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During the lecture which prefaced our viewing of this film, you suggested that if one advances too much that is original and unexpected in an argument that it is unlikely to be well received. I had your point in mind as I saw Vertov’s film, and I wondered if it prove too different from the sort of films I am used to viewing for me to enjoy it. I found it frenetic at times, and energetic—often, but not alienating. Why? Certainly Vertov’s efforts to ensure that there is continuity between linked shots, that some sort of motion, some kind of image, is maintained, but in the midst of watching this film I think I came to trust that the film would not prove too unsettling by the familiar way in which he frames most of his scenes. In fact, so stable, so certain, so familiar and friendly is the framing of so many of the shots, that if I had to sum up the film in one word I would (almost) be tempted to use picturesque or beautiful rather than frenetic, energetic, or experimental. I am thinking in particular of how the “city at dawn” is shot. The streets are quiet—this helps, most certainly. It is a slowly paced beginning; this helps too. And the privileged position I am offered to watch the young woman putting her bra on put me (at least) at ease. But constantly we see and experience balanced, harmonious compositions. Stable shots of buildings, streets, shutters, shadows, establish order. Even the kino-eye, a perfect circle, soothes me, even though it impolitely stares at me. Overall, not a bad way to start the morning. Dawn duly prepares us for the “day” portion of the film, where we encounter a variety of scenes which might ostensibly be experienced as jarring. For instance, a scene in which a couple is getting married is coupled with one in which a couple is getting divorced. But because the
framing of the two scenes (if I remember correctly, I believe the positioning of the three people in both scenes suggested a triangle) matches, I sensed symmetry far more than I did discord (more marriage than divorce). Also, in some of the day-time street scenes, aerial long-shots provide us with an impression of purposeful but erratic street activity (at these times, the street crowd seems most mob-like; car movements also seem jerky, and convey a sense of unsteadiness), but I found that the curved tram track lines in these scenes functioned to “girder” the rest of the activity that occurs therein. As the film proceeds, it quickens its pace, and what a thrill! We’re riding the Soviet Express, and speeding along on firm tracks towards a sure future.
Citizen Kane Man with a Movie Camera journeys into the future; Citizen Kane beckons us to re-visit our past. Both journeys are difficult ones, for both are journeys into the unknown. Most of us repress the more disturbing elements of our pasts so that memories of wounds inflicted by those we most depend upon, by those we most need to conceive of us as loving and supportive, do not cripple our ability to function. However, we are drawn to return, to revisit childhood traumas, even though part of psyche ever warns us not to trespass there. How do we manage it then? One way is to bring along a guide, a proxy, someone strong who can and will filter the experience for us so that the revisits are less immediate and overwhelming. The film begins with us making a trespass, and we likely felt vulnerable as the camera moved incrementally forward via jump cuts toward the lit window in the Xanadu estate. As we
move beyond the sign, alienating music starts up, gargoyle-like monkeys scream: we’ve tripped an alarm. When we reach the window, the illuminated window suddenly darkens and the music stops: something is about to happen, maybe to us, for having trespassed! And, indeed, something unpleasant does happen to us--we encounter a quick succession of disorienting images. We suddenly see snow falling on a cabin; where is this image coming from?, we wonder. As if our minds are being read, an answer is offered in the next shot, in which we see that the cabin is encased in a ball, held in a man’s hand. We thought we were looking at a very large object but in fact were looking at something that could be cupped in a hand. We next are confronted with an extreme close-up of the man’s lips as he says, “Rosebud.” The word “rose” jars with the swamp-like Xanadu surround we have just passed through, as well as the snow which encased the cabin and which we still see superimposed on the image of the man’s lips. Rose connotes life, thus it also jars with the subsequent images we are confronted with of the ball shattering, and of the man’s death. We intruded into Xanadu, and were made to feel most unwelcome. We now encounter the newsreel, which first startles with its loudness, but probably just as soon soothes us. Xanadu is once again presented to us, but it doesn’t press upon us; rather, it is forced to tell the tale the creator of the newsreel wants it to tell. Just as we began our first visitation to Xanadu by observing words written on a sign, the newsreel shows us words likening Xanadu to Kubla Khan. But we see Xanadu being stocked with statues and animals; we see it in the midst of being constructed. Despite being likened to Kubla Khan, it is demystified; it no longer suggests the supernatural or the unconscious. Thompson composed the reel. His face is
hidden in shadows—but there is little mystery to him, either. He is not one human being seeking out the nature of another’s soul. He is a reporter, a non-descript company man, a man without a soul who functions, who does his job. Thompson accompanies us until the very end of the movie. Everything we witness (except for the last shot of the sled), he witnesses too. He is there each of the five times we journey into and exit from Kane’s past. These five journeys—which in my opinion are not designed to show us Kane through a particular person’s—can be counted on to be more-or-less non-pulsed by anything he sees. When we leave each episode, we can convince ourselves that Thompson was the intended audience. Since in each journey we see Kane abandoned by those whom he loves most--starting with his mother’s abandonment of him (in the scene where Kane is sent away from his parents, the mother is shown as coldly deliberate, while the father is the one who tries his best to assuage what he knows is sure to prove a haunting memory for Kane), which necessitated all the others (we are always drawn to repeat our traumas), and since most of us have experienced those same feelings of abandonment, we are glad to have the inert, unmovable Thompson there to support us in what could sometimes prove to be an overwhelming and affecting journey. A even better guide would be a film critic, of course. S/he’ll have us so studious of the camera angles and the mise-en-scene that we might be even better able to resist identifying too closely with Kane.
Breathless If being postmodern is to be at a distance from, to be free from the influence of a
previous era, we should all be postmoderns. I have never truly liked branding people as Moderns or as Victorians, never liked exploring their writing or art and seeing the influence of their times upon their craft—such a way of imagining people makes them see like a period’s puppets (how cruel!). I have never wanted to belittle anyone’s desire to be free, to be self-determining. I could not help but enjoy Breathless. In this film I see youth trying on various identities; I see playful self-dramatizations. Patricia says that she didn’t recognize Michel in the newspaper image because the picture she is shown is an old one. I initially thought that she said as much to cover up for a previous lie, but there is honesty in what she says: Patricia likes to imagine that she might not have Michel: she hopes that time will never fix her, define her, crystallize and cage her in one identity. She flirts with many identities, but never for long, lest she overextend herself. In the bedroom scene, she imagines herself a beauty captured in a painting. We see a photograph of her on the wall, which reminds us of the Renoir poster she has just purchased. But she does this only after telling Michel that she wants to be a novelist, that is, someone who paints pictures of others. She holds a teddy-bear—she is a child. Later, she robs a car—she is a rebellious teen. Later still she leaves Michel and likely imagines herself pursuing a career as a journalist—she moves into an adult world, a pose which will soon be abandoned for another. Both Patricia and Michel move about unpredictably; they make quick turns. They have tried on so many identities, turned down and explored so many paths—if only briefly—that they cannot be caught by a previous generations’ rigid assumptions about how life is to be lived. I am like them, and am not like them: I too flee cages and delight in postmodern freedoms.
The Conversation Is it possible that this film could be said to represent the 70’s, that is, to show with fidelity how it felt to be someone living through that decade and yet be a box-office bomb? Possibly (though we must account for the popularity of movies which come out of nowhere such as The Blair Witch Project, which really seem to owe their success to the fact that they convey how many people experience their day-to-day lives [I’m not kidding]). Therapists, for example, are often careful not to provoke their patients to face truths about themselves which they are not yet ready to handle, lest they turn away from therapy. Perhaps the reason this film wasn’t successful at the box-office was because it didn’t sufficiently couch the truths it reveals about Americans and their country. I remember American politics during the 70’s sufficiently to remember how Americans reacted to Carter’s assessment that America was in a funk. Very likely, as soon as Carter began to embody the way the typical American felt, rather than the way they wanted to feel about themselves and their country, Carter guaranteed that he would be dumped for a more phallic, cowboy president Perhaps, during the 70s, the way to show a man’s fear that powerful institutions might mean him harm, that his privacy--regardless of well he tries to secure it against penetration from outsiders--could be penetrated, is illustrated in the film of Coppola’s which beat out The Conversation both at the box-office and at the academy awards, Godfather 2. In some ways, the movies can be imagined as being similar to one another. Both movies, for example, feature someone who normally “preys” upon others as the one who now is preyed upon. Both suggest
how tenuous an individual’s privacy is. The plot of Godfather 2 is set in motion when Michael and his wife come close to be assassinated in their bedroom, despite the armoury that exists to protect him at his private estate. Yes, Michael is the head of the largest crime family, but his status as a loner, the fact that it seems as if the rest of the mob world has allied itself with American government in an effort to destroy him, makes him seem vulnerable. Like Harry, Michael trusts no one, and to quote Pacino’s character from Scent of a Woman, he is “all alone in this thing.” But until Michael’s confrontation with his wife about her alleged miscarriage, Michael never loses his cool, and, like most American heroes, he endures and triumphs over his opponents. Like The Conversation, Godfather 2 presents America with someone who experiences their fears, but unlike the former film, Godfather 2 suggests how they might ostensibly emerge out of their current funk: they need to find for themselves a hero who can punctuate the morass, and inaugurate a “can-do” decade (as we know, they found one, alas).
Adaptation “Imagine” (John Lennon) You may say I’m a dreamer, But I’m not the only one, I hope some day you’ll join us And the world will live as one. I remember being disappointed that in her wonderful film, Lost in Translation, Sophia Coppola portrayed both Charlotte’s husband, John, and the actress, Kelly, as such unreflecting, unaware characters that it was difficult to consider their manner of engaging with other people, with life, as something others ought to emulate. (More than this, she shaped them into people so
ridiculous [especially Kelly] that we were cued to ridicule and laugh at them. Maybe if I made a film, I would tell Kelly’s story—though maybe such fun films such as Legally Blonde1 have already succeeded in doing so.) Donald, in his enthusiastic, spontaneous, unguarded manner is Adaptation’s Kelly, and to its credit, Adaptation comes close to celebrating a way of being which Lost in Translation scorns. However, Adaptation’s screen writing guru, McKee, is portrayed as a smug, self-satisfied, soulless buffoon. Too bad, cause just like how in Lost in Translation John was right to draw attention to Charlotte’s tendency to “point out how stupid everyone is,” McKee rightly challenges Kauffman’s assumption that life just isn’t like a typical Hollywood movie, “it just isn’t.” McKee argues that in life, “people find love,” and we are reminded of Kauffman’s declaration that “an alienated journalist falling in love with a backwoods guy” just couldn’t happen. McKee, however, doesn’t really want people to write about life; he wants them to structure their scripts so they are easily digested by the film viewing public. The sorts of people who are apt to see Adaptation, therefore, are given little reason to take McKee’s terse, myopic response to Kauffman’s claims seriously. An opportunity, wasted, in my opinion.
1 I also suspect that Gigli was too excessively scorned by critics (I haven’t yet seen it, but I know that
Ebert liked quite a bit of it, so I might check it out. I like Ebert for the same reason I like Donald: he doesn’t inhibit expressing himself, even when it means opening himself up to ridicule.) Also, I meant to put this in my journal somewhere, so why not here? I am not the only one who thinks Tarantino did a reasonably good job of acting in Pulp Fiction: some people in your class thought so too. But I bet that in some circles, admitting this would take courage.
The film ends, Hollywood style. Kauffman hates when movies show “people growing, or characters changing, or character learning to like each other, or characters overcoming obstacles,” and all this occurs as Kauffman admits his admiration and love for his brother amidst a life and death struggle with a writer of sophisticated urbane prose turned gun-touting maniac. Yet despite my awareness of the plot and character development as plot and character development, the brothers’ shared adventure, their tender treatment of one another, moved me. Even though I knew the brother would perish, disappointed at the outcome, I sighed, and wished things had turned out better (as I did in Forrest Gump—poor Jennie). I wasn’t manipulated: the switch to a Hollywood way of plotting the film is obvious to all. But just as I watched Lost in Translation because I enjoyed the company of its actors, I enjoyed being with the two different but equally engaging Cages. I rooted for them, wanted them to grow. I wanted Kauffman, in particular, to like himself more. In real life, these things happen to people. I know from my own experience of life that growth, happiness, warmth are all very real (though some unfortunate folks might want to convince me that I do so cause I’ve learned to narrate my life, Hollywood style.) Kauffman knows this, I’m sure—he is too passionate, too humane, not to. Classic Hollywood scripts don’t always portray truths, but they can be less dishonest than some people suppose. My point is that maybe it is isn’t so silly to suppose that movies which radiate happiness, warmth, and optimism have some soul, too.