San Francisco Art & Film for Teens

Art&Film

Free cultural programs for teens, including Friday night film screenings, Saturdays art walks and free seats to cultural events. Open to all Bay Area students, middle school through college. Established 1993. 

FILM: ONE TWO THREE

A Teenager’s Guide to Serious Film

by Ronald Chase, Founding Director of San Francisco Art & Film for Teenagers


Film has become such a universal part of people’s lives it hardly needs to be introduced to you. At the same time, most any child being raised today has also been strongly influenced in the way they think and see by its offspring: television, the internet and social media. 

The invention of television was hailed as monumental. Ideas, news of the world, art, entertainment would flow with never-ending variety into the homes of every citizen making all our lives richer and better. It was going to be the learning tool that changed our world. Sadly—and probably inevitably—it quickly became the marketing tool that ruled our lives. In doing so, TV producers and marketers develop clever tricks and techniques designed to influence their audience.  Unfortunately those techniques also encourage passive viewing and deter critical thinking. 

Even if you don’t watch it, TV has an influence on you because it shapes popular culture. Before you can start to develop ideas about film you need to unlearn the habits of seeing that you have picked up unconsciously and never thought about much.

BAD HABITS
So what are these so called bad habits and why should you care if you have them?

We live in a materialistic, consumer society which too often places money at the pinnacle of many people’s existence. No one likes to admit this, so there’s lots of ways that help them deny it. For example, most of the thrust of advertising is to make people think they want or need things which they seldom want or need. This way, they encourage them to buy, and that keeps the consumer society happy. This was pretty much developed to perfection during the early television years.

A “marketing” technique is just that. It’s a tool to make you want to buy things. The entire structure of the television empire is dedicated to this end, otherwise it would not exist.  You say you don’t pay attention to the commercials? Well, you did when you were little (without even realizing it) and the structure of TV—“and now a word from our sponsors…”—was etched in your mind.

It works like this: on television a drama, a comedy, a story develops in a certain way to grab your attention quickly and hold it so you won’t reach for the remote and change the channel. Episodes are constructed around commercial breaks: they bring you to an emotional or humorous high point, and then, bam! try to sell you something. 

This pattern has trained you to expect to be kept titillated and interested without having to do a thing except sit there, and you’re likely to become impatient if you’re not kept constantly stimulated. This means lots of information in small, highly amusing or absorbing, digestible short segments. Your ability to pay attention for long stretches of time, your capacity to concentrate, your patience—all of these virtues you’re going to need to get you through your life—have been strongly distorted and in many cases, practically wiped out.

Television, Facebook, YouTube, texting, tweeting, etc. has filled your sensibilities with endless hours of mindless trivia – sometimes exciting on the surface but nothing much to think about. It wants you to keep you busy, without thinking, and convince you you are watching material of substance. It reconfirms this illusion by selling the most popular, profitable ideas of what’s important and what’s not. Social media is a central force channeling the most destructive values of popular culture—conformity (so you can be more easily manipulated and buy more), materialism (you’re not valuable unless you’re buying things) and celebrity,

A few years of a steady diet of first-rate serious film can sober up the most avid television addict. Not that you’ve never tried anything more thoughtful and serious than TV, but you likely haven’t had any help making the transition between industry driven “products” and films whose purpose is to express a more honest interpretation of life.

FILM 1 2 3 is a primer to give you the tools for thinking about film seriously. 

Every person has a right to his or her opinion, but this doesn’t mean all opinions are equal. There are informed opinions, uninformed opinions, and ignorant opinions. Opinions are subject to change, usually through learning, arguing, reasoning, and experience. Our aim is to help you form your own educated opinions about film and, in the process develop a vocabulary of terms, concepts and ideas that help you think about yourself and how you relate to film. Out of this will grow your own taste as it relates to your personality, which will help you as you begin to discover the person you are and the person you want to become.

OUR GOALS:

1. Know what you like about a film and be able to explain why. You’ll be able to say, “I liked that film a lot, but I don’t think it was very well made” and explain why. Or say, “The film was really first rate, but I didn’t like it very much” and explain why. You’ll be able to mention the strong points about the film that you liked, and observe its weaknesses using references to its concept, style, editing, acting, lighting, use of camera and its imagery. You will have a subjective idea of your personal taste, and an objective idea of a film’s quality. To do all this will probably take you many more years, but at least we’ll give you a start.

2. Know enough about the techniques of film making, and what makes films first-rate, to be able to appreciate films on that level, regardless of whether the subject mater interests you or doesn’t. This requires having a technical vocabulary, and being able to relate this vocabulary to individual scenes in a film.

3. Know enough about the history of film to make connections, associations, spot influences and read the symbolism. You’ll have learned this through a lot of practice.

4. Be able to spot themes and subject matter and relate these elements to the individual scenes in the film, to help you form an educated opinion of the film’s meaning.

Ambitious? Yes. It’s tough, you need patience and determination to stick with it, but astute and brilliant observations from students over the years have convinced me this is a realistic goal.


Cine Club exposes you to new kinds of films all year long. Many of these will be classic films, foreign films, silent films, films studied in college classes, films shown at local art-house theaters. We will also see new films. These new films are chosen because (1) they have many first rate qualities, (2) the subject matter will expand your knowledge of the world or of film in general and (3) they are not films you would choose on your own.

We choose these films to stretch your mind, to make you take in ideas bigger than you have now. That stretch is the most important aspect of this program. If your head isn’t sore afterwards, you haven’t stretched far enough. You’re the judge. It’s your head.

THE TOUGHEST HURDLES FOR THE BEGINNER:

Making a transition to new types of film can sometimes be off-putting. If you’re prepared, it isn’t so strenuous. Here are the difficulties students complain about first:

1. Subtitles:

Having to read and follow the film at the same time can be frustrating. Your reading skills count. The way you read can matter, too. If you’re used to reading one word at a time you’re in trouble.  One trick is to keep your attention on the images and only consult the subtitles when you need to. In many films the dialogue and relationships can be understood without much help from subtitles. When we remember movies, we never remember the subtitles, we remember the images. 

Why subtitles? Why not watch films that have the dialogue dubbed into English? Hearing a film with its original actors speaking their own language makes the film feel more real to us. With dubbed films, the speech doesn’t match the lip movements, and the voice acting is less than authentic, creating an artificial quality that diminishes the power of the film. The one exception in this case is the Italian film: during its heyday (‘50s-‘60s) Italian film used actors of all nationalities speaking their own languages, and they were all dubbed into Italian.

2. Getting lost and/or being bored:

“I didn’t like it. It was boring.” That’s O.K. but why was it boring? At what moment did you get bored? Most of the time when students are questioned closely, the boredom is directly connected to losing track of what the film is about.

Boredom is important. Sometimes boredom will help you understand something about yourself; sometimes it will help you understand where you got lost in the film, and of course sometimes it’s completely justified. When you lose interest note when—and if you are completely confused, be patient and note when your interest is piqued again.

It’s only natural you might get puzzled and lost when:

a. Films contain new elements that might be unfamiliar to you.

b. It’s filled with symbolism that’s difficult for you to understand or interpret.

c. You get tired of reading the subtitles and get lost.

Believe me, this has happened to everyone at one time or another.

3. Talking about film: Our discussions are made livelier by your input. If things puzzled you, ask, and we’ll try to straighten them out. We want to hear what your favorite moments were, and when you were impressed, and vice-verso. What you hated. And you might not know why. We’ll try to figure it out together.





The words “film” and “movies” have subjective meanings. Many associate the word “film” with art film, in contrast to “movies” which they connect to “Hollywood” or commercial films. 

This battle of contexts began in the late 1950s with the invasion of art films from Europe, and the concept of “auteur,” a French term which sees the director as the total creator of his own work—with consistent style and vision. This idea is misleading because very few directors have ever had absolute control over their work. Most films, even “independent” films cost massive amounts of money that they need to make back, and as for “art films,” very fine films have been made in Hollywood as well as around the world.

It’s easier to understand the lack of first-rate films if we’re aware of recent production trends that force directors to alter their films to make them profitable. Reasons include poor test-audience response and “packaging” techniques of agents that bundle actors, writers, directors and musicians around story vehicles regardless of their appropriateness in order to raise profits. These films are products. Under these circumstances it is difficult to consider these films “seriously.”

Then there are “ordinary films”: films that are competently made but don’t have any distinctive qualities. These are the films most people feel comfortable with. They are pleasant and exciting to sit through but they leave no lasting effect. These films are the life blood of the film industry.

All films are subjected to a variety of outside pressures (including commerce) but some survive with their integrity intact.  For these films I use the word “serious.” By “serious films” I mean films of high quality that observe the world in a thoughtful or imaginative way, confronting truths about life, philosophy or art. You can discuss them in terms of the truths they reveal. These films stand in contrast to the “industry products” or “ordinary movies” I have described above. This does not mean a “commercial” film can’t be well made or entertaining—many are—only that the film’s aim is not a truthful and thoughtful view of life. You will learn the distinctions in film as you see more of them. So let us get to the plot.



Most of the films you see in movie theaters today are plot driven. “The test of a good movie is that it’s able to tell a good story,” says the Hollywood mogul. This standard has held in Hollywood (and much of the rest of the world) through the last century. In this type of film a “story” hangs on a plot. The plot describes the story line, and dramatic conflicts. But many fine films do not follow this formula and to describe a plot often doesn’t describe what even a story film is about. You can usually tell how naive a person is about film by their description of it— “Well, it’s about this guy, and he goes to —, and then he meets—, and then—” But what is the film about?

The subject matter and the themes of a film describes what it is about—the subject matter in relation to larger concepts.

For example, you could say MACBETH is about the abuse of power and its toll. Many of its major scenes relate clearly to this theme. A film could be about family dynamics, or about a young person’s loss of innocence. When searching for what a film is about, talk first about its subject matter and its themes rather than its plot. 

Sometimes elements of the plot need to be mentioned to help explain how it explores its themes. Serious films have a clear grasp of themes and those themes relate to the experiences, aspirations, disappointments people experience in real life. Subject matter is different than plot. The very best plots clearly explore the subject matter and themes of a film. Some films can easily be described in terms of plot—“a chase movie,” for example, explains the subject matter (Do they get caught?) and suggests a plot-driven film. Many narrative films lose grasp of their themes and become vague or generalized.

In many of our discussions after the film, students are asked what the film was about. This often takes many stabs and can be open to a variety of interpretations. Sometimes the subject matter of the film can be hidden under layers of symbolism, or sometime will be very clear in the way the film turns out.

Films take their plots from all sources—history, news reports, novels and theater as well as original stories invented by the screenwriter. 

The plot of a film can usually be synthesized into a single sentence. Here are some examples from film and literature:


A CHRISTMAS CAROL (w. Charles Dickens)

A miserly old man is reformed through a series of visitations on Christmas Eve. Its major theme is redemption, its subject is the transformation of character.


PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (w. Jane Austen)

A young couple destined to be married must first overcome the barriers of pride and prejudice. It’s major theme is the developing of self-awareness, its subject matter is the observation of society.


CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (w. Dostoyevsky)

A young man commits a crime and is slowly pursued to his inevitable punishment. Its major themes relate to the complex interrelation of the conscience, emotions and intellect to an individual’s actions, its subject matter is the defiance of moral laws and their effect on the individual.


THE SEVEN SAMURAI (d. Akira Kurosawa)

A besieged village hires a band of warriors to defend it from bandits. Its subject matter is the complexity of motives and relationships within a community and one of its themes the complex ironies of heroism.

My comments illustrate that a description of the plot alone may not give a clear idea about a film. Less complicated films are often only about their plots. Great films require you to ask, not only “what’s going to happen next?” but also “what is this about?” 



Overly manipulated plots can make them become unbelievable. When that happens it becomes impossible to consider the film as a serious view of life. What British novelist Anthony Burgess (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) says about novels holds true for films:

“In the lowest level of writing a plot need be no more than a string of stock devices for arousing stock responses of concern and excitement in the viewer. The promise of conflict, mysteries or frustrations that will be resolved. We usually want to be entertained so badly, we’ll suspend criticism of even the most trite modes of resolution.

“In the least sophisticated films the knots to be untied (plot setups) are usually stringently physical, and the denouement often comes as a sort of triumphant violence. More sophisticated films prefer plots based on psychological situations—and the climax comes through new states of awareness for the characters and the viewers (often understanding or awareness on the part of the viewer.)”



The plot may have a minor part in a film, or no part at all. Rather than the driving force moving the film forward, the plot may be nothing more than a clothes line on which to hang a series of events or “set pieces” that expand the film’s themes.  For example:


LA DOLCE VITA (d. Federico Fellini)

Set in Rome in the 1950s, it follows a newspaper reporter through one big “set piece" after another: the arrival of a film actress and her entourage; a visit to the house of two children who claim to see the Virgin Mary; an evening party with a band of decadent aristocrats in a deserted mansion, and so on. Again and again, the hero—his story with his girlfriend, friends and self doubts—gets lost in the crowd. 

Students who viewed this film were mystified and angry—their focus was on the reporter and they expected the story to hinge around him. What was going to happen to him? They missed the way the scenes reflected and developed the themes of the movie. The subject matter of the film is the loss of faith, both on a personal level and throughout all levels of society. Each section of the film is constructed to reflect this theme. In the end, the reporter has lost his faith in life, but what gives the film its greatness and power, is that in following him, the viewer is introduced to a complex social world in which scene after scene reflects the hero’s own dilemma. The effect is of a panorama of society mirroring the film’s theme.

Your reaction to films that frustrate you often takes time to settle in. Students were irritated by LA DOLCE VITA, but months later we saw a simple, straightforward narrative film of Fellini’s, LA STRADA. These same students claimed they liked LA DOLCE VITA so much better! They had found it richer, more mysterious, and they remembered its scenes vividly.


Sometimes the plot is cloaked with images and layers of meaning that are symbolic—what looks simple must be constantly interpreted before the meaning and themes becomes clear.


ANDREI RUBLEV (d. Andrei Tarkovsky)

Tarkovsky’s epic film about a 13th-century icon painter moves its hero through nine episodes in an artist’s life. Here again, the hero often vanishes, and students were left with scenes they could barely identify as having anything to do with art. Vivid imagery carries the themes along as Rublev abandons his faith in himself, gives up art and wanders for years as a self-imposed mute. 

Students missed the meaning of many vivid scenes: of artisans being blinded in the snow, of pagan celebrants of Midsummer’s night being hunted down by daylight and murdered by Christians; the systematic slaughter of a village by the Tartars, and the uplifting ending, when a young boy’s faith in himself brings Rublev to his senses. Students expected a clear plot and were thrown by constant layers of symbolic scenes.

It was only after our discussion that some of its meaning began to become clear to students. Symbolic films need your free association with images before clues to their meaning can be found. You often need help in reading their meanings. Sometimes the plot is only an outline for style and imagery which express the themes. These films, like music, need to be absorbed rather than figured out step-by-step.

THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES, ALICE, INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA

These are three films that create their own universe.

THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (d. Sergei Parajanov) is based on a poet’s life. The subject matter—the power of the imagination and its mime, pageantry and symbolism —threw our students off entirely because there was not any recognizable plot line.

ALICE (d. Jan Svenkmajer) was easier because the Wonderland story is familiar to most, and the film uses magnificent stop-motion animation, but students were mostly oblivious to its heavy Freudian symbolism and sexual overtones.

They fared better with INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA (d. The Quay Brothers) because they had been prepared for its unique mixture of heavy symbolism, strange atmosphere and visual poetry. The students who relaxed and let the film patiently take its own course came away with a rich and haunting experience they discussed enthusiastically.

Resistance to a new challenge in viewing can keep the viewer from understanding the value of a film or its revelations. This takes practice and time. Often it takes returning to a difficult film again.

1. AS AN EXPRESSION OF AN INTERPRETATION OF LIFE

The bulk of Anglo-American films from their beginnings to WWII show a world that is reasonable and just—wrong is punished, good rewarded, as is noted by one of the characters in Oscar Wilde—in novels the good characters end up happily, the bad characters unhappily “that is why it is called fiction.” 

On the continent (France) where realism took hold, films reflect a life where there is no justice and the evil and stupid prevail. (Equally extreme.) 

Since the war, serious films and literature reflect man as imperfect and life possibly absurd. It is interesting to reflect on these trends when you watch contemporary films, as these three points of view inform all films today.

2. AS ENTERTAINMENT OR ESCAPE

This is the most common use of film, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with dreams and laughter. Problems arise when these films give a false view of life through oversimplification and tend to corrupt viewers into thinking reality is the way the film portrays it. Such films can be tremendously harmful when they are used as role models in the real world. These films usually avoid real human issues—as the old saying goes,” Who wants to see a movie about real life? That’s boring and depressing. It’s bad enough as it is!”

3. AS PROPAGANDA

To make the viewer initiate certain acts, or support certain points of view is another potent use of film. These films generally lose value when the wrongs they expose are eliminated. The contrary is also true. THE TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, for example validated the policies of the Nazis, and later destroyed the career of its director, precisely because it was so effective.

4. AS REPORT OR DOCUMENTARY

Here, also, film has triumphed. From the early documentaries (Flaherty’s NANOOK OF THE NORTH) it has left a record of the age. Fiction films which documented Europe at the end of the war (PAISAN and OPEN CITY) still retain the power of being there. Today documentary films have come into their own, exploring new aspects of modern life in absorbing ways.

5. AS AN EXPRESSION OF THE ZEITGEIST

Film shares with novels in helping us understand periods in the past. Masterworks like MOLIERE, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and BARRY LYNDON present the past with a vividness and breadth that is hard to match. Contemporary films like LA DOLCE VITA and APOCALYPSE NOW capture important aspects of their eras and become symbolic of them.

6. AS A CREATOR OF LIFE STYLES AND ARBITER OF TASTE

Another great influence films have on the world is because of the huge audience it reaches. Television also has a huge impact on influencing the life styles and taste of viewers—an impact less than ideal. But blockbusters like HARRY POTTER, LORD OF THE RINGS, TITANIC, STAR WARS also have an enormous influence on their audiences.

From the early days of film it became evident that films which reflected popular ideas about life and reaffirmed the false values many people never question were going to be more popular and well liked than difficult films which reflected a more realistic view of the human condition. The entertainment value of films has never been questioned, but as films tried to conquer the “market”and compete financially with others many film makers were forced to tilt their thinking and ideas into a more acceptable, popular direction. 

Many of these types of films reinforce popular myths—that people fall in love at first sight and live happily ever after, for example, or that immorality will lead a sinner to ruin, crime doesn’t pay, etc. (the most destructive being killing someone doesn’t have any consequences)—and in many cases are central to the film’s meaning—films show characters in jobs they would never be able to hold in real life, for example, or living in houses they could never afford, in situations that could simply not happen because of the circumstances of the character and place. 

We refer to these manipulations as the “magic” of film—that ability to help the viewer put his reason on hold, in the name of “seeing is believing.”  An inexperienced viewer needs to be constantly on alert, questioning and challenging the distorted content of films that reinforce lies.

Films are stories, but they are also about ideas. Like fiction, these ideas concern character, plot, theme and subject matter, but also important is how these ideas are being expressed. This “how” has also to do with ideas in film. 

When you talk about film, certain phrases, references and terms will always pop up. They concern the essentials of what is being told, and how the story is being created. Here are the building blocks on which film is built.


We’ve already covered the separation of plot, theme and subject matter, but we also need to consider how the story is being told. For this we need two new terms, LINEAR and NONLINEAR.

LINEAR: The most common way a plot is told is from beginning to end (linear narrative). The story starts at the beginning and goes through to the end without interruptions. Because this method is so common, it is sometimes referred to as traditional or “conservative” which doesn’t mean the film maker is not interested in trying anything different or new. It indicates only that the director wants to tell a good story, and sets about it with the most traditional tools.

NON-LINEAR: Another way of telling a story is to jump around between present, past, and future (nonlinear narrative). Film is unique because it uses pictures rather than words to tell its stories. Many researchers tell us that what we see delivers a more lasting impression than what we hear or read.  “It’s true, I saw it with my own eyes” is a very ancient expression.  

One of film’s great strengths is the ability to move the same way memory does. When we remember something in the past, we often remember an image—just a flash, that can trigger thoughts of our experiences. (Sound, smell and taste also act as vivid triggers to memory.) 

The most common way a linear film narrative is interrupted is when a character stops and remembers. At this moment, the film cuts away from the present, and gives us a scene from the past. This technique is called “flashback” and is a popular and frequent example of a “nonlinear” technique. In films that go to the trouble of “setting up a flashback” (preparing us and leading us through this “cut away”) these scenes give the viewer little trouble. In “forties” films, the scene usually dissolves slowly, accompanied often by music or a voice over, and the “memory” scene replaces the contemporary one. (Also the use of titles—One Year Later, 10 Years Before and so on—easily help the viewer.) 

EXAMPLES: REBECCA (d. Hitchcock) & SUNSET BOULEVARD (d. Wilder)

Hitchcock’s REBECCA is a memory film that begins with a slow move through a forest road toward the ruins of a manor house in the distance. A woman’s voice is heard over the picture, explaining her need to return to the past. The scene then fades to the past. This is a classic memory technique. A film of this sort usually returns to the present to end the story.


Several twists gave this formula a new flavor—Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD opens with a dead narrator—a body floats in a swimming pool. The voice over is that of a dead man who becomes the narrator of the memory. This classic beginning and end to a film ( with a narrator) was the most common use of the “memory” film until the sixties, when this technique became more complex.

Difficulty for the viewer comes as films strive for more sophistication in the way the story is told. Here a viewer who does not become attentive and active ( asking questions: where are we now? where have we jumped to?) can get lost.

EXAMPLE: CITIZEN KANE (d. ORSON WELLES)

Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941) is a classic example of the nonlinear film. The way the film jumps forward and backward is skillful, and there are plenty of devices to help the viewer along. Its bold touches with this technique give the film much of its unique quality. The film begins in a castle, with a deathbed scene (Kane’s). The next scene jumps to a newsreel which outlines the plot of the film we are about to see, and ends in a screening room, where reporters are sent to solve the “mystery” of Kane’s life by interviewing his close circle of friends. This way it uses several voice overs (one for each friend). Each person’s narrative moves chronologically through the story, ending before another narrative begins, or overlapping with other narratives. Thus the film is constructed like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, which, when put together, give an overall picture of the story.

CITIZEN KANE is a film of exceptional originality and left a huge impact on generations of film makers who wished to continue these “nonlinear” ideas about film.

EXAMPLE: RASHOMON (d. Akira Kurosawa)

Kurosawa’s RASHOMON, through its construction, is also easy for the viewer to follow. Here four narrators tell their versions of the same story—a rape and murder in the forest—and each episode is filmed from a different point of view and perspective. As the story is reenacted, it shifts according to the perspective of the narrator—the form of the film relates to the film’s ideas about perceived reality and truth. The ending is unresolved, and left open ended.

As films became more complex, many directors abandoned trying to make nonlinear stories easily accessible.

EXAMPLE: LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (d.  Alain Renais)

Alain Renais’ LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD begins with long moving shots through the gilt and mirrors of a Bavarian castle. The voice-over resembles a cant—it doesn’t narrate, or explain, but hypnotizes.  The early scenes in the film are constructed primarily to invoke a mood. The “story” is constructed in fragments, pasted together like collage—scenes of isolation and longing in what could or could not be taken as a love affair. The “plot” is one that uses repetition of scenes to evoke memory. Nothing “happens” in the movie, but the intricate overlay of images and event leave the story open to the viewer’s imagination. The viewer must decide what has happened and what the scenes mean.

EXAMPLE: THE CONFORMIST (d. Bernardo Bertolucci)

Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST tells a rather straightforward “memory” story—it opens in the present (or at least, the end of WWII), then goes back in time. But the viewer doesn’t get any help and, especially difficult, is that the past becomes a “memory” story—a car ride in the rain lets the hero muse on the “recent” past (in the past). This technique becomes even more complex when the man’s memory involves a scene in which his memory inserts a character from his present—that is, a woman he will fall in love with, but hasn’t met yet in the story. She is seen in a memory, completely out of context, and almost out of character, as a vamp wrapped across a Fascist official’s office desk as if she is a wish-fulfillment on the part of the hero. ( Almost all our students were thrown by these scenes.)

Non-linear films can also move between different stages of the present, memory and fantasy.

EXAMPLE: 8 ½ (d. Federico Fellini)

Fellini’s 8 ½, an extremely popular but complex nonlinear film takes place in the head of its major character, a film director who panics when he experiences a creative block in his work. The film opens in a dream, moves into the present, then into several dazzling scenes at a spa, filmed as if they were scenes in a film the director is imagining. Constantly the film moves back and forth between the past, the present, and fantasy, from the imagination’s (a film maker making a film) point of view. But the viewer gets little help. Often the memory scenes are filmed like fantasies, the scenes in the present like “films.” The insecurities, anxieties and longings of the director build into a climax that lead to his suicide. The suicide, however, in this context, has to be seen as symbolic. The scene is what he “feels” like doing. The director is quite alive in the very next scene, where all the film’s themes meld into a grand finale—the director films a final dance, with all the characters from his life, his memory, his present and his fantasy moving together into a unified whole—the film he had wanted to create all along.

A film as complex as 8 ½ needs an attentive viewer, one who is quick to connect the implications and quickly shift from present to past, dream to fantasy. This takes practice, and explains why films of complex natures can be returned to again and again and still seem fresh and original.


EXAMPLE: THE MIRROR (d. Andrei Tarkovskt)

Another famous example of a nonlinear film is one that abandons help for the viewer entirely—Andrei Tarkovsky’s THE MIRROR. On the surface, this story of family life (a wife, husband and children) seems realistic and believable. But the way the scenes follow each other make no real sense. The viewer must piece together the elements. The film is composed of fragments of memory in no chronological order. Scenes return again and again, like themes in music, and certain grim scenes (the mother visits a village crone for what could or could not be an abortion; the fierce domestic arguments) are returned to from mirrored perspectives that give the structure of the film the same disjointed character of dreams. (I know film goers who have seen THE MIRROR more than 10 times—they claim they have never see the same film twice!)

Sometimes films are constructed in a linear way that moves between dreams and reality. These films often explore philosophical themes that are highly challenging to the viewer.

Example: PERSONA (d. Ingmar Bergman)

Bergman’s PERSONA, for example, seems fairly simple on the surface.  It moves through a linear narrative with ease–two women spend time together on an island––one, an actress who refuses to speak and two, her nurse who never shuts up.  What becomes so intriguing is to ponder what so many of the strange scenes mean. The film begins with a series of totally abstract, disturbing images. Often scenes are filmed like dreams, and slowly the two personalities of the women merge. Or do they?

The implications of the plot lead the viewer to contemplate the complexities of character:


Less sophisticated films tend to be preoccupied with plot, and the characters in them conform to certain stereotypes —”types of people”—easily recognized. In many current action films it is objects themselves, as well as “kinetic” (anything moving, exploding, threatening or scaring you) incidents that are far more important than the characters in the film. These films are comfortable with easily recognizable “types” in “good” or “bad” moral categories—the “good” cop vs. the “bad criminals,” the “good” hero vs. the “bad” extras—which allow the plots to move in predictable and comforting ways to conform.


EXAMPLE:  JAMES BOND series

The notorious James Bond movies exploit objects as the main characters in a movie: the car, the gun, the attitude and the way a martini is mixed. The popularity of this approach has influenced four decades of action film making. The Bond influences extend to any film which etches its characters in blatant black and white (good and evil) coupled with pyrotechnics and material opulence.

In more complex and more sophisticated films, the human personality and the way it reacts to the stress of artfully selected experience tends to be the chief focus. Character can be based on animals (BABE, the Walt Disney classics, and Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST are good examples; and of course, there’s LASSIE), on caricatures (in literature think Dickens and in film think TRAINSPOTTING, or the majority of comedies or dramas) or on complex, unpredictable and often unexplainable personality (in literature you have Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Balzac, Henry James and Dostoevsky—in film, not much comparable.) A character in film generally tends to be simple (though the actor’s shadings make it more complex and “true to life”). It is this human element in relationship to character, life, relationships, our own experiences that gives films their importance in our lives.

To believe a character, most people only need a body, a firm position in time and space, and the most superficial parcel of behavioral attributes. All of us get hints that we might be complex and inconsistent, but we often want to imagine other people as being simple and easier to understand. 

Often audiences get exasperated with characters who for one reason or another do not conform to their easy explanations or approval of the character’s actions. In films, characters are often judged by their “worst” behavior, where in real life we often ignore bad behavior in people we know, because we have an overall picture of them that puts their difficult behavior in a context which helps us understand it. If the character in a film has attributes of people we’ve met or know, we generally believe them regardless of how cliché or unrealistically they might act. We give them the benefit of the doubt. 

To create people “bigger than life” has been the goal of film making since it began, even if creating these people means adding unbelievable action, and asking preposterous things of them. Disturbing, unpredictable and well rounded characters are rare in movies where the lines are drawn in good or bad. But some popular films have been successful in creating complex characters.


EXAMPLE: GONE WITH THE WIND (d. Victor Fleming and others)

One of the most popular films, GONE WITH THE WIND has a complex and disturbing character at its center. Scarlet O’Hara is at once beautiful, charming, head-strong and emotional. She is also self-centered, greedy, relentlessly ruthless and selfish. The view the audience gets of her is quite selective—her energy, determination and single mindedness is seen as strength of character, and the negative consequences of her ruthlessness are shown only in passing (very briefly).


EXAMPLE: ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (d. Luchino Visconti)

In Visconti’s ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS complex characters make the scenes in the film seem hard to believe if viewed from an orthodox sense of what people are like. Complexity here leads to problems in audience recognition. (“Who would act like that? That’s crazy!”) The hero forgives his malicious brother again and again for a series of terrible betrayals and his perverse sense of goodness moves the plot towards its climax of violence and tragedy. In relation to the tremendous wrongs done to the hero, his passivity and compassion for the wrong seem to many in the audience as unbelievable—it propels the tragedy forward, and in the end the film’s exceptional qualities relate directly to its mysterious, troubling and uncompromising view of character.

EXAMPLE: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (d. David Lean)

Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is a good example. Until the middle of the film the perversity of the hero’s character is only hinted at—he is seen as brave, generous, vain, thoughtful, and non-conformist. The last half of the movie finds him vengeful, crafty, filled with anger, blood lust, with self destructive inclinations and blatant dishonesty. The selective mixing of these negative and positive elements in character give it its complexity, and “many sided” qualities.

Early films were created on film lots, in natural light, on constructed sets that filled the need for a revolving series of comedies and melodramas. For years, the authentic quality of these constructed sets varied. 

Many early directors like Chaplin and Von Stroheim were comfortable shooting “on location” in the actual settings like those in which the story takes place. Naive audiences didn’t pick many bones about things looking “real” as long as they had some identifiable details.

As films became more complicated, more attention was paid to detail. The new styles in decor from Germany—expressionism, with its brooding lighting effects and heavy architecture—allowed sets to become more stylized and left a large influence on the look of films.

The coming of sound in the late ‘20s brought radical change. Now outside sound was a problem, and scenes shifted from outdoor locations, to studio “outdoors” so the sound could be contained and balanced. This led to a period of artificiality which developed into a “studio style” of heavy back-lighting, highlights on actors faces, and elaborately built sets. “On location” was reserved for scenes that did not require sound. All films took on the “studio” look, with few exceptions. Films filmed “on location” still retained the stilted look of the “studio.”

At the end of WW II the Italian films of the neo-realist school began to be seen by American film makers. The films coming out of Italy were all shot on location, with real people mixed with actors, in natural light. They were considered authentic and startling. There influence was strong, and today the location of films varies—some are in studios, some on location or both.  Many directors prefer to shoot in studios because of the control they have of lighting , sound and equipment.

The settings of films do not have to be drawn from real life models. Films may be set inside the mind, in the body, the future, in space, but they need to have a consistency of style to convince you of their realness. Far too many films use setting as simple decor, not understanding that where a story takes place can be important to the values and ideals of the characters, and effect the believable way the plot moves forward.

When we discuss “style” in films, we refer to several different elements. For example, certain types of films—“expressionist,” “film noir,” “the Hollywood film”—are characterized by visual and subject matter that so clearly define them, their identity forms a style of film making. We also may discuss a certain director’s style, provided he has developed far enough with ideas about his techniques and themes that would make them identifiable. 

There are a certain number of important directors of classic films whose style is instantly recognizable. The look of work done by the Italians now referred to as “neo-realism” has an instantly recognizable style—outdoor realistic locations, a grainy black and white film stock, a type of verisimilitude that is unmistakable.   Certain film makers tend toward fluid, complex camera movements, where others prefer a fixed, static camera. We sometimes refer to “subjective” and “objective” styles of film making. In the “subjective” style, the camera movements, editing, compositions are active forces in the film, guiding the viewer and selecting what he should see. In “objective” film making, the camera and the film techniques remain as invisible as possible, allowing the viewer to make his or her own judgement on what should be seen.

Style refers to the overall characteristics of a film’s techniques, look, subjective or objective views of its director, and implies that the director has had an important say in the way the film has been created. Films of certain periods (the Hollywood films of the early sound period, for example) in history have their own styles as well. For example, a film with obviously built sets, excessive artificial light, unrealistic crowd scenes, make-up that seems perfect for even the most slovenly characters might suggest a “product” film from Hollywood during the 30’s and 40’s.

Tone refers to an individual element within the whole and is a more sophisticated term when discussing the relative success or failure of ambitious films. The curious thing about tone is that it is an unimportant aspect of mediocre and less ambitious films. Tone affects the integrity of the overall final production and has to do with the separate ingredients of film making—acting, direction, script, lighting, art direction, make-up, sound, etc. 

As a film becomes more ambitious (strives toward a higher goal of quality and integrity) tone becomes extremely important, and faulty decisions in this area can cancel the overall integrity of a film. Many fine films fall short of the perfection to which they aim because of lapses in tone. A single element being off in an individual scene does not mean the integrity of a film collapses, but this lapse of judgement is often fatal to a film that would be otherwise a more perfect work of art.

In acting, tone might be described as underplayed in one instance, overplayed in another, or adhering to intense mugging or pantomime. In an ensemble work, where all the actors are underplaying (muting) their roles, an actor who mugs his role would be “off in tone.” In the highly exaggerated acting style of films by Ken Russell, the period comedies of the Coen Brothers, or Baz Lurhman, for instance, an underplayed actor (acting in a highly subtle, realistic style) would be “off in tone.” The more stylized the look and feel of a film is, or the more original its unorthodox style is, the more difficult it is to keep the tone consistent.

In a highly stylized film (lets say one using garish light in bright colors for effect throughout) a subtly lit, realistic scene would seem “off in tone.” Tone which veers wildly in a film, usually means a director is aiming for short term payoffs and is not considering the overall consistency of the film.

Tone also refers to an overall feeling. For example, if the subject matter of a film called for an energetic, bubbly style that would match its upbeat script, a ponderous, plodding style of film making would be definitely “off in tone.” If the film reflects realism and grit, idealized scenes with moral lectures would seem “off in tone.” These incidents might diminish the integrity of a film as a work of art, but do not damage in the least its popular appeal.

THE EPIC:

From the beginning, ambitious film directors have been interested in depicting historical sweep and social complexity. Films of this category form the high peaks of achievement in the history of film. A unifying vision of the director is needed before a film with dozens of characters, a cast of hundreds—even thousands, and a strong theme that will support the movement of these masses through some important event in history.

Historic Epics:

D. W. Griffith created the prototypical historical epic with BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) which takes place during the American Civil War. He followed this with INTOLERANCE (1916) which wove several historic periods together, from biblical tales through the war between the Hugenots and Catholics in France, culminating in modern tales of injustice in America. Other great examples of epic films centered around major historic events include Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON, Fleming’s GONE WITH THE WIND (the American Civil War), Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (WWI) and Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (Vietnam War).


Social Epics:
 
The term “epic” implies scope—breath and width—something that important historical events produce. However, “epic” also can be applied to the social fabric of life. To qualify as a “social epic” a film must include characters from many ranks of society, and give voice to a wide array of values and points of view. The models for this type of film come from 19th century novels including the works of Charles Dickens, Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA, Balzac’s PERE GORIOT, Stendhal’s THE RED AND THE BLACK, and Dostoyevski’s THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.

“Epic” also implies length, so it’s no accident that these films are among the longest in film history. The original version of Von Stroheim’s GREED was over 20 hours. The producers thought he was mad, but Stroheim was intended to let the material define its own length. If he had been able to break his film into one-hour sequences and show them on television as a mini-series, the tragic fate of his film could have been avoided. The length of popular films had been capped arbitrarily at 90 minutes, mainly for commercial reasons (allowing two or three showings an evening, thus a larger box office). GREED was chopped mercilessly to 3 hours and even then its grim realism was barely tolerated by the public. The legend created by those who saw the original full-length reels has given GREED a mythological place in film history.

Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON originally clocked in at over 6 hours. GONE WITH THE WIND was released at a 4 hours, unprecedented for such a popular film; the public was often treated to sandwiches during its intermissions. Other examples are Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA (3.5 hours), Bondarchuk’s WAR & PEACE (6 hours); Fassbinder’s BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (18 hours) and a series of films about life in a German village: HEIMAT (19 hours), HEIMAT II (26 hours) and HEIMAT III (11 hours). These extra long films challenge conventional ideas about film by proving that audiences will stand (or rather sit) for longer than 90 minutes if the material is rich and engaging enough.



GENRE FILMS:

Film Noir: A product of the pulp detective novels of the 1930’s. Dark brooding atmospheres highten stories fraught with lowlife criminals and desperate seductive women. Full of murder, revenge and double crossing, heavy on irony. “Neo-noir” films either quote these elements adapting them to contemporary settings. Examples: THE MALTESE FALCON, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, TOUCH OF EVIL. Neo-noir: CHINATOWN, LA CONFIDENTIAL, BRICK

Costume Drama: Also called “period dramas,” these films emphasize costumes, sets and props in order to capture the ambiance of a particular past era. Often very well acted and taken from literary classics. Examples: HOWARD’S END, PERSUASION, CYRANO DE BERGERAC

Horror: Horror films have been popular from the beginning—frightening audiences began with a locomotive moving toward an audience, causing them to scream and dodge. Vampires, werewolves, zombies and monsters (human and subhuman) have now their separate “sub-genres”. Grotesque or haunted subjects, steady suspense, often surprises to startle and large.

Many of the best horror films depend on suggestion to stimulate viewers imagination – from the silent Nosferatu, to recent ones like The Witch. Traditional horror films follow the pattern of the Grand Guignol role model, lots of beheadings, buckets of blood, bulging eyeballs, endless screams of terror. The very popular Game of Thrones, which mixes many of horror films patterns with its mythological tales is a good example. Operatic bloodbath finales are fixtures.


Western: This films hit their high point in the 1940’s and 50’s. They did much to create a mythical idea of the west, with very simple moral lines (good vs. bad) and archetypes drawn from fantasy. More recent post-western films are called “revisionist” and include gore, cruelty and little redemption. Examples: SHANE, HIGH NOON, THE SEARCHERS  Revisionist Westerns: THE UNFORGIVEN, McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

Thrillers: A car chase, a conspiracy, a man on the run, a woman in peril, a prowling maniac, a close escape and a last-minute rescue. These films function by keeping you on the edge of your seat so that you never have time to question how absurdly improbable all of it is. Examples: GASLIGHT, PSYCHO, INCEPTION

Musicals: A favorite born out of the depression: comic set pieces joined by extravagant musical numbers. Later musicals include the British PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, which accent the bleak, and MOULIN ROUGE which focused on extravagant style. Examples: BABES ON BROADWAY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, CHICAGO

Gangster Films: first became popular in the thirties during the depression (they empowered the helpless); then they mixed with “film noir” in the forties; and later were revived with the GODFATHER films, and have experienced a population explosion on television. Prohibition era moonshine has been replaced by drugs but the attitude is the same. Examples: WHITE HEAT, BONNIE & CLYDE, SCARFACE

War Films: In times of war these tend to exude heroism and bravery, the nobility of self-sacrifice of soldiers. When the war is over, these become “anti-war” films and focus more on the horror, brutality, cruelty, ruin and reflect a collective madness. Examples: PATHS OF GLORY, PATTON, APOCALYPSE NOW

“Buddy” Films: Whether in pairs (BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID) or in gangs (DINER, AMERICAN GRAFFITI) the accent here is generally on friendship, male bonding, and “manly” virtues like violence and boorish behavior. Examples: THE STING, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, TRAINSPOTTING

Disaster Films: The flaming skyscraper of TOWERING INFERNO (1974) has morphed into earthquakes, tornadoes, asteroids, volcanoes and alien invasions, but the basic plot is the same. These films allow audiences to feign terror and laugh afterwards. Examples: EARTHQUAKE, ARMAGEDDON, 2012

Animal Comedy: Used to be the domain of cartoons but now include talking dogs, cavorting pigs and philosophical babies. very closely related is the DUMB HERO comedy where barfing, farting, and general lewd behavior is mandatory for the lead. Examples: OLD YELLER, DR. DOOLITTLE, BABE

Screwball Comedies: Invented in the 1930s as an escape from the dreariness of the depression. Characterized by “happy-go-lucky” atmospheres, colorful characters, rapid-fire dialogue and ingenious plot lines. Examples: HIS GIRL FRIDAY, YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, MY MAN GODFREY

Bible Epics: Popular in the 1920s-50s. A strange hybrid of historical drama, lofty, Judeo-Christian moral pronouncements, and miracles. This type of film bit the dust when similar, but not exactly biblical CLEOPATRA proved to be a financial disaster. Has made a slight comeback with Mel Gibson's  gruesome and bloody THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. Examples: THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, MOSES, BEN HUR

Review of "Jules et Jim" (1962) by Lucy Johns

Review of "Jules et Jim" (1962)
A film review inspired by "Film: A Guide for Teens" by Ronald Chase

©Lucy Johns November 7, 2003
 

     The vicissitudes of life and love swirl and roil and confound in "Jules et Jim," a paean to a rather French view of the human condition personified in the artistic intelligentsia of early 20th century Paris. The film is reminiscent of "La Bohème," with an enchanting musical motif but a complete reversal of the classical story of who suffers for love.

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     Jim, a French writer, and Jules, a German (Austrian?) poet and free spirit, become soulmates whose friendship is the only certainty in this tale of two men and the woman whose beauty and mystery become the center of their lives. Jeanne Moreau, in the role that defined her career, is magnetic and maddening as the unpredictable Catherine. She resembles a prehistoric sculpture "on an Adriatic isle" that Jules and Jim fly to visit after seeing a photograph in a friend's atelier. Supported in this "folie" by invisible financial resources, they wear the same clothes and vow that if a woman with the features of the stone head is ever met, they will follow her forever. Soon after, Moreau appears. Jules claims her instantly. He makes no protest when she asks to include Jim in a cross-dressing lark through working class Paris. All he asks of his friend is a quick "Not this one, Jim." Even after saving Catherine's life when her dress catches fire from burning a batch of "lies" on the floor of her studio, Jim is fascinated but respectful. The bouncing, hand-held camera captures the elfin mischief of Catherine's transgressions of clothes and behavior: she wears pants, smokes, races, and beats her copains because she sprints early off the starting line. That her whims can veer suddenly to the dangerous is apparent in a remarkable scene along the Seine one night after theater. The threesome has been to see an unnamed new Swedish play that each interprets differently. (Surely Ibsen's "The Dollhouse.") The men disparage the heroin for different reasons; Catherine "gets" the play's theme, which her friend and lover completely miss. When they ignore her analysis and fall into their comfortable disputations, she recaptures their attention by jumping into the river in her tight long dress and hat. No harm done but the point is made: she is an uncontrollable force. The three of them then whirl through an idyllic holiday in the south - again the means are invisible but adequate for the pretty villa and days frolicking on meadows and beach. Finally, Catherine consents to marry Jules, shortly after which they are all separated by W.W.I. Jules and Jim don opposing uniforms. Both write their beloveds - Jim has his archtypically devoted Gilberte – and their fear of hurting the other in the chaos.

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     Here "Jules et Jim" dips below the surface tumult of bohemian affairs and creativity for a long sequence of original footage of real tumult, that hideous, incomprehensible war. Truffaut spends more time in this era than the viewer might expect, since a mere visual hint would evoke in the audience of his own time memories of W.W.II and its horrors. Scene after scene of violence and noise unfold, with the occasional glimpse of Jules or Jim in their wartime roles. In a way unrealized until the end of the film, Truffaut is preparing for the sadness and violence that will visit the trio when they reunite after the war.

     Reunite they do, now in Jule's villa on the Rhine where the couple and their daughter lead superficially tranquil but emotionally raw lives. Jim comes to visit. He intuits and is then told by both Jules and Catherine of their estrangement and of Catherine's periodic disappearances for respite from wife and motherhood. These conversations almost shock with their intimacy and honesty, surely unprecedented in film. Inevitably, Catherine determines to seduce Jim at last. With Jules' full acquiescence, she installs Jim in their house. Jules' motives are conveyed with a delicacy and understanding also surely unprecedented in a film script: at least he knows where she is, even though his lifelong chum is now in his beloved's bed. Her mere presence, he tells Jim with a candor rare for men but, the audience now knows, not for this pair, is both sufficient for him and essential for life. Oscar Werner masterfully conveys Jules' pain and devotion. His unconditional acceptance of his wife's increasingly profound transgressions signals a patient integrity associated more with the Mimi's of the world than with men of means and experience. Catherine knows this. She relies on Jules' fidelity as the anchor in the storms she creates to sustain her own vision of life. A scene where the camera never leaves their tearful faces as they voice the terms of their indissoluble union is both merciless and incomparably tender. She will always leave him but she will always come back because he will never leave her. 

     The highlight of this new permutation in these three lives is Catherine's performance of a song written for her by yet another lover. Its poignant theme of perpetual rondelet and its indelible tune, as familiar as "Frere Jacques" to those who first heard it in their own Bohemian youth, encapsulates this masterpiece and, perhaps, Truffaut's own philosophy of life.

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     An entire essay could be written about the character of Catherine. She appears as a woman liberated from the stifling female roles of her era. Was she abused once and takes her revenge by being both irresistible and uncatchable? She has strong feelings on the subject of male perfidy: she burns letters of "lies" and empties a bottle of lye that she keeps handy for "lying eyes." Yet her willfulness and independence reek of childish impetuosity, as though the freedom she claims is authentic as an expression of human need but is also reckless. Unlike the two men, whose unconventional lives seem to grow through love, work, making war, and getting older, Catherine lacks the maturity throughout the movie - and perhaps the intelligence, Jules hints once - to use freedom wisely. She also trails a longing for motherhood that seems a little desperate on the part of the male filmmakers: yes she is ungovernable but she craves the irreducible essence of womanhood. Her disregard of conventional "morality" and escape from its punishments are not as unsettling as her arrested trajectory from seducer to recognizably modern autonomy. The director and his script writer would surely have read Simon de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex," published in 1949 and probably debated for years before that. But they do not present the woman that de Beauvoir envisioned. Were they ready for her?

     That is why this movie seems so "rather French." The character of Catherine - perceived by her creators and companions as quixotic, intriguing, mystifying - does not go so far that French men could be frightened or angered by her. Her embrace of freedom occurs only within a realm they well understand: the arena of "free love" they have taken for granted for themselves for centuries. Until the end of the film, when her life choices destroy as unpredictably as any war. Maybe liberated women are, ultimately, not a good thing – for men.

Review of “Days of Heaven” (1978) and “The New World” (2005) by Lucy Johns

Review of “Days of Heaven” (1978) and “The New World” (2005)
A film review inspired by Ronald Chase, "Film: A Guide for Teens"
©Lucy Johns April 22, 2006

Director and screen writer Terrance Malick is American cinema’s poet of love and land. The joy of the one and the beauty of the other make the heart ache, especially since both are doomed. This profound romanticism is sharpened by a keen understanding of the work required to tame wilderness. The combination of emotional longing, evocative landscape and exacting realism creates an elegiac mood rare in films. Malick’s historical settings provide fine cover for a sensibility probably not happy in the modern world.

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“Days of Heaven” is a peon to the marvels and menace of the American west. It opens with scenes of urban, industrial squalor worthy of Blake’s “satanic mills.” A worker has problems taking orders. If Richard Gere were more than a pretty face, this confrontation with authority might have revealed a character unworthy of exploitation. Since his acting ability is minimal, the firing that results is merely a plot device. He collects his woman and her younger sister to head out west. In the first of many extraordinary images in this film, they travel on the rooftop of a train covered with unpaying passengers who brave weather and danger in search of a better life. A huge wheat farm in Texas is the destination. Brooding purple mountains in the distance, a gloomy gothic great house straight out of Winslow Homer or Edward Hopper, a raucous crew of immigrant and native workers toiling from dawn to dusk, cavalcades of clattering machinery, a plague of insects, uncontrollable fire – these elements suffuse the ensuing love story with a grandeur and pathos the three stock characters could easily lack. Sam Shepard is type-cast as the laconic Westerner presiding over a vast enterprise, lonely as a king and soon the victim of a plot by the working couple. The romantic triangle – beautiful woman, handsome but feckless lover, a husband whose social standing brings unimaginable opportunities that compensate, ultimately, for lost passion – may be a Malick theme, since it recurs in his latest work, “The New World.”

Now we are three hundred years earlier, in the magnificent wilderness of aboriginal Virginia. A band of Englishmen lands to found Jamestown. Colin Farrell, a prisoner on the ship for insubordination, effortlessly conveys what Gere couldn’t, that he is too valuable to let go. Reprieved, his Captain John Smith sets out to scout the land and the natives, wary but hovering like “curious deer.” He is ridiculous in his medieval armor slogging through mangrove swamps but he is clever and handsome enough to inspire the timeless fable of the princess who spares the warrior from the wrath of her father and tribe. Malick is better served by his actors here. In addition to Farrell and several reliable (although not always understandable) British supporting players, he found Q’Orianka Kilcher, only 14 when she won the role for her radiantly expressive face and body. The princess’s name, Pocahontas, is never spoken, as though her true self can hardly be captured by only her birth name. Eventually she will become Rebecca, wife of a nobleman and guest of King James of England. Her introduction to these new people symbolizes Malick’s poignant vision of the momentous encounter between the old and new worlds. He imagines invaders and invaded treating each other as new wonders to be explored. This is Malick at his romantic best. Of course it wasn’t that way and in the film can’t last.

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Malick’s skill as a story-teller finds singular expression in “Days of Heaven” in the person of a young narrator. This devise of voice-over commentary or explication can be cloying. Perhaps because the girl, Linda Manz, is not pretty, has a Brooklyn accent automatically associated with sarcasm, and actually has interesting things to say, this commentator is reminiscent of a Greek chorus, wiser than the protagonists but not immune to their trials. She adds details that aren’t necessary to move the action but enlarge on its significance, reporting, for example, that a deranged preacher on the train prophesies disasters that soon come to pass.

The two films transcend their predictable stories thanks to Malick’s absorption with the earthly surroundings. His settings work almost magically to deepen the experiences of his characters. Texas wheat fields radiate heat and insects and prickly dust that blanket all human activity within them. A riverine wilderness looks as untamable as the homeless fugitives camped in it. The scrawny wooden buildings in snow-bound Jamestown are as ragged as its starving inhabitants. The rigid gridlines of an English country park reflect the evolved sensibility – elegant and perfectly controlled – of the new lady of the manor. Malick loves the outdoors in all its wonder, even the locusts chewing on grain in footage from some naturalist’s collection that must post-date the action in his film by half a century. His cinematography is calculated as carefully as his story and sometimes even detracts. Sadness and loss may overwhelm his characters while the viewer revels in the beauty of the scene.

This tension is one signifier of memorable art. The medium and the message are not the same. Malick is an artist in the grand tradition that insists on the permanence of beauty despite the prevalence of human failings. These two films show him at his most committed.

2019 Tarkovsky Prize Honorable Mention: Una Lomax-Emrick

Una Lomax-Emrick (18, Urban School)
The Racket of Consciousness: Three Colors: Red

            I recently listened to psychologist Kaern Kreyling describe the ways in which our minds are obsessed with maintaining constant inner dialogues in spite of the fact that silence dominates many layers of our subconscious. The brain and consciousness are vastly silent, she said, but we are often hypnotized by the small flood of doubts, mundane insecurities, philosophical musings, and “Did I remember to turn the stove off?” that crowd the top layer of our thoughts. Amidst our constant media inundations through the devices in our hands, we tend to forget the silence but are still desperately seeking it. We buy into the mythology of a spin class somehow destined to cure anxiety, laud prohibitively expensive “mindfulness retreats” when we could just as well follow a map to a stranger’s home or celebrate an oncoming storm. Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Red presents a stunning portrait of the power of silent human connection in spite of a superficial draw to noise. As Janet Maslin states in her 1994 New York Times review of the film, “Stories develop like photographs in a darkroom. They are sharply defined only in retrospect, when the process is complete.” Kieślowski examines love and coincidence with astounding poise, rendering the observer delightfully complicit in forming the relationships that arise and the hopes that spring in the face of a missed call, a wounded dog, and lost romantic connections. His characters are constantly seeking peace but are unable, until the film’s end, to find the silence that can truly bring them to rest and back to one another. His film is a tremendous testament to the power of connection and the ability of some beautiful, internal grace to guide people to the silence, if they will only pay attention.

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            The telephone, a central focus of countless scenes in Red is the only real antagonist in the film. It acts as a block between people, a shade attempting to disrupt truth love, and much beauty throughout. Voices become weapons. Valentine’s (Irène Jacob) boyfriend summons her to the perilous waters of the English Channel, and Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) makes plans and loses the woman he loves through the off-white chord of his landline. Their relationships are superficial; Kieślowski implies again and again that in order to love and to understand, one must be physically with someone and, of course, one must be silent. The Judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) lives a solitary life in a tumble-down house; he is obsessed with the noise of others. Sitting alone in the dark, we watch his mind play out in the rising and falling of voices on his stereo screen. This man is deeply unhappy, not content with the musings of his own desperate mind, he must prey on the voices and feelings others to be satiated, and Valentine is similarly disgusted and enamored of his noise. The night outside is dark and silent. Rita, the sweet dog, is not moaning anymore, she is with the people who care for her and there is safety to be had in the assurance that they will love her. Yet, The Judge and Valentine are isolated. Their friendship springs from this night and the subsequent thawing of their initial icy self-righteousness. Much later on, when they share a drink in the stormy hall of Valentine’s show, there is psychological silence. A beautiful howling of the wind is the only sound amidst their hushed declarations of truth. Their friendship has allowed Kern to find solace in his own mind. He writes letters to his neighbors just as Auguste books passage on the ship to England; they are present, direct, and soulful. This is how the two men finally begin to emerge from the tumultuous cacophony of their heartbreak and into a silent comfort.

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Valentine, in many ways, embodies the kind of delicate self-possession that helps lead everyone back to silence, yet at the beginning of the film, we find her running her to the telephone, to a lover obsessed with the sound of her voice. She is trapped in the scene so brilliantly depicted in the opening credits, in telephones wires echoing across seas, in between walls, and underground. The telephone-world is a dismal place; we know that Valentine’s lover is all wrong, overbearing, jealous, but she sees him and her relationship with the distortion only her black telephone, perched perilously atop red table, can provide. Yet, though she is deceived by loud declarations of “care,” she is ultimately saved by her ability to sit comfortably with her own mind, and indeed, to quiet it down. In a truly spectacular scene, we see her entering the home of a man the Judge has been spying on with the intent to tell him that the Judge knows of his affair. Upon stepping beyond the threshold, she is met by his family and the loudness in her mind pauses, she reevaluates and leaves, understanding and finding peace with the simultaneous serenity and dangers of secrets. Valentine’s beauty doesn’t come from loud poetic declarations; instead, it appears in her ability to effortlessly blow a bubble without question and without laughter. She is not childish or pretentious, merely a woman who knows herself dancing and sweating in a crowded studio, or quietly consulting with a veterinarian in a dimly lit after hours clinic. She epitomizes growth in her melancholy; she ventures out onto the sea and finds quiet in the arms of another. She is human and deeply connected to her home: the little flat across the street from the place she buys a paper and the drive she learns to take in silence.

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Silence is Kieślowski’s surprising and absolutely necessary choice for a film entitled Red. There is no screaming in this film. The Judge is no crazed professor, merely a lonely man with a void in his heart and the voice of others dominating his mind. Auguste is loud only in action; boldness and racket only echoing in his agile clambering up a balcony and subsequent confrontation. The telephone does not ring like in some 1950s nightmare film, sounds buzz and tinkle, but never yell. Red is every part of this film, and Kieślowski’s brilliance is in allying such a crimson with a kind of gentleness hardly captured on screen. He explores the lower part of the mind, the kind hypnotized by simple beauty instead of by fear. Soft words exchanged in lamplight and the curve of a narrow drive are the backbone of his picture. Three Colors: Red is a testament to relationships, to subtlety, and to silence.

2019 Tarkovsky Prize Honorable Mention: Nicholas Buckwalter

Nicholas Buckwalter (17, Berkeley High School)

The Subjectivity of the Human Experience in Schnabel’s THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY


Beyond simply offering entertainment, film can open the mind to new ways of thinking and illuminate the subjectivity of humanity in a way unique to the medium. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Julian Schnabel uses the immersive nature of cinema to communicate the interior world of someone who has lost almost all exterior communication. The film centers around Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor of a French fashion magazine, who suffers a stroke which leaves him paralyzed from head to toe, leaving him stripped of everything but his senses and the ability to move his eyes. Over the course of the film, Jean slowly writes a novel through blinking as someone reads aloud the alphabet.

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The film touches on themes like family, love, and loyalty, but primarily deals with the subjectivity of the human experience. Large parts of the film are seen from the subjective point of view of Jean. This not only allows the viewer to better understand the protagonist's position, but also to reflect on the individual nature of their own experience. While as humans we have a basic understanding of each other, we can never escape the subjectivity of our mind and our own personal experience. Similarly, Jean is unable to escape his condition. The extensive continued POV shots reflect what life is: one long experience continually filtered through our own point of view.

The characters Jean interacts with further illustrate how our perspective colors our existence. While at the hospital, Jean is visited by his old friend, Roussin. Years earlier, Jean gave up his seat on a plane for Roussin. The plane was hijacked, resulting in Roussin becoming a hostage for four years. While at first it may seem like Jean was lucky for avoiding the plane, his condition of being “locked-in” (essentially, held hostage in his own body) in the end seems far more unlucky. The friends’ relationship indicates the futility of comparing human existence, as in the end we are all “locked-in” to our own perspectives. Regardless of what we choose, we may get on a plane that is hijacked or suffer a paralyzing stroke. Roussin gives Jean the advice to “hold onto the human inside of you.” Jean achieves this through memory which frees him from the prison of his physical limitations.

Memory is possibly the most subjective experience a human has. Different people can remember the same experience differently. Jean idealizes the past and frequently flashes back to happy memories of relationships from before he was disabled. He also holds onto his humanity through dream or fantasy. Through flashback, Jean sees himself shaving his father, a memory of a time where he had more control of his life and was in a position of being a caretaker. However, Jean also often sees himself in his wheelchair on an isolated plank on the beach. Even though he often tries to use memory to escape his experience, even his own mind draws him back to the limitations of his condition.

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The story of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is personally intriguing to me. When I was four years old I had a seizure on my Mom’s birthday. At first the doctors thought I had hydrocephalus. This meant I would have frequent seizures and fluid would slowly build up in my brain until I lost all muscle control and eventually all brain function. I would have also lost all memory, essentially losing all aspects of humanity. The doctors were wrong and I simply had a febrile seizure. However, I often think about the experience and realize how little control we have over our lives. No one can control even their own body or health. Just as Jean was locked-in his body, we are all “locked-in” in to our destinies. But at the same time, Jean’s story also illustrates how much control we do have. Although he was stripped of almost all bodily function, through the simple act of blinking Jean is able to take control of the humanity he does have.

2019 Tarkovsky Prize Honorable Mention: Jessica Schott-Rosenfield

Jessica Schott-Rosenfield
(14, Ruth Asawa School of the Arts)
Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels


Fallen Angels
is a 1995 drama film set in Hong Kong, written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. The film follows two separate stories, which overlap only by chance, and very rarely. The viewer is first introduced to a hit man by the name of Wong Chi-Ming, and a woman who acts as his partner, cleaning his apartment, and faxing him blueprints on the areas he is meant to hit. They have almost never met throughout their three years of working together. Throughout the course of the movie, Chi-Ming finds that the killing business has lost its allure, and eventually decides to quit. He does not know that his partner is in love with him, and when he separates himself from their connection, she puts out a hit on him, taking revenge on the realization that her dream of love is impossible. In another part of the city lives Ho Chi Mo, a young mute man still living with his father, and earning little money with his hobby of sneaking into businesses at night and running them. Often in his midnight revels, he runs into Charlie, a woman recovering from a breakup, who cries on his shoulder and takes him along in a search for her ex-lover’s fiance, Blondie. Kar-Wai uses symbolism, a musical tone, and limited dialogue to create a pair of love stories which are both visually stimulating and thought provoking. Fallen Angels a uniquely beautiful and unusual representation of love.

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The plot lines’ tones differ greatly from each other, an aspect which might be expected to have the result of chaos in transitions between them. However, the use of sound separates each character and tone from one another, pacing the film. Wong’s story is far more crime-centered and dark than that of Ho’s, and so he is given dark and ominous theme music. This puts the watcher back into Wong’s story, after seeing Ho’s more comedic and romantic scenes. In addition to the music, the fact that the cinematography is so flashy, using bright color as a constant medium, it can be difficult to distinguish set design or physical context, and so the soundtrack assists the watcher by creating a stability to the ever-changing camera angles. Since music plays such a large role in the establishment of the mood, the effects of silence or dialogue are heightened, abruptly causing the watcher to start to pay closer attention. It is an effective technique in hooking the watcher, and clarifying a change in the storyline.

The symbolism in Fallen Angels arises mainly in one character called Blondie, who represents the enemy of every woman who has gotten her heart broken. Blondie appears first as a woman who meets Wong at a fast food restaurant, and encourages him to return to her home with her. Here, she is an onscreen presence, a real character. She next appears as the unseen fiance of Charlie’s ex-boyfriend, and the object of her hate. Charlie and Ho embark on a hunt for Blondie, never finding her. The theory that Blondie is a symbol for the adversary of every heartbroken woman is confirmed by a scene in which Charlie and Ho sit in a restaurant, and suddenly hear someone referred to as “Blondie.” Charlie whirls around, along with every other woman in the restaurant, and all begin to attack this person as one, despite the fact that he is, in fact, a man who could not possibly be the “other woman” they are looking for. These actions display the frenzied and invalid vengeance of Charlie, as well as every woman who has lost their love to her.

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Much of the movie is comprised of silent imagery, with a distinct lack of dialogue, which requires the complete focus of every person experiencing the plotline, at the risk of missing an important subtlety. In the first few scenes, there is little backstory in words, but much of it is shown through images. The watcher first sees Wong’s partner climb the steps of a bus station, and enter a dingy apartment, which she cleans thoroughly in a club dress and then leaves. The watcher then sees Wong climb the same steps and enter the same apartment, but do nothing except go to sleep. These movements show in detail the working dynamic of two characters, without explanation through dialogue. This aspect of the plot is important to a watcher’s understanding of the film, and so demands a stark concentration.

Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels is unusual in its portrayal of love, in that it maintains a theme of heartbreak and negativity. No character’s dream of love is ever fulfilled, but throughout the film, each one learns something about themselves, or another person, in getting past their brushes with unrealistic infatuation. With technical skill and unique storytelling, Wong Kar-Wai creates an experience which is not easily forgettable.

2019 Tarkovsky Prize Third Place: Sofi Orkin

Sofi Orkin (14, Ruth Asawa School of the Arts)
Three Colors: Red

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Red has a simple plot but is filled with intricacies that, while complicated, are never confusing. Valentine, a young woman living in France, runs over a dog, and when she goes to return it she meets Joseph, an old judge who she discovers is eavesdropping on his neighbors. Joseph, moved by Valentine’s insistence that he is doing something wrong, turns himself in, and this sets off a chain of events that leads to Valentine and her neighbor, Auguste, who she has never met but who the reader sees is perfect for her. Through the use of a motif of broken glass, a story about a book, and the color red, Kieślowski connects these three characters so deeply that, although none of them have known each other for long, or even face-to-face, there is a clear path that they are all taking towards one another.

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Red: the color of love, but also of pain. The color of passion, but also of fear. It is the color that is starred in the movie, and Valentine and Auguste are both literally and figuratively connected by red. In a figurative sense, they are surrounded by it, suggesting that they themselves are very similar. There is red in their houses, on their clothes, Auguste has a red car, and they both have red names. They are connected in their love for the world, especially Valentine’s caring nature, but also in the pain and fear they have. They fear their partners do not love them, and they hurt because of it. Red also has a more literal importance to the story. It represents Rita’s blood after Valentine hits her, and how Rita’s injuries eventually connect Valentine and Auguste. Upon returning Rita, Valentine discovers Joseph’s habit of eavesdropping on neighbor’s conversations. They develop a friendship and Joseph eventually turns himself in. In court, where his whole neighborhood has gathered, Karin, Auguste’s girlfriend, meets a man who she ends up choosing over Auguste. Hurt and angry, Auguste decides to travel for some time, boarding the same ferry as Valentine.

Glass, and specifically broken glass, is a motif that ties Auguste and Joseph together in a sideways fashion, making it seem as though Auguste is like a second Joseph, living Joseph’s life over again but this time correctly. The primary example of this takes place first in a bowling alley, where Auguste’s glass is shown broken at the top but still full of beer and upright. A while later, a scene in Joseph’s house shows a glass full of beer that is blown over by the wind. Its contents pour out of it but the glass remains unbroken, the exact opposite of Auguste’s glass. These similar but different endings to a tipped glass mirror the similar but different paths that their lives are taking, even before either of them is shown to be very similar.

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To strengthen the connection, Kieślowski shows Valentine cleaning up broken glass from the judge’s floor, which has a double meaning. She is simultaneously cleaning up his house and caring for him, but it is also referencing Auguste’s own broken glass, suggesting that Valentine, with her caring nature, will help both him and herself be fixed after the ferry sinking.

The idea of the similar but different paths of Joseph and Auguste’s life is shown once again by a book. Towards the beginning of the movie, Auguste is crossing a street when he drops one of his schoolbooks on the ground. It falls open to a page on which a question that could potentially be on his exam has been underlined, and he is later shown studying that question. After his exam, Auguste’s then-girlfriend Karin asks him if they asked the question and he says no. Later in the movie, this experience is echoed when Joseph is telling Valentine about his past. He describes how he had dropped his book and it had fallen open to a question that he had not yet studied. But when Valentine asks if he was assigned that question, the judge says yes, showing the difference once again in he and Auguste’s experiences. A similar journey, but a different ending.

Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Red is a beautiful almost-love story full of coincidences that are just barely within the limits of possibility. Be it books, glass, or the color red, Kieślowski gives the viewer an experience that is both nuanced and moving throughout, despite the many motifs. There is not a single moment where a line of dialogue or facial expression appears unnatural or contrived, and because of that I, at least, felt as though I was watching real life, and was therefore fully invested in the story all the way to the end, leaning forward in my seat until it was proven to the viewer that Valentine and Auguste were safe.

2019 Tarkovsky Prize Second Place: Scully Randlett

Scully Randlett (18, Lowell High School)
The Noise of Le Samouraï

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï is a complete movie. What is meant by this is Melville not only successfully executes in every aspect of film (composition, theme, character development, etc...), but also manages not to rely on any single element in the creation of this work of art. For each of these elements there is an essay to be written, but there is one through which this film marks itself as truly special. The use of noise is this defining factor. For my purposes, noise is, in a film sense, the sounds in a movie that are neither a part of the soundtrack nor dialogue. Traditionally, film has been considered, above all, a visual art. Tarkovsky himself regarded reliance on sound, especially music, to be detrimental to the narrative created by what is on the screen. Yet he also acknowledged the power of noise to create an atmosphere complementary to the optical aspects of the film. Le Samouraï goes far beyond this in its use of noise however, masterfully curating a listening experience able to dictate the tone of a scene, create sound signatures for different settings, and turn specific sounds into symbols.

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Merely on the strength of the acting of Alain Delon and others, the film manages to fulfill much of its storytelling duties visually. This dynamic both frees the sound channels from dialogue and necessitates the tone of the film be infused by other means. One need not look any further than the opening of the film for evidence of this. It takes nine minutes and forty five seconds before a single word is uttered, and this is not in the absence of plot movement either. To establish a distant, secluded context to its classic noir protagonist, the opening scene make exceptional use of noise, blending light rain, passing cars, and the ever-important chirping of a bird. The theme of the film, composed by François de Roubaix, then surges as the viewer is introduced to Costello as a criminal. Before Nathalie Delon breaks the “silence”, another well-crafted scene unfolds. After he pulls his stolen car into an unmarked garage, an entire series of interactions between Costello and an unnamed man take place, while the viewer is kept on edge with the sounds of the turning of a screwdriver, the clanking of plates, light switches, and their shifty movements highlighting the tentious nature of the encounter.

The most omnipresent sound throughout the film is the sound of walking, and despite its sheer volume, its importance lies in its ability to remain subtle. There are a plethora of excellent examples of this, the best executed of them being Jef’s journey from the police station to the train station where he is shot. On his way to collect his reward, lengthy sequences dominated by Delon’s measured stride contrast heavily with the scenes of action surrounding him, further cementing him as the eye of a hurricane that has just begun to form. The seminal scene of the movie comes as two policemen break into Costello’s apartment and plant a bug. The scene is told through the interactions of three sounds: the pacing and shuffling of the first detective, the jangling of keys and wiretap by the second detective, and the nervous fluttering and chirping of the bird. On a backdrop of very intentional silence, these three sounds create a choking fear which leaves the viewer incapable of anything but experiencing, paralyzed, the terror of the bird.

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The noise throughout Le Samouraï is set on creating an intense, cold environment, and by all means is successful. On a more minute level, noise also manages to create distinct cues that are specific to an environment. Most notably, Costello’s apartment is immediately recognizable; which is as much a product of the bird’s chirping, the noise of rickety drawers, and the infrequent rumbling of a passing automobile as it is of the shots of the shabby chic decor, foggy windows, and dark atmosphere. Serving as a sort of escape from the city, the garage provides a unique atmosphere of relative peace, while maintaining the sense of foreboding central to the picture. This unique atmosphere is produced by a specific palette of sounds, such as the turn of a screwdriver, the barking of a dog, the rattle of license plate, the buzz of a solitary light bulb, and the rumbling of a train passing overhead. An equally well constructed soundscape is the one that engulfs the jazz club, Marty’s. Marty’s audacious jazz numbers and loud crowd chatter deeply contrast the rest of the film’s relatively barren soundscape. Not only does this distinguish the club from anywhere else, but also gives it its own life as the heart from which the film’s conflict flows. It is also important to clarify that, because much of what makes this setting’s atmosphere stand out is the jazz played by the pianist (Caty Rosier) and her band, the music played does technically qualify as an element of the soundtrack; however, it being performed on screen allows it to function as noise as well. Another enigmatic sound signature is that of the police headquarters. The police headquarters in actuality includes several distinct locations, such as the interrogation rooms, the lineup room, and the commissioner’s office, each with their own sound signatures. However, an overarching aural concept is presented throughout: an overwhelming lack of noise. While there is distant chatter and the sometimes-audible hammering of typewriters in the background, these scenes serve as a foil to the more common strategies of the rest of the film. While the majority of the film creates a veneer of silence by highlighting noise, the actual absence of noise in the headquarters is filled with dialogue, switching the narrative duties over to sound and conceding tone creation to vision.

In its depth of tone and setting, Le Samouraï clearly demonstrates a seldom-paralleled mastery of expression. What truly elevates this film to its deserved status of genius is the inventiveness of the concepts expressed within this mastery. This genius is Melville’s creativity to recondition noises, one of the most neglected component of filmmaking, into symbols, some of the most impactful of filmmaking’s components. The first symbol would be the sounds of vehicles, so ever-present throughout the plot. Whenever it be automobiles, trams, or trains, there seems to be no reprise from the noise of mass transit, and this is quite intentional, as these vehicles are symbolic of the outside forces which tear at Delon’s character. As the opening quote from the Bushido states, “There is no greater solitude than that of the Samurai...” and this rings especially true for Costello. In this lies the central conflict of the film, the struggle between Costello’s structured coolness and the outside world’s demanding chaos. This symbolism manifests itself nicely, with the loudest transit coming when Jef seems most embroiled by external affairs (being followed on the tram, hastily crossing a busy street, etc...) and being heard far less while he is being reclusive (his apartment, the garage, etc...).

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The other aspect of this contrast would then be the symbol for Jef Costello himself, and, incredulously enough, that symbol is: the bird. More specifically, the noises the bird makes are reflections of Costello’s thoughts and emotions. This relationship can first be noted when Costello, after being shot, returns to his apartment to much less chirping that in the opening scene. This represents Costello’s emotional depletion after the whirlwind of events the previous day. Even more symbolic is how, after bandaging himself, he goes over to the bird and feeds it, symbolizing the nourishment he needs, which, unsurprisingly, is followed by the bird resuming its normal frequency of chirping. However, this is a far cry from the intricacy of the metaphor which occurs once Jef returns from his interaction with the pianist. On entering the apartment, both the viewer and he can immediately hear the frantic calls of the bird, and upon realizing the bird has been losing its feathers, Jef begins to search for the listening device, during which the bird never ceases in its frantic cries. The depiction of the bird’s state perfectly captures the internal decay within Costello, as the world seemingly folds around him. Beyond that, the bird’s frantic chirping and fluttering also serves to represent the anxious dialogue Costello is having with himself as he stays on constant alert against his surroundings; and as is seen the next time he is in his apartment, this is for a good reason.

It is on these three strengths: the ability to create a vast tonal atmosphere, to provide iconic soundscapes for particular places, and to harness the broader themes of the film into rivaling sounds, that Le Samouraï harnesses noise to realize its full artistic potential. It is truly impressive how Melville has both something original to express, and the ingenuity to express it clearly. However, it is Melville’s skill in expressing himself using both the commonplace techniques of film and his novel use of the proverbial road not taken that catapults this film into something beyond merely impressive. In a medium as expansive as film, there is so much room for innovation, and for as excellent as the traditional elements of this, and any other, film might be, experimenting with techniques old and new is what keeps film as an art form as wonderful as it is.

2019 Tarkovsky Prize First Place: Sebastian Kaplan

Sebastian Kaplan (16, Lowell High School)
Hiding Behind Sunglasses in Fellini’s 8 ½

 

 8 ½, directed by Federico Fellini is a landmark film, it is a circus, it is theater, it is a dream, and it is all very, very liberating. The idea that the imagination liberates us from the entrapment of life’s absurdities is expressed throughout in dazzling ways.

It begins with a dream of liberation, and quickly breaks the rules of neorealism that Fellini once ascribed to , separating himself from his earlier work- ala The White Sheik (1952) La Strada (1954), and in turn opening himself up to criticism from such men as Guido Aristarco, prolific dean of Marxist film criticism and founder of  Cinema Nuovo (who resembles well the film critic from early in the film). The Camera immediately makes itself known, panning through a traffic jam. Our hero, Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni is introduced from the back, through the rear view window of his car, in fact we will not see his face at all until the films next sequence  So far few clues are presented to suggest we are in a dream. From the beginning the sound is odd, as if off, lacking car horns or noise except for faint drum, suggestive of a heartbeat. Next  fog spews from the dashboard of the car and an off-putting shot of a busload of people with their arms out, heads covered, might tip some over the edge and into the understanding this is a dream.  After seeing Carla, his ‘fat assed, small headed- placid’ (as described by Fellini himself ) mistress being pleasured by an unknown older man - Guido, promptly looks to those around him in other cars for help as he cannot seem to escape his car,  Guido manages to liberate himself from his vices and tensions, and more importantly the car by climbing out of the roof. Arms outstretched, Guido glides over the cars and Fellini presents us with a very dynamic  image. Guido, freed from the traffic is now free to fly, advancing toward rapidly moving clouds. (Fully in the air I can’t help but think of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will, the gorgeous shots of the sky, and plane that holds Adolf Hitler.) Guido, flying high, looks to escape the world below, discovered by Claudia's press agent, who promptly yanks him down- sending Guido from his unconscious mind back into the possibly more confusing reality of his life.

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Although it is dangerous to equate the film completely to Fellini’s  life- it’s hard not to at points. Obviously he didn’t pull the idea of a director who has trouble with his latest film out of thin air, he went through it!  Fellini, began his career as an assistant and writer to Neo Realist director Roberto Rossellini and after making the mad sprawling high life dramedy La Dolce Vita,  expected to be on his feet for his next work. Instead Fellini felt the horror of an inspirational void. Fellini had been fixated for a while now on the idea that a director only lasts ten years before he begins to repeat himself, pointing towards what he deemed exhibits A, Rene Clair, B, G.W Pabst, and C, Jean Renoir for reference. Fellini was panicking when he should have been celebrating and it created an obsession that he decided to make the subject of his new movie. Although the original intent was to have Guido the lead, be a writer struggling to write, Fellini could not decide how to clearly depict this  and so found the idea reborn with the struggle of the director.

After his Neorealist period Fellini found in his hands Carl G. Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963) by the fault of Jungian psychoanalyst Dr. Ernst Bernhard. There is no doubt that Carl Jung’s work has found itself into 8 ½ and many of his later films to come, especially the daring Fellini/Satyricon. The most prominent aspect of Jung I found to surface in 8 ½ were Jung's theories on dreams, the Anima and the Animus.

The Anima is most clearest perhaps in what is my favorite segment in the film. About 35 minutes into the film, as pressure mounts on Guido to begin filming, as he won’t even tell actors their roles, he retreats into the comfort of Childhood Memories. We are escorted to a whimsical land of children and mothers in a scene at Guidos Grandmothers, off screen, a woman is humming the “Ricordo d'infanzia” theme. This voice and this music persist through much of the sequence, along with a pattern of notes soothingly played on a guitar. All the women here are bizarre, yet loveable creatures held in great esteem by Guido. As the many children are tucked into bed by seuxalized Nannys  we can look to a quote by Jung selected by Albert Benderosn in his book Critical Approaches To Federico Fellini's 8 ½ ,“His aeros is passive like a child’s. The son hopes to be caught by the mother, sucked in, enveloped and devoured”. Specifically a young Guido is tucked in and embraced with a long kiss by a Nanny in White as the Camera tracks closer, letting us in on the slightly perverse, if not relatable moment.

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The women here are very innocent seeming and kindhearted, and don’t give off the impression of wanting to bud anything sexually in the children. Saraghina, is the sort of archetype of woman on the fringe of society, witch, the anima projection responsible for the emergence of Guidos sexual deviance portrayed later on, who nests in a small hut on the beach. Jung in Man and His Symbols  describes a Siberian tale which illustrates the dangerous aspect of the Anima. One day a lonely hunter sees a beautiful woman emerging from the deep forest on the other side of the river. She waves and beckons him to her, singing of embracing him, that her nest is near. He swims to her only for her to transform into an owl and the hunter drowns in the water. The Anima here symbolizes an unreal dream of love, happiness and maternal warmth. When Guido is young he and his schoolmates visit Saraghina, she dances, beckoning him over, they dance only to be caught by Priests, dragged away, similarly to when he is dragged to the press conference towards the end of the film. Interestingly the priests Guido is then brought before are played by women with odd complexes (The only reason, Fellini claims, was that they looked the part). Later Gudio visits his Saraghina, and the scene is accompanied by a final zoom on Saraghina, an odd sort of objectification of her.

 Later in the film, as the line between his life, his film and his fantasies have become so blurred, we wonder if Guido has any life at all outside of his own film. As Carla sings and dances with his wife Guido is serendipitously transported back to La Fattoria Della Donna from earlier in the film, “Here he comes” says his wife as she takes a boiling cauldron of steamy water off the fire. Guido enters bearing gifts to many wonderfully shaped women, the ones who bathed him as a child plus a whole array of wife type archetypes and participants in his sex life. Carla comes from downstairs, a very dangerous place because that is where you’re put after you turn 30 (how wonderful!?). The Cinematography here by Gianni Di Venanzo has incredible depth and eccentricity, as something is always fluttering past the lense of his camera, always moving, like a young man's eyes trying not to be caught staring as beautiful women surround him. The Ramba plays as a Hawaiian girl dances for Guido as he begins to prepare for his maternal bath. It’s a wonderful comic scene, I’d never seen anything like this before-- such a capturing of a rampant teenage, and apparently middle aged mind pulsing with sexual thoughts. Ana Nisi Masa. Memory and fantasy merge as the Nanny in White appears for a brief moment and then he is wrapped in a sheet, perfect male fantasy of regression. Saraghina appearance in the scene reinforces this as she says upon seeing Guido again, “Such nice, thin legs.” and another woman adds on “Straight like when he was a boy”. It’s hilarious and very disturbing but I found myself not being able to say I wished I was where he was, (or did I?).

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A showgirl bargains not to be sent upstairs and flaunts herself proving she indeed has a “tight little ass”, later “Look at my chest!”. But Guido, in the fashion of the decadent Roman Emperor (Caligula? Nero seems the better comparison reflecting on Fellini/Satyricon) sentences her upstairs. Saraghina interjects with an infantile high pitched moan and begins to ignite a rebellion against their patriarch, soon the Hawaiian girl shouts “Down with the tyrant! Down with Bluebeard!” as Wagner's Valkyrie creeps in. the women rebel against the god. The lighting here intensifies through use of a technique of pulling on lanterns and swinging them around, the camera work is equally eye catching. As Guido draws a whip the scene goes into full swing- a woman when whipped lets out an “oooh Delicious”, perverse enough? Yeesh.  

This scene for myself, and many others was so wild and inventive, i’d never seen anything like this. This surreal sequence continues and the showgirl is allowed one last song. It’s rather, degrading, embarrassing and depressing in comparison to the fun at the crack of Guidos whip.

 Reflecting the last scene, we fade to a scene of Guido watching Screen tests. Much mirroring here as we see how similar some of the footage is to his life. The film ends soon after.

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 All in all this oneiric film guides us to view it in the perspective of dreams. Many films do this; Scorsese’s After Hours . Kubrick’s The Shining and most everything by David Lynch… Though Fellini ensures that the lines between dream, reality, fantasy and memory remain blurred, the audience is forced into a deeper level of involvement. Honestly, I still don’t understand the film. It’s still as much a mystery to me as when I first saw it. I’m serious--  this film is very shaking, it grabs you and slaps your silly face. If you’re afraid of the world around you, afraid of women, afraid of vulnerability, afraid of being disappointed, and afraid of being a disappointment slip on your sunglasses.

Folks, this film is bananas. Everyone should go see it!

2018 Tarkovsky Award Honorable Mention: Stephen Zambon

Stephen Zambon
Paul Thomas Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD

In There Will Be Blood, the audience is presented with the character Daniel Plainview. The movie centers on him, following his rise as an oilman. His arc is similar to Charles Foster Kane’s in Citizen Kane. Both men are ambitious anti-heroes who spend their lives accumulating wealth. They are different, however, in one important area. There is a definite reason for Kane’s pursuit of wealth: He is in search of love and understanding. For Plainview there is not as clear of a reason. He is a more enigmatic character.

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 From the beginning of the film, Plainview is cast as a representative of what I will call Americanism. There is a direct link between Plainview and this term: both are enigmatic. America is something almost undefinable. What is America? In There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson explores the basis of American culture through the character of Daniel Plainview.

There Will Be Blood opens on a barren landscape. The audience sees in this landscape both the bankrupt values of Plainview and the emptiness of Americanism. The plot starts with Plainview mining for silver. While mining he falls and breaks his leg, and Plainview drags himself to civilization to trade in his silver. He walks with a limp for the rest of the film, representing the stifled moral character of Plainview. This scene establishes him as a man dedicated to his trade; he undergoes a considerable deal of pain to get his money. Throughout the scene he is a man alone. The audience sees the hyper-individualism of Plainview as he mines for silver. He does not seek help, and he pays for this by having to drag himself through the desert. There is a similar vein in American history of people seeking their fortune for themselves by themselves. Columbus was looking for a route to India; the 49’s were looking for gold; etc. From the beginning, Plainview is cast as a representative of this self absorbed search. The first scene ends on the same barren landscape that started the film, bookending with the representative wasteland. This entire first scene can be read as foreshadowing for the film to come, taking a metaphorical look into Plainview’s personality. He has a contempt for other people and a pursuit for wealth.

Later, Plainview builds his oil company. A worker is killed on his site leaving an orphan. Plainview adopts the child (or pretends to), named H.W.. He uses the child to help him look like a family man, even to the point of making up details like his “wife” dying in childbirth, so that he can get investors. Here the audience sees another vein of American culture: the mixing of family values and capitalism. Plainview takes advantage of the embedded family values for capitalistic self-promotion. Here the audience begins to see the complexity of Plainview. He is capable of good but ultimately is looking out for himself. He takes a kind act, adopting an orphan, and lies to turn it into a means to promote his business. This brings a question: did Plainview adopt H.W. with the intent of using him for business or did he adopt him and just so happen to take the business opportunity? He adopted him in an act of goodwill, but he used it to his own advantage. He sees his family as an extension of himself, so he uses it to promote his business as he does.

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In an effort to expand his business, Plainview tries to buy land from the religious Sunday family. A son, Eli, aware that Plainview is trying to buy their land for a low price, demands a high price. The two reach the deal that Plainview will pay the low price for the land and donate $5000 to Eli’s church. Plainview now owns all the land he wanted to buy except for one hold-out: Mr. Bandy. He uses the land to construct a derrick. The derrick juts out of the landscape and penetrates the ground. This is a phallic image of self-absorbed power. Plainview has a complete domination of the barren, American landscape to a sexual degree. A similar phallic image will appear at the end of the film. Before it begins to pump oil, Eli asks him to let him bless the derrick. Plainview instead blesses it himself using different words than Eli had suggested. This marks the beginning of Eli’s and Plainview’s tense, back and forth power struggle. Here begins the very American conflict between religion and capitalism. Eli representing American fanatical religion and Plainview representing fanatical capitalism, this episode initiates the conflict between the two themes in the film. After oil extraction begins, an accident kills a worker. Another accident leaves H.W. deaf and the derrick in flames. Plainview starts to care for H.W. but returns to care for his business. Now the audience sees what was hinted at before: Plainview values his business over his adopted son. The imagery in this scene is hellish, like something out of Dante. This effect is achieved through a high contrast red-and-black color palette and a red vignette. Plainview’s face covered in mud, he looks like a demon. Eli claims that the accidents were Plainview’s fault for not letting Eli bless the derrick, and he demands the $5000 he still owes. Plainview beats Eli in response. This shows an escalation in the tension in their relationship and in the themes of the film. At this point, capitalism has an upper-hand over religion, but the themes will be further explored.

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A man claiming to be his half-brother, Henry, meets Plainview. Plainview employs him and they seem to form a bond. H.W. learns that Henry is not Plainview’s half-brother from reading his diary and tries to kill him by lighting their house on fire. Plainview, not realizing the truth about “Henry”, is angered by H.W.  But Plainview becomes suspicious of Henry and confronts him at gunpoint, asking whether he is in fact his half-brother. The man confesses that he is not Henry. Enraged, Plainview murders him and buries the body. This shows Plainview’s disregard for human life and hypocrisy. The two had what seemed to be an actual friendship, even if it was based on false pretenses. Plainview kills the man in spite of this. This acts as foreshadowing for the murder of Eli. Also, he lies to promote himself, pretending H.W. is his son, but cannot understand when someone else does the same thing. The audience now sees that Plainview is an angry and vengeful man. He is this way because he has such high expectations for how he wants to be treated but does not extend those expectations to other people. It also brings the theme of family in the film to a new level. Plainview values family so much that he is willing to kill someone who goes against it. We again see a mixing of family and capitalism. He could have fired the man for lying to him in a purely capitalistic way, but instead, since the issue of betrayal of family was involved so he murders the man. There is evidence throughout the film that he values family-his relationship to H.W.’s future wife as a child shows that he cares about the inner-workings of a family. When he learns that her father beats her for not praying, he talks to the girl asking if she is still beaten in front of her father.

After the killing, Mr. Bandy, the hold-out. wakes Plainview up, telling him he knows what happened the night before. He takes him to Eli Sunday’s church and wants him to repent. Mr. Bandy says that he will allow Plainview to build the oil pipeline if he does. Eli baptizes Plainview in a potent scene about the intersection between capitalism, religion, and family. Eli forces Plainview to renounce his sins of abandoning H.W., slaps him savagely, and only then does he baptize him. This scene shows that Eli is as vengeful as Plainview, getting back at him physically and emotionally. Here we see the power that religion has over capitalism and family values. There is a weakness in capitalism, and religion has the ability to exploit that weakness of its morbid greed. Religion also has power over family because of its vulnerability. The audience sees in this intersection of themes that the relationship between each of these themes is a power dynamic. The film’s ultimate question: which theme will overpower the others?

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Some years later, Plainview is an alcoholic living alone in a mansion. This image recalls the end of Charles Foster Kane’s life, who also died alone in a mansion. Kane fills his lack of human relationships by accumulating possessions, while Plainview fills it with alcohol. It also recalls the image at the beginning of the film. The audience once again sees Plainview as an isolated man. The film bookends with a reminder of his stark individualism. Plainview tries to relive his ennui; he shoots a rifle at some furniture. Earlier in the film, Plainview asks what he would do with his life if he were to not be pursuing oil. In his apparent semiretirement, he has nothing to do. He then gets a visit from a now adult H.W. In their meeting, H.W. reveals that he will begin an oil business in Mexico. Plainview interprets this as H.W. trying to compete with him, but H.W. insists that he is not. Plainview, enraged, reveals to his adopted son that H.W. is in fact an orphan. This scene shows that, as Plainview gets older, his superficial values wither away leaving his core values revealed; it shows that he values money over family. As soon as family comes in conflict with his business, he needs to defend his true interest: capitalism. This ties up the premise of the film – capitalism triumphs over all. . The film has one last thread to finish: its conflict with religion. Eli visits Plainview in his mansion’s bowling alley. He says that he will sell Plainview Mr. Bandy’s land. He confesses he is desperate for money. Plainview responds that he will only buy the land if Eli renounces his faith. Eli does so in a ritual of humilation and Plainview reveals that he actually has sucked the oil out of the land with neighboring wells. He then taunts and kills Eli with a bowling pin, the second phallic image in the film. It shows that he dominates Eli completely in the same way that he dominated the landscape earlier. He ends the film saying, “It is finished”, echoing Jesus’s last words. This sacrilegious ending shows a complete domination of religion by capitalism – and the self-destructive hypocrisy and violence it spawns.

Capitalism has been a defining feature of American culture since the beginning. A power dynamic exists between each feature of American values. Other features of Americanism, like family and religion, according to Paul Thomas Anderson, are dominated by capitalism.

2018 Tarkovsky Award Honorable Mention: Esme Cohen

Esme Cohen (Lowell High School)
MOONRISE KINGDOM and Yellow-Tinted Love

Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom opens on a record player in a yellow-walled house as it rains; a long, elegant shot that ends with a the tableau of the Bishop siblings, Suzy framed by a white window, reading a book. I had the privilege of seeing this gorgeous shot three times, as SF Film and Art was having technical difficulties at the time. But what would seem as a nuisance or annoyance to some was quite the opposite to me; indeed, this is not an essay penned to complain. This is an essay penned to praise the brilliance of Moonrise Kingdom, and the beauty of its yellow-tinted portrayal of love.

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Surely to the distress of my fellow viewers, I gasped as the music started, in awe of Anderson’s ability to create such vivid worlds. It was by the second pan across the yellow walls that I knew I was in love. A long time advocat of Anderson’s works, I was enamored long before the green hat clad naturalist imparted bits of (fictional) island trivia; long before Suzy carried a cat and a suitcase full of books as her necessities; long before a sad dumb cop shared a beer with an orphan who has stuck his finger in the proverbial electrical socket. All it took was a pair of strikingly sunshine walls and a record player. However, it is not to be forgotten that the beauty of the film goes beyond sunshine tinted set design. It is Anderson’s multidimensional, layered portrait of love—also yellow—that deserves the most praise.

I later apologized for the gasping.

Following the opening shot that I was so enamored by, an aforementioned man wearing a red coat and a forest green beanie appears, in the bottom of the frame. Similar to documentary elements frequently utilized in Anderson’s films ( Steve Zissou comes to mind), Moonrise Kingdom’ s nameless naturalist pops in occasionally to provide helpful, story-driving tidbits on our fictional island. He furnishes foreshadowing: in three days time, a hurricane is to hit. He also provides a tone of spontaneity and the genuine—reality in Anderson’s escape from it—which serves as the backdrop against which two twelve year olds will fall in love.

The way in which Wes Anderson orchestrates the romance of Sam and Suzy proves that it is not just the yellow walls that support the film. At its center is a love between a boy who snuck into a girl’s dressing room and a raven who punched herself in the mirror. As the movie continues what seemed comical—two children running away together claiming love strikes most as funny—becomes a representation of all that is good about love. Overlooking their moonrise kingdom, Sam and Suzy portray all of the best parts. They share vulnerabilities and dreams. They stab those who threaten the other with lefty scissors if its called for. They go back for the things they recognize are important. Surrounded by patches of yellow, time and time again they demonstrate what it is to be there for someone—to love someone. Suzy and Sam, surrounded by loves gone wrong, show through their seemingly silly tweenmance why people fight to find their own moonrise kingdoms with the ones they love.

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But for the romantic Anderson seems to be—infusing each scene with a care and an attention to detail that can only be explained by a desire to show the delicacy, the good—never does he forgo the darker aspect. While Sam and Suzy’s romance as twelve year olds demonstrates the beauty of love one (yellow tinted) scene after another another, juxtaposed is the crumbling and dysfunctional—yet still strangely beautiful—relationships of the true adults. Wes Anderson does not hide the fears and threats that accompany such love, and the film's most emotion-heavy moments may in fact be the moments where the dreary, behind-the-curtain facets of love are pulled forward. Daggers of reality amongst fantasy are frequently contrasted (think Richie’s attempted suicide in The Royal Tenenbaums or the train stop in The Grand Budapest Hotel ) in Anderson’s films, and in Moonrise it is the broken nature of the surrounding loves that makes Suzy and Sam’s stand out so vibrantly. In one brilliant scene, storm just beginning, “counselor” and “counselor” lay in separate beds and discuss cases with cold tones, eyes to the ceiling, walls blue.

Throughout the film we see adults longing for the simplicity of childhood, more lost and confused that the driven youth that surround them. With incredibly strong performances by so many reputable actors, adults blunder through love as Suzy and Sam march with certainty and determination, and Wes Anderson uses these supposed role models to remind the audience of obstacles love so frequently faces. Another pivotal moment is framed by the roar of Bill Murray’s father character as he wretches the flimsy (yellow) tent of our protagonists, reminding us of what they have to overcome, of the Romeo-and-Juliet nature of their relationship that it so frequently faces. Yet another is in the bathroom (walls blue) where the mother bathes the daughter she struggles to understand. All of these scenes display love at its worst, love at its most complicated and confusing. In the bathtub Suzy declares of Sam “We want to be together. What’s so wrong with that?” and it is Laura Bishop’s complicated and incredibly strong love for her daughter that forced Suzy to ask.

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Right before the film closes the viewer is gifted with another shot of that yellow room, the lighting altered slightly so that yellow walls aren’t quite as yellow. Perhaps the whole ordeal has slightly dampened the whimsy, changing perspectives on love a tinge towards the darker side. After all, with a biblical air, the island has flooded, a storm roared. It may be over—the crops may be better than ever—but that is not to say that things haven’t changed. The kitten has grown to a cat, and the impulsive gorgeous beginning love has lessened ever so slightly. But it isn’t gone. Suzy’s dress is as yellow as the walls ever were, and that struck-by-lightning, flash-flood feeling--the sort that makes people fly coops and jump without looking down--that remains.

I walked away from the theater longing to re-watch every film Wes Anderson had ever created, find my own moonrise kingdom, and paint the walls of my room yellow.

2018 Tarkovsky Award Honorable Mention: Una Lomax-Emrick

Una Lomax-Emrick (17, Urban High School)
Fall Apart, Make a Mess: What Frances Ha Teaches Us About Creativity

The New York Times describes Frances from Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s film Frances Ha as both a “plausible and ridiculous” dancer. She is not particularly graceful and initially lacks the drive to complete her projects, but her commitment to the art of discovery and creation renders her an artist. (Aren’t most art endeavors and most artists considered “plausible and ridiculous” in U.S. culture?) Frances’ artistic pursuits, however disputed, give the observer insight into her off-kilter reality where she leaps through crosswalks and play-fights in the park all the while struggling to create and evolve. Frances Ha describes the cyclical process of an artist’s self-definition and discovery through “messiness,” and the film asserts its absolute necessity in the creative process.

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The first part of film introduces viewers to Frances as a charming, awkward, and off-kilter twenty something who aspires to be a modern dancer, but is rarely seen practicing her art form. As the story opens, Frances momentarily tap dances and play fights with her best friend Sophie and later falls asleep in her lap as they ride home on the subway. Frances’ reality is by no means orderly, but it is, instead, the romanticized version of an artist’s life in New York. “Tell me the story of us,” Frances commands from her black and white bedroom. She breaks up with her boyfriend and immediately heads to China Town, head abuzz with new men and new sights. She has no plans other than the promise of Sophie and their crafted story: Frances will become a groundbreaking modern dancer and Sophie, an important publisher. These scenes, awash in the glow of New York City creativity exhibit everything except art in practice; Frances dances in a handful of scenes, but lacks the fervor and drive her art demands.

Frances Ha’s position as a young artist makes her lack of organization and therefore career opportunities more uneven because she is not expected or permitted to be messy by the larger world she lives in. Through side shots and indirect angles, Frances is turned away by Sophie who has moved into the glamorous Tribeca area, and later, is not asked to join the dance company she works for. Frances insists her room is dirty because she is busy but spends her days on the couch while her glamorous friends fly to Tokyo or pretend to write for Saturday Night Live while living off of their trust funds. Such luxuries are not afforded Frances. Later while crashing in a co-worker’s apartment, Frances awkwardly asks for the keys to an acquaintance’s apartment in France and spends a single weekend there buying things off of her credit card and sleeping all day. The traditional version of an artist in Paris does not apply here; Frances is messy: jet lagged and alone, the art galleries are closed, and she still is not dancing. She has no center and no money and still is calling her creative friends and hailing the French sky. Her life is awash in the process of creation but lacks the practice and drive to be wholly anything, artistic or otherwise.

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Frances Ha is groundbreaking because it portrays a woman as messy and unfinished without chastising her. As the film draws to a close, Frances is living at her old college and working with undergrads, and the part of her life is funny and embarrassing, but honest and temporary. This film gives us the sense that the artistic process does not come easily and through Frances’ uncomfortable employment “failures” we begin to see her future. After an unsatisfactory summer living in a dorm room at her alma mater, clothes scattered on the floor and phone calls from her best friend missed, Frances’ life slowly starts to take dynamic shape. She begins a mundane day-job as a receptionist and is able to afford rent for her own apartment, all the while choreographing her own dance show. Finally, Frances can be seen in what she believes is her element: movement. She is doing what she set out to do and through the creation of a dance show, she is living out her earlier declaration: “Sometimes it’s good to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.” Her dance show is experimental and seems odd, very modern, and undoubtedly messy, but from that messiness, Frances’ talent is finally on display and is exciting to see.  

Frances Ha’s storyline is riddled with France’s failures and triumphs. She is turned down from a dance company, only to form her new one in the end. Her living situation is always in flux and she bounces from apartment to apartment until finally finding a place to create and reinvent herself. Frances’ dancing goes from sporadic to constant as the film progresses and she becomes even more focused on her dream of being a successful modern dancer. Through Frances’ path to self-discovery, the viewer is taught that the process of becoming an artist, finding one’s voice, or taking pride in a creation comes from failure, rejection, vulnerability, and loss. Frances must be messy in order to create. She must learn from credit card debt and sitting on the couch. She must be denied access to dance companies, to her best friends, to housing, and to opportunities so she can make her own way as a creative being. Frances tells us that the pursuit of art makes everything messy so that it, like the final dance of the film, can fall together in the end.

2018 Tarkovsky Award 3rd Place: Hannah Duane

Hannah Duane (14, Ruth Asawa School of the Arts)
Bergman’s Persona

Persona, a psychological drama, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, follows two women, Elisabet and Alma, in their stay on a remote island. The film was released in 1966 and was shot in black and white.

The plot opens with Elisabet’s sudden decision to stop speaking and moving, which doctors have deduced is not the result of anything being medically wrong with her, and rather the result of her willpower. Alma is hired to be her nurse, and it is decided that the two should spend some time in the summer home of Elisabet’s doctor. With Elisabet’s silence, Alma finds herself talking almost non-stop, sharing profoundly personal truths. As the spend more time together, Alma begins to find it difficult to distinguish herself from her patient. Bergman uses imagery, plays with themes of identity and vampirism, as well as both subtle and explicit dialogue to create a textured and captivating film.

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    The film opens with many images, among them a crucifixion, a spider and the killing of a lamb, and two figures in clown-like clothing playing a bed. Though these images are hard to relate immediately to the plot of the film, they set the eerie and surreal mood. This series is concluded by a young boy awakening in a hospital or morgue, with an enormous projection of the blurry face of a woman who may be Alma. These cold scenes bookend the film, perhaps symbolizing the disconnect between the characters and their psyche, as the images all reflect aspects of personality.

    Bergman shows the audience the characters’ increased closeness with a number of images climaxing in a long scene in which their faces are put together. Early in the film, Alma is asleep, and Elisabet enters her room and wanders the halls in a flowing white nightgown. She appears ethereal, ghostly. The shot then jumps to the two of them standing in a line, in an unreal and sexually charged dance-like sequence in which Elisabet guides Alma’s head in a circle near Elisabet’s face. In the morning, Elisabet claims not to have been in Alma’s room in the night. Then, in one of the climaxes of the film, Alma delivers an accusatory monologue in which she speaks from Elisabet’s point of view about Elisabet’s qualms in becoming a mother. We see this monologue twice, once from Alma’s perspective and once from Elisabet’s. By hearing the auditory and emotionally charged passage twice, the power and eeriness is multiplied. At the conclusion of the scene, one half of Elisabet’s face is placed next to the other half of Alma’s, creating one person. This images causes the viewer to question if there really are two women, or if they are two sides of the same person.

    If we take Elisabet and Alma to be one person, this leaves the question of who she is. Alma admiring an actress she loves? Elisabet in her descent into madness exploring the talkative and impulsive part of herself? Elisabet’s son attempting to discern who his mother is? Bergman gives the viewer few details to suggest who this woman is, while littering the film with the suggestion that only one woman exists. Though two women are seen arriving on the island, only one leaves, and it is unclear which one. In earlier versions of the film, it is said Bergman made it clear who left, however both options were done, leaving the truth ambiguous. The plot of the film only occurs because of Elisabet’s sudden disconnect from reality, so it is also possible that Alma is a part of Elisabet she was attempting to leave behind by not talking. However, one of the foci of the film is Alma going crazy as she has no one to talk to. Alma comes to loath Elisabet, breaking a glass and watching as she steps on a large shard and screaming at her, while also being dependent on Elisabet as a confidant, friend, and life purpose. Alma needs Elisabet to have meaning, to have someone to take care of.

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    Persona also alludes to vampirism. Elisabet is seen drinking Alma’s blood—another suggestion that they may be one person, or of the same blood. This image mirrors one in the opening sequence—a spider and a sacrificial lamb. However, the details and feelings of the characters around this incident are artfully obfuscated. While Elisabet drinks Alma’s blood, Alma’s hand in clasped in Elisabet’s hair, but it is unclear whether the hand is pushing Elisabet towards her arm or attempting to pull her away. The incident is never brought up again.

    Elisabet only speaks twice, while Alma talks incessantly. The first is to beg Alma not to throw boiling water at her after they fight. This scene shows Elisabet’s vulnerability which she has attempted to rid herself of. On the second occasion, Elisabet says “nothing,” at Alma’s pleading. Alma curses Elisabet, telling her she is being evil by refusing to converse with Alma, and finally Elisabet gives in, muttering “nothing” as Alma begs her to repeat the word. Though Elisabet barely speaks, her expressive acting gives the viewer a well rounded view of who she is. Alma’s motivations remain clouded because it is unclear what matters to her. She is tangential and scattered, juxtaposing Elisabet’s composed and controlled personality.

    It is no wonder Bergman’s films are used as a symbol for constantly internalizing, repressed WASP. Bergman’s characters reveal exactly what they want you to know, until they break from the stress of holding everything in. I found it absolutely enchanting and thought provoking, as each scene introduced or built on symbols, ideas and theories of what it means to be human. Though simple on the surface, this film deals with the core aspects of personality and relationships. Elisabet and Alma are constantly struggling for power, and attempting to control aspects of themselves.

2018 Tarkovsky Award 2nd Place: Nicholas Buckwalter

Nicholas Buckwalter (16, Berkeley High School)
The Beauty of Sadness in Kieslowski's BLUE

While a good film draws the viewer into the emotions of the characters, a great film helps the viewer explore his or her own emotions in new and deeper ways. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blue” does exactly this. “Blue” is the first film in Kieslowski’s “Three Colors Trilogy” and possibly the most influential. The film centers around a woman’s response when tragedy overtakes her life. The protagonist, Julie, is overcome with sorrow and depression after her husband and daughter die in a car accident. She responds first by attempting suicide, then by erasing her old life, moving to Paris, and selling all the belongings attached to her now-deceased family.  While the plot is straightforward, the characters are complex, the imagery is profound, and the execution is skillful and precise.

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The film, which takes place primarily from the point of view of a sorrow-filled protagonist, struck a chord with me because I personally have struggled with depression. While I drew comfort from relating to Julie’s feelings and perspective (despite our very different circumstances), “Blue” ultimately helped me understand my own emotions in a different and deeper way.

Juliette Binoche’s masterful performance and Kieslowski’s skilled direction work together to pull the viewer into a world of depression and sadness that lingers even after the film closes. Binoche perfectly embodies the depressive state of mind. Her stare penetrates deep into the viewer’s darkest places. Through small details like Julie’s fixation on the sugar cube in her coffee or her obsession with the blue chandelier in her neighbor’s apartment, Kieslowski demonstrates her focus on her inward world and the isolation that engenders.

The visual aspects of the film—cinematography, lighting, setting—are also central to its power. Blue light shines and drips around the protagonist, evoking the haunting past she cannot escape. Many images in the film seem to convey a message in and of themselves. The exquisite composition of the shots and settings reveals that sadness itself can be beautiful.  Images like the blue-lit swimming pool or the glistening chandelier drip from the screen, creating a powerful visual atmosphere. Many of the shots are so perfectly composed that they could stand alone as paintings.

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Music also plays a critical role in “Blue”. Julie’s husband, a composer, leaves her with an unfinished composition which plays throughout the film in revealing ways. In one scene, as Julie stares at her late husband’s piano, the composition plays in the background. When Julie shuts the piano, the music abruptly stops playing. While this is not inherently logical, it perfectly fits the dramatic tone of the scene and demonstrates Kieslowski's directorial genius. This same composition plays throughout the film in different ways, haunting the protagonist and the viewer alike. The music serves as a reminder of the past that Julie cannot erase. In the film’s closing scene, the composition plays in full for the first time, offering an auditory sense of closure even as visual images of the people who have affected Julie throughout her life flash by.

The multiple facets of Julie’s character play out through her various relationships, most powerfully in her interactions with her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. In one sense, Julie’s mother represents liberty in its purest form, free from all form of human connection, memory and thought. As Julie sees this, she comes up against the furthest extreme to which isolation can take you, and is forced to question just how far a person can take the quest for freedom and still remain human.

By contrast, when the stubbornly independent Julie calls her neighbor Lucille in tears asking for help, we see Julie’s more vulnerable side—the part of her that is still open to connection.  Julie’s romantic interest, Olivier, initially helps to reveal Julie’s deep sense of isolation after they spend a night together and she promptly makes him leave. Her later acceptance of Olivier and entrance into a relationship with him reveals her newfound hope in life.

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While the various technical aspects of “Blue” contribute to its greatness, the authenticity of the characters, relationships and themes left the deepest impression on me. I have often struggled with depressive thoughts. As I entered adolescence, they have grown more frequent, and I often find myself fixated on the negative aspects of life. Sometimes I feel like the blue light that haunts Julie follows me around in my life as well.

Both visually and thematically, “Blue” reveals the unexpected beauty in sadness. The artistry with which Kieslowski renders this complex emotional state helped me understand my own darker aspects in a new way—not as a failure to be overcome or hidden but as a necessary, if difficult, part of being human.

2018 Tarkovsky Award Winner: Sebastian Kaplan

Sebastian Kaplan (14, Lowell High School)
References & Religion in THERE WILL BE BLOOD

With the release of Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s mature, classy and contained new film I have had a Paul Thomas Anderson renaissance in the living room. For the last few weeks I have been actively watching/reading about the director along with watching all eight of his films. For me, the one film that truly stands out (besides Inherent Vice) would have to be his 2008 film There Will Be Blood, a straightforward (at face value) haunting epic, sun dried-western that tells the tale of Daniel Plainview, a silver prospector who, as he puts it himself in the first dialogue spoken, is an Oil Man (similar to John Wayne’s cattle speech in Red River). Having just made the ditzy and critically acclaimed Punch Drunk Love in 2002 it seems Anderson was dead-set on creating something completely different, a mixture between horror and western. It certainly contains both, but There Will Be Blood is a straightforward, bare bones story of the foundations of American capitalism and business ethics that conjures up images from films like Days Of Heaven to The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre.

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To discuss the opening of the film, I’ll hand it off to Anderson himself to describe it as he does in the screenplay:

“OVER EXTERIOR SHOT OF HUGE MOUNTAINS IN THE B.G, PURE DESERT IN F.G. MUSIC BUILDS FROM SMALL TO LOUD, VIOLENT CRESCENDO, THEN OUT.”

This is taken from the first slug line in his screenplay and watching it on a screen it’s almost identical. This isn’t to say that everything he puts on the page ends up on the screen (*cough *cough The Master) but Anderson was most definitely inspired by films like The Shining which opens similarly. I take that back, to say they open similarly is an understatement.

These two films, There Will Be Blood and The Shining share more than a few things in common. First, the dynamic between father and son, Daniel Plainview and H.W in There Will Be Blood and Jack and Danny Torrance in The Shining. Both Daniel and Jack try to destroy their sons at the end of the film for, essentially becoming threats to their job, for Daniel H.W decides to become an Oil prospector in New Mexico, creating a new business threat to Daniel, and for Jack, Danny becomes a threat to his caretaking job at The Overlook Hotel. What is more interesting is that Eli Sunday, the young, god embracing, evangelist showman of a prophet, and antagonist of There Will Be Blood, who Daniel despises and sees through- becomes Daniel’s own stepson as H.W marries Eli’s younger sister.

The second similarity between the two films is the music, in There Will Be Blood by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, and in The Shining’ a compilation of music from Wendy Carlos, Béla Bartok and Krzysztof Penderecki. While I feel Penderecki is the most prominent influence on the music of There Will Be Blood, there is an argument to be made that Carlos’s droning synth do appear in the strings in some scenes of There Will Be Blood. Penderecki seems to echo eerily during static shots or slow zooms or dollys of the wilderness during both films. Those well compositioned wide open landscapes of either the desert or the snowy mountains of Colorado seem to act as entrapment for our characters and the music reflects that. Seemingly nothing scary or shocking will be happening on screen but the music tells us something different, filled with violent crescendos and scraping strings. This creates a layer of unpredictability in the films, as the juxtaposition of seemingly peaceful, un-threatening images are contrasted with terrifying music.

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Both films also use sound in an interesting way. When the Oil bursts from the well and tosses H.W. to a ledge the sound goes out, similarly to The Shining when blood pours from the elevator, consuming the furniture before cutting away. Sound is also used when Daniel tries to speak with H.W. after the accident, we cannot hear anything being said as we look up at an oily Daniel mouthing words while the well catches fire behind him. This is similar to a scene in The Shining when Danny can hear Jack fighting with his mother. The shot occurs midway through the movie, slowly dollying in on Danny as he uses The Shine to hear a conversation he should not hear. Other themes present are of the power of fathers. In The Shining Jack holds power as a male force, his family is trapped with him. In There Will Be Blood Daniel holds power in his wealth as an oil pioneer.

The Shining is also not the only Kubrick film with commonalities with There Will Be Blood, Kubrick’s 1962 Lolita, though seeming to have more in common with Phantom Thread, shares some similarities, specifically in the final scene of There Will Be Blood. Here Eli attempts to wake Daniel up by saying the room is on fire, just like in the Hotel Room, Lolita wakes Humbert up by saying that the room is on fire.

No doubt that Anderson is a film aficionado who consumes art in order to process it and then use and adapt it into his own work, but another striking similarity comes between this film and The Treasure of The Sierra Madre, specifically in o ne of the opening shots of Plainview digging for silver. This shot identically recreates a shot of Dobbs mining for gold. This shot helps establish Daniels ethic in the film. He is hardworking and relentless. Light shines in from the top of the mine shaft as he continuously pounds his pick into the rock. The next sequence illustrates without words Daniels character; Daniel finds the clear, tracing, glistening vein of a silver ore chamber. He shoves some dynamite into the shaft, lights it. He exits the shaft in time but his plight comes as he enters into the shaft. While Daniel is somewhere between passing out and tripping a rung snaps, sending Daniel to the bottom of the shaft. He awakens and looks up to the light, he pulls himself out all in camera and proceeds to drag himself, one inch at a time through the sweltering open desert. This sequence shows, without words how determined Daniel is at success. He is willing to nearly die for his success. As much of a bastard that this man proves himself to be, that courage of being able to drag himself by his elbows through the roughest terrain gives him the heroic right for almost everything that he does. He went through hell to get this fortune and he’s not going to just let it go away

Other similarities include Terence Malicks 1973  Days Of Heaven, specifically in Nestor Almendros’s handling of the American West. One scene that stands out is the cricket swarm/fire scene in  Days Of Heaven that seems to have connection to the Oil fire in  There Will Be Blood in which H.W loses his hearing. These two films handle the scenes very differently though. In Days Of Heaven the camera work is wild and adjusting compositions on the fly, while Robert Elswit in There Will Be Blood  uses slow pans and static silhouettes. The fire in There Will Be Blood is more contained and has hope because, as Daniel puts it “a whole ocean of oil under our feet”. While in Days Of Heaven the fire is a nightmare that leads to the end of hope for most of the characters, the camera work by Almendros and Elswit reflect this.

This seems to help segue into the next topic, Eli Sunday and religion. Let’s take a look at a shot that visually conveys their relationship in terms of the film. The shot suggests they are no doubt on opposite sides. They are arch rivals cut from the same cloth, all you will need to show this is two shots. One tracking into a character (Daniel Plainview) mumbling to himself while bathed in light. Another, tracking out from a character mumbling to himself covered in shadow. A visual trope evident in this film is longer takes lead to impactful cuts lead to attention to framing.

Eli’s promises of salvation and cure to those who are ill are prominent throughout the film from the first time we see him give a sermon, supposedly curing an old woman with arthritis, until the very last scene in which he is forced to denounce himself by Daniel. From the start Daniel sees no need for Eli, treating him like a child both physically and mentally, only cooperating with Eli to get what he wants weather it be the Sunday ranch or the pipeline, etc. He only puts up with Eli to get what he wants. Daniel doesn’t see Eli as a threat, but more of an annoyance. The audience, however can see Eli as a reflection of Daniel, another wordsmith and god assigned figure, who uses words to manipulate and show power over the people around him. Daniel means in hebrew judgement of god”. Daniel sees himself like a god among men, especially with the citizens of Little Boston, he even refers to himself as the third revelation in the final scene with Eli, somewhere between mocking Eli and believing he in fact is the third revelation.

Daniel also says he believes in “plain speaking”, backed up by his last name, but in fact he sees his words as gospel, using his words and ability to speak as means of manipulating and securing land for drilling. Daniel instantly sees through and despises Eli because Daniel’s voice is his source of power. He sees in Eli the same power of words. But the last straw comes when Eli cannot help H.W. One of Daniels best insults to Eli comes at the end of a sermon when Daniel says to him “well, that was one Goddamn helluva show”. If saying “goddamn” and “hell” isn’t enough Daniel calls it a show. He does this because he knows exactly what’s going on, Eli’s promises are empty and fake. This is shown when Eli cannot help Daniel with H.W’s hearing. We could believe Eli is a prophet until H.W. loses his hearing and Eli, of course, cannot use his magic powers to heal him.

Before this Daniel had also disrespected and insulted Eli by not letting Eli bless the well. Daniel does this because Eli tries to put words into Daniel’s mouth, telling Daniel exactly how to introduce Eli and what he will do. Daniel, seeing himself as god, does not like being told what to do, further evidenced by a scene where fellow oil businessman H.M Tilford makes one too many comments about how Daniel should run his family during an oil discussion and so Daniel threatens to cut his throat. Very abruptly Daniel leaves and then later brags about his deal with Standard Oil to Tilford in a later scene, at this point I might add, “lost” in terms of his family. In the first scene with Tilford, Daniel has (what he thinks is) his brother with him plus a hearing H.W, but when Daniel has what he wants in terms of business (the Standard Oil deal) he doesn’t have much of a family that he is happy with, just his deaf son H.W.

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Later, all of his conflict with Eli adds up making for sweet revenge when Daniel has to become baptized and confess his sins for the sake of the pipeline. Daniel goes along with Eli’s show of a baptism until Eli asks him to admit to abandoning his child. This is shown by Daniels compliance with repeating phrases like “I will never backslide” or “I am a sinner!”, but when asked to say that he’s abandoned his child Daniel gives a long look to Eli, the shot HOLDS for some time before Eli says, in a ghastly voice “saaaayyyy ittttt, sayyyyitttt....”. This line is difficult for Daniel because it’s a hard truth. It’s something Daniel does not want to admit and the fact that it’s coming from Eli doesn't help.

One moment that stands out after the baptism is when Daniel shakes Eli’s hand, leans in and whispers something into Eli’s ear, leaving Eli with a stunned expression on his face as the piano and choir sing “Would you be free from the burden of sin” . This is reminiscent of the beginning of the film when Daniel uses the same posture and handshake when he tells Paul, Eli’s brother, that he will take back more than his money if he finds he is being lied to. Now weather Daniel whispered “I’m going to bash your head in with a bowling pin”, one can only imagine the threat of violence Daniel has left Eli with as he walks back down from the stage.

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The final scene in the movie shares some similarities and reversals of power. Daniel was embarrassed and slapped in the church and Eli is embarrassed and even killed in the bowling alley. Daniel has disowned both of his “sons” by the end of the film, telling H.W. he was nothing more than face to buy land with, and killing Eli, neither of them are connected to him by blood. This conjures up further connections to Christ as Christ left no bloodline. Another connection to Christ through Daniel is the final line of dialogue, “I’m Finished”. This refers to a few things, the quest for oil is over, the battle with Eli is over, his family is over and perhaps now god is judging him as he grows ill and closer to death. The direct connection to Christ comes from John 19:30 , the second to last of the seven words of Jesus on the cross, “When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished;" and he bowed his head and handed over the spirit." In the movie Daniel says “I’m finished” and seemingly gives the film permission to finish. As the strings of Brahms Violin Concerto in D major kick in Daniel does a take back before bowing his head, as Jesus does. In Jesus’s case the phrase carries a sense of accomplishment, and it very well could for Daniel Plainview too.

Paul Thomas Anderson has an incredibly diverse, original, and thought provoking body of work. As one of the true auteur directors out there P.T Anderson gives fans of cinema some of the most intriguing contemporary films to dissect, discuss and write essays on. Though I love the kinetic, lavish, Goodfellas version of the porn Industry that is Boogie NightsHard Eight is always a movie you can watch and be sucked into, and The Master grows on me every time I see it. I think There Will Be Blood will hold up as his masterpiece. In 20-30 years this will still hold up as one of his best, if not his best film. This movie garnered 8 Academy Award nominations and will no doubt hold up in cinema history. It’s crazy to think the 20 year old who made the low budget Cigarettes And Coffee went on to make this epic piece of American art and I wonder how I will see the film differently at the next Cine Club screening.