Color Schemes in Paris, Texas

Paris, Texas (1984) dir. Wim Wenders

The color scheme introduced in the beginning of the film is magnificent. It uses the harsh browns and blues as Lawrence of Arabia, but adds a bold red to give it a surreal, almost pop look. The palette is bold enough to call our conscious attention to it. We are introduced to Travis as a drifter who is entirely inside himself, and has trouble even interacting with another human being.

The reds continue to dominate through the early stages of the film. Although Travis is in the city, he is still emotionally and morally alone in the desert. Travis selfishly takes his son away from his family in order to find the boy’s mother – Travis’s estranged wife.

The colors shift to cool blues and greens whenever Travis shows genuine concern or love for his son and his family. Here, he has the boy call home so they won’t worry.

But, Paris, Texas, soon turns back to the reds and browns of the desert. Travis uses the boy to stalk his wife and finds her working at a peep show. The colors reflect the isolation of both characters. Their fantasy worlds must be bold in order to cover up their real brokenness.

Travis’s moral epiphany turns the screen permanently to green and blue. He sets aside his jealousy and possessiveness, and does what’s best for those he loves. We end the film the way we began – with Travis alone – but in a very different world.

Posted in 1980s, Movie Notes | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Blissfully Yours

S̄ud s̄eǹh̄āBlissfully Yours (2002) dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

blissfully yours still frame“Movies carry some sort of psychic charge that no other art form–perhaps no other spectacle–can quite match.”

blissfully yours

“The moving image itself seems an object of extraordinary potency. In the movie-watching experience we enter an “altered state of consciousness,” enthralling and irresistible.”

blissfully yours image“Somehow movies and the mind are suited to one another, mutually adapted… What is it about the screen image and the mind that views it that makes the marriage between them so successful–so passionate and tempestuous, one might almost say? What is this love affair with the screen?”

blissfully yours frame

“Watching someone light a cigarette in real life can be pretty dull, but in the context of a story projected onto the movie screen our eyes and mind will be drawn in. The movie adds something to reality, and this is part of its power.”

McGinn, Colin. “The Power of Film.” In The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact, 3-15. New York: Pantheon Books, 2005.



Posted in 2000s, Movie Notes | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Forgiveness in Le fils

Le fils (2002) dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

fils2The movies are full of revenge fantasies. There’s a drive for revenge that is embedded in the human psyche, but few of us ever have the opportunity to enact it. Social and legal mores block us from doing the things we really want to those we feel have wronged us. The justice system, with its long, winding paths, doesn’t give villains the same direct punishment and visceral, emotional satisfaction we imagine The Bride or Mattie Ross got in Kill Bill and True Grit.

As a consequence, it’s even more rare that we get the chance to exercise forgiveness. Forgiveness to someone once was not able to punish anyway, or to someone who will remain safely behind bars regardless of your attitude towards them, is little more than a psychological exercise. It may be a very real, very meaningful act, but its consequences lie entirely in the spiritual world. When we run into a situation in which we have the opportunity to punish or not punish, we nearly invariably find a reason to eschew mercy. “Justice demands it,” we think. “We must set an example, must be consistent,” are the lies we tell ourselves to avoid acknowledging that we prefer revenge to mercy.

le filsOur revenge fantasies are fun. Our forgiveness fantasies are sacred. They all hearken back to sacred scripture. The Dardenne Brothers cast their forgiveness story in the context of a carpenter’s son.

Like Robert Bresson and Vittorio de Sica before them, the Dardennes use realist techniques to bring their religious fantasies down to earth. “We asked each other: How can we do this without seeming angelic?” they explain in the DVD commentary. They don’t want you to be able to dismiss forgiveness as something only for saints. They want it to seem real – they want you to believe it.

Posted in 2000s, Movie Notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dead Ringers


Dead Ringers (1988) – dir. David Cronenberg

Twin gynecologists date the same woman. One does the initial wooing, and then – as he puts it – gives the women to his “baby brother,” without them knowing. They switch places in their professional lives as well, and it’s not clear who is exactly responsible for what at their world-class fertility clinic. They outdo Hayley Mills’s twins, climbing to the top of the professional ladder, fooling everyone.

The only thing that could break up such a partnership does. A woman.

My brief description sounds like something from a soap opera or a Lifetime movie, but because this is Hollywood, Dead Ringers gives virtually no thought to the woman’s point of view. The movie is about the melding of identities that the twins experience. Drugs and sex enter the picture, and send them on a spiral into each other.

deadringers7I enjoyed the movie, and Jeremy Irons gave a terrific performance. He starts by differentiating the two brothers in subtle ways that let me tell them apart in each scene without it feeling gimmicky Then, as film continues, he adjusts his performance to make them truly identical. I appreciated Cronenberg’s disturbing sense of humor too — on display when one of the twins orders gynecology instruments. But I’ve never felt like any of Cronenberg’s work was a must-see. Interesting, yes. Well made? Yes. But it always feels disposable and none of it has stuck with me.

Posted in 1980s, Movie Notes | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Salò and Eyes Wide Shut

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 Salò and Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 Eyes Wide Shut were separated by a quarter-century, but share basic structure, themes and strategies that each director use to condemn consumerism.

Salo framing

A symmetrical shot from Pasolini that, aside from the lighting, may just as well have been from Kubrick.

Both Pasolini and Kubrick died shortly before their films’ release. As Alan Bacchus, writing for Daily Film Dose, notes, “The formal compositions and classical Roman art direction match well together. Pasolini’s style even resembles Stanley Kubrick with his symmetrical compositions and use of the female nude body as background art decoration. The orgy rituals are also evident in Eyes Wide Shut.”

From Eyes Wide Shut. The Christmas lights make the ballroom glitter like The Gold Room from The Shining.

From Eyes Wide Shut. The Christmas lights make the ballroom glitter like The Gold Room from The Shining.

Both films share a dreamlike narrative, transporting audiences instantly from the realm of reality to the realm of erotic fantasy. Although Salò initially resembles a war film and Eyes Wide Shut a relationship drama, they both quickly move down the Yellow Brick Road of fantasy, bringing us to the castle (Salò) and the mansion (Eyes Wide Shut). Each film strips away any illusions of egalitarianism, and uses sex to expose the power imbalances between the rich and the poor, and the male and the female.

Pasolini's film is set in the short-lived Nazi satellite, the Republic of Salò.

Pasolini’s film is set in the short-lived Nazi satellite, the Republic of Salò.

Capitalist consumerism is the target of both films. They use prostitution and sexual objectification literalize the spiritual objectification that consumerism creates. Pasolini described dissatisfaction with politics of all sorts, saying “all those who consider themselves either Marxists or Communists are consumerists, too,” but compared consumerism to fascism. “I’ll give you an example: fascism has tried for twenty years to eliminate dialects and it didn’t succeed. Consumerism, which, on the contrary, pretends to be safeguarding dialects, is destroying them.”

Christmas in New York

Christmas in New York

Thus, Pasolini chose a fascist setting for his complaint against consumerism — a castle in late fascist Italy. Kubrick chose the ultimate consumerist setting for his complaint — the financial capital of the world, at Christmas.

eyes-wide-shutEach film’s sadomasochism is initially titillating, but their treatments of sex becomes more and more grotesque as the narrative continues and the elite exert their control. Early on, Salò‘s cabal of power lightly flirt with their captives and come up with a list of rules not too unlike something you’d find from a Barnes & Noble section. Eyes Wide Shut famously opens with Nicole Kidman nude, in front of a mirror, and includes an extended dialogue between Kidman and Tom Cruise in their underwear.

In both films, the elites stage costumed rituals to assert control and replace religion.

In both films, the elites stage costumed rituals to assert control and replace religion.

Inside the elites’ lair, the nudity increases and the material becomes more fetishized. However, both Pasolini and Kubrick pull back at this point. The sexual content becomes more cold, and distant. They each broaden their shots to avoid intimacy with the characters. They want to show us how objectification feels from the object’s point of view. The last thing they want to do is allow the viewer to identify with the subject too strongly. At each film’s apogee, the content is the most “hardcore,” but also the least pornographic. None of our protagonists — or viewers — achieve sexual release.

Selling out is the only option in the worlds of Pasolini and Kubrick.

Selling out is the only option in the worlds of Pasolini and Kubrick.

Salò and Eyes Wide Shut also leave us with a sense of helplessness in the face of consumerism. These is no escaping the advance of the culture of destruction. The boys in Salò who assist the men in their torture become something like kapos, and survive. Dr. Bill gives up his quest to rescue his friends from the punishment of the elite. He and his wife both survive consumerism by giving in – at the end of the film, they take their daughter Christmas shopping at the mall and resolve to “fuck.”

Posted in 1970s, 1990s, Movie Notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Movie We Don’t Want to Talk About

Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_posterThis year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Hollywood. That’s no coincidence. The first true blockbuster – the movie that helped create the modern industry – was director D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.

If it had been any other film, the movie industry would be celebrating 2015 as a Jubilee Year, complete with historical programs and special Blu-Ray box sets. But instead, the anniversary has been met mostly with silence.

A few critics wrote about the film’s dark legacy when the anniversary of its release passed in February. I thought about writing something, but decided against it. I wanted to ignore it, and pretend it didn’t happen.

"You rape our women." - Dylann Roof, terrorist

“You rape our women.” – Dylann Roof, terrorist

But the attack on the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina last week made me re-think that decision. The killer in Charleston- like thousands of white supremacist terrorists before him – made use of propaganda and symbols popularized by Birth of a Nation. How can I help fight these ideas if I don’t talk about them?

Based on the novel The Clansman, Birth of a Nation features reenactments of the Civil War that paint the Confederacy in the best possible light. After the war, it portrays Reconstruction as tyranny, and climaxes with the Ku Klux Klan riding in to save the city from black men (played by white actors in blackface) who are trying to rape white women.

birth of a nation adThe movie was a huge hit. An enormous hit. It may have sold as much as $60 million in tickets in its first run — that’s in 1915 dollars. The Ku Klux Klan had been disbanded in 1872. But in 1915, the filmmakers organized Klan marches and balls organized around the film. But what began as a movie promotion turned real that fall, when the Klan was reorganized in Georgia. The original Klan didn’t have standard uniforms and didn’t burn crosses. The new Klan took these elements from Birth of a Nation and made them the standard symbols of terror that are now known across the world.

We screened Birth of a Nation in the first film class I took, as a freshman. Our instructor warned us about the racism we would see, but told us to look past it and focus on the filmmaking techniques Griffith used. As a senior, I took an African Americans in Film class. This instructor refused to screen it, and said the movie’s importance had been exaggerated by white critics.

Maybe so. But Birth of a Nation’s place in film history goes far beyond its success at the box office. It was the first masterpiece; it codified the grammar that will be used forever; it created an entire art form. Roger Ebert best sums up the way it is generally regarded:

“The Birth of a Nation” is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil.”

Ignoring the film is impossible. So, what do we do with this history of evil?

In the 1980’s and 1990’s French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard made a series of television programs called Histoire(s) du Cinéma. It splices together scenes and frames from decades of films, overlaid with a track of Godard musing on various themes or (because Godard is quintessentially French) occasionally the voice of a skinny girl reading poetry in a garden.

1b-une-histoire-seulAlthough in many ways, the project is a celebration of cinema, Godard bluntly implicates the art form as complicit in the worst horrors of the past century. Would the Nazis have been as effective without their mastery of film? “Murnau and Freund invented the lighting of Nuremberg when Hitler didn’t even have been money in the Munich bars,” Godard says.

Evil is part of cinema, in the present, past and future. We can’t ignore it, and it’s impossible to simply extract and throw away.

I’m caught up in this film. The movie is racist. Does this mean I’m racist?

Griffith’s mastery of his art is so complete that it is impossible not to be engrossed in his storytelling. How can you not sympathize with the poor, downtrodden Camerons? This creates in uncomfortable feelings and questions for most white viewers.

Henry Walthall and Lillian Gish in "The Birth of a Nation"

Henry Walthall and Lillian Gish in “The Birth of a Nation”

A shortcut out of the unease is to minimize the evil. Birth of a Nation star Lillian Gish defended Griffith against charges of racism, saying “But Mr. Griffith loved the Negro,” and similar nonsense. Silent film popularizer Joe Franklin put the blame on people who somehow found the pro-Klan movie racist:

“Griffith certainly did not set out to make a biased film, and indeed most of the incessant storm that has continued ever since has been whipped up and sustained not by Negro interests but by political interests–ironically, the same sort of circumstance which caused the unrest in the South in the first place!””

This sort of thinking isn’t unique to Birth of a Nation. Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl has spent decades trying to rehabilitate her image, even making the absurd claims that Triumph of the Will and Olympia were not fascist propaganda at all, but relatively straightforward documentaries.

This is why we need to teach film in public schools.

'The Birth Of A Nation'More now than at any time since the invention of the printing press, the West is an audio-visual culture. Teenagers coming out of high school are voting and buying guns for the first time. They need to understand that just because a film (or a YouTube video) makes something feel right doesn’t mean it is right. If they’re never told the story of Birth of a Nation, they won’t get that lesson.

isis1If Godard wished to continue exploring cinema’s sins, he would have ISIS’s Hollywood production techniques to use as examples. Some critics have compared their propaganda videos to 1990’s action films; I watched the disturbing video of James Foley’s execution as part of my job, and the cut and horrifying tracking shot reminded me of Hitchcock.

ISIS is using filmic techniques to recruit young people to terrorism in exactly the same way the KKK does. A basic understanding of these techniques can help arm our young people against the power of propaganda. They need to see and hear the ways in which great art can serve great evil.

Posted in 1910s, 1980s, 1990s, Movie Notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nanook and “The Vanishing Race”

Nanook of the North (1922) dir. Robert J. Flaherty

The iconic Nanook of the North has been a staple in film schools for decades, and was just voted 7th-best documentary film of all time by the BFI.

Even though Nanook’s reputation as an artistic masterpiece are secure, its reputation as a piece of ethnography or proto-ethnography has waxed and waned since it was made in 1922. The film itself hasn’t changed, but the way critics examine it has.

"Cheyenne Warriors"

“Cheyenne Warriors”

It’s important to look at Nanook in the context of similar work outside the world of film. I examined late 19th and early 20th Century portraits of Native Americans taken by Edward S. Curtis, put on display at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and held in books in the museum’s library.

Both Flaherty’s and Curtis’s work went through three primary phases of evaluation:

1) Buying into the myth

In 1907, Curtis published “The American Indian,” to the acclaim of art critics, ethnographers, history buffs and to the general American public. He sold hundreds of sets of the photos, which were complete with descriptions of how Native Americans were said to live, hunt, believe and die. They bought into Curtis’s depictions entirely.

President Theodore Roosevelt wrote the forward Volume I:

Canyon de Chelly

“Canyon de Chelly,” Edward S. Curtis, 1904

“In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose pictures are pictures, not merely photographs; whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because it is truthful. All serious students are to be congratulated because he is putting his work in permanent form; for our generation offers the last chance for doing what Mr. Curtis has done…. e has not only seen their vigorous outward existence, but has caught glimpses, such as few white men ever catch, into that strange spiritual and mental life of theirs; from whose innermost recesses all white men are forever barred. Mr. Curtis in publishing this book is rendering a real and great service; a service not only to our own people, but to the world of scholarship everywhere.”

The New York Times gushed:

“Photo-History” is the apt word which has been coined to describe the work which Edward S. Curtis is doing for the North American Indian. Nothing just like it has ever before been attempted for any people. Some slight inkling of its value, both artistic and ethnographic, has been given by a few articles and pictures published in magazines and newspapers.”

"Nanook of the North - A story of life and love in the actual arctic"

“Nanook of the North – A story of life and love in the actual arctic”

Flaherty’s Nanook of the North was released in 1922, claiming it was a reflection of real life in the arctic. He sold his work in the same way Curtis sold his — as a picture of a vanishing people.

“What I want to show is the former majesty and character of these people, while it is still possible—before the white man has destroyed not only their character, but the people as well,” he wrote in his memoir. Flaherty presented his film as a look at the “actual arctic.” (Menand)

“Those who have praised Flaherty see him as a great artist and observer, or as Calder-Marshall called him, “an innocent eye,” a man who filmed out of love not greed. As Richard Corliss said, Flaherty “simply saw the truth and brought it home.” (Rony 116)

2) Criticism

A later generation of photographers and filmmakers turned a critical eye towards the depictions created by Curtis and Flaherty. They saw them as deceptive and fundamentally dishonest.

The photo was retouched to remove product labels from the machine-built lodges.

The photo was retouched to remove product labels from the machine-built lodges.

It was revealed that Curtis had essentially faked some of his most iconic images. The Native Americans he photographed weren’t people he stumbled across while exploring the West — they were modern people he had paid to dress up like their ancestors. Or, more accurately, dress up like Curtis’s romantic image of their ancestors. New tepees and war clothing were manufactured as props for his work.

The most infamous example is below. Image One is the original. Before publication, Curtis erased the clock and toned the photograph to give it a more “authentic” look. This is a typical example of Curtis’s manipulation. Curtis wasn’t trying to reenact Native American culture before European contact. He was staging a vision of Hollywood Indians.

clock originalclock touched up

“Generally the objects removed were of White manufacture. Among these were wagons, parasols, hats, suspenders, and product labels…. Assuming that adherence to the ethnographic present, and not simple deception, was Curtis’s motivation for retouching, it is interesting to note other evidence of acculturation left untouched. Machine-woven fabrics, rifles, medals and other jewelry of White manufacture, sheep, and horses appear frequently. These items, unlike those which Curtis had retouched out of his photographs, were all common in popular imagery of “Indianness” and therefore would not have appeared out of place to most Whites.” (Lyman 76)

"Nanook" bites into a record

“Nanook” bites into a record

Flaherty’s Nanook used many of the same tricks. In one scene, Allakariallak, the man who Flaherty calls “Nanook,” pretends he does not know what a gramophone is, and bites it. In the film’s most dramatic scene, Nanook hunts and kills a seal using a spear. Roger Ebert thinks he may have used a gun off-camera. Flaherty even had his talent build a special igloo missing a wall so his camera could show the interior.

These tricks bothered mid-20th Century filmmakers who championed vérité – and they (rightly) bothered my journalism professors in college. But the real deception was the way in which Native Americans were presented as a prehistoric “other,” rather than part of a living culture.

“…the Inuit portrayed in Nanook thus were using guns, knew about gramophones, wore Western clothing, and, although many had died from Western diseases, certainly were not vanishing” (Rony 109)

3) Rehabilitation

21st Century concerns of cultural imperialism, exploitation and appropriation would seem to convict both Curtis and Flaherty. But the past few decades have actually helped to rehabilitate their works.

Spotted Bull - Mandan on display at Crystal Bridges

Spotted Bull – Mandan on display at Crystal Bridges

The change has come about from a different way of seeing authorship. Rather than looking at Native Americans as victims of auteurs, contemporary criticism looks at them as participants in the creation of their myths.

“It is one of the proposals of the present study that The North American Indian should, to some extent at least, be read as a work of Native American autobiography and visual self-presentation, and that the hundreds of Native individuals who worked with Curtis during roughly three decades be considered its coauthors or co-creators.” (Zamir 10)

“De Heusch explained that the Inuit actors in Flaherty’s film willingly play-acted for the camera, a technique which he characterized as ethnographically sound, using French anthropologist Marcel Griaule’s use of role-play as an example.” (Rony 116)

Yebechai dancer

Yebechai dancer

Although the props Curtis used were manufactured, they were made largely by the Native Americans playing the roles. An exception – in this photograph of a Yebechai dancer, Curtis was asked to make the costume after consulting with the dancer, to ensure its use would not be sacreligious. Flaherty, for his part, showed rushes to his Inuit crew and they helped to print and develop the film.

The portrayal of the Native Americans, from this point of view, is subjective from a shared point-of-view between the White Europeans and the Native Americans themselves.

“Part of the appeal of participant obsevation is that it purportedly enables the Ethnographer to show how the anthropologist sees the native, but how the native sees himself. Flaherty encouraged the believe that he was doing just that. He explained, “I wanted to show the Innuit [sic]. And I wanted to show them, not from the civilized point of view, but as they saw themselves, as ‘we the people.” (Rony 119)


An English painting from an English poem inspired by Welsh mythology

We can think of parallels in other cultural exchanges. The “Celtic Revival” of the 19th and 20th Centuries was initiated by the English ruling class, who had been using Celtic myths in their own legends for centuries. The romantic image of the Celts as portrayed in novels and films is far from historically accurate. But this is not usually seen as a negative example of appropriation, because modern Celts were full participants in the myth-making. It was how the Celts “saw themselves.”

But, I don’t know how well this analogy applies. Just how much did and could the Native American subjects portrayed in these works really control and participate in the process? It seems as though there was a fundamental power imbalance between the owners of the works – Curtis and Flaherty – and those who helped create them.


“AMERICAN INDIAN IN “PHOTO HIST.” The New York Times, 6 Jun 1908, sec. Saturday Review of Books.

Duncan, Dean W.. “Nanook of the North.” Criterion Collection. 11 Jan 1999. (accessed Jun 4, 2015).

Ebert, Roger. “Nanook of the North.” Roger Ebert. 25 Sep 2005. (accessed Jun 4, 2015).

King, Gilbert. “Edward Curtis’ Epic Project.” Smithsonian Magazine, 21 Mar 2012, (accessed Jun).

Lyman, Christopher M.. and Edward Curtis. The Vanishing Race and Other I.: Pantheon Books in association. 1982.

Menand, Louis. “Nanook and Me.” The Atlantic, 9 Aug 2004, (accessed Jun).

Rony, Fatimah T. The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, a.: Duke University Press. 1996.

Zamir, Shamoon The Gift of the Face Portraitu.: UNC Press Books. 2014.

Posted in 1920s, Movie Notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment