Posts Tagged ‘classic’

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Femme Fatales in the Work of Billy Wilder

04/05/2012

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.

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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.

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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.

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Fellini and the Self-Referential Nature of 8 1/2

04/12/2011

Much has been made about the autobiographical nature of Frederico Fellini’s 1963 film 8 ½.  The title refers to the film being his 8th feature, added with two short films equals 8 ½.  The story is about a director who does not know what film he should direct.  Fellini came up with that idea ironically while trying to decide what film he should direct.  But how is this different from any random YouTube video made by a Junior High student without a plan?  Or why is this film about itself so much more “artistic” than any car commercial, blatantly self-referential, and arguably plot-less?

I believe the answer lies in its tremendous lack of pretentiousness, and therefore, its inherent honesty.  When you watch a commercial, you feel like you’re being tricked.  The thing being advertised is begging for you not only to care about its existence, but also to be infatuated with it.  In the case of this film, our protagonist seems more interested in disappearing from the world than being known by it.  Whereas in many cases, the director of a film provides fantasies for the audience to escape from the world, this director seeks fantasies for him to escape from the audience.

There are certainly autobiographical elements in 8 ½.  And 8 ½ is not the first film to feature itself as a premise – that belongs to the old Nickelodeons if you ask me.  But 8 ½ does something more.  It builds an emotional experience while simultaneously deconstructing it.  Its like a time-lapse of a painting being created.  The interest has shifted from the painting itself, to the process of it being painted.

Fellini’s film works on all levels a typical movie is supposed to work.  But its greatness lies in its existence as a lens through which to view artistic suffering.  In the real world, Fellini’s search for a film would not have perfect pacing, elaborate coincidences, and metaphorical overtones.  But Guido, the film’s protagonist, experiences these issues with an incredibly poetic timing and rhythm.  Both his wife and his mistress find him in the same place at the same time, and instead of dealing with the problem then and there, he fantasizes about a much easier and more selfish existence where wife and mistress get along and neither of them judge him for hanging on to the other.  This fantasy is further manifest in a later seen where Guido comes home to a harem of all the women in his life.  They love him and plead for his attention.  They need him and will never leave him.

There is a significant narrative implication concerning the rules of personal fantasy in this scene.  When he first walks in to his harem home he sees his mistress walk down some steps, to which he asks, “What were you doing upstairs?” and she answers, “Keeping those poor girls company, they’re always so alone up there.”  To most members of the audience, this has no meaning whatsoever.  But I will illuminate its importance here.  When the writers of 8 ½ wrote that scene they most likely had already discussed the rules of each fantasy sequence, and coming upon this one they decided that in Guido’s harem only women under a certain age would be allowed to stay in the main floors ­– a fact that is later discussed toward the end of the scene.  They set up this “fact of fantasy” with the aforementioned bit of dialog.  The dialog itself does not say what’s upstairs that Guido is protecting his mistress from; that comes later.  This is known as a “set-up/pay-off” system of storytelling.  The initial line informs the audience that there is a distinguishing element between the upper levels and lower levels.  The pay-off later tells the audience exactly what that distinguishing element is.

Where this becomes important for the story is that Guido as a character must experience this fantasy in real-time.  He doesn’t get to have a meeting in a “writer’s room” discussing the rules of each of his fantasies.  He just creates them out of who he is and what he needs at the time.  As a filmmaker, his imagination is so conditioned to exporting ideas in a set-up/pay-off system, that his fantasy is manifest in this way.  Guido is now incapable of viewing or expressing his desires (both sexual and otherwise) in any way apart from theatrical deception and manipulation.  That is how much his inner self desires to be expressed cinematically – that his fantasies imitate the cinema.  But all the desire in the world won’t make a movie happen until you know what movie you want to make.