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, and where this semiotic curiosity led me in my analysis of the Kill Bill saga. 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. Of course, 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 these two films– motherhood and the violence against, and to protect, a nuclear family. With this lead in from the “black mamba/mama” fluctuation, I want to talk about a character who highlights motherhood and the violence for/against family– Vernita Green.

As Vernita points out, she “should have been black mamba”. And why not? 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 how her Chinese and American heritage become a source of object, which cause her to cut a man’s head off, when she ascends to crime boss of Japan. Or in Pulp Fiction, another Tarentino 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.

In many ways, I would say that Vernita’s assassination is a denial of her hope to construct a happy family. I don’t think it is insignificant that 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.

It is somewhat untenable to say that B had to kill Vernita, because she was on her list of vengeance. This is because she unmistakably choses not to kill Elle. Perhaps she feels sympathy for this pathetic and blinded Elle who used to be her equal and comrade? Maybe she decided it was worse to leave this cripple Elle alive than kill her. Maybe she felt sympathetic for this woman who looks like her in so many ways. Yet this is the same Elle who poisoned her master, which should do well to purge B’s sympathy. The point is she chose to leave her alive, and therefore, has no hard rule to kill everyone on her list. So one must ask why B did not leave Vernita with this same sympathy– Vernita is, realistically, the closest in ideals to B– she is trying to raise her own daughter.

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 rife with action sequences.

I contend that all of this action and flash, whether intentional or not, actually diminishes or completely nullifies any emotional impact that this film could have carried. The film certainly deals with serious personal narratives that should prompt empathy from an audience– the Bride lost her entire family and unborn baby, and in the process of seeking revenge she 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 manipulating the medium of film– all of this is to say that his style sacrifices the human element that a contemporary and comparable filmmaker’s film would carry (think Coen Brothers).

One particular sequence, which abandons emotional impact for the sake of style, is the animated sequence depicting 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. This scene should be moving– a young girl watching her parents and entire world brutally taken away from her. However this is lost in the sheer stylistic flare of the animation. Instead of thinking about O-Ren’s subjectivity, one is directed to admire the smoke billowing out of an ashed cigar, the light flaring off a sword, or the comic book-esque use of the word “Whimper” spilling out of O-Ren’s mouth. In all of this stylish anime, the focus is removed from the humanity of what has occurred.

Again, 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 when a geyser of blood erupts out of his stomach.

The whole animation sequence is nothing but cool–the signature Tarantino cool. Rather than giving the film a deeper level, in providing a basis of empathy for the film’s main antagonist, we are left with a one-note antagonist who is simply badass.

Furthermore, depicting this whole sequence in anime, a definitively Japanese-originated form, it adds to the stylized caricature of Ishii, and the Japanese world where she resides. A world and culture Tarantino apparently pays homage to in this film, though fetishizes might be more accurate. It should be noted that this sequence is the only real departure from the Bride’s POV, yet rather than develop real emotional depth in another character’s POV, Tarantino presents us with a flashy depiction of this Ishii’s dark past in the Orient.

 

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 want to discuss how Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive are in direct thematic and stylistic relation. This is to say that Lynch is influenced by, and follows in the tradition, of The Lady From Shanghai in his film. Both films use their technique to show the artifice and emptiness of 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, the star of The Lady From Shanghai. In adopting this name, she is effectively assuming all the empty gloss Hayworth represents. 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 contemporary vehicles in each films respective opening scene. Importantly, both their faces are almost wholly devoid of shadow (though Mulholland Drive has gloomier lighting, Harring’s face itself is fully lit). Their undeniably beautiful visages are both cast in a full, white-washing light that leaves both women aesthetically one-dimensional.

“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. Both subvert traditional Hollywood mythos.

As a final supplement to the idea that these two films are undeniably linked, one should look at these parallel shots were both Ritas descend from the hills into city lights.

Fantasy in Goodfellas

In this blog post, I want to talk about Karen and Henry’s wedding scene in Goodfellas. I would like to discuss how the content and the 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 hints at the artificially sweet dream that Karen has chosen to believe in in marrying Henry– the dream that they will live a normal “American” life.

In the scene, Karen is shepherded along by Paulie, who pulls her by the hand through the family. The fact that everyone is named “Peter”, “Paul”, or “Mary” adds to the absurd surrealism of the scene. Not only is this detail absurd, and could only occur in a constructed world of fantasy, but it is a not-so-subtle- 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 dragon.

The camera adds to the lack of realism in this scene because it is so dynamic. 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. 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 in the viewer.

Tellingly, the whole scene is underscored by the Harptone’s song “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 fight. The fight ends with Michael hitting Kay.

This scene represents the new way usurping the old. Furthermore, it depicts Michael as being literally and metaphorically blind to this inevitable change.

The first thing to comment on is the set design of this scene. It is ostensibly designed in the tradition of the old world. There are flowers everywhere. The couches are ornate. There is a medieval tapestry behind Kay. However, one knows that this presence of the old world is a facade– the flowers are fake and the decor and furniture were probably bought whole sale for the hotel. In this scene, we are really in the place of, and under the domination of, the new world. The hotel is called the “Hotel Washington”. Washington is the founding father of the New World, and America. He is the face on the mighty dollar. In this scene, we are no longer in the realm of the godfather and the old world, we have wholly shifted into the world of the founding father and the old world.

To a degree, 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. Kay points this out many times, literally telling him he is blind. As a detail, Michael is also literally framed with blinds behind him, as if to visually reinforce his blindness to his family and circumstances.

This scene can be seen as a parallel to when Vito assassinates Don Cicci. Don Cicci is so comfortable in his old ways that he can’t see the new way, and this American, coming to assassinate him. He tells Vito to come closer because he can’t see him right before he is killed. Michael is like Don Cicci in this scene, though he is not literally blind.

Kay even makes it explicit that this scene represents the death of the old. Though she has killed Michael’s unborn son, she does so because of the tradition, which is forever encroaching on their American life. Michael clings desperately to this tradition, even as it crumbles around him and he loses his family ties. What really hurts Michael is when Kay insults his family ways. “Not with this Sicilian thing,” she says making it explicitly about Michaels old way. And that is when he snaps– not when he learns that Kay has had an abortion.

Michael Becomes the Don

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is a movie that explores the theme of power and control. The movie revolves around the Corleone family wrestling to maintain their authority and the security that accompanies said authority. Additionally, the Godfather is depicted as a figure of supreme power. As the the title graphic implies, Vito Corleone is the man pulling all the strings (at least at the onset of the movie). He is everyone in his community’s guardian/keeper, hence “god/father”.

The particular scene I wanted to explore this week  visually represents this omnipresent struggle for power. It is the long take of approximately a minute and twenty seconds when Michael asserts his plan to assassinate Sollozzo and McCluskey. This scene represents an exchange of power. It is the first moment where Michael steps up, and begins calling the shots. Throughout the take, Coppola implies that Michael is securing power from Sonny’s shaky and erratic hands.

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 in the beginning of this sequence, yet it doesn’t look right. He doesn’t fill the chair the same way Don Vito does– with authority. Instead, Vito’s chair diminishes Sonny’s power. He leans forward, and looks small and disgruntled, unlike Don Vito who sits back cool and collected in his chair.

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The camera follows Tom across the room and comes to rest on Michael, who looks suave, relaxed in his armchair. The camera tracks down with Tom sitting. This puts Michael dead center in the shot. He holds the room now. This framing also, conveniently, cuts out Sonny’s head and tries to join Michael’s “court”. Sonny strangely 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 play to display authority or a sense of sagacity.

 

At this point in the scene, Sonny is cut out of the plan Michael is formulating. The camera reinforces this by tracking in on Michael’s face. Unlike Sonny, Michael speaks slowly and calmly, and with assertive certainty.

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When the camera is tight on Michael’s face, an interesting detail emerges. Due to the altercation he got in with McClusky, Michael’s cheek is swollen. Michael’s 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 is arguably a priming to the fact that Michael 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 any traditionally “Hollywood” film. There are scenes in the film that are nothing short of campy. Yet, Lynch delivers this campy quality with a deliberateness, which could not allow the viewer to consider the film a “B-movie” or anything short of masterful. In fact, these specific scenes with a 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 delivers a moment of the aforementioned 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 church organs, which gives the whole sequence an artificially 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 bemoans with laughable naïvety.

Sandy continues the conversation. “I had a dream” she says wistfully. (At this moment MLK would certainly cringe in his grave). She describes a dream 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.

For such a dark film, this sequence oozes innocence in a way that stands in disharmony with the overall picture. The dissonance this wholesome scene produces in contrast to the rest of the film is intentional.

It should be noted that this is the only scene where Sandy is driving… I would argue that Sandy represents 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.

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.

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

I would suggest that the darkness she describes from 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 are entering 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 rife 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 her and Jeffrey away we see the windows and side wall of a church. However, this is a movie, and it might very well not be a church. All we can see is the facade of a church.