A Fog of Fastness and Cheapness: An Out of Control Look at Two Errol Morris Films

July 24th, 2007

Since my first glance at the syllabus I was quite certain of what my final paper would analyze: something Errol Morris. Last semester in a Geopolitics course I had the pleasure of viewing The Fog of War, though it was through much different eyes than how I view it today. This class has given me a new lens (pun slightly intended) through which I am can view films, with more awareness and respect for elements other than solely the plot. Needless to say I was quite excited to see other Errol Morris films—and they did not disappoint.
I have chosen to analyze Fast, Cheap and Out of Control along with cognate film The Fog of War. My discussion will start with the films relations to an article in Film Theory and Criticism, before I proceed into a deeper analysis of particular scenes in each film and their relations to each other.
There are two specific parts of Film Theory and Criticism, in the article Film and Reality that stick out in my mind as relating to Morris’ films. During class we talked often about the claims made by Kracauer in relation to German film and Hitler during his study of German cinema from 1919-1933. Kracauer contends that during this era German film was diverting attention away from the dangerously “haphazard, incalculable and uncontrollable” reality of German society at this time.
In The Fog of War, I believe that Morris’ aim was exactly the opposite of German cinema during the aforementioned era. The purpose of its narrative is to reexamine events that took place and reevaluate them with the benefit of hindsight, as to shed new light on possible mistakes. The film brings these events to the forefront without presenting them in an untrue manner—it doesn’t put a positive spin on negative aspects of history. The article points out that the German cinema during that time aided in the “damnation, not the redemption, of German life” (Page 136).
The Fog of War was made many years after the events that are retraced, so in that way it is different from the claims made by Kracauer about the 1919-1933 German films. The Fog of War did not carry the weight of altering the society it portrayed in its films, something that German cinema did have; so in that way the two are fundamentally different. But I believe that Morris is able to achieve what Kracauer said is necessary in film, a more truthful portrayal of reality.
That being said, however, I do not think that the reality portrayed in The Fog of War was necessarily something that the die-hard realists would welcome into their inner circle. In many ways I believe the film achieves elements of anti-realist filmmaking. It does not travel to the extreme of that pole, however, on page 136 the article states that anti-realist cinema “must offer an interpretation of the world or, by the manipulation of the camera, create an alternative world” (pg. 136).
My interpretation of the realist thinking has been along the lines of something discussed in a pervious class meeting, about a security camera. The Fog of War and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control do not adhere to this form of realist filmmaking, I think that is why I place them more within the anti-realist boundaries. Neither film simply places a camera on a street and records, providing what Kracauer explains as a mirror-like image of the physical world. The films each bring together different elements, in which Morris fits together to create somewhat separate narratives from the literal picture on the screen.
In Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, much of its important aspects of its plot come from the way in which the different shots are pieced together; where Morris uses repetition of images, in addition to what the actual frames portray. The way in which the shots are pieced together brings additional meaning to the film other than the literal story being told. From what I can gather through the theory readings this seems to be a much more common anti-realist strategy.
As I stated before, I’m not sure if the films create an “alternate world,” but they do present alternate views of situations that are not simply a mirror image of physical reality. I do not plan on getting into the which approach is “art” argument, however I can say that the way in which Morris portrays reality in the manner I touched on before, by carefully sewing together meaningful shots and aspects to create a narrative on many different levels, is a brilliant approach—one that I find captivating. (I will, however, refer you to a post by my classmate Dan entitled The Purpose of Art. I think it questions the meaning of art in relation to its practicality in a very interesting and effective manner.)
Onward with the next portion of my entry. Instead of attempting to tackle each movie in their entirety, I thought it wise to pick certain aspects and scenes to discuss in detail. The first I will go for are the opening scenes and beginning credits of each respective film.
Since there are so many parts to each film I could pick, I think my decision to analyze the beginning of each deserves a bit of explanation. I do not necessarily believe that the opening sequences can make or break a film, so to speak, however I do think that it has the potential to play a large part in setting up what is to come. A miniature version of the film you’re about to embark on—not a summary, but a quick cinematic appetizer. In each film I am discussing, I believe that the opening and credit sequences, although different, play equally as important roles in their respective films.
Morris combines a multitude of different shots from various sources to begin Fast, Cheap (AN: I will most likely abbreviate the title in this way for the rest of the post). By doing this he simultaneously introduces us to the passions each of the four characters will be talking about literally in the film, but the shots also serve to show us some of the overarching less obvious thematic focuses of the film.
The film truly begins with music. The screen is blank, however the music begins. I am not a film critic, so I have no idea if my thoughts on this technique touch on the real reason for its use, but for me I feel as though the significance of playing the music on a black screen is kind of to tell the audience “hey, the film is starting – pay attention or you’ll miss it!” Whether or not that’s what it’s trying to do, that’s the purpose it seems to serve for me, and I find it beneficial.
The first thing we see is close black and white shot of a robot moving along a glossy, rocky surface. Very literally this foreshadows what Rodney Brooks, the robot scientist, will be talking about. It also introduces the audience for the first time to a “non-living” object imitating a defining characteristic of something that has life; in this case, walking. Movement. This is a huge theme throughout the movie, and I feel as though Morris placing this shot as the first thing the audience sees signifies its importance as a theme in the movie. I feel as though I should make a distinction, however—I don’t think his use of a robot scene necessarily places more emphasis on Rodney Brooks’ contribution to the film. I believe the movie distributes importance equally to each of the four stories for the most part.
This, of course, is purely my speculation, and so is my next observation. The shot of this robot, at first glance, puts certain questions into the heads of the audience that I think are important themes in relation to the imitation of life. When you first look at the shot, consciously or subconsciously, you probably ask yourself something like “is that real? What is that?” Although it is clearly not a bug, it looks very much like one—and at first glance it could easily be mistaken for one. Similar shots as this appear throughout the film, and to me that signifies that Morris wants us to keep asking this question—each time digging a little bit deeper: What is the thing we are seeing? Does it have life, or is it an imitation? What does it mean to have life, and what does it mean to be life-like? What makes something more life-like than something else? What does it mean to be alive? And ultimately, what does it mean to be human? The question you asked yourself when you saw the image of that robot, I feel, is the jumping off point for the rest of the questions I asked above—and more.
The next shot we see is another overarching thematic aspect of the film, the shot of the clown running from the skeleton that he will never be able to escape, because it is attached to his back. Very literally this clown ties into what we will learn about Dave Hoover, the wild animal trainer, because he works with the circus. It has other meaning, though. Skeletons exist in that pure form (meaning without muscle, skin, etc.) due to one distinct process: death. Morris has now shown life, the imitation of life, and death, right in a row. I think this is highly deliberate. A defining characteristic of life is that it ends—death inevitably will conquer life no matter what the circumstances. It’s a heavy idea that is ever present, but not normally consciously considered.
It goes even more in depth than that. The shot I have described above is plagued by static, much like one would see on a television. This gives the feeling that the audience is watching a television that is showing the shot of the clown running from the skeleton. This skillfully brings the imitation of life aspect back into play. Or, to put it more confusingly, we are watching a film imitating life by watching a television portraying a scene that imitates life. This is a constant tactic throughout the film that brings us back to the questions I mentioned before. It deals with the perception of reality, and how we understand life by making something lifelike.
That shot is followed by what looks to be more like a live shot of the clown running from the skeleton, because it does not possess the same static the previous shot had—however, it is in slow motion. The slowing and clarification of the shot, to me, puts more emphasis on it. Now we are forced to watch this clown run from the skeleton, and be fully aware of what we are seeing—in case we missed it that first time. It also seems to be somewhat symbolic, we can slow the frame down, in other words, slow the idea of death down, but the outcome will still be the same. The clown will still end up in the same place, it will just take him longer to get there.
The point that I hope is becoming clear is that Morris dives into fundamental thematic questions within the first few seconds of the film, while simultaneously showing us things that tie directly into the literal story shown on the screen. He is not just arbitrarily showing images that force us to ask these questions—the scenes he present tie perfectly to the four characters that drive the progression of the film’s plot.
In The Fog of War, Morris begins differently. The opening scene is footage of Robert S. McNamara, essentially the film’s subject, in a press conference. The black and white scene, however, shows him prior to giving the action press conference. Instead, he is preparing for one. He asks individuals in the room if the height of the chart is acceptable or if they want it lower. The shot then cuts to him standing at the podium and he beings his speech, but he stops partway into the introduction and says: “Let me first ask the T.V., are you ready? All set?” With that, the first credits begin to roll.
This opening sequence does introduce us to the film’s subject, McNamara, however to me it does not carry the symbolic weight that the opening sequence in Fast, Cheap does. It is an ironic and somewhat humorous start to the film, since it begins after he asks if the television crew is ready—almost as though he was asking this film’s crew if they were ready. Although I think that aspect of the scene was deliberate by Morris, (meaning the humor) I also think there is another element to it that is deliberate. The first time we see McNamara he is in a press conference. It immediately gives us the impression that press conferences and television cameras were part of his daily life—a presence that is constantly felt. I think it serves to remind the viewers that with his position as Secretary of Defense, not only did he have to make vital decisions, but he had to present them to the world. The media plays a fairly significant role in this film, it reminds us how every choice McNamara makes is instantly known worldwide and effects countless individuals. It is a pressure that is ever-present and the opening shot shows that. It also shows his human side, something that will also be shown throughout the film—as if to say yes, he is just like you and I, he has to adjust his own materials for the presentation, he even appears a bit nervous, just like the rest of us.
Following this scene come the credits, a bit earlier than they are given in Fast, Cheap. Each grouping of credits after that opening scene is preceded by a scene that looks to be footage from a combat ship. First, it shows sailors on the lookout, scanning the horizon, almost counting something. It shows the face of a sailor quietly speaking to himself, pointing out toward the ocean. Some credits roll. The next scene after that grouping of credits is three sailors in succession looking into different binocular devices. More credits then roll, including the title. The next scene shows a hand drawing on a map, then a military individual on a radio speaking into it. Credits roll again. Next comes a sailor watching over a sonar machine, then a group of sailors that appear to be graphing something intensely. Following that (no credits have rolled again quite yet) we see the sailors quickly getting into positions on the ship. They occupy positions next to guns and begin moving them—there is a close up of one sailor moving the gun and then stopping. Now more credits roll. After those credits we see sailors running through a hatch at a quick pace, clearly preparing for something. The hatch is shut, and then more credits come across the screen. After those credits we see more footage of these similar sailors putting together a missile. More credits roll. Finally, we see an individual sailor rolling a final missile into an open door before we hear McNamara’s voice asking if Morris will speak so that he can ensure Morris’ voice level is adequate.
I have gone into such depth with this because I think the progression of these scenes is important not only to the opening, but to the film. Each move is systematic, calculated—each sailor is doing a certain job without reservation. There is a logical progression—the lookout, the mapping, the sonar, the preparation, the guns aimed, the missiles ready—and then the movie starts. Literally speaking, this ties into the movie because it is showing the military clearly preparing for action, and the movie is about that. The military, war, etc. What do we associate with the military? Order, planning, continuity. The steps are logical, they make sense—however later in the movie we will come to find out that missions carried out logically at the time come out later to not make much sense. Even when things seem to be carried out smoothly, but the outcome is not always necessarily favorable.
These two openings struck me because they are so different but yet say so much about the respective films they introduce. Morris has, in my opinion, a brilliant way in which he can simultaneously literally show you something on the screen that makes sense there within the context of the plot, but at the same time tells you something completely symbolic that digs at an overarching question that presents itself throughout the movie without blatantly asking it on the screen. (Meaning he doesn’t have the words spelled out—he shows it on the screen but in a way that makes one look for it.) He accomplishes this throughout the movie, and the reason I chose to focus on the opening scenes before and during the credit in these two films was essentially because I found it so interesting that from the onset he was able to present all of this to the audience.
The next scenes in which I wanted to look at I have touched on before in a previous blog—but it just is so moving to me that I had to look into it more deeply. It’s the way in which Morris uses eye contact during pivotal parts of the movie. This time I’m going to begin with The Fog of War.
I am speaking about the scene that deals with the death of President Kennedy. During my first viewing in my geopolitics class, I remember being moved by the scene where McNamara talks about the death of President Kennedy. With my second viewing, I am even more moved by it, and I was able to notice the many ways in which eye contact was used during this part of the film.
McNamara finishes making a point about a different subject (the military coup of Ziem), and the camera fades to black. There is silence during the black screen, and it slowly fades in to footage of President Kennedy sitting at a desk, the American flag placed prominently behind him, microphone to his left. Clearly he is preparing for a press conference. As the shot of Kennedy begins to materialize slowly, the music immediately begins again—a louder, somber tone. The shot continues in slow motion with the music. Kennedy looks camera left, and then slowly makes eye contact with the camera in front of him, giving us the feeling as though we are making eye contact with him. Many sources have contended that this is a very personal action, eye contact; as we have discussed in class, it is about the closest one can get to another person’s soul—to what another individual is thinking. This makes the connection taking place between the screen and the audience even more personal. It is at this point that McNamara begins speaking, with this same shot of Kennedy still remaining on the screen.
The moment of eye contact is made more pronounced by the beginning of McNamara speaking. He explains that he was in his office in the pentagon when the phone rang, it was Bobby Kennedy—the president had been shot in Dallas. As soon as McNamara speaks these words, “…the President had been shot in Dallas,” Kennedy on the screen looks down, breaking eye contact. We no longer are looking into his eyes, that momentary connection we felt has been taken away—it coincides perfectly with the story being told by McNamara. In the story, Kennedy has been taken away, shot. Kennedy has been taken away from us, too, as the viewers, by the cessation of eye contact. It will not return. I think it is an extremely powerful thing to do, and I find it extremely difficult and moving to watch.
The portion of the film about Kennedy’s death goes on, McNamara tells a very personal story about how Jackie Kennedy called him and asked him to go to the cemetery to find a plot for the President. He travels there at four o’clock in the morning to find the most suitable spot for the President. As he is speaking, the shot is very tight to his face. The welling tears in his eyes are clearly visible, as is the slight quivering of his chin as he tries to hold back his emotion to finish the story. (The close, almost personal shot mirrors the close and personal nature of McNamara’s story.) He makes eye contact during this story—that, coupled with the closeness and personal nature of the story as well as the shot make it an intensely moving scene. (Somewhat of a side note: Morris also lingers after the conclusion of McNamara’s story, that long take continuing to show the raw emotion in McNamara. The long take in this case was very effective in making the audience aware of the weight and gravity of the story and the situation.)
Morris uses this similar focus on eye contact during a scene in Fast, Cheap as well. There are more instances that the one I am about to mention, however I believe this is one of the most memorable. It comes when Ray Mendez, the naked mole rat specialist, is speaking about “the other.” A being—something outside of yourself that exists independently from you. This alone is a heavy thematic aspect of the film so the fact that the point of eye contact happens while Mendez is addressing this topic is even more important. Mendez is talking about the point at which you and the other make contact, you are both aware of each others existence. He states “I know you are, you know I am.”
The layers to this scene seem to be endless. Mendez makes eye contact with the camera—although we know that he is not making eye contact with us personally, it still gives the same effect that we felt during the scene I mentioned before with McNamara. It’s personal, it’s a stronger connection than you feel looking at, for instance, the shots that precede this part, of the elephants marching in a line. That shot does coincide with the concept of “the other,” but I think it is the eye contact that makes this scene especially poignant.
Mendez is essentially a form of “the other,” a person that exists outside of ourselves. We then make eye contact with him, just as he explains in the scene. However the ironic and paradoxical element of this is that he is just an image on the screen—he is a life-like portrayal of a person—within the film he is not actually living. But we feel this living connection when he makes this statement. This brings the questions I talked about before screaming back to our minds, what does it mean to be living? We feel this connection with something that is not actually a living being in front of us, we see that it is a perception of reality, but what does that mean? Why it the eye contact so meaningful if he is just on the screen? Does it even matter that he is on film, not live in person making this statement?
The points of eye contact I have just mentioned are vastly different but they both appear at pivotal moments in the movies. In The Fog of War it is an emotional pinnacle that McNamara will not reach again on film; and in Fast, Cheap it is a ingenious paradoxical connection that relates major thematic elements and questions to what the audience is feeling at that very moment viewing the film.
With everything I have talked about in this post there is so much more detail I could go into, and would like to go into, however I will begin to bring my ramblings to a close at this point. First, however, I wanted to add two more of my classmates blogs to my final post. I mentioned Dan’s already, but I thought these two had very interesting points as well.
Kate’s post entitled Fast, Cheap and Out of Control I think is a shot but very true summary of the mass of thoughts that follow viewing this film. I agree with her so much when she talks about the ending scene, it is beyond explanation. The way in which she also points out how well Morris is able to tie seemingly different things together with such ease and such meaning is perfectly true.
Charlie’s blog Das Bolt, in the entry entitled Misplaced Compassion, doesn’t exactly coincide perfectly with the things I talked about in my blog, but I found it to be very interesting. It talks about the use of a new mine-clearing robot for the Department of Defense, and I found the article and his take on it to be very interesting in relation to what was shown about robots in Fast, Cheap with Rodney Brooks.

The End

Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: No Prompt Necessary.

July 18th, 2007

Let me put this in perspective for you all. I am so fascinated and intrigued by Errol Morris, that I have struck an accord with my Dad: hassle-free (and highly skillful, I might add) lawn care for the rest of the summer without charge – in exchange for the DVDs Fast, Cheap and Out of Control and Fog of War. Cha-ching!
I don’t even know where to begin. FTC day yesterday we spoke a lot about reality. I buy the whole concept that it is difficult to tell what is real when you are looking at a photo, or film. What is staged, what isn’t – I get it. All I can keep thinking, though, is what I know is real – my reaction from the films, especially Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. Not only was I nearly brought to tears and fits of laughter at numerous moments, but all night it had me questioning complex things in life that I have not previously taken the time to truly examine.
Life, the imitation of it to comprehend reality.. the comprehension of reality in general.. the social and cultural norms of humans in our society in relation to others—animal or otherwise.. the list continues at a rate that I just cannot keep up with.
It also got me thinking about control. A underlining element of the film seemed to be control, specifically human control, over living things or things that are imitating the living. Not only the aspects of control humans have, but the things that are out of their control – in the case of the topiary garden, natural disasters. The robots, maybe a shorted circuit. The naked mole rats—an tragically timed run in with an elephant. And most importantly: death. While there is so much that is under our control, there is so much that is outside our capability of control, and I am inclined to believe will always remain outside of our grasp.
I want to add one more thing to my statement above, about FTC day and how we were talking about reality and what to believe. It takes a leap of faith, I suppose. It’s something I think I’m somewhat familiar with—anyone who believes in a higher being (also known as God) has to be willing to make that leap of faith. There isn’t hard forensic scientific evidence that God exists, but yet I believe it. I go back and forth with this argument a lot (yes, with myself), but right now I can’t help but think how sad it is to always be questioning everything. I feel as though that’s kind of what you’re encouraged to do in school, find proof—in math, in science, even in art—the proof that what you’re looking at is an authentic painting from.. whoever. I can’t imagine a world where everything I saw had to be backed up with some kind of concrete undeniable evidence—I’m not even sure it’s possible, and I don’t think I want it to be.
I know someone mentioned the global warming issue in class in relation to this – that the film, for example, An Inconvenient Truth could have fabricated pictures, etc. I only have one thing to say about that topic: so? Let me explain that a little. What would this fabrication be doing? Causing people to believe that the earth is being warmed? And what is the outcome of that? They try to lessen their environmental footprint by recycling and carpooling? To me it just seems that even if parts of it are fabricated, if the truth is being expanded, the outcome is helpful, not harmful. I’m not really outraged at believing in something that forces me to put my plastic water bottles and aluminum cans in the recycling bin rather than the trash can. I mean, for goodness sakes, they’re right next to each other.
Okay that might have been a bit of a digression – but it still loops back (isn’t it ironic that I said loops? Didn’t even plan that! Ha-ha!) to a concept I’ve been thinking a lot about since FTC day and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. Reality, believing in something as real, and it’s consequences.
I can’t wait to see the movie again. I have one last thing about it that I have to say: the final scene… I mean… geeze. I don’t even have words for it, it’s so powerful and so… yeah. I think our response in class was perfect.

The End

Williams and Hansen FTC Thoughts

July 10th, 2007

I thought the first topic I would cover in my blog would be about my presentation from yesterday, as well as the 2.1 presentation.
I’ve been thinking about the “weepie” film that is mentioned in the Williams essay. Today when the question was posed about what movies are “weepie” that we have seen, I really couldn’t think of any. Yes, I’ve seen movies that I’ve shed tears, however I don’t think any movies have truly given me a good cry.
And, hold the phone. A “good cry” – alright, I don’t think I’ve ever really realized what exactly that is saying. I think we’ve all heard it before, in fact, many of us have said it – a good cry. It’s exactly what we were talking about in class today, it implies that the crying is a good thing, in some way pleasurable.
I agree with that. I remember someone saying today that it’s an emotional release, and I think that’s exactly what it is. It’s not necessarily welcome at all moments, but I know when, for example, I’ve had a particularly difficult day, I feel better after I cry. It doesn’t happen to me often, but I do know that it has happened. However I don’t think it’s pleasurable at all times. I think this is true for most things, but if you’re not in the mood for a certain activity, you’re not going to afford the same pleasure from it that you would at another time.
I have also been thinking a lot about the Hansen article. I have to be honest, and I believe I mentioned this in the presentation, I had to read it a few times before I really got the hang of it… and I can’t say with complete certainty that I’ve really picked up everything she had to say. I hope, however, I’ve done it justice.
First of all, the feminization of Rudolph Valentino’s characters. Hansen explains much of the Valentino phenomenon to be destabilizing to the previously upheld notions of masculinity—bringing in connotations of sexual ambiguity, social marginality, as well as racial/ethnic otherness.
This intrigues me, to say the least, so I thought I’d pick a clip on youtube and do a bit of a play-by-play on what I see. The first comment I have to make after viewing about a minute clip from “the rape scene” in Son of the Sheik is – he’s definitely not as feminine as Laurey was in the 1933 version of Little Women. I can definitely see the feminized aspects, his dress is elaborate, his face is perfected with what looks to be make-up, etc. The second thing that struck me about this clip is this line: “I may not be the first victim—but, by Allah, I shall be the one you’ll remember!” It should be noted that this entire time he is treating her roughly while she is begging for him to talk. Hello, sadomasochism, how are you today? Like I said, she is begging him to stop, but he is convinced that this is what she does, lures men and then takes advantage of them.
Continuing with my sort of play-by-play of this clip, at this point, about 3 minutes and 30 seconds, the woman character has switched facial expressions drastically. Before, she did not look like aggressor, but now, she most definitely does. It’s a tad bit unsettling… she “says”: “I hate you! I hate you!” Alright, to me, that’s not exactly what her face is showing. Yes, there is some hate in there, but it seems to also have a cloud of something else that is not exactly hate. After she says this he smiles and laughs, clearly enjoying this.
After this it gets pretty physical. She’s fighting him the entire time, but he’s very aggressive. Okay, so I have to admit – I was skeptical at first when Hansen talked about a 20’s movie being blatantly sadomasochistic. However, I definitely can see those elements in this. He is not striking her, but they’re struggling and she is hitting him. I’m not an expert in this field, but I think that qualifies as a sadomasochistic relationship.
Like Hansen explained, at the same time there is a man who is highly feminized exerting control over a woman, showing his masculine power. I know this is probably extremely redundant and obvious, but actually seeing this clip made me realize just how crazy, for lack of a better word, Valentino films were. They have the equivalent of a 20’s heartthrob to get women into the theatre, but what they’re watching up on the screen is a feminized male exerting his masculine dominance over the female character. I’m left asking myself the same questions that I presented in our presentation. What other ways is this dominance shown? Does this still exist? What are the implications for patriarchal relationships – for a society that, for the most part, says that the patriarchal ideals no longer apply to the same extent that they did in the 20’s? What if the roles were reversed? I’m going to think on this, and hopefully my next blog about this topic will be able to answer some of those questions. Okay maybe not answer, but at least take a shot in the dark.

Okay so, I forget how… orrr… never knew how… to post a youtube video in my blog. But here is the link:

I hope it works!

The End

“I could tell you stories that’d curl your hair, but it looks like you’ve already heard em.”

July 6th, 2007

This post is a bit random, but after watching Miller’s Crossing I decided to rent another Coen brothers film. I chose Barton Fink—and wow. What a film.
I wanted to talk about it for a bit, even though it’s not technically part of our class material. Since I watched it, which was a few hours ago, so many parts of it have been continuously running through my mind, I suppose trying to find some clarity. There are a few parts that definitely stand out in my mind, though. If you haven’t seen it yet, quit reading and go rent it. For real.
First of all, towards the end when the hotel is burning and Charlie returns. I can only imagine that the hotel is now symbolic of hell, maybe it was all along. The opening scene seemed normal, things were proportional and fairly normal. The stage, the restaurant—but as soon as Barton arrives at the hotel, things are a bit odd. One of the first, if not the first shot of the hotel is a huge room with tons of chairs, placed almost symmetrically, everything with varying patterns that do not necessarily compliment each other. To me it seemed like two totally different dimensions—either a dream, or what I now believe must have been hell.
The hallway was another aspect that stood out in my mind. So long, so dark, so… similar. The doors seemed the same and it seemed to be endless. And the shoes! Every day there was a pair of shoes outside each door. But do we ever see people? No. I think that’s another aspect that led me to believe this place had somewhat of a hell-like quality. When Barton is there, really the only person he has contact with is Charlie, who, judging from the end, I can only imagine is a devil-like figure. It’s not a place where people hang out and chat with each other, everyone is confined to their own areas in a place that is quite poorly constructed, drab, dreary… downright depressing.
I feel like within the hotel, each vice that Barton encounters is a progression down into another depth of hell. I want to watch the movie again to really develop that theory more, but it just seems as though each hurdle that comes is more severe than the last, ending in the final fire-soaked scene before he is out and on the beach.
I have to talk about the package. I don’t know how right I am about any of these theories, but the first thought that struck me was that this was his burden that he must carry though life. I mean, he makes no attempt to open it, he knows exactly what Charlie has been up to so clearly he knows what it could quite possibly contain… and he carries it around with him. It’s the burden that he must carry, and I felt like before his trip to the hotel/hell, he wasn’t able to really live with that… but the scene on the beach shows us that he can travel through life with it, he’s learned to live with it.
There’s so much more about this movie, I just wanted to get a few thoughts out because, well, I thought it was pretty awesome. In class the other day Dr. Campbell mentioned, I believe, how the Coen brothers are thought to be very cerebral writers/directors/etc… and while I think that might be true, I have to say I enjoyed having to really think about what I was watching. Its comedic aspect, too, was brilliant—legitimately funny. I enjoyed that aspect of it as well. The satire of the 30’s-40’s (I believe that’s the correct period) was also pretty brilliant. Hopefully I’ll be able to watch it again and pick up on much more! And, I’m done.

The End

Miller’s Crossing – Part One.

July 6th, 2007

Okay, so I’m a little behind in the blogging world. It looks as though most of my blogging will have to be done on the weekends, seeing as though I spend most of my quality time during the week on 95 driving to my classes (fantastic). So forgive me if I’m speaking about topics that have already been discussed, but I have things to say so here I go!
Miller’s Crossing. I feel as though that first scene says so much about the progression of the movie: the plot and the characters, as we have already mentioned in class.
We talked at length about the ice cube sound, so I won’t go too deeply into that. I do have to say, though, that it was a brilliant way to tie together two constants in the movie: gambling and alcohol. Clearly, gambling is one of the addictions that Tom has, and that sound sets that up immediately. There is also the constant presence of alcohol throughout the movie, as is true with many movies during or set in that time period. I think it’s a bit of an addiction for many of the characters, considering how often they drink throughout the course of the movie.
Next I come to the positioning of Tom in that opening scene. At the back of the room, we can see him. Not just his face, or his legs, but his entire body. This shot gave me the feeling that he is almost a fly on the wall, always present and listening to what is going on around him, no matter which side is speaking. I feel as though that positioning is fairly revealing about his character. Not to mention throughout that entire scene, he says very few words. (Granted I think it is hard to get a word in, what with friendship, character and, most importantly, ETHICS to be discussed). We can deduce that he is quiet and intervenes when he feels it is necessary. We can also see that he is privy to information from both sides—something that will happen again down the road.
Okay so now, I have to stop my Miller’s Crossing discussion, because I want to view it one more time before commenting on a few other things. I did get ahold of a copy though, so I will be able to do that later this weekend.
I did have another thought right now though to talk about, one that we mentioned in class a few days ago. We were talking about the difference between reading the story and seeing the movie—the impact of looking into someone’s eyes.
This got me thinking about situations in which see the ability to look into the eyes of the hero, or individual, on camera made a bigger impact on me than it did in the text. It’s sort of a different situation, but I felt it between the documentary Fog of War by Errol Morris, and the book version. For the book as well as the film, authors James G. Blight and Janet M. Lang worked with Errol Morris and his research team. Blight and Lang use a method called critical oral history, and the book gives a wonderful explanation of that method, and follows it beautifully. It’s informative and I enjoyed it very much, however there was one aspect that the film showed me that the book could not.
At one instance Robert Strange McNamara (I know I don’t have to say his middle name, but come on, it’s fantastic) is talking about the assassination of JFK. Reading that part, yes, I was obviously saddened when hearing McNamara speak about it in the book, but nothing compared to watching him talk about it in the documentary. It was instances like that, where his eyes were clouded with tears, or filled with regret, that really made me realize the magnitude of the information I was receiving. Through his eyes up on the screen I literally felt as though I was living the emotion he felt at these monumental times in history, and it, to say the least, it was pretty darn impressive.
I think that’s all for now in relation to Miller’s Crossing, but I’ll revisit it once I watch it again!

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A little Yojimbo action

June 29th, 2007

Alright then, so I said I have more to say about The Glass Key. And I do, but, I forgot it. Maybe it’ll come back to me? Probably not, but I’ll leave the possibility open. For now I want to talk about Yojimbo. I found the movie to be very interesting. I wanted to first talk about the opening shot with the mountains. Before we went back over it in class, I did notice how Sanjuro seemed to be as big, if not bigger, than the mountains during my first viewing. The things that were uncovered with a further look, though, brought so much more meaning to that shot. The same with the town shot, how the buildings were almost looming over him when he entered it. It got me thinking.

It was almost as if in nature, he was bigger than a mere man. He towered above mountains, he even fit with them like a piece in a puzzle. I felt as though that was not only a metaphor for how he was going to fit in the progression of the plot, but also his part in nature. He decided his direction based on the throwing of a stick, whose ultimate path is affected by wind, a natural occurrence. In the scene in the temple, he uses the wind to blow the leaf so that he can bring his skills back up to par before he returns to the town to face the remaining family. I felt as though there was a reoccurring sense that he was “one,” I guess, with nature. In nature, he does fit—he fits with the mountains, the wind shows him where to go and aids in his recovery. In the town, however, the man-made structure, he encounters problems. He faces adversity. He is tested, and although he triumphs, it isn’t always easy. I think that kid of related to the mythical theme that surrounded his character. It reminded me Greek mythology, where they had Gods of the natural world. Not that Sanjuro is necessarily a God in the natural world, but it kind of related like that. How he didn’t quite fit in the man made world, he fit much better in nature.

The presentation of him as a type of mythological God-like being was enhanced by the shots Kurosawa did sometimes from close to ground-level, looking up at Sanjuro. That creates an almost messianic image, where he is so large. It reminded me of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. She did the same type of imagery with Hitler, taking shots from near ground level to make him look like an almost larger than life figure. I found a picture example from Triumph of the Will.

I just thought that was interesting, mostly because it is so effective. (I can honestly say I never thought I’d be adding a picture of Hitler to my blog.) It is also even more messianic because of the clouds in the background of Hitler. Kind of creepy, right? I found an image of Sanjuro, too, although it’s not the best illustration of what I’m talking about, I thought I’d add it because it’s the best I could find at the moment.

I also saw a lot of similarities between The Glass Key and Yojimbo. Although there was that one huge difference: no Paul. There was a strong relationship between the old man (I suppose the bartender?) and Sanjuro, though. I found that to be the closest Ned/Paul-like relationship in the movie. The scene in which Sanjuro is being beaten up, though, was almost exactly like The Glass Key. The ending was similar in some ways, too—we didn’t see the town being rebuilt, we didn’t see how everyone ended up, or where Sanjuro was going, it just kind of ended.

I think that’s all I have about Yojimbo right now, except that I really did enjoy it. I might think of some more later!

By the way, does anyone know why I’m getting those huge massive gaps after my pictures? I’ve messed around with it but it doesn’t seem to be helping — I might have actually worsened it. Whoops!

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The Glass Key

June 28th, 2007

The Glass Key – the movie and the book.  I can honestly say I enjoyed both versions—which is not always the case with books and its adaptations.  Coughbloodwork.

            In class one of the first things we talked about was the hard boiled detective vs. the Sherlock Holmes-esque detective style.  It became fairly clear that Ned Beaumont was not much like Sherlock, and I think that might be one of the reasons I found the book to be so interesting.  Putting my knowledge of the movie completely aside, when I was reading the book, I don’t ever think I had that feeling in the back of my mind that Ned Beaumont would definitely solve the crime.  His gambling addiction, coupled with a few other characteristics I witnessed about him, always left me with a slight sense of “wow, maybe he won’t be able to do it.”  I don’t think that element is necessarily present in most crime novels, and I’ve read quite a few of them.  There always seems to be some underlying meaning to solving the crime that drives the protagonist detective not to rest until the case is solved.  In other detective-esque novels I felt like nothing other than the detective actually being killed by another character would stop him (or her) from solving the case.  With Ned Beaumont, he actually tries to kill himself.  He takes Jeff’s beating without giving up information on Paul, however the act of trying to end his own life kind of signified to me that finding out who killed Taylor Henry wasn’t exactly the driving force behind his actions.  I’m finding it kind of hard to express my thought process on that issue, I hope it made sense.

            I thought the book was fairly unique in many ways.  I have to respect any book that has me caring about a protagonist that I really know very little about.  I thought the use of his full name was a pretty brilliant way to keep Ned Beaumont at a distance.  Other characters were called by their first or last names, or in the case of Opal, by a nickname.  I think the use of Ned’s full name all the time provided an element of formality and detachment.  Coupled with the Conradian (is that even a word?) style of Hammett’s writing, not really knowing what the characters are thinking and feeling, kept us at arms length from even the protagonist.  Yet, Hammett’s writing style was still able to get me to care about Ned Beaumont, as well as Paul Madvig.  I think that’s an awesome thing, and I have great respect for Hammett’s writing because of that.

            I have much more to say regarding the book as well as the movie, unfortunately I have currently run out of time… I will post again later, though!

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Hays Code/Blue Material

June 28th, 2007

In class when we talked about the Hays Code, it reminded me of something I learned last year in a theatre class. I thought it was pretty interesting so I figured I’d mention it here!  Hooray!(?)

There was a similar code on Vaudeville performers during the late 19th/early 20th century. Unacceptable content was referred to as “blue material.” (The envelopes given to the actors outlining new regulations or violations were sealed in blue envelopes.) I guess I just kind of found it interesting that similar campaigns for family-friendly entertainment existed in both industries. I actually remembered the website that our theatre class used most as a sort of textbook resource, and I found this example of a warning that was posted backstage in producers Keith and Albee’s theatres:

“Don’t say “slob” or “son of a gun” or “hully gee*” on the stage unless you want to be canceled peremptorily. Do not address anyone in the audience in any manner. If you do not have the ability to entertain Mr. Keith’s audience with risk of offending them, do the best you can. Lack of talent will be less open to censure than would be an insult to a patron. If you are in doubt as to the character of your act consult the local manager before you go on stage, for if you are guilty of uttering anything sacrilegious or even suggestive you will be immediately closed and will never again be allowed in a theatre where Mr. Keith is in authority.”

It’s kind of funny to read a statement like that today when you think about the plethora of offensive language that is so common in many of the movies we love. “Blue material,” like the Hays Code, wasn’t actually law, but it’s clear that not abiding by either would be a not so stellar career move. Well, I believe that’s all for my random Vaudeville lesson for the day– and to think, I thought I’d never use that information again! Hope someone (other than myself) found it interesting!

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June 25th, 2007

Just testing things out, seeing how this bad boy is looking.

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