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
Amazon.com: Watch Divorce Iranian Style | Prime Video

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
Photo courtesy of Screen Slate

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.

WANDA (1970): A look at Barbara Loden’s classic “Woman’s” film from the 70’s

Wanda - Movie Review - The Austin Chronicle

Barbara Loden, writer, director, and star of WANDA chose a very bold introduction

to the main character. The first thing we see of Loden is her hands protruding from

underneath a white bedsheet. She slowly pulls the sheet off herself and sits up. At this

moment we don’t see Barbara Loden, the beautiful blonde Hollywood star, we see

Wanda, the disheveled woman with hair in disarray covering some of her face. As she

rubs her eyes we can already tell that she is a woman under some type of stress. The

scene cuts to an extreme wide shot that slowly zooms to a wide shot of the rural mining

landscape where the film is set. Wanda, dressed in all white, looks ghostly against the

dark and dirty hills behind her. Wanda, strolling casually along, is actually on her way to

court for a custody hearing with her ex-husband.

Inside the courtroom, Wanda is absent while the judge calls her name. Wanda’s

husband then tells the judge how irresponsible and unreliable she is. Wanda is unable to

defend herself because as we see, the scene cuts to outside the courtroom. Wanda stands

outside smoking a cigarette when she should be inside facing the judge. I believe that

this is Barbara Loden’s strongest example of Wanda’s character. Without any dialogue

from Wanda we are shown how careless she is when facing something as greatly

important as a custody hearing for her children. When she finally does she speak to the

judge her answers are not too shocking based on what we’ve already seen. Wanda

pathetically tells the judge that if her husband wants a divorce then “you should just give

it to him.” This scene is based on Barbara Loden’s inspiration for the film. Loden was

inspired by the newspaper story of a woman who accompanied her husband on a crime

spree and was arrested and convicted. When the judge sentenced her to prison the woman

replied “Thank you.”

Another moment that Loden uses appearance and body language to effectively

develop Wanda is at the shopping mall. Wanda strolls through the mall aimlessly until

she stops and looks at a store window display. Wanda is looking at the clothes on display

but it is the mannequins who stand out in the scene. Wearing blonde wigs and positioned

directly behind Loden’s profile, there is a striking resemblance between the inanimate

dolls and Wanda. It is not hard to make the connection that Wanda sadly carries herself

as though she were a mannequin, lifeless and emotionless. The world sees her beauty but

nothing below the surface.

This film has many similarities with the famous “Road movies” of the 1960’s and

70’s. The typical road movie involved a pair travelling together in a car either on the run

from the law or just looking for an adventure. Wanda appears to be a road movie because

of the relationship between Mr. Dennis and Wanda and how they travel around in his car

committing crimes. It almost resembles the classic Bonnie and Clyde. Where Wanda

differs from these classic road movies is in the portrayal of Wanda herself. The road trip

that she takes with Mr. Dennis seems to have no point to it at all. Wanda, not having

anything better to do with herself, just gets dragged along by Mr. Dennis for obvious

reasons. The two characters do not have a good relationship and are not working toward

any major goal other than bank robbery. In Bonnie and Clyde where the characters and

their crimes are romanticized, Wanda plays out as a tragedy where the main character is

swept into a dangerous crime spree by a controlling and abusive man. There is no

romance for Wanda. Only a series of episodes where she exposes herself to be controlled

and used by the men around her.

In the final act of the film Mr. Dennis and Wanda take a bank managers family

hostage while Mr. Dennis tries to rob the bank. The climax of the bank robbery is when

Mr. Dennis is shot and killed by the police. Wanda, who was supposed to be the getaway

driver, arrives late as usual. When she approaches the bank she sees a crowd forming

outside. She tries to walk into the bank but is held back by a policeman. With a shaky

camera, shot from behind the outstretched arm of a police officer, this shot closely

resembles a TV news camera reporting from the scene of the crime. This is the most

obvious example of the documentary style brought to the film by cinematographer

Nicholas Proferes.

Wanda differs from a typical slow film in the sense that Barbara Loden left the

characters in the film totally ambiguous. There is no explanation as to why Wanda is

divorced or why she decides to go on the road with Mr. Dennis. We also have no

explanation as to what happens to her at the end. Will she continue her pursuit of nothing

or has she learned a lesson from her crime spree with Mr. Dennis? The audience is left to

draw their own conclusions and this is difficult because Loden has not left us with the

information we need to understand Wanda. Wanda is a character that is not slow but

almost inanimate. She floats around from man to man like paper on a breeze

Akira Kurosawa/John Ford: EAST MEETS WEST

15 Best John Ford Movies You Need To Watch | Taste Of Cinema ...
Akira Kurosawa Great Director profile • Senses of Cinema

Akira Kurosawa. John Ford. Two directors considered to be the quintessential

filmmakers of their respective countries surprisingly have much in common. While

most of the similarities stem from Kurosawa’s admiration of his elder, Kurosawa

definitely shared and expanded on Ford’s legendary style. There are, I believe, three

major aspects that connect these two giants of cinema.

The first and most obvious connection between Kurosawa and Ford is their

focus on specific time periods as the setting for their films. John Ford is

synonymous with the Hollywood “Western” film. In his career as a Director, Ford

directed twenty five Western feature films and a number of Western TV episodes.

Not only did Ford favor the Western genre, he made it his own with classics such as

Stagecoach, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A John Ford

Western became an epic presentation of not only the dramatic endeavors of the

characters but also a sweeping and mesmerizing view of the American landscape.

For Kurosawa, his “Samurai” epics were no different. From the aptly titled Seven

Samurai to Yojimbo and Throne of Blood, Kurosawa gave the audience, through

costume and action, an authentic adaptation of Japan’s medieval history. In the ten

Samurai films that Kurosawa made he also employed the same style of Ford’s

Westerns by showcasing the Japanese landscape in epic proportions. The

composition and shooting style is another tactic that brings the two directors closer

together.

In the opening scene of The Searchers, John Wayne as “Ethan Edwards” rides

toward his brother’s ranch. The shot is breathtaking in the sense that it is not a long

tracking shot or a pan but it is classic Ford: having his subjects move from

background to foreground or vice versa in an attempt to convey the depth of the

image on screen. Almost twenty years earlier, Ford debuted this shot several times

in his classic Stagecoach. From the moment the coach rolls away from the camera

into Monument Valley on its way from Tonto to Lordsburg, the audience can see

that the road ahead stretches all the way to the horizon. In Kurosawa’s classic

Throne of Blood one cannot deny the similarity of the Samurai riding his horse

frantically from background to foreground as he approaches Spider’s Web castle.

Moments later, when we are introduced to “Washizu” and “Miki”, we see them lost

in a foggy forest. Kurosawa’s use of the two men on horseback appearing like ghosts

from background to foreground through the fog is magical. Like Ford, Kurosawa

used the depth of the image to convey that Washizu and Miki were lost and riding

back and forth in the same direction. Keeping them inside the frame rather than

panning with them from side to side gives the viewer the sense that the two soldiers

are trapped inside this location.

As well as Throne of Blood, there is also a similarity to Ford’s style in the

opening scene of Yojimbo. The “Ronin” played by Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune,

is introduced in a medium shot walking among the tall grass with large mountain

peaks on the horizon. After throwing a stick in the air and letting it decide which

direction he will go, Mifune starts off down the road, straight down the center of the

frame. The shot is meant to grab the audience as if we are following the Ronin down

that long path.

When most people hear the name John Ford only one thing comes to mind:

John Wayne. Another of Ford’s favorites was Henry Fonda who starred in My

Darling Clementine. As Wyatt Earp, Henry Fonda finds himself entering the town of

Tombstone, Arizona at the start of the film and finding it’s inhabitants terrorized by

criminals. The same can be said for “The Ringo Kid” in Stagecoach and “Ransom

Stoddard” and “Tom Donophin” in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Watching

Yojimbo, and seeing the Ronin as he arrives in town to find people hiding indoors

and then, when he is accosted by a gang of thugs, I immediately thought of Henry

Fonda’s Wyatt Earp or John Wayne as The Ringo Kid or any other hero from a John

Ford Western. Both Ford and Kurosawa liked to portray their hero as an outlaw

with a toughness and swagger that could withstand even the most dangerous bad

guys. I also believe that just as Wayne and Ford went hand in hand so did Kurosawa

and Mifune. These two legendary actors were both groomed by their respective

directors and arguably gave the best performances of their careers because of it.

Whether it is the red majesty of Monument Valley or the grassy plains and

mountain peaks of medieval Japan, with Akira Kurosawa and John Ford, it is always

the same result. A masterpiece of cinema that takes the audience on a ride into the

depths of history and into the depths of the landscape on the silver screen before

them.

Sound Design: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The opening scene of the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a master lesson in character introduction.  Shot in sepia with almost no dialogue, the shots and editing techniques are the foundation of the introduction of Paul Newman as legendary outlaw Butch Cassidy.  Not only is the main character introduced with no dialogue but I believe that the clever use of sound effects introduces the story as well.

The scene opens with a close up of Paul Newman as he stares through a window.  He exits the building and we only hear a slight sound of the doorknob clicking as he opens it and the door softly closing behind him.  As he makes his way across the street we begin to hear the sound of horse hooves and a carriage rolling along.  We continue to hear those sounds, but do not see the source, as Butch scans the building he is approaching.  The building is solid brick with bars on the windows.  A very modern looking exterior in what appears to be an old Western town made up of wooden storefronts and a dirt road.  Butch continues scanning the building until he approaches and enters a dark doorway.  Just before entering we finally see the horse carriage roll on behind him as the sound of the hooves and wheels grows louder.  When Butch stands in the doorway a horse walks past him as we hear the distinct sounds of the hooves matching the action onscreen.

Butch enters the building silhouetted against the sunny street outside.  A close up of Butch shows him scanning the inside.  Now is when the sound effects begin to tell the story.  Butch looks at what appears to be an alarm button on the wall with blurry hands shifting in the foreground.  A flicking sound matches the blurry action until a cut reveals the alarm bell on the wall.  Cut back to a close up of Butch and the silence is interrupted by the tones of a clock alarm.  Butch reacts and we cut to a close up of the clock on the wall.  Then follows a flurry of quick cuts and sound that tell us we are in a bank.  A “CLOSED” sign is placed on the counter with a clicking sound, under the protective bars.  A pair of hands carries money bags as another “CLOSED” sign clicks on the counter.  A close up of a pair of hands opening a safe with a click of the lock comes next.  A security guard appears out of the shadows and, intercut with Butch watching, proceeds to slam the shutters on the windows and bolt them down with a lock.  All of these images are accompanied with the loud crash of wood slamming on wood and the steel bar slamming on the steel holder.

The scene ends with the bank tellers shuffling past Butch and saying goodnight to the Guard.  Finally we hear Butch speak as he addresses the Guard.  After making a veiled joke about the security measures ruining the bank, Butch exits and the Guard slams the door behind him with authority.  The loud slam of the door is the climax to a scene that tells you all you need to know about this character and this story.  The sound effects of the horse carriage on the dirt road are meant to show the “Old West”, a world that Butch and his partner The Sundance Kid are very comfortable in.  As Butch enters the bank, the sound effects inside, such as the clicking of the safe, the automatic clock alarm, and the loud threatening sounds of the shutters locking the windows, are all meant to introduce the “Modern World” of the 20th century.  This is a world that is closing in rapidly on Butch and Sundance and as Butch watches and listens to the bank being shuttered, the audience can feel that even though the film has just started, time is already running out.

REDS (1981) A look back at Warren Beatty’s tour de force

Reds (1981)
image courtesy of IMDB.com

Just before the last credit crawls on the screen at the end of REDS, the voice of one of the “witnesses” says “…grand things are ahead, worth living and worth dying for…”.  The witness is referring to John “Jack” Reed, the main character of the film but one wonders if this could also refer to the writer, director, and star of the film as well.  If you know Warren Beatty’s career then you certainly know that he has been the master at convincing producers, cast members, crew and audiences that if they give him the chance “grand things are ahead.”  REDS, his passion project about American journalist John Reed and his involvement in the Communist Party in the United States as well as his intense coverage of the Russian Revolution of 1917, is a grand achievement of cinematic brilliance.  The film is not without its faults.  Some would say that Beatty bit off more than he could chew with such a large scale production or that he was maniacal and egotistical on set causing friction among everyone involved with the film.  Both of these are fair criticisms.  With a fresh eye I’m going to look deeper at the greatness and shortcomings of this epic and try to offer a humble critique.

THE PROGRESSIVE ERA and Mise en scene

The attention to detail in this film is nothing short of perfection.  This is not Beatty’s first time making a period piece as we know from BONNIE AND CLYDE where he marvelously brought to life  Depression Era Texas.  In REDS he goes a step further with Progressive Era New York.  The moment “Louise Bryant” played impeccably by Diane Keaton steps off a trolley car with the Flatiron building in the background I was lost in time.  Nothing of this film felt fake or portrayed.  Horses strolling down Greenwich Village streets.  Dark, candlelit basement bars where Jack Nicholson, dressed in suspenders drinking whiskey, plays the intense “Eugene O’Neill.”  Louise sitting on the beach reading a letter from Jack Reed, looking like the subject of an Impressionist painting rather than a Hollywood actress.  The entire film is a collection of theses shots that are as beautiful as they are authentic. While Beatty had the vision it is clear that the real credit goes to Vittorio Storaro.  Fresh off of his Academy Award win for Best Cinematography for APOCALYPSE NOW, Storaro would be awarded by the Academy again with his second of three wins for Cinematography for this film.

Outside of the New York city atmosphere was where Storaro really flexed his artistic muscles.  Early in the film when Jack and Louise vacation at the beach there are several breathtaking shots besides Louise’s letter reading scene.  Whether it is group gatherings on the beach or Jack and Louise strolling alone through the sand dunes, the filtered shots make the landscape and characters glow in the warm light.  Later in the film, when Louise is trekking across the Finnish tundra, we also see a long shot of the cold, snow covered landscape beaming with the reflection of the sunset.  Storaro counters these warm and cozy images with some beautifully darker images of those very same locations.  Whether it is Eugene O’Neill walking on the beach at dusk or the Finnish landscape after dark the frame is drenched in a cool blue texture matching the intensity of theses scenes.

THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION

The most interesting and effective scenes of the film are, not surprisingly, the sequence of Jack and Louise’s eyewitness account of the ‘Ten days That Shook The World.”  These two characters played magnificently by Keaton and Beatty(more so by Keaton) capture the beauty, intellect, danger, and romance of their collective experience in Russia.  While it was no surprise that their romance would rekindle when they arrived in Petrograd, it wasn’t sappy or overly dramatic.  In fact I believe that the portrayal of Louise as a witness to not only the drama of the Russian Revolution but also the transformation of Jack from American journalist to Communist revolutionary was riveting.  I don’t know why Beatty felt the need to add eyewitness testimonies sprinkled in between the narrative action but I really wish he hadn’t.  The wide eyed close-ups of Diane Keaton cut with shots of Beatty giving rousing speeches to crowds of Russian workers were so much more effective.  Everytime the film got some narrative momentum going it unfortunately was cut off by a “PBS-style” documentary commentary.

The signature shot of the film is Louise Bryant as she watches “Jack”, slightly raised above a crowd of people cheering as he makes a grand spectacle.  But really the entire film is us, the audience, cheering as we watch Warren Beatty, high up on the screen making a grand spectacle.

FOR SAMA: For Your Consideration

Image result for for sama poster"
photo courtesy of www.forsamafilm.com


In 92 years of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s tradition of awarding filmmakers, only 5 times has a woman been nominated for Best Director. Their names are Kathryn Bigelow(The Hurt Locker/won), Lina Wertmuller(Seven Beauties), Jane Campion(The Piano), Sofia Coppola(Lost in Translation), and Greta Gerwig(Ladybird). When the 2020 Academy Award Nominations came out the usual discussions took place among movie fans. All of the hype surrounds the hottest race: Best Director. Who will it be? Will it be Quentin Tarantino for his two and a half hour film about an aging Hollywood actor and his best buddy that ends with a violent twist to one of the most violent episodes in Hollywood history? Or will it be Martin Scorsese for his even longer three hour epic about a murderer who had to be played by an aging Robert DeNiro made to look like he was 50 years younger? Don’t count out Todd Phillips who decided to throw the Comic Book film model on its head by not making a movie about the Heroes but instead about the Villain who becomes…you guessed it, a murderer! Little do these 3 men, or the Academy for that matter, know that there is a director that in 2019 blew all 3 of their films combined out of the water. And this Director is a WOMAN.

This woman, Waad Al-Kateab, is the director of the Oscar nominated documentary “For Sama.” To say this movie is breathtaking and powerful would be a gross understatement. It is the story of a girl who moved to the city of Aleppo to study and stayed there, fell in love, got married, had a baby girl named Sama, was pregnant with her second child when she was finally forced to flee the city of Aleppo in December 2016. Waad used her camera to document all of those happy moments that I just mentioned but she also wanted to document the siege of Aleppo from a perspective no one else got to see until now which sadly is too late. The footage she captured is beyond shocking. Her original plan for filming the siege was to try and get the outside world’s attention and show them the atrocities being committed by the Syrian and Russian forces. Along with her husband, Hamza Al-Kateab, who is a doctor, and their friends, they set up a makeshift hospital in the city. Watching the camera shake and hearing the blasts of missiles and rockets is nothing compared to seeing the scores of casualties being dragged into the hospital. As a spoiler I can tell you that this is not for the faint of heart and while the efforts of Hamza and Waad and their friends are beyond heroic, they were definitely fighting a losing battle to put it mildly.

Throughout the film Waad narrates and explains that this film is a message to her daughter, Sama. Sama was born in Aleppo in 2015 just as the siege led by the brutal forces of Bashar al Assad and backed strongly by the Russian military, was about to enter its most violent stage. This little miracle named Sama drinks her bottle, plays with her toys, and smiles at the camera all while she is shown at other moments being carried through dust from an explosion or cowering from the loud explosions right outside her window. I don’t know how Waad found such strength, courage, determination to document this horror even if it meant handing off Sama to a friend when there was a missile attack and she wanted to grab her camera to film.

For Sama is a film that the world needs to see. Waad Al-Kateab masterfully tells her story about moving to a new city, studying, making friends, falling in love, getting married and starting a family. This is a universal story. However, she also captures something that some of her male colleagues from Hollywood can hopefully learn from, even at their old age. Waad showed the world the destruction of her city and country by an oppressive regime. More than anything though, she showed violence, only her violence is not “cinematic.” It’s the type of violence most people can’t even imagine exists and at the same time hopes and prays that they never have to experience it the same way Waad and Hamza and most importantly Sama experienced it.

LA JETTE: Study in Photos

Chris Marker’s “La Jette” is a master class in telling a story through images. I believe that the film is stronger as a story told through photos than an actual motion picture. The images I have chosen to analyze come from the first half and the middle of the film. I chose them because I believe in the first half of the film Marker does such an amazing job of grabbing the audience’s attention and creating the world of the film with beautiful still shots.

The first image I chose was that of a little boy standing on a fence at the Orly Airport. The Airport is introduced immediately in the film as an important place. Just before the shot of the little boy’s feet there is a wider shot of the boy with his mother and father in full frame. The narrator explains that a typical family activity on a Sunday afternoon was watching planes take off at the airport. We see the boy standing on the fence to get a better view. In the image I chose, we see a close up of the boy from the knees down. His feet are resting through the bars of the fence. I believe that Marker chose this image because it conveys not only the innocence and playfulness of a child but also the moment this action takes place. In just a few moments we learn that World War 3 has taken place and left Paris in total ruins. This image stood out to me because it underscores the devastation that comes in the following scenes and sets up the anarchy of the underground world that becomesthe main focus of the film.

The next image I chose was the one of 2 “scientists” observing a man in a hammock with a very strange blindfold covering his eyes. This image is very disturbing and immediately lets the viewer know of the darkness that controls the survivors of the war. The image is very well balanced. The brightest light comes on the right side of the frame, illuminating the “subject” in the hammock. The middle of the frame is almost completely dark save for a light on the face of 1 “scientist.” This makes the scientist look very creepy as we can barely see his body, only his face looking down upon the subject in the hammock. The left side of the frame sheds a little more light on the 2nd “scientist”, but not much. He, like his counterpart in the middle, is staring intently at the subject in the hammock. His face and body are awash in shadow. This composition and lighting creates mystery around who these scientists are and what on earth is happening to the man in the hammock.

The final image I chose comes about hallway through the film. It is of the main character and the woman he loves. The main character has been chosen to become a subject in the hammock and has traveled back in time. In the past world he finds the woman he loves. They spend their time wandering happily through Paris in its normal, beautiful stage before the destruction of the war. The composition of this image, the characters walking down the middle of a row of trees in a park, is so strong. The path of trees gives the viewer the perfect leading lines into the heart of the scene, especially with the characters in the center of the frame. We feel the comfort and peace that both characters feel in this beautiful park.