Amy Heckerling’s 1995 classic, Clueless, stars Alicia Silverstone as the infamous Cher – a popular teenage girl learning about both the world and herself through the trials and tribulations of high school. Within the first few minutes of the film, the audience gathers that Cher has her fair share of flaws. She is spoiled, selfish, and painfully clueless. Despite these imperfections, they love her still. Why?
The comedy of Jacques Tati and of his character Monsieur Hulot is so laden with humor that laughter is often rendered difficult to muster. This seems contradictory: isn’t there a one to one correspondence between funny things and laughter? Common sense would suggest that the answer is yes, and yet the screening of Tati’s Playtime early in the quarter proved this to be not necessarily true. Tati stuffs a remarkable amount of humorous material into each shot of the film, but not all of it provokes immediate laughter. The goal of this blog post is a close examination of another Tati film, Mon Oncle, with an eye towards his construction of comedic moments. This post will take Monsieur Hulot as its central figure in an examination of his interactions with the spaces through which he travels.
Monsieur Hulot’s home in the old city is characterized by an improvisational nature; the style of comedy associated with this location follows suit. This improvisational nature is evident from Tati’s introductory long shots of the building, even before Hulot has appeared and begun to interact with it.
The Red and the White, a Soviet film released in 1967, depicts the confusion and brutality of the Russian Civil War. At the time of film’s release, war movies, due to their intense popularity, had formed a clearly defined set of tropes and tactics. Director Miklos Jancso could have easily followed these rules to construct a traditional war narrative. Instead, Jancso rejects nearly all the typical elements of a war film. This results in a kind of hybrid film that defies categorization. It is hard to pinpoint exactly which genre The Red and the White belongs in. Can viewers consider a film without a traditional narrative, a drama? Does a piece without archetypal characters count as a fiction film at all? The Red and the White utilizes many techniques that unnerve the viewer in its deviation from the classic war-genre film. These techniques serve to create a depiction of war that falls somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, blurring the lines between art and historical depiction.
The classic film, Pork Chop Hill, exemplifies the traditional Hollywood war drama at its zenith. The Red and the White and Pork Chop Hill, released in 1959, come from different countries, but similar historical contexts. Audiences were used to seeing certain types of film. Pork Chop Hill, with its sweeping music and opening credits, throws the audience into the world of Hollywood cinema. The opening sequence prominently features its star, Gregory Peck. The director, Lewis Milestone, leaves no room for confusion: this is a war movie. As a result, the audience goes into the first scene with a plethora of ideas and expectations for the film that Milestone gladly meets.
Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013) is a survival thriller in space that details the fictional events of a doomed mission to the Hubble Telescope. Newbie Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and her mission commander, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), are the sole survivors when the mission is violently interrupted by a barrage of satellite debris that destroys their ride home and kills the rest of the crew. Kowalski sacrifices himself, drifting out into space in order to give Stone a chance to make it home. He is presumed dead. At her lowest point in the film, Stone gives up and turns down her oxygen in an effort to kill herself painlessly, since there is nothing left for her on Earth.
“In space, no one can hear you scream” (Alien 1979).
Apparently though, In Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 thriller Gravity, they can hear you breathe. Gravity, the story of stranded mission specialist Ryan Stone, is both cinematically beautiful and aesthetically daunting in its nature; Cuarón’s choice of specific images layered with film score soundbites was thoroughly planned, and leaves the audience both intrigued and afraid of the ‘final frontier’. But what causes this visceral reaction within its viewers? I wouldn’t say Gravity is scary, necessarily, but something about the idea of the void of space has resonated with humanity, particularly in cinema, for quite some time; its sheer emptiness even aided in the scariness of Alien’s tagline above. When examining this phenomenon, an existentialist argument can be made for this reaction. Existentialism, the idea that humanity is essentially nothing in the big scheme of the world, adds a sense of disorientation and confusion once the absurdity of being is realized. Humans are afraid of the unknown and, when looking at just a snippet of Gravity (34:00-43:00), a viewer can distinguish certain choices in sound, editing, and imagery that examine these existentialist undertones.
The Lego Movie (2014) is a parody on so many levels. The story follows Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces outline to a tee. Almost every character is unabashedly an archetype or parody of something, be it The Matrix, the Dark Knight trilogy, or Morgan Freeman. But it’s all intentional. The superficial plot is as contrived and derivative as a child’s imaginary adventures with plastic representations of pop culture properties are expected to be. Once The Lego Movie establishes that the story is a fabricated metaphor of deeper conflict at the heart of the film, the perpetual parody becomes meaningful and easier to swallow.
Wei Yi Ow
In the Mood for Love (2000) is a beautiful study in restraint. Set in 1960s Hong Kong, the film details the intimate relationship that develops between two lonely neighbours, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). Neglected and later betrayed by their spouses, they foster a special kinship which social mores dictate must be concealed. This is a society that operates not by brute force but by much more subtle ways; through its institutions, through the eyes and ears of one’s neighbors, through the personal values individuals feel compelled to uphold, and the dark desires they actively repress.
Alfred Hitchcock is often deservedly lauded for his skills as an editor, as well as for the ingenuity of his films’ plots. What often gets lost in the shuffle though is how well Hitchcock uses mise-en-scene and sound. The Birds is an excellent example. The first time I saw the film I, like many others, noticed how seemingly disjointed the two halves were. If I hadn’t known the main subject matter of the film was before I saw it because of its fame, the first 50 minutes would have, on the surface, prepared me for a film purely about the relationship between Mitch Brenner and Melanie Daniels, with any sort of outside conflict coming from perhaps Mitch’s mother or Annie Hayworth, and nowhere else. Instead, at about the 52 minute mark there is a mass bird attack at Cathy Brenner’s birthday party, and the film becomes one of disaster, with all the characters fighting against the birds—not with each other. While I was perhaps puzzled and maybe even a little surprised by the sharpness and abruptness of this plot twist, I realized I wasn’t shocked at all. I may have not consciously expected the change in course, but there was a part of me that knew how dangerous the threat of the birds was, and knew that something like this would happen. Naturally I wondered why I was so relatively nonplussed by the first bird attack and the film’s subsequent course. How could I have known what was coming? Reviewing the film, the answer is rather simple: Hitchcock prepared me for it, expertly using timing, mise-en-scene, and especially sound to prepare viewers for the sudden change in the film’s focal point. In this essay I will go over specific instances of this throughout the first half of the film, illustrating exactly how Hitchcock subtly saturates the viewer with the idea of the birds as both omnipresent and threatening.