In ‘Dog Days’ Eyas Salman shows the layers of frustration

Saleh Bakri and Tarek Copti star in the short film "Dog Days," directed by Eyas Salman

Saleh Bakri and Tarek Copti star in the short film Dog Days directed by Eyas Salman

The short film Dog Days (2009) opens with an aging father calling for his son as they walk up the street in Nazareth. Abu Noor hands his son his case to carry and then walks past him up the hill, complaining and cursing. When he asks if Noor has finished his homework, the young man replies that he has been finished with school for eight years.

“Really? Good! Why don’t you have a job then?” the father asks, ignoring the fact that unemployment for Arabs in Israel is high.

As the film (written by Tamer and Eyas Salman) continues to unfold, we see Noor consumed by the expectations of his father and frustrations of the life of young Palestinians in Israel. These are the Arabs who didn’t leave the country when the modern State of Israel was created in 1948.

Father and son share a lonely existence in a flat on the bottom floor of a building. Noor spends his days caring for his father and taking care of the house– doing dishes, waiting on his father, and hanging laundry diminishes his masculinity in a traditional patriarchal culture. He flirts with a neighbor woman by offering her a glass of water as she walks by. Their roles have been reversed; she is independent and heading somewhere while he is tied to house and family.

Noor’s sense of self is also erased by his obligation to care for his father. In Palestinian culture, it is still common for families to care for the elderly at home rather than putting them in nursing homes; this is partially due to economics, but it is largely cultural–family is the most valuable thing a person can have and older people are valued members of the community.

As Abu Noor’s memory weakens, his demands get worse and Noor becomes paralyzed by the constant demands. Their lives are an endless loop of the mundane. Noor hears his father’s voice in his dreams: “Come. Sit. Take. Bring. Sit. Go. Wait. Move.”

For Noor, his father becomes not only a burden, but also a reminder that his life is continually put on hold. Abu Noor tells a story about taking private music lessons in Haifa as a young man and being questioned by the military. While the military commander let him go, Abu Noor gave up music. His point is that life has always been hard for the Palestinians and that Noor’s generation isn’t suffering anything new. But, Noor hears a different message. His father was about the same age as Noor when he gave up his dreams. Noor hasn’t even allowed himself to dream, but after his father tells his story, Noor decides he must change his life even if his father pays the price.

In a few short minutes, the film shows the shifting attitudes of young Palestinians–young men and women who are seeking lives and identities of their own, lives not completely tied to family, land, and tribe.

Tarek Copti, who plays Abu Noor in the film, speaks eloquently about the importance of both identity and filmmaking for Palestinians. “…so cinema is a very important art for us as Palestinians. It’s a window we see the world through.”

Saleh Bakri says he is interested in playing roles that are character-driven rather than mechanical. He is the son of actor-director Mohammad Bakri and, like his father, has chosen projects that give dignity to the Palestinians. He describes working on projects with Israeli and Palestinian groups and being interested in the story they can tell together.

The film’s director Eyas Salman was born in Nazareth and studied filmmaking at Tel Aviv University. He has written and directed several short films and recently edited the feature film Omar, directed by Hany Abu-Assad and featured at 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

The short interview clips in the article are from the Doha Film Institute website. “In ‘Work in Progress,’ the first ever video portrait collection of iconic and emerging filmmakers and actors from the Middle East, Marian Lacombe joined her sister Brigitte Lacombe to travel the world through film.” The whole site is worth spending time on and exploring the stories of different filmmakers and actors from around the world.

Older Women with Younger Men: The Rebound

Justin Bartha and Catherine Zeta Jones in The Rebound.

Justin Bartha and Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Rebound  

This week, the class is watching The Rebound, a 2009 romantic comedy starring Catherine Zeta-Jones (Sandy) and Justin Bartha (Aram). When the film was released it met with lukewarm reviews. While the two lead characters were lauded for being likable and well acted, most critics balked at the fact that the film doesn’t really explore the possibilities of the main set-up: the May-December relationship between Aram and Sandy.

While the film has a lot of predictable moments and doesn’t really make the most of either the comedic moments or the exploration of the relationship between Sandy and Aram, it avoids cheap humor at the expense of their age difference. Rather than portraying Sandy like a stereotypical “Cougar,” she is portrayed as hesitant to pursue Aram or anyone else. At first, her focus is simply on rebuilding her life and taking care of her children as they start over in the city.

Sarah Kershaw’s “Rethinking the Older Woman-Younger Man Relationship” describes the rise of the Cougar in American popular culture and talks about the reality of relationships between older women and younger men. In her article, Kershaw describes a generation of independent women who no longer seek marriage as a way of being provided for. If they seek a marriage at all, it is done from a more level playing ground where they enter a relationship with their own money, careers, and experience. Younger men find them attractive, Kershaw says, because these women have power, are attractive, have sexual experience and a liberated attitude toward sex (younger women may fear an unwanted pregnancy or being used for sex).

When comparing these relationships to the Older Man-Younger Woman relationships, there is a different dynamic. When the man is older, Kershaw’s research indicates, he is seen as a source of money and stability; he also has the potential to father children with a younger woman, whereas the older woman is often post-menopausal and children with the younger man are not usually part of the picture.

Reading Kershaw’s article, one may wonder if these women are doing as men have been doing for generations—having flings where sex is for enjoyment rather than procreation and they get an ego boost from being with a younger, energetic person who finds them attractive.

The Rebound shies away from those issues for the most part. There are the forced jokes from Aram’s friend and Sandy’s co-workers, but the pair don’t spend much time thinking or discussing the impact of their age differences. When they finally do address it during Sandy’s pregnancy complications, Sandy sends Aram on his journey of self-discovery, which disrupts the narrative in an unnatural way.

As you watch the film, think about ways in which gender roles are reversed—there is the obvious switch of Aram being the nurturer while Sandy is the breadwinner.  Sandy has an avid interest in sports that she turns into a career. What are some of the others you notice?

Older Men-Younger Women on the Silver Screen

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

In film pairings, the Older Man-Younger Woman is more common, so common age difference was often overlooked. For example, there was a 25-year age difference between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall when they met on the set of To Have and Have Not; the pair was a popular couple onscreen and off. There was a 21-year age difference between Johnny Depp and Keira Knightly when the pair kissed in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, which Depp says bothered him.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade.

Cary Grant was concerned about propriety and turned down several roles as a romantic lead when he was in his 50s. At 59, Grant did agree to take the lead in Charade opposite Audrey Hepburn (34), but expressed so much discomfort that the filmmakers changed the screenplay so that Hepburn’s character was the one who did the romantic pursuit.

Grant was one of Hollywood’s most popular romantic leads and remained charismatic and attractive throughout his career. Audiences still enjoyed his performances as a leading man, but he expressed discomfort with the image of a much older man wooing a younger woman. In reality, he did marry Dyan Cannon when he was 33 years her senior and eventually retired from acting to devote himself to raising their daughter.

Some things to think about

Kershaw’s article suggests that there is growing acceptance of the Older Woman-Younger Man relationship. What do you think? What is pop culture’s role in this acceptance (if any)? Is Kershaw’s assertion that the Demi Moore-Ahston Kutcher marriage made people look at these relationships in a new way. Is the Older Man-Younger Woman still considered (more) acceptable?

My Name Is Khan

My Name is Khan poster

My Name is Khan poster

My Name is Khan was a crossover success for Indian film director Karan Johar. The film is set in America and has a large amount of English language content. For many Americans, this film served as an introduction to Indian cinema and two of its biggest stars—Shah Rukh Khan (also billed in some films as Shahrukh Khan), who plays the lead character, Rizvan Khan, and Kajol, who plays his wife, Mandira.

The film tells the story of an Indian man with Asperger’s Syndrome in post-9/11 America who takes his wife’s challenge to “go tell the president who you are!” seriously and makes a journey that takes him on a cross-country tour of the U.S. as he tries to meet the president and explain that he is not a terrorist. It also a story about a mixed marriage as Khan is Muslim and Mandira is Hindu (as a bit of trivia, Shah Rukh Khan is Muslim and married to a Hindu in real life; Kajol is Hindu).

Some critics have compared the film to Forrest Gump and there are definitely parallels between the two films, such as Khan’s and Forrest’s journeys which put them in the path of people and events that make the news; the way both men change the people they encounter; and the quests they embark upon.

My Name is Khan will seem familiar in some ways to American viewers because of the similarity to Forrest Gump and some parts of film narrative and production are common to both Indian and American cinemas, such as the use of flashbacks and the use of close-ups to convey the characters’ emotions and responses.

There are also some aspects that are much more typical of Bollywood: the length of the film, the use of melodrama, musical numbers to extend the narrative, choreographed crowd scenes, and using the camera to revolve and swirl around characters to convey a sense of emotional distress.

Bollywood elements of the film

Melodrama is one of the staples of Indian cinematic narrative. Plot (and often overly theatrical acting) weighs more heavily than characterization. In My Name is Khan there are several events that move the plot forward and which may seem too predictable or too heavy-handed to American viewers, such as the deaths of Mark and Sameer. Khan’s arrest, beating, and release from prison are another example. Any of these events on its own might work in a typical American film, but all of them together pushes the limits on the American viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief. In Indian cinematic tradition, the use of melodrama is expected—the characters usually have every single crutch or support device ripped away from them over the course of a film so that when there is resolution in the end, the viewer has a sense that the character has overcome absolutely all odds to reach victory.

What makes the melodrama of My Name is Khan palatable for American viewers is Shah Rukh Khan’s acting. He refrains from doing overblown acting through most of the film and is usually very believable as Khan, stuck inside his mind and unable to process the unspoken emotions and responses of other people. Shah Rukh Khan lets the slightest flickers of expression around his mouth and eyes tell the story as Khan makes discoveries and realizations about the world he encounters.

While American movies use music in their soundtracks and sometimes have characters who sing snippets of a song in a scene, Hollywood movies generally don’t use songs to advance narrative unless the film is a Musical. In Indian cinema, musical numbers are expected in almost every genre. While there are no big dancing numbers in My Name is Khan, there are a few places where a song is used to move the story along. A song starts when Madira cuts Khan’s hair and turns into a montage of the pair falling in love. The closest we get to an all-out song and dance routine is during the memorial service at the church where Mama Jenny and the congregation sing “We Shall Overcome” and Khan joins in.

An example of a more typical musical number in Indian cinema is this piece from Mission Kashmir:

In the film, the two characters in the scene were childhood friends who haven’t seen each other for years; the man, Altaaf, has been groomed to be a terrorist and he originally plans to use the woman, Sufiya, to gain access to a TV station where she works. Here, he fakes his way into a performance she is doing of a song that is sometimes played on the night a Kashmiri bride-to-be is painted with henna. At the end of the performance Sufiya has a flashback to her childhood and singing the song with Altaaf; she recognizes him and they are reunited.

Many of the post-9/11 events in the film are designed to show the anti-Muslim sentiment in America at the time (and which is still lingering). Again, some of these incidents fall into the realm of melodrama: for American viewers, it is hard to buy the idea that Reese and Sameer would be best friends for seven years and then Reese would suddenly stop speaking to Sameer after his father dies in the war in Afghanistan. The other kids at school believe Sameer is a Muslim, but surely his best friend would know Sameer’s true character (and that he is Hindu).

American viewers might also be thrown off by the overlapping events and subplots in the film—as Khan makes his way across the country, new characters and situations are introduced and the film goes back and forth with these scenes and the larger story of Khan’s journey.

‘There are only two kinds of people in the world’

The character of Mama Jenny is interesting in light of our previous discussion of the representation of blacks in Hollywood films. In My Name is Khan, Mama Jenny is close to the stereotypes of a Mammy character and what Spike Lee calls “the magical, mystical Negro,” a character who has special spiritual, healing, or magical abilities. Mama Jenny’s spirituality and generosity are supposed to show that Khan’s mother’s assessment of people was right; his mother told him religion doesn’t really matter, that there are two kinds of people in the world: good and bad. Mama Jenny is supposed to be a “good” one. While the intent of the character is good, the characterization may be flat and stereotyped to American viewers when they see Mama Jenny in her big skirt and head-wrap that are eerily similar to Aunt Jemima’s or her life in a ramshackle cabin that is eased by her involvement in her church. This type of portrayal is so common in the films and TV shows that America exports, the representation is picked up and reproduced in other cultures.

The film tries to show that Khan’s mother was right about the two types of people in the world by contrasting Mama Jenny with the woman at the fund-raiser who tells Khan it is “for Christians only” and by showing different types of Muslims over the course of the film. We are shown Khan and his mother, his brother, and his sister-in-law as “good” Muslims. Khan is shown praying in several and his sister-in-law wears the hijab, but we don’t get much perspective on what they think or believe—again, this is where plot and action take precedence over fuller character development. In contrast, the “bad” Muslims are shown in the mosque inciting one another to violence.

By the end of the film, we don’t get too deep into any of the characters, which may seem odd to American viewers who are used to films that often follow the literary expectation that a character must grow in some way or change perspectives by the end of the film. Part of this may be a cultural difference: in America, there is much focus on “the individual” and we expect a certain amount of depth and motivation to explain a character’s actions. In other cultures where family and group take precedence over the individual, storytelling may focus on actions and consequences of events rather than an individual’s unique understanding of those events.

Film Terminology

Diegetic Sound—the sounds a character can hear on screen, even if the source is not visible (e.g. birds chirping or music playing on the radio). Non-diegetic sound is not implied to be part of the character’s environment (e.g. narration or music that swells in the background during a suspenseful scene). The music that plays when Mandira cuts Khan’s hair is non-diegetic; when Khan, Mama Jenny and the congregation sing “We Shall Overcome,” it is diegetic sound.

Flashback—interrupting chronological sequence by injecting scenes of earlier events unfolding.

Melodrama—the use of extravagant theatricality and the predominance of plot or physical action over character development.

African Americans on film

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Del McCoury.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Del McCoury.

If it’s a film class, why is there a picture of a bunch of musicians? Well, this week we’re talking about race in Hollywood and focusing specifically on African Americans in film. This week, the students in the class read a chapter about how the Civil Rights Movement impacted American society and popular culture in the 1960s.

The representations of blacks in Hollywood films was historically full of stereotypes (the domestic, the fool, the threat) or, just as troubling, notable for a complete absence from the screen. We’ll get to those ideas in a few minutes.

Now about that photo. It’s not the one I would like to have at the top of this post. The one I would like to have hasn’t been taken. See the man with the clarinet and the man with the guitar in the center of the photo? They are Charlie Gabriel and Del McCoury. Gabriel is one of the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and McCoury leads the bluegrass ensemble that bears his name. The two bands recorded an album, American Legacies, in 2011 and occasionally do performances together.

The two bands recently did a concert at the university and there was a moment before the show started that I would have captured had I been able to photograph the performance: before the stage lights went up, Charlie and Del walked out on stage together holding hands. Two men so full of talent and love for their music supporting each other as they took the stage–the gesture was a small, human, and completely beautiful moment. With Charlie being 80 and Del in his 70s, I kept thinking about how unlikely that gesture would have been at the start of their careers–even if they had no personal qualms about race, the society around them and the audiences in the 50s and 60s would have.

A sampling of how the two groups’ styles blend well together, bringing together two uniquely American sounds:

Now, let’s look at the movies.

African Americans & the Film Industry

The early American film industry operated similarly to the music and theater fields—often, there were separate productions for black and white audiences. From about 1915-1950, more than 500 race films were produced for black audiences. While most of these films were financed and scripted by whites, a handful were made by black filmmakers. Unfortunately, many of the films have been lost and only about 100 remain.

Filmmaking pioneer and author Oscar Micheaux

Filmmaking pioneer and author Oscar Micheaux

An early pioneer of cinema, Oscar Micheaux, worked for Lincoln Motion Picture Company and advertised that the company’s films were scripted and produced entirely by African Americans. The 1920 film Within Our Gates, written and directed by Micheaux is the oldest surviving film made by an African American director. The film tells the story of a black woman who travels north to raise funds for a school in the South. Along the way, she discovers secrets about her family history, which sets the stage for racial violence that culminates with the lynching of a black man. Micheaux’s films and books often depicted the accomplishments of blacks in the face of adversity. Some critics complain about the overwrought acting and limited production values in Micheaux’s work, but his films were often more concern about the message than the delivery, and are worth viewing to see his ideas about politics and societal roles.

After Micheaux, there were very few black filmmakers in America until the late 20th century and the rise of the Blaxploitation movies. From the 1930s to the late 1950s, the African American presence in Hollywood films is limited to secondary roles. One thing I ask students to consider when they’re thinking about this era is how it would feel to never see reflections of your “self” on screen. What message would it send to continually see only white people in leading roles and portrayed as successful? For nearly 40 years, black audiences did not see their lives reflected back through popular movies. (Other minority groups have a similar treatment in Hollywood films; often those representations don’t show up on screen until an independent filmmaker has success with a film that shows the world his or her community; once larger studios see that there is an audience for the material, more films with a bigger budget follow.)

Sidney Poitier helped both black and white audiences envision African Americans in dignified positions.

Sidney Poitier helped both black and white audiences envision African Americans in dignified positions.

In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Sidney Poitier broke through the American color barrier and delivered performances that helped Americans begin to envision blacks and whites as equals. The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun, Blackboard Jungle, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and A Patch of Blue allowed Poitier to play a wide range of roles from the comedic to the romantic and the dramatic. At the height of his career Poitier placed an emphasis on dignity, delivering his performances with measured emotion that emphasized wit and intellect. He gave white audiences a different vision of African Americans and their potential.

By the 1970s, though, the reserved performances of Poitier gave way to films that bubbled with anger and frustration at unjust situations and a racist society. In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles hit big with his independent film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as did Gordon Parks with Shaft (Note: These trailers are graphic and contain adult language). These films, with an emphasis on the gritty urban scenes, the drug trade, violence, revenge, and stylistic editing and funky soundtracks opened the doors to a new generations of black filmmakers as well as opportunistic low-budget imitations by studios trying to cash in.

Charles Burnett’s films of the 1970s and 1980s were often attempts to show realistic images of black life in America; his films do not rely on the flashy color and creative editing of the Blaxploitation era movies. Instead, they have a stark, quiet realism Killer of Sheep, My Brother’s Wedding, and To Sleep With Anger are some of his best known films.

From the 1980s to now, filmmakers like Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, John Singleton, Allen and Albert Hughes, and Julie Dash, etc., have been directing movies that depict black life in contemporary America. Critics and the film industry started noticing Spike Lee with his short films and the 1986 feature She’s Gotta Have It, but his 1989 film Do The Right Thing caught all of  America’s attention for its fresh camera work, inventive dialogue, and the mix of humor, anger, and sadness that show the events that unfold in a racially mixed neighborhood on the hottest day of the year.

This week, the class watched Something New, which focuses on an interracial relationship. Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) is a successful business woman who finds herself set up on a blind date with Brian (Simon Baker). As the film opens, the audience sees she is under pressure at work to prove herself and in her personal life to find a mate. Her girlfriends try to get her to lower her high expectations—she wants a man who is educated, has a job, has good teeth, and “isn’t crazy,” which seems reasonable, but then she keeps listing requirements further narrowing the possibile candidates. When a friend sets her up on a blind date with a single landscape architect, it sounds like an good match until she sees he is white.

The film offers a glimpse into the life of an upper-class black woman; even with her accomplishments and background (coming from a family of “academics” and graduating from top schools), Kenya still has to work harder than her white colleagues to prove her worth to the firm where she is employed. The film does a frank exploration of race in America and shows both black and white views with honest, if not very subtle, scenes where Kenya and Brian explore their own expectations and values while also dealing with the opinions of family and friends.

An interesting thing about film is that it can be reflective of current societal attitudes or it can project an ideal for people to strive for. For example, many of the War films during World War II show a racially integrated military while the armed forces were still segregated in real life—desegregation of the armed forces took place in 1948. Showing a fictional unity on screen reinforced the idea of all Americans working together for the cause.

American films and TV shows featuring black characters often make a point of explaining the difference between black culture and the rest of America. On the TV show House, Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) often makes exaggerated comments about Dr. Foreman’s (Omar Epps) experiences with crime and life in a ghetto. An interesting contrast can be seen in British television shows where multiracial casts often do not discuss their backgrounds. In the crime drama Luther, lead detective John Luther’s (Idris Elba) experiences as a black man in England are not mentioned by him or other characters. Racism exists in the UK, but it is focused differently than it is the U.S. The history of slavery in the U.S. and legislative language that ignored the basic human rights of significant portions of the population still reverberate today; other issues such as economic anxieties and fears over security impact how immigrants and people of other religions are treated.

NPR did a piece on African American stereotypes in the movies that is worth listening to. Click here to listen. Professor Anna Everett makes the observation that many of the stereotypical black characters in films are not “contextualized” within a family or community; they come out of nowhere and are attached to nothing. The white characters around them impart significance and meaning to their existence within the world of the film. Actor/director Bill Duke talks about the limited roles for African Americans in Hollywood and the dilemma many face as they are torn between paying the bills and holding out for roles that go beyond stereotypical representations.

‘Don’t know much about history …’

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson.

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson.

My apologies to Same Cooke for borrowing a line from “Wonderful World” for the title of this.

Don’t take this post too much to heart; it’s a musing, a passing thought, not a lecture. But, do feel free to chime in with ideas.

My youngest saw Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett and said, “He’s so handsome; she’s so beautiful,” and I realized he was talking about their clothes. To him, they’re “really dressed up,” but people wore suits and dresses all the time in the 1940s, not just for special occasions. My son is 6, but he’s not alone in his reading of the movies from the 1940s. Costuming sometimes throws my college students for a loop because many of them assume characters in the older movies are supposed to be very wealthy or high-class because of their clothing.

While I understand that keeping up with things like fashion and furniture trends of the 20th century might be asking a bit much of the students, it is disconcerting to have people misunderstand a movie because they don’t have much familiarity with historical events. For example, many students assumed that “the Great War” mentioned in Hugo was a reference to the French Revolution instead of World War I—I can possibly understand mixing up the two World Wars, but the French Revolution isn’t even in the same century in which the film was set. In other years, I’ve had students who wrote exam answers that described the “thriving movie industry during the Civil War’—problematic since the American Civil War ended in 1865 and the some of the first movie cameras didn’t appear for almost another twenty years; a “thriving” film industry wasn’t around until the early 20th century.

If  these kinds of misunderstandings happened with only one or two students each semester, I would figure I was witnessing individual cases of people who didn’t like their history classes and did better in other subjects. But, because there are so many students lacking knowledge of history each semester, it makes me worry about what else they’re not able to put into context. To not really understand the Civil Rights Movement may leave them without an understanding of the deep social changes it brought, nor of the continuing struggle of different groups to find equality in America.

Kindergartners like my son can’t be expected to put many things into a historical context, but at what point should we have an awareness of what happened in the past or what our society was like a generation or two before our own time?

On a lighter note, I wonder what people in the future will assume about contemporary movies based on the clothing?

Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl.

Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl.

‘Inception’ and genre

Inception

Inception

This week, we’re looking at the Science Fiction genre. We’ll also spend a little time thinking about Horror and Fantasy. The film the class watched was Inception; whether it is an example of science fiction is something we can debate.

First, let’s consider the three genres mentioned. They’re closely related and many films combine elements from all three. It should be noted that each genre has subgenres, such as slasher flicks, ghost stories, and monster movies under the larger umbrella of horror.

Science Fiction‑generally has imaginative, but somewhat plausible premises. As the name implies, the genre is concerned with technology and science. Classic sci-fi movies were often set in the future or outer space or focused on the consequences of scientific discovery (robots, clones, etc.) This tends to be a genre of ideas and filmmakers use it to explore philosophical ideas, such as ethics, social structure, and identity‑especially what it means to be human. Some examples of science fiction movies are: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Godzilla, Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Aliens, Bladerunner, Frankenweenie, and The Fifth Element.

Fantasy‑usually contains supernatural or highly fanciful elements such as magic, supernatural creatures, and magical or enchanted places. Often the theme is one of good vs. evil. Some examples of fantasy films are The Harry Potter series; The Lord of the Rings Trilogy; The Dark Crystal; Ghost Busters, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Wizard of Oz; The Corpse Bride, Coraline, and the Black Cauldron.

Horror‑contains unnatural or supernatural themes and elements and is designed to unsettle or frighten the viewer. The genre has roots in folklore and traditions that tried to explain death, the afterlife, and the nature of good and evil. Even modern horror tales and movies often focus on societal fears surrounding these themes. Some examples of horror movies are: Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, An American Werewolf in London, The Shining, The Grudge, The Exorcist, Stigmata, Night of the Living Dead, and Psycho.

While these genres are often looked at as mindless entertainment, they often address deep issues about identity, ethics, or society. The surface may look escapist, but the images and ideas may leave the viewer mulling over the implications of what he or she has just seen. For example, we might think about mind control and personal privacy after watching Inception. If it were possible to control someone else’s dreams, should we? What ideas are truly our own? Which of our thoughts come from external suggestions?

Why are genres even necessary?

The genre system helps with marketing and distribution. It also helps in development. A screenwriter will have better luck pitching a script that fits into an understandable category like Romantic Comedy, Horror, Thriller, etc. He or she can spend less time describing “what kind of story” it is and get into a more specific pitch—how this film is different from all the other slasher flicks or which ones it is similar to so that the marketing department is likely to know which audience is likely to see it.

On the marketing and distributing end, it is easy for viewers to scroll through specific genres on a streaming site like Netflix or iTunes. Most of us know what types of movies we like and these services use broad genres and fine-tune suggestions based on what we watch, rent, or purchase. My Netflix suggestions direct me to “dark humor,” “British drama,” and “psychological thrillers,” because I’ve watched movies like Shaun of the Dead, the BBC’s Sherlock, and North by Northwest recently.

Even if you go to a brick and mortar movie theater or video store, genres are used. If you go see Bullet to the Head or Skyfall, you’ll also see previews of the action movies coming out in the next few months. If you go to a video store, you’ll find the films arranged by category, and if you’re a regular, the staff will probably make recommendations based on what you seem to like.

With the rise of independent filmmakers, the genre lines are getting more blurry, but are still used as a part of the cultural shorthand. A film like Chasing Amy might get categorized as both a romantic comedy and a gay/lesbian film because of the lesbian character.

How should we classify Inception?

Some might argue that Inception is not a science fiction film.  Inception contains “dream sequences,” but many of these seem like the typical fare found in action movies even if the special effects used to indicate the dream sequences sometimes seem like the stuff of fantasy; these effects and the fantastic element are not consistently used. But, the biggest problem with labeling the film a science fiction movie is that it doesn’t seem to address any of the anxiety over technology and ethics that the typical sci-fi movie does.

Because we can’t get a real handle on the reality of the world in the film or of Cobb’s character, we aren’t given insight into what is truly at stake for him or society as a result of dream manipulation.

Others might argue that the film is a science fiction movie because of the theme of using mind control and the ethics of how that can be applied. Is there ever a time when it would be acceptable to enter someone else’s mind and place ideas there? The very thought is chilling to most people, and playing on modern anxieties about who might be monitoring us at any given time, does put the film in the realm of classic science fiction like 1984.

If you have not watched the film or are getting ready to watch it again, consider whether it has a stable structure. At first, Inception seems like a series of random events, which like a dream, change constantly without reason. But, some threads do continue to appear throughout Inception, possibly giving the film an underlying structure. At the very least, the attempt to replicate the dreamstate gives the film a series of disruptions that finally become a pattern.

Another element to think about is Cobb. Are we in his story or is he the prominent figure in the dreams of another? Do we have a reliable narrator?

Film terminology

CGI: computer-generated imagery is the use of computer graphics to create or contribute to an image used on screen. Some of the first well-known uses of CGI were in films like Jurassic Park and Toy Story. As the software becomes more affordable, more independent and smaller artists are producing film and video games using CGI.

Extreme close-up: when the camera shows an actor’s face in detail or a single object is the focus of the frame, with little or no surrounding background for context. The spinning top in Inception is an example.

(Un)Reliable narrator: the degree of truth in a narrator (or point-of-view character)’s story gives the viewer a sense of whether he or she is trustworthy. The Usual Suspects makes great use of an unreliable narrator.

Film Noir and The Woman in the Window

The Woman in the Window, 1944.

The Woman in the Window, 1944.

Film Noir

Film Noir (literally ‘black film or cinema’) was coined by French film critics (first by Nino Frank in 1946) who noticed the trend of ‘dark’ and downbeat looks and themes in many American crime and detective films released in France after World War II.

These films included The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), and Laura (1944). These movies were a big contrast to Hollywood’s musicals and comedies. Fear, mistrust, bleakness, loss of innocence, despair and paranoia are often found in noir, reflecting the ‘chilly’ Cold War period when the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present. Happy endings were rare in noirs.

Women in Film Noir are usually seen as femme fatales (and, sometimes, there is an angelic ‘savior’ figure). Many critics see these portrayals as an attempt to keep women confined to expected roles, a sort of backlash against the independence women who had joined the workforce during World War II had gained. John and Stephanie Blaser’s essay, FILM NOIR‘S PROGRESSIVE PORTRAYAL OF WOMEN, argues that the femme fatale in Film Noir creates an image of the powerful and fearless independent woman.

Some characteristics of Film Noir:

  • disillusioned male character
  • femme fatale
  • betrayal and love triangles
  • gritty urban environments
  • rain-slicked streets
  • smoke, shadows, fan blades to give sense of doom
  • most exterior scenes are shot at night
  • use of horizontal patterns and light [e.g. shadows, blinds, bars on windows or prison doors]
  • use of low-key lighting and harsh shadows

What to Look For:

As you watch films noir, pay attention to:

  • dim lighting
  • horizontal shadows
  • rain-slicked streets
  • urban settings
  • femme fatales
  • gritty realism
  • camera angles that enhance sense of foreboding

The Woman in the Window

The Woman in the Window (1944) is a tale about a mild-mannered professor, Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) who gets caught up in a murder/blackmail plot with Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), whose portrait is on display next door to his social club. This movie contains many of the elements of a classic Film Noir—a femme fatale, murder, intrigue, stylistic elements such as the rainy exterior shots, nighttime setting, urban location, and details that add a sense of foreboding.

The film also departs from some Film Noir traditions. For example, the male lead is not necessarily a disillusioned man or a returning war veteran; Richard Wanley is middle-aged and practical (he declines an invitation to a burlesque show and hesitates to get involved with Alice even though he finds her attractive). He might complain about boredom, but the affection he shows to his wife and son in the opening and their prominently displayed photographs indicate he is a dedicated family man. This devotion to family also prevents a love triangle from developing; the male-female relations in the film are situational rather than passionate.

The Woman in the Window also departs from Film Noir standards with its ending. The dream sequence offers up an unexpected resolution, which is in contrast with the typical Noir ending with the hero’s demise or imprisonment.

So, here we arrive at one of the debates among film scholars, critics, and fans: Is Film Noir a genre or a style of filmmaking? Does it have thematic and narrative conventions like Westerns, War, or Horror films? Or, is it a visual style made up of particular camera angles, lighting, and locations? Some suggest it is both a genre and a style.

Why should modern filmgoers care about movies that were made nearly 70 years ago? The compelling storytelling is one reason; these films tend to have plot twists and unexpected moments that keep the viewer guessing. Another reason to get familiar with the Film Noir genre is to better enjoy modern films that pay homage to Noir. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is often labeled a neo-Noir. Even children’s programming plays with Film Noir—the Sam Spud gag on Between the Lions is a nod to the Sam Spade films inspired by the Ellery Queen detective novels.

Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang, film director

Fritz Lang, film director

The director of The Woman in the Window was born in Vienna, Austria in 1890. He studied graphic design and fine art in Vienna and Paris before enlisting in the Austrian army during World War I. Lang was severely injured in the war in 1916 and spent some of his convalescence writing scenes for a movie. He didn’t get a full start in the movie business until after the war. In 1918, he was sent home suffering from “shell shock,” or post-traumatic stress disorder as it is labeled today.

His background in art and anxiety related to the trauma of war often combine in Lang’s work to show a beautiful if nightmarish world. Lang is a master at establishing mood and conveying a sense of growing doom and paranoia. In The Woman in the Window, the scenes where Wanley disposes of the body and has several run-ins with possible witnesses along the way heighten the tension and Edward G. Robinson’s furtive glances around and in the mirror give the character believability.

His silent film Metropolis was the most expensive silent film of 1927. The film is an expressionistic science fiction tale of a future torn by class divisions. The 1931 film M centers on a series of child murders and vigilante justice. Both are visually stunning and images from the films revisit the mind after viewing.

Film terminology:

Exterior shot—scene taking place outside.

Low key lighting—lighting in a film that does not provide total illumination of the subject, adding to the feeling of suspense.

Points to ponder:

  • Do you think Film Noir is a genre, a style, or both? Why?
  • What are some of the characteristics of Film Noir you found in this week’s film? Would you consider this week’s film a true example of Film Noir?
  •  Why do we, as a culture, have periods were we seem to gravitate toward certain genres? I.e. Film Noir being popular after World War II, Westerns in the 1950s, Horror in the 1970s and early 1980s and currently?

Next week, we will talk about Inception.