An Elephant Sitting Still: A Sontagian Read

Kelly Mu

For me personally, Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag was perhaps the most impactful reading of the quarter. Its defiance of a long tradition of hermeneutics seemed relatable but also revolutionary. It shed light on a question that I have always struggled with, whether in reading literary works or watching a film. That is, how am I supposed to engage with a piece? Do I critically analyse every imagery and cinematic technique, or simply let my emotions consume me? An Elephant Sitting Still, a four hour Chinese film by the deceased director Hu Bo, was a chance for me to do both and reflect on their effectiveness.


For Sontag, the act of interpretation is a “revenge of the intellect upon the world”. It is a means of meaning-generation that distorts the artwork itself and makes it intelligible to the logic of the mundane, to stripe art of art. Sontag identifies two facets to interpretation: it could be liberating, an act of escaping a dead past, or it could be cowardly, stifling that which transcends the status quo. Unfortunately, theory has developed to the extent that it can only achieve the latter. Critical theory as a tradition is cumbersome and too self-focused, and current critics are only displacing art with their own ideological agenda through interpretation. Sontag desperately wants an “erotics of art”, or an immediate bodily and emotional response to an artwork rather than a calculated one. Real art makes us uncomfortable, nervous, and runs wild. Interpretation “tames” art by making it comfortable and acceptable. Instead of interpretation, Sontag proposes a “descriptive, rather than prescriptive vocabulary” for art and its form, where we describe our response to the art or describe the artwork itself, rather than saying what it means. For Sontag, film seems to be a valuable means to achieve the alternative. The myriad of forms in film (camera movement, composition of frames) gives no time for interpretation, but allow for immediate descriptive responses.

An Elephant Sitting Still is an interesting film to apply Sontag’s theories to. The movie is four hours long and consists of many blank shots: shots that only feature slow movement, somber music, with no camera movement and no dialogue. The audience easily gets lost in moments like these, which potentially have a few effects on their interpretation. The film perhaps allows for more “erotics of art” because it is abstract to the point which interpretation becomes near impossible. There is so little happening that it becomes difficult for one to weave a coherent interpretative narrative. But on the other hand, the film may allow for more intense interpretation because of its slow pace. Every change and camera movement now becomes even more noticeable and pronounced, and the audience has time to think about their meaning since there is so little going on. Unlike action-packed feature film, the lack of constant visual stimulus perhaps makes it easier for the audience to have the attention for interpretation.

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(I have selected an interesting scene from An Elephant Sitting Still, which features the three characters standing in a triangle, and then walking off-screen one-by-one. This simple change takes over a minute to take place. An Elephant Sitting Still is a film centered around four protagonists, narrating the course of one single, tension-filled day from dawn to dusk. It portrays a society enveloped by selfishness, and characters that either conform or try to resist. The three characters featured in this scene are Wei Bu, a teenage boy that runs away from home for accidentally killing a school bully, Huang Ling, a teenage girl that has an innocent affair with her teacher, and Wang Jin, the grandparent of the girl that he is with, who is forced out of his own home and sent to a nursing home by his own son. They have all escaped from home and are on a bus to see an odd elephant in ManZhouLi, that does nothing but sit still.)

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Here is what a Sontagian read of the scene might look like. Amidst diegetic white noise, the three protagonists stand in a triangle in silence. Distant conversations can be heard coming from the bus as the rest of the passengers also take a break from the long ride, and the audience is surrounded by a sense of depressing calmness. The three protagonists are technically free as they have taken their fate into their own hands and decided to run away; yet their positioning suggest a faintly discernible sense of attachment to the other, a longing for connection in their lost lives. Huang Lin is the first to leave her spot, and peeks several times at Wei Bu; her action is still influenced by that of others. Wang Jin entirely focuses on his granddaughter, but their private happiness is suffocated by the bleak atmosphere and seems helpless in comparison. Wei Bu is the only character that stands completely still throughout the scene: his looks are empty and dull, projected towards the distance. His shabby outfit along with his scar marks make him look almost dead, with no hopes for tomorrow. The camera is still, as is time: we have forgotten about all the conflicts and misunderstandings that have propelled them to end up here, and are immersed in the brooding of the individual characters. The emptiness of the scene is enchanting. The audience does not become bored, but is strangely attracted to the nothingness, as we stare into their purposeless and meaningless lives. A simple blankness of thoughts.

An ordinary interpretation for a film class would look like something different, as meaning could be extracted from many different details of the film. For example, one could analyse the geometric collisions that happen in the scene; the seemingly unbreakable triangle juxtaposed with the irregular background. The use of lighting and hues could also be meaningful. There are simultaneously two sources of light, one that comes from the front light of the bus which is parked to the left of the frame, while the other is a light that is blocked by Wei Bu. The light behind Wei Bu can be read as a ray of hope that he has determinedly turned his back towards and refused to accept. It has burned him throughout his life and has propelled him to defy the unethical actions of his poor family, such as taking the shopping card of someone else. But after the series of unfortunate events that have happened to him, he has decided to walk away from what he has believed in, though he is the closest to achieving any kind of purity out of the three protagonists.

There are a few things that I notice after doing the above analysis and also reading The Dicken’s World: A View from Todger’s, which Sontag calls a “rare example” of criticism that applies a “loving description” of a work of art. Firstly is that the analysis is taken by the logic of the artwork. That is, the audience or the analyst follows the rhythm of the work and the order in which events proceed. It is a faithful record of the work with a personal and affectionate touch. Interpretation, on the other hand, is a rearrangement of the work. The piece is dissected and taken apart, and put back again using the logic of the interpreter. This process is perhaps why Sontag sees both a creative and destructive power within interpretation: it gives the artwork a second life, for the better or worse.

Secondly, I don’t see how the two interpretations are meaningfully different, i.e. how a Sontagian read is able to escape the problem that Sontag criticises interpretation of having. I disagree with Sontag’s interpretation of interpretation, as an act of complete change, as telling the audience that “X is really… A”. Interpretation is the process through which we derive meaning from the written and spoken words of someone else rather than simply receive meaning. It is an act of “translation”, but it is also a process that is inherent in the way we receive information. Words are a medium through which we communicate certain thoughts, but they are not the forming elements of our thoughts. That is to say, we do not think in words but in abstract strands of unconscious ideas that only become a communicable message when we try to speak. There is therefore a process of translation which fits the thought into the word being used, as word is never the thought itself but merely a description of it. In receiving the words the listener goes through a similar process of translation which transforms the word again back into a thought, but the process happens without full accuracy since it is impossible to know exactly the other is trying to say and referring to.

Even if there are commonly held notions of what a word means, such as in the case of immediate referrals of pointing to “this” and “that”, our mutual understanding stops when the thing or thought being addressed becomes abstract and absent. Despite having overlaps in our thoughts when we speak a particular word (which is why I’m still able to write the essay and communicate), the boundaries of the word are blurred: we do not know when the span of meaning starts and when it ends. There might be a few numbers of objects which we agree are “tables”, but in our unconsciousness we do not coincide on what makes a thing a table and what makes a thing not a table. This difference is mainly due to our different perspectives and personal experiences, which evoke slightly different notions of the word “table”. What a speaker thinks of when she says a table may be entirely different to what a listener thinks of when she hears of a table. There is no collective consciousness in which everyone has the same understanding of what a particular word entails, and we rely on the imperfect medium of words to further communicate ourselves.

Thus, inherent in the act of understanding is interpreting. The listener implicitly receives the word in a way that is in accordance with her worldview, experiences and priorities, and in the process has given new meaning to the word, which is different both to how the speaker intended it, and what the collective mutual understanding of the word is. This difference in meaning is compounded when we collate words into sentences, and try to communicate greater meaning through essays or literature, and becomes more abstract when we are using film or an artwork as a medium. Even in a Sontagian read, the very act of watching a film and perceiving an artwork is distorting it and changing it in some way, albeit unconsciously. The fact that we are enchanted or feel awe in the presence of an artwork means interpretation is happening. The difference between a descriptive read and a prescriptive read is only one of articulation, because we are describing what we perceive in a way that is already entangled with personal biases and subjective judgements, responding not to the artwork itself, but what we interpret the artwork to be.

Therefore I think the difference of a Sontagian read does not lie in the act of interpretation, but in the kind of interpretation. Sontag is calling for an affective rather than a rational read: a blind devotion of the self into the artwork during the experience, rather than holding a clear head and a critical eye. I think a combination of the two would yield the best result, and is also the reason why I like re-watching films: enjoy the moment, but also remember to seek greater meaning through the details when the viewing pleasure cools down.

Realism and the Prison Break: A Man Escaped and Chicken Run


By Emil Sohlberg

A Man Escaped and Chicken Run, though both centered around prison escapes, have strong thematic differences. A Man Escaped (1956) tells the story of Fontaine, a French resistance member who escapes from a Nazi prison to avoid execution. Chicken Run, not a live-action film but shot with claymation instead, tells the story of chickens who escape from a chicken farm, their own version of a prison, before they are all killed and baked into pies. At face value, Chicken Run is bright and colorful, while A Man Escaped is darker and more cerebral, but these different feelings stem from numerous stylistic choices. These feelings are ultimately achieved through the films leaning away from and towards realism; in terms of sound and storytelling A Man Escaped is more realistic than Chicken Run, but despite being animated, Chicken Run’s use of space is more realistic than that of A Man Escaped. A Man Escaped highlights the quiet determination that perseveres under stifling conditions, while Chicken Run delivers a more bombastic, inspirational take on escape.

First, the sparse use of sound design in A Man Escaped supports realism and serves to highlight the tedium of being in prison, while Chicken Run’s uplifting score serves to inspire the audience instead. For the majority of A Man Escaped, the audience only ever hears exactly what Fontaine hears. The audience becomes accustomed to the sounds of a train going by, and of a guard clanking his keys up the stairs. When Fontaine disguises the sound of him scratching at his door, with a cough, the audience understands the need for this, as aurally, they are in the same place as Fontaine. There are few treats for the audience in A Man Escaped’s soundscape, because such treats would not be in a prison’s soundscape either. The few exceptions only highlight this, such as when classical music plays during the prisoners’ daily opportunity to leave their cells. Though they are doing the unglamourous work of dumping their toilet buckets and getting cleaned up, the music shows how valuable this time is for them, as a brief respite from their isolation. By comparison, Chicken Run’s opening sequence is non stop sound, with a musical montage over Ginger, the de facto leader of the chickens, and her countless failed escape attempts. A musical montage is inherently dissimilar to how the audience perceives reality, but that is not the priority here. The music playing during this sequence highlights Ginger’s determination and resolve, allowing the audience to recognize the repeating motifs at triumphant points throughout the rest of the movie, such as when Ginger and her accomplice Rocky escape a pie machine, sabotaging it in the process. Both of the movies use sound to indicate how the audience should be feeling, with the focus or lack of focus on non-diegetic sound being the key point.

Chicken Run’s opening sequence

doorchiselFontaine chisels at the door

Next, in A Man Escaped, the use of space and location to reveal little information about the prison gives the film a claustrophobic and oppressive feel, while in Chicken Run, beautiful claymation establishes the world so vividly that the possibility of escape feels real, tangible, and inspirational. Much of A Man Escaped is spent in Fontaine’s jail cell, a small room that the audience has plenty of time to get familiar with. Unlike the use of sound, where the audience hears what Fontaine hears, the audience actually knows much less about the spatiality of the prison than Fontaine does, revealed when Fontaine makes plans to navigate areas that the audience has never even seen. It is in this manner that A Man Escape is leaning away from realism, as even in prison would the audience come to learn its layout. Instead, the audience, when shown locations beyond Fontaine’s cell, only knows them in a disjointed manner; they are exposed to too few shots of travel between them, and are unable to put together any kind of cohesive big picture. This results in a sense of general unease, contributing to the film’s atmosphere. Interestingly, Chicken Run, not in spite of but rather because of its use of claymation, feels far more grounded in an actual world. Chicken Run operates on two scales, human-scale when the farmer husband and wife, the Tweedys, are interacting, but primarily on chicken-scale, when the chickens are the focus. There are several impressive shots in the film that connect these two scales together, such as when Ginger and Rocky are hiding from Mrs. Tweedy, that really give the audience an understanding of the size of the world. This connects thematically to the chickens’ motivation, introduced by a heartfelt speech from Ginger directed to her fellow chickens early in the film–to live somewhere green, with no farmers, where they can be free. Escape for the chickens is as much about reaching this place, as it is about leaving their current location. This motivation is far more impactful when the audience accepts their world as being real and expansive. Such acceptance is not a priority in A Man Escaped however, because getting anywhere specific is hardly even mentioned by Fontaine. What is really critical is just getting out and not being executed. This is why the limited exposure to space works in that film; the outside world would only take away from the isolation and desperation the audience is supposed to be feeling.

hidingGinger and Rocky hide from Mrs. Tweedy

incellFontaine sits in his jail cell

Chicken Run’s realism here cannot be described without also giving credit to the level of detail of the animation style, as well as the tangible physicality of the claymation medium. There are many details that appear exactly as they would in reality, such as one character’s glasses magnifying their eyes, or the fuzz on another character’s sweater. Close up shots reveal the rough texture of bricks and wood, and a coal bin has the exact gritty appearance of rusted metal. In one incredible shot, Mrs. Tweedy spins a metal saw with her fingers, and her face can be seen in the reflection of the saw as it’s spinning. Since the set actually exists in a physical form, there is realism in lighting as well. The chicken farm can be exposed to controlled lighting depending on weather or time of day, that comes across as far more sophisticated and true to life than an audience might normally expect from an animated feature. Interestingly, though A Man Escaped has a high level of realism on the basis of being filmed in reality, in some ways it feels less real than Chicken Run, due to the almost dreamlike unease stemming from its narrow spatial scope.

goodlightingSunlight on a cloudy day

sweaterfuzzMr Tweedy’s fuzzy sweater

spinningsawMrs. Tweedy’s reflection in the saw

A Man Escaped characterizes a prison escape as painstaking and methodical, with its straightforward and realistic story structure, while Chicken Run utilizes more traditional Hollywood convention to portray escape as an adventure. A Man Escaped is an unbelievably slow burn, with the majority of the film following Fontaine’s gradual progress on his escape plan. Though there are pencil confiscations and the execution of another prisoner who attempts to escape, there are no actual setbacks to the plan. One development, the introduction of his young cellmate, Jost, seems like it may be a setback should Jost prove untrustworthy, but it occurs so late in the movie and has so little effect on the plan that Jost’s very presence in the film defies expectation. Overall, A Man Escaped feels lifelike in its unpredictability, but the surprise of the film is actually how smoothly the plan goes. This is appropriate, as in reality, a prison escape is going to be the result of slow work and careful planning, that will either go off without a hitch or end with unredeemable failure. By contrast, Chicken Run has far more developments and setbacks, but they all happen at the exact places that they should in the conventional three act structure, making them feel more predictable. The result of this predictability is that the prison escape feels less like work, and more like a standard Hollywood adventure. There’s an act one inciting incident when Rocky, a circus runaway, arrives and claims to be able to teach the chickens how to fly. There is ascending action when the pie machine is delivered and destroyed, raising the stakes as the chickens learn their eventual fate. A major setback occurs at the end of act two, when Rocky reveals he cannot fly and abandons the chickens. Then there is a climax where the chickens desperately make an escape via plane. There is even a tidy denouement at the end of the film to show how happy the chickens are once they have escaped. The story never develops in a way to make the audience especially uncomfortable, as expected of a G-rated tale of escaping chickens (with the exception of one of the chickens being executed early on, which is mainly surprising due to how bleak it is, as it still functions properly as an act one inciting incident).

rockyarrivesRocky arrives

bigsetbackBig setback

Chicken Run and A Man Escaped are both excellent films revolving around prison breaks, but they are vastly different in how they regard realism in three areas. All of the choices of A Man Escaped are intended to increase tension and monotony: this means a subdued realism in sound, spatiality made more stifling through its lack of realism, and a story that is straightforward and realistic in its unpredictable predictability. All of this comes together to result in a realistic prison escape film, which feels appropriate as the story is based on real events. Chicken Run instead makes choices that are intended to be uplifting and inspirational. The non-diegetic score is thrilling and memorable, the space with real presence gives credibility to the characters’ motivations, and the storytelling follows tried-and-true methods of building the audience’s emotions.

Alien: The Terror of Not Being Terrified

Alien (1979) and Alien: Isolation (2014)

Julian Spencer

I don’t think there’s any genre that’s as hard to pull off as horror. The percentage of horror films, games, and books which are critically acclaimed (or, for that matter, even well reviewed) is uncharacteristically low. It’s not that these works have an issue with actually scaring the viewer; even the most experienced filmgoers can’t help but feel an adrenaline rush when a monster suddenly appears with an obnoxiously loud sound. Rather, it’s the fact that not all types of fear are enjoyable. When the shock of a jumpscare dies away, we’re left feeling like the subjects of a middle school “gotcha” prank, more frustrated than interested.

The distinction is in creating a horror which is enjoyable — one which inspires dread, doubt, and uneasiness — rather than immediate fear. This is exactly what the Alien franchise does so well. Recently, I dedicated a weekend to the original 1979 film and the tangentially based 2015 game Alien: Isolation. On a surface level, the two mediums are remarkably similar; as I explored the Nostromo, I was continuously stunned by the accuracy with which everything from the doors to the weapons to, of course, the alien, were recreated. On a surface level, they are practically indistinguishable. Though it was wonderful to relive these aspects of the movie, what brings me here today is how well the unique sentiment of the original picture is captured in the game.


One of many visual easter eggs the game includes.

In order to get a better understanding of how the franchise is able to transition so seamlessly between formats, let’s focus first on the film. Though the movie (and, occasionally, the game) don’t shy away entirely from jumpscares, they are much more interested in creating an environment of tension. This is, of course, not unique to Alien; most critically acclaimed horror movies follow a similar method, in which the ability of off screen space to hide potential horrors is critical to the intended effect. Typically, 6 areas of off screen space are cited: the four directions around the frame, the space behind the camera, and the space behind occluding objects in the frame. What keeps Alien relevant nearly 40 years later is the unique way in which its monster plays with this screen space. Despite incredibly minimal screentime, the alien is constantly present, slowly and deliberately moving in on the crew.

Ready to pop out from any direction.



When the crew aboard a commercial spaceship receives a distress signal, they realize they are legally obligated to investigate. Here is our introduction to off screen space: somewhere, in a specific quadrant, there is something to be investigated. This scene could be described as tense, but it is difficult to justify as scary; we simply have not been given enough information. However, this is a crucial moment for the story, opening a larger atmosphere of off screen space which will be built upon for the rest of the film.

The crew pinpoints a distress signal of unknown origin.


As we move closer to the distress signal, our fears become more realized. Kane, a member of the crew, stumbles across an enormous egg hatchery filled with unknown creatures. In a traditional horror sense, the eggs act as occluders, hiding from us a creature we simultaneously want to inspect and flee from. Yet, at the same time, Ripley Scott uses them to add to something much scarier. Though the camera lens is focused on the egg itself, we begin to build a different understanding of the larger world surrounding our frame. Eggs must mean that there are living creatures on this planet, ones which might choose to protect their young. Where before our threat was vague, both in location and form, it now takes a living form and a set location: the planet itself.

Kane inspects an egg.


After an attack by a recently hatched creature, Kane is returned to the ship while a creature clings to his head. Shortly following, the crew departs the planet and the faceclinger disappears. Again, the distance between us and potential danger shrinks. When the crew discovers the creature’s shedded skin, a frantic search ensues. The vain attempt culminates as a trashcan clangs noisily to the ground, causing a cheap jumpscare as it falls into clear view of the camera. For the first time, Ripley Scott brings the threat’s off screen presence to the forefront: no longer can we take solace in having an entire planet of potential locations for these creatures. The space our unknown pursuer could  occupy is now alarmingly small: the ship itself.

A baby xenomorph makes its escape.

As crew members are picked off one by one, the sense of constant approach continues. In the final sequences of the film, we are left with Ellen Ripley’s final attempt to outsmart the alien as she primes the ship for self destruction and activates the escape pod. Here is our final level of off screen space: a single escape pod whose entire interior is visible with one camera shot. In this climax, off screen space has shrunk entirely, and the only choice is confrontation. Any monster can loom out of sight; it is this ability of the xenomorph to approach without ever being seen that makes the Nostromo so uniquely chilling.

The escape pod leaves nowhere to hide.

With this new understanding of Alien’s atmosphere, let’s shift back to the video game. There are some immediate difficulties in this transition between mediums; the new level of freedom the viewer has means many common tropes no longer work. Rather than cringing as we watch a character make rash decisions, the player controls which rooms to enter and which corners to turn. There are no hidden spaces behind the camera nor close shots which constrain our view, but a first-person player who can look and move freely.giphy-2

Instead, video games often derive their atmosphere from a quest of sneaking and hiding. There’s a similar element of adrenaline as you move from closet to closet, but the type of scare is vastly different from witnessing an otherwise intelligent character make an irrational decision. This is precisely why I was so taken aback by Alien: Isolation’s ability to recapture the xenomorph: in my mind, video games and movies are supposed to feel different. Yet, 40 years apart, both renditions of Ripley Scott’s xenomorph felt all too similar. Looking back on the hours I spent with both mediums, I realize it precisely the original film’s innovative use of a “seventh” outside space that allows for the alien’s flawless transition into the world of video games.

Long, musty spaceship hallways are an integral part of the experience.

The game certainly earns its name; using the same techniques the film pioneered, the world outside slowly begins to shrink until you are left alone with the alien. The first scenes open with plenty of humans and androids, some of which may even decide to help you out. Objectives are often focused on retrieving items, completing tasks, and avoiding conflict with other survivors. Yet, as you march further and further into the darkness, the only human contact left becomes eerie audio messages and faded, hopeless graffiti. As fellow survivors dwindle, hope of rescue fades, and bright, open lobbies become dark, claustrophobic vents, the story quickly becomes a helpless cat and mouse chase. It is this unseen approach that makes the alien the same patient, inescapable predator it was in 1979.

Tight vents become one of few safehavens.

As the alien’s presence grows stronger and stronger, so too did my sense to look, to dispel the darkness and learn something about what is going on. As you know, this never goes well for the crew in Alien; the game is certainly no different. That doesn’t mean the developers never provide you with materials to tempt you in dispelling the unknown; early in the storyline, you’re given a motion tracker and a flashlight which can drastically improve navigation. The catch? Using either of these tantalizing items immediately draws the alien’s attention. Like any horror movie, we are driven so strongly to look (just for one second!), but are terrified to actually press the button. I quickly learned: the best way to survive is to put my head down and plunge into the unknown.

Don’t look.

It seems obvious, but there is an underlying assumption in this take on off-screen horror: to scare you, to make you want to look, the approaching monster must be… scary. On a physical level, the xenomorph certainly accomplishes this: a tail which functions to impale prey, a detachable jaw with humongous fangs, and some horrifying death scenes can’t hurt. However, physically recreating the alien is only a small element of the game’s terror; after all, so much of these two plots is based around not seeing the alien. In the movie, a large part of the beast’s effectiveness as an off-screen presence are the constant hints at its intelligence. We are constantly reminded that our pursuer can not only overpower and outrun us, but outsmart us as well.

“Physical intimidation” is putting it lightly.

In the cinematic world, this is simple enough to accomplish; the characters’ decisions are predetermined, and the director can simply film a tactical response from the alien. While the Alien grows to full strength, it hides from the crew. When Ripley activates the escape pod, it seems to recognize its only escape and stows away inside. When the crew begins a violent search, it confines itself to a maze of air vents. However, this causal relationship goes out the window in a video game. When the player’s actions are not predetermined, it is far more difficult to create a predator who can respond unpredictably and intelligently. 

Instead, Creative Assembly endows its alien with a brilliant AI mechanism, programmed specifically to avoid predictable routines. I have played too many thrillers where the star monster follows a preordained path. Once you begin to recognize the routine starts and stops, a threatening enemy is quickly reduced to a line of computer code. This creature, on the other hand, is more than an obstacle to avoid. By quickly reversing its direction and emerging almost randomly from various vents and passages, our pursuer becomes an intellectual force to be reckoned with. Oh, and the best (worst?) part? As you move through the game, it learns your hiding places… and it has no shame in ripping open doors to pluck you out of them.

The alien quickly learns your hiding spots.

This intelligence is central to the alien’s role as an antagonist: it is why his off screen presence is so terrifying. When I decide to step out of cover, quickly and quietly crouch-walking to the next available occluder, I am not simply terrified of whether or not I may simply bump into his walkspace in the room immediately ahead of me. Rather, I am aware of a hidden system at play beyond the immediate boundaries of my view: even if he has just left the room, nothing is to stop him from turning back immediately or reentering from the ducts above. These unpredictable movements give the alien a feeling of omniscience, an ability to disappear and reappear as he pleases. The progress you make through the game is never linear; the spot you just left may be just as dangerous as the one you are about to enter.

The alien unexpectedly descends from a vent.

As far as recreating the xenomorph goes, Creative Assembly has nailed it. With some creative twists, Alien: Isolation is a beautiful take on the off-screen space techniques that makes the original movie the classic that it is. Even if you can’t see him, the alien’s presence constantly lingers over you. As the world of the Nostromo shrinks, this presence grows exponentially, leaving you in a frenzied, destinationless escape from a cool, collected creature who can outwit and outrun you at any point. Though the game takes a vastly different approach, it creates the very same nerve-grinding combination of terror, hopelessness, and relentless isolation.

An Exploration of Sound in A Man Escaped

A man escaped title pic

by Niky Charouzová

Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped is set in a prisoner of war camp in Nazi Germany and through the revealing nature of the title itself, depicts the themes of liberty and confinement. The film follows the imprisonment of Fontaine, a French soldier during World War II, who throughout the film devises an escape plan from the prison and uses the materials from his room to aid him. He ends up having to escape with his cellmate, François Jost, with whom he ends up walking away into the night after they have succeeded. The black and white film is unlike many others mostly due to its lack of special effects or emotion of its characters, which helps draw significant attention to perhaps the key component of the film: sound, or rather, silence. Additionally, the fact that the film is devoid of these special effects forces the audience to focus on the actual events of the storyline without any distractions. Many times throughout the film, however, sound is even more important to the story than the image itself, and if the image is restrictive, sound often guides us and replaces it to some extent.

The first scene of the film shown below is of Fontaine getting driven with another prisoner in the back of a car and his subsequent failed escape attempt:

This scene, along with the very final scene, are the only two parts of the film that are shot outside the prison. Very few connections are made between the life inside the prison and that outside of it, because the main point of the film is to follow the actions of Fontaine inside the prison, rather than looking at the bigger picture. The first scene immediately depicts the enigmatic nature of the film, because we are left without context until later; when Fontaine attempts to escape from the vehicle, the camera is left focussing on the car seat, rather than following Fontaine. The sounds outside the car in are the only hints the audience gets at what is happening. As the audience, we are only ever aware of the things that Fontaine experiences and witnesses; we often see even less than that, as is the case with the scene above or even minor details, such as the presence of the lamp in Fontaine’s room, which we are unaware of until much later in the film. The cluelessness of the audience is rather ironic, because we are told about how the film ends, yet are still left to hypnotically follow every detail. This also relates to Fontaine in his limited view of the world around him, as he is left clueless regarding his fate apart from knowing that he will be taken for execution someday.

This ties in to the understandable emotionlessness of Fontaine and the other prisoners, who, through confinement, share a common suffering albeit being complete strangers. They rarely convey any emotion, as is especially evident with Fontaine whose life we follow the most, and most of them aid each other and attempt to communicate as much as they can. (The only prisoner who seems to go against this is the old man next door to Fontaine, who, due to effectively being interrupted in his suicide attempt, does not reply to Fontaine’s knock on the wall. It seems that the old man, more so than the others, has accepted his fate in the prison and suffers internally, rather than engaging in some sort of comradery. He does, however, contribute a blanket to Fontaine’s rope later in the film.) It is, therefore, slightly alarming when Fontaine does, indeed, break down in nervous laughter after being told about the decision made regarding his execution.

The scene above seems almost unnatural due to the severe lack of emotion in the rest of the film. Interestingly, during the creation of his films, Bresson often forces the scenes to be retaken numerous times in order to drain any remaining energy and emotion out of the actors’ faces. In doing so, specifically with Fontaine, emotion ends up seeming slightly unnatural, because all we see otherwise are blank faces. No matter the situation, Fontaine rarely reveals signs of his feelings. It is also then an unsettling force when François Jost is thrown into the picture, making us wary of him and leaving us to question his trustworthiness.


Most important in this film, however, is Bresson’s use of sound; any actual sound is often so limited that it truly brings out the importance of silence and it also forces the audience’s attention to be brought to the image. Much of the film revolves around wordless action; namely, Fontaine spends most of his time working with the objects in his cell, such as breaking the door frame with his spoon or tying together the materials to use as a rope. Though there is sometimes an overlapping commentary, mostly we are left to focus on the detail of Fontaine’s mundane actions. This intensifies every little auditory element, which again makes almost everything around him seem to be a threat.

Sound has myriad different interpretations and purposes in the film; on the one hand, sound acts as a warning signal for Fontaine. Fontaine watches out for many different sounds in the movie that alert him to possible danger, such as the guards’ clanging of the railing when they walk up the stairs, or his friend’s cough from across the hall signalling that he is watching out for him. On the other hand, sound is a key factor that could actually get Fontaine killed in many cases; any sound that Fontaine makes that is loud and slightly out of the ordinary could potentially kill him. During his escape, Fontaine uses other, often outside, noises to his advantage in covering up the sounds that he makes; for example, the noise of the train covers up the sounds of his and François’ footsteps, or he uses his own coughs to cover up the noise of his scraping. One of the most vital moments in Fontaine and Jost’s escape is the howling of the train that enables Fontaine to kill the guard without making any noise.

Moreover, sound acts as its own representation of reality in that it emphasises the harshness of Fontaine’s situation and the thus-far never-ending imprisonment of all the prisoners in the camp. The harsh, loud noises of the door being bolted, or the bowl clattering on the floor when essentially being thrown onto Fontaine’s prison cell floor are all grim reminders of life in prison in contrast with life outside. Precisely for this reason, most of the sounds made by the guards or that simply reside inside the prison are heightened in volume and are thus unpleasant and cacophonous. This is also evident in the speech of the German soldiers, whose voices are loud and echoing compared to the silent, repressed voices of the French prisoners. Bresson’s manipulation of the volume of certain sounds as opposed to others reinforce the reality of imprisonment.

On the other hand, sound is also used to portray liberty and ordinary life, even though we rarely ever see outside the prison. In these scenes, sound replaces image, because the exteriors of the prison are seldom shown, so in most of the scenes sound guides our understanding of the events. Again, the very first scene is one of the two times that the action is set outside of the prison. Fontaine is in the back of the car, which drives through a busy street and people going about their daily lives can be seen through the windows. The film shows some outside action, such as people walking by and a horse carriage driving by, but it emphasises the sound of the approaching train before the train is even shown on camera. These outside noises, especially given Fontaine’s actions in reaching for the door handle in the car, depict Fontaine’s goal of escape, which he maintains throughout the film. When Fontaine is placed in his first cell, he interacts with one of three men on the outside of the prison, who brings him a pen and delivers his letters. The man gives Fontaine some hope and Fontaine’s actions indicate that his revolutionary fervour has not been lost, even after his failed escape in the car. A few times throughout the film we hear noises symbolising freedom in that they are noises of ordinary outside life. These sounds, in the form of the train passing by and whistling or cars driving by, continuously remind Fontaine of the fact that the prison is a completely different world from daily life and that he must escape to reach that point in life once again. Furthermore, we never see the absolute conclusion of the film in terms of Fontaine getting home to his family again. This indicates the distance of the real world to the events of the film and again enforces the fact that things outside the prison are irrelevant to the plot.

Additionally, there are many scenes in which sound is interestingly manipulated in that during speech between prisoners often everything around is quiet; however, when nobody is talking or during Fontaine’s commentaries over the film, there are many other noises in the background to fill the gaps and keep the suspense up before the camera reveals the bigger picture. The frequent delays between the camera movement and the sound that comes before it makes scenes more suspenseful. This is also the case with scenes where the camera does not even pan to show what is occurring, such as during Fontaine and Jost’s escape, when Fontaine listens to the sounds of footsteps while waiting for the right moment to kill the guard on duty. The sounds of the footsteps of the guard and the absence of visuals to aid this creates great suspense, because we anticipate that Fontaine will attack the guard at the right moment, but we do not know when that should or will occur. The absence of image is further important, because it creates a sense of discomfort when, for example, the thuds of Orsini being beating up are heard distinctly in the otherwise quiet prison. Feelings of fear and suspense regarding Fontaine’s own fate arise when Orsini is executed, because neither Fontaine nor the audience see it happen, but we hear the gunshots very clearly. In this case, sound builds up tension, because it is after Orsini’s failed escape, which makes Fontaine question his own escape.

Sound is evidently a key component in this film that both aids the understanding of the series of events, but also has many other purposes, such as building up tension or serving as a warning tool to Fontaine. Because A Man Escaped is devoid of special effects, colour, or emotion, most of the attention while watching the film is directed specifically to the different sound effects and its uses. Sound keeps the audience involved and nervous, even though the title of the film reveals its happy ending, which is one of its many admirable effects in the film that manipulates the audience’s experience in viewing it.



A Man Escaped. Gaumont Film Company, 1957.

Spirited Away and ‘the Erotics of Art’

Hansel and Gretel is a story that remains with me from my childhood. It was the fairy tale my mother repeated to me most often, with my sticky fingers and penchant for lying. Even as a second grader, the thought of a witch that would cook me alive for my sweet-tooth did little to instill in me any desire for temperance. It wasn’t until I watched Spirited Away (2002)—that I marveled in disgust and fear at the transformation of Chihiro’s parents into pigs—that I learned to put down the cookies.


Why is this? How does Miyazaki’s world in Spirited Away arise such strong reactions from its viewers, and does the work of a fairy tale without relying so heavily on its formal narrative structures? Hansel and Gretel need their Witch, as a personification of the ills of greed, to carry out the moralizing message of their tale. Animation transcends the need for such interpretive plot devices; even more so than live action photography, it is capable of making the moving image convey meaning on an affective and sensorial scale. Through its use of exaggerated features, body-morphing, and the grotesque, Spirited Away achieves just this: the creation of a world beyond our own, one that leaves its audience hanging onto themes of generosity, environmentalism, and individuality, without ever requiring its audience to interpret their meaning through a dissection of the film.

Perhaps that’s just what makes Miyazaki’s masterpiece such a puzzle to unpack — its bright colors, whimsical animations, and clever distortions of the human world embody what Susan Sontag would call “the erotics of art.” They present themselves to us as one coherent whole, so marvelous and fast-paced as to defy their viewer’s impulse towards interpretation. In Spirited Away the artistry is the thing itself: we need not search beyond the work of the film’s animators in order to find a ‘greater depth’ to the film than what is made readily apparent to us on screen. In animation, the key to meaning lies not so much in depth as in width; that is to say, in the stretching and warping of reality that gives cartoons their distinct style, that establishes its mood, tone, and message. An elongated nose and hair whipping in the wind like snakes, as we see in Yubaba, remind us just how far away from our own world we really are, and tell us all we need to know about the witch even before she has opened her mouth. Yes, narrative moves us from scene to scene… but the story reveals itself to us best in moments where animation and design are given reigns to communicate with—as well as enchant—the viewer all on their own.


To explore these points, we’ll start with that first engrossing moment of the film, in which Chihiro’s parents are transfigured into pigs after eating from a seemingly-abandoned carnival stall. This early scene reveals the distinct power of animation to distort our image of reality, and in doing so imbues itself with moral and meaning. In its opening montage, no part of the film suggests to its audience that we are to encounter anything extraordinary: petals fell from battered roses, the car grumbled and jolted down a gravel path, no different than they would in real life.


With the family’s arrival at the fairgrounds, however, stylistic changes in the animation began to indicate to us the character’s passage into somewhere unknown. The bright glow and steam coming from the stall—the most vivid colors and enticing textures used in the film up to this point—instill in the viewer a sense of both danger and awe. And by the time Chihiro’s parents start eating, even in their human form, they already have begun to demonstrate the properties of this newly emerging world: her father opens his mouth superhumanly wide to scarf down a giant fish and a crab stick in one gulp, her mother swallows noodle after noodle—we see their piggish qualities before snouts and tails ever appear.


In witnessing the transformation, and being made to gawk as Chihiro’s pig-eared parents hoard bowls of food into their mouth, we ourselves are fed the film’s central theme of temperance against excess and gluttony, in the most subtle of ways. When the filmmaker chooses to animate a certain way, he sets not only the film’s style, but its very significance: the dancing flames in Flowers for Madame (1935) are a very different beast than those that kill the mother of the titular Bambi (1942), for example. In live action, this plasticity of form is stifled; a fire is a fire; to be run away from, warmed by, or, in the most thrilling of features, thrown into. But for animators, form is the playground on which the story is set, such that distortion, transfiguration, and imagination can be made to carry the story’s most impactful points. In this pig scene, the depiction of therianthropy and the grotesque achieves a kind of reorientation of the viewer through affect. The effect is ultimately uncanny: a horrifying perversion of our own reality, so close to our own realities that we can almost imagine it happen to ourselves. The transformation haunts us because it presents itself as the natural end to our own greed — a feeling we encounter over and over again in the film, whether through Yubaba’s spoiled and oversized baby, or No-face’s unending, fattening hunger. But these pigs invest, from very early on, each of the generous acts undertaken by Chihiro with a kind of redemptive and heroic quality. As an audience, the fear we feel when confronted with the girl’s swinified parents sets us firmly alongside her on her hero’s journey. And without it needing to be mentioned in the film’s plot, we understand this journey to be one defined by remedying this act of greed. 

This ability of animation to capture and orient its audience through the manipulation of form in the moving image is mastered by Miyazaki in Spirited Away — and nowhere is it more visible than in the scene where Chihiro bathes the river spirit. Even more so than generosity, environmentalism is a theme that is woven through the film in its most formal aspects. The natural world is celebrated as a canvas, its beauty—and its corruption—highlighted aesthetically throughout. Chihiro accesses the spirit world, of course, by passing over a dried-up riverbed. The grey of the rocks in the bed and the emptiness of the surrounding infrastructure situates us in an ecology violated by man, and ‘primes us’ to the significance of the river in this fairy tale. Consciously, we twitch with anticipation as Chihiro leaves the riverbed behind her, the sun sets, and the first creatures set out into the night. But on the subconscious level, we are made aware that the spirit realm exists as a refuge from the anthropocentrism of the human world, and Yubaba’s bathhouse as a place to cure oneself from its ills. 


  It’s upon the arrival of the ‘stink spirit,’ however, that these ‘affective reorientations’ really come to head, leading us to reflect, in the most gruesome shots of the film, on our own environmental negligence and impact. At first glance, the stink spirit is a fearsome, gloopy thing, and we react emotively to its shape before ever trying to make sense of what it is. Chihiro, armed with a compassion and perceptiveness unlike our own, is capable of seeing past this—intuitively, she takes the spirit into her care, and pulls muddied objects from deep inside it with a rope. First a bicycle, then a refrigerator, then tables, chairs, and oil tanks, the waste of human lives comes spilling out onto the bathhouse floor, freeing the body of the spirit from pollution by splaying it out onto the floor for the audience to see. The effect is not lost; in seeing the remnants of our own lives vomited up like a brown poison, and understanding that the spirit is one of a river, our disgust at the animation turns into a disgust of our own patterns of consumption, making us complicit in the garbage we see on screen. Chihiro’s bravery—echoing the days of an actual summer Miyazaki spent cleaning up a river in Japan—saves us alongside the river spirit, and gestures to the changes that we as an audience must make to repair our own world, and redeem the blind greed of those that came before us.


The lessons we learn from Spirited Away are taught through the moving image. In depicting acts of contortion and body-morphing, the film elicits an affective connection from its viewer that guides us along the story, making perception more than ever generative of meaning. Even just witnessing Miyazaki’s creatures, registering their dissimilarities to our own flesh, becomes a practice in world-building, a mode of understanding the film as text. What is achieved is the use of animation as both medium and message, as both the storybook and the story in itself. How something is animated defines what it is, how it makes us feel: it is nothing if not the way it looks, the way it moves, the way it distorts our understanding of reality.



To animate is, at its core, to bring something to life: to create a fantastical world out of the moving image, and give it all the properties that make the filmic medium so hyperreal to us. Its the symbiotic marriage of content and form that gives animation its distinct power as a medium. But to combine this with the immediacy and transparence of film is to create a work of art that leaves its viewer emotionally raw and morally changed, without once diverting their eyes and minds from the narrative and images unfolding before them on the screen. This is the triumph of Spirited Away — its genre-defining sensory experience that cements animation’s capability of harnessing the ‘erotics of art.’

Rami Kablawi

Moonlight: How Parallel and Contrast Drives Character Development

Image result for MOONLIGHT

By Paul Chang

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a cinematic masterpiece in many critically acclaimed ways: it masterfully uses color and color motifs to drive the story; it uses music and silence at important junctions to convey the gravity of the situation; it looks at themes of identity and masculinity through viewpoints that are uncommon to Hollywood films, and so forth.  One aspect of Moonlight in particular stands out in its effectiveness and ability to convey messages and foster character development.  Jenkins purposefully includes multiple parallels that can be seen in the film, driven by both audio and visual components.  These parallels effectively nudge the viewer to call back to previous scenes which contain similar components.  At the same time, the differences between the parallels form strong contrasts and induce the viewer to consider what might have changed between the first and second scenes.  This drives development and character growth.  These parallels are both visual – expressed through framing, camera movement, and setting, and auditory – expressed through dialogue, silence, or musical components.  By invoking viewers’ callbacks to previous scenes, Jenkins induces comparisons between the scenes that help develop the characters over the course of the film.

The first notable use of parallel in the film is between the opening scene when Juan first shows up to check in on the dealers, and when he realizes that Chiron’s mother is buying from him.  Both scenes take place in the same street/alleyway where Juan’s dealers sell drugs.  Additionally, both scenes begin the same way – the camera shows Juan’s car pulling up to the curb and parking and follows Juan’s movement as he talks to the same dealer in both scenes.  The similarities in the setting and camera movement of both scenes hints at an underlying connection between the two scenes.  It is not just the parallels that these scenes draw, however, that is of interest to the viewer.  In fact, the parallels emphasize the differences between the two scenes.  The way that the first scene develops, and the context that is given to the viewer, is not at all like the second scene.  At the beginning, the camera revolves around three players – Juan, the dealer, and the potential customer.  It swivels around the latter two before finally centering its focus on Juan, almost like two smaller planets orbiting a bigger planet.

When the camera finally settles down, Juan is the main focus in the center of the camera before the next scene begins.  Beyond simply camera movements, Juan’s interactions indicate that he is an important figure, almost as a benevolent leader of sorts.  The way that the customer pleads with Juan and the respect shown by the dealer towards Juan both indicate that Juan is a central figure who commands attention and respect.   In essence, the first scene paints Juan as a protagonist, through the way that the camera moves to accentuate his importance and Juan’s interactions.  These two aspects change significantly in the scene where Juan finds Chiron’s mother, Paula, smoking crack in the car.  Faced with the realization that he is responsible for the struggles of someone he knows personally, Juan appears to exhibit brash and panicking behaviors for the first time in the film.

Juan: “What’s wrong with you?”

Paula: “Who the hell do you think you is?”

Paula: “So you gon’ raise my son now? You gon’ raise my son? You going to? You ain’t shit.”

While the first scene painted Juan as a calm, collected leader, the second renders him defensive and disoriented.  The camera movement that captures Juan and Paula’s interaction further emphasizes the He displays aggression for the first noticeable time and appears caught off guard.  Additionally, Paula is the first person to talk to Juan in a disrespectful manner, thus marking an important breaking point in character development.  The interaction doesn’t continue to paint Juan as a kind, intelligent leader who just so happens to sell drugs.  Instead, it pivots to a depiction of Juan that is entirely human, who is on equal moral footing with Paula and is indirectly guilty for the addictions of many.  Juan is stripped of his crown in front of many of his dealers, which embarrasses him in ways not previously seen in the film.

Juan: “Fuck y’all lookin’ at?”

Moreover, the way that the camera moves and chooses to focus on certain characters is markedly different between the two scenes.  Whereas the first scene was filmed in a way that centered its focus on Juan, the second splits time between Juan and Paula, and even ignores Juan for a moment, choosing instead to focus on Paula’s reactions.  Once again, Juan is reduced to a mere mortal with flaws and insecurities, whose role as a drug dealer has harmed the lives of many, including Chiron’s mother.  The key differences in camera movement between these two scenes serve to illustrate the true nature of Juan’s character, both in relation to Chiron and in general.  Thus, the parallels that one draws from the beginning of the first and second scenes only serve to emphasize the viewers’ key realization about Juan.

Another example of the usefulness of parallel in Moonlight is a key musical choice.  The same strings-heavy piece plays in two pivotal scenes: first, when Juan teaches Chiron to swim, and second, when Paula gets home from her encounter with Juan and screams at Chiron.  The strings piece itself is rather jarring – it is characterized by rapid notes in the same patterns and repeated in different keys.  The lower patterns from the cello intertwine with the violin to create a musical background that fosters tension and anxiety in the audience.  Once again, the similarities between these two scenes only serve to accentuate the differences in a way that fosters character development.  This piece serves different purposes across the two scenes – in the first, it provides a backdrop to a positive experience, and in the second, it quite literally takes over the scene as a soundtrack of anger and resentment.  When Juan takes Chiron to the beach and teaches him to swim, he puts his hand under Chiron’s head and helps him float so that he will not be scared of the water.  He also talks Chiron through the entire process and acts as physical and emotional support.  Though the music is strong and noticeable, it takes a backseat to Juan’s gentle baritone voice and blends in with the rhythmic sounds of the water.

Juan: “I got you… I think we got a swimmer.”

This is one of the few scenes of innocence and happiness that we see young Chiron enjoy.  As such, the music has its significance tied to the positive character developments of Chiron and Juan.  Though the music seems a bit out of place, it is so unique and recognizable that the viewer is able to recognize the piece quickly from previous encounters.  Indeed, the piece is used in a little over ten minutes after the first scene takes place.  This time, however, it is tied to feelings of anger and resentment.  The music starts as Paula pulls away from the curb, leaving Juan behind in a cloud of confusion and remorse.  It then starts intensifying in the same manner as before, only this time the music drowns out all other sound.  As Paula starts to scream at Chiron, the audience hears only the overpowering sound of frenzied strings.  It is particularly ironic that Paula screams: “Do you hear me?” as Chiron stares blankly at her.

The same piece of music thus paints very different realities that correspond to the shifting developments in the film.  Whereas Juan and Chiron can enjoy innocent moments together at the beginning of the film, the realization that Juan is the source of Paula’s addiction fundamentally shocks the equilibrium beyond repair.  We also see that Paula and Chiron begin to undergo drastic changes in this scene alone.  Paula displays outward aggression and anger towards Chiron for the first time in this crucial sequence, perhaps because she associates him with Juan.   Consequently, her parenting methods are presented in stark contrast with Juan.  While Juan is able to break down Chiron’s apprehension to a new experience with words and physical actions, Paula is unable to break through Chiron’s psychological wall as embodied by the all-consuming nature of music in this scene.  Chiron also undergoes a transformation, as the viewer gets a glimpse of how Chiron copes with trauma and anger by tuning the world out.  Though Chiron is silent in both scenes, he interacts very differently with the two adult figures in his life, further accentuating the distorted ties that Chiron has with parental figures in the film.  The musical similarities thus connect the two scenes and nudge viewers to examine the key character developments more closely.

Finally, the parallels between Chiron and Juan, especially in their choice of car décor and in the ways that the camera is positioned to focus on Chiron and Juan, are striking and serve to accentuate Chiron’s development as a person.  In the first scene depicting Juan, he pulls up to the curb with a clear gold crown on his dashboard.  Later in the film, we see that Chiron has the very same gold crown on his dashboard as the third act begins.

crown 1.PNG

crown 2.PNG

This unmistakable parallel between Chiron and Juan signifies Juan’s influence on Chiron and immediately invites the viewer to consider how or why Chiron followed in Juan’s footsteps.  In addition, there are key shots that illustrate the parallels between Juan and Chiron as an adult.  In the shot of Juan and Chiron driving back from the diner, the camera focuses on Juan but is positioned closer to Chiron, where the front right window would be.  The camera is placed in a similar place when the third act starts, in the scene where Chiron meets another drug dealer.

chiron and juan.PNG


The similarities in filmography and character choices invite parallels between Chiron and Juan.  The key difference here is that the viewers know information about Juan by the second shot that they did not know when viewing the first scene.  Hence, the assumptions made by the viewer about Juan and Chiron’s personalities and character change dramatically in the interim between the two scenes.  As such, the complexity of Chiron’s decision to at least modify parts of his life after Juan’s attains its gravity through the juxtaposition of circumstances surrounding the two similar shots.  While Juan and Chiron are relatively happy and unburdened at the beginning, the third act finds Juan no longer alive and Chiron with heavy emotional baggage.  The innocence and paternal nature of the relationship in the first scene is replaced by a strictly business partnership in the second scene.  By drawing parallels between the two scenes, Jenkins further highlights the differences in circumstance, and reminds the viewer of the character development undergone between the two parallel shots.  As such, Jenkins’ masterful use of parallel and contrast in Moonlight gives his characters depth and invites viewers to make connections in ways that enhance their understanding and enjoyment of the film.


Dancing Your Way to Defeating the Bad Guy: A Look at the Exploding Importance of Music in the Superhero Genre

by Jake Fauske

Great movies almost always have great soundtracks. Whether a Hans Zimmer score such as in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, or something like Kubrick’s haunting selections on 2001: A Space Odyssey, iconic movies garner iconic sounds to go with them. While scores and soundtracks are often written around movie scenes, in order to match the tone of what the director has shot or written, the reverse can sometimes be true as well. One style may not be better than the other, but in recent years, a blending of the two styles seems to be the perfect combination. The soundtracks of big budget movies, more specifically in the superhero genre, have proved to be vital success factors. While Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy carries more classic Zimmer scores, 2008’s Iron Man brought back the titular Black Sabbath theme song, and solidified the need for an iconic, moving defining track, or series of tracks, that can act as the hero’s calling card to moviegoers. While many movies in the hero genre have followed the trend, it is truly identifiable in the Iron Man Trilogy, Black Panther, both Guardians of the Galaxy, and most recently, Sony’s Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse. Both Guardians of the Galaxy movies and the newest Spiderman give audiences an excellent opportunity to understand how much better the movie experience can be when the movie and music are woven together seamlessly, and were developed hand in hand.

Let’s start with James Gunn’s 2014 epic Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1. As early as 2013, when Gunn announced that Tyler Bates would be writing the score, audiences were tipped to an interesting feature about the movie. Gunn revealed that Bates would be writing pieces of the score before any of the movie was filmed, so he could, “film to the music” as opposed to the scoring around the film. Bates’ pre-score, as well as the hand selected 60’s and 70’s classic songs, would go on to help Gunn shape the movie, scene by scene. The process he worked by was simple: Gunn would build a playlist from half-remembered popular songs on the Billboard charts in the 60’s and 70’s, and then blast the songs on speakers around his house for days. From these listening sessions, he would then sometimes be inspired to create a scene around a song, writing each moment to a verse or chord. Other times he would already have a scene in mind, and would comb through that same playlist, replaying the scene with each song until he visualized a match. Peter Quill’s eccentric introduction is a prime example of Gunn’s auditory magic:

The first time the audience meets the character, Peter’s true intro comes after several minutes of long buildup as he treks through a seemingly deserted planet. Then, his Walkman clicks into place and Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” starts playing as the title card appears and Star-lord begins to dance. Gunn admits that he wrote the scene with Blue Swede’s rendition of “Hooked on a Feeling” in mind, yet was fixated on “Come and Get Your Love” when he heard it, and reworked the dance when they realized it was a better fit. Regardless of which iconic song was used, as both end up in the film, moviegoers are unlikely to forget Star-lord’s introduction or the film itself, with such a memorable open. A half-remembered ballad from years ago, Gunn’s choice of Redbone’s song instantly has the audience singing along to a song they weren’t even aware they knew, and looking forward to what action, and music, the rest of the movie has in store. And let’s not forget, the climax of the film is a dance off for the galaxy!

Gunn and Bates repeated their dynamic combination for the 2017 sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, with Bates writing parts of the score first, allowing Gunn to film to the music. The pair also broadened their song selection, choosing some big-hitting famous classics and other, lesser known masterpieces that allowed Gunn to showcase not only his personal range for music taste, but also the emotional range of his characters and scenes, as they were built to reflect the soundtrack. Let’s look at the opening sequence to the sequel as well:

No longer an introduction per say, but a reintroduction to characters we already love, a quick catch up to let us know they are right where we left them. An adorable baby Groot replaces Star-Lord as the dancer this time around, with Electric Light Orchestra’s mega-hit Mr. Blue Sky taking the title card slot, and again Gunn has every audience member singing and dancing along with a baby tree, four minutes into the movie, with no hint of what the rest of the film is about. Music adds emotion, engagement, even a certain power to a scene, and Gunn acknowledges this at the end of the opening credits, when Drax falls through Groot’s speaker, cutting off our sing-along and enraging baby Groot to the point of attacking his own teammate. This wink at the audience lets us know that the director agrees, life is more fun with a good song attached. Though there are too many great examples to touch on, I would be remiss to not bring up the pivotal, dramatic team split-up moment in Guardians 2, as half the team elects to go with Peter and his newly found dad, Ego, while the other half stays to repair the ship. As Quill, Drax, and Gamora walk down the ramp, in tasteful slow motion, Fleetwood Mac wails The Chain in the background, as an auditory representation of the inner-team turmoil. In an post-release interview, Gunn mentions specifically picking that song to represent, “the bonds of love potentially breaking, or not breaking”. Because not only does he use the song there, but he brings it back again in the film’s climax, signifying to audiences that no, that figurative chain will not break, and that the Guardians will prevail. With the selection of The Chain, Gunn had two of the biggest moments of his film already set, waiting to be flushed out around those guitar chords and drum beats. I still can’t get that scene out of my head.

Here’s part of the interview:

For those of you that have seen the Guardians movies, what do you think of the soundtracks? Do you sing along? Is it too much?

For those of you that haven’t seen them, get on it.


Now let’s switch gears and talk about a film we viewed in class: 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. In addition to a lovely score written by Daniel Pemberton, Pemberton and directors Persichetti, Ramsey, and Rothman curated a soundtrack released in conjunction with the film entitled Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Soundtrack from & Inspired by the Motion Picture). Not the most original name admittedly but, not only are these songs used in the movie as a backdrop to the heroic feats of action done by Miles Morales and his spider-compatriots, but they exist in his universe as well. In fact, the album was curated to “represent what a teen like Morales would listen to”. Each track is an attempt to represent Miles’ diverse background, the melting pot of his version of New York City, the current “pulse”, so to speak. Even the “alternate dimension” Chance the Rapper posters and billboards placed around the movie (his heraldic 3 hat switched to a 4 to remind us that this universe is not our own) speak to the musical detail placed in this film.

Take our first meeting with Miles, as he blasts Post Malone’s dream ballad “Sunflower” on his headphones, and sings along to ~ most ~ of the worst, if not all, just like we would to a radio hit when it comes up on shuffle or in the car on the way to work. From it, we can instantly identify with Miles, and maybe even begin to like him from the jump, if that’s your music taste (I know it’s mine):

“Sunflower” is used as a sort of focal point for Miles, as he is able to relax and worry less when he hears it, just as the audience does. It even helps him “unstick” from the ceiling in Doc Oct’s lab later in the movie as he and Peter B. Parker make a daring break-in. When all is said and done, and the day is saved, Miles is right back on his bed, headphones on, listening to Post Malone and Swae Lee again, the song reminding him that everything is right in the world. Throughout the movie, songs from the track list can be heard on radios, from cars, in headphones, and in the case of the super important (but not for the reasons you think) spider bite/graffiti scene, even on an old school boombox complete with an awesome master-mix of The Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache” meets Black Sheep’s “The Choice is Yours”. Music and art are some of the biggest parts of our protagonist’s life and the film runners do an excellent job of allowing the audience to experience each aspect right along with Miles:

I’m not sure about everyone else, but I was almost enjoying the graffitiing and song mix too much to be nervous about the freaky-looking spider. That’s how powerful music can be in film.

Its’ not groundbreaking news that music is powerful, or that the right song can make a movie scene unforgettable. But my goal here is to highlight how prevalent it’s become in the superhero genre, without even touching on heavy hitters like Black Panther, who used an almost identical style to Spider-Verse by letting industry heavyweight and Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar curate an album to accompany the film. The industry is leaning hard into the emotional impact that the right sounds can illicit, both by creating new ones and delving back into the past to find the perfect match. I believe we will continue to see this shift, with big name directors enlisting the help of hot artists, letting them design the accompanying sounds tracks to drum up media attention and hone in on that perfect tone the movie is seeking. Who knows, it might even break out of just the super hero genre.


What do you all think?

What’s your favorite soundtrack? Not including musicals of course, otherwise the original version of The Lion King is always the best answer, (though I will always accept Lion King 1 ½ ).