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
• 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
• 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
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
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
• 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
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
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
• 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
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
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
• 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
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.
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