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Film Studies
Film Studies 1020E
Barbara Bruce

Film weekly reading notes Ideas of Authorship: Buscombe • Originally called “la politiques des auteurs” but was shortened to avoid confusion • This theory claimed that film was a form of “personal expression” and should not follow the same format that Hollywood films do. People tried to make film seem like painting, or drawing, and that they were free to create whatever form of film they pleased. • Truffaut defines a true film auteur as one who brings something genuinely personal to his subject instead of mere ly producing a tasteful, accurate but lifeless rendering of the original material • Hitchcock is a true example of an auteur. • The auteur's ability to make a film truly his own, aka a kind of original, and the metteur en scene's inability to disguise the fact that the origin of his film lies somewhere else. • This theory is a reaction against the sociological criticism that argued the why against the how. • Over a group of films a director must exhibit certain recurring characteristics of style, which serve as his signature. • All directors, and not just in Hollywood, are imprisoned by the conditions of their craft and their culture. The reason foreign directors are almost invariably given more credit for creativity is that the local critic is never aware of all the influences operating in a foreign environment. • The auteur theory argues is that any film, certainly a Hollywood film, is a network of different statements, crossing and contradicting each other, elaborated into a final ‘coherent’ version. Like a dream, the film the spectator sees is, so to speak, the ‘film façade’, the end product of ‘secondary revision’, which hides and masks the process, which remains latent in the film’s ‘unconscious’. Auteur or Hack? : Kapsis • The reputation of an artist who routinely works in a particular genre reflects, in part, the consensus of the art world about the extent to which serious and important can be done in that genre (Hitchcock’s thrillers). • Hitchcock was not celebrated during his tenure as a film director but merely years later. This sudden rise in popularity can be attributed to his publicity machine, as they improved his reputation among influential members of the American and international film world. • There are three theories of reputation and how one, or Hitchcock in this instance, can improve it. These are: o The first explanation, what might be termed the individualistic theory of reputation, argues that reputations are based on works.  In this view, if an artist’s stature improves during his or her lifetime, a major reason is simply that the artist got better. o The second theory of reputation is based on an institutional or ‘art world’ conception.  According to this view, a change in a maker’s reputation reflects changes in the esthetic standards or judgments of key art world members rather than changes emanating from the works themselves. o The third theory of reputations emphasizes the active role of the artist in molding his public image.  According to this Machiavellian view, artists frequently help their reputations through self-promotion. The Idea of Genre in the American Cinema: Buscombe • Genre is a term much employed in film criticism, yet there is little agreement on what exactly it means or whether the term has any use at all. • Aristotle supported the notion of different kinds of literature. His purpose was to decide what the particular qualities of each distinctive kind were, and what each kind could be expected to do and not do. • The New Criticism believed that a work of literature exists by itself and relies upon no reference to any external reality, whether contemporary or historical. o The neo-Aristotelians were concerned with rescuing literature from such self-imposed isolation, and in attempting to do so they partially resurrected the theory of genres. • Many people wish to avoid the whole question of genre because it is held that it will lead to the laying down of rules and regulations that will arbitrarily restrict the freedom of artists to create what they like, or the freedom of critics to talk about anything they want to. o One does not have to set up a Platonic ideal, to which all particular examples try vainly to aspire, not even to say that the closer any individual film comes to incorporating all the different elements of the definition, the more fully it will be a western, or gangster picture or musical. o Aristotle’s original intention was descriptive, not prescriptive. • It is possible to draw up a list of elements found in films that, for the purposes of the argument, are called westerns and to say that any film with one or more of these elements is thereby held to be a western, though not therefore necessarily identical to other examples of the form. • It is difficult to argue that rhythm (closely tied to directorial decisions) or structure (plot) can be seen as common factors throughout “genre”. • Dealing with a visual medium (cinema), we ought to look for defining criteria in what we actually see on the screen (outer forms). o Example: In the Western films, we are frequently shown country, deserts, mountains, jails, saloons, courtrooms, etc. o Example: In the Western films, clothes are also playing a large role. We see items such as: wide-brimmed hats, open-neck shirts, tight jeans, etc. o Example: There are the various tools of the trade, principally weapons, and of these, principally guns (one common item is the single-shot, muzzle-loading musket) – supports the typical inclusion of violence. o Example: There are also horses, commonly used as props in the Western film. Indians ride barebacked, a sign perhaps of their closeness to the animal world. If a woman does not ride sidesaddle she is no lady and finally, doctors and judges ride in a buggy. • The film, like all films, is about people. The visual conventions (as mentioned above) provide a framework within which the story can be told. o If you are making a western film, you will tend not to consider certain themes or subjects, you are consciously trying to adapt the form to your purpose in an arbitrary way. • Convention: The men are aggressively masculine and lead wandering lives and the women are forced either to stay at home or become the equivalents of men, few westerns have a strong love interest. The formal elements of the genre make it hard to deal with subjects that presupposed in the characters an interest in, and a time for, the heart’s affections. • The subject matter that determines the outer form, not the other way round; that the things a director wants to say will decide the form he or she uses (history does not play an integral role). o If one argues history’s importance, it is misunderstanding of the nature and meaning of genres and how they work. • The major defining characteristics of genre will be visual: guns, cars, clothes in the gangster films; clothes and dancing in the musical; castles, coffins, and teeth in horror movies. • The genre not only allows merely competent directors to produce good films, but also, allows good directors to be better. • Our conscious reaction to scenes in films (for example the cellar scene in Psycho) is due to us being assimilated to these responses through an exposure to the tradition of the genre. • The artist brings to the genre his or her own concerns, techniques, and capacities – in the wildest sense, a style – but receives from the genre a formal pattern that directs and disciplines the work. o Constant exposure to a previous succession of films has led the audience to recognize certain formal elements as charged with an accretion of meaning (commonly referred to as “icons”). • It is possible for a director to “work against the convention”, but this is not possible unless the director and the audience had a tradition in common (the genre). • We need to understand how important semiology is, to explore the precise relation between the artist and his or her given material, in order to explain our intuitive feeling that a genre is not a mere collection of dead images waiting for a director to animate it, but a tradition with a life of its own. Night of the Living Dead: Dillard • The film’s popular success would be to say that it has simply outdone all of its rivals in the lingering and gross detail of its scenes of violence and that it appeals has simply been to that basest of needs, the need for unrestrained violence. o Example: The film’s horrific specifics are remarkably detailed – walking corpses fighting over and eating the intestines of the film’s young lovers, a close-shot of one of them eating her hand, a child’s stabbing of her mother on camera fourteen times or gnawing on her father’s severed arm, etc. • The film takes the source of its horrors from another desire and a fear that lies certainly as deep in the human consciousness, if not deeper. This is a fear of the dead and particularly of the known dead, of dead kindred. o The ancient fear is unleashed on the characters in the film and on the audience with a force that only savage violence can repel. The movie thrusts its audience into a situation of primordial fear and offers them neither rational nor religious relief. The apparently universal human ability to find pleasure in an artistic rehearsing of its worst fears is certainly at the heart of the film’s popular success, and the film’s unrelenting avoidance of all traditional ways of handling the fear it has called up must be at much of the heart of its critical success. • Quote: “Things are so demonstrably bad, life is no longer desirable.” • The film is thoroughly and carefully composed, and the nature of its composition is the key to its thematic and aesthetic values, to its moral nature. o The film’s setting and its characters can be defined by their ordinary nature (dully and commonplace). o The night of the living dead is a Sunday night, the first after the time change in the autumn. The season, with its overtones of dying away and approaching winter cold, is symbolically significant, as is the Sunday, which emphasizes the failure of religion in a secular age. o The rest of the house is symbolic only in its functional uses. It is a fortress, a last barrier against the forces of destruction, and the ease which it gives itself to that transformation offers some symbolic comment on its always having been such a fortress even its peaceful past. But otherwise, a house is a house – ordinary and real, practically unchanged by the filmmakers, symbolizing and meaning only itself. o The characters (the living characters) are just as ordinary, being closely related to the American middle class, the “silent majority”.  Both of them (Barbara and Johnny) are ordinary, “realistic” people, and they both respond in normal ways – Johnny mocks his sister but gives his life for her, and Barbara finds the strength to escape a danger, but her strength gives abruptly and naturally when she finds some semblance of sanctuary.  Ben, the black “hero”, is shown in an ordinary context; he is just an intelligent and vital man caught in bad circumstances, trying to do what he can about it.  Tom and Judy are a young couple, contrasting the failing marriage of Harry and Helen (not very intelligent, but genuinely in love). • The film is, then, the story of everyday people in an ordinary landscape, played by everyday people who are, for the most part, from that ordinary locale. • Ben kills the living dead man in the house. The effectiveness of the dead woman at the top of the stairs depends upon that fear. But after Ben shows that the dead can be killed again, the fear of the dead begins to lose power. The dead, unlike death itself, can be stopped and become a more ordinary horror, one to which there can be a practical response. o The living dead (no different from any other natural disaster) can be compared to a flood (as mentioned by Tom). Once their individuality is denied, they become no less dangerous, but they do lose that initial aura of ancient fear. They become ordinary. o The living people are dangerous to each other, both because they are potentially living dead should they die and because they are human with all of the ordinary human failings. • The ordinary, everyday world may become dangerous and deadly. o Not only have all of the human beings in the film become dangerous to each other, but also the familiar household objects around them have become as dangerous (we have become introduced to the fear of life itself). o The characters exhibit traditional virtues and vices, but the good and the bad, the innocent and the guilty, all suffer the same fate: they all lose. • The hand, the most active and productive physical extension of the human mind, is rendered perversely in this film; its values are inverted. o Ben rebuilds the house using his hands, he strikes Barbara to end her hysteria with his hand, he drags the body of the old lady away with his hands, he kills the first of the living dead to enter the house by hand, he covers Barbara’s feet with shoes he had found for her, etc.  The futility of his manual efforts becomes increasingly apparent; the hand loses practical and symbolic power. His slapping of Barbara snaps her out of her hysteria but into a near coma. He is forced to turn the rifle rather than the hand as the emblem of his power and the extension of his will. When the first ghoul’s hand bursts through his handiwork, it signals the beginning of the end, the descent into Stein’s “symphony of psychotic hands”. The eating of Judy’s hand marks the final defeat of the hand as an effective emblem of rational and moral behavior. • The structural system of closing in is formed of three elements. o The simplest of these is the visually textural and traditionally symbolic use of light (film moves from waning daylight through a night of horror to a new dawn).  They try to combat this with light and fire, but as the light fails, fire becomes a dangerous weapon. It leads to the young couple’s death and to Ben’s final moments (he is burned). o The geographical structure of the film is vertical, but with a radical simplicity (different form the ambiguity and complexity of the plot).  The car begins by moving uphill to a cemetery in daylight. Barbara then escapes moving the car downhill and towards the home. Ben and Harry argue about the safest place in the house (cellar or upstairs). o The film’s editing is fully supportive and expressive of the film’s thematic, textural, and structural design.  The film’s pacing eventually becomes as frenetic as its action, subsiding only as Ben retreats into the cellar as the living dead stumble aimlessly about overhead. • The real horror of Night of the Living Dead is not, then, a result of its inspiring a fear of the dead or even a fear of the ordinary world. It lies rather in its refusal to resolve those fears in any way that does not sacrifice human dignity and human value. • Love itself comes to nothing but a fiery end, as Tom and Judy’s experience shows. Even the value of individual identity collapses as it reveals itself to be weak in the face of disaster, even weaker in one respect than the body, which is able to walk on without the guidance of individual consciousness. • A polysemic symbol: The zombies can be read even within a single film as symbolizing many different ideas or things, expressing anxieties about: o Vietnam War o The space race and science o Dehumanization and mindless consumption o Cannibalism – symbolizes consumption o The dysfunction in capitalist America o The living • Ben o First black hero in a horror film o Race as a non-issue in the film o Until the ending – black man killed, violence of civil rights, Ben’s increasing violence in the film similar to rise black power violence. • Cooper o Selfish, cowardly o Ben and Cooper’s need for control/their inability to cooperate (nothing to do with race). • The Women (Barbara, Mrs. Cooper, Judy) o Is the film misogynistic or critical of how women are socialized? – Film critiques how the medium has suppressed women and rendered them as useless, women in the film are what women expect them to be and what it has made them. • Critique: The able bodied people cannot move past their own selfish needs to be bright and gain control against the slow moving zombies. Lonely Boy: Hanley • The 1962 documentary Lonely Boy is a film about the manufacture of a pop idol (Paul Anka). • The directors use a variety of strategies to express their view of him as an isolated figure who is seen by his handlers as a piece of merchandise and whose success is questionable. o They manage to present this image through interviews, which focus on the process of Anka’s rise, frequent references to the merchandising operation he is at the center of, editing that highlights the freakishness and hysteria of his fans, and frequent shots that emphasize his isolation. • Feld’s willingness to straightforwardly discuss Anka’s looks and his marketing strategies to promote him suggest that Anka’s transformation into an idol has made him a product to be sold as much as the records and other souvenirs. • Emphasis on merchandising, fans filled with Anka-related products • The pop star is directly compared to a puppet and a piece of merchandise • Directors’ skeptical view of the celebrity machine and the idea that despite Anka’s success Lonely Boy can be seen as yet another Canadian film about failure • Quote: “Paul, you don’t belong to yourself anymore, you belong to the world”. • An edit juxtaposes the image of Paul Anka and a monster puppet, reinforcing another aspect of the film, the highli
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