The Construction of Radical Black Subjectivity: Responding to Filmic Looking Relations with Formal Innovation
By Emma Dahl
Submitted for Film 305: Political Cinema with Dr. Matthew Croombs
Placed outside of the realm of production and representation in cinema which functions to preserve and perpetuate white supremacy, the recognition and portrayal of black subjectivity requires the development of new cinematic languages. The formal innovations in Cheryl Dunye’s the Watermelon Woman (1997) and Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979) undermine such spaces of cinematic negation, demonstrating the possibility for resistance in the face of erasure and totalizing constructions of Blackness . The first feature-length film written and directed by an out black lesbian about black lesbians, The Watermelon Woman combines the seemingly contradictory practices of realist documentary with reflexivity in order to recover—or construct—the multiplicity of queer and black histories suppressed by the white heterosexual norms which govern the making of history. As a member of the L.A. Rebellion, Gerima transforms the militancy of Third Cinema to address cultural identity, the possibility for black liberation, and colonialism in its many forms within the United States and across the globe. As a “hybrid cinematic form” of documentary and narrative film, Bush Mama joins realism and surrealism to express the ways in which state terrorism faced by black Americans and global anticolonial resistance are connected to psychic liberation . Examining routes of resistance in terms of form and narrative, I will demonstrate the ways in which The Watermelon Woman and Bush Mama work to create a cinematic representation of radical black subjectivity that challenges systemic hierarchies both on and off the screen.
In The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl, a black lesbian woman, seeks to recover the name and story of Fae Richards, a black lesbian actress and singer known as “The Watermelon Woman.” Discovered by Cheryl in the 1930s film Plantation Memories in which she plays the routinely stereotyped “mammy” figure, Fae’s name is removed from the film’s credits, erasing her cinematic presence. As misnaming Fae leaves her traceless in traditional archives, mirroring the real-life exclusion of black lesbian women in film history and scholarship, Cheryl must utilize alternative archives of memory to document Fae’s story: black oral histories and lesbian archive . In the talking-head interview with Miss Shirley that emulates documentary realism, Cheryl discovers evidence of Fae’s identity in Miss Shirley’s cigar box . Designed by Zoë Leonard and mixed with real historical photos, the photographs of Fae and Shirley create a record and retelling of black queer life—but the “authentic” experience presented by the photographs and documentary format is still constructed . Dunye and the character Cheryl utilize documentary film as a historiographical medium which Matt Richardson describes as a “method of signifying on the gaps in written history, not a replacement for history" . In its perception as non-fictional evidence, the constructed nature of documentary cinema and the role of ideology largely go unnoticed—particularly when associated with the personal voice expressed by feminist documentary, which is considered inherently non-discursive, its realism antithetical to formalism .To counter this naïve reduction and to demonstrate realism and identification as “viable theoretical strategies,” The Watermelon Woman subverts its own attempts at documentary filmmaking and incorporates reflexivity.
Highlighting the “power in looking” traditionally used in “neutral” documentary formats to maintain control, Dunye parodies the genre and reclaims its oppressive gaze . When Cheryl interviews her mother, she has no idea who the Watermelon Woman is, asking “water who?” Later, her mother snaps at her: “don’t talk to your mother like that!” Including such sequences undermines Cheryl’s directorial power and resists the manipulation of images employed by white documentary filmmakers on the exoticized racial or social other . As this draws attention to its own modes of production and Cheryl’s subject position, The Watermelon Woman is a reflexive work. Cheryl as “producer and spectator, subject and object” is delineated in her direct address to the video camera, documenting the production of her “film about a woman in film history” within Dunye’s film . Before discussing her project—in which she only tentatively claims herself as working on “becoming” a filmmaker—she directs the camera to an empty seat and quickly moves into the frame. Again, she runs out of the frame and repositions the camera to play a sequence from Plantation Memories. Although hailed as a complete destruction of dominant cinematic practices, reflexive film structure itself is not revolutionary, as it is largely employed by white powerful male filmmakers who occupy the position that must “already [be] naturalized before it can be assaulted" . Rather than deconstructing cinematic “mythologies,” Dunye merges reflexivity and documentary to construct a new cinematic language that challenges the practices of dominant white male filmmakers and white feminist cinema .
Working as videographers at a wedding, Cheryl and Tamara decenter Laura Mulvey’s conception of the male gaze in the opening sequence. In control of the camera, Cheryl captures Tamara in a medium long shot. This establishing shot immediately grounds the centrality of black lesbian women as subject rather than an “objectified other" . Cheryl’s first appearance on screen documents her resistance to the cinematic modes of production which render black lesbian women—both as “maker[s] of meaning” behind the camera and subjects in front of the camera—invisible . Addressing the white photographer who sets up his equipment and starts to rearrange Tamara’s posed group, Cheryl says “Excuse me sir, we’re working with the family right now. Don’t you even see the video equipment? Why don’t you just wait your turn?” As the first audible voice in The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl will not reduce her presence to the edges of the narrative.
Cheryl’s desire for and identification with Fae—whom she senses is queer and describes in Plantation Memories as “the most beautiful black mammy, named Elsie”—further drives the necessity of self-representation . Clitha Mason describes the representation of Fae as a desirable, complex, lesbian figure visibly centred in the storyline as a “queering of the mammy,” disrupting the enduring characterization of this figure as asexual and undesirable . Queering the mammy displaces both the dismissive white heteronormative and white queer gaze—such as Martha Page’s—allowing for the complex representation of black female characters . By challenging the rendering of the “mammy” as asexual, Dunye opens up the sexual implications between white mistresses and enslaved black women.
In Plantation Memories, Fae must prioritize a white woman’s emotions to ensure her own survival, wiping away the mistress’s tears during her romantic crisis with her partner—recalling the enduring exploitative role that black women have had to play as “emotional, sexual, reproductive, and physical laborers for white women" . This dynamic is echoed off-screen between Fae and Martha, as Fae must rely on Martha’s socioeconomic power to find work. This is also reflected in Cheryl and Diana’s relationship: Diana’s connections provide Cheryl with sources of information for her documentary—but not without exposing Cheryl to racism and homophobia, which Diana is complicit in.
Further, Diana’s fetishistic desire for Cheryl and the social clout that a proximity to Blackness provides her—which comes at the expense of Cheryl’s relationships to other black women—exemplifies what Mason describes as the persistent “white investment in the mammy" . In this relationship, the mammy figure is “portrayed with affection by whites because it epitomized the ultimate sexist-racist vision of ideal black womanhood" . This is most clearly expressed in the satirical interview with cultural critic Camille Paglia, who is situated as the feminist authority, reflecting white feminism’s routine sidelining of black womanhood and black voices. Paglia defends the character of the mammy, entirely unable to see any harm in this stereotype and the influence of her own privilege in claiming this reductive representation for herself. In the face of such erasure, Cheryl refuses to portray herself and Fae as maintaining forces of white womanhood in which they are minimized to “indexical presences” of subservience . In her completed film, Cheryl confidently claims the title of “black lesbian filmmaker” and takes hold of the power of looking.
Such self-representative power is a threat to existing social systems both on and off screen. This is made clear when Cheryl is stopped by officers while carrying her video camera, revealing the function of the police as an oppressive state force through the gendered surveillance of black lesbian women. Immediately aggressive, the white cop calls her a “crackhead” and asks: “Hey boy, where do you think you’re going with that video camera?” It is not clear if the police see Cheryl as a black man or a masculine woman, but as the term boy diminishes black masculinity and reinforces white male power, it is evident that being recognized as black indicates various levels of perceived subordination . Similarly, Bush Mama’s opening frames set the collapse between social realism and horror in motion as the camera captures the police frisking and searching two black men—members of Gerima’s film crew—in broad daylight in Watts, Los Angeles. This all-too-familiar scene is not scripted, but rather real-life police harassment due to the crew’s possession of camera equipment . In both films, equipment that enables self-determination and black subjectivity is dangerous in the eyes of the state.
In Bush Mama, the audience is immersed in the world of Watts, witnessing the assemblage of terror this space is constructed upon alongside Dorothy while a looping soundtrack probes the viewer with bureaucratic inquiries. Initially hidden behind a pole, we distantly observe the arrests, our voyeuristic point-of-view mirroring the predatory presence of the inescapable surveillance state. The scene in which a man is murdered by the police outside of the welfare office highlights this everyday horror. Denied benefits and clearly protesting, he carries an axe—but does not even enter the office . Rather than addressing the man’s anguish, the police codify him as an incoherent threat to the power of state structure and quickly shoot him to reinstate order. In this process, the true horror is not the man holding an axe, but the deadly violence that maintains racialized capitalism.
The pervasive presence of state control is exemplified by T.C.’s conviction and incarceration for a crime he did not commit. As a nonlinear sequence in which Gerima cuts from T.C. leaving for a job interview directly to a scene of him in prison, such events may be identified as entirely surreal—but Gerima emphasizes this as a story of “symbolic reality" . A scene in which a black man is suddenly stopped and imprisoned without justification “satisfies a truthfulness to a black experience" . Fiction is utilized to produce affect, allowing the viewer to feel the reality of terror and oppression in Watts.
When T.C. recites his letter to Dorothy from prison, he speaks straight into the camera through the bars of his cell. A tracking shot moves down the cellblock, momentarily pausing on numerous other black men—but in one cell, a man stands in the far corner, nearly out of sight. It is this ambiguous figure that embodies the possibility of resistance that T.C. speaks of, demonstrating the refusal of surveillance. This does not disregard the realities of a “state structure opposed to their very survival,” but it does provide a route for subjectivity and self-determination within systems of containment . During T.C.’s oration behind prison bars, Gerima cuts back to Dorothy, who stares out the barred windows of her apartment. Mirroring T.C.’s incarceration with Dorothy’s very existence reveals the every-day manifestation of repression and alienation under the restraints of capitalism. Further, it expresses the ways in which “militancy is inseparable from the socialization of thought” and its effect on the realm of the psychoaffective—a necessary precursor for politicization and liberation whereby the colonized transform the continual violence and horrors of colonialism into imagined scenes of violence . Dorothy’s identification with the anticolonial poster of an Angolan bush mama represents an early site of her evolving psychic liberation.
Situating Dorothy’s struggle for liberation within a global context, this image of a mother and revolutionary figure expresses a “material form of political and social insurgency” through its representation of militant self-determination . Similar to Cheryl’s identification with Fae in The Watermelon Woman, the image serves as a “signifier of futurity” in which the search for history fulfills a need for and recoding of the present . Opening up a possibility for agency “in the face of structures of domination” through the act of looking, Dorothy contemplates the poster, matching her countenance to the fighter’s . While she begins to stare down the camera, a noise from the street interrupts: a police officer shoots a handcuffed black man on the street several times for lightly resisting. Gerima focuses on Dorothy’s horrified expression to this brutality, which—in contrast to her previous carefully constructed gaze—represents her growing shift towards radical subjectivity and the awareness of a need for militant revolution in the face of state-enforced colonial violence.
Dorothy’s radicalization—the “associative connection” between her psychoaffective dreams of retribution and the systemic oppression which produces it—culminates in her killing a white cop who rapes her teenaged daughter . In her final speech, Dorothy is framed in front of the Angolan bush mama—but this time, she does not need to stare at the poster for reference. Declaring that “the wig is off my head,” she has literally removed the cosmetic object meant to conceal her Blackness in an awareness of the forces working behind the horror that is her existence in Watts: oppressive capitalism that seeks to colonize daily life, along with state-sanctioned physical and psychic repression . Facing the likelihood of a lifetime in prison, Dorothy has not arrived at liberation. Rather, it is the capacity for radical subjectivity at the level of individual consciousness that is awakened.
Placing themselves outside of the realm of cinema’s looking relations which uphold white supremacy, Dunye and Gerima employ the “oppositional black gaze” to counter the negation of black representation . Refusing to identify with the practices that serve to erase and reduce the cinematic presence of black people—particularly black queer women--The Watermelon Woman and Bush Mama innovate and challenge existing formal languages to develop new identities, histories, and stories. Expressing the possibility for resistance as both producer and subject of the look, Dunye and Gerima create a critical space for the self-representation of and identification with radical black subjectivity.
 bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992): 116.
 Cynthia A. Young, “Shot in Watts: Film and State Violence in the 1970s,” in Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 213, 219; Matthew Croombs, “In the Wake of Militant Cinema: Challenges for Film Studies,” Discourse 41, no. 1 (2019): 79.
 Laura Sullivan, “Chasing Fae: The Watermelon Woman and Black Lesbian Possibility,” Callaloo 23, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 449.
 Sullivan, “Chasing Fae,” 456; Caitlin F. Bruce, “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty: An Aesthetic Virus of Political Discomfort,” Communication, Culture and Critique 9, no. 2 (June 2016): 287.
 Catherine Zimmer, “Histories of The Watermelon Woman: Reflexivity between Race and Gender,” Camera Obscura 23, no. 2 (68) (September 2008): 53.
 Matt Richardson, “Our Stories Have Never Been Told: Preliminary Thoughts on Black Lesbian Cultural Production as Historiography in the Watermelon Woman,” Black Camera 2, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 102, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/426848.
 Zimmer, 54, 57.
 bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” 115, 117.
 Bruce, “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty,” 286.
 Zimmer, “Histories of The Watermelon Woman,” 48, 41.
 Zimmer, 45.
 Zimmer, 52, 59.
 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 835.
 Mulvey, 834.
 Sullivan, “Chasing Fae,” 449.
 Clitha Mason, “Queering the Mammy: New Queer Cinema’s Version of an American Institution
in Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman,” Black Camera 8, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 51–52, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/659458.
 Richardson, “Our Stories Have Never Been Told,” 104.
 Richardson, 104.
 Mason, “Queering the Mammy,” 66.
 Mason, 68
 hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” 119; Croombs, “In the Wake of Militant Cinema,” 81.
 Richardson, “Our Stories Have Never Been Told,” 109.
 Young, “Shot in Watts,” 235.
 Young, “Shot in Watts,” 236.
 Tony Safford and William Triplett, “Haile Gerima: Radical Departures to a New Black Cinema,” Journal of the University Film and Video Association 35, no. 2 (Spring 1983): 62, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20686943.
 Safford and Triplett, 62.
 Young, “Shot in Watts,” 235.
 Croombs, “In the Wake of Militant Cinema,” 81-82.
 Young, 238; Croombs, 81
 Croombs, 80.
 hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” 116.
 Croombs, 81.
 Young, “Shot in Watts,” 239; Croombs, 80.
 hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” 117.
Bruce, Caitlin F. “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty: An Aesthetic Virus of Political Discomfort.” Communication, Culture and Critique 9, no. 2 (June 2016): 284–302.
Croombs, Matthew. “In the Wake of Militant Cinema: Challenges for Film Studies.” Discourse 41, no. 1 (2019): 68-89.
Dunye, Cheryl. dir. The Watermelon Woman. First Run Features, 1997. 1 hr., 30 min.
Gerima, Haile. dir. Bush Mama. 1979. 1 hr., 37 min.
hooks, bell. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation, 115–131. Boston: South End Press, 1992.
Mason, Clitha. “Queering the Mammy: New Queer Cinema’s Version of an American Institution in Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman.” Black Camera 8, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 50–74. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/659458.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 833–844. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Richardson, Matt. “Our Stories Have Never Been Told: Preliminary Thoughts on Black Lesbian Cultural Production as Historiography in The Watermelon Woman.” Black Camera 2, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 100–113. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/426848.
Safford, Tony and William Triplett. “Haile Gerima: Radical Departures to a New Black Cinema.” Journal of the University Film and Video Association 35, no. 2 (Spring 1983): 59–65. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20686943.
Sullivan, Laura. “Chasing Fae: The Watermelon Woman and Black Lesbian Possibility.” Callaloo 23, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 448-460.
Young, Cynthia A. “Shot in Watts: Film and State Violence in the 1970s.” In Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left, 209-44. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.
Zimmer, Catherine. “Histories of The Watermelon Woman: Reflexivity between Race and Gender.” Camera Obscura 23, no. 2 (68) (September 2008): 41–66.
How Privilege Informs Safety and Control in Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995)
Written by Emma Dahl
Submitted for Film 305 - Political Cinema with Dr. Matthew Croombs (Winter 2022)
In the article “Pathos and Pathology: The Cinema of Todd Haynes,” Mary A. Doane considers how Todd Haynes’ cinema challenges the binarization of emotion and intellect. Melodrama and its use of pathos, often aligned with a marginalized protagonist, evokes feeling, immediacy, and the familiar. As seen in Safe (1995), Haynes unites the seemingly oppositional site of pathos with the permanent or ideal ethos, largely through filmic distanciation, to demand that cinema be both felt and thought. In the critical analysis, I will consider the effects of integrating the seemingly contradictory at the level of mise-èn-scene and setting in terms of privilege. I will emphasize how the juxtaposition between structure and location—culminating with the igloo in the desert of New Mexico—functions as an indicator of exploitation and colonial power.
Summary and Discussion: “Pathos and Pathology: The Cinema of Todd Haynes
Doane describes a recurring shot distinctive to Haynes’ work that produces a paradoxical notion of subjectivity and anonymity. It is a long tracking shot that traces the monotony of suburbia—all too similar little boxes in never-ending rows, isolated from the rest of the world. The familiar suburban home is the site of the family and its oppressive power structures, of the guise of safety due to its homogeneity and distance from the criminal city and its economic and racial Other. In Safe, this shot is seen through a car windshield from the point of view of Carol White, the protagonist who is repressed by such familial and suburban structures. This close shot of a woman looking through the window mirrors the placement of women in 1940s and 1950s films, as the window was the symbolic intersection between spaces differentiated along the lines of gender—between exteriority and interiority. For Haynes, this shot serves to unite the supposedly contradictory: pathos and subjectivity, with spatial and emotional estrangement.
Oppressed by the patriarchal space that she is expected to perfectly maintain, Carol alone carries the burden of pathos—the primary emotion of the melodrama. However, unable to control this space, Carol’s story becomes a response to risk—in particular, environmental risk. Such risk creates the desire for control, but as this is ultimately ineffectual, control dwindles to the space of the individual body. Emphasized by the mise-èn-scene and framing, Carol is dominated by her environment. Long shots and wide-angle lenses present the space of the house as cavernous and relentless, trivializing conversation by its overwhelming nature and isolating Carol and the viewer by denying close-ups. In this way, the heavy, controlled suburban space functions as a nonplace, stripped of community, significance, and natural life. Faced with a lack of power over her domestic space and its patriarchal expectations, Carol begins to tightly regulate her own body, becoming increasingly ill without clear cause. Her physical health issues reduced to female hysteria by her doctor, she turns to Wrenwood, a New Age recovery centre that validates Carol’s illness, locating it within the individual and only able to be fixed through isolation. Accepting this discourse, she resolves herself to an igloo-like structure, sealed off from the outside world. In the only close-up of the film, Carol looks at herself in the mirror and unconvincingly whispers “I love you" . Despite the close-up being a conventional instrument of providing interiority, the audience is still denied subjectivity.
Haynes’ cinema is “saturated” with pathos, which means suffering or deep feeling . Often opposed to logos (speech or reason) or placed as the emotional opposite of the calmer ethos, pathos is accessory to “lower” forms, such as melodrama, and associated with the feminine. In Haynes’ work, this often takes the form of historical cinematic references, but prior familiarity with the origin is not necessary to get pathos. Rather, pathos turns into an affect through repetition of distance and miscommunication—cinematic allusion only emphasizes such instances that are independently recognizable and immediate. It is this obviousness and recognizability that is crucial for the potency and radicality of Haynes’ melodramas: the image must be a surprise, yet at the same time, already known. Haynes employs pathology to unite two seemingly incompatible tensions: closeness and accessibility are implied by pathos but interrupted by distance. Both pathos and the pathological concern marginality, and in Safe, this site of abjection is the woman. At once, Carol is the familiar, conflicted protagonist of the melodrama and the infected, abnormal Other, representative of social panic and the failings of contemporary self-obsession. Here, melodrama is not simply used as classification or stage for pathos, but as a “generator of cinema” both cited and displaced . Employing the pathological to challenge the notion of emotion and intellect as mutually exclusive, affect and estrangement are inseparable, demanding that cinema be both thought and felt.
A critical analysis of Safe’s mise-èn-scene and location in relation to mechanisms of control
At the level of narrative, Safe is about an upper-middle class white woman faced with risk, and the resulting desire for control. Carol’s relationship to control is complex and contradictory: she is disempowered by patriarchal systems and her illness changes her relationship to normativity, yet her illness and the self-centred “safety” she seeks also signify a form of privilege. Safe shines a light on the white upper-middle class’s radical separation from social responsibilities upheld and established by colonial power within the U.S.
Within the global city of Los Angeles, the Whites are situated in the suburban space of the San Fernando Valley. Here, the elite are kept safe from the growing danger of the non-sanctioned racialized presence, as signified by Carol’s stepson’s explicitly racist essay on the criminality of Los Angeles and the threat “Black and Chicano gangs” increasingly impose on “mostly white areas" . Representative of this unapproved occupancy is the delivery of two black—rather than teal—couches to Carol’s home, starkly juxtaposed to the otherwise white and pastel-hued space. Shocked and irritated, she protests the unacceptability of the couches to a furniture store clerk, insisting on the impossibility of a black presence within the space of the white suburban home. As mentioned by Cynthia A. Young, such policing acts as a form of colonial violence on behalf of the national bourgeoisie . Although not overtly violent, disciplining strategies, such as “rules about where to live,” are subtle power mechanisms of colonialism and control that are “equally destructive" . Further, that same pristine domesticity threatened by Blackness is only made possible by the labour of people of colour. It is the labour of Fulvia, the Hispanic housekeeper, that allows Carol the privilege to maintain strict bodily focus. In this way, contact with people of colour is only sanctioned when white domesticity is benefitted.
Carol flees the Valley and its racialized contamination, seeking rejuvenation at a New Age treatment centre positioned as an alternative to Western medicine. However, this removal simply takes her from one exclusive space to another. Led by Peter Dunning masquerading as guru, Wrenwood proves to be a similarly oppressive system that reinforces colonialism through New Ageism—a movement closely connected to Orientalism—which at once upholds Western materialism and “laments the loss of spirituality and tradition projected onto the East" . Here, the East is deemed a resource for Western excess, indicated by Peter’s McMansion placed high on a cliff, overlooking the rest of the facilities . While juxtaposed to the humbler space of his customers and the notion of being connected to “nature,” this signifier of wealth is not truly in opposition to the teachings of Wrenwood. Orientalist New Ageism reformulates Eastern philosophy into commodity, forwarding consumerism and the American myth of rugged individualism. At one point, Peter even tells his clients he has stopped keeping up with the news, explaining “I don’t need it" . Wrenwood is suburbia repackaged, promoting blindness and complicity to systemic inequalities that cause illness and harm.
In Safe, the “open” land of the New Mexican desert is evoked as a fetishized and uncontaminated space of self-restoration. Emptied of the presence of Indigenous Peoples and Mexican Americans, this purportedly uncorrupted space is one where “genocide has depopulated the land and reinscripted within it a naturalness posed as already-existing" . Paradoxically, an Indigenous presence is commodified at Wrenwood to sell the promise of a healing return to the natural self, based on the projection of an eco-oriented community free of industrialization. This fallacious appropriation of Indigenous cultures is signified by the structure Carol retreats to in the film’s final moments. Due to its shape and porcelain white surface, the structure is clearly imitating an igloo constructed from blocks of compacted snow. The igloo, or snow house, is functionally and spatially juxtaposed to the goals of Wrenwood and the New Mexican desert—the igloo is traditionally used by Inuit of Canada’s Central Arctic and Greenland’s Thule region in the winter while travelling and hunting to provide insulation and a wind-free environment under arctic conditions . Entirely removed from its original community and environmental context, Inuit cultural specificity is exploited to sell the suggestion of a newfound safety outside of societal conditions—but such disconnect is only available to the socioeconomic elite.
Carol’s reaction to the non-sanctioned Black presence in suburbia, Peter’s mansion representative of wealth reinforced through Orientalism, and the decontextualization of the Inuit snow house for commodification work to suggest that “racial segregation and discrimination are a constitutive part of the U.S. nation-state rather than structural anomalies capable of reform" . Safe reveals control and safety as deeply implicit to colonial space and its upholding of privilege.
 Safe, directed by Todd Haynes (Criterion Pictures, 1995), 01:54:55-01:55:42.
 Mary A. Doane, "Pathos and Pathology: The Cinema of Todd Haynes," Camera Obscura 19, no. 3 (2004): 10.
 Doane, 18.
 Doane, “Pathos and Pathology,” 6; Safe, 00:24:38-00:25:05.
 Cynthia A. Brown, “Shot in Watts: Film and State Violence in the 1970s,” in Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 227.
 Brown, “Shot in Watts,” 226–27.
 Danielle Bouchard and Jigna Desai, “‘There’s Nothing More Debilitating than Travel’: Locating US Empire in Todd Haynes’ Safe,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 22, no. 4 (2005): 365.
 Bouchard and Desai, “Locating US Empire,” 367.
 Safe, 01:33:35-01:34:18.
 Bouchard and Desai, 359.
 Peter G. Kershaw, Peter A. Scott, and Harold E. Welch, “The Shelter Characteristics of Traditional-Styled Inuit Snow Houses,” Arctic 49, no. 4 (December 1996): 38; Peter Whitridge, “Landscapes, Houses, Bodies, Things: “Place” and the Archaeology of Inuit Imaginaries,” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 11, no. 2 (June 2004): 228.
 Brown, “Shot in Watts,” 234.
Bouchard, Danielle and Jigna Desai. “‘There’s Nothing More Debilitating than Travel’: Locating
US Empire in Todd Haynes’ Safe.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 22, no. 4 (2005): 359–70.
Doane, Mary A. “Pathos and Pathology: The Cinema of Todd Haynes.” Camera Obscura 19, no.
3 (2004): 1–21.
Haynes, Todd, dir. Safe. Criterion Pictures, 1995. 119 min.
Kershaw, Peter G., Peter A. Scott, and Harold E. Welch. “The Shelter Characteristics of
Traditional-Styled Inuit Snow Houses.” Arctic 49, no. 4 (December 1996): 328–38.
Whitridge, Peter. “Landscapes, Houses, Bodies, Things: “Place” and the Archaeology of Inuit
Imaginaries.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 11, no. 2 (June 2004): 213–50.
Young, Cynthia A. “Shot in Watts: Film and State Violence in the 1970s.” In Soul Power:
Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left, 209-44. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.
Violating the Filmic Body in French Cinema
Written by Marcus Ogden
As outlined by David Bordwell, the film form of narrative cinema is designed so that the viewer can keep track of time, space, and cause-effect chains. He also outlined that the form of a narrative film is made to conform to the expectations of the viewer according to the film’s genre, plausibility, and story. Resistance against the formal practices of narrative cinema is prevalent in French cinema, as many movements sought to trouble the relationship between the spectator and the image. These movements would confuse, alienate, and discomfort the viewer in order to deliver an artistic message about the state of the medium. These violations of narrative film practice are often coupled with the human body in a state of distress under physical or sexual violence. This paper will argue that these violations of the body in French cinema are tied the violations of narrative cinema. To start, I will explore how the surrealist film Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel, 1929) sets the trend of transgressing film form and linking it to violations the body, then I will explain how these methods reappear in the French New Wave film Weekend (Godard, 1967) and in the French Extremist film Fat Girl (Breillat, 2001).
Un Chien Andalou is the brainchild of surrealist icon Salvador Dali and auteur-to-be Luis Buñuel, and troubles the ways narrative film form is able to make connections and construct space. Although it is explicitly an avant-garde film, the two filmmakers transgress narrative film form in a much more subversive way than contemporary works from Sergei Eisenstein or Dudley Murphy. Malcolm Turvey wrote that Un Chien Andalou did not forgo the conventions of narrative cinema, but rather appropriated the language of continuity editing to turn it against itself. Continuity editing is a system that was popularized by American silent films that organizes a film’s body in a way that makes sense to a viewer. Intertitles, Establishing shots, match-on-action cuts, and eyeline matches are parts of a connective tissue of space and time that directs the viewers focus along a linear path. Un Chien Andalou makes use of these methods, but the connective tissue of the film holds together incompatible pieces. Props jump around, appear, and disappear between scenes and cuts; character positions suddenly change between cuts; and doors open into impossibly placed rooms, forests, and beaches. The editing and the angles of all of the shots are all ‘correct’ in a sense where the 180-degree rule is never violated and action is always moving in continuous directions, but what is in the shots themselves is all wrong. In one scene, the man chases the woman out of her apartment. As she exits out of a door on the right side of the frame, a cut follows her barring the door on the left side of the frame. This has maintained the continuity of the space in an editing sense, but the viewer should notice the door in each shot opens in opposite directions. A subsequent shot reveals she has exited out of the right door of her apartment only to enter it from the left door, when previously the left door led to the street. This is an example of what Turvey identified as the film’s discontinuity being subversively presented as continuity.
Un Chien Andalou is notoriously fixated on body parts, and to list all of the bodily violations would be exhaustive. On a surface level, body parts in the film are also linked to its conflicts of sense and space. In one exemplary sequence the couple looks out of their window to see a crowd around a woman poking a severed hand with a stick, an image that is not given an explanation but can be loosely connected to the ant-handed man or the bicycle rider who had died on that curb. In the sequence where the man chases the woman and she flees out of one side of the room only to enter through the other side of the room, she slams the door shut on the man’s hand as a closeup shows the abject image of the ants crawling out of his palm. The most blatant link between the body and the film’s form is in the opening scene, wherein Buñuel slices the woman’s eye with a razor and exposes the vitreous fluid within. To put this film in conversation with its avant-garde contemporaries, Dziga Vertov wrote that film was a godlike eye that constructs its own world and famously imposed an image of an eye onto a lens in Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929) as a visual expression of his theory. Although Turvey noted that this scene has been read as alluding to psychoanalytic theories, I see this moment as the filmmakers’ thesis on how it ‘slices open’ film form and exposes its ability to construct a world.
In the French New Wave counter-cinema aimed to disrupt the way narrative film form created meaning. The French New Wave is marked by resistance to what was called the ‘tradition of quality.’ In reaction to the flood of Hollywood films that became available after the war, French filmmakers focused on making big budget and conventionally made book adaptations or historical stories to compete. The New Wave emerged and focused on auteurs while it appropriated neorealist and cinema verité techniques to counter this tradition on the production end. To counter the traditions of film form Jean-Luc Godard directed Weekend using methods of counter-cinema, which Peter Wollen outlined as methods formally opposite to narrative cinema. Weekend has an intransitive narrative, wherein rather than playing out a straightforward chain of events, the film unfolds episodically with a series of digressions, interruptions, and loosely connected scenes. One example is the seven minute scene where the two slowly drive past an inconceivably congested traffic lane which is neither a cause nor an effect of anything in the film’s narrative. With the use of intertitles, intentional editing errors, and mis-mixed sound the film foregrounds its materiality rather than hiding it to maintain the viewer’s sense of plausibility. Identification with the characters is made impossible when Roland and Corinne comment upon the fact that they are in a film. Diegesis, the film’s enclosed world, and closure, the film’s focus on its own text, are elements of narrative film form that are troubled in Weekend as anachronistic figures like Emily Brontë appear, and when the man in the phonebooth seems to be from a musical and not the film’s own world. Other characters like the drivers from the car-tractor collision break formal closure when they allude to certain philosophies and heavily reference other artistic works, and disrupt identification when they break character and act unpredictably. In all of these practices of counter-cinema Godard is producing meaning by breaking the traditional approaches that produce meaning in narrative film and forcing the viewer to consider questions outside of the concerns of the narrative, such as ‘why do the two truckers monologue about Algeria and the conditions of Africans? Why is one speaking for the other?’ and so on.
Weekend seemingly takes place in a wasteland of car wrecks and corpses, and throughout the film its radical form is tied to gruesome and deviant treatment of the human body. Narrative intransitivity in the film is directly connected to the body, as many of the films digressions and interruptions involve death and violence. In the traffic scene mentioned above, the couple drive past a horse-drawn wagon, a sailboat, people in discussion and playing games, even a pair of people playing chess in the roadway. The digression is concluded when the couple come to the end of the traffic stop and find a grim car accident with the corpses of children and possibly their mother. Death and violence in the film are robbed of their meaning as reactions to them are often nonchalant, if they are even acknowledged at all. This is reinforced when later Corinne witness a man burn to death and exclaims at the tragedy of losing her Hermes bag. Violations of the body are brought into the carnal realm as in one scene Corinne vividly describes a ménage à trois that perversely incorporates wine, milk, and an egg. The film digresses away from natural storytelling just as the sex described digresses away from the natural interaction of bodies. The film foregrounds itself as it gets physically jammed in the reel and shows the spaces between frames as a car crash is heard. As the frames realign the image shows a bloodied Roland crawling out of the wreck while another driver stumbles out of his vehicle, on fire. I read this as the rupture in film form affecting the film’s diegetic world, the jam of the film causing the gruesome crash as frames themselves collide and crumple in the reel. In the scene with Emily Brontë wherein the films diegesis and aperture are widened, Corinne breaks from identification by exclaiming “this isn’t a novel, it’s a film” and attacking the author. This multi-level breakdown of narrative form and the burning of Brontë is a two-pronged attack on the ‘tradition of quality’ that focused heavily on literature rather than cinema. The moist poignant display of bodily harm in the film is in the final chapter when the narrative is fully halted as the couple is captured by a group of cannibalistic communists who name themselves after films. Roland is murdered, butchered, and fed to an indifferent Corinne alongside tourist-meat and pork. As Godard’s practice of counter-cinema in the film has broken down the meaning of film form practices, human bodies in the film are broken down into indistinguishable meat that Corinne eats with blasé.
The New French Extremism violates the generic and normative elements of narrative film form to play on how it develops feelings in the viewer. As James Quandt vividly describes in his damnation of the movement, the New French Extremism is an art cinema that incorporates the unsavory subject matter and the violent-erotic images that normally find their homes in ‘low’ genres such as horror and pornography. Other writers have noted that the artistic approach to these images and subjects adds an affective layer that challenges the viewer’s moral concerns. As Quandt says in an aside, the films have a “tendency to aestheticize even when aiming to appall” as the interaction of being engaged by the technical aspects of a film while revolted by the events within cause questionable feelings of complicity and guilt. Fat Girl is a prime example of this affect-based approach, as even the title implicates the viewer with an abrasive bluntness towards the main character. An example is the 20-minute segment, nearly a quarter of the film, wherein Elena’s law student boyfriend Fernando sneaks into the sisters’ shared room and wears down the teenaged Elena into having sex with him. An aspect of this scene to note is its excellent sound design with hushed voices, crisp sounds of sheets and clothes rustling, and the subtle chirps of crickets and birds outside that work to create an enveloping atmosphere. These sounds develop a sense that the room wraps around the viewer rather than it being projected towards them, which makes the viewer feel trapped in the scene as Fernando’s seducing becomes more and more predatory. As seen in Martin Barker’s writing on the responses to the film, rather than thinking of the scene as a consumable fiction the viewer is inclined to reflect on whether they have been the minor or the predator in similar scenarios. The New French Extremism and Fat Girl break with narrative film form in that rather than presenting a story that conforms to the viewers conceptions of plausibility and genre to foster immersion, the viewer is obligated to be critical of the film and themselves as they watch it.
Eugenie Brinkema identifies sex and death as recurring themes in Catherine Breillat’s films, with attention to how those states relate to the body. The first time Fernando pressures Elena into sex, the camera remains on Anaïs during the act itself. Elena’s agonized screams are heard and Anaïs lacks any obvious reaction. While the viewer may be inclined to consider her complicity as she does not try to stop her sister being taken advantage of, the viewer also has to consider their complicity as they let the event continue by not stopping the film. Although the bodily violation is only heard, it is still firmly attached to the affect of the film form at work. An instance that outlined by Brinkema is a sequence, which brings to mind Dalí and Buñuel’s exploitation of narrative editing, where the mother is driving Elena and Anaïs home and the film form directs the viewer to expect an imminent fatal crash, only to have them arrive safely at a rest stop. The viewer is forced to consider the fact that they are watching a film that is close to over, and consider why it feels unfitting that the intrusive thought of “these characters have to crash” was not sated. Although seemingly a reversal of my argument as this manipulation of narrative film form is accompanied by the sparing of bodies, the relief is suddenly disrupted by an unexpected encounter with a man who murders Elena and the mother, and assaults Anaïs. Brinkema points out that in this scene Anaïs and the murderer exchange looks in a pair of un-diegetic shots set between the axe hitting Elena and the mother being strangled, the stunned silence of Anaïs in this moment mirrors the stunned silence of the viewer as time is suddenly frozen. Barker notes that critics were upset by this ending while the intended effect of it was understood by those who enjoyed the film. The polarizing impression of this sudden violence is intentional as it encourages the viewer to be critical of it, favourably or not, just as the diversions from genre and narrative convention itself is grounds for debate and criticism.
In French Cinema, there has been endless tampering with the formal practices of narrative film. As I have argued, the human body is often a stand in for film form in French cinema and when the goal is to violate traditional film form it is done with a parallel harming of the body. In this way, tampering with the human body represents tampering with narrative cinema. In Un Chien Andalou, the body stands in for the ability for film form to create continuity, as it is displaced and damaged when the film is made discontinuous and unclear with the use of continuity editing principles. Weekend highlights its use of the methods of counter-cinema with bodily harm and as film form’s ability to create meaning within a narrative is disrupted, it is matched with an escalating breakdown of the body. In Fat Girl, narrative film form’s ability to envelope the viewer is used in tandem with breakages in genre convention and uncomfortable content to make the viewer question their relation and their feelings towards the film. These films are exemplary of how transgressions of the body have been an effective tool for expressing the transgressions of narrative film form in French Cinema.
Brinkema, Eugenie. “Celluloid is Sticky: Sex, Death, Materiality, Metaphysics (in Some Films by Catherine Breillat).” Women: a Cultural Review 17.2 (2006): 147-170.
Corrigan, Timothy and Patricia White, with Meta Mazaj, eds. Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.
Horeck, Tanya and Tina Kendall, eds. The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011.
Neupert, Richard John A. A History of the French New Wave Cinema. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.
Turvey, Malcolm. The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013.
Wollen, Peter. “Godard and Counter-Cinema: Vent d’est” in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, edited by Philip Rosen, 120-129. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
The Terminator; Film Noir or Just a Killer Robot?
Written by Marcus Ogden
Raymond Durgnat’s “The Family Tree of Film Noir” serves as contrary to other understandings of noir. He wrote that noir is more a descriptor of a films gathered motifs and tones, disregarding the assumed geological and historical attachments to Classical Hollywood. While it may seem counterproductive to muddy our understanding of film noir in this way, this broadening of the term serves to help us understand how a certain noir sensibility can be traced in films that follow and precede the commonly accepted cycle. Emily Auger wrote that tech-noir is a genre that broaches the topic of technology with a noir sensibility rather than the celebration typical of sci-fi, The go-to example being Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, USA, 1982). Although the coining of the term tech-noir is credited to The Terminator (James Cameron, USA, 1984), it is a neglected example as it is often coloured in contemporary consciousness by the reputation of its more overtly action-oriented sequels. This essay will take up Durgnat’s task of finding noir whilst peering past the common consensus and argue that The Terminator is doing something distinctly noir and deserves a nuanced investigation of its style and themes in this context. This essay will look into how the film emulates a noir formalism, the noir themes the film takes up, and if the overall tone matches that of a noir film.
J. A. Place and L. S. Peterson wrote that film noir adopted an ‘anti-traditional’ formal approach to lighting that utilized low-key lighting and night-for-night shooting to achieve a stylistic interplay of light and shadow that would distort the faces of actors and the settings around them. This noir sensibility is taken on by The Terminator to stylize and unground the film in a similar fashion. An example is the scene where the viewer is introduced to the titular Terminator as he appears in the night from a burst of electricity. The smoke clears and, lit from a spotlight, his striking silhouette is displayed as he rises to his feet. There is a cut to a low-angle medium-close shot where the light and shadow contour his angular face and sculpted muscular structure, conveying to the viewer not just his imposing figure but giving him the look of a marble statue of a perfected human form. A cut to a close-up follows, the Terminator turns his head side-to-side as the light and shadow first silhouette his face and then unevenly light it, highlighting his pronounced facial structure and expressionless gaze in a way that brings to mind a mask without a soul behind it. This stylistic use of light and darkness is present repeatedly throughout the film and can aptly be compared to examples Place and Peterson point to in their survey of noir style. Foster Hirsch wrote that this expressionist use of lighting in film noir achieved a distancing from reality. There is a notable contrast between scenes where the approach to lighting is more naturalistic and scenes with clearer expressionist lighting. The former is used to convey a mundanity that the latter disrupts. This dichotomy is directly addressed in the scene where the Terminator raids the police station. The naturalistic lighting that marks this setting as grounded is almost immediately destroyed upon the Terminator’s explosive entrance where it is replaced by a more exaggerated lighting that removes the police station from its grounding in the real world and transports it into a dystopian world marked by ruin, fire, and violence. Thus, The Terminator emulates a noir approach to lighting that both stylizes the image and disconnects it from the real to create a world not of criminals but of killer machines.
Paul Schrader wrote that film noir possess “a passion for the past and present, but also a fear of the future” as he noted the cycle’s tendency towards a romanticized past and disordered chronology. This theme is picked up rather literally by The Terminator. As Kyle Reese evades the police, he dons a trench coat and a pair of Nike shoes, visually marking his disjuncture in time. Evident in his flashbacks and dialogue, there is no event in his life for him to retreat to. Yet, through the picture of Sarah and the stories he is told about her, he is still able to retreat into some kind of past. Furthermore, his preoccupation with surviving his present has robbed him of an interpersonal depth as he describes his best friend as “about my height” and the women of his time as “good fighters.” When Kyle is asked how he is going to return to the future he explains that there is no way for him to return, he is literally trapped in the past (relative to him) and the present (relative to the film). The fear of the future is most directly characterized by The Terminator. In the films climactic final chase, the Terminator is knocked off of a moving motorcycle, hit by a truck, set on fire, blown up, and crushed by a hydraulic press before his pursuit is halted. This sequence is symbolic of a retreat from a future that will not rest and cannot be stopped. Thus, the thematic figure that is stuck in the present or that escapes to the past that Schrader describes as the noir hero is still embodied in The Terminator. James Naremore noted that Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, USA, 1944) is rich with a thematic industrialization of American life as symbols of industry and modernity pervade the film even as the instrument of Neff’s demise. This same theme is extended in The Terminator as many settings in the film mirror industrial settings even if not themselves industrial. The treads of construction vehicles are likened to mechanized tanks and the Tech-Noir nightclub resembles the bunker seen in Kyle’s flashback. Technology inhabits the film as a detractor to human life as pagers and televisions interrupt dialogue, Walkman devices deafen people to danger, and phones serve to confuse communication rather than facilitate it. Returning to the climactic chase, the sequence is marked by the increasingly industrialized backdrops: from street chase, to a tanker truck, into a factory, and finally into the factory’s machinery. Although taken up more bluntly, the treatment of modernity and industry Naremore sees as thematically central to the works of noir writers Raymond Chandler and Herman Cain is also present in The Terminator.
There is an issue of tone that makes The Terminator’s claim to a noir lineage rather precarious. While Blade Runner has an aura of brooding and dreariness that viewers easily connect to film noir, The Terminator has more trouble bridging that gap. Events in the film certainly are dark: innocent people are killed in the crossfire at the Tech-Noir and at the police station, Sarah’s roommate and mother are killed, Kyle is haunted by his past, and finally Kyle sacrifices himself trying to stop the Terminator. Perhaps the reason the film does not possess the same dreariness is because of its uncharacteristically hopeful ending. An extreme longshot pans across the dry foliage of the desert and rests on an incoming jeep as Sarah talks to her son via a tape recorder. Unlike Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, she has escaped the modern industrial world alive and stronger. There is a medium close-up that tracks towards her as she contemplates telling him that Kyle is his father. There is a close-up of her hand resting on her pregnant belly followed by a close-up of her face. These three shots are backgrounded by a soft piano that contrasts the electronic, brass, and percussion focused soundtrack of the film up until this point. There is a feeling of closeness in this sequence that runs counter to the distancing or discomfort found in the endings of The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, USA, 1950) or Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1955). The film closes with an extreme long shot in which Sarah drives headstrong towards mountains and into a storm that dwarf the jeep, ready to confront the immense challenges that lay ahead of her. This ending lacks the tragedy or ambivalence attributed to noir films such as Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1947) or The Big Combo. Naremore wrote that film noir is an eclectic category where every supposed defining quality has a film that serves as an exception to said quality and where films are constantly being added and omitted by critics and historians. For example, if tragic or discomforting endings are characteristic of noir then an exception would be Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, USA, 1944) where the ending has a playful tone and resolves with an affectionate kiss. While The Terminator’s ending is tonally uncharacteristic of noir, it is not entirely disqualifying. Naremore also wrote that noir is not just an art cinema but rather a popular cinema with an artistic consciousness. The blockbuster makeup of the 80’s can rarely be described as particularly bleak as shown by films like Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, USA, 1984) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1984) which both released the same year as The Terminator. Thus, the tone of the ending of The Terminator can be reconciled as comparably dark when considered next to the tone of the film’s contemporaries and what was considered popular at the time.
In concluding an exploration of varied neo-noir works, Naremore wrote “…film noir, like any other style or genre, tends to evolve by repeating old ideas in new combinations.” This essay has argued that this is what is at work within The Terminator, a repetition of film noir motifs and tones within a new dynamic of 1980’s science fiction. A film noir inheritance can be noted within the films approach to lighting and the themes of modernity and fatalism. Even though the ending leaves an un-noir impression, it has been explained that both the dreariness of film noir and the lack of it in The Terminator are not universal associations. This essay has focused on only a handful of noir topics as well, inspections of cold war subtexts and complicated sexual relations in the film would be warranted by its allusions to nuclear destruction and by the unorthodox love story that plays out. Through these points, it is clear that The Terminator is consciously taking up a film noir sensibility and this essay has shown it is worthy to be considered a noir film. Through this broadening of the idea of film noir, a new possibility is explored in a way that can deepen an understanding of film noirs qualities and its lasting significance within films that proceed the classical cycle.
Auger, Emily E. Tech-noir Film a Theory of the Development of Popular Genres. Bristol: Intellect, 2011.
Durgnat, Raymond. “The Family Tree of Film Noir,” Film Comment 10.6 (1974): 6-7
Hirsch, Foster. Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen. San Diego: A. S. Barnes, 1981.
Naremore, James. More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. 2nd ed. Revised. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
Place, J. A. and L. S. Peterson. “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir,” Film Comment 10.1 (1974): 30-35.
Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir,” Film Comment 8.1, (1972): 8-13.
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012) – Searching for the Truth
Written by Jocelyn Illing
As filmmaker Sarah Polley contemplates the act of storytelling, and the different truths it reveals, she is shown flipping through old photo-albums. The film then cuts to a grainy and tinted home-movie showing her family at dinner. The camera shakes as it moves from face to face, catching everyone in a private moment, be it whispering to each other or biting their thumb. It is the next shot that changes the course of the film. We see the same scene, only now without the orange tint. The camera jitters again, and eventually pans to the left, revealing Polley and her camera operator directing the scene. It is during this point that we, as viewers, learn that much of the home-video “footage” that we have been watching throughout the film was not archival at all, but rather products of re-enactment. This is where 17-year-old first-year student me had her mind-blown upon first viewing. Stories We Tell challenges the notion of truth and documentary by blending techniques in a way that satisfies both the viewer’s hunger for the “truth” and desire for drama and excitement.
What Stories We Tell is exactly about is a question that is pondered throughout the film. Is it a story about truth? A story about memory? A story of a daughter searching for answers about her parents? In its simplest form, the film follows the director as she interviews her family and friends about her recently deceased mother, Diane. She then uses this opportunity to search for answers surrounding the rumours that her father, Michael, is not her real father, something that her siblings had teased her about since she was a young girl. The film then becomes a story about Polley meeting her biological father, Harry, and her contemplation about, and difficulty with, breaking the news to Michael.
The film most strongly relates to both the participatory and the reflexive modes of documentary. Polley is an active participant in the film, both as an interviewer and a subject. Her film centres around the act of storytelling, the ways in which the people who knew her mother talk about her in different ways, and how these stories evolve over time. Unlike some documentaries where we cannot see or hear the interviewer ask the questions, Polley can often be heard directly addressing her subjects, and often makes an appearance during these interviews. The fact that the subjects are people that she knows, or that her mother knows, strengthens the connection between filmmaker and subject, thus demonstrating a strong sense of investment. Stories We Tell is also very reflexive. Throughout the film we watch as Polley constructs its form, be it recording narration with Michael or directing her actors while shooting a re-enactment. Additionally, the subjects in the film constantly talk about the documentary and about the notion of storytelling and truth.
As I first stated in the introduction, Polley’s use of re-enactment within her film is where much of its power lies. It is the reveal of this technique that causes the viewer to begin to question the truths of the film and the reliability of the documentary form. This resistance is multi-layered, for we do not only begin to question the mode of filmmaking itself but also the subjects within the film and the stories they have told. Polley’s use of re-enactment is in the style of a realist dramatization, with images on screen mirroring the verbal storytelling. For example, as Harry describes the night he met Diane at a bar, we watch as actors, who look strikingly like the people they are portraying, re-create this scene. The graininess of the image and use of filters work towards making these images seem like real home-movie footage. The beginning of the film further tricks us into believing that the footage is real when Michael recalls bringing a Super-8 camera along on their honeymoon. Because we know that the honeymoon footage is legitimate, and that Diane and Michael were artsy people, we cannot help but assume, or wish to believe, that the other footage in the film is equally authentic. Although viewers, including me, might feel cheated learning that these scenes are rehearsed, it is important to think of them not as the truth, but rather as sequences that provide a visual connection to the stories being told.
Through its mixing of interviews, home-movie footage and re-enactment, along with its commentary on the modes of documentary filmmaking, Stories We Tell tackles many of the questions regarding documentary and the truth. Through its use of re-enactment, the film both blurs the line between fact and fiction and makes us think about what we define to be the truth. Towards the end of the film, when responding to Polley’s question regarding his thoughts on the making of the film, Harry explains how it is impossible to find the truth, for the truth is subjective, differing in terms of who is telling it. To him, the film then is not about finding the truth but, as he says, documenting “different reactions to particular events”.
It is important to note that Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is not just a film about truth and documentary filmmaking. What is equally compelling is both the way in which the film provides its subjects with the opportunity to talk about Diane, and how it causes the viewer to think about their own family. It is an extremely emotional and personal work that is able to connect with audiences through its scenes of vulnerability and joy. In addition, the film, not surprisingly from its title, provides the viewer with a great story. We begin with the story of Diane, pulling at our heartstrings with recounts of her life from her loved ones, and are then pulled into the history of the filmmaker’s biological father. The film puts you on an emotional roller-coaster, both in terms of narrative and style, that is both frustrating and thrilling. Tissues not required but strongly recommended. Rating: 5/5 Stars
An Analysis of the Depiction of Time in the Films of Richard Linklater
Written by Jocelyn Illing
Richard Linklater is a director who is particularly concerned with time. He is interested in both how we experience time in everyday life as well as how the audience experiences time while watching films. Within his films, Linklater uses different cinematic techniques in order to experiment with time. He plays with the relationship between time in the filmmaking process and time within the narrative. Additionally, he often has his characters comment on the idea of time and how it affects them. But how exactly does Linklater depict time? I would like to argue that time in his films is similar to Jacques Rancière’s (2013) notion of slow cinema and the “time after” which he uses to describe the cinema of Béla Tarr (p. 63). However, I would like to extend this theory, stating that Linklater’s films give off what Rob Stone (2015) terms a kind of “nowness” (p. 67) that is achieved through the arrangement of the films as a continuum, as explored by Rancière (2013, p. 64). Rather than contemplating the past or anticipating the future, both the characters and the audience are concerned with what is happening in the moment. Linklater creates this sense of “now-ness” both through form and through content. In my essay I will demonstrate how Linklater creates the feeling of “now-ness”, focussing on three of his films, Slacker (USA, 1991), Waking Life (USA, 2001) and finally Boyhood (2014), whilst relating them to Béla Tarr’s style of slow cinema.
To begin my discussion, I would first like to go further in defining slow cinema and the time after. When describing the films of Béla Tarr, Rancière (2013) says that they exist in “[t]he time after” (p. 63). The time after “is not the time in which we craft beautiful phrases or shots to make up for the emptiness of all waiting”, rather “[i]t is the time in which we take an interest in the wait itself” (Rancière, 2013, p. 63-64). Within these films, the audiences really feel the sense of time, and experience the difficulties of waiting. Tarr’s work also displays film as “[a] continuum” (Rancière, 2013, p. 64). As Rancière (2013) continues:
There is no story, which is also to say: there is no perceptive center, only a great continuum made of the conjunction of the two modes of expectation, a continuum of modifications that are miniscule in comparison to normal, repetitive movement. (p. 66)
The idea of “nowness” is an extension of this continuum. It allows for the experiencing of the continuous now, and encourages focussing on the moment, rather than dwelling on the past or fearing for the future. The films of Richard Linklater are always moving forward. He achieves this constant flow through the content of his films and through form. Linklater creates characters who contemplate life and experiments with single locations, the long take, and filming duration.
Slacker is such a film that creates the sense of now through both content and form. It is first achieved through its narrative framing. The film takes place over twenty-four hours within the city of Austin, Texas. It follows the “unusual method of cinematic storytelling… in [which] character growth and plot development are highly compressed relative to the timeframe of the story” (Zinman, 2019, para. 2). Because we are not given much time with the characters, we are prompted to focus on what is happening in the moment. As stated by Stone (2015) “Slacker postulates that time is an ongoing, incomplete and eternal moment ripe for perception” (p. 67). The narrative is organized around a continuum of episodic but flowing conversations. Each conversation effortlessly translates into the next. Slacker also achieves this continuum, as well as a feeling of slowness, through its use of the long take. The long take forces us to stay with the character in that a moment. With no cuts interrupting the image, we feel as if we are observing a real person, rather than a constructed film. We are watching them in the now.
The opening scene of the film provides an excellent example of how the film uses its narrative framing and the long take to create the continuous feeling of the now. The sequence begins with a minute-long close-up of a man looking out the window of a moving vehicle. The lighting of the shot is very dark, and we cannot clearly see the man’s face or his view outside of the window. We sit with this image for thirty-seven seconds, and then the title credits appear. During these thirty-seven seconds, we are “stuck” with the man and prepare for something to happen. A cut transitions the film to a shot of the man leaving what appears to be the bus station and walking towards a taxi. The next shot is medium-close-up of the man sitting in the back of the taxi as the driver controls the wheel in the front. The shot continues for approximately three-minutes, with the man talking for the entire length of the shot. His monologue consists of a description of a strange dream he had as well as his musings on dreams and multiple dimensions. After the film cuts to the cab pulling up to a curve, and the man gets out, we watch as he walks down the street. It then cuts to a continuation of his walk, with the camera panning over to a car turning the corner and a woman lying on the street. What follows is another long take, with the camera tracking back as the man interacts with a runner on the street. As the camera continues to track back, it pans over to another man exiting a cab, leading into the next scene. By shooting this scene in multiple long takes, Linklater both forces us to focus on the current moment, and flawlessly leads into the next episode.
Slacker also creates the sense of now and continuum through its content. As Rancière (2013) says regarding the films of Béla Tarr, “[They] always [begin] with the search for the place that can lend itself to the play of expectations. This place is the primary character of the film” (p. 70). With his film The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, Hungary, 2011), “the character around which [it] was first constructed is the lost tree on the summit of the hill, across from which Béla Tarr had the house” (Rancière, 2013, p. 70). For Slacker, this place is Austin, Texas, the city where Linklater grew up. By staying with this one setting for the entirety of the film, both the characters and the viewers become grounded in the specific moments happening in Austin, and the film continues to flow. The film also portrays a continuous now through its depiction of slacker culture through the process of “dérive or drift[ing]” (Stone, 2015, p. 67). As stated by Stone (2015), “The film’s instinctive pursuit of the present moment marries slackened form to slacker-filled content in illustration of the revolutionary potential of slacking” (p. 67). The characters are all living in the moment and are not particularly concerned about the past or future. They spend the entirety of the film wandering around Austin, having encounters, and talking about everything and nothing. Additionally, the topics of conversation between the characters revolve around different theories on time. From conspiracy theories to comparing television to real time, each character seems heavily concerned with the notion and effects of time.
The bookstore sequence exemplifies how Linklater uses the content within Slacker to foster the continuum. The sequence begins with a long shot of a man walking down the street towards a woman reading a book. As they exchange hellos, the woman looks at her watch and tells the man that he late. With this action she is demonstrating how her life, and our lives, revolve around time. We plan our days, make deadlines, and fixate on the punctuality of our peers. The scene continues with the camera following them down the street. After the woman gives the man’s soda to a homeless person, the man begins to pester her about her actions. What follows is a conversation about cause and effect, and the repercussions of her actions. The woman tells the man that she knows that giving the homeless person the soda is not going to solve all his problems, which prompts the man to begin to philosophize about suffering. As they continue to argue and walk down the street the woman looks at her watch again and acknowledges how late they are for the movie. They decide to go to the next show, two hours from now, and she goes into the nearby bookstore. We then witness an almost four-minute shot of a former classmate coming up to her in the store and talking about his theories relating to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. During these four minutes we can feel her annoyance with the man and how every second feels like a lifetime. It is within this scene that we really feel the effects of the slow cinema continuum.
Linklater’s Waking Life further explores nowness and the continuum through the framing of a dream. As Danijela Kulezic-Wilson (2014) explains, “[T]he film is assembled from loosely connected fragments of conversations, lectures, music rehearsals and soliloquies, all possibly part of Main Character’s…lucid dream” (p. 1). We watch as Main Character wanders around his dream, encountering strange characters who philosophize about life, death and time. Additionally, we see other people who exist in this dreamworld, but who do not cross paths directly with Main Character. Linklater created this dreamworld using the technique of rotoscoping. Rotoscoping is a process in which filmmakers film their actors in real-life and then paint over the images to animate them. According to Kulezic-Wilson (2014), this type of animation was “the perfect medium for conveying the oneiric, elusive feel of [Linklater’s] uniquely cinematic metaphysical enquiry” (p. 1). The rotoscoping technique causes components of the image to move around, creating a psychedelic, dream-like atmosphere. Because of this, when watching the film, it is often difficult to tell where the characters are, but it doesn’t matter; we are to live in the moment with the characters in this dream. In the dream, there is no past or present; there is only now.
I would like to use the false-awakening scene in order to demonstrate Linklater’s use of time and creation of nowness within Waking Life. The camera pulls away from the previous sequence, tilting up to give us a view of the sky, and then pans to and left and tilts, tracking in on a woman who seems to be standing in an alley. As the shot closes in on her face, looking into the camera she asks, “Do you remember me?” The scene then cuts to a close-up of Main Character with a confused expression on his face. The scene continues, cutting back and forth between the woman and Main Character as she tries to explain how they know each other. She leans in to kiss him, and the sequence cuts to a different image of Main Character opening his eyes. The positioning of these two shots together suggests that he has woken up from his dream. However, as the camera pulls back and the main character turns to look at his alarm clock, the truth is revealed: the numbers on the clock are still jumbled, indicating that he is still dreaming, and we are still in the present. This “false-awakening” is addressed again in the final scene of the film in which Main Character encounters a man playing on a pin ball machine. As Main Character approaches the man, the whole room seems to sway, demonstrating the dream-like effect that rotoscoping has on the image. After explaining false awakenings to Main Character, the man proposes a theory that time is an illusion and that there is only one instant: right now. His philosophy mirrors that of the film and all of Linklater’s work: the time is now.
As mentioned above, Waking Life is an accumulation of conversations and contemplations regarding the concept of time and its relation to the human experience. It presents a series of moments occurring in the dream of Main Character. Kulezic-Wilson (2014) describes the film as “a cinematic mediation on the mysteries of existence, consciousness and time” (p. 1). Like Slacker, the characters and the action are confined into a specific setting and moment: Main Character’s dream-world. Although the locations of the characters are slightly ambiguous, we know that everything is occurring within the same time frame of the dream. The episodic nature of the narrative causes the audience to not worry about what is going to happen, but to focus on the now. Additionally, the conversations of the characters prompt the audience to contemplate time in different ways.
One particularly interesting scene is that when Jesse and Céline philosophize in their bedroom. During the scene they discuss the difference between real time and dream time. They describe how when you are dreaming, it feels as if you are experiencing everything in real time. However, one year in a dream equals only three minutes in real life. This concept starts to concern Céline, as she realizes that just a few minutes of brain activity might create your whole life within a dream. She becomes obsessed with mortality, fixating on measuring her life by how years she has left. Jesse and Céline then turn to the subject of multiple dimensions, suggesting that we are all telepathically sharing our experiences. The conversing and philosophizing are aided by the aesthetic of rotoscoping. As they speak, it appears that the shapes within the images are rocking and floating. Watching the figures and objects move brings the viewer into the dream-like state, focusing on and contemplating the things that Jesse and Céline are saying.
Linklater’s two-and-a-half-hour epic Boyhood entangles the concepts of framing and content. Boyhood’s narrative takes place over twelve years of the life of a young boy, Mason, and his family. Linklater’s film takes the classic coming-of-age story one step further in authenticity by filming the story in increments over twelve-years, allowing us to watch the actors grow up. This sense of realism aligns with Rancière’s (2013) argument regarding the films of Béla Tarr, that “The place is at once entirely real and entirely constructed” (p. 70). The actor must be the character, not play them. This is exactly what happens within Linklater’s film. Although the film has a script, the experiences of the characters reflect the actors’ experiences as they age together. In creating this film, Linklater constructs the feeling of the now through his production schedule. Unlike other films which replace younger actors with older ones as the characters age, “Linklater [filmed] the same child actors over 12 years [,] solv[ing] the problem of showing childhood as a series of disparate moments” (Zinman, 2019, para. 6). In doing so, Linklater creates the sense of the continuous now by presenting us with the authentic process of growing up.
Over the duration of the film we watch as the characters grow and change over the years. Each of the “four… main characters struggle[s] with the process of growth and maturation” (Zinman, 2019, para. 13). While the children experience the struggles of growing up and becoming independent, the parents experience the realities of responsibility and, later, the truth of not being needed anymore. However, as explained by Zinman (2019), each character experiences these struggles in different ways: Mason tries to “maintain his creativity”, his sister Samantha navigates the “more generic problems associated with becoming a young woman”, his father Mason Sr. “has trouble growing up”, and his mother Olivia struggles to maintain a balance “between assuming parental responsibilities and being happy (para. 13-14). Throughout the film, the characters confront these issues and eventually find some form of happiness. In this way, “time is sort of a lead character” within the film (Linklater as quoted in Zinman, 2019, para. 25). Time both organizes the narrative and directly affects the characters. We experience the film in the now, watching as the characters both grow with time and question its meaning.
The intertwining of the form and content within Boyhood works to create the continuum of time. As stated by Zinman (2019), “Linklater goes out of his way to disguise the passage of time in the film on a scene-by-scene basis” (para. 26). He achieves this by “not provid[ing] prominent visual clues or other filmic devices such as title cards to mark the passage of time” (Zinman, 2019, para. 26). Instead, Linklater uses the aging of the actors, conversations among the characters, as well as little markers, in order to create a sense of time. For example, early in the film when we are introduced to Mason Sr., we understand the guilt he feels as a father when he realizes how big his children have gotten and how long it has been since they had last seen each other. The children’s grandmother places an emphasis on time as she tells Mason Sr. that “time’s going by.” The flow of time is also achieved through the changing of the hairstyles of the four characters throughout the film. For example, there is a prominent scene in which Mason’s stepfather forces him to cut his shoulder-length hair. This upsets Mason, for his hair is part of his identity. However, his mother assures him that it will grow back. As we see, it eventually does. Finally, I would like to bring attention to the final scene of the film. Mason is now in college and has gone hiking with a group of friends. Sitting on a rock and watching their friends howl at the wind, Mason and Nicole begin to muse about the idea of seizing the moment. Nicole says to Mason, “I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around…like the moment seizes us.” In agreement with Nicole, Mason summarizes Linklater’s philosophy on depicting time within his films: “It’s constant. The moments… it’s just… it’s like always right now you know?”
Throughout his career, Richard Linklater has worked to define his significant style of depicting time through cinema. The arrangement of time in his films aligns with the slow cinema of Béla Tarr while simultaneously creating a sense of nowness. He achieves this through the rooting of his films to a single location, having his characters contemplate life, and through experimenting with cinematic time. Linklater’s cinema combines form and content to explore the human experience of time, thus prompting the audience to question both how time is functioning within his films and how time affects us in our everyday lives.
Kulezic-Wilson, D. (2014, Winter). Tango for a Dream: Narrative Liminality and Musical Sensuality in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media (8), 1-16. Retrieved from http://www.alphavillejournal.com/Issue8/HTML/ArticleKulezicWilson.html
Rancière, J. (2013). The Closed Circle, Opened. Béla tarr, the time after. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 63-81.
Stone, R. (2015, Spring). About Time: Before Boyhood. Film Quarterly, 68(3), 67-72. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/fq.2015.68.3.67
Zinman, R. (2019, July). Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and the problem of aging in film. Senses of Cinema (91). Retrieved from http://sensesofcinema.com/2019/feature-articles/richard-linklaters-boyhood-and-the-problem-of-aging-in-film/
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2014). Retrieved from https://calgarypl.kanopy.com/video/boyhood-0
Slacker (Richard Linklater, USA, 1991). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jB4xlYKAVCQ
The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, Hungary, 2011). Retrieved from D2L.
Waking Life (Richard Linklater, USA, 2001). Retrieved from iTunes.
A Comparison of the Depiction of Paris in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001), François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine (1995)
Written by Jocelyn Illing
As stated by Ginette Vincendeau (2000) in her chapter “Designs on the Banlieue” from French Film: Texts and Contexts, “Paris, the modern city par excellence, has dominated French cinema” (p. 311). With its “picturesque apartment blocks” and “bustling cafes” (Vincendeau, 2000, p. 311), Paris has served as the perfect backdrop to the romantic encounter. An excellent example of this would be the idyllic and colourful Parisan setting of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 romantic-comedy Amélie. Throughout the film we watch as the title character makes her way around “the Paris of [Jeunet’s] youth, a fairy-tale Paris” (Zalewski, 2001, as cited in Andrew, 2004, p. 34). However, this is not the only representation of Paris in cinema. François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine (1995) present two alternative versions of the city. Truffaut offers a wider, although still predictable, lens of Paris through the eyes of Antoine, a young juvenile delinquent exploring the city. His film “offer[s] a complex variation on… ‘the script of delinquency’” (Gillain, 2000, p. 144). This is achieved through not only the images of iconic Parisian structures, but also by inviting us into the home and school of the protagonist. La haine goes one step further by showing the dirtier parts of Paris that are not normally depicted on film, specifically the “banlieue”, the community “where the majority of the immigrant population lives” (Vincendeau, 2000, p. 312). In my essay I wish to analyze the different ways in which these films depict Paris. I will argue that while Jeunet’s tries to construct his own Paris, or to conceal its contents, Truffaut chooses to present Paris in a broader sense, through the eyes of a child. Finally, and most radically, Kassovitz’s film reveals a side of Paris often ignored by cinema: the banlieue.
Within Amélie, Jeunet presents the audience with a highly constructed and idyllic Paris. This was achieved through both meticulous planning and preparation and through different cinematic techniques. In order to create his romanticized version of Paris, Jeunet “[took control of] every element of sound and picture, determining it all in an unalterable script and storyboard” (Andrew, 2004, p. 38). To achieve the look of his romantic Paris, Jeunet “varnish[ed] his colourful images… making them bounce to an upbeat score” (Andrew, 2004, p. 37). His use of filters to produce his colourful world can be best seen in the character introductions in which Amélie narrates their likes and dislikes. The tight framing of Paris can also be seen in the different locations that Jeunet chooses to depict. Throughout the film we see colourful grocery stands, charming cafés and even Paris in the rain. The closest thing to an “ugly” location is the porn shop that Amélie visits, but it still reflects a romantic, sexual Paris through its neon lights. Jeunet also restricts his audience from seeing a broader Paris through his use of tight framing. As Amélie visits the grocery stand, the café and the cinema, she is framed in a medium-close-up, preventing us from thoroughly surveying the setting.
Not only is the setting within Jeunet’s film concealed and limited, but so are the characters. Each character is carefully constructed by both the director’s decisions and Amélie’s narration. At the beginning of the film, Amélie offers character introductions through the framing of their “likes” and “don’t likes” which “define the style and personality of each character” (Andrew, 2004, p. 35). For example, her father hates going to the washroom next to other people and clingy wet swimming trunks, but likes peeling large strips of wallpaper and cleaning and shining his shoes. When we are introduced to the other individuals in which Amélie interacts with on a daily basis, she yet again characterizes them using limited facts. Suzanne, the owner of the café, has a limp, likes athletes who cry with disappointment and dislikes seeing men being humiliated in front of their kids. Gina, the waitress, has a grandmother who was a healer and likes cracking bones. Joseph, Gina’s rejected lover, likes popping bubble wrap. These superficial facts provide the audience with a very narrow scope of who these people are, thus breaking them down into caricatures, rather than depicting them as real, multi-dimensional humans. Amélie also represents limitation through her purpose and actions within the narrative. She spends the majority of the film trying to help people by solving the little mysteries in their lives. However, as argued by Jim Morrissey (2008), “Amélie seems far less likely to move from the personal to the political” (p. 103). She is so entrapped within her own little world that she does not acknowledge the larger problems that are happening in Paris such as its “racial and religious division, socio-economic hardship and crime” (Morrissey, 2008, p. 103). Rather than facing the real world, “Amélie only sees in Paris what Jeunet allows her to see” (Morrissey, 2008, p. 103): a romanticized Paris where people’s problems are easy to fix using her scheming mind and charming personality.
The best example of Jeunet’s constructed Paris is the scene in which Amélie has her “perfect moment” walking through the streets. As she strolls through the city, basking in the soft lighting and warm glow of the sun, the narrator exclaims that “It’s a perfect moment. Soft light, a scent in the air, the quiet murmur of the city.” The medium-close up focusses on the blissful Amélie, giving the audience a peek at the beautiful buildings and trees behind her as she passes by the Seine river, a defining marker of Paris. As she walks in slow motion, we are transported into an almost dreamlike space, a Paris that is almost too beautiful to be real. Accompanied by the music of an accordion, the scene is a direct depiction of the romanticized Paris that we associate with French films. When she spots the blind man on the street, Amélie is provided with the opportunity to not only do a good deed by leading him to his destination, but also a chance to construct her own image of Paris. As she walks with the man, she describes to him different things they pass by, such as the horse head statue that is missing an ear, the florist laughing and the sugar plum ice cream. Together these emblems create the beautiful, quirky and optimistic version of Paris that she lives in. Although this moment is quick and fleeting, it demonstrates both the director’s and the protagonist’s power in constructing their own ideas of the city of Paris.
The 400 Blows provides audiences with a wider scope of Paris using the cinematic techniques of the New Wave. During the New Wave, “cinema was shaped by forces as abstract as the growth of film criticism that stressed mise-en-scène over thematics and as concrete as technological innovations in motion picture cameras and sound recorders” (Neupert, 2010, p. 3). Filmmakers were making quick, cheap and youthful films using a “combination of new, less expensive filming techniques, stories set in the streets that could appeal to young audiences, and new portable production equipment” (Neupert, 2010, p. 39). In his film, Truffaut uses the tracking shot and a wider lens to present Paris. The opening sequence of the film establishes this New Wave aesthetic and offers us our first glimpse of Paris. Shot in black and white, the sequence consists of a tracking shot through the streets of Paris, with great emphasis on the Eiffel tower. As the camera moves down the streets, the Paris landmark is always in sight. We pass by beautiful apartment blocks, older buildings, and the train station, while listening to a whimsical soundtrack. Although the soundtrack suggests a manipulated Paris, The 400 Blows still provides the audience with a less constructed view of Paris than Amélie through its use of a wide lens, black and white shots and a larger variety of locations. Apart from the stereotypical views of the Eiffel tower, we are shown lesser explored areas such as the classroom, the police station and the juvenile detention centre. Truffaut presents us with a “peculiar quality of space” portrayed through a “binary opposition” (Gillain, 2000, p. 144). While the inside shots in the school or the home are static and tightly framed, the outside shots are longer and more mobile. While Antoine is “[a] prisoner indoors”, outside he is “free to roam, play and explore” the streets of Paris (Gillain, 2000, p. 144). This binary opposition provides us with a larger scope of Paris and its effects on the youth.
Antoine is a direct representation of the youth culture of the New Wave. He is the juvenile delinquent, experiencing Paris on his own terms. An important aspect of the New Wave was the emerging “‘youth culture’” that affected both the audience and content of cinema (Neupert, 2010, p. 15). This new generation of youths were concerned with art and could be described as young cinephiles. Antoine reflects this culture through his rebellious ways. He skips class, gets arrested and is even sent to a detention centre. Antoine does what he wants when he wants and is perfectly content wandering around Paris with his friend. He represents this new generation of young people who are curious and independent, breaking the rules in order to live a fulfilling life. Throughout the film we bear witness to his acts of juvenile delinquency that eventually lead to his sentence to the detention centre. However, this does not hold him down, for he eventually escapes to the sea. His confidence and willingness to break the rules both reflect the attitudes of filmmakers during the New Wave and the techniques that emerged during this creative era.
The New Wave techniques and emerging influence of youth culture come together for the classroom scene in which Antoine gets into trouble with his teacher. The wide lens of the camera surveys the room as young boys pass around an image of a pin-up girl. The mobile camera follows the photo as it gets passed across the room, the boys snickering at their mischievous behaviour, until it suddenly swings to the teacher as he commands the class’s attention. This sudden jolt focusses both the boys’ and our own gazes back to the teacher and brings to attention the presence of the camera. The camera further establishes its role as producer of the gaze after the teacher sends Antoine to the corner. As Antoine continues to act up behind the teacher’s back, the camera swings back and forth between Antoine and the suspecting teacher. Through this camera movement Truffaut not only gives us a wider scope of the setting but also determines the kind of “cat-and-mouse” relationship between Antoine and his teacher.
As the film moves outside to the streets of Paris, we are granted an even larger view of the city. This is best exemplified when the gym teacher takes his class outside for some exercise. We watch in deep focus as the class disappears into the foreground, heading into the city. As the teacher exits the gates to the school, he ushers each student past him until they are all out. A high angle shot then presents us with a view of the streets and the city square as the students trail behind the teacher. Not only does the shot present us with a clear picture of the streets of Paris, but it also captures key moments of rebellion. Watching the class, we begin to notice that the students are peeling off one by one to explore the streets for themselves. By shooting this scene at such a high angle, Truffaut emphasizes the emptiness of the streets once the children disappear. It is within these shots that the camera allows us to witness the acts of juvenile delinquency occurring within the city as the children seek to rebel against authority and explore.
Kassovitz’s La haine diverges even further from Amélie’s romanticized Paris by revealing the parts of the city that are not normally depicted in films. His Paris is rougher, consisting of gangs, drug dealing and the less than ideal living conditions of the city’s lower-class immigrant population. The film has the same black and white aesthetic as Truffaut’s film but takes it one step further into unexplored or ignored territory. Specifically, Kassovitz chooses to explore the ghetto communities of Paris, known as the banlieue, and its inhabitants. Ginette Vincendeau (2000) argues that La haine presents a “polished and seductive” depiction of the banlieue (p. 316). It is an aesthetic that gives the film its “cool” atmosphere (Vincendeau, 2000, p. 316) while simultaneously revealing the grittiness of this part of Paris. The film explores a wide range of locations that put into contrast the banlieue with the more romantic and classic parts of the city. One moment we will be with the three protagonists in an abandoned building filled with graffiti and the next we’ll find them sauntering into a prestigious art gallery where it is obvious that they do not fit in. The setting of social interaction among the members of the banlieue also differ substantially from the average French film. Instead of drinking coffee in cafes or going out dancing, the youth have made their own spaces for social gathering, particularly on rooftops or in abandoned lots (Vincendeau, 2000, p. 313-314).
The film also takes a sociological approach, “tak[ing] a genuine interest in the working-class suburb as setting and topic” (Vincendeau, 2000, p. 313). Marginalized members of society are represented both as the targets of police brutality and racial profiling and as a strong community built on friendship. The film’s opener, a montage sequence of police and protest, sets the scene for the sociological context of the film. Through grainy news footage Kassovitz presents us with images of police brutality and protest. This footage foreshadows the fate of the protagonists as they fall victim to the police later in the film. The hierarchal relationship between authorial figures and the public is further explored through the protagonists’ encounters with the figures outside of their social circle. For example, they experience racial profiling as the news reporter assumes that they are part of the riots and are further discriminated against when they are turned down at the hospital where their friend is in critical condition. When visiting the art gallery, the men are again singled out due to their clothing and social etiquette. However, it is always apparent that the three men, and their close circle, have each other’s backs.
The strong sense of community is best depicted during the rooftop sequence. Unable to afford to hang out at “traditional venues”, the boys meet up with others on a rooftop filled with graffiti and rubble. The diverse crowd makes the most of the space, setting up a hot-dog station and chatting with each other. As the protagonists line up for food, the sense of community is strongly felt as the cook shakes Hubert’s hand and gives him a discount. Kassovitz’s camera circles around the rooftop, exploring the different conversations happening among the crowd and the different deals going down. The topics of conversation, mainly of drugs and jail time, differs substantially from those in both Amélie and The 400 Blows. However, their little gathering is soon broken up as the police come to kick them out, stating that they do not belong there. It seems as if Paris has not truly welcomed these members into society and is actively trying to squeeze them out into the confinement of the slums.
In conclusion, although it is common for Paris to be depicted in the cinema as a romantic, there are more representations of the city that spark conversations about representation. While Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie depicts a brightly coloured and dreamy Paris, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine (1995) work to present different perspectives of the city. Truffaut’s film presents Paris as a place of exploration for the juvenile delinquent through the use of New Wave cinema techniques. Kassovitz, on the other hand, uses both the aesthetics and sociological conditions of the banlieue to depict the lives of the marginalized immigrants in Paris that are often absent from the screen.
Andrew, D. (2004). Amélie, or le fabuleux destin du cinéma français. Film Quarterly, 57(3), 34-46. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/fq.2004.57.3.34
Gillain, A. (2000) The script for delinquency: François Truffaut’s Les 400 coups (1959). In S. Hayward & G. Vincendeau (Eds.), French Film: Texts and Contexts (pp. 142-157) Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge
Morrissey, J. (2008). Paris and voyages of self-discovery in Cléo de 5 à 7 and Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain. French Cinema, 8(2), 99-110. doi: 10.1386/sfc.8.2.99/1
Neupert, R. J. (2010). Cultural Contexts: Where Did the Wave Begin? A History of the French New Wave Cinema. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 3-44. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucalgary-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3444956.
Vincendeau, G. (2000). Designs on the Banlieue: Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995). In S. Hayward & G. Vincendeau (Eds.), French Film: Texts and Contexts (pp. 310-327) Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge
An Analysis of Allan Cameron’s “Zombie Media: Transmission, Reproduction, and the Digital Dead”
Written by Jocelyn Illing
Zombie films are notorious for their central, gruesome monsters. Resembling the human figure, these beings are often portrayed as decaying, horrifying and lazy bipeds. Upon analyzing their bodies and movements, and how the portrayal of zombies has changed throughout cinematic history, one can begin to examine how these sub-genre horror films reflect the transformation of media and technology. In his essay “Zombie Media: Transmission, Reproduction, and the Digital Dead,” Allan Cameron (2012) explores how “in zombie films, bodily phenomena of death, decay, and dismemberment are often closely aligned with the contingent traces of mediation, including film grain, distortion, and digital pixilation” (para. 1). These films include, but are not limited to Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968), 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) and Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009). Cameron (2012) describes what he calls “zombie media” (para. 1), and how it is used to explore the “breakdown of bodies, images and meaning” (para. 1). Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2012) is such a horror film that uses media to explore the zombies’ relationship to the body, while simultaneously reflecting on the horror-genre as a whole, and the audience’s pleasure of it.
Cameron (2012) begins his discussion by defining the contemporary zombie as the “media zombie” (para. 2). These types of horror films often include depictions of multiple forms of media, critiquing society’s dependence on it. Characters will rely on recording or broadcast media in their time of need, only to have it ultimately fail them. This is the case in Night of the Living Dead, when, after the zombie outbreak is established, television reports feed the citizens false and out of date information, leaving them to wonder what has truly come of the world and whether or not they are still in danger (Cameron, 2012, para. 2). Zombie films also have the tendency to portray society’s “overdependence on media” in the form of their lead protagonists, such as the title character in Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004), a lazy man who spends his time watching trashy television, unaware of the threat of the monsters (Cameron, 2012, para. 2). The Cabin in the Woods presents this overdependence of media through both the college students and the organization of the zombie attack operation. During a speech early on in the film, stoner Marty talks about how technology and the media are taking over society. Later this is proven through the work of the secret organization, orchestrating a sort of reality television horror program that is use to give the public what they want. Cameron (2012) also describes the media zombie as being a “weaving together of media and bodily metaphors” (para. 8). The zombies, through their abilities, or lack thereof, to think, speak and move give rise to both the physical and psychological differences between monster and human. To further this idea, Cameron (2012) presents the example of Bub, the captive zombie in Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1985) who begins to regain human characteristics through different media experiences, such as reading a book, talking on the telephone or listening to music (para. 8). This presents the idea that what makes us truly human is our media and our ability to respond and interpret it.
Another important component of the zombie film is the exploration of the physical attributes of both the zombies and the film itself. In his article, Cameron (2012) speaks heavily of “speed, stillness, and the body” in relation to zombies and media (para. 15). This concept can first be explained on the level of film form. Zombie films often have a distinct look to them because of the type of camera chosen to shoot the film. With advances in technology, the aesthetic has changed over the years, from the grainy high-contrast film in Night of the Living Dead to the pixelated digital video of 28 Days Later (Cameron, 2012, para. 15). Not only do these devices give the films a distinct look, but they also give them a documentary feel, heightening the viewer’s experience by making the film appear as found footage. Speed may refer to the importance of quickness within the zombie film. While fans have debated the use of fast zombies, “the emergence of the high-speed zombie introduces a digital aesthetic to zombie media” (Cameron, 2012, para. 16). The evolution of the contemporary zombie to a high-powered maniac, as exemplified in The Cabin in the Woods and more extensively in Zombieland, reflects the speed and power of new digital media. During one scene in Zombieland, for example, we watch as an overweight zombie chases after a man down the aisle of a grocery store at a speed not normally seen in a zombie film. A final concept worth mentioning in Cameron’s article is his examination of Vivian Sobchack’s theory that “film itself has a body, constituted by the entire technology apparatus of camera, screen, projector, and so forth” (Cameron, 2012, para. 28). Because of this, the film acts as both the object and the subject of the look. Tying into this theory are “the intimate connections among the bodies of characters and viewers” (Cameron, 2012, para. 29). The blood and gore on screen, particularly in multiple death scenes in Zombieland and in The Cabin in the Woods, both affect the characters on screen and produce a sort of bodily response in the viewers, making them feel sick or uneasy.
Because of the extreme detail into which Cameron goes into explaining the relationship between zombie films and the media, there are multiple interesting points that I believe should be discussed. The first is that of the modern zombie movie and its tendency to draw attention to society’s dependence on media, and the subsequent failure of the media to save man-kind in the event of a threat. This is often portrayed in films through characters addicted to their phones, oblivious to the outbreak, and through the attacks on members of the media. For example, in Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978) “television… represents organized society’s failure to come to terms with the unfolding disaster” (Cameron, 2012, para. 2) with chaotic scenes of staff members of a news studio staging a revolt. The self-reflexivity of The Cabin in the Woods also calls to this dependency of humans on technology, as well as their obsession with destruction. The whole operation is organized around these urges, with the college students presented as the victims of technology. A second theory worth noting is that of the digital dead. Cameron (2012) states that “zombie cinema’s ontological alignment of bodies and media invites reflection not only on questions of death, stillness and cinematic movement but also on the status of embodiment in the context of digital media” (para. 40). For example, the modern zombie is manufactured in a high-tech studio in The Cabin in the Woods. The use of faster zombies, as stated above, also calls to a comparison between the analog and the digital. The faster zombies represent the faster connection offered by new media. Technology is further presented in the film in the form of the surveillance cameras that often act as the source of the images presented onscreen.
Two concepts discussed in Cameron’s article that I found rather difficult to grasp were that of the body’s ontological and phenomenological connections with media in zombie films and that of mediation. Cameron (2012) first connected these two concepts with the idea that “zombie cinema is aligned with science fiction in its tendency to frame media, and the failure of media, in social terms” (para. 4). Both of these genres highlight society’s dependence on media and technology in a critical way. I think what Cameron means when he (2012) states that “the human body has typically served as a placeholder for [the] science of imaging” (para. 4) is that zombie films depict the extent to which media and technology affect our bodies or our being. For example, the control panel in The Cabin in the Woods controlled the zombies, thus deciding which of the college students were to be murdered. Zombie films also show less direct repercussions, such as distracting the protagonist of Shaun of the Dead from the growing zombie outbreak. Cameron’s definition of mediation relates to “disembodiment” (Cameron, 2012, para. 5), or the role of the body when watching a horror film. For example, when watching a rather gory scene, the film triggers a bodily response, causing us to scream, our stomachs to curl, or even for us to cover our eyes.
Through their depiction of monsters and media, zombie films work to highlight human-kind’s relationship with media and technology. Although the relationship is co-dependent, it appears as though society relies too heavily on machines and networks in their everyday life. The evolution of the zombie in the horror film has aligned itself with the changes in technology, with the zombies becoming stronger and faster as we move from the analog and the digital, creating a new, contemporary zombie film.
Cameron, A. (2012). Zombie Media: Transmission, Reproduction, and the Digital Dead. Cinema Journal, 52(1), 66-89.
David Lynch and the Actualization of the Virtual
Written by Elias Stang
The cinematic oeuvre of David Lynch has been subject to multiple different interpretations and conceptual analyses throughout his career. Films including his feature debut Eraserhead (1977) and 1980’s The Elephant Man have been formally linked to concepts such as the Abject and Freud’s work with the Uncanny. Other prominent theoretical approaches consist of his connection to the puzzle film genre with regards to Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006). As well, the handling of sex, identity, and race throughout his career has given rise to polarizing arguments and evaluations by scholars of how to consider Lynch as an individual and as a filmmaker. Though the myriad of theoretical approaches Lynch’s work collects is intelligent and thoughtful with attempting to understand his films, they also bring with them strong oppositions as they may limit or contradict one’s understanding and interpretation of Lynch’s work. One particularly interesting idea one can attribute to these films, specifically Mulholland Drive is that of Gilles Deleuze’s work on the time-image and the Virtual. This paper intends to identify in what specific ways Mulholland Drive expresses Deleuze’s philosophy of a direct time-image and how it invokes the idea of the Virtual as an approach which favors Lynch’s more unconventional style. This will be done through the analysis of certain scenes including the scene involving the man in the Winkie’s diner and the nature of the blue key in the film’s final sequence. Additional examples will be provided from the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) to further illustrate how these concepts may be applied to Lynch’s work.
Before an analysis can be done, one must first be aware of what specifically Deleuze means by the “time-image” and the “virtual”. The concept of the time-image can seem dense and convoluted at first glance much like the work of David Lynch, as it comprises of various working parts. Suffice to say, “Deleuze's discussion of the time-image, in particular, is directed towards the cinema's capacity to produce certain kinds of indeterminacies between what the spectator may regard as physical and mental, past and present, objective and subjective, and above all, actual and virtual” (Croombs 7). The spectator acts as a “seer” rather than an “agent” when encountering the film image (Deleuze 3). For Deleuze the film image is directly linked to time. The role and power specific to the film image is to “make perceptible, to make visible, relationships of time which cannot be seen in the represented object and do not allow themselves to be reduced to the present” (Deleuze xii). It brings the perceptually invisible qualities of the image to the forefront; the various “sensory (visual and sound), kinetic, intensive, affective, rhythmic, tonal, and even verbal (oral and written)” material which comprise the image (Deleuze 29).
To that effect, the time-image is in a sense a new form of this image. Time represented in the film image does not occupy one temporal environment whether in relation to itself or the spectator but rather “a grouping of temporal relations”, “a system of relationships between its elements” (Rodowick 8). These relationships are in constant movement and transformation. Nothing is exempt from importance as every element holds a specific purpose, working in contention with one another but producing a “fluid ordering of representational elements. This ordering in turn produces different types of signs, a logic based on division and regrouping” (Rodowick 6).
The time-image is a distinct capturing of time and more importantly duration with which film is capable of presenting through its series of edited shots. Deleuze briefly speaks of still life as an example of the time-image. He uses a specific example from Late Spring (1949) involving a medium shot of a vase intercut between a woman lying in bed holding a half smile, beginning to cry. Deleuze expresses that with this “there is becoming, change, passage. But the form of what changes does not itself change, does not pass on. This is time, time itself, 'a little time in its pure state': a direct time-image, which gives what changes the unchanging form in which the change is produced” (17).
The blue key seen in the final sequence of Mulholland Drive acts similarly to that of the vase. The viewer is presented a shot of the blue key sitting on the edge of Diane’s coffee table as the camera slowly pans left to right across the table, settling in on a close-up of Diane sitting still on her couch across from the key. Diane stares at the key slightly shaking, appearing distinctly anxious. A close-up shot of the key is intercut between Diane’s close-ups as the viewer notices her apprehensive expression grow, her breathing becoming heavier, and her body more noticeably twitching before interjected with a striking knock to her door. In Deleuze’s words, “The still life is time, for everything that changes is in time, but time does not itself change, it could itself change only in another time, indefinitely. At the point where the cinematographic image most directly confronts the photo, it also becomes most radically distinct from it” (17). Still life is time in the sense that it is a constant. Everything around the still life experiences change and evolution but itself is left unaltered. The only way for time to change is for it to change in another time, a paradoxical conclusion. The still life endures as all else undergoes continuous evolution. The intercutting of still to real life expresses the idea that everything is connected to time, everything changes within time and is subject to time. With this, time itself is confronted as each sequence brings forward its perceptually invisible qualities and in doing so time becomes wholly apparent. The viewer is presented with a direct image of time.
Moving forward, a counterpart to the time-image is the movement-image. The movement-image can be interpreted as the traditional cause and effect relationship between time and image in film. It’s what is present in films which involve a linear narrative, “conventional narration” (Croombs 32). The time-image and movement-image are at odds with one another as the latter is used as a traditional mode of narrative relationship between movement and time, a mode which extinguishes critical thinking through cliché. “[A] cliché is a sensory-image of a
thing whose function is to discourage thought” (Croombs 33). The former advocates “the irrational linkage of images, and the concomitant emancipation of time from movement” (Croombs 32). With this power struggle, the movement-image fights through a series of crises attempting to maintain its position of power over the film image (Croombs 32). One such crisis is that of the action-image. As the movement-image represents the common mode of narrative thinking in film, the crisis of the action-image is made apparent by “a series of films that seek to confound the binary oppositions that define organic narration, specifically, that of the real and the imaginary” (Croombs 32). These films are those which implement the time-image mode of narrative thinking and with which the virtual comes into play.
The traditional characterization of the virtual is as the unreal, fantasy, apart from reality. Deleuze believes that each moment of an individual’s life is simultaneously actual and virtual, and both forms “operate in a reciprocal determination to constitute reality” (Croombs 46). By this, both sections of a given event, the actual and virtual, help to establish a sense of reality rather than a substitution, through a mutual dependency. With this we are given three simultaneous states of time: “present of the past, a present of the present, and a present of the future” (Croombs 47). Each state of the present marks a different state of recollection of the event as the “present of the present” is objective and tangible, while the “present of the past” is based on subjective interpretation or a virtual representation of the event. The “present of the past” leaves its virtual state to some extent when it is brought into the present, meaning when the event is recalled in the mind of the individual. Before actualization, the “present of the past” is “passively synthesized into the ‘pure past’ or ‘pure memory’ - the virtual condition that makes a psychological experience of the past possible” (Croombs 47). This recollection is skewed though by the fact that the “pure past” is only pure when left in the realm of the past. Once brought into the present the memory becomes fragmented by the unreliable recall of the event. We do not remember the memory in its entirety but by the features, the objects which catch our attention, this is what is known as attentive recognition. “Attentive recognition is thus not a re-cognition proper, but a description that constantly erases and recreates its object” (Croombs 49). In film it is no different. Rodowick states that “because of its constitutive factors of movement and time, the cinematic image can never be reduced to a simple unity, nor can the relation between image and thought be reduced to a simple, punctual present” (8).
David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is an excellent example of the virtual in this sense. The scene of the man in the Winkie’s diner can be used to illustrate the virtual in some sense. The scene in question involves a man recounting a recurring dream he has been having to his friend involving the diner in which they sit. Everything aside from the lighting fits what the man had saw in his dream. This fact weighs heavy on the man. One prominent feature of his dream is a homeless man who lives behind the diner. This character is the cause of the man’s distress, this nightmarish feeling and the purpose of visiting the diner is to assure himself that this man does not inhabit his reality. Soon though, through his eyes his dream seems to be coming to life. His dream is not only actualized in his mind but actualized in his present. His pain grows as he notices different elements from his dream be represented in reality, the present of the past and the present of the present seemingly meeting. The man is conflicted with the ambiguous nature of what he sees, all leading up to his contact with the homeless man. The fear of living out his dream, the fear of not knowing for certain the nature of his reality causes the man to feel such a visceral shock as he confronts the manifested image that he collapses outside of the diner. The uncanny nature of this scene “undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror” capable of doing so by presenting something so familiar and unsettling that dread manifests out of its ambiguity (Freud 1). As well it presents the virtual and actual manifesting a reality of uncertainty for its subject.
Similarly, the final two episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) illustrates the impossibility of actualizing the “pure past” as it will always be perceptually altered, granted in a more literal sense. In the previous episode we witness Agent Cooper wandering through the woods, happening upon a young James Hurley and Laura Palmer, presented in black and white. This encounter is taken, albeit adapted to Cooper’s perspective, from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Directly after Laura screams into James’ ear about her love for him, tearful and ashamed, she stumbles into direct contact with Cooper. Cooper stands motionless as Laura asks if they’ve met before, a sudden flicker of recognition hits her as she realizes that she had seen him in a dream. Cooper silently extends his hand, Laura cautiously takes it as the shot colourizes. The shot cuts to Laura’s plastic wrapped body washed ashore from the original series and miraculously vanishes. We return to Laura and Cooper, she asks where they are going to which Cooper replies “we’re going home” as they begin to traverse the woods. The finale continues their trek through the woods. Cooper leisurely guides Laura through the trees, their arms creating a bridge between them. The spectator follows them both until the camera slowly zooms in solely on Cooper. At this moment Cooper stops in his tracks, turning back to see that Laura is no longer behind him. He stares back at the empty woods where Laura once stood as her frightening and deafening shriek is heard throughout.
These scenes illustrate the impossibility of actualizing the “pure past” with a more literal expression. Cooper, being transported into the past world of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is thrusted into the realm of the “present of the past”. The figures of James and Laura represent the prominent aspects of memory which has clinched Cooper’s attention, they are the objects of his perceived recollection. By grabbing hold of Laura Palmer, Cooper is attempting to actualize the “pure past”, bringing her into the “present of the present” as they switch from monochrome to full colour. Cooper is attempting to save Laura from her death as we see from the disappearance of her body from the shore but is physically unable to since she as the “pure past” can never be brought out of her time. Cooper’s pursuit is halted, destroyed due to the nature of Laura Palmer. Her scream is the resistance of the “pure past”, the physical embodiment of the impossible act.
Gilles Deleuze’s work on the time-image and the Virtual presents a thorough and interesting look at time and reality within film as a medium. Though the myriad of theoretical approaches Lynch’s work collects is intelligent and thoughtful with attempting to understand his films, Deleuze’s ideas and arguments can be applied to the work of David Lynch to a greater extent than some of the other approaches. That is not to say that other theoretical methods are less informative and applicable but rather Deleuze’s approach can be seen as more appreciative towards Lynch’s more abnormal style.
Croombs, Matthew. “Encountering the Virtual: On Deleuze and the Disappearing Realities of Recent Hollywood Cinema.” Carleton University, 2006, pp. 31–92.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Beyond the Movement-Image.” Cinema 2: The Time-Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, University of Minnesota Press, 1989, pp. 1–24.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny, pp. 1-21.
Lynch, David, director. Mulholland Dr. Universal Pictures, 2001
Lynch, David, director. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. New Line Cinema, 1992
Ozu, Yasujiro, director. Late Spring. Shochiku, 1949
“Part 17.” Twin Peaks: The Return, written by Mark Frost and David Lynch, directed by David Lynch, Showtime Networks, 2017.
“Part 18.” Twin Peaks: The Return, written by Mark Frost and David Lynch, directed by David Lynch, Showtime Networks, 2017.
Rodowick, David. “A Short History of Cinema.” Gilles Deleuze's Time Machine, Duke University Press, 1997, pp. 3–17.