Friday, 28 November 2008

Upcoming films

At the cinematheque on Wednesday and Thursday are two westerns by Sam Peckinpah: Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969). And at the Korea Foundation Cultural Center this month are three films: The Notebook (Nick Cassavetes, 2004), The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002), and the Korean film Barefoot Gibong (Kwon Su-Kyeong, 2006).

Sunday, 23 November 2008

New Podcast Recommendation

I have recently discovered a new podcast called "Battleship Pretension." It is a roughly one-hour weekly discussion by two mid-20s cinephiles, Tyler Smith and David Bax. It is not review orientated, but rather an informal discussion between two friends around some film-related topic. Enjoyment of the show will probably depend on whether you like the two hosts and their interaction. It may also depend on whether you have a number of like-minded friends with whom you can have these types of discussions with in person. Since I currently lack any cinephile friends living in the same city, I enjoy eavesdropping on their usually intelligent and amusing conversations. It is, along with Filmspotting and the Plastic Podcast: Movies, one of the three movie podcasts I listen to regularly. You can check out the website in the link below:

Upcoming: Contemporary Korean Cinema at the Cinematheque

From December 5-14, there will be a number of Korean features and shorts shown at the cinematheque. The feature films with English subtitles include:

Jealousy is My Middle Name (Park Chan-ok, 2003)
So Cute (Kim Su-hyeon, 2004)
The Red Shoes (Kim Yong-gyun, 2005)
Boys of Tomorrow (No Dong-seok, 2006)
No Regret (Leesong Hee-il, 2007)
Milky Way Liberation Front (Yoon Seongho, 2007)

I am not familiar with any of the films or the filmmakers, but opportunities to see Korean films with subtitles in theatres are relatively rare.


Over the course of the last year, I have become more interested in the formal aspects of cinema. This has always been an interest of mine to some extent. But I think it has been heightened because of the years spent on my dissertation, which is not stylistic but rather contextual in nature. Thus re-engaging with form has been both a type of procrastination (always popular) as well as a way to connect with an initial love of cinema. As a result, I have contributed 27 entries to the Cinemetrics database over the last year or so. This site provides a tool for counting the number of shots of each film. Average shot length (ASL) has always interested me, partly because of its statistical nature. I first encountered the term in the work of film technology historian Barry Salt, and then later in the scholarship of Colin Crisp on Jean Renoir. What was appealing was the ability to point to something concrete in terms of stylistic differences in films. Of course, this is just one element of form and it can be overemphasized because of its tangible nature. Nevertheless, it is a useful factor to consider.

But I would make another argument for using the cinemetrics shot counting tool to view films. To me, watching a movie using cinemetrics is similar to reading with a highlighter. Whenever I'm reading anything remotely scholarly, I like to use a highlighter, not so much for what I highlight but more to make me concentrate. I tend to remember and think more critically about what I read. The same is true with cinemetrics. The focus needed to count shots turns me into a better, more critical viewer. The next time I teach an introductory film course (or any course where style is a major element) I will probably include assignments requiring students to use cinemetrics to sharpen their viewing skills. While it is certainly not for every film or even for every viewer, I do think it is valuable for anyone wanting help with his or her atttentiveness. It is especially useful for home viewing, which tends to be less focused than the theatrical experience.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Documentary and Horror Films: ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED

The genres of documentary and horror seem to be complete opposites, yet there are many overlaps. Documentaries often call on the horrific: Blood of the Beasts (George Franju, 1950), Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955), The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (Stan Brakhage, 1971), the legend of "snuff" films, and the Faces of Death series all rely, in vastly different ways, on the ability of images to shock and disgust. Recent documentaries continue in this tradition, such as the great Paradise Lost films and many of the recent Iraq exposes, particularly Taxi to the Dark Side. I thought of this congruence when watching the recent Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Marina Zenovich, 2008) which uses many clips of Polanksi's films (many of them horror films) to tell the story of Polanski's trial for statutory rape.

Watching Zenovich's use of Polanski's work, I was reminded of a recent article in the new Film Quarterly in which Jonathan Rosenbaum analyzes the documentaries of Adam Curtis. One of the points Rosenbaum considers is Curtis's use of film clips and music. One of these is a music selection from John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), which Curtis features in The Trap. The question then becomes about the manipulation of using something like a horror film score to discuss social and political material. My own response is that the very overtness of such music in a documentary cannot help but be ironic to some degree and thus not conventionally manipulative. Rather, I think the effect can be both visceral and reflective.

One example that comes to mind is the credit sequence to Michael Moore's now rather reviled (even by those on the left) Fahrenheit 9/11. I remain a defender of the film and think it is Moore's best. The use of music in this opening, along with the visuals of the Bush cabinet being "made up" for cameras, can be used as an example of Moore's manipulation. But in this sequence I think Moore is much closer to his more critically respected contemporary, Errol Morris. The overtness of the music signals dread and provides emotion, but it is hardly the classical "unheard melody". I think a similar effect is at work in Phillip Glass's music for Morris and in Curtis's use of Carpenter's score. I don't think these examples stop or discourage the audience from thinking, but perhaps the associations here with the horror film make us more suspicious.

As for Wanted and Desired, the use of Polanski's films works in a very interesting way. The opening credits feature written titles describing Polanksi's crime, scored with the opening music to Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. Certainly this can be seen as manipulation (and titliation) of the highest degree. But as the film progresses, Zenovich critiques this idea of associating Polanski's horror films with his character, which was done extensively by the press after his wife was murdered by the Manson gang. By the end of the film, Zenovich moves from clips of Polanski's horror films to another aspect of his work, his absurdist irony, that captures the spirit of his trial. The result is both a compelling story and a well executed documentary film that reflects intelligently on both Polanksi's career and his life.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Negotiating the Pleasure Principle: The Recent Work of Adam Curtis," Film Quarterly 62, no. 1 (Fall 2008): 70-75.

Upcoming: Trinh T. Minh-ha, Chantal Akerman and Sadie Benning

Coming to the cinematheque (Nov. 23-Dec. 2) are films by three of the most critically acclaimed female directors in world cinema: Trinh T. Minh-ha, Chantal Akerman and Sadie Benning. The Akerman films are all more recent films, not her more well-known films from the 1970s. Benning's work is primarily shorts, and there are two different collections of her work being shown, in addition to the 50 minute Flat is Beautiful (1998). No information on subtitles for the Akerman films. Information on each director can be found here:

Argentinian Film Festival (November 24-29)

Thanks to Fernando for calling attention to the upcoming Argentinian Film Festival at the Korea Foundation Cultural Center. Information can be found here. Also, apparently the center has regular screenings with English subtitles. I've added a link to the site and directions.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Very Short Introductions

Since coming to Korea, I have become more familiar with a series by Oxford University Press: A Very Short Introduction. These pocket-sized academic texts function almost as first or second year university mini-courses on the given subject. At their best, they are useful both for the neophyte to the subject as well as academics themselves. And they can be invaluable for teaching purposes. My first encounter with the series was when I was preparing to teach an introduction to film theory course a couple of summers ago. I wanted a reading that would help explain post-structuralist theory and happened upon the Very Short Introduction by Catherine Belsey. I was familiar with Belsey, who is a literature scholar, from her excellent book CRITICAL PRACTICE, a chapter of which I read as an undergraduate. Although it was not a film theory book, Belsey's discussion of post-structuralist theory provided a great grounding in the major theorists (Barthes, Lacan, Derrida, etc) who have dominated Film Studies as a discipline. Belsey's accessible style gave the students a much needed grasp of the theoretical concepts (she quite brilliantly begins the book with a discussion of Alice in Wonderland).

Since then, I have read the following titles in the series:

4: Jonathan Culler, LITERARY THEORY
56: Jonathan Culler, BARTHES
73: Catherine Belsey, POSTSTRUCTURALISM
77: Kevin Passmore, FASCISM
79: Julia Annas, PLATO
148: Jerry Brotton, THE RENAISSANCE
150: Christopher Kelly, THE ROMAN EMPIRE
152: Tom Burns, PSYCHIATRY
153: Thomas R. Flynn, EXISTENTIALISM
159: Leonard Smith, CHAOS
161: Ali Rattansi, RACISM
163: Andrew Clapham, HUMAN RIGHTS
173: Ken Binmore, GAME THEORY
187: Veronique Mottier, SEXUALITY

Like the Criterion Collection, there is a numbering here that adds a collectibility aspect. And at less than 10,000 won a book, they are considerably cheaper than Criterion DVDs and make for very convenient subway and bus reading. In addition to Belsey, I would highly recommend the two studies by Jonathan Culler, LITERARY THEORY and BARTHES. My two other favorites are Simon Critchley's CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY and especially Ali Rattansi's RACISM, which should be required reading for everyone on the planet. I'm hoping to continue to add more titles to my reading list in the coming months. Currently, the Kyobo bookstore in Gwanghwamun has numerous titles for sale, all under 10,000 won. And, of course, all of the titles (I believe) should be available on-line.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

DOUBLE INDEMNITY (Billy Wilder, 1944)

I am currently teaching a course on American cinema here at the Korea National University of Art. It is a history of American film from the sound era up to the New Hollywood, relying heavily on the ideological reading offered by Robert Ray combined with more historical scholarship. The essay for the course is to analyze a film in relation to the course material. I decided to write a sample essay as a model and thought I would post it here in case it is of potential interest to anyone.

According to Robert Ray, most popular American films from the classical era followed both a formal and thematic paradigm. Formally, all techniques were meant to the “invisible” in order to conceal the choices necessary to tell the story. Thematically, incompatible values (such as individual-community) were felt to be reconcilable. These two tendencies in Hollywood cinema worked together to create a powerful ideological tool that reinforced the myth of America. But not all films shared this optimistic vision. During World War II, at the height of American optimism, there emerged a number of films that would later be dubbed “film noir”. The most popular of this group of films was Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944). Rather than offering an optimistic view typical of Hollywood, Double Indemnity challenged both the formal and thematic tendencies of American cinema.

Formally, Double Indemnity differs in two ways. First, there is both a voiceover narration and a flashback structure that breaks with the “invisibility” demanded of classical storytelling. Instead of unfolding objectively from an omniscient point of view, Double Indemnity is a subjective story told from the perspective of the character Walter Neff. The opening scene tells the viewer who committed the murder. The rest of the story consists of the murderer telling us how it happened and why he did. This interest in the subjective character psychology of a murderer differentiates Double Indemnity from American films of the time. Second, Wilder uses expressionist lighting in many scenes. Usually American films make all stylistic decisions relate to the story. The lighting in Double Indemnity instead makes the character and the story less clear and more difficult to comprehend. The intent is to create a dark, pessimistic mood rather than simply advancing the story forward quickly.

Thematically, Double Indemnity is an even greater departure from the Hollywood paradigm. The film makes it clear that although Walter may be killing his lover’s husband for money and lust, he is also interested in the adventure of the crime. Walter is an insurance man, hardly an adventurous occupation. But the fact that Walter is thirty-five and unmarried (as we are told in the first scene) indicates a reluctance on his part to not be a domesticated family man. Instead, he wants the myth of adventure that is no longer possible in the modern world. He wants to prove his manhood. But why does he have to do this? The answer is in the traditional mythology that idolizes the outlaw hero adventurer as being the “ideal man”. Hollywood may confirm the ideology of marriage, but it also sees the domesticated male as emasculated and boring, not a romantic, mythical figure. Walter falls victim to this myth, and has to be punished for his transgression of the law. Walter is the outlaw hero/adventurer, but in film noir, this character cannot be redeemed. He is both a murderer and a disturber of the capitalist status quo. He not only murders his lover’s husband but he also attempts to rip off the insurance company he works for. The film punishes him for his misdeeds, but Walter is also a sympathetic figure for the audience simply because he is our identification figure. The film focuses on Walter’s psychology and asks us to identify with his desires. The audience knows, because of the conventions of the Production Code, that Walter is a doomed figure. But this only adds to his appeal. The phrase “straight down the line” keeps getting repeated in order to emphasize Walter’s inability to escape the assembly line of industrial production. Because the viewer is in a similar place in this same society, Walter cannot be simply dismissed as an “evil” character. Rather, he falls victim to the incompatible values that most American films try to reconcile.

A key scene in illustrating the thematic of the film occurs in Walter’s office (42:22). Walter is sitting on his desk when Keyes enters from the back of the frame. Wilder decides to shoot their extended dialogue exchange in a single long take lasting approximately 130 seconds, signaling its importance by breaking with the shot/ reverse shot convention that sutures the viewer into the cinematic story world. The content of the sequence consists of Keyes trying to convince Walter to become his assistant. Keyes argues that unlike Walter’s current salesman position, being a claims investigator is exciting, adventurous work. But before he finishes his argument to Walter, the phone rings. It is Phyllis telling Walter that their murder plan can now go ahead as planned. The next eleven shots alternate between Walter and Phyllis, with Keyes lingering in the background of Walter’s shots. Tellingly, the phrase “straight-down-the-line” gets used here again. After this dialogue finishes, Wilder shoots Walter and Keyes in another extended take as Keyes exits from the door in the back of the frame. Keyes asks Walter why he has never married and then tells the story of his own unwillingness to become domesticated (he could not stop investigating the woman). Walter decides not to take Keyes’s offer of adventure. Keyes exits by telling Walter that he isn’t smarter than the rest of the office workers, only a little taller. Of course, what Keyes does not know is that Walter is planning to prove him wrong. He does not want Keyes’s desk job because he recognizes that the adventure is purely in Keyes’s mind, not in reality. He wants the real adventure that Phyllis offers. Also, he does not want to be Keyes’s assistant. He wants to prove he is better than Keyes, that he can outsmart him. Committing a murder and stealing money from the insurance company is Walter’s way of accomplishing this goal.

In many ways, Double Indemnity is the dark mirror of classical films. It exposes rather than denies the contradictions inherent in the social structure. For example, compare Double Indemnity with the most famous Hollywood film, Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942). Ideologically, a film like Casablanca works at reconciliation. Rick is the outlaw hero/adventurer who works for the good of the community and is capable of love (potential husband). Laszlo is the domesticated male (husband) but is also a resistance leader (adventure). Ilsa is believed by Rick to be a sexually adventurous woman but is revealed at the end to be a domesticated wife/mother. Double Indemnity, on the other hand, reveals these contradictions. Walter is the outlaw hero/adventurer, but in film noir, this character cannot be redeemed. Similarly, the femme fatale in film noir cannot be saved by love. Both the outlaw hero and the femme fatale must die for their trangressions. The film can offer no happy ending to deny the contradictions inherent in the culture. Casablanca finally reconciles its lovers in a key scene of romantic embrace (1:19:20). Double Indemnity replays the scene, but instead of a reunion, the two lovers shoot each other (1:34:24).

As much as Double Indemnity differs from classical films, it is still a product of Hollywood. Despite its unusual storytelling devices and expressionist techniques, it still mostly conforms to the invisible style. Thematically, it forms a “good couple” at the conclusion (Lola and Zachetti) to try to provide some sense of optimism. Also, the Production Code would not permit the execution of Walter in the gas chamber that would have completed the “straight-down-the-line” motif. But the fact that the Production Code would not allow Walter to be executed is telling. In 1932, it was demanded that the lead character of Howard Hawks’ Scarface be hanged in order to provide the proper punishment and avoid a glamorous death scene. With Double Indemnity, however, the audience is attached to Walter psychologically and emotionally in a way not possible with the classic gangster film. This is the really subversive aspect of the film. Double Indemnity challenges the formal and thematic paradigms and shows that Walter is ultimately a victim of the very mythology Americans are taught to believe in.

Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema 1930-1980 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985): 25-69.