cinema

Sincerity Vs. Sardonicism: Infinite Jest and Fight Club

There are some obvious ones: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous. The program, however, has evolved to include a whole slew of twelve-step fellowships: Cocaine Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Crystal Meth and Sex Addicts and Workaholics and Overeaters Anonymous. The twelve-step lifestyle may have hit its parabolic maximum in the late 90s, but it continues to carve out a niche in American culture, a culture that has a particularly addictive personality. It makes sense, then, that (vice) Anonymous programs occupied a prominent role in American media of the late nineties. A program with a faith-based foundation is bound to be targeted by an increasingly secular, skeptical media industry. Two juggernauts of nineties culture come to mind.

Fight Club is a firmly postmodern film. A character that directly addresses the audience; a twist based entirely on the subjectivity of reality; an atmosphere marked by a general skepticism for authority and traditional power structures. Twelve-step fellowships are approached by the film with the same sardonic attitude. From a group dedicated to parasitic brain parasites (sic) to one called “Remaining Men Together”, the film suggests that these fellowships exist for any ailment that could possibly afflict a human being. The people who participate in these groups are portrayed as pitiful, weeping husks. The protagonist himself attends these meetings, but as an outsider, as somebody who would never really buy into something so gooey and sentimental. The film’s finger points at human sensitivity and vulnerability while its distrustful postmodern face contorts and laughs.

Infinite Jest seems to portray these fellowships in a similar light. The stories shared by the twelve-steppers border on the absurd; most of the participants suffer from laughably bad lots in life, and they wear their hearts on their sleeves about it. The same exaggerated sentimentality portrayed in Fight Club also exists in Infinite Jest, but there’s one important difference: it’s shown to work. While Fight Club makes twelve-step programs out to be ineffective and cheesy, Jest portrays them as effective and cheesy. Yes, there’s a whole lot of recitation of trite cliches and blathering on about a “Higher Power As You Understand It” and hugging other members and crying into their shoulders, but it’s honest and therapeutic and helps the addicts see that they’re not alone. Gooey sentimentality may not be cool or edgy, but for some people it might be just what they need.

This difference, I think, highlights a significant divide in our culture. Some are happy to point and laugh at the bits of our culture that seem silly; others do the same, but are also willing to recognize their merits. Malicious cynicism versus a sincere sense of humor. Perhaps if more artists cease to be content with stopping at the pointing and laughing, if more are willing to fuse their satirization with sincerity, then perhaps that sincerity will begin to infuse into our culture.

A Feminist Interpretation of Diabolique

Diabolique, the French thriller by Henri-Georges Clouzot, is often called the most Hitchcockian movie that Hitchcock himself never made. We’ll look at that claim in a bit more detail later on, but for now it’s enough to say that despite its similarities with the work of the Master of Suspense, this 1955 classic has an identity all its own. The picture stars Simone Signoret (the first Academy Award winner from France) as Nicole, Véra Clouzot (the wife of the film’s director) as Christina, and Paul Meurisse as their mutual lover, Michel. Diabolique is described as one of “French cinema’s most acidulous films of the 1950s” thanks to Clouzot’s status as a “fatalist who saw life as a continuous battle” (Dixon & Foster, 147). This pessimistic worldview is certainly on full display in the picture, as it presents a winding tale of deceit, betrayal, and apprehension. Diabolique is an unrelenting, deliberate thriller, a film that builds a world in which nothing is certain.

The film begins in a boarding school owned and operated by Michel and his wife Christina. Christina is close friends with Nicole, a teacher at the school who happens to be Michel’s mistress. The two women are both physically abused by Michel and mutually decide to murder him. They lure him to Nicole’s apartment in a distant city, drown him in a bathtub, and then cart his body back to the boarding school to dump it in the swimming pool. If executed properly, the plan would make Michel’s death look like nothing more than a tragic accident; however, when the swimming pool is drained, Michel’s body is no longer there. Afterwards, the two women enter a state of shocked confusion and desperately seek to uncover the mystery of what happened to Michel’s body, to no avail. Finally, Christina hears a noise late at night and walks throughout the boarding school to investigate it until she reaches the bathroom; there, she sees Michel’s clammy body slowly rise out of the water, frightening Christina so much that her heart (already weak due to a chronic condition) gives out. Nicole walks out of a nearby room to meet Michel, and it is revealed that the whole “murder” was a ruse to kill Christina and take her fortune; this plan, however, is thwarted when a retired police officer overhears their conversation and catches the duo red-handed.

The many twists and turns of the film make it difficult to pinpoint a singular message within it. It’s a complex work. Oftentimes I found myself coming up with theories about what it’s saying, only to throw them out as the picture rounded the next sharp bend in the road. One theme, however, persisted for much of the film’s runtime, only to be seriously complicated by the plot’s final twist; that theme, a quasi-feminist message, is the necessity for women to band together with one another to overcome the vice grip of control that men exert over them. It’s perfectly encapsulated by a scene in which the two women are driving together across France to Nicole’s apartment in order to begin their scheme against Michel. As Christina drives, she expresses some trepidation about the upcoming murder to Nicole. To reassure her that killing Michel is the best course of action, Nicole tells Christina that Michel had expressed his desire for Christina herself to die so that he could live in peace with Nicole. Christina then asks how Nicole replied, and Nicole insinuates that at first she agreed with Michel because she was not good friends with Christina at the time. The women then drop the subject and return to the task at hand.

This scene captures the idea that women, when faced with a seemingly insurmountable male oppressor, must band together to overcome his rule. The conversation shows that the women have a tense, rocky past, but nonetheless they look past their former conflicts and steel themselves to tear down a common enemy. This scene leads the audience to believe that the film is a meditation on how women can overcome the powers that have dominated them in the past, how they must join together with other women to empower themselves. This message, however, is turned on its head when Nicole’s betrayal is revealed at the conclusion of the film. When the fact that Nicole was plotting against Christina the whole time is brought to light, deep feelings of betrayal and mistrust are evoked. The film turns from a message about how women will band together and take drastic action to improve their lot in life into a precautionary tale; those who present themselves as allies are not always on your side. They may purport to be your friend, they may even claim to be willing to commit murder for mutual benefit, but in the end everyone is looking out for their own interests. The film claims that nobody, even those who seem to have a common goal or a mutual enemy, can be fully trusted.

As somebody who has studied Hitchcock fairly extensively and enjoyed many of his films, one of the most enjoyable parts of watching Diabolique was tracing common threads between the French thriller and the work of the British master. Comparisons are often drawn between Diabolique and Hitchcock’s Psycho, and for good reason; both pictures craft weaving tales of deceit, double identities, and gruesome murders. The feelings of anxiety and dread that I experienced during Diabolique were remarkably similar to those that I experience when I watch Psycho. However, I think it’s also worth comparing the film to another of Hitchcock’s works, the slightly lesser known Rope. While Diabolique details the experiences of two women desperately trying to find a dead body, Rope tells the story of two men doing everything in their power to hide one from their party guests after they murder a man and leave his body in a chest. Both films are a fascinating inversion on the other, but despite their differences they manage to evoke similar emotions of trepidation. It seems entirely possible to me that the corpse-centric suspense of Rope helped inspire the similar thrills of Diabolique, which then went on to lay the groundwork for the two-faced excitement of Psycho. There’s a fascinating, weaving interplay between Clouzot and Hitchcock; it serves well to illustrate the iterative, collaborative development that the medium of cinema has gone through over the years. No matter what may have inspired Diabolique, or what it may have inspired itself, the French classic is a worthwhile thrill ride that stands up to modern audiences.

 

White Dog: a Bold Stance on Prejudice

There’s something about underappreciated works of art that makes me appreciate them more. Maybe it’s some sort of hipster instinct that allows me to derive satisfaction from that which not many other people have derived satisfaction from, or perhaps it’s a sort of voyeurism, peering into the innards of a bloated artistic medium to extract something of value, something that a studio hardly wanted to reveal to the public. Either way, there are certain films that nobody has seen that everybody has to see, certain films that say something profound that nobody wants to hear. White Dog has some terribly important, terribly horrifying things to say about race relations, things that were relevant when the film was released in 1982 but are somehow even more relevant today.

I’m about to spoil it, so go see it. It’s only ninety minutes. Some of the acting is questionable and there are some truly awful B-movie, Hard Ticket To Hawaii style zoom-into-a-character’s-face-as-something-important-happens moments, but watch it anyway. It’s about a German Shepherd, a “white dog” trained to attack black people on sight. A woman finds him, takes him in, and then begs an animal trainer to get rid of his ingrained racist instincts. The trainer himself is black. After many people are wounded and at least one is killed by the dog, the trainer actually manages to get the dog to stop attacking black people. The dog, however, is not fully cured, as he attacks a white man during his final test, nearly killing him. The object of his hate was merely switched. The dog is shot and killed during the attack.

It’s harrowing. It ends abruptly. The dog dies and the credits roll. We aren’t given time for grieving his irreparability, for lamenting the fact that he came close to being saved. He’s just killed, suddenly, and our hopes for his rehabilitation are dashed in an instant. A few characters articulate that it isn’t the dog’s fault; of course it isn’t, he’s a dog, and dogs can’t be racist by nature. It was the fault of the original owner, but that doesn’t change the fact that the animal’s hateful nature is permanently imbued. The dog may have switched targets at the film’s conclusion, but the aggression isn’t going anywhere.

There are plenty of interesting messages about prejudice seeded throughout the film. The white woman who brings the dog into her home, who tries to change his nature: perhaps a claim that even those who are well-intentioned and have no prejudices themselves can inadvertently offer a safe haven to those who do. The black trainer who tirelessly works to retrain the dog: a man who desperately wishes for the hateful to change, who wants to remove some hate from the world without resorting to violence. All of these interim messages, however, are overshadowed by the final sequence. As the final gunshot rings and a heavy silence lingers above the characters, the film’s statement is clear; try as we might, hate cannot be conditioned out. Prejudices ingrained in youth become a part of one’s consciousness, they become the consciousness itself.

Is this true? I certainly hope not. But it’s a bold stance on one of the most important social questions that we face today, and it’s a viewpoint that everyone ought to understand in order to be in tune with the modern world’s ever-increasing tensions.

On Kevin Smith’s Potential

Every film has a goal. To explore the capabilities of a framing device. To decry the bourgeois camera style of early directors. To demonstrate what can be achieved on a shoestring budget. Some goals aren’t quite so lofty. Many films exist to simply divert, to entertain, to provide a convenient way for general audiences to fork over thirteen dollars. And that’s totally okay! The existence of blockbusters isn’t dependent upon the failure of art house cinema, and vice versa, so there’s no reason to adhere to a formulaic critical philosophy in order to ensure the survival of one’s preferred strand of film.

But some critics seem to be out of touch with this idea. Why criticize a Transformers movie for its “special effects incontinence” (this is from an actual review) when the whole franchise is intended to exist as little more than a drawn-out CGI battle? Identify what the film is attempting and then evaluate how well it achieves it. It’s simple.

And now I’m going to utterly violate this rule in order to criticize Kevin Smith.

But it’s for a good reason! It’s difficult to separate a film from the director who created it. Any time I see a movie by someone I’m familiar with, it’s inevitable that I’m going to trace common threads between what I’m watching and what I’ve seen before. For evaluative purposes I have an obligation to distance myself from the rest of their filmography, but knowledge of what someone has done before gives a critic a glimpse into what they’re capable of.

Kevin Smith is capable of a lot. We know that because we’ve seen him live up to his potential. Clerks is an oft-cited example of well-executed low-budget cinema, and Chasing Amy shows that he’s capable of taking a nuanced stance on ideas like love and sexuality. The man has talent, moreso for writing than for experimenting with film form, but we’ve nonetheless seen that he’s capable of creating art with substance.

So why on Earth isn’t he using it? I’m not going to criticize the content of Yoga Hosers and Tusk, because he never wanted them to be good in the first place. I am, however, comfortable saying that Kevin Smith’s willingness to make mindless entertainment is worthy of criticism. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with mindless entertainment, but because Smith shouldn’t be the one creating it. In the same way that driving a Ferrari strictly in areas with a speed limit below 35 is a waste of potential, Smith’s recent filmography is disappointing purely because of what the man could achieve if he only tried.

It doesn’t look like Smith will be changing his tack any time soon. He’s currently developing a film called Moose Jaws, a sequel to Yoga Hosers. It’s a quasi-parody of Spielberg’s Jaws, but with a moose rather than a shark. I’m not expecting too much out of that.

I just hope that Smith realizes, preferably sometime soon, that making something that will be remembered as more than just entertainment is worth the effort. Good movies, movies that do more than hold our attention for ninety minutes and make us chuckle, can have a profound impact on our culture. Silly films about walruses and living sausages are fine, but leave them to less capable directors. You have more important things to do.

Wonder Woman and Growth vs. Proficiency

Is it better to prioritize growth or proficiency? Although this question is at the heart of education, I’ve been considering it in relation the the DC Cinematic Universe. Since its inception it’s been a C- student, completing the required tasks to get by (make loads of money at the box office) but never showing any real interest in the material (making a legitimately good movie). If we look at Wonder Woman in relation to the franchise’s previous efforts, it’s fantastic. It blows everything else out of the water by having a coherent plot and reasonably interesting characters. But I can’t help but feel like its praise stems largely from the horrible movies that came before it.

There’s certainly a lot of good stuff to be found in the film. It provides an interesting look at outdated gender roles and carries a meaningful social message without seeming hamhanded or pandering. In particular, watching Diana walk the streets of World War I era London and balk at its blatant inequality is entertaining and incredibly relevant. The relationship between Diana and Steve manages to avoid tired Hollywood romance clichés. Some of the action is well-orchestrated as well, surpassed only by one of the Batman fight scenes in Dawn of Justice. It’s a thoroughly entertaining, mostly well-done popcorn movie.

Yet it isn’t perfect. In any sense of the word. There is some incredibly corny dialogue. Most notably, the interactions between Diana and the film’s primary antagonist were not easy to listen to. Some of the directorial decisions were questionable as well, like the film’s painfully trite final shot. The beginning was a bit exposition-heavy and had a few minor pacing issues.

Despite these flaws, the film is solid. It hasn’t revolutionized the superhero genre like Nolan’s trilogy, but it’s a strong entry in an incredibly weak franchise. Should this be enough to earn universal acclaim, or are we looking at the film from a pessimistic worldview tained by Zack Snyder’s directorial dictatorship? Perhaps it’s impossible to separate film from franchise at this time, and only time will tell if Wonder Woman is worthy of the praise it’s received. Either way, it’s good to see that the DC Cinematic Universe is capable of producing a watchable movie.

The Horror of Everything We Don’t See in Robert Eggers’ The Witch

(This article discusses graphic violence in the context of horror movies. The scene discussed is so horrifying, in fact, that I debated as to whether I should even write a piece on it, as I hope to avoid sounding insensitive and tasteless. However, I believe that the concepts this sequence raises are absolutely crucial for understanding the horror genre, and to ignore them would be to leave a gaping gap in one’s understanding of cinema.)

Film analysis involves the careful dissection of everything that happens within the frame (the mise en scène), how those frames are linked together, and the sound that accompanies them. This, of course, makes sense, and it seems rather silly to point it out; obviously analyzing a film involves picking apart the components that constitute it. But I think this conception of cinema leaves out a crucial component; yes, it’s important to note all that a movie is, but what about everything it isn’t? The choices an auteur makes about what to leave out of a frame or a sequence are often just as crucial as the decisions they make about what to actually put in it, and it can sometimes be challenging to see this.

Here’s a perfect case study: The Witch by Robert Eggers. There’s a lot to love about this film, and reams have been written about it (see, for instance, Briana Rodriguez’s review in Back Stage that discusses the psychological relationship between director and actor), but there’s one particular sequence I’d like to hone in on. The film kicks off with a colonial New England family leaving their town after a heated religious disagreement, venturing into the wilderness to start their own independent farm. Shortly after the move, the mother of the family gives birth to Samuel, her fifth child. Just a few minutes into the film, one of its most horrifying sequences takes place. Thomasin, the eldest child in the family, is out in a field playing with Samuel. When she diverts her attention for a split second, he disappears. The family searches for him in the woods, but he’s nowhere to be found. They’re unsure of what happened to him, but it’s revealed to the audience that he was abducted by a witch, a middle-aged woman who lives in a decrepit hut just a short walk from the family’s farm. A minute-long sequence shows his fate: be warned, this sequence is incredibly graphic. I’ll link it here for anyone that wants to give it another look, but I’d highly suggest that you watch the film in its entirety before reading this piece. The scene may just seem tasteless without the film’s context. (The portion in question begins around 1:18 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIfjcHn9JYw)

It’s a brutally tough sequence to watch. Yet the interesting thing about it is that we don’t actually see the violence taking place. We see the moment immediately preceding the brutality, and then we see the product of it. The process, replaced by a few moments of a black screen, isn’t actually shown on screen. This may seem like it would lighten the impact of the violence, but in many ways it actually bolsters it. Although we don’t directly see what is happening to the child, there’s certainly no ambiguity about what’s going on in the scene. We’re left to fill in the blanks, forced to conjure up scenes of the horrifying act that’s taking place in the sequence. Perhaps our own imaginations are capable of generating images more terrifying than anything Eggers could throw at us, and that potent ability is what he’s leveraging for the sake of horror. Sure, at risk of being seen as a tasteless and gratuitous filmmaker he could have actually shown the murder on screen, but that may not have even been as effective as his practice of restraint. All the fake blood, special effects, and CGI in the world couldn’t match what the audience’s mind is capable of dreaming up, and by giving them some space to roam he leads them to a terrifying impact that traditional imagery couldn’t match.

Perhaps, then, this scene may inform how we think of the medium as a whole. Perhaps film isn’t just a set of juxtaposed images and sounds that deliver an emotional and intellectual impact, but the scaffolding that allows for the creation of an effect within the audience’s mind. Thus, film is the framework for viewers to generate their own thoughts and feelings built upon the content on screen. It’s not a neatly packaged dose of stimulation, but rather an unfinished picture with blanks left for the audience to fill. This seems to align in some ways to the “reader-response” school of literary criticism, but I think the basic concept may apply to any artistic medium. In a lot of ways, the input from a film’s viewer is just as important as the film itself; the horror of what we don’t see in The Witch provides a great example of this give-and-take.

The Harkness Method and High School Film Classes

The typical high school level film class will, of course, be incorporated into the English department. While this is certainly the most suitable place for such a course, there are some points of drastic divergence as to how the class must be taught compared to the average English class.

The interesting thing about an introductory film course is that in some ways, it resembles a foreign language class more closely than a literature-based English class. In language courses, oftentimes the first two or three years are dedicated to learning the syntax, vocabulary, and structure of a language before having any actual discussions. In the typical high school level English class, knowledge of these concepts is assumed. Now, it would be silly to claim that a beginning film student must spend the first three years of their studies just learning the tropes and visual vocabulary of cinema, but nonetheless a strong foundation must be established before any high-level discourse is held to examine the technical elements of the medium.

So how does Harkness fit into this? My only experience with the method is with 9th grade English students so I can’t discuss all contexts in which it may be useful, but I can say that it isn’t a tool that I’ll be implementing at the outset of my course. The first few weeks will be spent building up a strong visual vocabulary, and the weeks following those will probably center around heavily guided discussion. I want to ensure that we build a strong understanding of the building blocks of cinema, and I fear that leaving students to their own devices will reinforce bad habits of film analysis. Perhaps later on, when I’m sure that students understand the purpose of cinematic analysis and the good habits that go along with it, I’ll give them more room to discuss in a more free flowing manner.

Yet I fear that by restricting free discussion early on I may set a negative tone for the discipline of film studies in general. While a great degree of film analysis involves the systematic deconstruction, there’s also an element of emotional connection to the medium that has to take place in order to analyze it in an original manner. Leaning too far towards the didactic teaching style would, I think, remove too much of this emotional connection. As I discussed in my last post, removing this instinctual link to some degree is crucial, but to do so completely is to destroy one’s ability to empathize with the thrust behind a piece. Perhaps my dilemma concerning Harkness demonstrates this pressure point, and my decisions about how to implement it effectively will turn out to be consequential for my semester-long plan for molding the analytical abilities of my students. If I can strike a productive balance between Harkness-style discussion and traditional classroom techniques, then I can also strike a balance between disconnected analysis and instinctual empathy. That, ultimately, is the reason to teach a film class in the first place.