Archive for February, 2012

h1

Point of View in Citizen Kane

02/16/2012

Of all the cinematic contributions made by Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane, the narrative innovations are among the most significant.  Where most films would follow Aristotle’s tradition of telling stories that have a beginning, middle and end, Welles, chose to tell the story with roughly the same structure as a newspaper article.

It starts with the big news: Charles Foster Kane is dead.  It then proceeds through a series of interviews with those who knew him best.  The Macguffin here is Kane’s last word, “rosebud.”  The reporters ask everyone they see about it, but there is only one character who has the good sense to say, “I don’t think a man’s life can be summed up by a single word.”

In Eric Von Stroheim’s review of the film, he praises its directing and production design, but harshly criticizes the narratives inherently disruptive nature.  His frustration brings to mind the question of audience empathy.  Who is it that we are identifying with, exactly?  Many people consider Kane to be the protagonist of this story, or perhaps a simultaneous protagonist/antagonist type of character.  But this viewer projection is broken up through the use of interviews and flashbacks.

We cannot track with the life of Kane very well, because we never really get inside his head.  We don’t know what he looks like when he’s alone.  We don’t know what his motivations are.  All we know is what he did; that is, what are the facts of his life.  The essential issue in a narrative analysis of Citizen Kane then, is whom our protagonist actually is, and from what point of view the story is being told.

The only character that we track with chronologically throughout the film is that of Jerry Thompson, the reporter in charge of finding out who/what “rosebud” actually is.  He is primarily presented in shadow, or with his back to the camera, and we are given no biographical information about him.  He is the vessel through which we the audience pose our questions.

But Jerry has no character arc.  And the bulk of the movie is hardly from his point of view anyway.  Rather, he is the connective tissue between collections of memories about the legendary Charles Foster Kane.  The bulk of the film is told through flashbacks, visually represented in the third-person according to which character is telling the story.

Flashbacks in real life will always be in the first person, that is, we do not see ourselves from the outside, and therefore cannot remember what our bodies would have looked like from a third-person vantage point.  But when we are watching a movie, and a character thinks back to his past, we zip through his brain into the past as he saw it, albeit with one key difference, its being in the third-person point of view.

This dichotomy between first and third-person points of view is something that many critics have acknowledged in many films.  There is an interesting preference here, however.  In the Nicholas Cage film, Snake Eyes, flashbacks are shown in the first-person, but interestingly, this technique is considered more distracting, because we are accustomed to project ourselves into characters from the outside in.

As to the question of point of view, it is relevant that these flashbacks do not belong to our reporter.  The audience’s point of view really does shift between characters, making the protagonist a vaporous one.  At the basic level, the foundation for viewer projection is in the reporter, but as soon as the interviews start, we are drawn toward the interviewees.  After all, it is their minds that we are now interacting with.  But in their memories, Charles Foster Kane is this great and terrible man.  We want to get inside his head, so we nearly identify with him.  But as Von Stroheim points out, the fractured sense of narrative completely prevents us tracking with his decisions or motivations.  Thus, when Kane dies at the beginning of the film, we don’t have enough information to care.   It carries no weight.  Kane is not a sufficient vessel for the audience’s emotions.

There is one point of view in the film that I have not yet described, and that is the brief omniscient camera.  It occurs only in the first and last shots of the film.  The first is Kane’s death, where he whispers, “Rosebud.”  The last shot is the reveal of what Rosebud is.  While it is mentioned in the film that someone heard Kane speak the word, we the audience are not seeing this scene through their eyes.  And while there are characters that are involved in the final scene, we are not seeing it from their point of view.  We are seeing it from an omniscient point of view, rolling around telling us what the characters do not know.  Rosebud has its own point of view, that we are briefly privy to.

h1

Climbing the Tree: A Thematic Analysis of The Tree of Life

02/05/2012

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  . . . when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.”

The film opens with this passage from Job 38.  This is Malick’s “thesis,” and the rest of the film is his supporting argument.  The juxtaposition between Jupiter, Seaweed, and Jump Cuts is not arbitrary.  It’s an impressionistic portrayal of how God sees and experiences His creation.  The cosmos are not unrelated to the planting of a tree, or the wounding of an animal.  But like the branches of a tree, all life finds its roots in the Earth.

Malick’s films are significant because of how unashamedly they embrace thematic editing, rather than causal narrative editing.  In traditional causal editing, one shot directly causes the next shot, which directly causes the next shot after that and so on until the end credits.  But the films of Terrence Malick do not emphasize narrative.  They emphasize theme, truth, and self.  As such, Malick’s preferred editing style is very impressionistic and thematic.  When shots of trees are juxtaposed with shots of children growing up, we aren’t meant to understand them as being “causally” related.  But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t related.

Mainstream audiences expect narrative in their cinema.  They expect a protagonist and an antagonist.  Films that do not have a strong emphasis on this type of story are considered to be shoddy and poorly made.   This expectation is largely due to the lack of film education in our culture.  Film did not start out as a storytelling medium.  It started as a record of life.

When shots were first assembled together in sequence, there were many experiments with what could be accomplished through cutting.  The speed of the cuts and the order of the cuts were found to produce different effects in the audience’s experience.  It was Sergei Eisenstein who said, “Language is much closer to film than painting is.”  Each shot is like a word that represents a given association in the receiver’s sub-conscious.  When specific words are placed together, they give a certain meaning.  Thus, traditional narrative grammar in film might sound like this: The Dog ran away from the pound.

But Malick uses different pieces of information to produce a different idea in the audience’s mind.  His grammar may sound more like this: Dog, barking in the wind, the pound behind, the World ahead.  It isn’t wrong.  It’s just different.  I call it “Linguistic Impressionism.”  It represents the experience of life, rather than recording the facts of it.  Terrence Malick is a poet who all but ignores words.  The images are enough.

And this is one of the most significant reasons that contemporary audiences might not “get it.”  In most narrative film, we’re used to being told through dialogue what the story is about, who the good guys are, and what’s at stake.  We often listen to movies, rather than watch them.  But in Malick’s films, he cuts away from the dialogue.  He focuses on the moments and the memories.  The impression of what life is like.  And as this film demonstrates, life is like a tree.

All life is interconnected.  Like leaves that stem from branches, which grow out of a single trunk whose roots are in the earth.  As new branches grow, the other branches move to accommodate it.  A part of the tree may fall off or die, while the rest of it grows and moves on.  The tree grows with time; it changes shape, and suffers through the elements.  But it survives.

There are frequent shots of trees interspersed throughout the film.  We are often positioned to be looking up at it them, as if with childlike wonder, as the Sun is seen through the branches.  The scope of life is awe-inspiring.  But it is not the size that makes it grand.  It’s the details, interwoven, telling a story.

The Tree is not the only piece of significant symbolism in this movie.  Some of the less disputed symbols are Grace (the mother, also possibly water), Nature (the father), and God (the Light).  In the case of God, the real representation of Him appears to be the recurring orange light.  But there are anticipations of him in images such as the sun, the lamps, and the various candles seen throughout the film.  When we are granted images of the sun shining down onto the trees, it symbolizes God gazing down upon creation.

When Jack says, “Mother . . . Father . . . always you wrestle inside me.”  He is referring to his innate spiritual conflict between Nature and Grace.  The mother describes the difference at the start of the film when she says, “Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.   Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Before Jack is born, we see a woman in white leading small children toward a gate, and then we see one of them in a submerged bedroom, swimming toward the surface.  The woman is an angel leading young souls to their births, and the underwater bedroom is the womb.

The second to final image of the film is of a bridge standing over water, leading into the sunset.  It is very telling symbolically, and punctuates the film quite well.  We are led over Grace to meet God, the Light Source out of which the Tree of Life is grown.  It takes water and sunlight to make a plant grow.  It takes Grace and God for life to grow.  As a dying branch falls to the ground, it is returned to its roots.  Eventually, the whole tree will be returned to the earth, one piece at a time.

In Jack’s vision of Heaven, all people have come together on a beach to celebrate life.  They are reunited.  They are happy.  They are reconciled.  The Mother says a prayer, offering her son to God.  It recalls one of her first lines in the film; “he was in His hands the whole time.”

As the film jumps through space and time, exploring the light years and the eons, it seems patently obvious that this film is not from any human’s point of view.  Rather, it is from the point of view of God, who experiences all of creation at once.  The Mother asks, “Where were You?” and God responds by taking us back to the Creation of the universe.

The evolutionary process begins in water; Life begins by Grace.  God is everywhere.  He is with the newborn as it rests on its mother’s chest.  He is with the wounded dinosaur as it lays stranded on the beach.  He is with Jack as he chooses to do wrong.  And He is with the Cosmos, as they begin and end.  God has seen such struggles of the universe that any human pain (like being shot with a BB gun) should be inconsequential to him.  And yet He is there, suffering with it, despite its cosmic insignificance.

The juxtaposition between human pain and Divine presence plays out like an eternal dialogue, with each asking the other, “Where were you?”  God responds to Job with evidence from the foundations of the earth.  Mrs. O’Brien asks of God the same question that Job had asked, and receives the same answer.  Whenever this question rises in the film, Malick presents us with images of nature, or in some cases, glimpses of Heaven.

Malick frequently employs voice-overs as a means of demonstrating to us the heart of the characters.  The voice-overs are in present tense.  They are often prayers; they are the characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings.  They are notches on the Tree of Life.  The Tree is raised up out of the earth by God, and in its prime seasons will continue to produce more life around it.  Mr. O’Brien is a gardener, but his plants are dying.  Even the grass in his yard is weak, because he does not grow with love.  What the Mother says, “The only way to be happy is to love.  Unless you love, your life will flash by . . . Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” the Father echoes in disappointment when he says, “Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.

The opening and closing images are the same: a glowing orange light.  This is God, at the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, holding the Tree of Life between His hands.  It is a Tree that He planted, and that He has lovingly cultivated, despite its natural tendency to oppose Him.  This presence in creation is how God answers Job’s question.  “Where was I?  I am HERE.  Where I’ve always been.

h1

Linguistic Propaganda in The Birth of a Nation

02/05/2012

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is a masterpiece of racist propaganda.  It slowly and meticulously builds its story in such a way that you identify with the most hateful of American citizenry.  The core elements of propagandistic filmmaking are here, and they are groundbreaking.

The film is a brilliant example of linguistic cinema.  At every frame, there is no doubt what emotion is communicated.  Each image precisely distinguishes the heroes from the villains.  The great irony is that the movie’s heroes are history’s villains.  They are painted here as the victims of evil Carpetbaggers and their rising Black Empire.  Oh the poor white minority.

Aside from the overt racism, the film offers a very compelling example of how the edited assembly of shots can produce a given affect.  During one of the films most famous scenes, the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue of a family that holed up in a cabin while being attacked by an angry black mob.  The intercutting here is some of the first of its kind, and shows a marvelous understanding of the language of film.

We are shown the cabin in danger.  Our minds immediately empathize and begin to look for ways to help these people.  “Isn’t someone going to save them?” our collective subconscious cries out.  And then we are shown an image of the White Knights, riding on horseback, here to save the day.  From that point on, our imagination tries to fill in the rest of the scene.  Griffith juxtaposes shots of the family in danger with shots the Ku Klux Klan, giving us a deadline.  Now instead of asking, “who will save them?” we ask, “will they get there in time?”

This type of crosscutting is interactive for the audience.  Our imagination tries to complete the scene with the information given.  But as each new shot is laid before us, our imagined outcome changes to incorporate the new piece of information.  This essentially happens with all films everywhere, but was only in its early stages here.

The very principle of editing is based on knowing what the audience is anticipating.  In all story, the audience empathizes with the characters by projecting itself into them.  So if a film has a story (not all films do) then it will give certain pieces of information to the audience to make this projection as seamless as possible.  The sequencing of scenes, then, is all about continually providing the audience with new information.  The audience will live and breathe that information and allow it to transform their emotions during the film’s runtime.

The individual edits within a scene provide smaller pieces of information that the audience receives more subconsciously.  For instance, if a character says or does something offensive, we (the audience) naturally anticipate some character in the scene to represent our objection to the matter.  If no such character appears, the audience will feel devastated.  Thus, the rushing cavalry comes not only to save the poor family in the cabin, but also to save the audience.

This basic linguistic technique of cinema is used to put the audience in a position that is sympathetic to whites, and antagonistic toward blacks.  Griffith’s use of Intertitles that set the scenes in a (supposedly) historically accurate South, frame the audience’s opinion of the characters from the outset.  We have to hate the black people in the film, because that’s what the film tells us to feel.  What makes this an uncomfortable experience for the non-racist member of the audience, is that it fundamentally plunges our mental projection into a situation that we have no desire to be in.  It breaks the immersion that is necessary for empathy.  I do not want to be a racist.  But if I am to enjoy my experience with The Birth of a Nation, then I must, at least for the three-hour duration of the film, take on a racist worldview.

There is one scene in the film where the state congress has been taken over by the rising Black Empire, and they swiftly begin to abuse their power by oppressing the poor white minority.  Here the Black leaders are portrayed as being animal-like.  They rest their bare feet on the tables and eat KFC.  They are not presented with any positive attributes whatsoever.  Thus, Griffith destroys any possibility of the audience respecting the Black leaders.  We make judgments about the characters based on the information that we have been given, and in this case, the information is scathing.

Propaganda cannot work if it is fair and balanced.  In order for a normal non-racist audience to be in a position that we are comfortable with the Ku Klux Klan, there must be some villain that is considered worse than our image of the KKK.  In this movie, that villain is black people.