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.

Masculinity, war films, and Windtalkers

The poster for Windtalkers sends the message that the film's story is really about the white protagonist.

The poster for Windtalkers sends the message that the film’s story is really about the white protagonist.

The film the class is watching this week is Windtalkers, directed by John Woo. We’ll address representations of Native Americans in the film, masculinity, and some things to look for in John Woo’s directing. But first, let’s do a quick overview of the War film genre in Hollywood. We’ll use John Belton’s American Cinema/American Culture as our main resource for discussing the genre and its place in American popular culture.

War films

War films occupy an important place in American cinema. This genre, along with the Western, helps us define ourselves as well as defines us to the rest of the world. These films often show a unified America that does not exist in reality and they often depict the idealized American man–a strong individual with high morals who will fight for his country (and, it is often implied, the underdog).

Belton writes, “The war film mediates our relationship to war, helping to prepare us for it, reconcile us to victory or defeat, and adjust us to its aftermath. The conventions of the war film continue to shape our understanding of real wars–to inspire us, on the one hand, to fight in them and, on the other, to protest against them. Though wars continue to be fought and won or lost on the battlefield, they also continue to be fought and won or lost through their representation on the movie or television screen. Images of war explain why we fight; they stage and restage war’s battles; and they attempt to explain why we won or lost” (182).

The war films made during and shortly after World War II were generally supportive of the American military and our role in the war. These films helped garner support for the war effort or depicted the actions of the soldiers involved as unquestionably heroic. While there might have been occasional references to “war is hell,” the mood is overwhelmingly supportive. The Vietnam war changed that. War films from the early 1970s on, often question American involvement in global wars and the decision making process  where young men and women are sent to wars for reasons other than a direct military threat to the U.S.

Belton lists four conventions in American war films:

  1.  the suspension of civilian morality during war (i.e., killing other people is no longer considered murder during war).
  2. collective goals take precedence over the goals of the individual (i.e., completing the assigned mission is more important than any personal goals).
  3.  there is rivalry between men in predominantly male groups and the objectification of women (i.e., many war films contain sub-themes where recruits compete for the drill sergeant’s favor during boot camp; when women appear in war films, they are often companions for the men when they have leave or are caregivers such as nurses).
  4. the reintegration of veterans to civilized society (not all war films include this aspect, but the struggle to return to civilian life is a frequent theme in post-Vietnam war films).

Masculinity  constructed

In “Men, Masculinity, and Manhood Acts,” Douglas Schrock and Michael Schwalbe discuss how masculinity is developed and studied. They provide an overview of masculinity studies in the late 2oth century and suggest studying how men interact and collaborate to build and reinforce masculine identities.

If you’re not used to thinking of gender as separate from biological sex, it may help to do some thinking about the ways in which gender is socially developed. Most of us are labeled “male” or “female” at birth based on our genitalia. That is our biological sex, and while it seems fairly cut and dry, there are intersex conditions that make even biological designations of male or female unclear—something that seems like an essential marker of identification—”male” or “female”—is not always a reliable or easy categorization to make.

Gender is different from our biological sex. Gender is how we view ourselves (and are viewed by others) as male or female*. Gendering starts early—often before we even make it out of the womb. Parents who find out the sex of their baby often share the news so well-wishers can stock up on pink or blue items. Since we are concentrating on masculinity this week, I’ll write about how social gendering happens with boys; you can think of similar examples of how it works with girls.

A young boy decked out in "Lone Ranger" clothes and toy gun. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/154796

A young boy decked out in “Lone Ranger” clothes and a toy gun, circa 1940s. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/154796

Cowboy costume for sale on vegaoo.com

A more recent version: cowboy costume for sale on vegaoo.com

Early on, boys are given “boy toys”—trucks, construction toys, sports equipment, and toy swords and guns. The little boy who dresses up as a fireman or a superhero gets indulgent smiles from strangers. The little boy who slips his feet into mom’s shoes gets scolded even if he has put them on because he thinks they are a neat color or he wants to be an inch taller; adults fear the little boy will “turn gay” by putting on the shoes or playing with his sister’s Easy Bake Oven. (For whatever reason, it is more acceptable in the United States for a girl to show “masculine” traits like assertiveness and interest in “boy” things like sports.)

For American males, anything that smacks of femininity or homosexuality is forbidden and adolescent boys quickly learn to use both femininity and possible gayness as insults to regulate each other’s behavior–i.e, “you throw like a girl!” Boys who do not conform to the expected gender roles are ostracized, sometimes with tragic results.

While gender roles are shifting, there is still a lot of pressure for men to conform to narrow definitions of “acceptable” masculine behavior and presentation. Men in the U.S., are, by and large, expected to be strong, assertive, to objectify women, be rational, keep their emotions in check, etc. The problem with this narrow definition is that it excludes many types of masculinity; it  assumes heterosexuality, for example, or leaves out familial cultural roots and their impact.

Many of the ways men define themselves (or are defined by society) is in opposition to the concept of Woman. Why does it seem natural to define something by what it isn’t? Are there other ways might men define themselves that isn’t dependent upon a binary?

In 2010, Esquire Magazine did a poll of American men on a wide range of topics to see how the generations felt about everything from politics to sex. Click here to see how men in their 20s and 50s responded. What might we gather about American men from the survey results? How do the two generations seem similar? Where do they seem divided on what it means to be a man in the U.S. now?

 Windtalkers

Windtalkers is a 2002 film directed by John Woo. By the title of the film, we expect to hear the story of the Navajo Code Talkers who served during World War II and kept the Japanese forces from deciphering American radio transmissions. Instead, the film focuses most of the attention on Sergeant Joe Enders (played by Nicolas Cage) and his perception of the mission, including his assignment as a body guard to Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach).

Director John Woo uses many parts of the formula found in standard Hollywood war films: a racist soldier, a nurse with a heart of gold, a love-sick soldier, a commander who does everything by the books, a scene where the Navajo solider saves the racist, etc. Woo also presents the Japanese soldiers as a largely faceless enemy, so he can spend more time on the pyrotechnics.

Woo built his name as an action director, so it is not really surprising that the film is actually thin on story, but Windtalkers doesn’t really show his trademark almost balletic action scenes. The hand-to-hand combat is heavy on bullets, blood, and bayonets and the large-scale battle senes are full of explosions and flying bodies, but it doesn’t show Woo’s style at its best. Be on the lookout for the juxtaposition of sound and action in Windtalkers—some of the most violent scenes in Woo’s films have a light, peaceful soundtrack. To fully appreciate Woo, check out The Killer, Hard Boiled, and Face/Off.

While we don’t get much deep understanding of the Navjo Code Talkers’ story, the film is different from many Hollywood portrayals of Native American life because it takes place in the 20th century. Hollywood often relegates Native Americans to Westerns and historical dramas. In Windtalkers, we see Ben Yahzee and Private Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) as men with some complexity—Ben writes letters to his son which he is forbidden to send in case they fall into Japanese hands and Charlie uses his spirituality to deal with the stress of war.

The production crew did go to the trouble to cast a Navajo speaker (Willie) in one of the lead Navajo roles; even though some of the pronunciation by other Native American actors is sometimes off, the effort to use the authentic language is still rare in Hollywood. In many Westerns from the Golden Age of Hollywood, indigenous languages are often simply made-up languages.

Adam Beach got into acting as a way to escape the rough life and his troubled childhood. Beach has used his place in the public eye to speak up about the lives of indigenous people in North America and to reach out to other young people in similar situations. Here, he speaks about being a role model:

What obligations do celebrities have to the public? Why should someone who is part of a minority culture feel obligated to speak up for their “group”?

For another perspective on the representations of Native Americans in popular culture, click here for an interview with actor, playwright, and doctor Evan Adams.

Film terminology for the week:

Close-up—a detailed view of a person or object without other context; the actor or actress may be framed so that part of their face or only their head and shoulders appear in the shot.

Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."

Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The “Here’s Johnny!” scene is one of the most iconic uses of the close-up.

Slow motion—shots of a subject photographed at faster than 24 frames per second, which when projected at a normal rate produce a dreamy or dancelike slow action; often used to emphasize mood or capture a “moment in time.”

A shoot-out from John Woo’s Hard Boiled uses slow motion to great effect to raise the tension throughout the scene:

* I am presenting this information in fairly traditional binary terms, but it should be understood that gender is complex and most people display both masculine and feminine traits because all of us are individuals and do not conform 100 percent to any stereotyped descriptions.

Love and romance in American comedy

Myrna Loy and William Powell; the pair made several films together including the Thin Man series and Love Crazy.

Myrna Loy and William Powell; the pair made several films together including the Thin Man series and Love Crazy.

Note: This blog is a virtual lecture that accompanies a film studies class, so there are references to specific readings and films the students have access to, but the casual reader might not. However, there are also general ideas about film studies and Hollywood history that don’t rely upon the texts and films.

British writer/comic Stephen Fry suggests that the difference between American and British humor comes down to self-confidence. He claims American comics’ routines hinge on a sense of optimism, while British comics celebrate their failures. Fry’s observation is interesting for the insight an outsider brings to our humor; also, he seems to be onto something.

When looking at American movies, the main character is often an underdog who has the pluck to get out of a sticky situation through wit, a little fast talk, and action. It is kind of ironic that one of the iconic comedians from Hollywood’s early days, Charlie Chaplin, was British; his Little Tramp character was the embodiment of the American myth of the everyman who can pull himself up by his bootstraps and make a name for himself. Another American comedic icon, Cary Grant, was also British; he came to the U.S. when he was 16, reinventing himself and helping Americans imagine an American man who could be urbane, witty, and sophisticated. While Grant played several types of roles throughout his career, he first hit big in screwball comedies—our genre this week.

Slapstick and anarchy

From the earliest silent movies through to today, slapstick has been a big part of American comedy.

The Marx Brothers had a special mix of wordplay and physical humor that reflected the wisecracking urban sensibilities of an evolving America where even the sons of Jewish immigrants could become world famous movie stars. The Marxes simultaneously lived the American dream and destroyed all attempts at creating any sort of institution. The brothers started out life in a poor section of New York’s upper East Side and worked the family vaudeville act into a film career that afforded them fame and wealth beyond their expectations. In their films, the Marxes poked fun at anyone or anything that attempted to impose order or assign value–higher education, socialites, government, etc., were trampled on with glee by the Marx Brothers.

The desire to destroy the institution—physical or more often, social—is a hallmark of American comedy. This brand of humor ties in with our idea of ourselves as iconoclasts and individualists. However, even with the destruction, there is usually a resolution where the institution is restored, but changed somehow and improved upon before the restoration is complete.

Movies such as Big Daddy (starring Adam Sandler) take on the institution of marriage and family. Sandler’s character, Sonny, is first presented as an overgrown kid who is selfish and destructive, belittling his friend Kevin for getting engaged. When a child (Julian, played by Dylan and Cole Sprouse) lands in his care, Sonny is forced to grow up, but he does it on his own terms—there are experiments with letting Julian dress himself and go by the name Frankenstein. He encourages the boy to urinate in public in attempt to keep him from constantly wetting his pants, but Sonny also uses a similar creative approach to get Julian to take a bath–dressing up as the father of the boy’s favorite superhero, Scuba Steve, and asking Julian to keep Scuba Steve company in the bathtub. A threat to the newly formed bond between Sonny and the boy by the court system forces Sonny to reevaluate not only his child-rearing strategy, but also his own views on marriage and family. By the film’s end, Sonny has become “normalized” into a marriage with a newborn of his own; his “improvement” to the system is introducing the ideas that each person involved in the child’s life has an impact and that men can raise well-adjusted children if given the opportunity.

Love and laughter

The battle between the sexes provides much fodder for American comedy. While the Romantic Comedy is often thought of as a genre that appeals more to female moviegoers, its foundations are in the Screwball Comedy, which had more general appeal. See the overview of the genre on Green Cine for more in-depth information about specific films, performers, and directors.

Screwball Comedies often pitted men and women against each other in conflicts that were substitutions for sexual expression. The term “screwball” was first used in the 1930s to describe the unpredictable pitches thrown by baseball players like Carl Hubbell. Movie critics adopted the term to describe the comedy films that came about in the early 1930s that revolved around unpredictable plots and zany antics between seemingly mismatched romantic partners.

Many films of the 1930s and 1940s have been labeled Screwball Comedies, including the film we are focusing on this week, Love Crazy. However, the label is often thrown at movies that simply have an element of madcap antics thrown into the mix.

For our purposes, a Screwball Comedy usually has the following elements:

  • A couple that is mismatched socially (one is usually from the upper class while the other is middle class), but a good match intellectually
  • Absurd situations or characters with secrets
  • Physical comedy that stands in for sex or physical affection
  • Rapid-fire dialogue that includes one-liners and innuendo from both parties
  • A series of misunderstandings that complicate the plot and prevent the couple from uniting until the end of the film
  • Neither party is idealized—the pair find each other irritating at the start of the film; interest often develops as the result of a challenge (there is no “love at first sight/stars-in-the-eyes” scene)
  • The resolution includes marriage or remarriage
  • Often, the middle class is idealized as virtuous in Screwball Comedies while the rich are viewed as being in need of reform (this is due in part to the original Screwball Comedies being produced during the Great Depression when audiences sought escapism and enjoyed seeing the rich get a comeuppance)

If you have done this week’s reading, you’ll note that Screwball Comedies reached their peak during the Production Code era. During this time in Hollywood’s history, the industry engaged in self-imposed censorship and graphic depictions of sex and violence (among other things) were banned. The 1931 film Scarface is considered the catalyst for the Production Code; read more details here.

Screenwriters had to develop films that would have mass-generational appeal. Keep in mind that during the 1930s and early 1940s, going to the movies was often an all-day affair where the audience saw a newsreel, comedy shorts and cartoons, the feature presentation, and possibly, a second feature as well. The movies had to appeal to everyone and offend no one.

With the Screwball Comedies, the screenwriters found ways to push the envelope and write dialogue and situations that adults would understand as intimate in nature and younger viewers would simply find funny or entertaining.

Jane M. Greene, in “A Proper Dash of Spice: Screwball Comedy and the Production Code,”* makes the case that antagonistic relationships stood in for sex during this era. She also argues that Love Crazy is not a true Screwball Comedy.

While we do see signs of the Production Code at work in Love Crazy—the Irelands have separate beds in their bedroom, for example—and Greene points to examples of how the dialogue was edited to conform to the Production Code, many elements of a classic Screwball Comedy are missing: Steve and Susan are already married when the film opens and even during the separation scenes, they do not have a physically antagonistic relationship. Their dialogue may be a bit suggestive on the night of their anniversary, but otherwise, the pair rarely exchange one-liners that hint at the sexual tension between them. Finally, the Irelands are both solidly middle class, so no tension exists over perceived social status.

Some elements of Screwball that appear in the film: There are outside forces that work to keep the pair apart (Susan’s mother, Ward Willoughby the archer, and Steve’s former girlfriend Isobel); the misunderstandings about Ward Willoughby and Pinky Grayson, as well as Steve’s masquerade as his “sister”; and the scenes where Steve is institutionalized.

If you haven’t watched Love Crazy yet, or plan to revisit it, here are some things to look for:

  • The performances of William Powell and Myrna Loy: the duo was paired up in several films in the 1930s and 40s, including the Thin Man series. They play off of each other well and have a natural chemistry on screen that makes them believable as a married couple. While Powell isn’t as familiar to today’s audiences as other comedic actors of his generation (Cary Grant, for example), he had a natural grace and accessibility that made him an audience favorite. Likewise, Myrna Loy had good comedic timing and sass that made her more than just another pretty face.
  • The use of lighting and sound to underline the lighter comedic fare: unlike in heavy drama, the lighting in the film tends to be pretty even from scene to scene. Few dramatic close-ups are used; instead, there are many medium shots which allow the audience to focus on the entire scene unfolding rather than on the emotional impact for only one character at a time.
  • The reinforcing of middle class values: from the set design to the etiquette in place around meal times and standards of dress, the Irelands embody 1940s middle class values.
  • Gender roles and expectations: We have different visions of what it meant to be a man or woman in America at the time the film was made. How are the various characters presented? What does the film tell us about how men and women were expected to behave during this period?
  • Somewhat related—stereotypes: We see a nagging mother-in-law in several scenes. There is also a scene where the valet at the party is presented as a wide-eyed fool; the few blacks shown on screen in this era were often cast as domestic servants who also had an air of childishness about them. Listen to an NPR segment about black stereotypes in Hollywood here.

Questions to consider:

Why are relationships such a big source of comedic inspiration?

How has American film comedy evolved over the decades (or has it)?

What do you think of Stephen Fry’s assessment of the difference between British and American humor?

Until the Production Code was replaced with the ratings system in 1968, films were regularly edited or censored to conform to the standards of the code. Have you ever watched a film that you found offensive or thought should have been edited to some degree?

Film terminology for the week:

Classical cinema–mainstream narrative cinema, roughly from the mid-1910s to the 1960s. These movies are characterized by a strong story, star, and high production values. These movies usually have a clear conflict, complications that rise to a narrative climax, and a resolution that provides closure.

high key lighting–Bright, even illumination with few conspicuous shadows; this style of lighting is associated with comedies, musicals, and other “light entertainment” genres.

medium shot--A medium shot usually shows the performer from the knees or waist up; the shot is relatively close up and includes some details of the surrounding scenery.

A medium shot from Sherlock Holmes. Director Guy Ritchie places Robert Downey Jr. in front of the crowd where he is filmed from a slightly low angle.

A medium shot from Sherlock Holmes. Director Guy Ritchie places Robert Downey Jr. in front of the crowd where he is filmed from a slightly low angle.

mise en scène–how the various elements in a frame are arranged–this includes settings, decor, props, actors, costumes, makeup, lighting, performances, and character movements and positioning. Cinematic mise en scène is both the way the action is staged and how it is photographed. Also long, un-cut, unedited and uninterrupted sequences shot in real-time are often referred to as mise en scène.

Greene, Jane M. “A Proper Dash of Spice: Screwball Comedy and the Production Code,” Journal of Film and Video 63.3, Fall 2011.

The magic of movies with Scorsese and Méliès

Hugo promotional poster.

Hugo promotional poster.

Early cinema history in Hugo

Hugo is an adaptation of the graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Martin Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan create extra storylines or fill in the backstory of characters who make minor appearances in the book because it adds more fully to the film’s impact, but in many ways, the film uses the book’s images as a blueprint. Scorsese’s film brings to life the illustrations of the mechanical man and Hugo peering out from the clock.

In addition to being Scorsese’s first venture into family movies, Hugo is Scorsese’s love letter to the magic of cinema and to some of the pioneers in the field. Of course, the figure of Papa Georges is based on the story of French filmmaker Georges Méliès, but there are nods to inventors and film pioneers such as the Lumière Brothers, Thomas Edison, and Edwin S. Porter, as well as to some of the first Hollywood Stars, such as Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplain, Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, and Tom Mix. (The scene where the Station Inspector, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, is dragged by the train is very much in the vein of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin.) It is important to note the film’s acknowledgement of the international roots of early cinema in the West.

Scorsese is not the only filmmaker who pays visual tribute to his predecessors–Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino both make films that are full allusions to the movies and filmmakers that have influenced them. For example, Frankenweenie has gags and characters that are based on classic horror movies such as Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Godzilla. Having a little knowledge of the history of cinema will make your viewing of their movies much more enjoyable.

This film and many of the others we’ll watch this semester try to evoke a specific era. In Hugo, there are nods to popular culture of the day with writer James Joyce and musician Django Reinhardt taking part in the café life at the station. While knowing these figures is not crucial for understanding Hugo, spotting them and knowing their role in early 20th century culture (both helped usher in Modernism to some degree–Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness was a relatively new form as was Reinhardt’s jazz guitar playing) makes the viewing experience more fun.

George Melies was one of the first filmmakers to experiment with special effects.

George Melies was one of the first filmmakers to experiment with special effects.

Scorsese knows his film history and layers it into the storyline of Hugo, enhancing Georges Méliès’ contributions to film as one of the first filmmakers to experiment with special effects and discovering the jump cut, and Scorsese also givies viewers a quick overview of the beginnings of the film industry. Scorsese does a lot of work for film restoration and preservation projects as well as movie history projects. He is a director who never forgot his childhood love of the movies, as he reveals in this Lucasfilm interview. The story of Méliès’ financial ruin and the destruction of many of his films addresses some of the concerns about film preservation while the scene where Hugo and Isabelle sneak into the movies shows the power movies can have on the viewer.

Hugo captures the early days of filmmaking and movie going in scenes where Papa Georges and film professor Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) talk about the transition of Méliès’ career from a stage magician to one of the first auteurs  of cinema.

Many of the early experiments with cameras and film technology were done in Europe (especially France); American inventor Thomas Edison saw the potential of moving pictures as an entertainment source and put money into developing not only the equipment for making and showing movies, but also in developing them as a narrative device instead of simply another way to document the world. Very early films were simply movies of people going about their business and do not have a true storyline, but Edison, Méliès, and a few others started considering ways to use film to tell a story, building studios and experimenting with editing film to create a narrative arc through visual cues.

In America, most of the early movie stars came out of the studios in Hollywood and Hollywood became known across the globe as place where movies and dreams were made.

About some of the techniques used in Hugo

Martin Scorsese image from The Hindu.

Martin Scorsese image from The Hindu.

Even though Hugo is marketed as a family movie, it has all of the touches that make it a Martin Scorsese movie  The film’s establishing shot takes the viewer swooping in over Paris, through the train station, up the tower to Hugo’s face peering out at the world below sets the tone for the film. It is simultaneously in past and present—the set is a recreation of early 20th century Paris done in loving detail (and based in part on Méliès’ shots of the same area of Paris), but the filming technique uses the latest technology (the film was shot for 3-D viewing using the newest cameras and editing software).

The final scene of the film shot by Larry McConkey is one long Steadicam shot, which is a technique Scorsese uses to great effect in other films such as Goodfellas and many similar tracking shots appear in Mean Streets, such as the one where cinematographer Kent Wakeford’s camera follows Charlie (Harvey Kietel) into the bar as he greets the other patrons and then takes the stage with the dancers. The painterly use of color and the soundtrack that is used as a secondary storytelling device are also similar to Scorsese’s other films. The pops of color, such as the blue in the Station Guard’s uniform and the flower stand in Hugo are reminiscent of the hand-tinting Méliès put to use in his films where only some elements in a frame were colored.

Scorsese is also known for casting relative unknowns in major parts. Both of child actors Asa Butterfield (Hugo) and Chloe Grace Moretz (Isabelle) had a couple of big budget film experiences before being cast in Hugo. Similarly, Cathy Moriarity and Joe Pesci were cast in Raging Bull without having “name recognition.” Pesci had been ready to give up on his acting career when he got the call from Scorsese to play Jake LaMotta’s (Robert DeNiro) brother Joey.

Scorsese once said in an interview that he is fascinated with violence and people who are angry. While Hugo does not have the outright violence of Goodfellas or Taxi Driver, nor the seething anger underlying Raging Bull, there are plenty of reminders that the world is not fair or full of nice people. Many of the adults in Hugo’s world are angry, violent, or unreasonable. Hugo’s alcoholic uncle, the station inspector, and at times both Papa Georges and bookseller Monsieur Labisse are all figures who threaten and scare Hugo. His uncertain status as child fending for himself is a constant source of anxiety in the film: Hugo witnesses the chase, capture, and arrest of a fellow orphan and nearly suffers the same fate.

A note on Scorsese’s crew

Scorsese gets his films to have a signature look and feel through close working relationships with some of the best in their fields, such as film editor Thelma Schoonmaker and visual effects experts Rob Legato and Ben Grossman. Hugo’s distinctive look was a team effort. Mike Seymour’s article, Hugo: A study of Modern Inventive Visual Effects has a great overview of how Hugo was filmed. 

Film terminology for the week

Jump cut: an abrupt, disorienting transitional device in the middle of a continuous shot in which the action is noticeably advanced in time or cut between two similar scenes. This might be done accidentally (a technical flaw or the result of bad editing) or purposefully (to create discontinuity for artistic effect). Georges Méliès discovered the jump cut by accident and then incorporated it into his films as a special effect.

In this scene from Breathless, Jean Luc Goddard uses the jump cut to imply the length of the car ride.

Parallel editing or cross cutting: alternating two or more scenes that are usually happening simultaneously but in different locations. Edwin S. Porter is often credited with first using parallel editing.

An early example from the 1920 film Way Down East, directed by D. W. Griffith

A more modern example from The Godfather, 1972, directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Steadicam shot: a hand-held camera technique using a stabilizing Steadicam (introduced in the late 70s), developed by inventor Garrett Brown, with a special, mechanical harness that allows the camera operator to take relatively smooth and steady shots, though hand-held, while moving along with the action; the resulting images are comparable to normal tracking shots on a wheeled dolly

Scene from Goodfellas where the Steadicam is used:

Next week we’ll talk about American comedies and Love Crazy.

 

Why film studies?

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/5852

Residents of St. Augustine, FL, line up to see Distant Drums, starring Gary Cooper. The movie was filmed on location in the Florida Everglades and there are also shots of the Spanish-built fort on St. Augustine’s bay front. Distant Drums was billed as “steel-fisted drama wrought from the soul and sinew of mighty men.” Image from the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/5852

What can we learn from watching movies?

What do Hollywood films tell us about ourselves? How early do we become aware of the social expectations that are on us? What role do films and other forms of popular culture have in making us aware of what is expected of us as men and women (and any other way you want to identify yourself—racially, ethnically, by religion, by sexuality, by subgroup, etc.)?

Spend a little time watching TV shows and movies aimed at children. Some ideas about conforming to society’s expectations are reinforced–often the basic roles of males and females. However, some things are showing up in this programming that might affect how a child views things; in the film ParaNorman, one of teenagers seems like a stereotypical guy–he lifts weights and works compulsively on his van. Yet, the buff motorhead turns out to have a boyfriend. A kid’s movie normalizes homosexuality while also destroying some of the stereotypes associated with gay men. The mention of the boy’s homosexual relationship is only that–a mention, but, some parents were upset by the character and the idea that the film “promotes” homosexuality. (Nancy French’s Review and Jeff Quinn’s response to a negative review of the film present two reactions to the gay character in the film; the commentary from readers is interesting.)

How seriously should we take pop culture? Does it really have that much power over us?

Justin Jedlica has spent more than $100,000 transform his body into a human Ken Doll. Image from ABC news.

Justin Jedlica has spent more than $100,000 to transform his body into a human Ken Doll. Image from ABC news.

Douglass Kellner, in “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture,” gives an overview of why there are courses like this one at universities across the country. He writes, “Media images help shape our view of the world and our deepest values: what we consider good or bad, positive or negative, moral or evil.” He gives a lot of credit to the media in shaping us. How much of who you are is shaped by the media images around you? How much comes from other sources: family, school, peers, religious institutions, etc.? Are the parents who were upset by ParaNorman justified in their fears that film would somehow undermine the values they are trying to impart to their children?

Kellner says it is necessary for us to learn to look at the media with a critical eye. How much of your information about others comes from first-hand research? How much comes from other sources? If you’ve never been to the Middle East and only have Hollywood images to go by, you would expect to find terrorists, women covered head-to-toe, open-air markets, mummies, sheiks, camels, pyramids, oil, etc. Depending on which country you go to, you would find things are nothing like what we see in our movies about the Middle East–deserts don’t make up the whole of the region; in many countries, women have jobs and are educated, etc. Jack Shaheen’s article “Reel Bad Arabs” lays out in smaller form the basic argument of his book with the same title. We’ll read Shaheen’s article later in the semester, but one of his biggest points is that Hollywood’s images of Arabs and Muslims have been largely negative since the beginning of the American film industry and that these images help justify anti-Arab sentiment and Islamaphobia in America.

Brining it closer to home … how do you feel about the way your “group” is portrayed on screen? For example, I grew up in the South. When I see Southerners on screen, we are usually portrayed as ignorant, racist, backwoods fellas with three teeth in our heads who carry shot-guns and say things like, “Yee-haw!,” “I’m busier than a two-tailed cat in a room full of rockers,” and “Git ’er done!” Some of those stereotypes might be more true than others, but I rarely run across people here who fit all of them.

Lynn Weber’s “A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality,” provides some historical context for the study of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Among the things she expects us to examine is structures of power and authenticity of voice.

Cultural critics like Weber force us to ask questions about authority and authenticity—who gets to speak for whom and why? She gives the examples of how straight middle-class whites are held up as the “norm” in both feminist and masculinity studies. While the women’s movement of the late ’60s and ’70s fought for equality, many within the larger group felt voiceless—women of color, lesbians, the disabled, etc. In a similar manner, men’s studies usually revolve around the experiences of straight white middle-class (and sometimes working class) men. Men of color are often ignored as are non-heterosexual men.

Considering this problem of smaller, underrepresented groups in the larger society, we might ask how can they make their stories known and their voices heard? How can they get the larger group to care about the issues they face? Why should any of us listen to the voices of groups outside our own?

Each semester that I teach this course, many students suggest that America is a fully equal society where everyone is treated the same. While many things have improved since the photo below was taken in 1963, all kinds of “–isms” still exist in America. Women still earn less than men in many occupations; nearly half the reported hate crimes in the U.S. during 2011 were racially motivated and another 20 percent were based on sexual orientation.

Patricia Stephens Due (in black dress with dark glasses) and John Due (visible above the policeman's cap) are among the protesters outside a segregated movie theater in Tallahassee. Photo from the State Archives of Florida: Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/34010

Patricia Stephens Due (in black dress with dark glasses) and John Due (visible above the policeman’s cap) are among the protesters outside a segregated movie theater in Tallahassee. Photo from the State Archives of Florida: Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/34010

Over the next few months, we’ll explore how the images we see on screen help reinforce concepts about race, class, gender, and sexuality in American society.

Next week we will talk about the beginnings of cinema and the film Hugo.

Douglas Kellner, “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture” and Lynn Weber, “A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality” are the sources referred to in this post. Both are in Multicultural Film: An Anthology, edited by Kathryn Karrh Cashin and Lauren C. Martilli, and published by Pearson; copyright 2013.

Previews

http://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/101079

Night view of The Strand theater in Key West, photographed by Dale M. McDonald. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/101079

This blog comes with an expiration date: May 2013.

I’m keeping the blog for my film studies class for the Spring 2013 semester, and while it will be written primarily for my students, I also see it as an experiment in contributing to public learning. This blog is a way to open the discussion up to a wider community so all of us can benefit from shared knowledge and idea exchange. Unfortunately for the general reader, you won’t get college credit for reading and taking part in the conversation, but I hope you find useful information and interesting discussion.

The class focuses on American cinema and representations of race, class, gender, and sexuality in movies and popular culture. Over the next few months, we’ll talk about how the images we see on screen affect us and our understanding of one another. We’ll also look at how societal changes impact Hollywood and its representations of different groups.

Next week we’ll consider reasons for studying films as something with more than simple entertainment value.