12 October 2014
The film opens with a doctor (Philip Ahn) adjusting his framed diploma, which hangs on a wall in his office. Through the frame’s glass, the audience’s first impression of the doctor is indirect; viewers only see the doctor’s reflection. The shot cuts to Johnny (Peter Breck), the antihero, seated on a coach in the office as the doctor questions him. Although the camera does capture Johnny directly, Johnny is side-lit, meaning half of his face is flooded with light, but the other half is in complete darkness.
The first shots of a film are significant. Typically, they foreshadow plot, reveal background information, and/or capture mood of the film. In Simon Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), the first few shots of the film communicate to viewers that deceit and secrecy are pivotal elements of the film.
First, meeting a character initially through a reflection often communicates that the character is deceitful and withholding truth(s). The doctor’s appearance is hidden from the audience upon the first meeting; figuratively, he cannot face the audience. Why is that?
Moreover, Johnny is only half lit; half of his face is concealed from the audience. Side lighting is very different than shooting a character through a reflection (the doctor), but, like the doctor, Johnny is not being direct with viewers. Part of him is openly on display, but an equally sized part of him hides in the shadows of the lighting. Again, why is that?
As this opening scene progresses, the audience learns that the doctor is not treating Johnny for the incestuous feelings he claims to have for his sister; the doctor is coaching Johnny to fool other doctors into thinking Johnny is sexual aroused by his sibling. In Shock Corridor, Johnny is a reporter trained to infiltrate a mental asylum, by pretending his is insane, in order to solve a murder which occurred inside the institution.
Therefore, retrospectively, viewers see the doctor indirectly, through the glass, because he is lying. Through a reflection, the audience recognizes the man as a doctor, but cannot clearly see that his questions to Johnny are not authentic, but merely a rehearsed test. And, Johnny is side lit because he is keeping his true self hidden during the doctor’s questions; he shows half of his face, but is lying, thus leaving most of his face, his true identity, hidden and unlit.
This indirectness continues after Johnny enters the asylum, with the mask Trent wears and in the superimpositions of Cathy (Constance Towers) dancing on Johnny’s pillow as he sleeps. Like the doctor’s introduction through the reflection, Cathy’s superimposed dancing is not direct communication. These images of Cathy are Johnny’s manifestations of her, as a stripper, threatening infidelity and defiance. Like the doctor who was not who he appeared to be, Cathy is not who Johnny dreams her to be in the superimposed scenes.
Nevertheless, Johnny blurs the line between reality and fantasy, as well as his own sanity and insanity, justifying a continued use of indirect filming techniques, climaxing in Johnny’s actual mental breakdown, which is shown clearest through a Technicolor, powerful image of rushing water. Figuratively, this powerful rush of water floods the scene as Johnny finally loses his ability to control his own mind. Like the aforementioned techniques, the cut to stock footage of rushing water is another way the film uses and indirectness as a technique.
And so defines Shock Corridor, a film that specializes in indirect communication and experiments in dramatic, bold lighting (particularly around Johnny) to consistently communicate the striking juxtapositions between truth and lies, sane and insane, and right and wrong.
The dramatic and bold lighting used to capture Johnny in his establishing shot continues. As Johnny receives electroshock treatment, his doctor is in complete darkness. This is a rich, valuable use of intense lighting. First, this lighting connects to the film’s juxtaposition between truth and reality. The doctor, literally, is in the dark at this moment; he thinks Johnny is mentally unstable and therefore needs his help, but the doctor has no idea Johnny is lying. Thus, the doctor in this shot, quite literally, is in the dark.
And, this bold lighting also connects to the film’s attempt to juxtapose sanity and insanity. The doctor is completely fooled into believing Johnny is insane, but (at this point in the film) he is not. Therefore, the doctor, the one trained in sanity, acts more insane that the patient because he cannot distinguish insanity from educated pretend. In this shot, the dark is the place of insanity, just as that dark side, insanity, existed in Johnny right from the start, in that doctor’s office, ultimately overtaking him in the film’s conclusion.
28 September 2014
Set in a small Colorado town during the Great Depression, Lars von Trier’s 2003 film, Dogville, tells of Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious and potentially dangerous stranger who happens into Dogville (the town) seeking refuge from gangsters hot on her trail. The citizens of the town agree to hide Grace for a trial period, and, in thanks, she tries helping out the citizens with chores: cleaning, visiting, gardening, etc. As time goes on, the people of Dogville welcome Grace, but when the gangsters reappear searching for her once more, conflict mounts. The citizens begin abusing Grace; feeling entitled to treat her like their slave because they are hiding her from danger. The men rape her, the women torture her, and even the children take a hand at tormenting the mystery woman. Even her closet friend, Tom (Paul Bettany), becomes abusive. When Grace tries to escape the town, she is literally shackled with an iron collar and chain, preventing her from fleeing. Eventually, when conflict peaks, Tom calls the gangsters, willing to give Grace over to danger for reward money. What the citizens of Dogville do not realize is Grace’s father is one of gangsters; he is not looking to harm her; Grace’s father wants to reunite. After speaking privately with her father, and gaining a new perspective on the evils of Dogville and its citizens, Grace orders the gangsters to kill the people and burn the town.
From one perspective, Dogville is a film about sight, filled with references to blindness, misperception, and concealment. First, there is a blind character who absolutely denies he is blind, that is until Grace tricks him into revealing his “condition.” Also, there are several references to what the people of Dogville think they “see,” such as when a character “sees” Grace and Chuck having sex. This was misperceived because Chuck raped Grace. Then there is what overtly hides from sight in Dogville. Grace hides from the mobsters in the film; she is in Dogville so she will not be seen.
So, what is it all for? In one of the most visual mediums of storytelling, what is the film saying about sight by highlighting blindness, misperception, and concealment? Well, one possible reading is that the film is, ironically, warning about the dangers of turning a blind eye, misperceiving situations, and concealing by creating a “blinding” experience for viewers. In Dogville, von Trier conceals something in plain sight, something the audience spends the entire film misperceiving until the film’s conclusion. That something (or, more pointedly, someone) is Grace.
Jumping straight to the final hour of the film, the citizens of Dogville rape, abuse, and torture Grace. As a result, the audience feels anger and sadness for her; viewers see Grace as the victim of the darkest side to human nature. And, in the end, through an epiphany realized by the way the moon’s light shines on Dogville’s flaws, Grace decides to burn Dogville and kill all its residents. As a result, what does the audience see happen? Justice for the wrong done to Grace?
The reaction the audience wants in the conclusion is justice. Grace was victimized and her abusers must face a consequence for their heinous actions. But, are they served a conscionable consequence?
When Vera breaks all of Grace’s figurines and tells her, if Grace does not cry after the first, Vera will not break another, knowing that Grace will not be able to control her tears, Vera is torturing Grace. Yet, when Vera receives her consequence—having her children shot in front of her and being told, if she does not cry, the next may be saved, knowing a mother will react to her child’s brutal murder—this consequence is unacceptable.
The audience does not see justice at the end of Dogville. Why? Because, by the end of the film which has consistently drawn viewers’ attention to sight, both literally and metaphorically, Dogville allows viewers to see Grace for the first time, and she is not the character viewers thought her to be.
Metaphorically, the blind man represents viewers. He pretends to see, but he does not. Viewers pretend to see Grace, willingly forgetting that, from the moment they first meet her, Grace is in hiding; her existence is about concealment, making it impossible to truly see the mystery woman. The audience does not actually see Grace until she is found by the gangsters in the film’s conclusion, and the Grace viewers finally see is not the heroine once hoped for; not to lessen the severity of the citizens’ behaviors, but Grace is as calculating and, perhaps, more shrewd than any of Dogville’s citizens.
The final shot of the movie is of Moses, the town dog. Up until this shot, Moses was represented via audible barking; no animal was ever filmed. But, supporting a reading that the film’s conclusion reveals sight, as viewers are able to Grace for who she really is in the film’s climax, von Trier also allows viewers to see Moses. Like Grace, Moses was with viewers all the film; he was a character who emerged at the exact time as Grace; yet, it is not until viewers finish the film’s journey and realize their own blindness can they see Moses.
On some level, Dogville is a statement that people wear blinders, perhaps by choice, and not being careful about what one sees can be dangerous. It was dangerous for the citizens of Dogvillle. And it is alarming to viewers who realize, at the very last moment, their film’s heroine is actually another villain.
21 September 2014
Obviously, and unoriginally put, Jean Negulesco’s How to Marry a Millionaire is problematic for women. In today’s world, this film is outdated and the humor is lost; however, in its day, 1953, this film was celebrated as a romantic comedy, a demeaning and oppressive comedy about women, marketed to women. Essentially, this film is about three single women who create a “bear trap,” meaning they set-up a façade of wealth to attract millionaire husbands. Setting the trap involves lying and cheating, not to mention using their feminine wiles to seduce the objects of their desires. And, in the end, each woman marries, but each decides to pick love over money; yet, ironically, the bear trap worked because two of the three women did, in fact, marry millionaires.
The real problems in the How to Marry a Millionaire revolve around the film’s representation and treatment of women. Some limiting and degrading claims asserted by the film are: women’s only goal in life should be marriage; women are jokes; and women who step outside their traditional role in society must be corrected.
First, the three women in this film never aspire for any more in life than a husband. Not one has a career objective; not one communicates any inkling that her success or happiness could be achieved without a man. And, in the film’s narrative, how could any of these women be fulfilled and accomplished without a man? These three women live in a man’s apartment, work as models for a man (where they model only for men), and devote their lives to attracting men; in How to Marry a Millionaire, it is a man’s world, and so the female characters in the film exist only to find a man to care for them.
Furthermore, the women are the comic relief of the film. Although each woman is unique—Schatze (Lauren Bacall), clever and hardworking; Pola (Marilyn Monroe), sweet but completely naïve; and Loco (Betty Grable), foolish yet fiery—each is reduced to one role, gold digger. Despite their differences, which actually offer each of them independence from the others, the film eliminates their uniqueness by fitting each women into the same money-hungry category. And, as gold diggers, these women are the butt of all the film’s jokes. Pola, for example, is too vain to wear her glasses, convinced “men are not attentive to girls in glasses.” She is so blind without her glasses she literally walks into a wall at one point in the film. This moment, of course, is pure comedy, but it is the woman, the gold digger, who is the punch line of the joke. Or, in the film’s conclusion, when Tom reveals himself to be a millionaire, all three women fall of their stools in shock. The men stand up and “cheers” to their unconscious wives. A final crack at the women the film spends the entire time making fun of.
According to film theory, female characters who break from the standard representation of “woman”—typically by trying to manipulate a man or assert her dominance/power—are punished by the end of the film, either by transforming her into the traditional representation of a woman or by killing her off. This typically happens in the thriller and drama genres; however, even in How to Marry a Millionaire, an inferred punishment awaits all three women.
Sadly, the fiery Loco marries a firefighter. Read on a slant, the marriage marks the end of Loco’s sassy, outspoken disposition, as her husband exterminates fire. Pola finds her happy ending with Freddie, who also wears glasses and encourages her keep her spectacles on. Trouble with this union is Freddie is a criminal. He, quite literally, tries to kill someone just before the film’s conclusion, according to Pola. Considering she now wears he glass (which means she will see things more clearly, both literally and figuratively) and that she met her murderous husband while reading the book Murder by Strangulation, Pola’s future does not look very good. Lastly, there is Schatze, the only character of the three who actually marries a millionaire. Shatze is clearly the smartest, most resourceful character in the film, but she, unexpectedly, ends up with a man as dishonest as she is. Her assertion of power, as the ringleader in the entire film, is tamed by her husband who will always, because of his financial and business dominance, control her; she is transformed into a housewife…the role she wanted, then did not, but is now stuck with.
Again, this film is a classic, but is not as celebrated today as some of its contemporaries because its ideology about women, men, and marriage is uncomfortably outdated. Nevertheless, it is interesting to look back at films of yesteryear, with a contemporary lens, and investigate how these films help perpetuate and shape society’s expectations. In this case, the 1950s mentality about a woman’s role is evident. Although some argue the film is trying to poke fun at the way women are stereotyped, the film also does a fine job contributing to the stereotypes itself, hence the problem with How to Marry a Millionaire.
7 September 2014
Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944) is an adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway’s 1937 novel of the same title. The film takes place in Martinique, a French province, during WWII. A fisherman, Harry “Steve” Morgan (Humphrey Bogart), gets involved with the French Resistance, eventually being tapped to sneak a Resistance leader and his wife to Martinique. To complicate the situation more, Steve falls in love with an American woman, Marie “Slim” Browning (Lauren Bacall), who is staying at a local hotel. As the police catch on to Steve’s dealings, he and Slim must outsmart the French authorities to save the French Resistance leader, his wife, and themselves.
Many suggest To Have and Have Not, as well as other noirs of the 1940s, is greatly influenced by Casablanca (1942). To Have and Have Not specifically because it stars the same leading man (Bogart) and was released less than two years after Casablanca; also, there are narrative similarities between To Have and Have Not and Casablanca that further connect the two.
To some, To Have and Have Not has existed in Casablanca’s shadow for the last 70 years. Unfortunate because To Have and Have Not is not the same film at all, not on nearly any level—cinematic or thematic. More pointedly, there is a glaring difference between the two films, and that difference is purpose. One film focuses on the cinematics with the primary purpose of cinematic development and evolution; the film’s message(s) are secondary to its cinematic communication. The other focuses on theme with the fundamental purpose of social and political commentary; the cinematics of this film are secondary. Thus, while both films star the same actor, have similar settings, and follow a similar plot arc, each film has a respective purpose, and for To Have and Have Not to be appreciated to its fullest, that point may need to be explored more.
First, cinematically, To Have and Haven Not is extremely simple and to the point. Yes, the film uses a variety of dramatic lighting, but dramatic lighting, for effect, was the style of 1940’s dramas, thrillers, and action films, particularly the narrower genre of film noir, which was exploding during this decade in American cinema. Thus, To Have and Have Not’s lighting design is remarkable, but no more than any of its contemporaries.
Other than that, all Hawks’ cinematic moves are textbook: close-ups are used to show emotion and importance, patterns in cuts remain consistent with the time period’s norm, and, aside from a crane shot or two, no dramatic camera angles or movement are used in To Have and Have Not.
Therefore, unlike Casablanca, a true noir, which relies on cinematic devices to capture the narrative, and therefore has a more complex cinematic construction, To Have and Have Not keeps it simple. Why? Perhaps because, unlike Casablanca, Hawks’ To Have and Have Not is less about how the film will communicate (the cinematics) and much more about what the film will communicate (the theme). And this is the distinction, the difference in purpose between the two WWII crime dramas, which truly separates To Have and Have Not from Casablanca.
In fairness, although Casablanca is more interested in how it, as a film, communicates (the cinematics), the film does communicate strong messages about honor and dignity. These messages are evident in Rick’s final sacrifice in the film’s conclusion. Yet, two years later, when To Have and Have Not released, the world was a much different place. War still raged on, but a glimmer of light shinned at the end of the bleak tunnel; the end of WWII may be on the horizon. Therefore, unlike Casablanca, To Have and Have Not is a film about life, a film about new beginnings and hope for the future; not a film about dignified endings. Without complex cinematics, To Have and Have not focuses on this message, making the film’s purpose to communicate that obstacles are overcome, hope remains, and, importantly, life always goes on.
Obviously, the on-screen chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is electric, but it is not only their real life emotions spilling into the film that speak to the film’s commentary on life and vitality. The script itself calls for a highly sexual relationship between Steve and Slim, and this sexually charged relationship is part of the film’s commentary on life and hope. Take, for example, Slim’s remark, “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” The now famous line oozes with sexual innuendos. Or, when the two walk into a nightclub, a sordid establishment, communicated by the fact that they must walk down stairs to enter the main room of the club. Steve leaves Slim to use her feminine wiles to get a bottle of liquor for the two to share in his room later that night. Slim, of course, is successful in her mission, secures the bottle, and returns to Steve’s dimly lit apartment in the middle of the spirit (pun intended). In large part, the film’s vitality comes from the sexualized relationship between Slim and Steve, a relationship full of life with generous hope for the future.
Hope is an essential part of To Have and Have not, and connected to the film’s message about life enduring and beating adversity. Even though the dramatic lighting and many narrative details suggest the film is a noir, To Have and Have Not does not end in the traditional noir style. In a noir, the ending would be bleak, perhaps not fatal for all, but unsettling and troublesome. To Have and Have Not ends on a high. Just as Slim tells the piano player before she and Steve leave in the film’s final scene, To Have and Have Not keeps it light in the end. Steve, Slim, and their company all walk right out of danger, literally, overcoming the “bad guys.” In opposition to noirs, namely Casablanca, To Have and Have Not leaves the audience with a feeling of hope; the “good guys” do come out on top. Together, Steve and Slim are off to new places, safer places, free of the danger they once encountered. Then entire film, evident by some consistent attempts at comic relief, is working toward this uplifting, positive, and hopeful ending.
Unlike Casablanca, the film To Have and Have Not is all too often compared to, To Have and Have Not is a hopeful film about overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles in life. Beyond the casting and surface similarities in plot points, there is not much alike in these two films. To Have and Have Not commits to a message, a theme related to the adversity in life and the fact that, in the end, hope still exists and the “good guys” can win. And, in its execution, To Have and Have Not communicates its theme well, all on its own, without the influence of any cinematic contemporary.