Dziga Vertov and the ‘City Symphony’

A Restored Avant-Garde Classic, 'The Man With A Movie Camera' Is ...

Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera is the quintessential ‘City Symphony.’ Naturally it was this film that coined the phrase but since it was made there has been nothing quite like it. One of the film’s signature elements is its fast pace. There truly is never a dull moment. Vertov set out to capture what life was like in “Industrial Russia.” In every frame he made sure to include plenty of movement and action. One recurring theme in the film is shots of masses of people in movement. One scene that shows a horde of people pushing through a wire fence gate is almost identical to a scene in Charlie Chaplin’s classic 1936 film Modern Times. It is no secret that Chaplin was heavily influenced by Russian filmmakers when he made his satire of modern industry.

Another innovation by Vertov was his own use of modern industry in his filmmaking. When the Lumiere Brothers first shot trains pulling into stations these films were comprised of short, static shots. With Vertov, we no longer stand on the platform and watch the train. The train becomes the filmmakers tool whether it is attached to the train as it speeds down the track or placed on the track bed, roaring over the audience’s head at an angle the Lumiere’s would never have dreamed possible. These images are still stunning almost a century later. The director even reveals his sources of camera assistance at moments during the film. In one scene, shortly after we see a tracking shot of a man riding a bicycle, there is a cut to Vertov himself, crouched with his camera, holding onto the side of a trolley car as he follows the bicycle. A subsequent scene shows Vertov, in the backseat of a moving car, tracking a moving horse carriage. The director was certainly not afraid to use any means of transportation to mobilize his movie camera.

Music was another enhancement to Vertov’s breakneck shooting technique. As I mentioned, this film is all about fast paced movement. In every frame we see objects and subjects moving. The music score matches this intensity with its fast paced rhythm.

Man With A Movie Camera was Dziga Vertov’s crowning achievement and most definitely the gold standard of ‘City Symphony’ documentary.

‘Shoeless’ Joe, FIELD OF DREAMS, and ‘The Hero’s Journey’

White Sox and Yankees to Play at Field of Dreams
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John Kinsella:“Is this Heaven?”

Ray Kinsella: “No. It’s Iowa.”

Professor of mythology, Joseph Campbell, was famous for discovering “The Hero’s Journey.” It is the belief in what he called the ‘monomyth’, the theory that all myths from all cultures, passed down through generations, are all part of a ‘single great story.’ The Hero, begins in his Ordinary World, is called to take on a quest or journey with great consequence, overcomes dangerous obstacles, and finally returns to his Ordinary World, stronger and wiser but forever changed. Campbell’s theory has been proven over and over again when you look at the great epics whether ancient(The Odyssey) or contemporary(The Lord of the Rings). What’s truly fascinating is how The Hero’s Journey has influenced modern story telling, most notably movies. Star Wars is nothing more than a science fiction version of the monomyth, but if you look even further than the great epics you will see that most films follow the path of The Hero’s Journey.

Movies and baseball have gone hand in hand for quite some time. Maybe that is because baseball, more than any other sport, is loaded with myths and legends: Babe Ruth ‘calling his shot’ in the 1932 World Series, Sidd Finch, the New York Mets “pitching prospect” who could throw a 168mph fastball, ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, after being suspended for life from MLB, playing in semi-pro games on the East Coast. Even ‘Casey at the Bat’ is considered an epic poem by die hard baseball fans. But is one of the greatest baseball movies of all time, ‘Field of Dreams’, just another strain of The Hero’s Journey? The answer is Yes!

‘Field of Dreams’ opens with a Ken Burns type montage, beautifully narrated by Kevin Costner, introducing us to the main character, Ray Kinsella. The scene quickly shows us Ray’s “Ordinary World” and is followed by the famous opening scene when Ray, at dusk in the corn field, receives the “Call to Action”: “If You build it, He will come.” Ray goes through denial at first and confides with his wife Annie that he might just be hearing things. He finally has a vision of what the Voice is telling him and he builds a Baseball Diamond on half of his farm.

At this stage of the Journey, Ray “Meets his Mentor”, the one who will give him guidance along his path. The mentor comes in the form of none other than the great ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, who happens to be Ray’s father’s favorite player. Ray initially believes that is quest is over just by giving Joe a chance to play baseball again. Hearing the Voice again telling him to “Go the Distance”, Ray sets off on a journey that leads him to meet famous writer Terrence Mann(based on J.D. Salinger), who accompanies Ray to Minnesota where they search for the legendary Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham, played by Burt Lancaster in his final film role. A younger Archie Graham played by Frank Whaley accompanies Ray and Terrence back to Iowa and he is quickly inserted into a game where he gets to live out his dream and step in the box for an at bat against a Major League pitcher. Ray has just granted another wish to one of his allies by giving the ghost of a baseball player one last chance to play.

While Ray is on the road meeting ‘Allies’ and overcoming ‘Tests’, the ‘Enemy’ of the film emerges in the form of Ray’s brother in-law, Mark, in an excellent performance by Timothy Busfield. Mark wants to buy the farm from Ray and is now forcing his hand since Ray and Annie are facing bankruptcy due to the construction of the baseball field and destruction of the corn. A dramatic scene unfolds when Ray returns home and while watching a ‘game’ with his family and Terrence, he gets into a heated argument with Mark about selling the farm. Faced with the power of possessing the cradle of baseball history in his own backyard Ray ‘heroically’ says No to Mark and saves ‘Shoeless’ Joe and the ‘Black Sox’ for eternity.

The climax of The Hero’s Journey is called the “Return with the Elixir.” It states that the hero has been resurrected and may now return to the Ordinary World, although that World is now forever changed. ‘Shoeless’ Joe tells Ray that the field was not for himself but for Ray’s father, John Kinsella. Ray repeats to himself the Voice’s line, “Ease His Pain.” He then whispers to Joe, “I thought it was you?” Joe replies “No Ray. It was you.” Ray’s “Elixir” is that he gets to meet his father when he was a ballplayer, in the prime of his life. The two walk and talk as if John is just another ballplayer enjoying Ray’s field until Ray breaks the ice: “Hey Dad? Wanna have a catch?” Ray’s world has clearly changed for the better as he has reconciled with his father’s ghost. The camera pulls back to a sweeping aerial shot of the father and son having a catch as a line of headlights backs up for miles, all coming to see a brand new world…’Shoeless Joe’ in Iowa.

Happy Father’s Day!

THE DOCTOR IS IN: Dr. Caligari, Hannibal Lecter, & the portrayal of the ‘Evil’ Psychologist

Hannibal Lecter - Home | Facebook
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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - Wikipedia
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“You all think I’m insane! It isn’t true! It’s the doctor who’s insane!” – Francis, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’

The Horror film may be the most popular genre of all films. Slashers, Zombies, Demons all haunt our dreams and force us to watch the movies with the lights on, sometimes. Of all the famous evil characters from Nosferatu to Michael Myers, are any of them more terrifying than the ‘Evil’ Doctor? Two legendary characters from legendary films prove that the answer very well could be No.

In 1920, a film was produced in Germany that has been unparalleled in the 100 years that have passed. The film, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’, is so rich in content from its abstract sets to the chilling acting by its two stars, Werner Krauss(Dr. Caligari) and Conrad Veidt(Cesare, the Somnambulist). The story is told by a patient, Francis, in a mental asylum as he recalls how he has ended up in the hospital at the hands of the infamous, Dr. Caligari. Francis goes on to relay how his best friend was murdered after visiting the ‘Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ at the Holstenwell town fair. It was Dr. Caligari’s subject, Cesare the Somnabmulist who told Francis’ friend that he would die before the following dawn. Francis is convinced that the mad doctor is responsible and after Cesare attempts to murder his girlfriend, Jane, and kidnaps her he makes it his mission to reveal the truth about Dr. Caligari. Francis discovers evidence that it is true that Dr. Caligari is using the somnambulist, hypnotizing him and ordering him to kill at his will. Francis, however, makes the grave mistake of bursting into the mental hospital and accusing Dr. Caligari of being a murderer. The lesson here appears to be ‘Never question a Doctor’ as Francis loses his argument and it Caligari who then recommends he be committed to the hospital as a patient.

Writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz crafted the story out of their shared experiences during World War 1 in Germany. Both men disagreed with the war and were harsh critics of the psychologists who seemed to be cooperating with the German government and forcing young men to continue fighting. ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is their look at the consequences of having blind faith in not just the government but also the medical establishment. Mayer and Janowitz were also aware of the sadistic nature of some psychologists in Germany who used electro-shock therapy to make men who did not want to fight so uncomfortable that they went running back to the front in order to get away from their doctor. This masterpiece of a film directed by Robert Wiene is certainly a case of ‘art imitating life’ in a very frightening way.

Hannibal Lecter has long been considered the scariest villain in film history due to his pure evil and an outstanding performance by Anthony Hopkins. Lecter, a psychologist and convicted murderer/cannibal steals the movie even though he is only onscreen for a total of 15 minutes. His most terrifying quality is that at moments when he converses with Jodie Foster we can see a very distinguished and intelligent psychologist. In an instant, Hopkins can flip the switch and unleash the monster more terrifying than Frankenstein and Freddie Kruger put together. The difference between Lecter and Caligari lies in the fact that Lecter has been caught and convicted and shows no denial or remorse for his dark side. Dr. Caligari, however, maintains his facade as the ‘good’ doctor when we all know he is the total opposite.

“I’m having an old friend for dinner.” Dr. Lecter’s bone chilling last line to Clarice before stalking his next victim. “Now I also know how to cure him.” Dr. Caligari’s “Compassion” toward Francis as he wrongfully commits him to the mental asylum and we are left to only guess at the horrors the Doctor has in store for his new patient. ‘The Doctor is IN’…in this case, Insane!

ANATOMY OF A SCENE: The ‘Low Angle’ Brilliance of CITIZEN KANE

The making of the best film of all time
photo courtesy of CNN

“I like the old masters…by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” – Orson Welles

Citizen Kane has long been considered one of, if not the greatest American film in history. Orson Welles’ 1941 classic is a watershed moment in Hollywood history, signaling the beginning of filmmakers breaking away from the Studio system of filmmaking. When it was made, Hollywood was at the height of its “industrial” status of making movies. Welles, along with cinematographer Greg Toland, pulled out all of the stops for the young theater director and radio star from the Mercury Theater in New York. Although this film is as close to perfection as you can get, I believe one of its shining moments is the scene between Kane and Jed Leland after Kane has lost the election for Governor of New York.

How to Shoot Dialogue Scenes - Videomaker
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After Charles Foster Kane gets caught in a ‘Love Nest’ and exposed by his political rival ‘Boss’ Jim Gettys, he not only loses the Governor election but he also loses his marriage when his wife Emily decides to leave him. While crushing losses, both personal and political, would break a man Kane shows no signs of letting go of his power and arrogance. Even when his closest friend and partner Jed Leland comes to see him after the results are in. Welles’ inspiration from John Ford is all over this scene, two major aspects in particular are the set design and the blocking of the actors. Ford loved using real sets, especially with ceilings, not just to show the actors in a natural environment but also to allow himself to be more creative with low angle shots. Here, a 2 minutes-plus scene with minimal cuts and shot at an extremely low angle, this scene had to be done on a natural set. When Jed enters the room to talk to Kane he begins to show his disapproval of what has become of his boss, and his friend for that matter. Hiding behind his drunkenness he lays into ‘Charlie’ letting him know that he can no longer go on trying to control and manipulate people. The most effective use of the low angle camera is the way it portrays Kane, alternating between strength and weakness. Ordinarily the low angle shot of an actor shows them in a dominant powerful position with the audience looking up at them. Welles and Toland really flipped this notion on its head with this scene. At the start of their conversation Kane is standing right in front of the camera, so close that we can only make out his legs below the knees. Jed stands in the midground at an angle in a full shot. As his criticisms begin to get nastier, Kane walks back towards him and now we begin to see Kane looking weaker in the scene despite the fact that we are at his feet looking up at him. As he approaches Jed, Kane gets smaller and smaller in the frame, almost as if Jed’s words are cutting him down to size, until he stops and stands right next to Jed. It is at this point that we see both men, the same size and height, unbeknownst to Kane and his ego, they are on equal ground.

The blocking of the actors is not only an inspiration from Ford but also one of Welles’ greatest strengths as both a theater actor and director. Citizen Kane is one of the first films I can recall seeing and noticing that with its blocking, sets, and camera angles, flows like a Broadway play. The natural sets, most of them raised up on stilts or stages in order to get every angle possible, enabled Welles to perform his magic in every frame. In this scene, despite two cuts, the camera never moves with the actors. Welles and Joseph Cotten pace back and forth, around each other as they deliver their dialogue, mostly cutting and dramatic lines from Cotten. Early on in the scene Welles strolls away from the camera past Cotten and into the background, showing the depth of the frame the same way John Ford would have his actors ride deep into the splendor of Monument Valley back toward the horizon. When Welles returns and continues past Cotten in the other direction he walks right in front of the camera and we see by his eyes that Jed’s harsh words are registering. The scne concludes with both actor in a medium two shot. Kane pours a drink and tries to make a joke about Jed moving to Chicago. Jed brushes it off and demands to be sent, wiping the smile right off Kane’s face. He then delivers one of the classic lines in Hollywood history: “A toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms…the only terms one ever knows…his own.”

Just about any scene from Citizen Kane can be dissected and analyzed and praised. This was filmmaking on “Orson Welles’ terms.” And for that he may just be the greatest filmmaker of all time.

ANATOMY OF A SCENE: Mise-en-scene in the Safdie Brother’s GOOD TIME

Good Time: A Luddite Robot Conversation - Luddite Robot
photo courtesy of Luddite Robot

The Safdie Brothers’ Good Time is an excellent film that is rich in the use of mise en scene. One example that I thought was very strong was the sequence right after the brothers Nick and Connie rob the bank and begin to make their getaway. This scene, through the use of sound, composition, and hair and makeup, grabs the audience’s attention and puts them in the middle of the intensity felt by the two main characters.

Immediately after dumping their clothes and masks, Nick and Connie emerge from an alley and wait for their getaway driver to pick them up. From the moment he enters the film in the first five minutes, Connie, played by Robert Pattinson, is in control. The scene begins with a close up, shot seemingly from across the street with a zoom lens, of Connie nervously talking to the driver on his cellphone. It is an extremely tight shot on his face and there is no mystery as to how he is feeling as we are able to see the anxiousness in his eyes. The scene then cuts to a wider shot of Nick wandering away before Connie calls him back. The close ups then continue as the driver shows up and the brothers get into the car.

The scene inside the car was very reminiscent of the opening scene of Bresson’s A Man Escaped. Similar to Bresson’s film where Fontaine is being transported to the prison in the back of a car, we see the main characters, Connie and Nick shot in close up sitting in the back seat of the car. The close ups once again are very tight so we can barely see the windows behind their faces. Even the driver is shown in close up with a shallow background so we don’t really know where he is going. Inside the car is where the sound becomes extremely important. As they ride away we hear police sirens in the background. Without seeing flashing lights we still know that the sirens are close because of the volume. When the sirens fade away, the brothers, and the audience get a moment of relief. Connie then smiles at Nick and asks if he wants to hold the bag of money. Feeling like it is a victory lap, Connie hands Nick the bag, which we see in close up. Immediately upon receiving the bag, Nick rests it on his lap as a high-pitched beep is heard. Cut to the driver in close up asking nervously, “What’s that sound?” We then cut back to Connie as he looks at the bag nervously. Once again the close up is very effective as the tight shot of Connie’s expression tells us that he knows what is about to happen.

The next shot is a close up of the bag combined with a long hissing noise. The bag slowly bursts into a cloud of pink dust. A cut to a tight close up of Nick’s face until the dust explodes and all we see is pink. The pink covers the screen creating a type of black out. We cannot see the brothers anymore. We can only hear their screams of panic as the car is engulfed in the dust. Then we cut outside of the car to a wide shot of the car spinning out of control and smashing into a parked car. The sequence inside the car ends with a close up through the windshield of the driver’s lifeless hands resting on the steering wheel covered in a pinkish hue. Although we only see the hands, the use of the pink dust covering everything lets us know why the car crashed.

I believe that close ups are essential to a film because not only do they give us a window into the thoughts and feelings of our characters but they can also create tension in space and setting. The Safdie brothers’ use of close ups in the car heightened the tension of the film not just by showing emotion but also creating a claustrophobic and trapped feeling for the characters once the pink dust exploded and all hell broke loose.

LULU WANG: Her breakout film of 2019, “The Farewell”, is only the beginning

Awkwafina Proves She's More Than a Comedian in The Farewell ...
photo courtesy of Vanity Fair

“It’s something I’ve had to navigate my whole life – am I American or Chinese?  I think I was quite lost a while in terms of what my voice is.”

Lulu Wang, Writer/Director of The Farewell

“The Farewell:  Lulu Wang Made The Year’s Most Exciting Hit By Refusing To Whitewash It” – INDIEWIRE, Eric Kohn 7/18/19

          In a short period of time, Lulu Wang has distinguished herself as one of the best young female directors in the film industry.  Born in Bejing, China, Wang emigrated to the United States when she was 6 years old.  Her family settled in Miami, FL.  As a child, Wang was trained as a classical pianist and her parents encouraged her to pursue a career in Music.  In 2005, Wang graduated from Boston College with a double major in Music and Literature.  It was during her university years, however, when she decided to pursue a career in film.

          In her final year at Boston College, Wang decided to take a few film production courses.  She then went on to make a few award winning student short films with her Boston College classmates.   After a few more short films, Wang directed her first feature film, “Posthumous” in 2014.  Shot in Berlin, the film debuted at the Zurich Film Festival and played at the Miami International Film Festival.  Wang was beginning to be recognized by a wider audience and critics alike.  It was also in 2014 that Wang was awarded a Directing Fellowship from the Film Independent Spirit awards.  The following year, with more confidence and exposure, Wang would write and direct the first of two very personal films that would bring her more recognition and acclaim.

          In 2015, “Touch”, a short film written and directed by Wang, premiered at the Palm Springs International ShortsFest.  The film is a powerful and controversial examination of culture clashes.  Based on a true story, the film follows a Chinese family living in the United States and how their world is turned upside down when the Father of the family is accused of sexual assault of a child.[ii]  Wang does an amazing job of putting the viewer in the middle of the scene when the old Chinese man innocently crosses the line with a young boy while the two are in a public bathroom.  The Chinese couple’s son helps his father through the legal process all while feeling shame and confusion as to why his father would make such a mistake.  It is clear that this struggle between old/young generations and immigrants and their “Americanized” children hits close to home for Wang.  Having emigrated from China to the United States herself at a young age she can relate to the struggle to adapt from East to West culture.  Her next film, “The Farewell” would go even deeper into her own personal experience of being from two very different cultures.

          “The Farewell” is Lulu Wang’s most successful film to date.  Wang originally had a difficult time getting the film made.  She said that she almost gave up on the film after getting rejected by Hollywood and a Chinese producer telling her “You need a white guy in your movie.”[iii]  This suggestion was especially disheartening to Wang because as she told IndieWire that even the Chinese producers are “so influenced by Hollywood.”[iv]  A deeply personal story based on how her family hid her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis from her was nominated for both a Golden Globe and British Film Academy Award.  Filmed in China and New York, the story follows Billie, a young Chinese immigrant in the United States and how she copes with her family’s decision to follow a Chinese custom and not tell her grandmother that she is dying of lung cancer.  Through Billie, Wang gives the audience a glimpse of her own experiences being torn between two worlds: her home country of China and her adopted home in the United States.  The scenes in China are very strong because we get to see the main character view the country that her parents took her away from.  It is clear that as Billie finds herself at a crossroads in the United States, she begins to feel what her life would’ve been like had her parents kept the family in China.

          One scene in particular is a very powerful moment of realization for Billie.  While in China, she attends a dinner with her extended family.  During the dinner a contentious debate breaks out between two sides of the family over the desire to leave China and live in America.  Billie’s mother believes that children have more opportunity in the United States than in China.  After the argument ends the families retreat back to their hotel.  What follows is textbook filmmaking by Wang.  As the family members exit the elevator and walk to their hotel rooms, Billie trails behind the group.  She stops at a room and looks inside the open door.  We then see her point of view.  A group of men sit at a table in the room drinking, smoking, and playing majong.  Flanking the men at the table are two young women, dressed provocatively.  One of the women turns slowly and looks at Billie.  She stares blankly at Billie and Billie stares back.  Without using any dialogue, Wang gets the point across very effectively.  It is clear what Billie is looking at.  This girl who appears to be the same age as Billie, is a prostitute.  After the dinner conversation we just heard in the previous scene, Wang makes it clear that Billie is realizing that this could have been her fate had her family stayed in China.

          I was very impressed with “The Farewell.”  It is a film that deserves high praise for showing the movie audience a different perspective.  I am so happy to have discovered Lulu Wang as well through this film.  I admire any filmmaker who steps out on the ledge and tells a deeply personal story and does it so artistically.  I hope this not only gives Wang more exposure and opportunities but also more women and Asian-women filmmakers the same exposure and opportunity.


A Closer Look: The similarities between “The Woman’s Film” and “Divorce, Iranian Style”

The Woman's Film - Trailer - TWN - YouTube
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The Woman’s Film and Divorce, Iranian Style, although filmed more than twenty years apart and dealing with two radically different cultures, share a surprising similarity due to their documentary style and format.  Both films effectively use the direct address and talking head style to empower the women in the films to tell their stories of oppression.

          The Woman’s Film from the San Francisco Newsreel was released in 1971, a time when the Women’s Movement in the United States was exploding.  The film focuses on ordinary women from all different ethnicities talking about the problems they face being made to believe that their only value is in a domestic setting, caring for their husbands and children.  A major tool of the Feminist movement was “consciousness raising groups”, where women would gather together and discuss their complaints and ideas for change.  The film showcases the different groups of women in these settings.  The women, for the most part, are shown in a “talking head” format as they would voice their opinions and share their experiences with the rest of the group.  One scene in particular that is surprising is when we see the woman who opens the film, a young, white mother, sitting in her living room telling the filmmakers of her regret over her marriage situation.  While we only see her face as a “talking head” it appears that she is alone with the filmmakers telling them her story.  Not until minutes later, in a brilliant move, do the filmmakers show a wider shot of the living room and reveal that she is surrounded by other women and it is a “consciousness raising group.” 

          The group settings also have the effect of “cinema-verite”, which was a major style of documentary that was utilized in the 1960’s-70’s.  The camera and filmmakers feel like a fly on the wall as we watch women communicate and focus on each other rather than speaking to the filmmakers.  At other moments we do see the women as individuals addressing the filmmakers and sharing their own personal stories.  Sadly, all of the women share a similar story to the women of Divorce, Iranian Style.  The latter film, however, makes it clear that while women in the West face a passive-aggressive oppression, the women in the Iran face a legalized form of oppression in the form of arranged marriages that they are bound to honor no matter how difficult the situation may be.

          As we saw in The Women’s Film, Divorce, Iranian Style mixes the use of “cinema-verite” and talking heads/direct address.  Kim Longinotto, director of Divorce, Iranian Style, was granted access to be a “fly on the wall” in the chamber of an Iranian divorce court.  The film alternates between live action in the courtroom, to personal interviews with the women in the hallways of the courthouse, to interviews with the women in their own homes.  The courtroom scenes are classic “cinema-verite” as we watch couples argue and plead their cases to the judge.  It is mostly the women doing the arguing as they are the one’s who have to prove that they want a divorce.  At times some of the women address the camera directly as they become too frustrated with the legal proceedings that are unfolding.  One case that involves a young girl named “Ziba” who is asking to be divorced from her husband because he is abusive.  Ziba was forced to marry her husband when she was only 15 years old.  As the tension of the argument heats up, the assistant director of the film, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, argues with young Ziba’s husband and scolds him for “marrying a 15 year old.”

          Later in the film is when we see a direct connection to the style of The Women’s Film.  “Maryam” is a young woman who is asking for a divorce because she wants to get remarried.  The filmmakers catch up with Maryam and allow her to tell her story to the cameras outside of the courtroom.  It is a very familiar scene as we see Maryam, dressed comfortably, sitting on her couch and talking to the filmmakers.  This scene is very reminiscent of the married women in The Women’s Film who all calmly explain the problems they face while being controlled by their husbands.  Longinotto also takes a few shots of Maryam’s home, like her kitchen, with Maryam washing dishes just like the housewives filmed by the San Francisco Newsreel.  Later when Maryam is back in court and she is facing the possibility of imprisonment for tearing up her husband’s legal form, she enlists the help of the filmmakers by directly asking them to be a witness for her.  The judge then turns to the camera and asks Longinotto and Mir-Hosseini if they saw Maryam tear up the form.  Both filmmakers say that they did not see her tear it up and this causes the judge to give a pardon to Maryam and allow her to file a new report for custody of her child.  Although we previously saw Maryam telling the camera that she did tear up the form, this was an instance where the filmmakers participated in their film and assisted the woman who is being oppressed.

          These two films are both monumental in the sense that they point the spotlight at the problems that women face in everyday life.  In both the Eastern and Western cultures, women are pressured to get married, have children, and give up their lives in order to care for their families.  While The Women’s Film helped change this attitude toward women in the United States, Divorce, Iranian Style reminds us that there are certain cultures and countries that still have a long way to go in recognizing women as equals to men.

SWEETIE (1989): An intense family portrait from Jane Campion

Sweetie | Featured Screening | Screen Slate
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Jane Campion’s Sweetie is named after the mentally ill character of Dawn but the story is almost entirely told through the eyes of the main character, Kay.  Kay, Sweetie’s sister, spends the first half of the film living with the emotional scars of her sister’s mental illness and the second half literally living with her sister Dawn and having her life turned upside down in the process.  Campion does an excellent job of showing the strain this puts on those around Sweetie, Kay in particular.

In the opening scene, we see and hear Kay having a therapy session where she explains her phobia of trees.  She mentions how the roots of the tree in her backyard would burst through the ground leaving cracks in the pavement.  After a beautiful tracking shot of Kay walking down the street, Campion cuts to a close up of Kay’s footsteps on the sidewalk.  We can see Kay’s feet deliberately stepping around the cracks in the pavement, reinforcing what we just heard her saying about her fear of trees and their branches.  Moments later we see Kay at work.  In the cafeteria, Kay’s coworkers gather around to celebrate Lou and Cheryl’s engagement.  As the girl’s look at the diamond ring, one looks toward the camera and asks Kay, “Have you seen Cheryl’s diamond?”  We then cut to a shot of Kay sitting on the other side of the room by herself.  This is an effective shot used by Campion in her other films like the short A Girl’s Own Story.  It shows Kay’s feelings of isolation from those around her.  A subsequent scene where we clearly see Kay’s subjectivity is when she sees Louis’ hair and birthmark forming a “question mark” on his forehead.  This relates right to the previous scenes with the fortune teller who tells Kay that she sees an important man in her future that is offering a deep love and has a “question mark on his face.”  When Kay notices Louis’ hair, they end up in the parking lot kissing and this sets the rest of the narrative in motion.

Kay carries around the scars of her family from the very beginning of the film.  When we are first introduced to Sweetie when she breaks into Kay and Louis’ house, Kay cannot even tell Louis that Sweetie is her sister.  She refers to her as a “friend of mine.”  This immediately creates tension between Kay and Louis, as Kay is unable to handle telling Louis about her family’s history and the problems caused by Sweetie’s mental illness.  Eventually, Kay and Sweetie’s problems become physical after Kay tries to throw Sweetie out of her house and we get to see how disturbed Sweetie really is when she tries to eat Kay’s toy horses.  Immediately following this scene, Campion cuts to a scene of Kay’s mother closing her suitcase and telling Gordon, Kay’s father that she is leaving their home and that they are “separated.”  Gordon, fittingly, is locked inside Sweetie’s room.  He then ends up at Kay’s house and moves in with his two daughters.  With the presence of Sweetie and her father in her new home, it is clear that Kay cannot escape her family’s dark past.  Kay’s father quickly admonishes Kay and tells her that she needs to be more patient with Sweetie but he is in denial of her mental illness.          

Jane Campion effectively uses images and framing to convey the separation and division inside the family by keeping separation between the actors.  By using the entire depth of the frame, Campion places the actors across different plains, which shows that they are disjointed and not connected to each other.  One scene where this is prevalent is when the family, minus Sweetie, is at the ranch.  While on a drive together, Gordon becomes emotional and he stops the car to cry.  Kay, Flo, and Louis all exit the car and walk off a little further down the road.  Gordon is left alone in the car.  Campion then cuts to a wide shot showing each of the actors spread out on different planes on screen.  Flo occupies the immediate foreground while Kay stands slightly behind her off to the right.  Louis stands at the edge of the frame on the left side and in the midground.  The car is in the background and we know that is where Gordon is.  Just before they all left the car Gordon, while crying, says “I just want us all to be together.”  Campion uses the blocking of the actors to remind us that although Gordon wants the family together, without Sweetie, they will never be together.  A similar scene right after this scene when they all return to Kay and Louis’ house and find Sweetie acting like a dog.  When they enter the kitchen and confront Sweetie, Gordon stands in front of Sweetie and tries to console her.  Flo walks out of the room past Kay who occupies the foreground of the scene.  Once again, each member of the family is occupying their own plane of the frame, never on the same plane.  It is an excellent use of blocking to show how this family is being torn apart just like the concrete cracking from the tree roots underneath it.

NOT A PRETTY PICTURE (1976): Martha Coolidge and one of the most courageous debuts by a filmmaker

Present Tense: Martha Coolidge
Photo courtesy of Film Comment

Martha Coolidge’s Not A Pretty Picture is maybe more shocking and effective today then it was more than 40 years ago when it was first released.  Sadly the film did not receive widespread attention or accolades when it was initially released but it did catch the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, which led to a huge break for Coolidge.  While Coolidge’s career blossomed after Not A Pretty Picture, one could argue that it is still her most important film.

          This film has a very abstract format, which has been called “Brechtian” because of its use of real time reflection by its cast and crew.  The first half of the film is mostly a narrative drama about a high school girl who is date raped by an older college boy.  While the film resembles an “after school PSA” in its style and acting performance, the subject matter is certainly shocking enough to overcome any average performance by the cast.  When the crew of teenagers arrives at the empty apartment where the film’s most dynamic scene takes place, we follow “Curly” the male lead played by Jim Carrington, and actress Michele Manenti, who plays the fictional version of a 16 year old Martha Coolidge, as they get closer.  Michele, who we see is already uncomfortable being alone at this party, follows Curly through a hole in the wall to a private bedroom.  What follows is a multiple take sequence of Curly forcing himself on Michele and assaulting her.

          The acting of this scene really shines due to its real life intensity from both Curly and Michele.  As each take progresses we can see a change in Curly’s aggressiveness in attacking Michele.  Michele does what is expected of her and although she valiantly resists in the beginning she sadly goes numb and succumbs to Curly’s attack.  Curly, played by Jim Carrington, is clearly more effected by this scene than his co-star Michele, who herself, like Coolidge was also a victim of sexual assault.  After each take Carrington apologizes to Michele and checks to make sure she is not injured as he can feel himself filling with rage and anger while portraying his character’s advances.  The scene is so effective that we even see the camera cut to Martha Coolidge as she watches the action from a distance, her hand over her mouth, and looking very concerned for both of her actor’s.  Coolidge, who between takes was coaching Carrington on how to portray the assault, seems almost shocked and regretful in this shot, thinking that she has produced a performance from her actors that almost matches her own memory of being assaulted.  Carrington is really the one who ends up being regretful as we see in the next segment where the narrative part of the film is interrupted by the documentary discussion between Coolidge and the actors.

          After several takes of the rape scene the actors take a break and have a discussion with Coolidge on the mattress where the rape scene just occurred.  The power and context of this scene was clearly wearing out the participants and that is why I believe it was a brilliant decision for Coolidge to break up the action and check in with her actors.  As we soon find out, Jim Carrington needed it.  As Carrington explains how his shock at the feeling of entitlement by his character Curly, he begins to reveal his own feelings and regrets.  Carrington states that the scene has caused him to look at his own actions and behavior towards women.  While he never assaulted a woman himself, he can see through the lens of this character that men in general need to readjust how they treat women.  It is a fascinating scene to watch Coolidge and Michele Manenti, two victims of sexual assault, having to counsel Jim Carrington and his reaction to portraying the attacker.

          I believe that Martha Coolidge’s style of mixing narrative and documentary for this film was most effective.  I was very impressed that she not only had the courage to tackle such a serious personal issue so early in her career but that she used her filmmaking skills so eloquently in the process.

LE BONHEUR (1965): Agnes Varda’s exploration of marital “Happiness”

Le bonheur
Photo courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center

In the opening scene of Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur, we are introduced to what appears to be a perfectly happy married couple and their children.  Despite Varda’s use of beautiful, bold colors and a score by Mozart, we eventually find out that this family is far from being happy or perfect.  We first meet Francois and Therese as they spend Father’s Day with their children having a picnic in the countryside.  A series of scenes follows where we see Francois working at his wood shop and Therese working at home as a seamstress as well as taking care of the children.  All seems normal until Francois meets Emilie, a receptionist at the post office.  Unbeknownst to Therese, the two quickly begin a love affair.  A month later while on another countryside picnic, Francois reveals the affair to Therese.  Tragically, Therese disappears while Francois is sleeping and drowns herself in the lake nearby their picnic.  After a few weeks of mourning Francois finds Emilie and convinces her to move in with him and the children.  Tragically, the film ends with a portrayal of Emilie as just an easy replacement for Therese.  The final shot underscores this as we see the family, once again on a countryside picnic with Emilie resembling Therese as the wife and mother.

The film is bursting with beautiful colors from the actors wardrobe to the large bouquets of flowers in certain scenes to the colorful dissolves that connect scene to scene.  I believe that Varda was intentionally using these bold warm colors in order to distract the audience from the dark subject matter of the plot.  One early scene in the film shows how Therese fits into the household.  We see Therese wearing a blue robe standing in front of a blue wall filling a vase with flowers.  Therese blends in with the wall so perfectly that she could almost be invisible.  As the film develops, especially when Francois gets closer with Emilie, we realize that Therese is in a way invisible.  She is there only to serve Francois and the children but not to be recognized by any of them.  When Francois first meets Emilie, she is at the post office working.  She is dressed in blue but behind the wooden desk and against the yellow walls there is no way she will blend in.  Varda clearly wanted Emilie to stand out as she flirted and smiled with Francois.  Later, after the couple have made love, they lay in bed talking.  Francois tells Emilie that although he loves Therese she is different than her. When comparing the two women he tells Emilie that his wife is like a “potted plant” and Emilie is like “an animal set free.”  This is a very harsh criticism of Therese and his marriage but Francois does not seem to care.  He truly believes that he can love both Therese and Emilie.

Therese and Emilie are portrayed to be the same in appearance but very different in substance. Therese is shown as the hardworking housewife.  She is always at home with the children. Sometimes we don’t even see Therese onscreen.  Varda shot scenes of Therese ironing, making bread, feeding the children but all of theses actions are just close-ups of Therese’s hands.  It tells the audience that she is not important only her hands that perform the domestic tasks for the husband and children.  Emilie however is portrayed with strength and independence.  We see her at work, which unlike Therese, is in a public space not at home.  We also see Emilie interacting with the public and helping customers at the post office.  The only time Therese gets to interact with the public at work is when a young woman, with a slight resemblance to both Therese and Emilie, asks her to make a wedding dress for her.  The woman specifically shows Therese the design of the dress from a popular magazine. This was Varda’s way of showing the impact popular magazines and advertising had on the housewife of the 1950’s and 60’s.  Advertising campaigns were always showing women in their ads not only performing domestic tasks, but looking happy while they did it.  Just like the magazine ads of the 50’s and 60’s this film is showing a warped sense of happiness. The only difference is that the film was intentionally distorting the idea of happiness.  Varda’s feminist message in this film was to say that domestic life was not a road to happiness for women. She was trying to show how women are expected to get married, have children, and then give up their lives to serve their families.  

The title of the film Le Bonhuer means Happiness but who in the film is actually happy?  The answer is Francois.  Francois has an extramarital affair and then when he tells Therese about it he tries to convince her that it is not a problem for their marriage.  He even has the audacity to tell Therese that the affair has made him a better husband and father.  The only time Francois shows any hint of unhappiness is when Therese commits suicide and at the funeral. Right after the funeral he immediately reconnects with Emilie.  The film ends with Emilie replacing Therese and being Francois housewife and although she smiles we as an audience can’t help but think that she may end up facing the same problem Therese did.  Another irony in the film is what becomes of Emilie at the end.  We have already seen Emilie as an independent single woman with a job and her own apartment.  Quite a contrast to the domesticated Therese.  In the end, however, she tells Francois that she wants to move in with him and the children.  She even goes as far as saying that his happiness is her happiness.  This is when Varda masterfully shows the transformation of Emilie by repeating several of the shots from earlier in the film of domestic chores performed by Therese.  This time they are performed by Emilie, smiling, and appearing happy in her new role.