Wednesday, June 24, 2009

" Interview With The Vampire " and Evolution in the Horror Film Genre

The rules and expectations within film genres are like a language with evolving rules of grammar; its evolution is a give and take between filmmaker and audience, guided by cultural changes as well as technological advances. For a film genre to survive it must communicate, remain relevant, and in the process of creation and viewing it must engage both filmmaker and audience. A successful film genre must constantly reinvent itself and change with the times.
The vampire film genre has held audiences in its spell almost since the beginning of film history. The 1922 German film "Nosferatu," directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau featured a supernatural vampire, an unlicensed version of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" (whose estate sued and won), and the Dracula character appeared again in Universal's "Dracula" of 1931 (featuring Bela Lugosi). However, the vampires in both films are quite different. "Nosferatu" presented the hideous creature of European folklore, while Lugosi's vampire was a more alluring character with a sexual appeal. These differing representations of vampires subsequently reappeared throughout the genre's history, presenting many interpretations of the character from mindless zombie to captivating siren.
Changing with the times, vampire films have somewhat left the larger classification of the horror film genre. For the most part, horror films have retained their focus on the victim. Whatever monster might be present is an evil to be avoided and its exploits are the thing to be feared. But in the vampire film genre our monsters have become beings with feelings, sometimes we are sympathetic of their blood-sucking fates and often the vampire has actually become the protagonist in these films. We may feel a passing regret for Freddy Krueger's ("Nightmare on Elm Street") fate, yet he remains the monster. Jason may briefly tug our sympathy strings in "Friday the 13th" but again, he is an evil to be overcome. On the other hand, in Anne Rice's "Interview With the Vampire," the vampire Louis is sensitive and thoughtful.
Louis says, “It was only when I became a vampire that I respected for the first time all of life. I never saw a living, pulsing human being until I was a vampire. I never knew what life was until it ran out in a red gush over my lips, my hands!” He is a Byronic hero who has transcended the demonic vampire of Hollywood and revisited the Romantic movement and 19th century Gothic fiction. Flawed yet enchanting, Louis has the brooding sexuality of Heathcliff from Emily Brontë's "Wuthering Heights" (1847) and the rough-edged charisma of Rochester from Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" (1847). He is Erik, the Phantom from Gaston Leroux's "Phantom of the Opera" and Claude Frollo from Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Louis' partner and counterpart Lestat de Lioncourt embodies the Byronic spirit as well.
Like the vampire novel, vampire films have become character driven, growing from pulp fiction into literature. These films have created a film language of their own, moving from a fascination with blood and death to an exploration of the soul and life.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Howard Hawks and Auteur Theory in Film Criticism

Auteur theory is often associated with the French film review periodical "Cahiers du cinéma" and has carried a major impact on film criticism since it was advocated by film director and film critic François Truffaut in 1954. Simplified, Auteur theory explores a director's influences on a film, considering the director one of the film's authors. Of course, in European Union law the film director is always considered an author of the film but this doesn't usually hold true in Hollywood.
Since auteur theory was never summarized in a collective statement, its use could be broadly interpreted. Truffaut and those who wrote for Cahiers expected directors to wield the camera like a writer's pen (Alexandre Astruc's notion of the caméra-stylo or "camera-pen"), superimposing the director's vision on the film through the mise en scène, therefore diminishing the screenwriter's role. Filmmakers such as Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renior were considered prime examples of "auteurs" of their films.
The director's contribution did not need to be consciously made and according to Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, "the defining characteristics of an author's work are not necessarily those which are most readily apparent. The purpose of criticism thus becomes to uncover behind the superficial contrasts of subject and treatment a hard core of basic and often recondite motifs. The pattern formed by these motifs . . . is what gives an author's work its particular structure, both defining it internally and distinguishing one body of work from another." Because of its scope, depth, and the length of his tenure in Hollywood the work of director Howard Hawks is seen as a test case for auteur theory.
One defining characteristic of Hawks' work is the use of an exclusive, self-sufficient, all-male group who is often isolated physically or emotionally from society. Men are accepted into this elite group only after a period of testing where they must prove how "good" they are at whatever job the group is responsible for. Women are generally seen as a threatening force and are only admitted to the group after a long ritual courtship, and even then are never really considered full members. An undercurrent of homosexuality never fully surfaces, but does occasionally run close to the surface. Often men in the group have either been married or committed to women, but suffered some unnamed trauma at their hands. Men in the group are usually considered equals, but women are clearly associated with animals (most explicitly in "Bringing Up Baby," "Gentlemen Prefer Blonds," and "Hatari!"); the men in the group must strive to maintain mastery.
Because of the collaborative aspect of making a film, auteur theory began receiving criticism in the 1960s. The New Criticism school of literary criticism called auteur theory's speculations about what the author meant, based on the author's personality and life experiences, an intentional fallacy. New Critics believed the author's intention was secondary to the experience of reading or viewing literature.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Alfred Hitchcock ' s " Rear Window " and a Life in the Shadows

In "The Art of Fiction," John Gardner talks about the "fictional dream," the movie running in our minds as we read the words of a story. This can be a precarious process and many of its elements depend on the ability and attitude of the reader. The reader must be carefully guided by a narrator, often a character within the story or a reliable witness to the action.
Film allows its audience to take a more passive role in understanding the story. Cinematic narration relays its story through visual cues which may compact a greater amount of information in a shorter time. While written and cinematic narration both convey description and viewpoint, the old saying holds true and "a picture is worth a thousand words."
The 1942 short story “It Had to Be Murder" by Cornell Woolrich, the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's film "Rear Window," echoes the sense of doom and personal impotence found in much of Woolrich’s fiction. Because of his homosexuality, Woolrich must have understood the dichotomy of walking between the shadows and the light. Francis Nevins called Woolrich “the Poe of the 20th century and the poet of its shadows, the Hitchcock of the written word” (Francis M. Nevins. “Tonight, Somewhere in New York”. Carroll & Graf, New York, 2005. p. 1). In this story, his hero suffers from a broken leg and is relegated to the status of "peeping Tom." As an invalid he must depend upon the actions of others to impact his surroundings, and if he is not believed or at least taken seriously he cannot effect change. When his suspicious neighbor confronts him in his own apartment, the hero is unable to defend himself and must be rescued.
Woolrich's fiction seems to echo or parallel his own life experience. This fragment was found in Woolrich’s papers after his death in 1968:
“I was only trying to cheat death. I was only trying to surmount for a while the darkness that all my life I surely knew was going to come rolling in on me one day and obliterate me. I was only trying to stay alive a brief while longer, after I was already gone. To stay in the light, to be with the living, a little while past my time.” (”Blues of a Lifetime. The Autobiography of Cornell Woolrich.” ed. Mark T. Bassett. Bowling Green State University Popular Press. Bowling Green, 1991. p. 152).

"Rear Window" is considered by many to be one of director Alfred Hitchcock's best and most thrilling films. We see how the hero (photographer L. B. "Jeff" Jeffries, played by James Stewart) not only is separated from his neighbors by a courtyard, window blinds, and a broken leg, but also how he must depend on binoculars to bring the world in closer and other people to interact with it. We can see his sympathy for Ms. Lonely Hearts and understand how he must relate to her lonely plight, and wonder why he avoids the topic of marriage with his beautiful girlfriend (Lisa Fremont, played by Grace Kelly). Even Jeffries' profession reminds us of someone attempting to connect with reality through a camera lens. Ultimately, we understand how we all can be limited in some way and relate to a feeling of personal ineffectiveness.
Critic Bosley Crowther of The New York Times remarked:
Mr. Hitchcock's film is not "significant." What it has to say about people and human nature is superficial and glib. But it does expose many facets of the loneliness of city life and it tacitly demonstrates the impulse of morbid curiosity. The purpose of it is sensation, and that it generally provides in the colorfulness of its detail and in the flood of menace toward the end.

Perhaps Hollywood felt content with merely producing another thriller and wasn't quite ready to explore the original story's particular brand of shadows. The film received four Academy Award nominations: Best Director for Alfred Hitchcock, Best Screenplay for John Michael Hayes, Best Cinematography, Color for Robert Burks, Best Sound Recording for Loren L. Ryder, Paramount Pictures. John Michael Hayes won a 1955 Edgar Award for best motion picture.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Film Truth and Dziga Vertov ' s " Man With a Movie Camera "

Primarily in the 1920's, filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov experimented with a theory called kino pravda, or "film truth." Perhaps even more of a montage than what was produced by Pudovkin and discussed by Eisenstein, kino pravda set out to capture fragments of reality and combine them to reveal a deeper truth, one not readily visible to the naked eye. This truth would be one accessible only through the eye of the camera.
Vertov called fiction film a new "opiate for the masses" and belonged to a movement known as kiniks (or kinokis) who hoped to abolish non-documentary film-making. His "Man With a Movie Camera" was Vertov's response to critics who rejected his earlier "One-Sixth Part of the World." Because of its experimental nature, Vertov worried this later film would be ignored or destroyed, hence the film's opening statement:
"The film Man with a Movie Camera represents
Of visual phenomena
(a film without intertitles)
(a film without script)
(a film without actors, without sets, etc.)
This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature."

Despite Vertov's claims that filming could capture reality without intruding, cameras of the day were large, loud, and could not be hidden easily. To be truly hidden, Vertov and his brother Mikhail Kaufman attempted to distract their subjects with something else, something louder than the camera. So even if the camera itself was not imposing itself on the scene, the necessary distraction would alter the "truth" to some extent. Therefore, "film truth" could not technically be a reality during Vertov's time as a filmmaker.
Much like Vertov's earlier "Kino-Pravda" series, 23 short documentaries created over a period of three years, "Man With a Movie Camera" contains a propagandist element. Vertov wished to create a futuristic city following the Marxist ideal, an industrialized city built on the back of workers and their hard labor. Much of the film's style seems to borrow from the earlier "Berlin: Symphony of a Great City" by Walter Ruttman. However, these stylistic choices do seem to create a symbolic language which is generally effective.
While "Man With a Movie Camera" may not fully realize the goal it sought to portray, a "truth in film," it may have inadvertently produced a true statement of the era which produced it. The film contains an optimism, idealism and naivety representative of its place in history.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Eisenstein and the Dialectic Theory of Film

At its core, a dialectic is simply a conflict. But Soviet filmmakers, especially Sergei Eisenstein, elevated these conflicts to an art form and their dialectic theory of film has made a substantial impact on cinematic visual aesthetics. Eisenstein used a juxtaposition of conflicting images to create a montage, believing the effect could bring about consequential social change. Unfortunately, films built on this technique, such as his Battleship Potemkin (1925), now come across gimmicky and in some cases laughable.
However, the dialectic theory of film has not left us. The dialectic has been proven itself an effective way to condense an argument and persuade the audience, sometimes in less than 30 seconds. You can readily find any number of examples by flipping through a few television channels, watching a few commercials. The conflict may be presented through colliding words, colliding images, or both.
MAN: So are you trying to watch your weight?
WOMAN: No, why?
MAN: Nothing, it’s just the Cheerios box. It says it’s low in fat.
WOMAN: Does it look like I need to watch my weight?
MAN: No, no, no, no. It’s just the box. It says there are only 110 calories per serving.
WOMAN: There are other reasons why I like it.
MAN: I know. It’s just the box. It says it’s made from five whole grains. That’s good, right?
WOMAN: What else does the box say?
MAN: The box says, “Shut up, Steve.”

But herein lies the at least part of the reason this technique has fallen out of favor in film today. Dialectics are by their very nature manipulative and unnatural. It is difficult to witness use of this technique without feeling on some level you are being "sold" something.
In the famous "Odessa Steps" sequence of Battleship Potemkin we are exposed to a montage of images calculated to bring about an emotional response. In one part of the sequence, a woman with a baby carriage is shot and not only does her death leave the child unattended, but even the fall of her body pushes the carriage down a flight of stairs. She clutches her large belt buckle, a swan (probably a symbol of culture, civilization, beauty), as blood pours slowly over it. Even if the mythological associations of the swan had passed viewers' attentions, the woman's fine clothing would have made them realize she was another middle-class victim of the Cossack assault. Eisenstein knew his audience would associate the Cossacks with their reputation for horsemanship and ruthless military skills, and knowing that,  he capitalized on it.
When an art form is new, its boundaries remain to be defined. The fact Eisenstein believed the addition of sound to film was a passing gimmick seems to show he believed film's boundaries were similar to that of visual art. It would be easy to say Eisenstein lacked an understanding of film art, but how can anyone understand what has not yet been defined? It might also be tempting to say he lacked a vision of what the form could become, but judging from his experimentation and passion for film as a dialectic tool, it might be more accurate to say his vision was merely of something different than what film eventually did become.
Regardless, the modern television commercial owes him a great debt.

Emapathy=Maturity in Zindel's "The Pigman"

In The Pigman , author Paul Zindel follows many expected tropes in young adult literature: coming of age, wild exploration, passion, etc. Ho...