Coming out of the Trance: Lost Pace in Archie Mayo’s SVENGALI

•07/10/2012 • 1 Comment

7 October 2012

Adapted from Trilby, George du Maurier’s 1894 novel, Svengali is a 1931 horror film starring John Barrymore and Marian Marsh, directed by Archie Mayo.  The film begins with Svengali (John Barrymore), draped in shadows, masterfully playing a piano in his apartment/studio in a small town in France, when a woman, Madame Honori (Carmel Myers), enters for her music lessons.  Clearly, Madame Honori is infatuated with Svengali, but it becomes clear Svengali’s interest in Madame Honori have nothing to do with her or her vocal abilities (or lack thereof); Svengali is interested in Madame Honori’s money because he is broke.  He desperately offers music lessons to women to pay his bills.  When Madame Honori reveals she has left her husband to be with Svengali his kind, yet creepy demeanor toward her changes. The camera stays behind Svengali, only showing the back of his head, while capturing a petrified Madame Honori who repeatedly pleads, “Svengali, don’t look at me that way,” before fleeing the apartment.  The next day Svengali’s assistant reports the Madame Honori’s body was retrieved from the lake; she committed suicide.

Shortly after, Svengali gets bullied by tenants in the apartment building for his poor hygiene.  While stranded in a tenant’s apartment without his clothes, Svengali meets blonde haired, bright-eyed Trilby O’Farrell (Marian Marsh), a model looking for artists in hopes of work.  Their meeting is brief, however they begin seeing each other frequently as Trilby visits the building to pose for artists who reside there.  Trilby falls in love with Billie (Bramwell Fletcher), an artist she often sits for, but Svengali falls for Trilby and notices she has the potential of becoming an outstanding operatic singer.

Svengali has a secret; he is a self-serving hypnotist, alluded to by Madame Honori’s comment, “Svengali, don’t look at me like that.”  He hypnotizes Trilby, convincing her Billie will never love her because she has been with other men, and that Svengali is the only one who cares for her.  Confused and entranced, Trilby agrees; she and Svengali fake Trilby’s suicide, and the two flee their small town and head to Paris.

Five years pass and Billie travels to Paris to see Svengali and his new wife in concert: Svengali the maestro and his wife the operatic singer with accompanying orchestra.  After the show, Billie catches a glimpse at Svengali’s new wife up close, and realizes it is his lost love, Trilby; however, Trilby barely recognizes Billie, and it becomes clear to him Svengali hypnotized her.  Billie vows to follow Svengali and Trilby to each of their concert stops until the day he can break Trilby of the spell Svengali cast on her.  By this time Svengali’s heart has weakened, which weakens his power over Trilby.  Eventually, Svengali suffers a heart attack, which immediately causes Trilby to collapse.  Svengali, dying, pleads that God grant him the happiness in death he could not have in life: true love.  Svengali dies, and so does Trilby.

Interestingly, Svengali’s plot is a mirror for the film overall.  Svengali is a powerful, self-serving hypnotist, but halfway through the film he weakens and the rest of the movie is his slow, inevitable demise.  The film starts off very powerfully, but halfway through it weakens, loses paces, and begins its descent toward inevitable demise.

The first half of Svengali is full of groundbreaking camerawork, dramatic lighting, and dynamic set design. In the beginning, the camera sweeps around Svengali’s apartment.  The camera, it seems, is Svengali’s most trusted companion; it captures all the protagonist’s underhanded and, at times, humorous moves when with Madame Honori, but slides behind Svengali to hide his face from the audience when he hypnotizes her into committing suicide. The camera’s allegiance to Svengali reveals his character as both devious and charismatic, but also conceals his secret.  Moreover, the dramatic lighting creates large shadows around Svengali, giving Svengali an eerie, ominous presence.  This lighting creates the mystery and exaggerates fear for viewers.

The curious prop pieces placed around the sets, as well as the minimalist furniture and obscure shapes of doors, hallways, and rooms—which is greatly reminiscent of German Expressionist films—, also enhance the first half of the film.  Inside the artist’s apartment molded faces hang on the walls.  The hanging heads, with whited out eyes, foreshadow the appearance of Svengali as hypnotist, as well as remind the audience of the masks we all wear, the mask Svengali is wearing by pretending to look out for Trilby’s best interest, but instead seeking his own desires, which ultimately destroy her life.  Also, Svengali’s room has a low ceiling, and even though it is not cluttered with furniture, the room has an enclosed feeling, while the hallways connecting the apartments are incredibly spacious and barren, the opposite of Svengali’s lair.  The doors, in every apartment, are oversized, seemingly out-of-place, reinforcing the fantasy, or supernatural element to the film.  In all, these details of the set design create unease, strongly support the film’s horror genre.

Yet, even though the film starts off so well, midway through Svengali weakens, in both narrative and cinematics.  From a plot perspective, once Svengali takes Trilby to Paris, and five years instantly elapse, the narrative loses steam.  Viewers were watching a menacing hypnotist with musical brilliance wreaking havoc on those around with his supernatural powers.  After midway, viewers watch, at a slower pace, a washed-up hypnotist and musician stammering around Europe, and eventually down to Egypt, with Trilby and a heart condition, desperately running from Billie.  Gone is the camera’s clever dance around Svengali, the dramatic lighting, and the Expressionist-influenced set designs.  The filmmaking loses its flare simultaneously with the narrative.

Moreover, because of a slower, lack-luster second half, obvious problems with Svengali come into the forefront.  The first and most obvious is the film’s anti-Semitic statements, which are present throughout, but unmissable as the film lingers on.  Svengali’s exaggerated facial features and dark hair identify the character as a stereotypical Jewish man, which keeps true to the character’s ethnicity in de Maurier’s novel.  His poor hygiene and desperation for money are additional negative stereotypes the film promotes.  Also, Svengali is demonic, evident by his supernatural powers, not to mention is pointed, serpent-like beard.  The film is undoubtedly anti-Semitic.

Also, a feminist reading reveals the film’s negative statements against women, evident through the treatment of Madame Honori and Trilby.  Madame Honori, who commits adultery with Svengali, dies early on in the film.  The audiences watches her in a flashy dress, the bust-line of which she keeps pulling down, foolishly embarrassing herself by singing wretchedly in front of Svengali.  Why must viewers watch all this but not her death?  Her suicide is a passing comment made by a secondary character.  Madame Honori is erased without much care because she was a loose woman who chooses not to play by the rules.  Moreover, Trilby first appears in the film in a man’s coat and little else; she is also a non-conformer.  She is a model who frequently poses nude, and she offers to strip down for Svengali before she knows anything about him; her sexual promiscuity is made clear early on.  Like Madame Honori, Trilby dies.  Curiously, the audience never learns what kills her; she is a young, seemingly healthy woman.  It is clear her death is linked to Svengali’s heart attack, but the film does not explain what causes her to die.  Apparently it does not matter what her cause of death is, she just has to die.

In all, Svengali leads off as one of the best supernatural horror films of the 1930s, a particularly rich time for the horror genre.  But, this film ultimately fizzles out.  More than that, there are major problems in the film’s messages about Jews and women, which a modern day audience is likely to be more sensitive to than 1930s viewers.  Although Svengali was a sensation in its day, with unsettling statements about Jews and women and inconsistent cinematics, Svengali does not carry off the same popularity today.

(No Longer) Blinded By the Light: The Supernatural in DOLORES CLAIBORNE

•30/09/2012 • Leave a Comment

30 September 2012

When a film is released that was adapted from a Stephen King short story, novella, or novel, moviegoers’ first thought might be they are in for a thriller, likely of the supernatural persuasion.  King, as storyteller, often explores the bizarre and unexplainable when seeking his scares.  However, Stephen King does not only write in the horror genre, and many of these fear-free and deeply poignant works have been adapted for the silver screen; Stand by Me (1986) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) are two leading examples.

King’s novel Dolores Claiborne was adapted for cinema in 1995, three years after King released the novel of the same title.  Critical reviews of Dolores Claiborne place this film in the same category as The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me, meaning Dolores Claiborne lacks the supernatural element King is known for.  This is inaccurate.  Without questions, Dolores Claiborne is a supernatural thriller.

To summarize, Dolores Claiborne, directed by Taylor Hackford, begins with the death of Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt).  Vera, an elderly, handicapped woman, plummets down a flight of stairs at her home, and Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates), a trusted employee of Vera’s for over twenty years, stands at the top of the stairs looking down at Vera’s body.  The police arrest Dolores for what they presume to be Vera’s murder, which brings Dolores’ estranged, thirty-something daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), back to the small, coastal Maine town of her childhood, where Dolores is being detained.  Pending an inquest, Dolores is released, and she and her daughter return to their family home, which is full of painful memories and unresolved conflicts.  One of the most painful memories is of Joe (David Strathairn), Dolores’ husband and Selena’s alcoholic father.  Joe physically abused Dolores and sexually abused Selena.  One summer afternoon when Selena was a teenager—and also the day of a solar eclipse—Dolores lured Joe to his death by enraging his drunken temper and leading him outside through some brush to a carefully covered well’s hole which he fell through.  Joe’s death was ruled and accident, but one of the detectives, a friend of Joe’s, John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), always felt Dolores was involved.  His suspicion lingered through the years, and when Vera Donovan was found dead in front of Dolores, Detective Mackey became determined to finally arrest her for murder.  As difficult memories plague Dolores’ mind, and Selena struggles with her own traumatic recollections and complicated emotions toward her mother, this impromptu mother-daughter reunion boils over as the inquest into Vera’s death arrives.

Today, a solar eclipse in known as a natural phenomenon, but, historically speaking, that is not always how people understood eclipses.  Long before astrological advancements in science, little was known about eclipses, be they lunar or solar.  Thousands of years ago people from all over the world created myths, legends, folklore, and rituals surrounding eclipses.  For example, in China a legend began that an eclipse was actually a dragon consuming the Sun or the Moon (depending on whether the eclipse was solar or lunar), and people of China would bang drums, yell, and generate loud noise to scare the dragon off.  Moving through history, religious groups began experiencing eclipses as dark moments, during which negative energy fell upon the Earth and its people; eclipses become an omen.  Until the last few hundred years, eclipses were not understood to be a natural phenomenon; eclipses were a supernatural event.

This supernatural history of eclipses seems to be why King pulls a solar eclipse into Dolores Claiborne, and why screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who adapted King’s novel, also highlighted this solar eclipse as the crux of the Dolores Claiborne film.

The film’s solar eclipse happens when Dolores carries out the plan for Joe’s death.  After giving him enough liquor to drink himself into barely standing belligerence, Dolores confronts Joe on their front porch.  By this time, the solar eclipse has begun; the light is changing as the Moon slowly moves in front of the Sun for a total eclipse.  The bright fusion of pinks, yellows, blues, and oranges makes the sky look artificial—intentionally artificial, not just cinematically artificial because the scene was shot against a green-screen.  This curious lighting is beautiful, but unnerving because it is not normal, and therefore unknown.  The vibrant colors appear to be the bright before the dark, and, as Dolores reveals she has taken back the money Joe stole out of Selena’s bank account, and also reveals she knows he has molested Selena, Joe chases Dolores through the brush.  Simultaneously, this beautiful, mysterious light fades, and the total solar eclipse quietly befalls this picturesque coastal community.  Dolores leads Joe to the hidden well, which she jumps over, but he falls through.  Hanging on for life, Joe pleads with Dolores for help, but, although upset, she does not rescue him from falling.  Dolores stands firmly underneath the darkness of the solar eclipse as Joe loses his struggle and plummets to death.

The pairing of this solar eclipse with Dolores’ ability to carry out such a life-changing, traumatic event is no coincidence.  These two events are connected because Dolores’ plan would not have worked if not for the solar eclipse.  This is evident by the film’s other death.

By this time in the film, the audience already knows Dolores did not kill Vera; Vera committed suicide.  Yet, when her initial fall down the stairs did not kill her, Vera begged Dolores to finish the job.  Dolores ran to the kitchen and retrieved a marble rolling-pin, returned to Vera, and raised it up, as though she would strike Vera with a fatal, merciful blow.  However, Dolores could not do it; she was unable to kill Vera, and Vera died of injuries sustained for her fall.  The fact that Dolores could not commit an act that would end Vera’s life, but could commit an act that would end Joe’s life, suggests the supernatural power of the eclipse.

Arguably, Dolores had already taken part in death, with Joe, so why was she not able help Vera with death?  Yes, the two situations are entirely different, and that is a consideration.  But, the circumstantial differences, much like the circumstantial evidence that does not hold up in Detective Mackey’s case against Dolores, should not berate the effects a global event that causes a complete, uncontrollable physical change in an environment has on a person.  The eclipse had an effect on Joe’s death, and the lack of eclipse an equaled effected Vera’s.

Stemming from legend, and evident by how differently Dolores handled the two deaths she witnessed, the supernatural effect of an eclipse is a significant part in Dolores Claiborne.  Literal and figurative darkness fell upon Dolores under that solar eclipse, and she was able to commit an act she would not commit under any other circumstance.  Perhaps it was strength the eclipse gave Dolores, or perhaps it was clarity, but the eclipse undoubtedly affected Dolores, in the same sort of bizarre and unexplainable ways people have made legend of, in regards to eclipses as a supernatural event, from the beginning of time.

But Why Do We Love It?: Allegories, Justice, and Cinematic Refinement in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

•23/09/2012 • Leave a Comment

23 September 2012

Although its 1994 theatrical release was a disappointment, barely earning back what the film cost to make, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption gained popularity when released on home video, and eventually DVD.  In fact, today The Shawshank Redemption is considered one of the most beloved American films of all times, ranking #72 in 10th Anniversary Edition (2007) of the AFI’s 100 Best Films list.

Adapted from Stephen King’s novella, entitled Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Darabont’s film tells of the twenty years Andrew Dufresne (Tim Robbins) served in Shawshank prison for the murder of his wife and her lover.  Although the film centers on Andy’s imprisonment, the narrative is told from the perspective of Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), Andy’s fellow inmate, and burgeoning best friend.  Shortly after Andy’s arrival at Shawshank he falls victim to continuous abuse, from other inmates, as well as guards and Warden Norton (Bob Gunton); however Andy’s unbreakable spirit and banking background make him as asset to Shawshank’s warden and guards.  Andy moves up the inner ranks of the prison’s hierarchy, but, along the way, stumbles, unable to avoid the inescapable dangers of life in prison.  In the film’s conclusion, Warden Norton, the guards, and the inmates at Shawshank realize just how strong Andy’s spirit has been all along, and just how strong of a person he actually is, despite how hard Shawshank tried to break him.

It is interesting that this film was not an immediate success.  But what is even more interesting is how this box-office disappointment overcame its initial reputation, becoming a staple in American cinema.  While it may never be fully understood how a film could make such strides in terms of popularity, there are many things about the film’s quality that, likely, lend to its eventual success.

Film critics, namely Roger Ebert, film historian, analyst, and critic, suggests The Shawshank Redemption has a strong allegorical quality to it, and that this may explain audiences’ eventual embracement of the film.  The film, not so discreetly, communicates the messages that inner strength is necessary to surviving life’s challenges, and that success and achievement are still possible for perseverant people, even when one is held down in the world.  Without question these uplifting messages are a part of the reason the film found home in audience members’ hearts, yet not all cinematic allegories win an audience over, so this cannot be all there is to it.

Another part to Shawshank’s success is the retribution in the film’s resolution.  Andy, a strong and innocent character, endures years of inhumane treatment in prison, and the audience needs to see justice in the end for his sufferings if the masses are to accept watching a person abused to this extreme.  In the fictional world of the film, it satisfies the audience to see Warden Norton’s life end in cowardice and learn that the most vicious of all guards, Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), was arrested, while sobbing like a child, for his irreprehensible wrongdoing.  It is not that the audience wants more carnage or trauma; conversely, the audience has, by the film’s conclusion, become moderately desensitized to brutality, and accepts the Warden Norton’s death and guard’s arrest as reassurance that, through these final violent and degrading acts, integrity is somehow restored in the end.  In no small way, the justice in the film’s conclusion allows for the redemption alluded to in the film’s title, and this is a satisfying experience for viewers.

And yet, beyond the allegorical lessons and resolution’s deliverance of justice in the film’s imperfect world, the cinematics of the film are another unmistakable reason for audience’s eventual embrace of The Shawshank Redemption.  Darabont is a gifted filmmaker, and his directorial style in this film (a film he also adapted the screenplay for) is uncomplicated and precise, not to mention refined.  Put another way, Darabont simply keeps the audience’s attention on the story (the content), not how the story is being shown to them (the construct), a wise move when attempting to capture a character’s emotional journey and, simultaneously, attempting to take audiences on their own emotional journeys along the way.  It is sometimes the most seemingly uncomplicated filmmaking that requires the most attention to detail, and The Shawshank Redemption is no exception to this.  In the darkest moments of the film—the sodomy, brutal beatings, suicide, murder—Darabont keeps the audience at an arm’s length visually from the action.  Clearly a decision was made not to show any graphic content, and it is fairly obvious why, but the subtle way Darabont includes, and even emphasizes, the film’s difficult content, through cuts, angles, and pacing, alerts the audience to what is happening, but keeps them from having to bear witness to graphic images.

For example, on the first night Andy spends at Shawshank one of the other new inmates has a breakdown just after lights out.  This new inmate cries hysterically that there has been a mistake, clearly panicking upon realizing that he is trapped in a cell, likely for life.  The guards warn this man to quiet down, but he is unable to control himself.  Eventually Hadley pulls the man out of the cell and beats him brutally on the prison’s cement floor.  Darabont shows Hadley take several swings at the man, but the camera is positioned feet away from the actors, capturing the action in a long shot.  Moreover, Darabont cuts to close-ups on Red and other inmates looking on at the beating.  These cuts take the viewers away from violent beating, offering a break from witnessing this brutality.  In all, the sound effects are what make this scene difficult, as Darabont intentionally limits the beating’s visual presence for audience members.

Similar examples are found as the film continues.  Bogs (Mark Rolston) and “the Sisters” often beat Andy, but more quick cutting limits what the audience sees of these violent exchanges.  Also, Darabont often uses crane shots or clever angels to restrict viewers’ line of vision.  The audience is told through voiceover narration that Bogs sodomizes Andy, but that action, unsurprisingly, is never captured.  Even with Brooks’ death, the audience is not allowed to see the moment he actually hangs himself; instead, the audience watches his feet as they push-off the table he stand on top of.  Then, after he’s dead, which means the audience is spared watching Brooks struggling through suffocation, the audience sees him hanging, but the camera is positioned behind him, therefore viewers never look at the noosed, dead face of the beloved character.

Darabont recognized that showing the audience too much, allowing them unrestricted access to the morbid, violent, and cruel events in and surrounding Shawshank, would, likely, turn them off from the film.  If the film were too difficult to watch audiences simply would not watch it.  Therefore, the film’s ability to cover such difficult content in the narrative without explicitly capturing graphic images helps explain how audiences embraced The Shawshank Redemption.

Clearly there is not one reason The Shawshank Redemption went from box office disappointment to American film classic, and, in fairness, the entirely of this reason may never be fully explained.  However, astute critics are certainly on point is associating the film’s allegorical nature with audience interest.  And, the film’s fearless quest for justice in the conclusion, allowing all to recuperate, is also an undeniable aspect to the film’s ability to satisfy audience needs.  Moreover, Darabont direction, knowing when and how far of a distance to keep the audience when handling the film’s most atrocious and inhumane content, is surely part of the film’s success.

I’m Not Your Number One Fan: A Small Cinematic Grievance with MISERY

•16/09/2012 • 1 Comment

16 September 2012

Because misery loves company, this Sunday Reel Club offers companionship to Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990).  Adapted from Stephen King’s novel, of the same title, Misery captures several weeks during which time a severely disturbed woman, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), imprisons renowned writer, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), in her isolated Colorado home.  The film begins with Paul emerging from a quiet Colorado lodge, a retreat where he always secludes himself to write.  Unbeknownst to Paul, a massive blizzard sweeps over Colorado and Paul crashes his car in the whiteout.  As luck would have it, Annie, a former nurse, and Paul’s self-proclaimed “number one fan,” rescues the badly injured author from the wrecked vehicle and takes him back to her home.  Once there Paul regains consciousness and begins to realize Annie is far from the Florence Nightingale type.  While healing, Paul’s latest Misery book, the last in a wildly popular series following protagonist Misery Chastain, is released and Annie purchases a copy in town.  Annie becomes overcome with rage when she discovers Paul kills Misery in the end of the novel.  Refusing to let the badly injured Paul call his friends and family or leave, Annie forces Paul write yet another Misery novel, one in which Misery comes back from the dead.  Paul agrees to pacify Annie’s violent temper.  In the weeks he spends trapped in his wheelchair writing, Paul devises plans to escape.  While many of his plans fizzle out, his final, impromptu attempt ends up being a fight to the death between Paul and Annie.

In all, Misery is simply a cinematic home run.  First, deriving from King’s novel, the film’s narrative concentrates on Annie’s complicated yet captivating decent into madness, and, of course, how Annie’s madness wrecks havoc on unsuspecting, handicapped Paul Sheldon.  Content wise, the film is fascinating.  Second, experienced screenplay writer William Goldman adapted this piece from King’s novel.  Translating King’s literary pace and exploration into the human psyche into a visual spectacle is not easy, evident by the numerous King adaptations that failed to satisfy cinematic audiences.  Nevertheless, Goldman’s familiarity with screen language proves fluent in Misery.  Lastly, Rob Reiner cleverly approached Misery with “less is more” direction.  That is—and this is not intended to berate or insult Reiner—the cinematics in Misery are rather formulaic.  Falling into the psychological thriller/horror genre, Reiner communicates the film with a few standard Dutch angles and relies heavily upon high and low angled shots.  For example, the high angles almost always look down upon the broken and beaten Paul, who rests helplessly in bed, while the low angles most frequently look up at robust Annie who towers menacingly over Paul.  Moreover, the film employs frequent close-ups, most notably on Bates’ face.  With a close up shot Reiner can fill the screen with Annie, super-sizing her presence, allowing the audience to feel what Paul feels, that her torture is inescapable.  Nothing about these angles or shots is original or revolutionary, but Reiner knew he did not need to reinvent the wheel to make Misery a success.  Simply following the cinematic formula for a film of this genre would be more than enough to communicate this mind-bending narrative.  Reiner did just that and the film was a hit, and is still considered and achievement.

Yet, even a cinematic home run has its imperfections, and in Misery one of the most noticeable imperfections comes directly after the film’s opening sequence.  Just after Paul crashes his car in the blizzard, and the film’s title boldly appears in a blood-red color across the screen, the film flashes back to a meeting between Paul and his publisher, Marcia (Lauren Bacall).  This meeting occurred in New York a few weeks before Paul’s crash.  During the meeting Paul grips tightly his brown leather satchel and tells Marcia of the case’s great sentimental value.  He also reveals he is ready to write something new, something not in the Misery series.  Marcia tells Paul to be more grateful for all the financial success Misery brought him, but it is clear from Paul’s reaction that his gratitude is minuet compared to his agitation to leave Misery behind. The brief flashback ends and the film resumes in the present with Annie prying Paul out of the crashed car.

Although this flashback in only a minor part of the film, it disorients viewers unnecessarily.  To begin, this flashback breaks the film’s linear narrative; no other moment of the film breaks continuity.  Why then would the film include a break so early on if this pattern would not be continued?  Furthermore, a flashback typically reveals crucial information to the audience.  That is, if a film bothers to flashback it is most likely for plot purposes.  This is not the case in Misery.  Yes, it is interesting to know Paul’s feelings about the Misery series; however, that information comes up time and again throughout the film, particularly in conversations and confrontations with Annie during his capture.  Also, the flashback introduces the audience to Marcia, but she reintroduces herself mere minutes afterward, when she calls Buster, the small Colorado town’s sheriff, to report Paul missing. Since the flashback’s content becomes redundant, this sequence has no significance to the film.

Taken another way, there is enough evidence to support this flashback is actually dream, as it begins just after Paul’s car accident and immediately returns to a barely conscious Paul trapped in the car.  But, even if it is an unconscious dream (as opposed to a conscious flashback), this sequence still breaks continuity and offers nothing to the plot.  Had this been the first in a series of dreams Paul would have throughout the film then the dreams might evolve into collective significance.  Too bad that is not the case.

In a film that plays by all the rules, not venturing away from the established cinematic formula, why would Reiner include one empty flashback?  The obvious answer is the flashback provides Lauren Bacall more screen time, and that could legitimately be the reason the scene was included.  In the opening credits Bacall is attributed with, “and special appearance by Lauren Bacall.”  Perhaps her appearance was so special that an entire irrelevant scene was written for the film just to highlight her.

While more Bacall screen time is a welcomed treat for any film, this flashback remains a small blemish on the nearly perfect Misery. Fortunately for Reiner, the flashback occurs before Annie and her decent into madness are even introduced in the film, and therefore before the narrative’s true focus begins.

Going on Walk-Walk: An American Walkabout in STAND BY ME

•09/09/2012 • 1 Comment

9 September 2012

In all parts of the world, from the beginning of time, but perhaps best known in Australian culture, a walkabout is a physical, mental, and spiritual journey during which time a young man wanders away from his community and into the wilderness to perform rituals and survive the elements.  The walkabout is a rite of passage which challenges the individual to practice the wisdom imparted to him by his ancestors and strengthens his connections to heritage, land, and culture.  In spite of the terrific dangers, the journey is necessary for entering adulthood.

In 1986 Rob Reiner directed an adaptation of Stephen King’s novella, The Body.  For this adaptation the title changed; the film became Stand by Me.  Briefly, the plot follows four young friends over the Labor Day weekend before they begin middle school, a new beginning which each boy knows will mark a change in their lives and friendships with one another.  Moreover, each of these friends is struggling with fears and challenges in his own life: Gordie’s (Wil Wheaton) older and much beloved brother was recently killed; Chris’(River Phoenix) resentment toward being stereotyped a town troublemaker reaches its boiling point; Teddy (Corey Feldman) battles with early childhood trauma stemming from a father who was once savagely abusive and is now absent from his life; and Vern (Jerry O’Connell) fights with the fears and anxieties crippling his life and stunting his maturity.

Thanks in large part to Reiner’s direction, Stand by Me is unquestionably an American walkabout in which four boys wander away from their community into the wilderness, perform rituals, and certainly embark on their rites of passage into adulthood, as they define what they want from their own lives while journeying toward death.

Like any walkabout scenario, the boys must leave society and wander into the woods, where they must blaze their own trails and survive the elements.  Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern all do just that; the boys devise a plan to leave their dull Oregon town without warning and without revealing where they are going to their parents.  Furthermore, and following the established rituals, the boys bring with them only what they can carry, survive the dangers of wild animals (such as the not-so-ferocious Chopper and the blood-sucking leeches), and find food to maintain their strength and endurance.

Moreover, Stand by Me highlights breathtaking northwestern American landscape.  Juxtaposed with some of the film’s early shots, which are of confined interiors, the exterior scenes spotlight how vast and untouched the wilderness is.  When Reiner’s films this landscape in extreme long shots, which occurs frequently, he puts into perspective, for viewers, how small the boys (and, by extension, all people) are in the grand scheme of Nature, therefore how epic, timeless, and significant a journey these boys are on.

Also, one of the intents of walkabout is to face challenges that force growth, realization, and a deeper understandings of life.  Along the way each boy is personally challenged by a situation or circumstance, and this challenge inspires that boy to grow mentally and emotionally, inching him closer to adulthood.  A store clerk confronts Gordie, essentially telling him he is not as talented or driven as his dead brother, Denny (John Cusack).  This is particularly difficult for Gordie because he fears his father would agree with the store clerk, and even believes his father wishes Gordie had been the one to die, not Denny.

Chris’ challenges also begin early on, while he and Gordie are on their way out-of-town.  Ace (Kiefer Sutherland), the town’s true resident delinquent, steals Gordie’s baseball cap and Chris tells Ace exactly what he thinks of his cruel, bullying behavior.  Ace lashes back and pins Chris to the round, threatening to burn him with a cigarette butt unless Chris “takes back” his unfavorable comments about Ace.  Chris “takes back” what was said and Ace lets him go, but Chris often assumes the role of Gordie’s protector, and Gordie’s lost cap bothers Chris.

One of Teddy’s challenges happens when Chopper’s owner, Milo Pressman (William Bronder), mocks Teddy’s father.  Although Teddy’s father was severely abusive toward him, Teddy loves his father unconditionally and becomes infuriated at the old man’s spiteful remarks.  Teddy’s true challenge is the displaced anger his confrontation with Milo highlights.  Unable to be mad at his father, Teddy’s challenge is in his own bouts of anger, erupting when someone  references his father in a negative light.

Lastly, Vern’s challenges occur throughout the film, but are all physical challenges.  Vern fears the train tracks which run over a bridge, so he crawls on them; however, when the train comes, Vern must get up and run.  Vern is also afraid to venture away from the tracks when the other boys propose taking a shortcut through a more densely wooded area.  Eventually, Vern concedes and explores the deeply wooded areas with his friends, but faced his own fears and anxieties while doing so.

All of these challenges converge in the film’s climax when Vern discovers Ray Brower’s body and each boy comes face to face with death.  In Ray, the boys each see their challenges: fathers, brothers, fears, judgments.  And, through the discovery of this missing boy’s body three of the foursome can put to rest many of the challenges of their youth and rejoin their community with a new-found maturity and perspective.  Teddy continues to struggle, and the struggle overpowers him. However, Gordie says upon the boys’ return, the town is now smaller than it was when they left two-days prior, symbolizing the walkabout’s successful completion for Gordie, Chris, and Vern, and these boys’ ability to reenter society with a clearer vision of the future.

What separates the walkabout in Stand by Me from a more traditional walkabout is that these boys go off into the wilderness together, not individually.  In the American culture there is a reversal of roles between independence and comradery in terms of timing.  In the traditional sense walkabouts are independently taken, and then when the individual returns to the community a sense of unbreakable comradery forms between the individual and community.  Conversely, and as suggested in Stand by Me, the American ideal is that adolescents should unit with peers to survive their rites of passage.  Later in life, in adulthood, these bonds are often broken and a stronger sense of independence is required.

Ray Brower went on his walkabout alone, and as a result he died.  The foursome went on walkabout together and as a result they all survived and returned to the community changed young men.  Upon that return they began to separate.  Even the closest of the two friends, Chris and Gordie, severed ties with one another as adults, evident in the film’s conclusion when the adult Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss) discloses that he had not seen or talked to Chris in the last ten years.

Without question Reiner’s Stand by Me captures the walkabout of Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern.  Literally they embark on a once in a lifetime journey toward death (Ray Brower), and spiritually they embark on a rite of passage, with each other, that takes most of them from childhood and welcomes them into adulthood.  What the film also emphasizes are the differences in the American perspective on walkabout from its traditional sense.  The film strongly highlights the value of togetherness among adolescents for survival, and then the saddening but inevitable break from these bonds once in adulthood.

Where the Boys At?: Tipping the Gender Balance in CARRIE

•02/09/2012 • Leave a Comment

 

2 September 2012

If you have seen Carrie, more than likely you remember pig’s blood, a fiery prom, the bloody hand, and (of course) Piper’s Laurie’s unforgettable Mrs. Margaret White, Carrie’s Jesus-loving mother from hell.  In the supernatural horror flick, these are the horrifyingly memorable moments.  Yet, there is more to Carrie than these terrors; in fact, much of Carrie slides under the radar because most of the film pales in comparison to the aforementioned frights.  One rather obvious but easily missed fact about Carrie is the film is incredibly female heavy; there very few male characters leaving a tremendous disbalance in gender representation.  And, upon closer consideration, the few males in Carrie are only there to enhance the characterization of the film’s females and to act as pawns for these female characters.

Directed by Brian DePalma in 1976, and adapted from Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie tells the story of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a high school senior, in the days leading up to her senior prom.  Carrie has two big secrets: the first is her mother (Piper Laurie) puts religious fanaticism to shame, and the second is she is telekinetic (she can move objects with her mind).  As a result of her differences from the norm, Carrie is an outsider at Bates High School (yes, Bates, as in Psycho), and she is often the target of cruel and malicious bullying.  However, after one particular prank on Carrie goes too far, Sue (Amy Irving), one of the popular girls at Bates, has a change of heart and wants to rectify her poor treatment of Carrie.  Sue persuades her boyfriend, Tommy (William Katt), to take the dateless Carrie to the upcoming prom.  Just as Carrie’s lucks seems to be turning around the unthinkable happens, and prom night ends up more gravely thrilling than anyone, including Carrie, was prepared for.

Aside from a few minor characters, which will be discussed shortly, there are only two significant male roles in Carrie: Tommy and Billy (John Travolta), Sue and Chris’ boyfriends, respectively.  Tommy Ross plays the larger role of the two, as he becomes Carrie’s date for the prom.  Yet, when his more sizable part is boiled down to its core, Tommy’s role is merely pawn, a pawn who actually strengthens Carrie and Sue’s characterizations.  First, Carrie is an outsider and has no boyfriend, so, of course, the popular girls (Sue) all have boyfriends (Tommy).  These boyfriends are primarily there representing something Carrie lacks.  (Well, that is a loaded statement but let us not digress.)  Moreover, Sue is the sole survivor of prom night thanks to her upstanding moral character.  That is, the audience accepts Sue’s survival in the film’s conclusion because she acknowledges and attempts to rectify her bad behavior toward Carrie.   Therefore, the people around Sue, namely (but not exclusively) Tommy, also have to be morally elite characters who support Sue’s character growth in the film from bully to heroine.  Sue dates the only boy at Bates who would take Carrie to prom, and Tommy’s honorable behavior reflects positively on Sue in the audience’s eyes.  Thinking back, all of Tommy’s actions are driven by Sue, and had she not wronged Carrie in the film’s opening Tommy’s character would be unnecessary; within the film’s narrative structure, Tommy is Sue’s pawn.

The other male character is Billy Nolan, Chris’ boyfriend.  Billy is the antithesis of Tommy, as Chris (Nancy Allen) is the antithesis of Sue.  And, just as Tommy made Sue a more admirable character, Billy makes Chris a more abominable, divisive character.  Billy, essentially, serves as Chris’ lackey; Billy does all of Chris’ dirty work: drives her around, kills the pig, and rigs the bucket.  If Chris were not the film’s villain, Billy would not have a place in the film; Billy is Chris’ pawn because his character is contingent on Chris’ in every way.

Aside from those two characters, there are only very minor male roles left.  One is the male English teacher, Mr. Fromm (Sydney Lassick). Keeping with the idea of males as pawns in Carrie, Mr. Fromm acts as a foil for Ms. Collins.  Ms. Collins is the involved, caring teacher who takes Carrie under her wing.  Conversely, Mr. Fromm is the teacher who mocks Carrie in front of her peers.  His purpose in the film is strictly to draw attention to what a kind, respectable teacher Ms. Collins is by comparison.  Like Tommy and Billy, Mr. Fromm’s character is present to strengthen a female’s characterization.

Even Freddy (Michael Talbott), the boy who helps Norma collect and distort the ballots for prom king and queen, is a pawn who serves Chris.  The day before prom, as he volunteers to collect ballots, Chris stands in the background watching him, commanding his actions.  Even in prom, he does not actually collect or submit the ballots himself; Freddy kisses Norma and drop the real ballots for her to kick out of sight; Norma both collects and submits the ballots.

Curiously, Carrie does not have any developed male characters; Carrie seems to include its male characters as pawns to enhance female characterization. And while unbalanced and unequal gender roles, whichever way that pendulum may swing, may not be as thrilling as an emotionally disturbed telekinetic scorned, the silent ramifications can be just as scary.

 

Holmes May Be Watching, But the Audience is Listening: Internal Diegetic Sound in Gorris’ MRS. DALLOWAY

•26/08/2012 • Leave a Comment

 

26 August 2012

British modern literature is not the easiest literary genre to translate onto film, yet it may be the literary genre with the strongest connection to cinema.  Historically, cinema and modernism were born at nearly the same time.  Therefore, cinema has a modern quality, and there is a cinematic quality to modern literature.

However, even though cinema often adapts literature, there are only a handful of films adapted from British modern literature.  Generally speaking, modern literature’s refusal to conform to yesteryear’s Victorian literary standards makes it difficult for cinema to adapt modern writing.  Some of the great British modern writers, specifically Virginia Woolf, wrote in the experimental stream of consciousness narrative style, which explores the mind by tracing thoughts, feelings, ideas, memories, and fantasies fluidly as they occur.  That said, much of Woolf’s modern literature captures the internal workings of her character’s minds, and Woolf, like her contemporaries, shifts perspectives, from one character to another, frequently and with minimal to no explanation.  Therefore, reading modern literature becomes tricky, as active readers are required to follow a character’s rapidly flowing internal monologues, and then attempt to realize when these internal workings have switched from one character to the next.

One novel exemplifying the modern literary style is Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, written in 1925.  In short, Mrs. Dalloway follows one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, and on this day she is giving a party.  Clarissa, a middle-aged woman, spends her day preparing for her party, but constantly flashes back to memories of her youth.  Her flashbacks include her carefree coming-of-age days with Sally Seaton and Peter Walsh, as well as her courtship with Richard Dalloway, her now-husband.  Separately, the novel also follows Septimus Warren Smith, a World War I veteran suffering with severe post-traumatic stress disorder; inevitably, he commits suicide.  Septimus and Clarissa are doppelgangers, kept apart, but each revealing details of the other.  Septimus and Clarissa’s stories only cross in the novel’s climax when one of Clarissa’s party guests, a doctor’s wife, regales other partygoers with the news that one of her husband’s patients (Septimus) committed suicide earlier that day.  This news triggers an emotional response from Clarissa, and, in the novel’s conclusion, she resolves her own struggles with her memories and feelings.

Under the direction of Marleen Gorris, and with the screenplay adapted by Eileen Atkins, the cinematic adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway follows Woolf’s narrative closely, and carefully explores what, if anything, cinema’s devices can contribute to a filmed version of Woolf’s work.  Without question, Gorris’ cinematic adaptation is narrower than Woolf’s text.  For instance, cinema emphasizes exteriors—characters, sets, and props—all filmed from specific angles and distances, with attention paid to lighting, colors, shapes, and sizes, not forgetting sounds.  While modern writing has cinematically visual descriptions, accentuating colors, sizes, and shapes through written descriptions, the core of modern literature is not the visual; the core may be what the visual ignites or elicits for the characters, and perhaps even the readers.  Nevertheless, Gorris does find many cinematic devices useful when capturing Woolf’s modern writing for the screen, and perhaps the most useful of these devices is internal diegetic sound.

Internal diegetic sound is sound one character, as well as the audience, can hear.  (Infrequently two of more characters can hear internal diegetic sound, but that is rarely the case because the effect is typically used to isolate the internal workings of one character for viewers.)  This internal sound can be anything, but most often it is voiceover work, revealing a character’s unspoken and inner most thoughts.  Internal diegetic sound is entirely subjective, immersing the audience into one character’s mindset.

Essentially, modern fiction, specifically Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, is internal monologue, therefore internal diegetic sound is necessary to capture the work for cinema.

Gorris’ Mrs. Dalloway introduces her protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway (Vanessa Redgrave), to the audience using internal diegetic sound.  As Clarissa looks at her reflection in a mirror, on the morning of her party, the audience hears her inner thoughts through voiceover.  Gazing upon her middle-aged, immaculately put together appearance, Clarissa thinks, “Those ruffians, the gods, shan’t have it all their own way…,” and shortly after, while making her way downstairs, she considers to herself just how “dangerous” it is to live even one day.  Immediately, only moments into the film, Mrs. Dalloway sets up the contrast between what the audience sees of Clarissa and what the audience comes to know of Clarissa from her inner thoughts.  On the outside Clarissa has it all together, is the epitome of style and sophistication; on the inside she is frustrated, moderately depressed, and lost in deep thought.  These inner thoughts are the crux of Woolf’s text, and Atkins’ inclusion of them through internal diegetic sound allows Gorris to translate Woolf’s work for cinema.

Later in the film, Septimus (Rupert Graves) sits in the park and hears bombs bursting and guns firing all around him, the sounds of war.  These sounds are not occurring in the film’s reality (the park); instead, the sounds occur only in Septimus’ mind, as part of his grave struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.  Once again, this subjective sound allows the audience to experience Septimus’ struggle along with him; internal diegetic sound puts the audience in the character’s mind.

The use of this device never falters, and is perhaps most strongly used in the film’s conclusion, the party.  As Clarissa greets her guests the audience is privy to the judgments she makes on each one, the fears that cross her mind about the party’s fate, and the ideas occurring to her as people circulate around her.  Interestingly, in a scene full of so many characters talking and laughing, the audience, like Clarissa, remains isolated in Clarissa’s mind.  When Clarissa overhears of Septimus’ suicide, she escapes the party, fleeing to the balcony outside her bedroom.  Even when alone, Clarissa never utters a sound; the audience continues to hear voiceover of Clarissa’s abstract and unspeakable inner thoughts and feelings.

In part, Woolf’s text suggests a significant part of the human experience in inexpressible and isolating, and Atkins and Gorris support that discovery by keeping Woolf’s narrative style in Mrs. Dalloway internal in the film.  The use of internal diegetic sound in Gorris’ Mrs. Dalloway was, perhaps, the only way the text could (and did) translate to film successfully.

 

 
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