“I’ll Be Back”: The Conscious and the Unconscious in James Cameron’s THE TERMINATOR

•22/04/2012 • Leave a Comment

22 April 2012

In 1983, the year James Cameron’s film The Terminator went into production, three nuclear plants, worldwide (USA, Argentina, and Germany), each malfunctioned, for different reasons and at different times, sending panic across the globe.  Moreover, 1983 is the same year a young American girl, Samantha Smart, gained attention when she wrote a letter to the Soviet Union leader expressing her fear of nuclear war.  At the time, the Cold War was still on and the Soviets possession of nuclear power was a threat to its enemies.  Nuclear panic was ripe in the early 1980s, which makes it no surprise this nuclear mindset is at the forefront of Cameron’s science fiction adventure, The Terminator.

The Terminator (which released in 1984) begins in the future, 2029 to be specific (a year that, when all the numbers are added up, 2+2+9, equals unlucky number 13).  The world has been devastated by nuclear weaponry and exists in a constant state of war.  A terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), which is a highly advanced, intelligent, killing machine, gets sent back in time 40 years, to 1984, with the mission to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman who will give birth to a son, named John.  In the future, John will become the heroic leader of the post-apocalyptic society, thus the terminator wants to kill Sarah so John will never be born.  Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a cyborg assassin, is also sent back to 1984 to protect Sarah and defeat the terminator.  The entire film takes place in, roughly, two days, which are full of action and adventure as Sarah and Reese fight off the terminator together.  Eventually, the pair defeats the assassin, but, sadly, Reese does not survive the final fight.  The film ends with a pregnant Sarah driving her jeep into a literal storm, which symbolizes nuclear war of the future, which she now knows about and is prepared to face.

Cinema is a rather amazing, and wildly popular, medium of art in today’s world.  Figuratively speaking, cinema is a melting pot, of sorts, for ideas, understanding, and emotion; it is not any one person’s creation, but a sort of community art.  Simplistically, writers pour ideas into film scripts, directors provide their own ingredients when mapping out the camerawork and visual spectacle, actors add another layer, editors contribute even more, and, finally, the audience puts the finishing touches on the film by receiving the art, allowing the art into society. This simplified equation does not even account for the hundreds of other people—costumers, producers, lighting designers, executives, motion picture censors, etc—who influence the film, therefore placing their literal and metaphoric fingerprints on the piece of art.  Thus, the finalized film holds two things: 1) the conscious ideas of all these contributors; the ideas and understandings that all of the individuals who touched the film knowingly and intentionally infused the film with, and 2) the unconscious ideas of those same people; the things these contributors did not realize they were infusing the film with.

As mentioned earlier, fear of nuclear devastation, be it accidental or as a result of nuclear war, was high during the early 1980s.  It was a conscious decision by all the people who worked on The Terminator to confront this fear in the film:  the narrative of the film is depressed and violent, the colors used in the set designs are bleak and dark, and the rapidity of the cuts during the numerous action sequences is anxiety producing and frightening.  Yet, the film also tries to offer hope in confronting nuclear fear.  For example, Sarah’s shirt is a vibrant pink, which is a striking contrast against the darkness around her.  Also, she survives the terminator attack and becomes pregnant with the child we, the audience, know could save the world from complete devastation; her survival gives us hope.  These are all conscious and calculated moves by those involved in the film’s production to inspire hope in the audience; a hope that allows people to bravely carry on in the face of nuclear threats, much the way Sarah bravely drove into the storm at the end of The Terminator.

Yet, while examining the conscious efforts of those influencing the filmmaking is interesting, to a point, what is, perhaps, much more interesting is what may have slipped into the film from the unconscious minds of those involved with The Terminator.  What is striking about the film is how poignant it continues to be in today’s world, nearly 30 years after it was made, which suggests the unconscious ideas that slipped into The Terminator were not ideas about the then-present state of the world in the 1980s, but ideas about what was looming in the not-so-distant future; ideas about terrorism, war, and a foreign enemy so removed from the Western world, and, therefore, such a threat to it, that it must be blown-up, dismembered, crushed, and annihilated for the Western world to be victorious.

From one perspective, the terminator is a terrorist, no different than terrorists from al-Qaeda in today’s world.  Although al-Qaeda is believed to have been formed in the late 1980s, and therefore non-existent when The Terminator was in production, the threat and fear of an organization like al-Qaeda was absolutely palpable in the years leading up to its official formation, and therefore the years The Terminator was in production.  The most terrifying thing about today’s terrorists is the self-sacrifice inherent in their culture; a terrorist from al-Qaeda, evident by the 9-11 attacks, sacrifices his or her own life to instill terror in and destruction upon the enemy.  The terminator is the same type of being.  Cameron captures the terminator take a scalpel and cut open his wounded arm to correct a glitch in his mechanic configuration. Shortly after, and perhaps the most difficult scene in the film to watch, standing in front of a bathroom mirror, the terminator takes the scalpel to his eye and pops his eyeball out; blood pours into the sink below and a bloody eyeball falls into the water.  The scene is so difficult to watch because this terminator appears human, blood, sweat, and all, yet he so unfeelingly mutilates himself in an unyielding attempt to continue his killing mission; this act is truly terrifying. Moreover, the terminator takes blow after blow from Reese and Sarah, eventually losing his skin/outer layer, just before being dismembered in the fatal explosion that claims Reese’s life.  Yet, even in pieces, the terminator carries on his killing mission.  As a crawling torso, head, and arms, the terminator continues to come after Sarah, who eventually traps the terminator and successfully crushes him.  The terminator symbolizes modern-day terrorists in the self-sacrificial programming and unrelenting fixation on violence, terror, and, ultimately, death.

Looking at films retrospectively for what slipped in from the unconscious mind is far from an original idea.  German Expressionist films of the late teens and early 1920s are now studied by film historians.  During its heyday, the Expressionist movement in film was consciously trying to, at the surface level, express the fear and sadness present in Germany post its defeat in the Great War (World War I).  However, unconsciously, scholars now see that nearly every single German Expressionist film has a male dictator-like figure who takes control of a community, using fear, and instills death and torture on that community.  Clearly, the Expressionists of 1919 who made The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari did not know Hitler would evolve into the dictator he did; in 1919, Hitler was just beginning his political rise.  Yet, the inclination and fear that a dictator-figure could rise was obviously present in the unconscious minds of Germans during this time, evident by the type of antagonist presented in the film.  Cinema seems to be an outlet for the unconscious, and when looked at retrospectively the unconscious influences that slip into a film(s) reveal a greater awareness about life, danger, and others than consciously available to those involved in the film’s production.

The Terminator clearly has unconscious influences in it that have come to make more sense as historical events of the last 30 years unfolded.  Yes, the film is about the nuclear fear, consciously at the forefront of everyone’s minds in the early 1980s; yet, there is so much more to the film.  Inclinations of dangers that did not even exist during the early 1980s slipped into the film, and these things, these unconscious infusions into The Terminator, are what make the film invaluable and ever-popular today.

Seeing and Believing: Suspension of Disbelief and Cameron’s THE ABYSS

•15/04/2012 • Leave a Comment

15 April 2012

Without fail, James Cameron’s films take viewers into a new world.  At the heart of every Cameron film there is always an “every(wo)man,” the average, ordinary protagonist, who is either brought to a new world/place or exists within a world/space very unlike the one we, the viewers, know as reality.  Yet, viewers are willing to suspend their disbelief regarding this new world, even though it is wildly unfamiliar, because the “every(wo)man,” the character whose story we watch, is familiar.  That is, the character becomes the key to unlocking the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

For example, Ripley, the “everywoman” from Aliens, finds herself on a strange, alien-infested planet.  Through this character, the audience finds themselves in an unfamiliar, futuristic location, completely foreign to them, and, accompanied by Ripley, they accept this place as a reality for the duration of the film.  Furthermore, Jack, from Titanic, is just an ordinary “everyman” trying to get by in life, but he finds himself onboard the most infamous ocean liner in the 1912-world. Thus, the audience is swept back in time, sailing toward tragedy on a ship no viewer could be aboard in reality, so disbelief suspends in order to experience Jack’s adventure with him.  Through each of his films, Cameron takes viewers somewhere by anchoring the audience’s acceptance of these strange new places with believable and relatable protagonists.  His 1989 film, The Abyss (1989), is no exception.  Miles below the ocean’s surface, Cameron invites his audience to experience a world within our own world, one most viewers have never seen for themselves.  But, if Cameron wants his audience to accept his generous invitation into another world, he must offer a tour guide, of sorts; a protagonist who the audience can connect with, a relatable person who they will suspend their disbelief for.  In The Abyss, Cameron’s protagonist, Bud (Ed Harris), is key to the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

In short, The Abyss begins with the crash of a nuclear submarine.  Military deep-sea divers are hastily enlisted to search the wreckage for survivors, as well as recover the nuclear weapons, before foreign enemies can reach the wreckage.  However, a brutal storm threatens the area just as the expedition is to begin, which poses a threat the divers, as well as the deep-sea platform, Deep Core, on which they are stationed.  While exploring the wreckage, one of the military divers begins experiencing a serious nervous system disorder, caused by the pressure surrounding him at the ocean’s depth.  These problems continue to escalate, as do other problems for the crew from the brewing storm.  In addition, the crew encounters NTI, an acronym for a non-terrestrial intelligence, or an alien species, at the wreck site.  In the film’s climax, Bud must take hold of the conflicts existing within the crew, self-sacrifice to prevent a nuclear explosion, and come face-to-face with the strange new life form, all miles below the ocean’s surface.

Suspension of disbelief, as it pertains to this particular argument, is the theory that the audience ignores reality while watching a film; the audience willingly disregards that they are in a movie theatre watching actors perform a fictional script, which, when shot and edited together in a, likely, year-long process, comes together to create a, roughly, 2-hour story in projected moving pictures.  Instead, the audience watches the story as though they are observing reality.  They laugh, cry, close their eyes from violence, and more as this story unfolds before their eyes.   All-in-all, suspension of disbelief is foundational to cinema; it is necessary to viewing a film.

That said, suspension of disbelief has its naysayers, those who do not believe the theory holds water.  From a cinema perspective, the naysayers might argue if suspension of disbelief existed viewers would actually think they might drown while watching water flood into the submarine in The Abyss, or they themselves might die if the nuclear weapons detonate in the film.  Because viewers don’t actually fear for their own lives while viewing Cameron’s film, the naysayers argue the theory cannot exist.

Yet, the theory must exist on some scale.  If the audience could not suspend their disbelief at all then why would one ever watch a film?  Without suspension of disbelief an audience member could not invest into a film enough to make the experience meaningful; if one could not engage with a film, either emotionally or intellectually, one would not watch film because the experience would be fruitless.

Therefore, suspension of disbelief must exist on some type of sliding scale.  The audience is willing to suspend their disbelief, but only to a point, and that point very likely depends on the film.  In The Abyss, yes, the audience will suspend their disbelief enough to watch Bud free fall down to the ocean floor in an effort to save the world from a nuclear explosion, but they themselves will not feel as though they might die if he does not detonate the explosives.

The question then becomes, how does a director know how far he/she can push the audience on this sliding scale, meaning how does the director know not to ask too much of his/her audience’s suspension of disbelief.  In The Abyss Cameron asks a great deal of his audience’s suspension of disbelief.  Not only do we have to accept a new world we know nothing about, one deep below the ocean’s surface, we also have to believe a nuclear submarine crashed, the weapons were compromised, the Soviets are in pursuit of those weapons, poorly trained and inexperienced divers are America’s only hope at solving this problem, and a violent hurricane is raging in the midst of all this to complicate the situation more.  And, as if that were not enough, there is also the matter of the NTIs, the glowing aliens.

Everything up to the glowing aliens is well within the confines of what Cameron can ask of his audience’s suspension of disbelief; after all, this is an action/adventure film.  In an action/adventure film the audience is looking for an escape from reality; in fact, by definition that genre calls for a hugely exaggerated, perhaps even unrecognizable, version of reality, and audiences know that going in.  With The Abyss, audience members, somewhere in their conscious minds, are very grateful they are not living in a world where a nuclear submarine crashed, causing the world potential catastrophic danger.  They are also grateful they are not being called on, as the characters in the film are called upon, to save the world from this epic threat.   Yet, those same audience members are interested in observing the adventure in that reality, from a safe place (a comfortable, cushioned chair in a movie theatre), entirely free from any consequence.  The Abyss allows the audience to travel into the deep-sea, witness a submarine crash, see nuclear weaponry, and be present for all the narrative’s dangerous twists and turns.  That’s exciting and fun, mostly because it’s all of the adventure will none of the risk.

The aliens, on the other hand, tilt the suspension of disbelief sliding scale too far.  Because of their minimal time in the film, the alien species serve no other purpose than to magically save the day in the film’s 11th hour.  Seemingly out of nowhere, this species swoops (or swims) into the film and rescues Bud, as well as his crew, transporting them all safely to the ocean’s surface.  Suspension of disbelief will allow the audience to accept Bud breathing oxygen infused liquid instead of air while free-falling thousands of feet below Deep Core to detonate the nuclear weapon, but being saved by a friendly, glowing purple jellyfish-like alien, who appeared completely out of nowhere, is too far outside the realm of belief for any audience member to suspend.

Cameron pushes the audience’s suspension of disbelief too far with the NTIs, which compromises the credibility to his film.  Audience members who believe the NTIs are preposterous, even laughable, may then be unwilling to suspend any disbelief for the film, making their viewing of the film an entirely fruitless experience.  Clearly, that is the risk a director takes when challenging the audience’s suspension of disbelief.  Fortunately for Cameron, his is a skilled filmmaker, and his underwater shots, particularly of the crew’s investigation in the sunken submarine Montana, are mesmerizing.  They are unique, completely unlike shots seen in any other film.  Also, this film was shot in an abandoned nuclear power plant, so these underwater shots are authentic, never feeling as though computerized technology generated the scenes artificially.  The quality of Cameron’s work and his skillfulness as filmmaker save The Abyss, because, without those things, his overshooting the mark on the film’s fantasy level could have easily turn audiences off to the film.

Making the Reel More Real: TITANIC 3D and the 3D Experience

•08/04/2012 • 1 Comment

8 April 2012

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s demise (which will be official on April 15th, 2012), James Cameron released a 3D version of his epic film Titanic (titled Titanic 3D for the rerelease).  Unlike many 3D films released today, Titanic 3D is not your run-of-the mill conversion.  Today, 3D conversions are, sadly, a-dime-a-dozen, even though the conversion process is far from a perfected process; often the picture quality of the converted film is compromised, viewers’ eyes must continuously readjust and refocus to the inauthentic three-dimensionality added to the film, and the whole experience becomes a bit stomach-turning.  Cameron, back in 1996, had the wherewithal to envision a 3D version of Titanic that was not the trendy overdone, dramatic dimensional shift; a type of 3D familiar and inviting to the eye.  He kept this vision lit on the back-burner, so to speak, brewing the idea of a 3D rerelease of the film when the necessary technology and demand came about.  Knowing he could not release this 3D opus at first, in the 1990s, the film debuted in late 1997 in standard 2D format.  Yet, Cameron, who has talked extensively about 3D being the future of cinema, held out hope that one day technology would catch up with his 3D ambition and audiences could finally see the intended 3D version of Titanic.  In the early 21st century Cameron’s hope became a reality, and for almost 10 years he has waited and worked anxiously to mark the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s sinking with the rerelease of his epic melodrama in 3D format.

Briefly, Titanic 3D is a framed story beginning with an elderly woman named Rose (Gloria Stuart).  A survivor of the wreck, Rose has been brought onboard Brock Lovett’s (Bill Paxton) expedition vessel, which is searching Titanic’s wreckage for a rare diamond necklace, called the Heart of the Ocean.  Rose claims to have information about the expensive jewel and begins recalling her experiences onboard the ill-fated Titanic some 80 years prior.  The film jumps back in time, to April 1912, when Rose (Kate Winslet) feels trapped in a loveless engagement and about to board Titanic with her mother (Frances Fisher) and fiancé (Billy Zane).  Also onboard the Titanic is Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a free-spirited, penniless vagabond.  The attraction between the two is almost immediate and they soon begin a love-affair.  When Titanic strikes a large iceberg their whimsical romance makes an abrupt turn; the two no longer fights to be in each other’s arms, instead they fight for survival amid chaos and disaster.  Facing almost every obstacle imaginable, Jack and Rose survive the ship’s sinking, but Jack, sadly, dies of hypothermia in the icy water.  Rose, however, was able to float on driftwood from the ship and is rescued.  Instead of giving her actual name to the steward of the rescue ship, Carpathia, Rose uses Jack’s last name, leading her mother and fiancée to believe she perished with the Titanic, thus freeing her from all constraints she felt overwhelmed by.  The film returns to an elderly Rose concluding her story.  Lovett, feeling as though he finally understands the tremendous loss and sadness attached to Titanic, decides he will not find the Heart of the Ocean and he should stop looking, letting all those who perished rest in peace.  In one of the final and most astonishing scenes of the film, the now feeble Rose walks out on the deck of Lovett’s vessel in the dark of night with the Heart of the Ocean necklace clutched in her hand.  After freeing herself of the story she kept secret for roughly 80 years, Rose tosses the necklace in the ocean.  Later that same night Rose passes away, “warm in her bed,” just as Jack predicted she would.

Without question, Titanic 3D is a better cinematic experience than Titanic, yet the three-dimensionality of the film only lends subtle differences to the eye, making it difficult for most audience members to notice distinctions between the two versions.  Unlike almost any other 3D film that comes to mind, Cameron’s Titanic 3D does not pop out at the audience; no axe swings dangerously close the viewers’ noses, no emergency flare explodes wildly from the screen toward movie-goers faces, and no water propels from the screen giving the illusion that the audience will be drenched.  These types of thrills are not James Cameron’s style; Cameron would consider these gimmicky illusions cheap and an insult to what 3D actually has to offer the medium of cinema.  Thus, Cameron’s Titanic 3D delicately picks up a greater depth perception in each shot, heightening the sense of realism conveyed to audience members: the action is more intense and the love story is more intimate. With greater realism the audience’s emotional investment in the film is heightened, which is why the cinematic experience of Titanic 3D is greater than in Titanic.

As Cameron said in a recent interview, watching Titanic 3D is like opening up a window and viewing reality.  Instead of looking at a picture on a wall, Titanic 3D offers a more nuanced visual spectacle, one more attractive to the eye because it comes closer to simulating the spatial relations the eye picks up in the real world.  Yes, there is depth perception in 2D, easily created through focus and shading, but the depth perception in 3D conveys a more genuine sense of realism.

One reason 3D works well with Titanic has to do with Cameron’s staging and camerawork in the film.  Specifically, Cameron is always doing two things with his camera: capturing the action and taking viewers on a tour of the famous ship.  Reflecting back, Cameron disperses the film’s action throughout the ship, giving audience members the sense that they are exploring the immense, gorgeous, and infamous ocean liner which now rests on the sea floor.  Thus, Cameron’s camera is always on the move, tracking, panning, sweeping up or down from a crane, or hand-held movement.  Therefore, considerable detail is captured in each shot, often elaborate set pieces or large amounts of actors.

Take, for example, the scene when Jack escorts Rose and Molly Brown to dinner in the first-class dining room.  The camera surveys the grand staircase and its landing, a particularly noteworthy feature of the ship, as Rose slyly dishes the gossip to Jack about all wealthy passengers onboard the ship.  Then, the camera follows Jack as he mingles and walks the ladies to the dining room.  Dimension is vital to the film in even a small moment such as this.  Jack and Rose must look small compared to the majestic scale of the grand staircase, yet, in the same moment, before Molly arrives, the couple stands alone, almost god-like and grandiose, removed from others, which signals to viewers the couple is in their own world, secluded from the maddening crowd.  Cameron captures their minuscule size relative to the staircase and their immense size relative to the other passengers.  Moreover, as the two moves closer to the other passengers, Jack and Rose are inextricably close to one another, and others are only a mere stone’s throw away.  The closeness of space between Jack and Rose is safe and comfortable, yet the closeness of space between the couple and the other passengers is claustrophobic and uncomfortable.  This is an incredibly delicate balance.  Dimension is exceedingly important in even the smallest of moments in Titanic, thus 3D sharpens the film’s spatial dynamic.

So, with the highly publicized release of Titanic 3D, and it being a type of subtle 3D audiences have not experienced before, is this newest 3D going to revolutionize cinema?  No.  Truth be told, 3D is still too costly because it requires special equipment for filming.  Moreover, converting films to 3D in the factory line-type fashion the industry has been recently offers an inauthentic spectacle, difficult on the eyes; this popular conversion (which is also incredibly expensive) is obvious and requires the eye to continually readjust to new frames.  Furthermore, 3D equipment does not work on the highest resolution digital cameras many filmmakers currently use; thus filmmakers would have to choose between the highest picture quality or three-dimensionality.  Also, because of the 3D glasses, there is, approximately, a 30% loss in color quality and brightness with 3D films.  It is noticeable even in Titanic 3D, and certainly one of the film’s few flaws.

3D is not going to take over cinema, at least not any time soon.  Surely the technology will continue to advance, making 3D less costly, but for 3D to revolutionize the film world audiences’ must demand it, and that is not yet happening.  Nevertheless, Titanic 3D solidifies one thing and that is Cameron as auteur with 3D being a clear mark of his filmmaking style.

“Get Away From Her, You Bitch”: Mother vs. Mother in ALIENS

•01/04/2012 • 2 Comments

1 April 2012

While still at work on The Terminator, James Cameron proposed a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction film Alien.  At first Cameron met with resistance about the project, as Alien’s success was not financially astounding enough to ensure a profitable sequel.  Nevertheless, Cameron persisted and after the financial success of The Terminator (1984) was given the green light on his sequel, Aliens (1986).

To begin, Scott’s Alien (1979) follows a crew onboard Nostromo, a spacecraft which intercepts a strange signal from the planet LV-426 and sets out to investigate.  While there, the crew encounters an alien life form that kills all but one, Ellen Ridley (Sigourney Weaver).  The film ends with Ridley defeating the alien and entering hypersleep in an escape pod for her return flight home from space.  Cameron’s Aliens (1986) pick up as Ripley awakes from that hypersleep.  Nearly 60 years have passed while Ridley was sleeping and, surprisingly, the military officials in charge of the space program do not believe her account of the alien and all that happened on LV-426 and onboard Nostromo. In fact, while Ridley was in hypersleep, the military sent “colonists” to LV-426 to prepare the terrain and purify the air for future inhabitants.  Overwhelmed, Ripley attempts to move on with her life and accepts the only job offered, a loader (a significant step down from her previous position).  Yet, when communication with the colonists on LV-426 is mysteriously lost, the military offers Ripley career advancement if she agrees to travel back with the Marines to investigate LV-426.  Ripley and crew arrive on LV-426 to find hundreds of aliens have taken over the planet, cocooned the colonists, and are using humans as hosts for certain breeding purposes.  Once again, it is man vs. alien, and, as the number of Marines decreases, Ripley once again takes the forefront in the fight for survival.

However, before the action/adventure part of the film actually takes off, one of the first things the audience learns in Cameron’s sequel is that Ripley had a 10-year old daughter, Amy, when she set out on Nostromo for her original space expedition.  Of course, Scott’s film does not mention that information; in fact, Scott’s film could not mention that information.  If the audience knew Ripley was a mother in Alien, when onboard Nostromo, it would complicate their support and concern for her as the film’s heroine.  On some level, the 1979 audience (and quite possibly even today’s audience) would view her as a mother who left her child behind, a child who was too young to care for herself, all to pursue personal interests in a dangerous career that forced a separation between mother and child.  In leaving her daughter, Ripley would have committed some wrongdoing, thus deserving, on some level, the struggle she encountered with the alien.  Ridley Scott did not make Ridley a mother in Alien because, theoretically, that would have affected the audience’s perception of her.

Yet, Cameron casually inserts this detail into Aliens during the opening scenes.  Just after waking up, Burke (Paul Reiser) comes into Ripley’s room and tells her she has been in hypersleep for many years.  He goes on to reveal Ripley’s daughter, who lived a long, full life while Ripley was in hypersleep, died three years before Ripley’s return.  Naturally, Ripley is upset with Burke’s revelation, which allows the audience to process this new information about Ripley.  By killing Amy, the film punishes Ripley for leaving her child, but also draws out from the audience sympathy for Ripley.  Because cinema is a conveyor of social standards, yes, it is necessary for Ripley to be punished; she left her child, thus her child must be taken from her.  However, leaving Amy for Nostromo was not a malicious, child-hating crime; thus, Ripley can gain the audience’s sympathy during her time of loss.

Just as the audience’s compassion kicks in for Ripley, cut to the colonists setting up LV-426, before loosing contact with the military at home.  A tank drives over the harsh terrain, and inside are a mother, father, and two young children (a boy and girl).  The tank comes upon an unidentified spaceship in a remote area.  The parents decided not to call in the discovery, but to investigate it for themselves; they tell the children to stay in the tank.  Ultimately, all but the little girl, named Newt (Carrie Henn), get killed and/or cocooned by the alien species.

This event leads to communication being lost with the colonists, progressing the narrative toward Ripley’s return to LV-426 as a military supervisor.  Shortly after landing, Ripley finds Newt, and the two develop a strong bond.  Ripley instinctively takes care of the scared girl: tucking her in to bed, carrying her, holding her hand, reassuring her, and even securing her in a seatbelt-like apparatus when driving in the tank.   In essence, bringing Ripley and Newt together sutures the rip Aliens makes between mothers and daughters: Ripley left her daughter, thus her daughter was taken from her; Newt’s mother left her; thus Newt, like Ripley’s daughter, lives all alone.  Symbolically, Newt is Ripley’s daughter, and Ripley is Newt’s mother.  Therefore, when the two find each other the mother/daughter relationship is restored.

Yet, Aliens pulls the mother/daughter relationship apart and then sutures it back together relatively early in the film, even before the audience gets one glimpse at an alien, which begs the question, “How is this motherly subplot going to lead into a science fiction film about acid-for-blood aliens?”

Well, it seems as the though the mother/daughter set-up in beginning is all part of Aliens’ climax.  Throughout the film, Ripley continues playing a maternal role for Newt, all the while battling killer aliens who are easily annihilating the Marines; yet, toward the end of the film, Newt slips and falls to a lower level of the spacecraft, separating her from Ripley.  Of course, because Ripley’s devotion for Newt blinds her from all danger, she goes in search of the girl and finds her in the one place Ripley never realized existed.

Ripley locates Newt in the nest, a part of the spacecraft on LV-426 where the aliens are bred.  As it turns out, the alien species is led by a Queen, and the Queen is the most powerful of all.  Her job is to breed and protect her eggs in the nest while the other aliens on the spacecraft act on her behalf: bringing back hosts for cocooning, keeping intruders away from the nest, and, of course, helping the Queen guard the eggs.

Essentially, the Queen is mother, and when Ripley faces off with the Queen it is mother vs. mother.  Not only is the Queen the largest and most powerful alien within a dangerous species, but the Queen is also the idolized model of the self-sacrificial, “perfect” mother.  The reason Ripley—and by extension, the audience—never knew the Queen existed is because she never left the nest; unlike Ripley, the Queen never separated from her offspring.  Therefore, one may interpret that the film spent a significant amount of time exploring mother/child relationships and showing Ripley’s increasing maternal side so she would be prepared to come face-to-face with this Queen.

The film’s climax is Ripley vs. Queen, and the two fight it out to the death, literally.  Ultimately, Ripley emerges victorious: she saves Newt, vanquishes the Queen into space, and nukes the entire planet, killing all the aliens and eggs still remaining.

Reading messages the film puts out, Aliens has a lot to say about the role of mother; in fact, it would not be a stretch to say the film is about mothers and what it means to be maternal.  In part, Aliens offers the “imperfect” mother a second chance, evident through Ripley finding Newt, and then Ripley’s defeat of the Queen.  With Newt, Ripley’s maternal instincts reignite and become stronger, and so Ripley emerges victorious in her fight against the Queen. Yet, this brings about a series of questions:  because the first thing the film does is identify Ripley as a mother, what would happen to Ripley if she did not have Newt to care for?  Does the film offer a place for mothers not accessing maternal side?  Also, what is Ripley’s purpose if not Newt?  Knowing Ripley was a mother to Amy, a daughter who is now deceased, would it be enough for Ripley to simply fight for her own survival?  Does she also have to fight for the survival of a child (Newt)?  Lastly, could she be successful against the Queen, a ferociously maternal mother, had she not been ferociously maternal herself by that point in the film?  When it comes to maternal instinct, is a mother’s biggest threat other mothers?  To some extent, what Aliens seems to suggest is mothers are allowed to make mistakes (at least human mothers, who, by nature, will make mistakes); however, according to the conclusion presented in the film, mothers must be punished for their errors, repent, and reemerge with stronger maternal instincts to survive.

Being Melodramatic: THE MAGDALENE SISTERS as a Contemporary Melodrama

•25/03/2012 • Leave a Comment

25 March 2011

In film, a melodrama is a subcategory of the drama genre, and it explores the hardship of humanity.  More pointedly, the melodrama looks into moral issues as they pertain to ordinary people.  A melodrama typically centers on conflict, usually a highly emotional, ethical conflict, which forces characters into come face-to-face with their own morality, or confront morality as it exists in society.

There are standards for the melodrama, meaning qualities that define this particular film genre.  First, melodramas primarily follow a female lead.  In large part, this is why melodramas are often referred to as “women’s films”; theoretically, films about females are more likely to appeal to female audiences.  Additionally, the female lead in the melodrama is victimized; the melodrama’s narrative will handle the female lead as though she is a victim of some wrongdoing, oppression, handicap, or restriction.  This victimization links with the moral and ethical conflicts erupting in the narrative.  The melodrama also must contain secrets and dramatic complications that intensify the emotional weight of the film.  Lastly, the melodrama typically has twists, chance meetings, and unexpected plot turns to build the drama and suspense, as well as continue to intensify the film’s emotional impact.  When these ingredients come together and simmer in front an audience for roughly two hours, the result is a touching, passionate, enthralling film; one that, for audience members, requires several tissues for sobbing, sweet and salty snacks for endurance and consolation, as well as a bathroom visit afterward to compose oneself.  This is more than a drama; this is a melodrama.

Even though melodrama is a subcategory of drama, to complicate things further, there are also subcategories of melodramas.  And one subcategory of melodrama is the “fallen woman” film. In a “fallen woman” film, the female protagonist’s sexual transgression violates a social rule, thus society exiles the woman.  Old Hollywood relished this subcategory of the melodrama.  In classic “fallen woman” melodramas a woman falls victim to the consequences of her sexual transgression and is exiled by in the film’s conclusion, meaning she is either killed or condemned in the end.  In Old Hollywood, exiling the “fallen woman” ensured audience members, particularly the female audience members whom the film targeted, would see the “fallen woman” as an example of what happens to ordinary women when their behaviors were seen as sexually promiscuous or adulterous.  Thus, the Old Hollywood’s take on the “fallen woman” melodrama promoted society’s restriction of female sexuality, favoring society’s condemnation of the “fallen women.”

This is not always the way the “fallen woman” melodrama works in the contemporary film industry; filmmakers revised their notions on how society views female sexuality and updated the genre.  Take, for example, James Cameron’s Titanic (1997/2012).  That is a “fallen woman” melodrama with a strong female protagonist, Rose (Kate Winslet), who has premarital sexual relations with her fiancé, Cal (Billy Zane), and then falls for a man below her social class, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and has sexual relations with him.  Instead of condemning Rose, the film sympathizes with the precarious position she is in, as a young woman in the early 1900s.  Yes, she is punished for her out-of-wedlock sexual relations with a man from a lower class (Jack)—her punishment is his death right in front of her eyes—, but she is not killed or denounced in the film’s conclusion.  Instead, in a startling reversal from yesteryear, she exiles herself when refusing to give her real name to the steward onboard the Carpathia.  And, in her self-inflicted exile she lives a happy, prosperous, free life.  As evident in Titanic, the contemporary melodrama typically rallies against the outrageous expectations placed on women to create a superwoman, of sorts, who defies society’s rules and bravely triumphs in the exiled wilderness.

This week’s film, The Magdalene Sisters, written and directed by Peter Mullen, is another contemporary “fallen woman” melodrama which helps redefine the genre.  This film, set in Ireland during the 1960s, follows four teenage girls who are sent to the Magdalene Asylum for their sexual transgressions.  Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by her cousin at a family wedding, and when her father finds out about it he sends her away to the asylum.  Bernadette (Nora Jane Noone), and orphan, enjoys flirting with the boys.  Even though she never had any sexual encounter, those who run the orphanage send her away from her coy, boy-crazy behavior.  Rose (Dorothy Duffy), who is renamed Patricia by the nuns in the Magdalene Asylum, has a baby out-of-wedlock.  After she is forced to give her son up for adoption, she is sent away because of her sexual transgression.  Lastly, Harriet (Eileen Walsh), who the nuns at the asylum call Crispina, also had a child out-of-wedlock and that is likely why she was sent to Magdalene Asylum.  However, Crispina is also emotionally and psychologically unstable.  It is unclear what exactly caused her to end up in the asylum; the narrative never reveals the exact circumstance surrounding her admission.   While there, the four girls are tortured, worked to the bone, and chastised by the nuns and staff.  Crispina is the object of the most punishment because her emotional and psychological instability makes it difficult for her follow the asylum’s strict rules.  In addition, she is sexually abused by the priest in the asylum, worsening her instability.  Eventually, Margaret is freed by her brother, and Bernadette and Patricia escape the grounds.  Sadly, Crispina suffers a breakdown, brought on by the unconscionable treatment inflicted upon her in the asylum, and is transferred to a hospital for the mentally insane.

The film is, without a doubt, a “fallen woman” melodrama, and clearly hits every standard set down by the genre.  The most obvious of these standards is The Magdalene Sisters has female leads and each of those women is depicted as a victim.  These four girls are victimized by an oppressive society that fears female sexuality to their point that it enslaves those who step outside the lines.  Also, the film is rooted in moral conflict.  On the surface, the girls are sent to the Magdalene Asylum because, like Mary Magdalene, the namesake, they have committed sexual transgressions that they must be punished for and repent.  Looking deeper, the film is also exploring the hypocrisy of morality in society.  The nuns, whose asylum is run like a concentration camp, are considered moral authorities because of their vows to the Church; yet, their autocratic management of the young women in their charge is appalling, highlighting the ethical flaws in the moral fiber of those who parade themselves as morally superior.

Other standards within the melodrama genre The Magdalene Sisters satisfies are the unexpected plot twists and dramatic complications, both intensifying the emotional force of the film.  An example of an unexpected plot twist is when Katy (Britta Smith), a staff member who oversees the girls as they perform laundry services, abruptly becomes fatally ill.  Katy, the once strong and feared guard, bleeds from the nose and mouth, is bedridden, and depends on the girls, namely Bernadette, to care for her in her final days.  Bernadette treats her with the same cruel, cold care Katy showed her.  Although Katy begs for Bernadette’s compassion, Bernadette refuses and tells Katy to “hurry up and die.”  Bernadette’s merciless treatment of Katy reveals how emotionally vacant this young woman has become in the asylum because of all the abuse inflicted upon her.  This melodramatic plot twist is both disturbing and tragic.

Moreover, Crispina is one of the strongest examples of dramatic complications in the film.  Because of her instability, she falls victim to scrutiny time and again.  When the girls are forced to jog naked in front of the nuns for entertainment, the nuns single Crispina out as “hairiest,” causing her significant emotional humiliation.  In fact, her nickname, Crispina, means “curly haired,” and Crispina has poker-straight hair.  While Crispina brags with pride that the nuns bestowed upon her a special nickname, she does not understand that the name refers to her pubic hair; thus, the nickname is another way of publically mocking Crispina in front of everyone.  Furthermore, Crispina is sexual abused by the priest in the asylum and contracts a disease from him.  Crispina is depicted in such a way the audience cannot help but feel protective of her.  Therefore, when she is repeatedly mistreated throughout the film, with complication after complication, the audience’s emotional intensity escalates.  Pulling these emotions out of viewers is a hallmark of the melodrama genre.

Chance encounters are also key in The Magdalene Sisters’ narrative.  It is by chance that these four young women happen to end up at the same asylum at the same time.  Margaret and Bernadette are unwilling to accept their fate in this institution, and each girl’s determination feeds the other’s, keeping the fire alive in both women.  And, in the end, when Patricia and Bernadette escape, is it by chance that they come across Bernadette’s cousin entering the hair salon.  If they had not come across her the two would likely be sent back the Magdalene Asylum and punished severely for their attempted escape.  Finally, it is also by chance that Bernadette runs into the Magdalene nuns after her escape.  Although the film cuts off before revealing whether she confronted the nuns or walked away, the encounter clearly sparked painful and traumatic memories for her, made clear through a montage of graphic images presenting in quick-cuts.

Like Old Hollywood’s “fallen woman” melodramas of yesteryear, The Magdalene Sisters fits all the standards of the genre.  However, unlike those films of yesteryear, Mullen refuses to exile his “fallen women.”  The ending of The Magdalene Sisters provides a brief statement about what happened to each girl after her time in the asylum.  Margaret became a school teacher, but never married.  Rose (Patricia in the asylum) remained a devout Catholic, found the son she was forced to give up for adoption, and had more children.  Bernadette married and divorced three times.  And, tragically, Harriet (Crispina in the asylum) dies at age 24 of anorexia.  Aside from Harriet, who, sadly, was pushed over the edge, all the girls moved on.  They all found life after Magdalene Asylum.  Although their experiences will undoubtedly remain with them, and the ramifications of the abuse they endured surely marks their lives daily, the film does not end without making it clear to the audience that the women carried on; they stayed within society and led lives of their own free-will, exiled from nothing.

Like Titanic, The Magdalene Sisters sympathizes with the “fallen women’s” sexual transgressions.  Perhaps, using the evolution of melodramas over the past 80 years as evidence, society’s disapproval of female sexuality has progressed to a disapproval of forbidding female sexuality.  While that last statement is, in large part, a generalization, there is a clear transition in the focus of a melodrama for contemporary audiences.  No longer are melodramas a simple tool cinema offers society in oppressing female sexuality.  On the contrary, melodramas now promote a society that accepts and even sympathizes with the sexual females.

A Magdalene Asylum

Teenage girls in a Magdalene Laundry

Balancing the Butcher with the Boy: The Butcher Boy, a Black Comedy

•18/03/2012 • Leave a Comment

18 March 2012

Neil Jordan’s 1997 film The Butcher Boy is one of those rare films in which content is in opposition with construct.  Put another way, The Butcher Boy is a black comedy.  This film confronts serious issues, such as death, depression, mental disorders, homicide, child molestation, alcoholism, bullying, suicide, child neglect, political unrest, and warfare, yet, as a black comedy, its confrontation lacks the seriousness these hard-hitting topics are most often handled with.

However, just because black comedies don’t treat their subject matter with the same seriousness or gravity a drama would, it does not mean black comedies are an easy genre of film to pull-off; in fact, the black comedy is, perhaps, the hardest style of film to make.  It is incredibly difficult to present hard-hitting subject matter as light-hearted to an audience in a way the viewers will understand and accept.  In addition, the audience must be entertained by the film and invested in the plot and/or characters.  If the black comedy treats the subject matter too flippantly the audience will resent it, and if the film gets too serious the audience will misunderstand it.  Truly, black comedies are a delicate genre to work in, and Neil Jordan seemed to know this when preparing The Butcher Boy.

Jordan’s film is an adaptation of a 1992 novel, of the same title, written by Pat McCabe, and Jordan collaborated with McCabe to write the film’s screenplay.  In fact, the screenplay went through three complete drafts before Jordan felt satisfied the film’s text (a.k.a. the script) could support the particular type of film he intended on making.  This indicates Jordan knew he was preparing to climb a slippery slope with The Butcher Boy and he was not committed to attempt such a feat until he had a script he felt was viable.  Jordan, an already established director at the time, seemed to realize the humor at work in The Butcher Boy as a novel would not necessarily translate to screen audiences, thus the dark yet witty tone of the novel must be adapted for the screen using cinematic devices; Jordan’s challenge as director was to convey the same dark and witty tone for his visual audience as McCabe did with his literary audience.  Ultimately, it is tone that is foundational to a black comedy’s success or failure, and The Butcher Boy’s grim narrative is presented with clever cinematics, namely a wise use of Dutch angles and upbeat, sarcastic musical accompaniment, that establish a consistent and humorous tone, making Jordan’s film a successful black comedy.

As a snapshot of the plot, The Butcher Boy is the story of Francie Brady (Eammon Owens, a pre-adolescent boy growing up during the late 1950s in Clones, Ireland.  Like many boys, Francie’s imagination is full of “cowboys and Indians,” alien creatures from sci-fi television, and comic book superheroes.  However, unlike most boys, Francie has schizophrenia, brought out by a severely troubled home-life.  Francie’s distorts reality in order to survive it, which becomes increasingly problematic when his behaviors turn brutally violent, particularly for Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw).

Jordan frequently uses Dutch angles in The Butcher Boy, which play a large role in setting the appropriate comedic tone for the film.  Typically, a Dutch angle tilts the camera so the shot is filmed from an unnatural, slanted point of view, thus a Dutch angle conveys to the audience a sense of turmoil.  True, filming Francie’s wild behavior through Dutch angles reinforces Francie is out of control, and his actions are wrecking havoc on his town, its residents, and others he encounters on his adventures.  Also true, these tilted angles remind the audience it is not just Francie who is the problem; Jordan film’s other characters and sets in Dutch angles to remind views the world around Francie, which is entirely out of his control, is also in turmoil. Yet, these standard uses of Dutch angles are, likely, not the driving force behind Jordan’s decision to employ tilted shots in The Butcher Boy.

Perhaps most importantly, Jordan uses these Dutch angles to ease the audience’s mind when exploring the narrative’s dark content, all the while supporting the film’s comedic overtone.  These tilted angles are unnatural and therefore unrealistic.  Jordan captures many of the film’s darkest moments in Dutch angles to emphasize their fictional, surreal quality.  In making the film’s visual presentation far removed from reality the audience is more willing to accept Jordan’s exploration into hard-hitting topics.  Also, the audience is more likely to find humor in Francie’s quick-witted remarks and cheeky expressions when viewers are not seeing him from a realistic perspective.

Moreover, because Francie is so interested in comic books, Dutch angles are a clever mirror for the slanted angles cartoonists use in comic strips.  Jordan presents his shots as a cartoonist may present a comic strip.  Interpreting Jordan’s use of Dutch angles as, in part, a pull on comic strips is supported by the film’s opening credits which are series of red-washed comics.  Suggesting the film is a moving comic, of sorts, further suspends the audience from reality and supports an absurd and/or humorous tone in the film.

The Green Lantern comic demonstrating the Dutch-like angle used in comics.

Additionally, during the opening comic sequence of The Butcher Boy, an instrumental version of the song “Mack the Knife” accompanies the comics.  Like the Dutch angles, much of the music in The Butcher Boy helps maintain the film’s tone, particularly “Mack the Knife,” which is used repeatedly.  The song is originally from The Beggar’s Opera, by John Gay, written in the early 18th century.  Gay’s opera is a satire about the class system and politics of his time, which already sounds very familiar to The Butcher Boy.  Macheath, the character from the song’s lyrics, is of the “low-class” in Gay’s opera and also cheats, steals, and lies but never becomes violent.  As time went on, “Mack the Knife” got a makeover, most notably after Bobby Darin recorded the popular version of the song in the 1950s, which transformed the character of Macheath into a suave ladies’ man, who happens to be a serial killer.

The song’s repeated placement in the film adds sarcasm, wit, and irony to The Butcher Boy. The first time this song is heard in the opening sequence provides an example for the audience of the type of humor and entertainment Jordan’s film aims to achieve.  In the 1950s, Bobby Darin recorded this song about a serial killer that was an instant smash and still remains an icon song of its era.  The content may be questionable, but the arrangement and beat of the song make it pleasurable to listen to.  That’s exactly what The Butcher Boy aims for; difficult subject matter, but witty and entertaining to watch.

Also, the film never uses the song’s lyrics, but many of the lines have slipped into our consciousness and audience members cannot help but to think them, or even sing them,  when the instrumental is played.  And, many of those lyrics are highly appropriate for The Butcher Boy.  For example, the song repeats “…old Mackey’s back in town,” which connects with Francie in the film.  First as a runaway, then reform school, next the garage, and finally the hospital and prison, Francie, like Mack, keeps leaving town and coming back.  And, as the song warns, everyone should “look out” each time Francie gets back to town.

The song, as a popular tune of yesteryear, not only lends credibility to The Butcher Boy, by demonstrating that being entertained by morbid and off-color subject matter is nothing new and can be wildly successful, it also supports the tone of Jordan’s black comedy.  “Mack the Knife” and other songs used throughout the film are upbeat and catchy in addition to being witty, sarcastic, and, at times, out-right biting.  In this way, the songs are a balance for the film’s darker content, making the musical accompaniment a necessary part of maintaining tone.

Quality black comedies are not as easy to find.  In a way, black comedies are a bit like horror films; a small percentage of what gets made is truly remarkable and the rest is useless.  Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy finds itself in that small, remarkable percentage.  Stemming from an already successful novel, this film translated well onto the screen in large part due to thorough and consistent cinematics, namely the ones mentioned in this piece as well as a host of others, that all work together to create an even consistent tone for The Butcher Boy.

With Obstacles Come Opportunity: Handheld Camerawork on a Budget in ONCE

•11/03/2012 • Leave a Comment

11 March 2012

Irish writer/director John Careny directed three films prior to his Academy Award winner Once.  None of those films were major successes, which is why it took several years for Once to finally get the green-light from the Irish Film Board.  However, even the go-ahead from the Irish Film Board was not a dream come true for Carney and his cast and crew.  Yes, the film was on its way, but there was still not enough money offered to make the film on the scale many film get made in other, more lucrative, industries.  Nevertheless, Carney set forth with Once, a film he wrote as well as directed, for a 17-day shot on location in Dublin, Ireland.  In the end, Carney worked though every obstacle presented to him while making Once and, in spite of setbacks and insufficient funding, made a film both refreshing and remarkable.

Set in present day Dublin, Once follows the short time when the lives of two unnamed characters intersect.  “Guy” (Glen Hansard, as he is credited) is a struggling musician who lives with his father and works in a vacuum repair shop.  “Girl” (Marketa Irglova, as she is credited) is a Czech immigrant living in Ireland working as a cleaning lady and flower girl to support her young daughter, Ivanka.  Like “Guy,” “Girl” is musically talented, but does not fully explore her melodious flair until the night she stumbles upon “Guy” singing for tips in front of a clothing store.  The two almost instantly become inseparable.  Together they literally create beautiful music, and figuratively develop a strong bond before their brief intersection comes to an end.

Once’s limited budget certainly forced sacrifices during filmmaking and required resourcefulness on the part of the cast and crew.  For example, certain shooting licenses were never obtained, pushing the filmmaker to shoot his actors and action from a distance, with distance lenses, avoiding suspicion that a movie was illegally being filmed on the streets of Dublin.  Moreover, filming for the party scene too place in Glen Hansard’s personal flat because securing another location would have cost too much money and required paperwork.  This “makeshift” type of filmmaking makes it difficult to assess Once for its cinematics.  If the director did not make every cinematic decision willfully and intentionally—if, instead, he was forced to settle on decisions because of a lack resources—the film will not support a dissection of its cinematics.

Yet, upon second thought, every film, to varying degrees, is made from improvisations during filmmaking.  After all, Steven Spielberg began filming Jaws without knowing how to capture a shot of the shark, and filmed for weeks before figuring out a solution to his problem.  Spielberg used his resourceful nature and experimented cinematically.  Instead of showing the audience the shark, Spielberg allowed the camera, using special underwater equipment, to shoot from the perspective of the shark.  Instead of seeing the shark approaching, the camera itself slowly approaches an unsuspecting woman’s legs, as they tread water just below the surface.  That reversed perspective, compounded with a brilliantly understated musical score, redefined suspense and brought Spielberg’s shark to life.  Apparently, with obstacles come opportunities, and when a challenge during filmmaking occurs there is always a chance for something(s) rather extraordinary, inventive, and/or original to happen for cinema.

Almost certainly, this is the case with Once.  Whether the cinematics used were ones Carney wanted or ones he had to use to get the shots he needed, Once’s composition has technique to it, and that technique, whether desired or not, works for the film.  One of the most noteworthy cinematic techniques employed in Once is the use of handheld camerawork, a technique that lends realism and credibility to Carney’s film.

From a narrative perspective, there is not much of a story unfolding in Once, and what minimal plot it has is not complicated to follow.  Thus, the audience is asked to invest their interest in these two unnamed characters without much in return.  Yet, with the handheld camera technique a sense of realism is added to the film, and the audience watches as though a spectator wandering the streets, shops, and flats of Dublin with these two characters.  The handheld camera moves constantly, swaying around the action with all the range a person has while looking about; there is barely a still or stagnant moment, which makes the film incredibly dynamic.  Moreover, the handheld technique immerses the audience in the film; whether the audience is positioned right next to the characters, at a distance across a busy street, outside a restaurant looking in on them, or inside a recording studio with them, the audience almost always assumes a natural positioning, heightening viewers emotional and intellectual attachments to what they observe.  If the handheld technique was not employed, the audience would assume the role of an omniscient viewer, removed from the action they witness, which could not engage an audience with such a minimal narrative.

Another useful aspect of handheld camerawork is that it requires less cutting, which is part of the reason is creates a stronger sense of realism.  Many of the scenes in Once are largely uninterrupted by cuts.  For example, the sequence containing the film’s most famous song, “Falling Slowly” (which won the Academy Award for Best Song from a Motion Picture in 2007), is filmed in a music shop with infrequent cuts.  As “Guy” hastily teaches “Girl” the songs arrangement there are a total of six cuts, and when the two actual perform the song there are six more cuts and one cut-away to the music shop owner at the register.  While the camera sways around the entire time, back and forth behind and to the side of the piano, going from character to character and continuing to take advantage of the free-range the handheld camera technique has, the lack of cuts, and therefore preserved continuity of time, offers the audience the opportunity to invest with the characters and the song without interruption.

If anything the “Falling Slowly” scene would have been strengthened by no cuts at all; however, no cuts would have required perfection from the actors and cameraman (likely the director himself) while filming, which is a difficult feat to achieve.  If anything were to go wrong while filming a sequence without cuts the entire sequence would have to be reshot from the beginning, which is costly, timely, and non-conducive to Once’s budget.

All in all, for an independent film from Ireland that didn’t have much money or time to work with, Once is a better piece of cinema than the majority of films made from deep pockets that showcase big-named celebrities.  Yes, Carney would have, likely, made changes to the film if his resources were not as limited; however, he relied on his own creative resources as filmmaker to create something original, something unlike the rest.  The handheld camera technique is accommodating to even the smallest of budget, but, in this case, infuses the film with a necessary element; as “Guy” binds with “Girl,” the audience is bonding with Once, in large part thanks to the effective handheld camera technique.


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