2001: Humanity Lost

“This ironic inversion of man and machine, by diminishing the distance between the two and suggesting that they are therefore perhaps equally viable as evolutionary alternatives, is one of the two essential links between the satiric element of the film and the mythic”

–”Mode and Meaning in 2001” by David Boyd

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film that explores the tension between technology and humanity. The opening sequence shows a pre-man creature learning to use tools, and thus beginning the ongoing dialogue between man and machine, which still occurs today, and is occurring at this very moment as I type these words.

In a way that aligns with Donna Haraway’s “The Cyborg Manifesto”, and Boyd’s quote which prefaces this response, Kubrick presents images and dialogue that positions man as being eclipsed by machines. This recurring image literally shows Bowman’s vision filtered by the lights of a computer:

This is to say that Kubrick’s film explores how humanity, and its progression alongside technology, is a changing and increasingly more rote entity. In other words, the movie shows humanity as less human. This is supported by HAL being the only character to express emotion, saying “I’m afraid”, in contrast to the humans who generally eat alone out of carefully sectioned trays and have utterly mechanic conversations. Boyd agrees with this notion of cyborg-like humans: “The human characters have been reduced to machines… Their conversations, whether unconvincingly hearty or coldly professional, are parodies of human communication.”

The scene that most reinforces the idea of humanity becoming a merely mechanic entity is the one where the 3 astronauts in hibernation die due to a “malfunction”. The sequence is simply a static image of a screen with vital functions being tracked on it. This image is so ominous because of how it reduces life. In this image, life is merely data. It shows a humans as merely a function of “cardio vascular”, “metabolic levels”, “central nerv. system”, “pulmonary function”, “systems integration”, and “locomoter system”.

In this formulation, there is absolutely nothing human about this being– there is no indication of whether this human has a family, friends, or aspirations. In this sense, it is hard to feel any remorse when this person dies, as signified by “LIFE FUNCTIONS TERMINATED” flashing on the screen. This film, and particularly this sequence can be read as a warning to the increasing encroachment of technology in humanity, which, ultimately, leads to inhumanity.

Framing Desire in Lost Highway

I found this blog post particularly difficult because, in many ways, Lost Highway is a film that deliberately eludes straightforward interpretation. While I don’t believe I have anything close to a grasp on the film overall, I do believe that I was able to derive stylistic meaning, with the assistance of the Herzogenrath essay, in a single sequence from the film. This is the sex scene between Fred and Renee early in the film.

I think this scene is integral in the linking of the two separate, yet, intertwined plot lines of Fred and Pete, and also illustrates the psychoanalytic theory Hezogenrath applies to the film in his essay. In terms of Lacanian analysis in this scene, I would, naturally, place Renee as the mother figure in this scene, and, in turn, as the object of desire necessary for fulfilling Fred’s– who is the pre-oedipal baby figure in this scene– need for comfort and wholeness.

The sequence begins with an extended shot of an entirely black scene. Then it dissolves into Fred’s placid face laying on his bed. With the preceding total blackness, it is as if we have exited a womb to enter this scene. Or, it is as if we have left the pre-symbolic real to enter this interpretable image of Fred.

As he lays, with childlike vulnerability on his face he has a flashback to Renee being taken out of the club by another man. As if her visual abandonment of Fred in this flashback is not clear enough, the sequence is punctuated by an “EXIT” sign, which gives a deliberate signification of what is occurring in Renee’s relationship to Fred. This sequence is well elucidated by Herzogenrath saying, “the subject is “castrated” by its entry into the symbolic, into language and society.” This sequence demonstrates a castration of Fred from his object of desire, highlighted by the symbolic.

Fred looks up and sees Renee undressing. He looks at her longingly. As Herzogenrath frames it, “it is necessary for him that the Other, Renee, exactly remains in her position as love-giving, complete Mother, unspoiled by any lack…” Yet, Renee quickly leaves his frame of vision, thereby, slipping away from him again. He watches his object of desire and lust go, and his face changes into one of greater melancholy and dejection.

Before they have sex they lay in bed. There is space between them. Lynch frames close-ups on their faces, switching between them in an original take on shot/reverse shot. This framing of these two characters faces so distinctly separate, visually reinforces the gap between these two humans– a gap, which Fred desperately wishes to fill. Then, a close up of Fred follows him, without a cut, as he moves into Renee’s space. In the technique of the film here, it is as if Fred is attempting to pull Renee into his frame, or, pull her into his world.

They have bizarre, cold sex as Fred tries to reconnect with his fading object of desire. A drone sound emerges. Herzogenrath, with the words of Lacan, comments on the drone sound with this: “With respect to the delusional aspects of psychosis, Lacan comments on ‘this buzzing that people who are hallucinating so often depict … this continuous murmur … is nothing other than the infinity of these minor paths’ (Seminar III 294)”.

Unlike the sex scene between Alice and Pete, this sex scene is devoid of any warmth or passion. Yet there is an important link between the two of these scenes. One will remember the bold stylistic choice of Lynch in the scene between Alice and Pete. He shoots it so that their bodies are unnaturally brightly lit, ostensibly because of the car headlights pointed at them. In the scene between Fred and Renee there is an odd occurrence– seemingly out of nowhere, a harsh bright light illuminates Renee temporarily.

There is no diegetic reason for this lighting choice. I can only think that this light provides a link between these two scenes. In this case, it signifies what Renee does not say in this scene, but her double does say in the latter scene. The light confirms Fred’s underlying anxiety that drives him through this scene. That: “you’ll never have me.”

 

Bringing us into Travis’ World

In this post, I would like to talk about the scene where Travis approaches Betsy to “volunteer for Palantine” and then asks her on a date. I have linked the majority of the scene above. I would like to discuss how Scorsese uses cinematic techniques to visually express Travis’ subjectivity. Scorsese uses his methods to make a sense of unease, anxiety, claustrophobia, and paranoia accompany Travis in this scene.

The scene begins with Tom and Betsy engaging in some workplace banter. The things they talk about are mundane– they discuss Italian thieves and canaries. The manner in which this is filmed reflects the wholesomeness of this conversation. It is very traditional. Scorsese uses static shots, which adds an inherent sense of stability and predictability for the viewer. Furthermore, he employs the classic Hollywood technique of shot/reverse shot, which is a proverbially an uncreative and bland way to deliver a conversation to an audience. (This sharply contrasts the lack of shot/reverse shot in conversations with Travis, which reinforces how isolated and in-his-head Travis is in conversation). This is all necessary and intentional. These techniques and the conversation, reflects the simple American life that Betsy and Tom inhabit. It is the perfect way to frame their “apple-pie” existence.

The techniques used earlier in this scene are used to great effect in the contrast they create with the latter part of the scene. When Travis enters the scene, the camera leaves its static tripod. It becomes handheld and begins to zoom in as Travis walks into Palantine headquarters. This gives the impression of an ominous, omniscient floating conscious observing the scene. There is little about this method of shooting that provides stability in framing. The effect is that viewer begins to feel an anxiety about what is occurring. We are entering Travis’ world and all of the unease and paranoia that accompanies it.

When he walks up to Betsy the camera begins to pan in uncomfortably close. During their conversation, the camera rarely remains static throughout a shot. It is always panning tighter, which traps the characters in a smaller and smaller frame; this provides a sense of claustrophobia to the scene.

There is rarely a use of shot/reverse shot in Travis in Betsy’s conversation, which transmits the discordant nature of their communication.

In this sequence, Scorsese does a masterful job of having style reflect his characters subjectivity. The innocence and purity of Betsy and Tom is mirrored by Scorsese’s conventional use of cinematic tropes. Once Travis enters, his subjective dissonance spills into Scorsese’s camera.

Black Mam(b)a

In this response, I would like to talk about a semiotic point of interest alluded to in class Monday. It was the relationship between “black mamba”–Beatrix’s code name–and “black mama”, which is arrived at when you remove “B”– a nickname of Beatrix– from  the code name. This peculiar relationship embedded in the text of this films reiterates Beatrix’s friction-filled relationship between being a deadly assassin and a mother.

In many ways this relationship encapsulates some of the central issues of the two films (Kill Bill Vol. I and Kill Bill Vol. II)–motherhood and the violence for and against a nuclear family. With this idea of motherhood and the violence surrounding a family alluded to by the “black mamba/mama” fluctuation I want to discuss a character who highlights these issues– Vernita Green.

As Vernita points out, she “should have been black mamba”. To state the obvious, this is because she was the only black member of the DVAS.

Tarentino has never been a director who ignores a characters race, and how that affects their construction in the film. O-ren Ishii is an example of this in the plot point revolving around her Chinese and American heritage. This heritage becomes a source of objection for the Japanese crime bosses, which cause her to cut a man’s head off. Pulp Fiction is another racially conscious Tarantino film, wherein he writes and plays a part that repeatedly bemoans a “dead n–r” being in his garage.

Yet while Vernita’s sequence visually follows in the tradition of Blacksploitation films with its saturated colors, Vernita herself is denied the designation, black mamba, that would verbally identify her with her blackness in the film. Vernita is denied the title “black mamba” and is ultimately denied the ability to be a “black mama”. Instead, Beatrix is the one who is allowed both the title and ostensibly a shot at being a good mama.

One must ask why, in these films concerned about the reunion of family the saga opens with the destruction of perhaps the most stable and optimistic family shown throughout the films.

I would argue Vernita’s assassination is a denial of her hope to construct a happy family. I think it is significant Vernita is a black woman trying to maintain a family in a traditionally white L.A. suburb. The same way this is denied as a reality in many American suburbs, the film as a piece of media and simulacra denies Vernita this chance as well.

Style and Emotional Weight in Kill Bill

“Right out of the gate, you are catapulted into his game—a wholly contained and foreign universe that is at the same time, strangely familiar…This particular story contains only two elements: an avenger and her ‘to do’ list”
-Kill Bill Vol. 1 and the Tarantino Game by Erika Hernandez

Hernandez’s description of Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 as a game is apt; it is incontrovertibly fun. The film is relentlessly entertaining and stylish. It is packed with action sequences.

I contend that all of this action and flash actually diminishes or completely nullifies any emotional impact this film could have contained. The film certainly deals with serious personal narratives that should prompt empathy from an audience– the Bride loses her entire family and unborn baby, and in the process of seeking revenge assassinates other characters with equally heavy personal narratives. Yet upon watching this film all I felt was an unending and inundating sense of fun. This is not to discredit Tarantino and the joy he clearly has with the medium of film– all of this is to say that his style can sacrifice the human element that cinema can carry.

One particular sequence that I would argue abandons emotional impact for the sake of style is the animated sequence of O-Ren Ishii’s past. This sequence deals with an extremely dark narrative yet the way it is presented turns it into a gory caricature.

A young O-Ren Ishii watches her family get murdered. She watches her parents and entire world brutally taken away from her. This scene should be register as heartbreaking. However this emotion is lost in the sheer stylistic flare of the animation. Instead of thinking about O-Ren’s subjectivity one admires the smoke billowing out of an ashed cigar, the light flaring off a sword, or the comic book-esque moment when the word “Whimper” spills out of O-Ren’s mouth. In all of this stylish anime, the focus is removed from the humanity of what has occurred. O-Ren’s emotional devastation is undermined by Tarantino’s quest for sheer coolness, for lack of a better word.

In the following scene where O-Ren murders the crime boss, one never digests that O-Ren has had to forfeit her 11-year old body to the despicable murderer of her parents. Instead our attention is directed to a geyser of blood erupting out of this man’s stomach.

Rather than giving the film a deeper level, in providing a basis of empathy for the film’s main antagonist, this sequence leaves the film with a one-note antagonist who is simply badass.

 

The Lady from Shanghai and Mulholland Drive

“However, even if we take her sexual attractiveness for granted, we must remember that ‘sex in noir is usually poisoned, presented characteristically not in a romantic context but a psychotic one’ (Hirsh 186)”

-“Orson Welles: The Semiotics of Focalization in The Lady From Shanghai” by Karen Marguerite Radell, page 97

In this post I will discuss how Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive are in direct thematic and stylistic dialogue. Lynch is influenced by, and follows in the tradition of The Lady From Shanghai in his film. Both films use their technique to show artifice and emptiness in the classic Hollywood femme fatale.

The first and most obvious way these films are linked is in Laura Harring’s character adopting the name “Rita” in Mulholland Drive after seeing a poster of Rita Hayworth, who is the star of The Lady From Shanghai. In adopting this name she assumes the empty gloss Hayworth represents as a classic Hollywood femme fatale. This idea of a pretty facade over a void is reinforced by the stylistic choices of both directors.

“‘by making the close-ups of [her] the most banal and emptily glossy things in the film’ (Higham 112)”

-“Orson Welles: The Semiotics of Focalization in The Lady From Shanghai” by Karen Marguerite Radell, page 97

Harring and Hayworth are both presented to us in this glossy and vapid manner Radell describes. Both ride in the backseat of vehicles in each films respective opening scene. Importantly both their faces are largely devoid of shadow. Rita Hayworth’s face is entirely white-washed by light, and though Mulholland Drive has gloomier lighting Harring’s face is the best lit feature of the sequence. Their undeniably beautiful visages are both cast in a full light that leaves both women one-dimensional from an aesthetic point of view.

“he successfully debunks the self-reverential mythologizing of the Hollywood studio system while simultaneously appearing to cooperate in its process”

-Orson Welles: The Semiotics of Focalization in The Lady From Shanghai” by Karen Marguerite Radell, page 98

Welles’ and Lynch’s films are inherently linked in how they present these femme fatales as something grotesque, and parasitic rather than delicate and beautiful damsels in distress. These women are the causes of the protagonists downfall rather than their salvation. In this sense both subvert traditional Hollywood mythos, which reveres beautiful women.

As a final supplement to the idea that these two films are undeniably linked, one may look at these parallel shots were both Ritas descend from the hills into city lights. Lynch’s inspiration for the shot is clearly in reference to Welles’ original shot here, and this is a final link between the two women.

Fantasy in Goodfellas

In this blog post, I will focus on Karen and Henry’s wedding scene in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. I would like to discuss how the content and techniques used in the scene establish a sense of surrealism and fantasy.

The sequence begins with an image of Henry and Karen’s wedding cake. The cake is beautiful and has a miniature Karen and Henry on it. This cake is an extension of the artificially sweet dream Karen has chosen to believe in marrying Henry. She dreams they will live a normal American life like this model couple atop the cake seems primed to do.

Karen is shepherded along by Paulie. He pulls her by the hand, as if guiding her through this dream. Everyone is named “Peter”, “Paul”, or “Mary”, and this adds to the absurd surrealism of the scene. Not only is this detail ridiculous and comical, but it is a reference to the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary who gained fame through the song “Puff the Magic Dragon”. This bolsters the sense of fantasy, as the song itself talks of a fantastical world that a boy escapes to in order to visit his pal Puff the magic dragon. With this repetition of names, it is as if Karen has entered a constructed pseudo-reality.

Scorsese’s camera adds to the surrealism of this scene through its dynamic work. It is constantly tracking and zooming. Due to this, it is hard for the audience to feel established in the setting. There are few still images of the scene to grasp hold too. In this sense, we feel Karen’s subjectivity as she navigates through this disorienting journey. She has no grounding as she rapidly enters this glorified mob lifestyle.

Perhaps, the shot that supports this reading best is the one where her voice over says, “by the time I finished meeting everyone I thought I was drunk”. As the audience, we should feel drunk too at this point; the camera circles around her head inducing a sense of parallax.

As a final piece of evidence for the dreamlike quality Scorsese wished to impart to the scene it is underscored by the Harptone’s “Life is But a Dream”.

Blindness and the Old Way in The Godfather II

The above scene is the one where Michael and Kay argue in the Hotel Washington. Kay says she’s taking their children away, and they begin to argue. The argument ends with Michael hitting Kay. This scene depicts the new way usurping the old, which is a recurring concern of this movie. Additionally it depicts Michael as metaphorically blind to this inevitable transition.

The set design of this scene ostensibly follows in the tradition of the old world. There are flowers throughout the room. The couches are ornate. There is a medieval tapestry behind Kay. However this presence of the old world is a facade– the flowers are fake and the decor and furniture were probably inauthentic pieces bought whole sale as this is a hotel.

In this scene we are really in the place of the new world. The hotel is called the “Hotel Washington”. Washington being the founding father of the United States of America–proverbial leader of the New World, and the face on the mighty dollar. In this scene, we are no longer in the realm of the godfather and the old world, we are in the world of the founding father and the old world.

Kay is aware of the paradigm shift that is occurring between these two opposing worlds. “This must all end,” she says in reference to his mafioso ways. Michael, however is blind to this change. Kay points this out many times, literally telling him he is blind. As a supporting visual detail, Michael is framed with blinds behind him. Kay is also dressed in clothes that match the background set design as if to remind how Michael has let her and his family fade into the background of his life. Kay’s words and the set and costume design artistically work to show how ignorant Michael is to the shifting circumstances around him.

This scene can be seen in parallel to Vito assassinating Don Cicci. Don Cicci is so comfortable in his old ways that he can’t see the new way–in the form of an American, which ties into the symbolic New World/Old World logic of the film– coming to assassinate him. Cicci is literally blind in this scene, though his cockiness makes him figuratively blind as well. Michael is like Don Cicci in the hotel scene, though his blindness is entirely figurative.

Kay makes it explicit this scene represents the death of the old way. She aborts Michael’s unborn son because of the old tradition, which is forever encroaching on their American life. Michael clings desperately to this tradition even as it crumbles around him as he loses all his family ties. What really hurts Michael is when Kay vocally damns the old way: “Not with this Sicilian thing,” she says. This is when Michael snaps– not when he learns that Kay has had an abortion– and hits Kay. This is the moment the blinds are pulled off Michael’s eyes–his illusion of tradition holding the family together is shattered as Kay makes it explicit that she cannot be apart of his family anymore so long as he holds obstinately to this “Sicilian thing”.

Michael Becomes the Don

The interpersonal dynamics of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather deal heavily with power and control. The movie revolves around the Corleone family wrestling to maintain their authority in the crime underworld. Furthermore there is a struggle as to who will secure power within the family.

The Godfather is depicted as a figure of supreme power. As the the title graphic hints, Vito Corleone is the man pulling the strings. He is the guardian/keeper of everyone in his community. Hence he is a veritable god and a father to these people.

The scene I will explore visually represents this omnipresent struggle for power in the film. It is the long take–approximately a minute and twenty seconds–when Michael introduces his plan to assassinate Sollozzo and McCluskey. This scene shows an exchange of power. It is the first moment where Michael steps up as the head of the family. Throughout the take Coppola cues the viewer that Michael is securing power from Sonny.

Screen Shot 2017-02-19 at 4.17.19 AM

The shot begins with Tom leaving Sonny’s side. Sonny sits in his fathers chair yet it doesn’t look right. He doesn’t fill the chair with the same authority as Don Vito does. Instead the chair visually undermines Sonny’s power. He leans forward, looking small and disgruntled, unlike Don Vito who sits back confidently. Sonny’s power is already established as shaky through this visual cue.

Screen Shot 2017-02-19 at 4.20.15 AM

The camera follows Tom across the room and comes to a rest on Michael. Michael is suave–legs crossed leaning back in an armchair. The camera tracks down as Tom sits. This puts Michael dead center in the shot. He holds the room now.

This framing also cuts out Sonny’s head as he enters frame and tries to join Michael’s “court” of sorts. This cinematic cutting of Sonny’s head is interpretable as Sonny being cut out as head of the family.

Sonny, unnecessarily, holds a cane. Sometimes a cane is just a cane. But for an able bodied young man, this could be read as some type of attempt to hold on to masculine authority or to display some sense of wisdom.

 

The camera tracks in on Michael’s face. Unlike Sonny, Michael speaks slowly, calmly, and with certainty. This tracking in visually cuts Sonny out of the plan Michael is formulating. This moment shows Michael becoming the decision maker, and Sonny becoming marginalized in the decision-making processes of the family.

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As a final note in this discussion of power within The Godfather, an interesting detail emerges with the camera tight on Michael’s face. Due to the punch he got from McClusky earlier, Michael’s cheek is swollen. This puffed up cheek is distinctly reminiscent of Brando and his perpetually bulbous jowls. Michael’s face rhymes here with the original Godfather’s face. This seemingly coincidental detail foreshadows that Michael is becoming and ultimately will become the godfather.

Artifice in Blue Velvet

“Blue Velvet was, again, in its visual intimacy and sure touch, a distinctively homemade film…”

-David Foster Wallace

Blue Velvet by David Lynch is a film with a distinctly personal feeling– which David Foster Wallace comments on above– that separates it from traditional “Hollywood” films. There are scenes in the film that are deliberately campy. Yet Lynch delivers this campy quality with a self-awareness that prevents the viewer from considering it as a “B-movie” or anything short of masterful. In fact, these specific scenes, with their bizarre “homemade” feeling, add a perverse dissonance to the film, which presses the viewer to be critical of the information they are fed.

The scene I would like to discuss produces such an off-beat, campy vibe. It is the scene where Sandy tells Jeffrey about her dream:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQztzN-FDLU

The entire scene is underscored by the music of church organs, which gives it an exaggeratedly wholesome quality. Kyle McClaughlin’s delivery of his first lines match this overly-sincere soundscape. “Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?” he asks with laughable naïvety.

Sandy continues the conversation. “I had a dream” she says wistfully. She describes dreaming of being delivered from darkness to light by the love of a thousand robins. Then, she drives Jeffrey and herself away, and the wall of a church is revealed behind them.

It should be noted that this is the only scene where Sandy is driving. I would argue that Sandy represents a certain type of blindness in this film; she gets all her information through hearing (hearing her father discuss his case, hearing the story of Dorothy and Frank second hand). Yet she cannot see the evil all around her. Instead, she blindly trusts what she hears. In her monologue about her dream she states “The robins were set free. And they brought this blinding light of love…” Indeed, Sandy is blinded by the light of love and, misguidedly, places full faith in both Jeffrey and her father.

Jeffrey is able to see this darkness, unlike Sandy, in his voyeuristic watching of the horrors that occur within Dorothy’s apartment, but he cannot hear it. While Sandy is figuratively blind to this darkness, Jeffrey is figuratively deaf to this darkness– he comes to be associated with deafness in finding a severed ear, the close shots of his ears, and most notably in the scene wear a toilet flushing deafens him from Sandy’s warning.Together Sandy and Jeffrey complimentary expose the darkness contained within the film.

For such a dark film, this sequence appeals to innocence and goodness in a way that seems discordant with the overall picture. In this scene, we are being driven by the blind, and if you take this pseudo-romance scene at face value you are being led to blindness of the evil that lurks within Blue Velvet.

So what does a more critical reading of the scene reveal about the film?

 

I would suggest that this darkness Sandy describes in her dream represents Lumberton. In the opening sequence of the film we enter Lumberton and enter the darkness of the earth. We thereby visually and physically enter the hell that is Lumberton. In the final scene we see a robin and the camera pans up to the sky. We enter light here (the blinding light of love). So if we take Sandy’s word for it we have been liberated from darkness and the hell of Lumberton, and ascended into the light of love. However, anyone who has seen the movie, will know that this interpretation does not feel right. In fact, one leaves Blue Velvet feeling entirely unsettled and as if this ostensibly happy ending is not happy at all.

This scene in the car is a key that informs the audience that this entire happy ending is an illusion. Evil still remains at the end of the film. We can chose to believe what Sandy says (and thereby be lead by the blind) or we can read the film from a critical perspective and recognize the artifice within it. This scene highlights that believing in any sense of security in Blue Velvet is a false hope.

It is telling that as the church music fades and Sandy drives away we see the windows and side wall of a church. However this is a movie, and it might very well just be the facade of a church.