On Humor Theory


The past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes us laugh. We can describe specific jokes or hijinks that are funny, but it is often difficult to explain why they are funny. I’ve heard one person say, “Humor is surprise. It contradicts our expectations.” But that doesn’t explain why tragedy isn’t funny. I guess you could add an addendum to the explanation – “humor is pleasant surprise.” But I still consider the definition to be ambiguous.

We all know what isn’t funny. But it seems humanity is in disagreement as to what is funny. Much of that can be chalked up to cultural differences, and after all, culture is simply an extension of language (a system of shared signs and symbols) so that is a logical distinction. But I still think there must be an explanation for laughter. It isn’t accidental, and it isn’t overtly specific.

Another definition I’ve heard used to explain humor is “Tragedy + Time = A Good Laugh.” Again, I think this fails in scope. Real tragedies never get funny. There has to be something else. To really define humor, I’m going to step to the left of the main body of this text and talk a little about time.

Philosophically speaking, I’m very interested in time. Time is the key invention of God’s that has the most direct impact on how we experience the universe. For newbies, this is how it works: time is the Fourth Dimension upon which our consciousness runs. It has a direct association with gravity in that the closer you are to a gravity source the faster time moves. This is such a concern that Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) are programmed with internal clocks that run a few milliseconds faster than their equivalent clocks on earth. Thus, when the satellites go into orbit, their clocks will slow down to a speed that corresponds to the clocks on the earth’s surface.

Time is the very thing that makes all process possible. So we must now ask ourselves, what requires process? Let’s get some obvious ones out of the way: life, music, seasons, story.  Some less obvious ones might be: chemical reactions, movement, choice, learning, seeing/hearing, language, burning, and slipping on a banana peel.  Which reminds me of the Mel Brooks quote, “drama is when I cut myself shaving, humor is when someone falls down a manhole and dies.”  By his definition, both drama and humor would require time.

Most people who study humor know that a key element is the subversion of expectations.  Hence the traditional emphasis on surprise.  You can probably see where I’m going with this.

If humor requires expectations, then it also requires a relationship.  Someone must have a given anticipation of reality in order for their anticipation to be turned on its head.  This is where the relationship between time and story seems to naturally result in humor.  As established, story requires, process, therefore story requires time.  Time requires gravity, too, so later you can thank the earth’s mass for your ability to laugh.

There’s something else to the nature of surprise that people don’t seem to have picked up on.  I’m talking about discovery.  Discovery is our inherent response to surprise.  Its the next step we take after realizing something new.  Think of the first time you tried an amazing dessert.  As you discovered its taste and texture, and you suddenly knew something about the world that you didn’t know before.  Remember the last time a piece of music stopped you in your tracks.  Wasn’t there just something about the rhythm and melody that spoke a truth you felt you always knew?  I think that’s another big lesson here: truth feels familiar.

I’ve often thought of life’s choices as being a series of counter-navigations toward some sense of stability.  The beginnings of life are so terrifying and disorienting, that I think nearly all life can be seen as a grasp for stability and security.  I think that discovery of the world around us through the Arts, Faith, and Sciences, is what keeps us re-orienting ourselves toward the cosmic reality we call “Truth.”

And that seems to be where humor fits in.  The process of surprise and discovery can be a painful one.  But with any new life experience there is a sense of growth.  I believe that humor represents our ability to take joy in our own growth.  Any joke requires a respondent (the relationship mentioned above) and the respondent must be invested in the world of the joke in order to have expectations concerning it.  Rhythm creates expectation, and through rhythm you can subvert expectation.  That subversion leads to surprise, which leads to discovery, which if pleasant enough, leads to joy.

I think this also betrays to us why some things don’t strike us as funny.  Suppose the audience for a joke doesn’t share the same language as that which the joke was written in.  That’s a relationship quality that undercuts the ability to communicate truth.  At the very least, the premise of the joke must exist within a world that shares symbols and meanings with the world of the audience.  It is only when new ideas are introduced into the world that our sense of discovery really kicks in.  Think of this line from the Woody Allen film Manhattan, “I think people should mate for life – like pigeons or Catholics.”  Now think about your thought process as you put that sentence together in your head.  The gag is very simple.  Two things are associated based on their sexual activity.  But by any other association, they are significantly dissimilar.  This single sentence expands the audience’s definitions of “pigeon” and “Catholic” by associating the two together.  We hear the line, we confirm in our heads the logic that got him there, and we declare “Eureka!  Truth hath presented itself before me!”

I believe that humor is related to truth, but not always to facts.  Remember that the difference between the two is that truth is independent of the knower.  Good humor takes something that is true about ourselves, and exaggerates it just enough that we can see how ridiculous we really are.  Laughter is the byproduct of discovering joy.


Defending Destruction in Movies


Okay lately with all the big tent-pole movies coming out I’m seeing a lot of blogs complaining about how much 9/11 style imagery is in movies today, and how the scale of destruction seems to be out of control and all that.  People who know my blogpost on Sucker Punch will probably see which side of this argument I fall on.  But for people who don’t know me . . .

I find the whole argument to be silly. Star Wars blew up a planet. Then the heroes got revenge by blowing up a planet-sized space station. The ’09 Star Trek also blew up a planet. But only when part of the city of London is destroyed in the sequel do people complain. Last I checked, cities are smaller than planets.  Return of the King won like 12 Oscars, but I don’t remember anyone complaining about the body count in it.

Are large scenes of destruction in genre movies a response to 9/11? Possibly, but that’s not unheard of. Remember Gojira/Godzilla? Instead of the Bomb destroying cities in Japan its a giant atomic fire breathing bipedal lizard. then as that franchise went on they had to up the destruction level by adding more monsters (many like Mothra and Rodan had their own spinoffs also with lots of destruction), until they eventually had to scrape the bottom of the idea barrel by giving Godzilla a little lizard son to play with on Monster Island.
Destruction scenes mean the same thing today that they meant in the 1920s when that dinosaur trashed the London Bridges or in 1933 when King Kong destroyed trains and cars and planes in New York.

Yes you can respond to tragedy with something like Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel, or you can make a movie about titans fighting off a great evil to protect their home at any cost. Which experience would a normal audience want more?

Audiences go into these things to escape their problems and relax with their friends. The more ridiculous the stakes get, the further away their mind gets from their crappy job and their manipulative spouse.

If you’re watching Melies “A Trip to the Moon” is it more interesting for the rocket ship to land softly on the moon’s head, or should it fly straight into the moon’s eye? The more extreme one is also clearly more iconic.

Normal people don’t want to see movies or read books about normal people. They want something absurdly different. Hence, Ewoks and Godzilla and Superman and Hercules and Beowulf and Frodo and Buzz Lightyear and Scott Pilgrim. 

Just watch this Godzillathon playlist on YouTube and you’ll feel better about destruction in movies.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Avc4AS3AvcA&list=PLAAD30B9523D89FAA


Editing to the Rhythms of Memory


I have recently read two books that have given me much thought on the subject of film editing. The first is In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch, who was an editor for Francis Coppola on “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now.” The second book is Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative Sculpting in Time.

They each pose two very different theories concerning the nature of editing and especially regarding the question of why cuts work in the first place, and when it is appropriate to employ them. Murch seems to come from the Soviet Montage camp, pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein and mastered by Alfred Hitchcock, where shots represents different pieces of information that the viewer must assemble imaginatively into a coherent whole. Whereas Tarkovsky explicitly describes his disagreement with that mentality, claiming that it is not true to the nature of what cinema is. Tarkovsky looks back to the original films of the Lumiere Brothers and reminds us of what was originally so fascinating about the cinema in the first place: that it was imprinted time.

At the beginning of his book, Walter Murch poses a question, “why do cuts work?” And by the end of his book he has given his answer. He recognizes that humans ought to be repelled by cuts, since our own personal experiences have no natural equivalent – something Tarkovsky also points out. But Murch noticed while editing “The Conversation” that his natural impulse for when to cut was directly correlated to Gene Hackman’s tendency to blink. Murch spends the rest of the book describing how he believes our blinking habits are the natural equivalent of cuts, because, in psychological terms, our eyes remain open when we are focused intently on something, and we blink when we are comfortable with our surroundings. In short, Murch believes that natural editing rhythm will always be similar to our natural blinking rhythm.

Tarkovsky extends out his metaphor of imprinted time in a few essays throughout his book. He compares the role of the artist to that of a prophet, saying that both find their purpose in the conveying of great truths. Tarkovsky believed that to interrupt time with an abrupt cut is to be dishonest to the medium, as the medium is the very record of time itself. Not a reenactment of time, as a play might be, but a genuine record of its passing. Tarkovsky strove always to stage his scenes in an unbroken way. He believed that to fracture temporal truth was to falsify it. Interstingly, many normal viewers think that Tarkovsky’s style feels decidedly unnatural because of his hesitancy to cut. It does seem to me that cutting into the scene (especially from wide shots to close ups) feels quite natural and normal, but maybe that’s why I have two essays on Eisenstein on this blog and none on Tarkovsky. Preference is not everything.

I do believe, however, that I have stumbled upon a deeper understanding of what cinema is and can be, at least as it pertains to the telling of a story. People that have heard me talk about film theory know that I tend to fall into the Eisenstein camp, and that I especially enjoy his famous quote that “language is much closer to the cinema than painting is.” But as much as I have enjoyed pondering the relationship between editing and grammar, I am now really considering the relationship between film editing and the priorities of human memory. This short essay is only a first draft of this theory, which I’m sure I will revise every few years. I suppose I should point out that while I have never heard the analogy of memory applied to film editing before, Robert McKee does use memory as an analogy for good screenwriting, so I’m not wholly original here.

Essentially my grand idea is this: suppose that edits in any film sequence work and feel natural to the viewer not because of some experience in our daily lives (such as blinking), but because of how we experience the world in our memory. Think about your day yesterday. What are the first few things that you recall? If you are like me, then the first priorities of your memory are based on two things: Geography and Will. When I think of the events of my life a day ago, the first image in my head is of my home, and specifically the room which I spent the most time in. This is what I call the “Geographical Priority”. The first thing my brain does when I reacquaint myself with yesterday is jump to the location I was most prominently in.

The second image in my head is of the documentary materials on my newly purchased Godfather Blu-Ray collection. That is what I call “Priority of the Will”. I made a unique choice to watch those documentaries, but I really don’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, as that was a mundane habit. It is more common for our memory to prioritize the choices we make than the habits we have. Conversely, we tend to have staggeringly good memories for times when we felt out of control, and incapable of making choices.
Have you ever been swimming underwater only to run out of air before you are anywhere near the surface? How clearly do you remember that feeling of suffocation? Now contrast that with how clearly you remember the mundane details that have nothing to do with your will, such as how many times your friend jumped off the diving board?

Doesn’t it seem true that the human memory really prioritizes geography and will? We remember where we were, and what we chose to do, and especially whether some obstacle prevented us from achieving our immediate goals in the situation, but we struggle to remember things that never engaged our attention in the first place.
Editing to this rhythm has already been stumbled upon. Think about how commonplace it is for scenes to open with wide shots of a location, only to move closer and closer to the decisions of the characters, right down to the individual muscles used in the carrying out of that decision. The eyes are especially important, since it is through the eyes that we each empathize with each other.

I also read Francois Truffaut’s book on Alfred Hitchcock recently, in which they frequently talk about the clarity of simplicity. In any Hitchcock film, during any great action sequence or chase sequence, the editing is so specific that it takes on a near primal quality. The audience is never confused, and yet, his films are filled with intimate close ups instead of big wide shots. I want to demonstrate the primal sensation of memory editing with a little experiment.

First, think about a time when you have expected to meet someone, but they never showed up, or perhaps they were very late. You stood there and politely waited. As a car drove toward you, you watched it closely to see if it belonged to the person you were expecting. If you thought it was that person then you probably leaned forward a little and started to take your hand out of your pocket to greet them. But the car drove past. Or perhaps someone did get out of it, but it wasn’t the person you were looking for. You attempted to inconspicuously return to your place, but you knew that you probably looked ridiculous if someone was watching you.

Now take the famous scene of the crop duster plane from “North by Northwest.” (Here is the scene, albeit with added music: http://youtube.com/watch?v=jWRIOezFqYo)
Watch how it begins with a great wide shot of the field (i.e. the Geographic Priority) and watch how the movement of Grant’s eyes represent the character’s first conscious choice in the scene. We know that he’s expecting to meet someone here. We project ourselves into his life through the natural phenomenon of empathy. So really, it is we (the Audience) who are looking for someone, and Cary Grant is just an extension of the audience’s motivation in the scene. Contrary to what some directors say, the audience does not project itself into the place of the camera, the audience projects itself into the place of the character. And so the actions and choices of the character are the most relevant part of the scene to the audience.

Watch how Hitchcock cuts in closer to Cary Grant’s face as the car comes closer along the road. Did you notice in that scene how Grant begins to take his hands out of his pockets when he sees the man get out of the car? That little character detail is a completely natural action given that he really expected this man to be the one he was waiting for. The audience, too, would have impulsively moved forward to meet the man. You can see how there is a perfect link in the scene between what Grant does and what the Audience would do in the same situation.

But back to the concept of memory editing. In this sequence, Hitchcock has prioritized the same two things that human memory prioritizes: that is Geography and Will, the combination of these two things is a major contributing factor to literally every human sensation. For instance, the geography of being underwater affects the will to breathe.
It has long been recognized that wide shots make characters seem alone. But only now do I understand exactly why this is. The geography of a wide shot will demonstrate the physical aloneness of the character, and the choices the character makes will by necessity be unbacked by society. The combination of physical aloneness and social aloneness creates the sensation of loneliness.

The geography of the open plain presents Cary Grant with a physical aloneness, and the bearing down of the crop duster against him presents an obstacle to his will. Notice that throughout the bulk of the scene (but especially the final two minutes) all of the shots either feature Grant balanced toward the middle of the frame, or they show what he is looking at when he adjusts his gaze. For instance, there is a moment right after the plane first flies overhead that Grant – now laying on the ground – looks beyond the frame of the camera. There is an immediate cut to some corn stalks a dozen yards away. The very next shot is of him running into those corn stalks.

Do you catch the significance there? These three shots (choosing to look, recognizing the new geography, then choosing to run) are perfectly harmonious with the pattern of memory (will, geography, will). His choice to run into the corn stalks only makes sense to us the audience because we know that the corn stalks are there. It is clear that geography (especially the spatial relationship between characters – in this case Grant and the Plane) contextualizes choice. And as you watch that scene, you may feel completely absorbed by it, precisely because of how natural the editing feels.

The impulse to cut on an eyeline change is a common editing technique, and is a big part of what Walter Murch’s book is about. But his explanation has more to do with the audience’s pursuit of new information. He has no real explanation for why or when to change from a wide shot to a close up. Sam Peckinpah was of the opinion that close ups are the director’s Ace up the sleeve, and should be used sparingly. But even that doesn’t really tell us why or when a close up should be used.

This is also a case where Tarkovsky’s emphasis on imprinted time would be completely unhelpful. He would show us merely the geography, as if we are a spectator to the action, when the audience is looking for sensation and participation. Tarkovsky would focus on recording the entire physical effort of fleeing the plane, without demonstrating a bias for either character. He used wide shots and long takes to clearly portray the physical relationship between persons and objects.

It is thought by some that by keeping the edits rare and the camera on wide shots, filmmakers like Tarkovsky force the audience to be more active participants, as the filmmaker does not explicitly control their viewing experience. But I disagree. If you were to compare a football player with a fan in the stadium, which would you say has the greatest participation in the game? It is clearly not the spectator.

Tarkovsky would put the camera in the bleachers and record the entire game in one uninterrupted take. Hitchcock would do multiple set-ups on the field using fast edits to put you in the mindset of the player. The first is certainly a valid record of the facts, but the second is a more powerful analogy to the feelings.

I really believe that great narrative editing is based on the relationship between Geography and Will, since the first contextualizes the second, and the second is the venue by which the audience participates. Tarkovsky believed that a film is at its truest when it purely imprints time. But I think that Pure Cinema does a much better job of recreating how the world exists in our memory than recreating how the world exists physically.

Hitchcock had a rule: the largest object in the frame has the most emotional weight. Doesn’t that sound just like your memory’s version of the world?

Think about the last time something scared you. Doesn’t it seem that the very object which so affected your emotional state overcame everything else in the world? Are you scared of snakes or spiders? When you see a snake or a spider that terrifies you, doesn’t it always seem much larger than it really is?

Film editing has the ability to recreate the experience of memory by prioritizing close ups for objects of tremendous emotional weight. You don’t remember what was on the wall behind the snake, you only remember the snake itself. Nothing else even came into your senses. A well-employed close up will focus your attention on the snake, and just like your experience in memory, you won’t even see the wall.


Slacker – The Austin Scene


Boy is this a weird one.  The mumbling philosophical dilemmas of every generation’s young people are manifest in this 97-minute effort by writer/director Richard Linklater.  There is a story, but it’s near invisible.  There is a plot, but it seems designed specifically to keep us from acknowledging it.  I wonder if it inspired Seinfeld in its love of nothingness.  Both are driven by zany conversation.  But there is deliberation here.  Nothing is random, and judging from how easily the camera follows the blocking, I’d say that everything has been heavily rehearsed.  Still, the impression is of a voyeur.  The point of view may not be omniscient, but it is roaming.  That really is the heart of this film.

I imagine that when writing this script, Linklater probably walked around Austin simply hanging out with folks and hearing what they had to say.  I also wonder if he wrote the script based on locations that he saw every day, or if he found the locations after writing the script.  At any rate, the changing buildings and locations serve as new characters, each with their own stories.  For instance, one character walks into a diner full of crazy people, and then walks out.

I do not know who this character is.  All I know is that his appearance is precipitated by a mystic woman’s warning: “the next person who passes us will die in a fortnight.”  And sure enough, as soon as he’s off-screen we here a car screech to a halt with the driver yelling, “get out of the road!”

It seems as though the film is a compilation of points, punctuating what it means to be a part of a sub-culture.  If you were to listen to it, you may not even realize how many speaking parts are in the film.  All the characters are basically having the same conversations.  I sense that the conspiracy guy from the 15 minute mark might get along well with the two stoners debating the capitalist propaganda in Scooby Doo.

The goal of this movie appears to be a celebration of the meandering lifestyle.  Characters have impulses, passions, and interests that exist outside of the film narrative.  Our voyeurism takes us into and out of their lives.  Yet the pacing is still very deliberate and the emotional rhythm has just as many ups and downs as any traditional narrative.  If you were to structure it all out, you would see a heightening of tension as the film progresses.  Characters make fun of each other, the conflict with each other.  There is a broad paranoia at work concerning the government and the media.  One character mentions missing persons, whom we never find, but we do see signs posted up on walls reminding us of their absence.  Another character attempts to rob an old man’s house, only to find himself confronted by the world’s most articulate anarchist.

What does this do for the audience experience?  Well, as one character says, “you’re either with us or against us.”  If you are not a youthful vagabond in early 90’s Austin, you may not find yourself at home with this film.  There is however, something timeless about that age-old frustration with the previous generation’s failures.  Every young person is looking for his or her way to contribute something great.  But when all the old people are telling you to go away and “do something with your life” you are faced with a choice: to submit, or to rebel?  Not all the characters in the film are young however.  The anarchist is much older, but still seems to find a place with the youngsters.  He embraces their rebellious attitude, and welcomes the idea of being stolen from.

The film takes us through a full 24 hour period (and then some) by starting with a young man’s arrival at the bus station in Austin, and then ultimately culminating with a group of film students that drive off into the country to film random bits of fun.  Its as if the final moment is a “Gotcha!” style punch line.  We came into it expecting something profound, but ultimately it’s a film made by the characters it portrays – slackers.


Editing in Memento


Christopher Nolan’s sophomore film, Memento, is arguably a giant experiment in editing.   It re-invents the needs of montage editing for its own narrative purposes.  By opening the film in reverse, then playing subsequent scenes in not only the wrong order, but in the reverse order, Memento forces the viewer to reevaluate everything previously established in montage technique.

The editor of the film, Doty Dorn, has said in interviews that her first responsibility as editor was to read the script several times.  This is not normally the case with editors, who are more concerned with daily footage than over-arching plot.  It is up to the director to decide the plot, the editor just assembles the cuts . . . normally.  But in this film there is a special relationship between the editing and the story.  The editing, more than the camera even, is what puts the viewer inside the character.  There are aids, like Guy Pierce’s voice-over, but really it is in the pieces of information that are given at the beginning and end of each scene that helps us to find our footing.

Each scene opens on some clearly identifiable object, a memento, if you will, that we must immediately observe and interpret to acquaint ourselves with our surroundings.  It makes the viewer hyper-conscious of visual exposition.  Our brains focus on the seemingly mundane aspects of these characters lives – what sort of drinks they have, or how they’ve done their hair.  This creates an inner feeling of intensity, and contributes to an overall sense of paranoia.  Anyone could be a liar; anyone could be a friend or a foe.

Within each scene, there is a clear aim to direct the audience’s attention to specific things.  For instance, during the sequence where Guy Pierce’s character is burning his wife’s possessions, there are frequent close-ups specifically of these things.  Following the “Hitchcock Rule” that says the largest object in the frame is the most important, it cues the audience to place value on those otherwise insignificant objects.

What we can take from this is that Nolan has placed within us a sense of Persistent Reveal, where we are ever conscious of the revelations being given.  This expositional technique is also used in shows like Lost, and Nolan’s other film, Inception.  By opening on mystery and maintaining a progression of revelation, Nolan makes us feel as if we are detectives, investigating correctly and putting the pieces together based on new pieces of evidence.

If the story were told in chronological order, the movie would show its flaws quite readily.  For instance, played in order, there is no real character arc.  Guy Pierce’s character is just floating along on a vendetta that he’s barely invested in, having only assumptions based on tattoos.  If played chronologically, the film has no resolution in relationships between characters.  You would see Carrie Ann Moss be mean to Guy Pierce, then sleep with him, then help him, then nothing.  There is no real resolution.  In fact, and I’m sure this is deliberate, Carrie Ann Moss’ character only fits the “femme fatale” archetype when played in reverse, because if you play the film in order, she fits more the romantic interest type.

As a whole, the editing in Memento does a good job of taking you through the paces and energies of a traditional noir narrative, but the fact that it does so in reverse demonstrates an understanding of the relationship between structure and the audience rather than structure and the character arc.  In a traditional narrative of any genre, the character arc is directly tied to the structure.  As inner conflict increases, so does outer conflict.  But Memento plays these things against each other.  Guy Pierce’s character has very little growth from scene to scene, as he must identify himself anew, each time.  This allows him to explain his “memory problem” to characters at the end of the story, but at the beginning of the plot.

As the outer intensity increases (shootouts with drug dealers, etc) the editing gets faster and more intense.  But in the more meditative parts of the film, the cutting is slower.  This is a story where all the most intense parts happen toward the beginning, and the less intense parts happen at the end.  But with the plot showing this backwards, it creates the growing intensity we’re used to experiencing in these types of films.


The Scorpion and the Ants – A Meditation on The Wild Bunch


Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is a profound deconstruction of cinematic violence.  Sequences of impressionistic violence are punctuated by zooms, quick-cuts, slow-motion, POV shots, and 180 line breaks.  He uses the sort of techniques that can only exist in film.  His edit gives you the impression of violence, and has been borrowed by films like Hard Boiled, Bad Boys 2, and The Passion of the Christ.  It is what Alfred Hitchcock would call “pure cinema.”

The film’s opening title sequence is a montage of men in soldiers’ uniforms marching into town.  Along the way, they pass some children who are watching a scorpion fight what looks to be a million little ants.  It is a classic example of a superior power overwhelmed by a larger number of opponents.  The scene goes on in an all-too-regular sort of way.  We see the soldiers bump into an old lady, but politely pick up her things and walk her across the street.  It doesn’t take a cineast to see that something bad is about to happen.

Our first clue really is in the titles themselves.  They splash onto the screen with a noise and aggression that is unfounded in the relative calmness of the scene.  And sure enough, when they walk inside that railroad office, they get mean.  On the adjacent rooftops is a gang of bounty hunters, who have set an ambush for the robbers.  The only thing stopping them from cutting down the mock-soldiers is a parade of Church people, walking through the street after a morning service.  But when the ambushers are spotted, there is a blitzkrieg.

The following ten minutes are a nauseating compilation of violence.  The geography is confusing.  There appears to be no relation between shots of men firing weapons and shots of people dying.  To quote an old Monty Python film, “Let’s not worry about who killed who . . .”  After all, we are only a few minutes into the film, we don’t even know who to root for yet.  It is the sensory experience that matters, not the narrative experience, at least not yet.

The sequence is edited in such a way that prevents us from ever feeling comfortable.  Peckinpah clearly understood how quickly audiences adjust to what’s onscreen.  As long as there is some consistency, audiences will relax.  But Peckinpah used precise inconsistency to throw off this comfort.  This meant relying on many different film techniques, especially ones that are never intercut.

Slow-motion photography does not cut well with zoom-pans.  But that’s the point.  It hurts to watch.  A zoom-in is intercut with a zoom-out that is intercut with a stationary shot of a woman being trampled by a horse.  This aggressive editing is specifically designed to present you with the simultaneous awe and disgust of the violence onscreen.  Even the prolonged length of the scene is designed to rob you of your standard sense of relief.

Some commentators have mentioned that the extensive violence seems out-of-keeping with the film’s story, which does not necessitate such extended sequences.  But it is squarely within the director’s purpose to extend and exaggerate the experience, to de-sanitize it.  The film is about violent men living violent lives that end violently.  The content is tied directly to this theme.  These characters choose this way of life.  They see something in it that we do not.

The film never really tells us what they enjoy about shooting each other to pieces, but I imagine it has something to do with the camaraderie they share.  There is a strong theme of loyalty that runs deep through the film, and counter to that is the theme of betrayal.  Our main character is Pike Bishop, the leader of the Wild Bunch.  He has a number of flashbacks to those he’s betrayed.  By his words, we see that he is either in deep regret of those instances, or he is a hypocrite who keeps the others around for his own protection.  Judging from the final scene, I’m inclined to say it’s the former.

The third act of the film concerns the group’s decision to abandon one of their own to the torturous intentions of a corrupt Mexican general.  At first they leave him.  Then they try and buy him back, to no avail.  Finally, after attempting (and failing) to relax with some prostitutes, they turn back with guns raised – ready to for the bloodbath to end them all.

There is tremendous significance to Pike’s decision here, and it speaks volumes about his character.  After the first heist turns out to be a bust, Pike laments that he wanted one final score before he retired from his criminal ways.  His friend rebukes him and reminds him that for men like them, there is no other life.  Thus, at the end of the film, Pike is faced with the decision to either accept a ton of gold and leave his friend to be killed, or abandon the money and finally step up to show the loyalty he always prized, but never demonstrated.

While attempting to relax with the Prostitute at the end, Pike is distracted by a crying baby.  He looks back and forth between the young woman and the child; they represent the family he might one day have, if only he abandons his friend, as he has several others before, he could settle down with his gold and grow old.  But here, at the end of his life, he chooses loyalty, and this choice gets him killed.

Like the scorpion at the beginning of the film, being eaten slowly by ants, Pike seems near invincible.  The final death toll is colossal, and is punctuated by frequent cut-aways to children and women, some of whom become collateral damage.  The children at the beginning of the film controlled the violence with the scorpion, even to the point of laying burning grass on top of it.  But in the real violence, the children have the least control.  If the fire on the scorpion symbolizes all-encompassing gunfire, then we may consider that perhaps the children symbolize The Wild Bunch.  They take joy in violence they control, but are vulnerable to violence that they do not.

So is Pike’s loyalty really to his friend?  Or is it to the violent lifestyle that he knows he can never leave?  Either way, he and his pals recognize that the two in this case will be synonymous.  And to show loyalty will mean a violent certainty.  But at least it is, if anything, certain.


In The Bedroom – the one about acting


Some films are about the fantastic.  The performances in them are based on the audience’s need for connection.  But in any drama there is a need for something else.  You might call it an artistic distance.  For films where the actors need to “become” the characters, there will always be something about the performance that is different, in an uncomfortable way.

Human beings have natural nuances that are less than flattering.  We don’t look, sound, or behave as “coolly” as characters on the big screen.  We snot, wince, and stutter.  Tom Cruise would never do that, would he?  After all, one of the great appeals of the cinema is that it can offer us “life with all the boring parts cut out,” as described by Martin Scorsese.  But what happens when we are thrust into the lives of those characters that share our negative qualities?

There is a certain hypnosis to empathy.  When we sense that someone like us is in a situation that seems possible to us, then we automatically project our sensibilities into their decisions, and participate with their life events.  All storytelling works on this principle.  And good actors will present their actions in a way that is conducive to this character/audience relationship.

The performances in In The Bedroom have that sort of hypnosis.  They draw you in with little subtleties.  The wandering eye-lines, stuttering dialog, and inconsistent intonations all serve to take the perception of intellect out of the action.  Real people are impulsive.  We rarely think about the little things we do.  Any heavily rehearsed action is easily discernable because of how clean and deliberate it is.

These actors have done away with any semblance of forethought.  Their instances of shock and romance have all the nuances of reality.  If you follow their eye-lines, you can see their realizations.  It is easy to participate in these characters decisions, precisely because these nuances feel so real.  The reactions they have are as close of a representation of what we might be like in that situation as I can imagine.

Posture and blocking is a big part of all this.  We follow the little head bobs and fist clenches.  These little actions represent the tracking marks for the Audience Bond.  The plot offers these characters only a handful of major choices for the audience to participate in, but the little blocking moments fill in the gaps.  You can tell a lot about these characters based on where they’re looking.

In one scene between Tom Wilkinson’s character, Doctor Fowley, and a Prosecuting Attorney, we are given very deliberate close-ups of what the doctor is looking at.  He doesn’t seem to be listening to what the lawyer says.  Instead he is distracted by the lawyer’s nonchalant mannerisms, such as the way he plays with his car keys.

Another example is when Mr. and Mrs. Fowley have their big fight in the kitchen.  She focuses her physical attention on the dishes, inputting a few harsh critiques of her husband’s apparent lack of mourning.  He starts to leave the room, but is brought back in by the insult.  As he slowly loses his patience, he investigates what she meant by her remark.  At this, she smashes her plate on the floor and runs out of the room.  The physical beat marks a change in dramatic tone and shifts action to a new location.

The motions give us a sense of subtext.  Is she leaving because she can’t stand her husband?  Or is it because she she’s hiding from something.  This particular instance in the story is probably caused by the subconscious need for revenge.  In their case, the need is unsatisfied by the courts, and they are unable to see the punishment of their enemy.  Is it possible that they replace that enemy with each other?  Perhaps the insults they throw at each other are coming from this need for vindication.  They can’t punish the real criminal, so the punish each other.

The audience is involved in all of this.  We are sympathetic to both sides, and even empathetic to them as well.  As the characters proceed through their grief, we share their search for answers.  And at the end of it all, we may not understand why we are in this place, but at least we have some satisfaction by joining in the character’s need for revenge.


Femme Fatales in the Work of Billy Wilder


The movies Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. are two of the most notable examples of classic Film Noir archetypes.  They have all the major pieces associated with the genre, voice-over narration, sassy dialog, contrasting visuals, and the femme fatales.  The hero is led into a murderous plot, thanks to a manipulative woman.

The principal character in Double Indemnity is Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who lustfully falls for Phyllis Dietrichson, and plots with her to come up with an insurance scheme where they kill her husband and make off with all the life-insurance money.  In Sunset Blvd. the lead is a down-on-his luck screenwriter who ducks into what he thinks is an old abandoned mansion, only to find out that it is still lived in by one of the classic silent film stars.


The women are basically simple.  The first is Phyllis Dietrichson, a wife and stepmother.  She has dreamt of her husband’s murder for some time, but it is only when she meets this new man that she thinks her dream can become a reality.  And with the Gloria Swanson character, the woman has a goal (to return to the cinema) that she is unable to achieve until the male protagonist enters her life.

In both these cases, these women are, in a way, classically dependent upon their male partners.  But there is stark contrast here between this sort of dependency and the traditional damsel in distress scenario.  These women are trapped by their own ambitions.  It is the inner foe that enslaves them.

This reversion of dependency has garnered widely different reactions amongst feminist commentators.  Some see this as a growth in female independence and identity.  Others consider the femme fatale archetype to be the epitome of chauvinistic sexism.  But no one can deny that the women in these films are the strongest motivators of plot.  These women are assertive.  They are pushers, movers, and shakers.  They will overcome a man’s will and conform it to their own.

There’s a certain sexual subtext here that one cannot ignore.  In traditional male-based protagonism, the woman’s role is supportive to the male’s more dominant desires.  But in any story with a femme fatale, it is the man who becomes dependent on the woman.  In the case of Double Indemnity, it is lust that keeps him tethered to her.

But in Sunset Boulevard, the appeal is something else.  He does not appear to be attracted to her physically, and in his voice-over he even describes being repulsed by her.  But he stays with her, and is even mothered by her.  She dresses him and feeds him.  She daily proclaims her love for him.  And despite his shame, a part of him sort of likes it.  Joe Gillis, the screenwriter, has always dreamed of Hollywood success.  Now, through his relationship to the femme fatale, he can experience it.


The relationships between the men and women in these films is toxic, to say the least.  These films are not nearly so much about murderous plots as they are cautionary tales about poisonous relationships.  They demonstrate the step-by-step process of falling head over heels for a girl, only to realize that she’s gotten you killed.

Are these roles sexist, as some have suggested?  The question really lies in whether or not a negative archetype is the same thing as a prejudicial stereotype.  Femme Fatales are powerful to a fault.  They could represent Wilder’s view of how a relationship might be distorted if a woman is in control.  On the other hand, they could also represent the general negatives of a dangerous attraction.  The roles could easily be reversed to produce a commentary on battered women.

In Sunset Boulevard, the unhealthy relationship with Norma Desmond is contrasted with a growing healthy relationship with a young script reader named Betty.  This is an evolution of the archetype from Double Indemnity, where the hero was exclusive to the woman.  It’s an incredible contrast, comparable to a prostitute falling in love.  He has allowed himself to become Norma’s pet.  She feeds him and tells him where to sleep.  She adores him, but belittles him.

Betty on the other hand looks up to him.  She can’t provide for his material needs, but she loves him.  She represents a choice in Joe’s life: a choice between the body and the soul.  Norma Desmond may have his body, but she’ll never have his soul.  And when he makes this plain by leaving her, she demonstrates her power over him by separating his soul from his body.  We do not really see Betty’s reaction to the murder, but we do know that she is now one of the offended parties.


Double Indemnity is similar.  Walter’s body and soul both belong to Phyllis and when he tries to separate from her, he is killed.  Though in Phyllis’ defense, Walter had become a genuine threat to her, whereas Joe Gillis was only a perceived threat to Norma.

As we examine these characters more fully, they produce more depth.  It is for this reason that I am inclined to disregard claims of sexism in Wilder’s noirs.  These characters have more psychological baggage than most other movie villains.  Though I suppose that is in part because being a villain and being an antagonist is not necessarily the same thing.  The women here are not technically antagonists; since they do their best to enable the men they’re with.  But they are most definitely villains.


Dramatic Tone in The Searchers


John Ford’s The Searchers has gone down in history as one of the most definitive dramatic westerns.  And yet, by today’s standard, parts of it feel remarkably camp and silly.  The heart of the film is rough, dark, and disturbing.  So much so that Ford resorts to broad comic relief in order to offset the depressing effects for his audience.  Movie-going audiences in the 1950’s would simply not have been ready for the thematic darkness that this film offers.

Comic relief has been a traditional means of supporting the audience’s willing projection into the character.  We escape from our world into the west with Mr. John Wayne.  Should that escapism become too disturbing, we will disconnect, and escape back into reality.

In the case of The Searchers, sequences of intense racism and bigotry are played against slapstick.  The comedy is the emotional reverse of the drama.  A modern audience will find that the broad comedy throws them out of the story, but we can tell how intense those darker scenes would have felt to the 50’s audience based on how incredibly broad the comedy is.  After only sixty years of cinema, audiences were simply not accustomed to taking in such subject matter.

For a few decades, the Hays Code was a stark censorship of film that prevented overt portrayals of violence and sexuality.  It protected audience’s sensibilities from cultural “indecencies.”  Thus, in The Searchers, director John Ford had to come up with a way to tell this darker story, subverting the traditional western heroics, without offending this code.  The most obvious way to do this was to soften the blow through comedy.

John Ford plays Ethan, a racist outlaw who seeks to find his kidnapped niece in order to kill her.  Her white purity has been soiled by a forced marriage to Comanche Chief Scar.  His only companion is Martin, a 1/8th Indian boy adopted into the family.  Ethan treats him poorly because of this small racial defect. And yet, he is never framed this way for the audience.  Instead is presented primarily as the vessel for comic relief.

When romantic drama starts to heat up, a bucket of water is poured over Martin’s head.  As the hunt goes on, Martin accidentally marries an Indian woman.  When Ethan returns home after a few years on the hunt, Martin gets into a fight with another comic relief character over the right to marry the village hot chick.  But what people really remember are the moments in between, of harsh racism and bigotry.

John Ford has described The Searchers as a “psychological epic.”  It traverses the landscape of the mind.  As Ethan’s outer journey discovers the darkness of man, so his inner journey uncovers his own darkness for the world to see.  His conflict culminates with him scalping the Comanche war chief, Scar.  From it, he is hardly redeemed.

At the end of the film, Ethan returns home with his niece.  The family opens up to her and welcomes her inside.  But Ethan himself does not enter.  He stands on the porch neither expecting an invitation, nor receiving one.  He would no more welcome himself into that household than he would be welcomed.  Instead, the door closes on him as he turns to face the sunset.  No community will last that is able to abide a bigot.

These tonal shifts represent a tremendous social commentary for the 1950’s.  Audiences were used to western heroes that they could root for.  John Wayne traditionally played the sort of hero that would defend women and children to the death.  This whole examination of racist psychology is a subversion of that heroic ideal.  A subversion that is so grading the normal viewer, that it must be contrasted with slapstick and other cheap laughs.  But a bucket of water on someone’s head is not sufficient to erase the image of John Wayne threatening to kill a young girl.


Macguffin: The “Get Out of Casablanca Free” Card


The screenplay for Casablanca is picked apart for its precision in character development, but one thing that is rarely regarded is its use of the Macguffin as a plot device.  By traditional definition, the Macguffin is the “thing that drives the story.”  Another fair definition is, “the thing that everyone wants.”  In the case of Casablanca, it is two letters that allow a person to leave the city without a signature from the local authorities.  As it so happens, there are two people who need to leave the city, but have been denied the necessary signatures.  They need the Macguffin to help them get where they’re going.

The idea of a Macguffin is as old as the epics.  There has always been something, some sort of sacred relic that can fix whatever problem the protagonist is having.  It objectifies solutions.  It can be a fountain of youth, or a sword from the gods.  It can be a baseball stuck in your neighbor’s yard, or it can be the plans to destroy a moon-sized space station.  There is a basic human need to have simple solutions to major problems.  Is the economy a mess?  Elect a new President.

The advantage of a Macguffin for storytellers is that it focuses the audience’s attention on a single prop.  It represents the potential “Ace up the sleeve.”  We know that if Ilsa doesn’t get those papers, she could be trapped in Casablanca forever, forced to work in a Nazi concentration camp.  And her husband will likely be killed.

She is married to Laszlo, a major figure in the French Resistance.  Laszlo’s political position is the largest of the stakes.  But it is overshadowed by the relationship between Rick and Ilsa.  Rick and Ilsa had briefly romanced each other, but Ilsa left him, and Rick’s heart turned hard.  This is a giant elephant in a relatively small room.

The major distinction between this use of a Macguffin from traditional use is that, within the first ten minutes of the film, our protagonist has it in his possession.  The character arc here is about whether or not he will give up this prize.  Laszlo offers him money.  He refuses.  Ilsa attempts to repair their love.  He pushes her away.  By owning the Macguffin, he has their fates in the palm of his hand.  In this way he could easily have been written as an antagonist.  But he wasn’t.

Rick is in purgatory.  He can’t go to Heaven (America), and Hell (Nazi occupation) hasn’t yet found him.  He has his foot in both doors.  He can empower good or evil, but he wishes to remain neutral.

After shrugging off her apology for abandoning him, Rick finds himself drinking at his own bar.  A young woman approaches him and describes the very unfortunate situation that has found herself in.  As she relates her dilemma, it sounds almost as if she is describing Ilsa’s.  “Is it right for me to lie to him?  Even if lying will save his life?”  This doesn’t convince Rick to help Ilsa, but he is now in a position where he can save some other bloke from having the heartbreak that he had.

It is this secondary event that turns the tide for Rick’s character.  It speaks to an inner need, that if he can’t help himself or his friends, he doesn’t have to help no one.  The best part of this little sub-plot is that the stakes are basically identical (albeit in a scale-model fashion) to the Ilsa/Laszlo stakes.  They need to get out of Casablanca, and Rick may be the only one who can help them do it.  Rick rigs a game of Craps to get them some cash for a plane ticket out of here.  And as soon as he does this, he’s on the slippery slope to goodness.

Still, Rick makes them wait for the Macguffin.  He’s not ready to hand over that power just yet.  As he waits, the stakes get higher.  The Nazis get angrier.  When he allows the French national anthem to be played in his saloon, he gets a taste of Nazi influence.  He finally gives in, and shares his Macguffin with Laszlo and Ilsa.

Now it is her turn to choose.  Whom does she love more: the husband, or the lover?  Whenever the Macguffin changes hands, the new owner must show responsibility for it.  The Macguffin is directly tied to the stakes.  If she accepts it, she may be in an awkward position with Laszlo, who won’t really understand why Rick has changed.  Rick covers that some, but the whole turn of his mind will seem perplexing to them.  He has the two most valuable letters in the city, and he gives them up because, in his words, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

The Macguffin in Casablanca enables the character arc.  If Rick did not have the letters, then he would never be able to help Ilsa.  She needs him to forgive her so that she and Laszlo can leave.  But if he didn’t have the power to allow their journey, then she wouldn’t be required to seek his forgiveness.  The Macguffin is not only a plot device, but a character engine as well.