to the female audience? The women are to identify with both the assailant and the victim. Dario Argento would delve deeper into this psychology in his debut film The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1969).

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969)

Prior to directing, Argento assisted with Bernardo Bertolucci on writing Once Upon A Time in the West (1968) for director Sergio Leone, as well as three other spaghetti westerns. Dario Argento appeared to have an amazing grasp on genre cinema and his directorial debut film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969), allowed him to explore the giallo genre. Picking up on the fetishistic elements of Bava’s film, Argento also incorporates the assassin’s gaze in matters of art (an important painting is significant to the mystery), murder (use of killer’s point of view) and death (though this can be misleading). Like Bava’s film, the revelation of the killer’s identity is not as apparent, because the gender is specifically equated with maleness. As the film opens, we are presented with snap shots of a beautiful woman in fragmented stages of her day. The voyeuristic photos are followed with a shot of a black-gloved hands typing and then caressing the blade of a knife. The metaphoric phallus and leather gloves can be seen as a fetishistic obsession that the murderer posses. If (as Freud points out) that the fetish is born of the castration of the female, then what does the murderer’s fetish reveal of his/ her identity?

Mendik states that:

Thus, Argento’s films use a giallo framework to organize narratives around the desire to undercover the identity of a transgressor, while also construct their females as victims of violence or symbolic castration. Paradoxically, they also depict certain female characters who either by adopting the role of the maternal or by virtue of their status as former victims manage to evade this position of oppression. (Mendik, 112.)

Transgression of the female identity to that of the males is marked by the trauma that the female has undergone, through that of her male attacker. In the case of Argento’s film, the murderer is revealed to be a woman who was previously attacked and raped by a psychotic killer, and has since related and adopted the identity of her attacker.

The protagonist of the film is an American writer in Italy who witnesses an attack in an art gallery while walking home one night. He witnesses a struggle between a male (dark figure) and a woman, but he is trapped between glass partitions unable to assist or speak out. Like the audience witnessing a cinema of attractions, the writer voyeuristically views the attempted attack. The investigators arrive and immediately accuse the witness of the crime, as the female victim is rushed to the hospital. The writer knows he saw something, but cannot recall what it was of the scene that was so uncanny. Throughout the film and the writer’s investigation, the scene continuously haunts him (especially during moments of love making). Though he cannot break through the predetermined gender roles to which he’ll realize the truth. His continual misreading of the crime prolongs his denouncement of the identity.

Mendik points out:

As replacement of sexual disorder the announcement through a Misreading of gender: In forcing his tortured protagonists, to look back and reassess what they have seen, Argento draws attention to the ease with which masculine perceptions of sexuality and gendered behavior can be unhinged. (Mendik, 45.)

When the writer does finally realize the identity it is through her unveiling, rather than his own epiphany. When the murderer removes the fedora, their (sinful) red hair falls out revealing her to be a female. The writer’s memory reveals that it was indeed the woman who was attacking the man in the gallery. Though, when looking back on the scene, we can see that Argento had always inserted symbolic clues of gender transgression. For the gallery creates a location of voyeurism and gender ambivalence.

Mendik furthers:

Other prominent iconography in the gallery includes an androgynous statuette. This embodies the fusion of breasts and phallic shaped beak instead of the head that Pacteau confirms as subverting the symbolic drive for classification of difference. (Mendik, 47.)

The gallery’s symbolic presentation of sexual transgression informs the audience of the killer’s identity, yet spends the rest of the film masking the witness’ primal realization.

Hundreds of films were born out of the giallo genre, yet I’ve barely covered two of them. Each film contains its own strange complexities and controversies, yet both of these films contain strong reoccurring motifs within the genre. This paper is an attempt at investigating some of the sexual themes and ideas of this genre, as well as trying to understand the appeal. Like the cinema of attractions, the audience is given short moments of questionable thrills that appeal to a physical reaction, while the investigative nature appeals to the mental. Like splintered cinematic moments these films present a violent fractured attraction of the body and mind.

Giallo Bibliography
Guins, Ray. “Tortured Looks: Dario Argento and Visual Displeasure.” Necromonion 1.1 (1996): pp. 141-153.
Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In) Credulous Spectator.” Oxford University Press (1974), pp. 736-750.
Humphries, Reynold. “Just Another Fashion Victim: Mario Bava’s Sei donne per l’assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964),” Kinoeye: A Fortnightly Journal of Film in the New Europe 1.7 (26 November 2001): available from: INTERNET
Mendik, Xavier. “Detection and Transgression: The investigative Drive of the Giallo.” Necromonicon 1.1 (1996): pp. 35-54.
Mendik, Xavier. “From the Monstrous Mother to the Third Sex: Female Abjection in the Films of Dario Argento.” Necromonicon 2.1 (1998): pp. 110-133.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Oxford University Press (1974), pp. 602-616.

Ray’s Cinematic Meditation on the Modernity of Charulata

Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964) examines a woman’s assertion for love, while being fixed in a lonely marriage. From the opening credits we see a wife whose identity is not defined by her image, but that of her dutiful hands embroidering the letter “B” which identifies her husband’s name Bhupati, onto a handkerchief. The exposition marks Charu to be the outsider, who spies on the outdoor world through binocular opera glasses. Her British colonial home is made up of paintings and furniture that bear little relation to her own identity, making her an outsider even in her own gilded cage. Seemingly bored, Charu flips through books, plays piano and cards, eats kulfi, and spies on her work-distracted husband. It is the arrival of her husband’s cousin/ brother Amal who sweeps through the door like a monsoon storm and straight into Charu’s heart. Despite the simple premises, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata has more on its mind than a simple love triangle; Ray’s bigger concern is with female modernity.

Charu gazes upon her husband through opera glasses, as if waiting to be a participant in his world, where she is currently an observer. The first time we see Bhupati, he literally walks right past Charu as if she were invisible. This is emphasized even more, during their first dialogue, which occurs over a meal that only her husband enjoys. Charu sits passively, watching her husband eat by himself and discuss their lifestyle. This lack of unification emphasizes Charu’s relationship with her husband as a distant one. Yet at this time in India, the early 1900s, a woman’s position in marriage is what defined her. For example, Darius Cooper writes:

In India, a woman’s identity never belongs to her. It is wholly defined by her relationship to others. The patriarchal Indian tradition always forces her to play what it deems the appropriate role of daughter/ sister/ wife/ mistress/ daughter within the narrow confines of the Indian family structure. (Cooper, 40.)

Charu’s identity is solely defined by her relationship to her husband. Not only does Charu embroider, but she also supervises domestic chores, serves meals, and spends her idle time performing feminine pastimes. Though her husband is politically liberal, his perspective of women is still not fully progressive. Though he acknowledges that, “even a widow can hold her head up high” (in reference to the modern times), the word “even” suggests that “widow” is still viewed in society as a negative. The film was titled The Lonely Wife internationally, and the first quarter of the film supports this title as Charu lives out a pretty banal and disconnected existence. Her husband even picks up on this when he blatantly asks his wife if she is lonely; Charu honestly responds, “I have gotten used to it.” Bhupati, however, doesn’t provide advice or a cure for her loneliness…well, not intentionally.

Amal’s entrance into the film is not immediately a transformation of Charu’s modernity, for she continues to fulfill the wife role even with Amal. She mends his clothes, feeds him beetle leaves, and acts as a maternal host. This is not very surprising considering the traditional relationship between an Indian wife and her husband’s younger brother. According to Chidananda Das Gupta:

The word in Sanskrit for husband’s younger brother literally means ‘second husband’…Ritualistically, therefore, the husband’s younger brothers and cousins are vaguely placed in a sort of ‘second husband’ position, ready to take his place, as it were, but never actually doing so. Even today, it is an ambiguous relationship, made up of brotherly affection often overlaid with tinges of sexuality. (Das Gupta, 43.)

The brotherly affection that Charu initially has for Amal evolves into something greater as she is able to connect with him more than her own husband.

It is with Amal that Charu becomes more actively engaged, redefining her identity to be more than a mere observer and devotee of her husband’s world. After all, Amal and Charu share parallel interests and sensibilities; she finally has someone with whom she can express herself. Amal lives a relaxed and an uncomplicated existence, shares a similar fascination for the book Sharmulata, dabbles on the piano, loves to sing, write poetry, and expresses him self romantically. Both Charu and Amal also view Bhupati in similar ways. Just as the exposition of the film opens with Charu observing Bhupati through binoculars, when Amal fist reunites with his cousin, he too looks at him through a magnifying glass. Amal and Charu, parallel characters, are equally disconnected from their foil Bhupati and his world. While Bhupati prioritizes his work for his newspaper The Sentinel, Amal and Charu are more interested in the world of fiction and feeding the imagination. It is ironic however, that Bhupati prides himself on what he calls “living politics” because he doesn’t exactly practice modernity within his actual household.

Feminist scholarship has argued that the home in fact functioned in the 1870s and 1880s as the place where the difficulties faced by the middle-class male in an unequal and racist public life were compensated. This space of tradition was the realm over which he could reign supreme, even if, as in many other domains of colonial experience, concepts of the traditional had been reshaped in terms of modern codes, in this case those of house management and child rearing. But this home was a space subject to repression, and women had to shoulder the burden of representing a traditional identity protected from the inroads of hierarchical colonial culture. (Vasudevan, 19.)

The contrast of Bhupati’s essentially traditional perspective and Charu and Amal’s more modern point-of-view is emphasized during one scene in particular. Unable to comprehend lofty and romantic poetry, Bhupati humorously interrupts Amal’s reading of his poem, only to be fixated on his opening line concerning; “a moonless light.” Bhupati tells his younger brother that he is only interested in what is “real” and “scientific.” Amal responds by asserting that he is a student of literature, not science. After a moment of deliberation, Bhupati swiftly changes the subject to a more conservative and conventional topic, never allowing Amal to finish his poem. Frustrated by his younger brother’s literary and lackadaisical sensibility, Bhupati suggests, as a traditional patriarch, that Amal get married to a well-mannered and educated daughter of a lawyer. Understanding that Amal would need a more romantic motivation, Bhupati tries to seduce him into marriage with the potential traveling experiences that it would bring. For a moment, Amal and Bhupati are mesmerized by fantasies of Europe and the Mediterranean. Charu, meanwhile, who is eavesdropping, is anxious and disappointed by notions of Amal’s marriage and travels. However, Amal quickly snaps out of his daydream with three simple words, “Long live Bengal,” unintentionally putting a smile on Charu’s face. Her “second husband” would stick around for a little longer.

Charu doesn’t repress her desires but acts in subtly seductive ways with her newfound confidant, Amal. Although, in the opening scene of the film, she is seen embroidering a handkerchief for Bhupati, Charu transfers her affections to Amal, stitching a journal for him (with the promise that his writings will be exclusively for her). She longs for emotional intimacy with him, something that she has yet to find with her husband. Perhaps, the height of Charu and Amal’s romance occurs during Ray’s famous garden scene, which is significant, as it is the first time we see Charu outdoors- the perfect context for her to broaden her identity which has been limited within the confines of her colonial home. Interestingly enough, Charu’s first words in this scene to Amal are “Forget your brother”- advice that she intends on taking herself. Although Amal is a catalyst in Charu’s world, encouraging her to express herself in an unprecedented way, the onus of that initiation belongs to Charu. After all, it is Charu who asks Amal for a “push on the swing” and specifically says; “all I need is one.” Amal’s push symbolizes Charu’s transition into freedom of self-expression (which is later furthered by her literary achievements), for we see her soar into the air expressing an unbridled freedom. The audience feels Charu’s levity as the camera swings with her and captures her point-of-view as well as her euphoric facial expressions. Later, when Charu suffers from writer’s block, her creativity is restored only when she visits this swing, her symbolic place of liberation.

Amal’s symbolic push is furthered when he encourages Charu to continue writing and compliments her when she is published in a leading newspaper. However, things between Amal and Charu suddenly change when Amal leaves without warning. When Charu reads the letter of Amal’s abrupt departure, she falls to the ground and weeps. Though crying is most often associated with moments of weakness, Charu’s tears represent a determining strength.

But while the former [Bhupati] emerges as a liberal patriarch with little understanding of the deeper workings of the mind, the latter’s [Amal] sensitivity is compromised by an almost casual inability to cope either with the pressures of the ‘old’ or challenges of the ‘new’. Only Charu, the modern Bengali woman comes through as a figure carrying the strength to face the consequences of her actions. (Misra, 1053.)

Though she has compromised her marriage, Charu’s tears, signifies her independent struggle in expressing her heart’s desires.

In conclusion, Bhupati witnesses her passionate sorrow and finally comes to the realization that his wife and his cousin have feelings for one another. This epiphany leads him to a carriage ride through darkness during which time he cries and uses the very handkerchief that Charu has embroidered for him. For a moment, it appears as though he may be leaving his wife, but he eventually returns to her. When he arrives back home, his head hangs down in shame, and it is Charu that invites him in--- into her world. In the concluding scene of the film Bhupati reaches for Charu’s hand, and then the shot freezes. The terms of their union are not yet decided upon, but it does signify the hope that their marriage will be based on more equal terms. The last shot of the film is of the symbolic handkerchief, a motif of Charu’s domesticity and dutifulness. Though, Charu and Bupati’s union is cast in the background in a shadow of uncertainty, the high-lighted discarded handkerchief makes it clear that Charu’s role as wife has taken on new meaning, that of modernity.

Cooper, Darius. The Home and the World. Satyajit Ray, Film Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Winter, 1989-1990), pp. 40-43. University of California Press Stable URL: INTERNET
Das Gupta, Chidananda. Charulata. Satyajit Ray, Film Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Autumn, 1967), pp. 42-45. University of California Press; available from INTERNET
Misra, Amaresh. Satyajit Ray's Films: Precarious Social-Individual Balance. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 27, No. 20/21 (May 16-23, 1992), pp. 1052-1054. Economic and Political Weekly; available from INTERNET
Vasudevan, Ravi. Nationhood, Authenticity and Realism in Indian cinema: The Double Take of Modernism in the Work of Satyajit Ray. Moinak Biswas ed. Apu and After: Revisiting Ray’s Cinema, London: Seagull (2006), pp. 1-29.

Crash and the Sexual Fetish of Commodity Goods

“A tear of petrol is in your eye. The hand brake penetrates your thigh. Quick let’s make love before you die.”
-Warm Leatherette by the Normal

I first saw Crash on opening day, back on March 21st, 1997, in San Francisco, California. I went into the film only knowing that it came from a controversial book, it was directed by David Cronenberg and that it was rated NC-17 (a rarity amongst studio productions). The film presented a world of graphic sex and disturbing car crash images that made a liberal minded San Francisco audience uncomfortable enough, that quite a few walked out of the movie. Though after viewing the soft-porn film, something registered and puzzled me. Was our love so strong for commodity goods that we could derive sexual gratification from them?

David Cronenberg’s adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s existential novel, Crash, depicts a despotic and dehumanized world, where cars as commodities are fetishized and sexualized. Society’s obsession with car and celebrity culture is taken to an extreme, as characters reenact famous car crashes. The crashes result in the body taking on a new shape and a sexualized form, as the mind fetishizes the very trauma that reshaped its body. Unable to connect, characters participate in emotionally void sex, until through a metaphorical crash that these humans come alive. True sexual gratification is achieved through, reenactment of their own (or a celebrity’s crash), or the exploration of wounds. The wounds and scars of an accident become new sexual organs. Car manufacturing logos are tattooed on the body, and then fetishized in sexual practice. Cronenberg’s film is told with the act of sex that can be seen as pornographic, yet Crash is also a study of fetishism in our world. The fusion of modern technology with that of the human body creates a newer sexual awakening.

Crash, written in 1973 and made into a movie in 1997 by David Cronenberg, depicts characters who push their fascination with things like death of a celebrity in a car crash to an absurd limit, using such events as models for a new form of sexuality deriving not from nature and life but from technology and death. (Butterfield, 65.)

Cronenberg’s cinematic obsession of human body parts being trans-mutated by technology can be seen in much of his work. Rabid (1977) deals with a victim of a motorcycle crash who’s body become a deadly viral weapon after an operation from plastic surgery. Videodrome (1983) presents cable channels and videos, which when viewed, distorts and deforms the mind and body. The Fly (1986) uses a technological machine that breaks down the molecules of an object and transports them to a twin receiver. This machine will technologically alter the body of a human with that of an accompanying insect (fly), changing and (again) deforming the character’s body. Dead Ringers (1988) offers twin gynecologists who invent new technological tools to aide in mutilating and reshaping the female organ. eXistenZ (1999) (which foreshadows the Matrix trilogy) uses virtual reality as a theme to explore the deforming and reshaping of the mind and body. Crash is no exception, and follows the similar Cronenberg theme, which actually personalizes Ballard’s novel. Though Ballard’s the author of the book, Cronenberg is most definitely the auteur of the film. Cronenberg has presented this theme repeatedly in his previous films, though in Crash he metaphorically uses Freudian and Marxist theory to explain the neurosis of the characters involved.

Crash opens with Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) laying her left breast against an airplane, as a man comes behind her and performs oral-anal sex. This cuts to James (James Spader) performing the same sexual act on a girl who he works with. The character’s name “James,” is based on the author of the novel James G. Ballard. Both Catherine and James discuss whether each had climaxed during their respective coitus, yet both were left unsatisfied. James is a director of a film that appears to be staging a car crash. The novelist Ballard wrote a film version of Crash (1971), before the book was written (I suspect Cronenberg is cinematically acknowledging this). In this early filmic proposal, the same themes would manifest itself into his novel. The author Ballard breaks down his observation of the modern man, who shares an emotional relationship with the automobile and its accompanying environment.

I think the key image of the 20th century is the man in the motor car (it sums up everything), the elements of speed, drama, aggression, the junction of advertising and consumer goods of the technological landscape, the sense of violence and desire, power and energy, the shared experience of moving together through an elaborately signaled landscape. (Ballard)

James is driving home one night, when he gets into a head-on collision. The victim of the wreck flies through his windshield dead. James can see that the victim’s hand is blistered, swollen with blood. The imprinting on his hand is in the shape of a triton, which is the car manufacturer’s medallion logo. James’ twisted front medallion suggests this exchange, as the victim has become the commodity in death.

Karl Marx states:
But not to anticipate we will content ourselves with yet another example relating to the commodity form. Could commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange values. (Marx, 7.)

When James’ witnesses the victim’s death, he sees him as a reflection of his own car ownership. The victim’s imprinting suggests his relation to the commodity form.

Through the metallic penetration, James has a sexual awakening. James new fetish has been realized through trauma and the visualization, of the human and commodity good fusing together. The victim’s wife Helen in the opposite car reveals her breast to James, as she too has the same sexual experience. James awakes in the hospital with a visit from Catherine, who informs him that Helen is a doctor. James’ encounters Helen in the hallway, with Vaughn. James’ is on crutches with his leg is in a metallic brace with pins. Helen walks with a cane, and is startled when she sees James. Catherine visits James and will masturbate him while describing a car accident. James climaxes quickly, and revolts back in shame. James fetishizes his own tragedy and is turned on by descriptions of the twisted debris of an accident. Sigmund Freud relates this with:

It seems rather that when the fetish is instituted some process occurs which reminds one of the stopping of memory in traumatic amnesia. As in this latter case, the subject’s interest comes to a halt half way, as it were; it is as though the last impression before the uncanny and traumatic one is retained as a fetish. (Freud, 155.)

James’ vision of a bodily transformation in death has produced a fetish in him, for an automobile penetration or a crash.

Throughout the film, James joins a group of likeminded fetishists. Vaughn (the horribly scarred leader), Helen, Gabriele (who’s leg is horribly mutilated and crippled), Colin (who desires to die as Jane Mansfield in a car crash), and Vera (Colin’s mentally damaged wife) all reside in a home called the “Nerve Center.” Though James is a member of the group, he exploits their wounds for his sexual gratification.

Throughout Crash, however, James tends to transgress boundaries through the penetration of the wounds of others while his own body remains largely intact. The boundaries of female bodies, of Vaughn’s body, and, by extension, those of the medium of film, often seem more porous and fluid than those of James’ body and perhaps of fiction itself. (Beckman, 109)

James’ wounds are never shown after his stay at the hospital, nor does he (or anyone else) use them for sexual pleasure. Yet, James will have sex with Gabriele’s (vaginal) leg wound, and worship Vaughn’s scarred/ tattooed (with a Lincoln Mercury logo) body. Both Vaughn and Colin give up their life experiencing a final fatal crash, but James remains a voyeur to his fetish.

Though the sexually initiated explore their newfound sexuality, James’ wife Catherine, is still uninitiated to their psychosis. James will have sex with all the accident victims, and is able to climax quickly, while he and his wife have sexual trouble. Catherine uses verbal descriptions of Vaughn to ejaculate him. James continuously tries to create a crash for Catherine, so that they can connect with this fetish. At the end of the film, James bumps his car into Catherine’s, and she drives off the side of the road. Her car is turned over sideways emitting smoke, as she lay on the grassy hill beaten and bruised. James checks on her and asks if she is okay; she responds with “yes, I think I’m alright.” He replies, “Maybe next time.” He begins to have sex with his car-battered wife, knowing that she has still not been fully initiated by the crash. Cronenberg’s conclusion establishes a metaphor of societal sexual disconnect, through our obsession of commodity goods.

Crash Bibliography
Beckman, Karen. Film Falls Apart: Crash, Semen, and Pop. Grey Room, No. 12 (Summer, 2003), pp. 94-115. The MIT Press; available from INTERNET
Butterfield, Bradley. Ethical Value and Negative Aesthetics: Reconsidering the Baudrillard-Ballard Connection. PMLA, Vol. 114, No. 1, Special Topic: Ethics and Literary Study (Jan., 1999), pp. 64-77. Modern Language Association; available from INTERNET
Crash! Prod. and Dir. by Harley Cokliss, 18 min. BBC Four Prod., 1971, DVD.
Freud, Sigmund. Fetishism. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Translated by James Strachey. Vol. 21. London: Hogart Press, 1964, pp. 149-157.
Marx, Karl. Section 4: The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof. Capital Volume One, Part I: Commodities and Money, Chapter One: Commodities, available from INTERNET


Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo (1958) is a psychological thriller with themes that are preoccupied by necrophilia, the subjective gaze, obsessive desire and neurosis. Based on the book D’Entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Vertigo is an uncanny look at investigation and murder through the eyes of John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart). Much criticism has been written of the male’s character having the controlling (male) gaze upon that of the female character. Writer Robin Wood has criticized that, “the spectator constructed by the film is clearly male.” Yet, if it is Scottie’s gaze, then his perspective transgresses from male desire to female construction. Though, I’m not fully convinced that it is purely Scottie’s subjective gaze. The audience views a morbid perception, which fluctuates between male and female throughout the film.

The one scene in particular that seems to never get full critical mention is the opening scene. We see a black and white shot (which is often an association with the past) of Vista Vision, and then a woman's face appears, and she turns to color (the present). The female looks right then left, and then the camera zooms in on her left eye. Through multiple viewings, I’m convinced that the woman in the credits is Carlotta Valdez. The black and white shot links the image to the past, as it fades to the present in artificial color. It's as if the camera is penetrating the gaze of the dead woman, as her eye (vision) turns into spirals, foreshadowing Scottie's psychosis. After Saul Bass’ visually stunning credits pass, her eye appears again, gazing upon the opening scene. A detective, Scottie, is in pursuit of a criminal across the rooftops of buildings. Scottie slips and falls from the roof hanging (for his life) from a drainpipe. Another police officer tries to save him, but falls. At this point I believe the gaze of Carlotta shifts to Scottie, as he watches the man plunge to his death. Scottie’s vision and subconscious becomes locked in trauma, for we never see him saved from the drainpipe.

If the gaze of the narrative has shifted to Scottie, it is definitely an uncanny one. For the first time we see Scottie, it is in association with a cane. Mentally crippled, his fear of heights lead to vertigo and early retirement. This crippling can be seen as a metaphor for impotency, for Scottie is unable to rise to elevated challenges. His best friend is a bespectacled and asexual woman named Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), who designs strapless bras for a living. This is where the film introduces Midge’s perspective of repressed sexuality, and Scottie’s inability to climb a stepladder.

Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) recruits Scottie to follow his (seemingly) possessed wife, Madeline, as she spends her days attending an art gallery and meditating on the painted image of Carlotta Valdez. Madeline (Kim Novak), visits the gravesite and hotel room of the dead woman, as well as wears the woman’s jewelry (locket) and replicates her hairstyle. When she eventually tries to commit suicide by throwing herself into the San Francisco Bay, Scottie jumps in and rescues her. Back at Scottie’s apartment, Madeline awakes to find herself in a bathrobe (having been stripped nude by Scottie), while her clothes are hung to dry. It is through this unveiling of Madeline’s clothes that sets of Scottie’s sexual desire. It is at this point, where the criticism of the male subjective gaze is relevant, though more through insinuation. It is also, important to know, that Scottie up to this point has been lead to these desires through Madeline’s perceived performance to lure Scottie in. She finally leads him to the Spanish Mission, where she abandons Scottie to run up the bell tower. Unable to complete the climb of the bell tower steps (due to his vertigo), Madeline jumps to her death.

The other extremely important scene that I want to mention is the dream sequence. Which begins with animated flowers unraveling to pieces, as we see an image of Gavin next to Carlotta. Scottie’s investigative nature leads him to walk towards Carlotta's grave. As he gets closer to look, the film cuts to Scottie's head (which exits without his body). In Scotti’s transgression he will inhabit the body of Madeline, as she falls from the tower. It appears as if Scottie’s perspective has fused with that of the dead Madeline, which I believe counters the exclusive male construction theory. When Midge visits Scottie at the hospital, he is as possessed as Madeline once was, and is unable to even register the visit.

Scottie eventually meets Judy Barton (Kim Novak again) and becomes obsessed with recreating Madeline out of her (just as Madeline was recreating herself out of Carlotta). Scottie appears to be forming a necrophilia fetish, in his need to rebuild Judy to match his sexual desire for a dead woman. At this point the gaze transfers to Judy, as the audience views what really happened at the bell tower. We see that Gavin set the whole thing up and murdered his own wife, with the help of Judy. Unaware of the truth, Scottie views Madeline’s doppelganger as a second chance. Yet, Scottie still suffers from vertigo (his metaphoric impotency) and now can only content himself with female reconstruction. Through the dress rehearsal, dye job, and overall reshaping, Judy appears to Scottie as an apparition in the finished state. When Judy/ Madeline approaches Scottie, she is lit with a green light, creating a translucent, ghost-like quality. Scottie’s haunted perception, transgresses from maleness into the realm of otherness, as he is absolutely consumed by feminine details. Modleski futhers my point:

My analyses of Hitchcock have been in part been meant to demonstrate that this male spectator is as much “deconstructed” as constructed by the films, which reveal a fascination with femininity that throws masculine identity into question and crisis. (Modleski, 87.)

Scottie’s masculine crisis has been constructed by Judy’s performance of Madeline. It is through her projection, that Scottie suffers in his haunted psychosis. Scottie’s transgression acts as a karmic lesson to Judy, who had no business impersonating (first) Gavin’s wife, and (secondly) the dead Carlotta.

Through Judy’s sentimentality for Carlotta’s locket, Scottie discovers the truth. He forces to Judy to relive the fateful night where Madeline was killed. Through reenactment, Scottie is finally able to ascend the stairs, curing his psychosis. But the fate of Judy is one claimed by death, for she frightfully jumps from the bell tower when hearing the approaching steps, of what she believes to be Gavin. Though her death is not delivered through Gavin, but that of the messenger of spirituality and redemption, as it was an approaching nun. The last shot is extremely significant in that we now see Scottie standing on the edge (rather than hanging from it), viewing the demise of his illness, obsession and desire. If the woman (in the opening scene) is indeed Carlotta Valdez, was the destination of the story her out-worldly design? I believe Hitchcock is warning us not to impersonate one who is dead, or we will share their fate.

Vertigo Bibliography:
Modleski, Tania. “The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory,” New York: Routledge, (1988), pg. 87-100.
Wood, Robin. "Fear of Spying," American Film (November 1982): 35.

The Revival of the Lost Metropolis

On Sunday, May 9th 2010 I attended Film Forum revival and unveiling of Fritz Lang’s science fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1927). The new version boasts twenty-five minutes of newly found footage that was discovered in Argentine, back in 2008. Not only has the film increased to a whopping 145 minutes, but the new structure of the film elevates it to much more of a thriller, in a science fiction setting. The new version has created a new character as well, known as “The Thin Man,” who acts as a henchman for Joh Fredersen. The film was presented by the Argentine woman who found the missing film, she told the audience that the film was actually from a 16 mm negative, struck from a now missing print. The transferring obviously cropped the image, which itself was an extremely scratched (beyond repair) print. The newly found footage was seamlessly edited within a beautiful print that was presented in the correct aspect ratio. Whatever imperfections exist today, there is still no denying that after 82 years, we can now see the film that Lang had intended.

The film Metropolis is set in a futuristic city, where planes, cars, and trains circulate around a modern Tower of Babel. The city’s lights are lit by the struggles of working-class families, who dwell in an underground housing community. The mother of all hope rests on the shoulders of the beautiful Maria (Brigitte Helm), herself a prophet, philosopher and guru for the workers. She leads the workers with peace, yet they are becoming restless and impatient for change. Freder, (Gustav Frohlich) is the son of the creator of the city, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). Freder falls hard for Maria, and immediately adopts her political ideology. After witnessing the slave-like treatment of the workers below, Freder works against his father to help his fellow “brothers.” Joh gets wind of his son’s affections and persuades the mad inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to create a mechanical double of Maria, to lead the workers and Freder astray. Rotwang agrees, but has other plans concerning a workers revolt that will backfire on Joh.

One of the missing subplots of Metropolis concerns the relationship of Joh and Rotwang. Where previous prints presented a crazy inventor who seemed motivated by his maniacal madness, the new version includes a back-story concerning their parallel love for Freder’s mother Hel. Rotwang blames her death on Joh, who married and impregnated her. This piece of the film is important, because it creates a tension between Joh and Rotwang, while also giving reason to why Joh is so detached and heartless on matters concerning the worker’s plight. It’s as if Joh has buried himself in the creation of city, mourning the loss of his love. His missing heart becomes a part of the overall metaphor of Metropolis, which lays in the connectivity of hand to head, for the heart acts as a connection mediator. I’ve always thought of Metropolis as having a philosophical message, but it become more evident in the new print. The film also rewards the viewer with new footage of the cities’ flapper nightlife, where a worker (who was relieved of his shift by an incognito Freder) takes a luxurious cab ride. The surreal scene has money falling from the sky, as he lives out a moment of Freder’s spoiled life.

Lang’s Metropolis has been called the last of the German Expressionist films to come out of the silent era. Presenting the pinnacle of surrealist and futurist sets, Lang uses mirrors to create the illusion of a massive despotic city, which dwarfs the collected voice of the exploited workers. Lang has truly created his Tower of Babel, which hovers over the shadowed world. Lang’s use of shadows and machinery, fascist-futurist architecture, and abstract design, helps to create a desolate and inhuman world. If The Cabinet of Dr, Caligari (1919) introduced a German expressionist style, Metropolis realizes all its possible potentialities. Strangely, the world of Metropolis lacks a sense of law (policeman are never seen), or if there is a law it seems to be regulated by technology. When the worker falter the city fails, as if the city relies on the sweat and toil of the worker’s embodiment with technology, even the body is contorted into abstract motions of a clock. The transformation of Rotwang’s robot into Maria is still a stunning and thrilling achievement in science fiction effects. It’s as if German cinema had reached a futuristic expression, delivering a message of humanity in a mechanical world.

The introduction of “The Thin Man” in the new print is both comical (his arrogant and smarmy look received many laughs from the audience) and menacing (he bullies Joh’s ex-assistant Josaphat into revealing Freder’s plans and whereabouts). “The Thin Man” character acts as Joh’s oppressive means to control Freder, and his presence was reduced to the significance of an extra in previous prints. As the film continues though, “The Thin Man” character begins to gain a conscious, and cautions Joh of the worker’s revolt (as his loyalty begins to falter). One of the interesting aspects of Metropolis is Lang’s humanist view locked in an inhuman environment. No character is inheritably evil, as all (from creator to worker) is shown to have heart in the end. Only the incurably mad Rotwang meets a fatal demise without moral rehabilitation.

As the ending credits appeared and the theater lights opened up the Sunday afternoon, I felt as if I just saw Metropolis for the first time. Though an actuality I’ve seen the film too numerous to count, the newer version created an aura that I hadn’t previously experienced. With twenty-five additional minutes of scratched beauty inter-cut with a pristine two-hour version, we finally begin to put the Metropolis puzzle together. No longer speculating on the missing pieces, the world can finally witness Metropolis’ many complexities. As we forge into the future with newer technological and media advancements, Lang’s cautionary tale is ripe for revaluation and consideration. As films like Star Wars (1977), Bladerunner (1982), 1984 (1984), Dark City (1998), Gattaca (1997), The Matrix (1999), and V for Vendetta (2005) were to follow; Metropolis acts as a science fiction touchstone, for our imagining and predicting of the future. Fritz Lang was a true visionary, who continues to imagine a world we still might create.

Bonnie and Clyde

I must say that I really enjoyed Matthew Bernstein’s article, “Perfecting the New Gangster.” I’ve always really loved Bonnie and Clyde, yet I hadn’t really read much on the film, this was a great article. I knew that Truffaut had been interested in making Bonnie and Clyde, but I didn’t really know the story behind it. I’d always known Arthur Penn to have a very artistic style that seemed influenced by the New Wave, but it was nice to see it confirmed in this article. I’d previously seen the film Mickey One (1964), which was a sort of surreal noir film that deals with a stand up comics paranoia of feeling he is going to be assasinated at any time (which also starred Warren Beatty). But Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde takes on the generation, as something more defining. Like Bernstein’s article points out, both Bonnie and Clyde represent the 60s youth culture and flower children. In some ways, Bonnie and Clyde can be seen as a precursor to Easy Riders characters who meet a similar fatal end. Both evoke a similar spirit concerning America.

David Newton and Robert Benton created a timely script in the wake of the New Waves interest in the 30s and 40s gangster film. Previous films like Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Godard’s Band of Outsiders played with ideas about romance and crime, it makes a lot of sense that Bonnie and Clyde would appeal to them, yet Truffaut’s input in the script was a real surprise to me. Through all the massive re-writes it seems that they hit the perfect balance of an early gangster film mixed with a modern New Wave approach.

The films sexuality seems to be a curious one, with Clyde being impotent homosexual and Bonnie being the sexual aggressor. The film seems to be examining the changing sexual identities of the youth of the 60s, while crating anti-heroes out of criminals (the film the Harder They Come would do the same thing a few years later). The characters criminal exploits make them enemy outsiders of a bigger establishment (the banks), which American the youths of the 60s related to. Bonnie and Clyde’s pace can be seen as modernist in approach, as the editing crucially gives the film a hectic speediness right up to the bloody final. The ending was a real jaw dropper for me when I first saw it, for I was not prepared for the bloody shoot out.

New Waves and Young Cinemas, 1958- 1967

The New Wave period between 1958- 1967 is quite possibly the most exciting period of cinema for me. Modernist approach seemed to take over across the world, and the films released between this time were artistically and politically challenging. For the first time, many young directors emerged with either the benefit of film criticism or film school. Newer approaches in cinema style were being tested, either in editing (Godard’s jump cuts), cinematography (Raoul Coutard’s noir influenced photography), directing (Antonioni’s director’s gaze), storytelling (Truffaut’s autobiographical Antoine Doinel series), choreography (Demy’s poetic and lyrical musicals), and characterization (U.K.’s brooding social melodramas). This period defined artistic stylizations, that would pave the way as well as reshapening Hollywood in the 70s.

Film History’s Chapter 20 breaks down the different countries contributions to this period of filmmaking. The most written about directors of this period seem to stem from France, and quite a few of the directors got their start writing for Cahiers du cinema. Truffaut and Godard also tend to be the poster boys of this movement, yet I’ll add that it was Claude Chabrol who produced the first film of the bunch (subsequently he’s made the most films) and yet his strongest work tends to start at around 1967 and continued until the early 70s. Due to DVD releases, Eric Rohmer’s Moral Tales series has gained more admirers recently, yet Jacques Rivette’s work is curiously impossible to find (Rivette’s 1971, 773 minute “Out 1″ is an absolute Holy Grail for me). The wonderful Agnes Varda has been gaining newer admirers as well, as she continues to create ground breaking work.

One director that undeservedly gets little attention is Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski. Skolimowski’s Identification Marks: None, Walkover, Barriers, Le Depart, and Deep End are all amazing films that challenge sexuality, politics and obsession. Yet to this date none of his early films have had either VHS or DVD releases, leaving one to wait for a retrospective at an arthouse cinema (Anthology Film Archives finally had one a couple of years ago which was amazing!) Skolimowski’s first three films challenged Poland’s political state, which inadvertantly halted the release of one of his films (“Hand’s Up”) for nearly 10 years. He’s a director that should be evaluated a little bit more.

This is a really fascinating time for cinema that I urge everyone to check out.

Double Indemnity

James M. Cain’s bitter, melodrama, became a crime masterpiece under the guidance of Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s edgy screenplay. Yet it is Wilder’s brilliant direction that transforms Double Indemnity into a quintessential Noir film. With Fred MacMurray as the loser protagonist, Barbara Stanwyck as the cool femme fatale, and a cigar chewing Edward G. Robinson as MacMurray’s boss and amateur sleuth, all the essential elements of Noir conventions are in place. Double Indemnity would almost be a parody in Film Noir, had it not taken itself so seriously, which it does for there is very little humor to fill the dark shadows.

MacMurray is a cocky, self-assured life insurance sales man, who is first introduced to Stanwyck at her home. As Stanwyck’s feet descend down the stairs, salesman MacMurray is transfixed by her ankle bracelet, which cuts into her skin. She gives mention that she was out sunbathing, yet very little sunlight can be found in this film from here on out, for as her intentions to kill her husband and collect on the freshly written insurance plan, there can be no more sunny days as darkness engulfs the characters. Though Stanwyck represents a sort of spider woman who catches MacMurray in her web, I find it interesting that she refuses to glimpse at her husband when he is being murdered.

Wilder’s direction plays a lot with darkness and shadows, which can be seen as a form closely resembling German expressionism. Throughout the interiors, reflections of Venetian blinds are projected upon the characters, as well as other abstract shadowy patterns. The constant foreboding atmosphere is for-shadowed when MacMurray limps on to the train acting as Stanwyck’s injured husband (who is actually at this time dead). Just as MacMurray steps into the husband’s identity, he also steps into his fate. Not only does he embody a victim, he must ritually go through the motions of the victim’s death. Making conversation with a passenger and then jumping from the train, MacMurray, then places the dead husband on the tracks where he has just jumped. It’s interesting to note that an insurance salesman has not only stolen a man’s wife, but has stolen his very identity right on down to his actual fate.

It should be noted that director John Cassavetes’ last film Big Trouble parodied Double Indemnity in the 80s at around the same time that Lawrence Kasdan was paying serious homage to it with his film Body Heat.

Gregg Toland and Citizen Kane

When watching Citizen Kane, I’ve always felt that Gregg Toland’s input was always understated in history book. Yet, through recent years Toland has been receiving more and more credit for his cinematography on Citizen Kane. One only needs to watch his earlier cinema graphic efforts (like Dead End. Wuthering Heights and Grapes of Wrath) to see that the look of Citizen Kane is more Toland than Welles. Carringer’s article does a good job bringing to light Toland’s efforts. Though through the article I also realized that maybe Welles had more input than I’d previously thought. With such ground breaking techniques as deep-focus, log takes, low-angle and a variety of compositional camera angles, Citizen Kane revolutionized movie making as a true art form.

Tolland was not just a cinematographer but a technical innovator as well. Carringer refers to Toland as a “gadgeteer” who could make any gadgets work for him. Many processes and devices that are in use to this day were invented by Toland. Toland made good use of BNC camera, which allowed him to film action in close proximity. Despite typical halo effects derived from shooting directly into light, Toland was able to eliminate this effect by removing the sliding aperture from the lens and added an insert that was normally be used for still photography. This was called a “waterhouse stop.” During Citizen Kane, Welles would often encourage Toland’s tinkering.

Despite all that Toland brought to the filming of Citizen Kane, it was through Welles’ encouragement that Toland was able to master many of his experiments. Where in earlier film like The Long Voyage Home, some of Toland’s work is at odds with the directors intentions; Citizen Kane works a harmonious integration between director and cinematographer. A new sense of reality is born in the film, mixing Toland’s reality with that of Welles’ showmanship.

Though Toland’s work is remarkable in Citizen Kane and he was nominated as best cinematographer by the Academy, he lost out to Arthur Miller for How Green Was My Valley. It is through this decision that makes obvious the resentment that the Academy felt about Citizen Kane, which is possibly due to Hearst, who had been trying to put a stop to the film upon its release. Apparently, Hearst was upset at the way his wife was portrayed in the film (see documentary on Hearst Vs. Kane). Though after so many years, Citizen Kane is finally recognized as one of the crowning achievements in film history.

Preston Sturges, An Underrated Director

I’d first introduced myself to the work of Preston Sturges back in 1990, when I got my first video store job. Though to this day I have not seen all of his films, I have seen a good portion of them. Interestingly, the film that I love the most by him is barely touched upon in the article by James Harvey. Sturges’ 1942 film Sullivan’s Travels is for me, Sturges’ greatest realized work. With everything that Harvey writes about Sturges, it’s surprising to me that he fails to see comparisons between Sturges’ life and that of Sullivan’s Travels. The film begins with a film director who wants to make a gritty film about human suffering which the producers would like to talk him out of. Interestingly the film Sullivan wants to make is called “Brother O, Where Art Thou?” which the Coen Brothers slyly borrowed as the title for their 2000 release with George Clooney (was their film to be the realized work that Sullivan wanted to make?) Sullivan’s Travels was to be Sturges’ cult classic that which has been written about in the Cult Movies 2 book by Danny Perry, yet the film is merely mentioned by Harvey; as “a film about a filmmaker- was too unorthodox a picture to be really popular.”

Most people I’ve spoken with concerning Sturges’ work tend to site Lady Eve as their favorite, and I can see why. Lady Eve is a prime example of a screwball comedy, and both Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda are in top form (Henry Fonda is especially effective with his pratfalls), yet I prefer Sullivan’s Travels’ chemistry with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. Joel McCrea always seemed like a modern actor for the time and Veronica Lake has never looked so beautiful. Even when Veronica Lake is dressed like a male hobo, Joel McCrea responds, “you look about as much as a boy as Mae West.” The film is filled with many funny great lines, yet at the heart of the film is an extremely serious tone that probably confused audience expectations.

When reading James Harvey’s piece on Preston Stuges it’s amazing to me how personal Sullivan’s Travels seems. Like the director in the film, Sturges appears to have tried to tackle more serious topics in films, but only to fall back on comedies. And as John Sullivan (the director of the film) sets out on his journey of self-discovery, he finds that after living a hard life with people he intended to make his gritty film of human suffering for, he realizes that they would rather laugh at a comedy then be subjected to more misery. Never has a film taught me the importance and necessity of comedy as entertainment. I imagine that Sturges himself must have had some kind of similar revelation. The fact that the character John Sullivan is a divorcee also draws parallels between character and director, I’m sure Sturges had a few axes to grind after his divorces.

Preston Surges is really one of the very great directors of the 40s, and I highly recommend everyone to check out more of his work. Many that have discovered his work have become big fans and for good reason. Most of Sturges’ films are really funny but more than that they have something to say about our society (Sullivan’s Travels), politics (The Great McGinty), advertising (Christmas In July), wealth (The Palm Beach Story) and sexual one-night-stands (The Miracle of Morgan Creek). In my opinion Preston Sturges is an exciting discovery for anyone interested in screwball comedies or just good films.

Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

Laura Mulvey’s article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” is a study on our fascination for cinema. From the individual’s social molding, a preexisting fascination of film is created. Mulvey believes that women are the bearer of meaning rather than maker of meaning. Phallocentric theory has reduced the position of the woman to the point of observational interest, rather than creator of their projected image. Mulvey uses castration complex to examine woman’s image as bearer of a bleeding wound. If there is pleasure in looking, what visual interest does this have for women? Mulvey’s interest is to break from pleasure expectations, to conceive new ones.

Scopophilia is the pleasure to look, as well as being looked at. With cinema, we take people as objects, and subject them to a form of control through a curious gaze. Mulvey believes that in the extreme, we become voyeurs, whose sexual gratification comes from looking and controlling the “objectified other.”

“Woman as image and man as bearer of the look” has created a sexual imbalance in cinematic form. Males’ projected fantasy on women, has been problematic for harmonious interpretation of the sexes. The female has been “coded” as an erotic spectacle, which “freezes” the narrative for sexual consideration. Hetero-normative visualization seems to colonize the cinematic gaze.

There are three cinematic looks associated with cinema:
(1.) camera, (2.) audience, and (3.) character. Mulvey’s article believes that the neurotic needs of the male ego has created a one dimensional fetish of women presented as an image of castration threat.

Cinema of Attractions

Tom Gunning’s interesting article on the early film and the incredulous spectator, looks at early reactions to the new art form known as cinema. According to Maxim Gorky (a spectator from 1896), the mixture of realism and non-realism in film, “presents not life but it’s shadows.” Yet if the audience in watching in the shadows of the theater, does this shadowed life not become more magnified? Making our relationship to what we see on the screen all the more powerful? While the article explains that during the earliest showing of film (especially Lumiere’s Train) audience were terrified by the accosting images that were presented. Unable to grasp that film was not reality, many of the audience members screamed and ran for the exit doors. This knee-jerk response seems totally suitable to me though, for no one knew how to psychologically assess film yet. It also seems like a funny commentary on the way people feel that film can be dangerous, even at it’s most harmless.

“Excitement bordering on terror,” proclaimed a Montpellier journalist in 1896, seems to for-shadow future cinematic genres and explains our complicated relationship to film in terms of enjoyment. I myself am lured by the lurid, and transfixed by the objectionable, the psychological attraction to a cinema of terror is a complex one. The first decade of cinema is known as cinema of attractions, due to addressing the audience with an assaulting image. The are no dramas to be followed, just a presented moment meant as a “dose of scopic pleasure.” Yet the pleasure’s consisted of such things as railroad smash ups, elephant electrocutions and mug shots of female crooks, all quick and sensational viewing experiences. Yet there were also educational films that presented magnified insects, such as Charles Urban’s Unseen World series.

Another type of film, “curiositas” draw the viewer in with horrible sights as a means to excite, the act of seeing or the thirst of knowledge. These seem to act as a sort of precursor to exploitation cinema, or mondo documentaries of the 60s. The carny like presentation mixed with the repulsive attractions, were objectionable to many who found the entertainment vulgar or unrefined. Yet, I find most of these early films as merely a study on the relationship with humans and the need to watch things. Are we not attracted to what is shocking? Do we not slow down when we approach a car wreck, to witness what could be our own horrible destinies? Maybe there is something cathartic about viewing what could be our own personal fate in the dangerous world in which we inhabit.

The Close-Up (revisited) by Bela Balazs

“The Close-Up” by Bela Balazs, breaks down the importance and poetry of the cinematic close-up. In the days of the silent films, the close-up revealed hidden things of life that we thought we already knew so well. From a general to a particular, the close-up transforms. The close-up deepens and widens our vision of life, while revealing new things and the meaning of old things. Emphasis can be found in the quality of a gesture, a speechless face, or an object and it’s importance in a visual life. The close-up has a “lyrical charm” that effects the heart perception rather than visual. They can be used for dramatic revelations for what is happening underneath the appearance. It shows us the facial expression as more subjective then speech or grammar. Balazs believes that “most subjective and individual of human manifestations is rendered objective in he close-up.”

Physiognomy is the dimension an isolated face can take us, when taken out of space and consciousness of space. We see not the make up of facial construction as much as moods, emotions, intentions and thoughts. The psychological effect of a facial expression are picture like, yet seem outside space. Like a “silent soliloquy”, it “speaks instinctively and subconsciously.” An uncontrolled and unsuppressed language, the face reveals what is concealed. Through the close-up, film can offer the possibilities of an expression that the stage cannot. We can see the bottom of the soul through tiny movement of facial muscles or the moisture in an eye. Deeply moving tragedy can be expressed through the “microphysiognomy” of the close-up. Near the end o the silent era, the human face had grown more visible and more expressive. We saw conversations built of facial expressions and gestures. We could follow duels and attacks through the faces of the combatants. The silent film close-up presented drama in a subtler and more realistic way than that of stage play.

In response to my last post of the close-up, I agree with you Prof. Herzog that Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests are VERY hypnotic, and mesmerizing. Though Epstein may agree with me on a film like Walkabout, I’m still a fan of other films that take on a more tourist quality. Most Italian films of the 70s took on qualities of travelogues and to nice effect. Landscape like the face takes on different guises throughout the years, and it’s nice to see how things once were, just as seeing the youthful expression of a once beautiful actor or actress. In response to Msbeatty, I myself have not given up on the long-shot either, for I still believe that both are needed for cinematic balance. I agree that Leone did both to perfection, hence why all his films are masterpieces of cinema. Like the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, I never tire of the director’s gaze when illustrating the pain, wonderment or psychology of a great actor. It is then that the close-up is at it it’s most lyrical and poetic.

Andre Bazin and the Evolution of Cinema

In Bazin’s article “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” he breaks down the progression of cinema after the silent era. Bazin believes that by 1928, the silent era had reached its artistic peak, and that sound was not there to destroy cinema but to fulfill it’s potential. Between 1928 and 1930 a new form of cinema was being created, through the introduction of sound a new form of editing was also being revolutionized. Certain aesthetics of the silent era were to be carried over to the sound era, though not so much of “setting silence over against sound than of contrasting certain families of styles, certain basically different concepts of cinematographic expression.” Between 1920 and 1940 there were two opposing trends, of the director who put faith in the image or the director who put faith in reality (or one can relate to the “plastics of the image” or relate to the “resources of the montage”). With the invisible use of montage, the scenes are broken down for analytical purposes. The three montage processes are:

a.) Parallel Montage: A sense of the simultaneity of two actions taking place at a geographical distance by means of alternating shots from each.

b.) Accelerated Montage: A multiplicity of shots of ever-decreasing length.

c.) Montage by Attraction: The reinforcing of the meaning of one image by association with another image not necessarily part of the same episode.

Montage can substitute a vision of an event to alluding to an event. Montage can create a sense or meaning not contained in the image but derived from the juxtaposition. Bazin believes that, “the meaning is not in the image, it is in the shadow of the image projected by montage onto the field of consciousness of the spectator.” Bazin believes that Soviet cinema “carried to its ultimate consequences the theory and practice of montage, while German school did every kind of violence to the plastics of the image by way of sets and lighting.” (I question if he is referring to German Expressionism, ie: “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”?) Bazin then points out that it does not appear that cinema was at a loss of ways of saying what it wanted, in place like France, Sweden or the U.S.

In America from 1930 to 1940 seven major types of film were being made; (1) Comedy (2) Burlesque Film (3) Dance & Vaudeville (4) Crime & Gangster (5) Psychological & Social Dramas (6) Horror & Fantasy (7) Western. The French however were making stark somber realism, or poetic realism. By 1938 or 1939, (especially in France and the U.S.) had reached a level of perfection, through technical process and the maturing of different kinds of drama. By 1930, Panchromatic stock was being commonly used as well as a growing understanding for microphone potential and the standard use of the crane. It is believed that all the technical requirements were in place by 1930, for the art of cinema.

The standard pattern for editing was in a universal standard state by 1938. There was a verisimilitude of space in which the position of the actor is determined, even during close-up. And the purpose of the editing was dramatic or psychological. The typical procedure with sound films by 1938 was shot-reverse-shot, where in the dialogue scene, the camera followed the order of the text, showing the character who was delivering the speech. Orson Welles is cited for changing some of the rules with “Citizen Kane.”

Magnification and the Poetry of the Close-Up

Jean Epstein’s article “Magnification” seems to be a love letter to the cinematic close-up, and I am in agreement with his central sentiment. When Epstein describes “the close-up” as “the soul of the cinema,” he is absolutely right. It’s the one moment in the film when you see beneath the surface and get into the interior psychology of the character. It is the moment when actors act, not in the broad theatrical way, but in the subtle flexes of the facial muscles or the ocular reaction that gives away what the other characters of the film may not see. The close-up on the face can show the manifestation of pain or the joy in humor; the face is like a landscape that alters with mood rather than a cut or edit.

Though Epstein’s article presents a compelling declaration of love to the close-up, I do not agree in every aspect of the article. When Epstein writes, “If it (close-up) is too long I don’t find continuous pleasure in it.” Where I feel that in some of the longest close-ups are the most pleasurable as in the Western epics of Sergio Leone. In the film Once Upon A Time In The West, the end has an extremely long edit of close-ups that I find extremely exciting. When the showdown with Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda takes place (very similar to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly), long close-ups build to a satisfactory climax, while the viewer is subjected to the sweat and grit of the face of fear and the nervous twitch of the trigger finger.

When Epstein writes that the “landscape film is, for the moment, a big zero” I again disagree. One needs landscape like one needs an establishing shot. Without one, the close-up is meaningless. It’s like a magic trick of an appearing rabbit, without the hat. The landscape has a poetry all of it’s own. Like the face is just one part of the body, the landscape expresses the painful results of war or the joyful successes of harvest. In a film like Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout the landscape is like a character in the film. The beautiful scenery of the Australian landscape can be at times inviting and dangerous like the close-up of a face of our hero or villain. When Epstein refers to landscape as “zero” he is plainly not seeing that landscape and close-up add up to something far more than their isolated parts.

The art of cinema is referred by Louis Delluc as “photogenie,” which Epstein “describe as photogenic any aspect of things, beings, or souls whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction.” But I find just about anything is enhanced by filmic reproduction provided it’s shot nicely. When one sees a telephone in normal life it is merely a phone, but when one sees a close-up of a telephone in a film the item carries with it a certain weight. Will this item deliver good or bad news? Will it transport secrets of a rendezvous or that of a threat of blackmail? Filmic reproduction enhances some of the most mundane of household items into the most significant plot points of a film. The art of cinema is its ability to mirror our lives in to forms of escapism. What is escapism when we are so held captive by the close-up.