Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Gender in Film Noir

An essay of the positive strides that Hollywood's most threatening ladies made for women 

“He keeps me on a leash so tight I can’t breath,” cries Phyllis in regards to her domineering husband.  The attentive insurance salesman is apparently the most viable replacement for Phyllis’s lavish lifestyle, renting a one-bedroom apartment with a dead end job’s low pay.  For her, it’s not just about the awarded insurance money, but also the desire to escape the subjugating nature of men, to embrace true independence and to gain sexual freedom.

            Gender within the film noir genre has developed into a subject of vast research and study.  For the first time in mainstream cinematic history, women were portrayed as adhering to pre-feminist ideologies by subtly demonstrating their capacity to escape patriarchal norms and to deviate from all gender constructions.  Yet even through a departure from classical Hollywood female representation, technological and chauvinistic ideals continued to conquer and manipulate the screen.  Women remained as objects of men, portraying and adopting characters within a male-viewer spectacle. 

            This paper is going to argue that the gender representations within the film noir movement made positive movements in pro-feminist ideals as reflected in the femme fatale personas.  I will specifically examine three pieces of media from this movement; Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Michael Curtis’s The Maltese Falcon, and Christopher Nolan’s Memento.  First I will give plot summaries for the three movies followed by the historical and philosophical developments that lead to the creation of this movement.  Thirdly, I will transition into the positive social attributes that femme fatales possess.  From there, the hegemonic ideologies will be discussed in relation to both the producers and the directorial styles.  Finally, I will lead into my concluding remarks.

            The femme fatale in Double Indemnity is considered the premiere archetype within the film noir genre.  Phyllis Dietrichson is the second wife of Mr. Dietrichson, and stepmother of his child Lola.  She recruits the assistance of insurance salesman Walter Neff in order to establish a double indemnity policy and proceed to kill her husband afterwards, allowing them to run off with the money.  Upon doing so she double-crosses Walter, and in a fit of passion they end up murdering each other.

            The Maltese Falcon involves a private eye named Sam Spade who is recruited by femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She fabricates a story of her missing sister, with her true intentions aiming towards the acquirement of a priceless Maltese Falcon Statue that her boss/lover wants.  Within minutes of looking for the sister, an unknown assailant kills Spade’s partner.  Through a roller coaster ride of plot twists, we discover that Brigid murdered Spade’s partner and double-crossed her boss and cohorts, all to obtain the stature for herself.  She pleads her love for Spade, but to no avail he turns her in.

            Memento is widely considered a modern day homage to the noir movement.  The femme fatale in this film is named Natalie who has befriended Leonard.  Leonard is suffering from a disorder that voids him of any retention of short-term memories due to a home-invader that caused his wife to be raped and murdered.  As a result he is intent on unlawfully exacting revenge on the unknown killer. The femme fatale Natalie who naturally gives the illusion of a potential love interest assists Leonard in this endeavor.  On account of the story being told backwards, with the last scene being told first and the first scene being told last, we discover that Natalie has ulterior motives, wanting Leonard to kill his friend/police officer, Teddy, that killed her drug dealer boyfriend a year prior.

            These plot summaries could easily be utilized in most of the other films of the genre.  The lone male having his current lifestyle disrupted upon encountering the beautiful femme fatale, leading him to a world void of morality and filled with deceit.  The format employs the frequent voice over that recalls the events with slick language through a monotonous tone. While not all of these films contain such tragic endings as Double Indemnity or Memento, the introduction of immoral women who are capable of suspending their ethics is commonplace, with many scholars pointing to the horrendous events taking place in the world at the time leading to this new philosophical development in film.

            It was particularly through the devastation of pre, present and post World War II events that many theorize film noir to have been created.  The post-anxiety ridden American/world culture lead to existential questions ranging from skeptical views regarding the existence of God to the meaning of life, all based upon the horrors experienced both at home and abroad.  Film noir was the genre that most clearly represented these fears as the above summary has indicated. Helen Hanson discusses this cultural reflection in her book Hollywood Heroines, in which she states:

For many commentators, the principle hallmarks of noir include a distinctive treatment of sexual desire and sexual relationships, a distinctive array of male and female character types, and a distinctive repertoire of male and female traits, ideals and characteristics and forms of behavior.
  For some these elements can be related directly to contemporary social and cultural trends and factors; they help not only to define noir, but also to account for its existence.


            Beyond the aforementioned immorality is the Hollywood rebellion of highly sexualized content.  Both Phyllis and Walter exhibit completely lascivious regards for the other, described in an epithetical fashion as love. Leonard is exploited and regarded by the audience as having a genuine connection with Natalie, yet we find out she had deeper plans, using sex as her main tool.  Finally, in The Maltese Falcon, the associate of Brigid, named Cairo, warns Spade of her use of sex as a manipulation device. 

            While sexual inclinations could be considered the norm of men within classical Hollywood schematics, for women it was revolutionary. Sheri Chenin Biesen discusses this in her book Blackout stating in regards to World War II, “Working women in America’s home front also affected how women were portrayed in film noir.  Sexualized female roles targeted, and were influenced by, working wartime women, capitalizing on strong gender models while appealing to combat-hardened military men via a touch psyche and realistic violence towards the opposite sex” (06). With women being the driving workforce of the war machine back in the States, it was clear that a major step towards egalitarianism had been cultivated.  Hence, this apparent nymphomania should rather be regarded as acquiring sexual autonomy. 

            Phyllis, Natalie, and Brigid do not only commit sexual acts as a means to an end, but do so with a shameless undertone.  This sexual deviation allows them to flip the gender norms into subjugation of the male counterparts.  It is clear in these films that the male feelings toward the femme fatale was developed instantaneously in response to both beauty and distraction from life’s monotony, rather than the result of any type of human connection.  The women exploit this pseudo-love through their seductive nature and further provide the ultimate sexual payoff upon completion of a “favor,” or in order to complete a “favor” – Phyllis needing her husband killed, Natalie needing Leonard to kill the police officer, and Brigid, in a pure film noir cliché, arriving at the detective’s office disguised as a damsel in distress with a soon-to-be-discovered fabricated story.

            To further elaborate on the underlying nature of their sexual/gender deviation, it could be theorized that, in regards to Memento, Natalie did not even have strong feelings towards her now-dead boyfriend.  After all, in conversation with Leonard she states how much she admires the amount of love he had towards his ex-wife.  It seems that a man who possesses so much passion, is attractive, and has a decent job (he drives a Jaguar) would be a viable alternative to a previously unlawful lifestyle that ended in tragedy. This irrationality towards having a cop killed, exploiting a cognitively disabled person and continuing her life as a delinquent rather than pursuing a positive lifestyle, is not just an indication of her social frustration, but more specifically illuminates her view of the horrors and power that men truly hold over women.   The same could be applied for any of the women from these films.  For along with being proto-feminist, they adopt their femme fatale ideologies to such an extent that it borders on hopes for a complete annexation of male-oriented domination. 

            While their acts could be considered immoral, the opening quote of this paper needs to be kept in mind.  In the times prior to World War II, the majority of women relied on men in order to provide them with a decent living, both financially and socially.  Considering that women could not enter the work force, the only way a woman could establish a sense of control and purpose is through motherly inclinations brought about by a marriage.  In an essay No Place for a Woman: Family in Film Noir John Braser discusses how contrary to this ideology, the femme fatale “…refuses to play the role of devoted wife and loving mother that mainstream society prescribes for women.  She finds marriage to be confining, loveless, sexless and dull, and she uses all her cunning and sexual attractiveness to gain her independence.” 

            Braser further elaborates on these themes within The Maltese Falcon, illuminating the fact that rarely in film noir does the femme fatale possess an emotionally gratifying lifestyle and/or children of her own as Brigid indirectly proclaims.  The stagnant life under a patriarchal veil has inconclusively led to other means of dissonance. Namely, he is referring to sexual promiscuity and subjugation of alpha males.  Through Brigid’s coercion of Spade, she is provided with a sense of empowerment previously denied, giving the illusion of control over her societal environments all while allowing for the possibility of high financial returns that provide for an escape towards true freedom.

            Feminist Laura Mulvey aims to dismiss this apparently affirmative stride for women within her article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, approximately twenty years after the original film noir wave had dissipated.  It was in this article that she specifically alluded to the fact that women remained to be viewed by the spectator as objects-for-men.  “The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly…their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-look-at-ness” (19). Mulvey further emphasizes this objectification of women saying, “…conventional close-ups of legs (Phyllis for example) or a face (Brigid) integrate into the narrative a different mode of eroticism” (20).  Jhally’s article on hegemony emphasizes this problem stating, “Given that our understanding of reality is always socially constructed, visual images are the central mode through which the modern world understands itself” (256).[1]  Hence, when Phyllis is first introduced in Double Indemnity, we see her in a series of three shots with each one closing in on her bikini-laden self.  Finally, when she ascends the stairs to greet Walter, the most prime example of the male gaze is established.  Her legs are in extreme close up revealing her to be wearing high heels that shape her calves in a seductive fashion. The camera then dollies/pans to reveal that it was acting as the point of view of Walter, that is, the point of view of a male spectator. 

            The question that must be asked is to what extent does the technological/stylistic structure of media, film noir specifically, hinder a women’s place in society?  There is no doubt that the movie studios of this time were dominated by males with women commonly holding behind-the-scene camera jobs of editor or script supervisor.  The directors, producers and cinematographers would be dominantly male and thus their visual decisions were based on two factors – male established social norms and previously constructed male-produced media. Strinati states in his article that, “…the prevailing culture in a society at any point in time is an outcome and embodiment of hegemony, of the ‘consensual’ acceptance by subordinate groups of the ideas, values and leadership of the dominant groups” (148).[2] Since men up until the feminist movement of the 1960’s dominated nearly all forms of media and had it revolve around their ideologies, the consumers and soon-to-be producers of the movie studios would develop a particular response by conforming to encoded messages within the media they experienced – a male protagonist, a women as an object, and of course Mulvey’s women to-be-looked-at-ness.  These hegemonic ideologies had come to be so embedded in culture that no one had even thought of making other stylistic choices.

             Overall, media-oriented identification for the majority of Americans does not seem to be with the technique of the story, but rather with the characters.  The subtle, negatively based ideologies of Mulvey may induce future filmmakers to capture their images of women in the same questionable manner, but style is not necessarily propagating any new ideologies – visually presenting women as objects can only be done so many ways. On the other hand, the femme fatale possesses extremely positive attributes toward advancing gender equality. In The Whites of Their Eyes Hall says, “We have to ‘speak through’ the ideologies which are active in our society and which provide us with the means of ‘making sense’ of social relations and our place in them” (90).[3]  Although femme fatales commonly adopt immoral standards of living, women must be credited with being able to see through the literal and into the symbolic – escaping male patriarchy and the pursuit of a more autonomous mode of life.  While these films did not establish the feminist movement, it can be easily ascertained that they strongly reflected its future development.  

            Film noir was a genre dominantly scattered with sub-par films playing in theaters as B-movies and double bill tickets. Yet the gems of the movement – The Maltese Falcon’s, the Mementos, and the Double Indemnity’s - are all indications of the vast range of quality this genre adopted.  Like the vast races and socio-economic strata comprising American society, it had its share of lower-class pictures and higher-class ones.  Such diversity reflected in a film movement is no longer as prevalent as it once was; B-movies have dissipated from the mainstream theaters of today in favor of direct-to-video sales.  This all begs the question as to what the appeal was?  Perhaps it was because women made up the other half of the world, something that superseded race or social status, and regardless of lower or upper-class status, patriarchy was present. While for men Brigid was a threat, for women she was a heroine: the physical manifestation of overcoming male-oppression burning within them all!  Whether it was to this extreme or not, this paper has established the dominantly affirmative attributes that femme fatales played in both mainstream cinema and culture alike.



[1] Image Based Culture: Advertising and Pop Culture Jhally, Sut

[2] Mass Culture Strinati

[3] The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media Hall, Stuart

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Fifth of Blood - Part 1

What Do All Part 5's in Horror Series Have in Common?

Five days ago a few friends and I went to the locally-deemed “ghettoplex” movie theater near my campus to check out the latest installment in the Saw series. To sum up my review as usual, for being the fifth installment it wasn’t a bad movie. While the first hour was cursed with late-installment cliches (bad acting/one-liners) the last half hour near-fully redeemed itself. My main problem was that like Saw 2, the film detracted from how the torture devices were structured - they weren’t individually based, but communal. Something about having a group of characters in a house and embarking on a journey towards new Jigsaw technologies just didn’t do it for me, and the same thing happened in Saw 5. Five individuals go through another house (or warehouse I should say) and have to deal with the traps as a group. My opinion is that its just creepier when its one or two people trying to overcome the circumstances. And it only works with two people when its a battle to the death (e.g. opening scene in Saw 4). Regardless, the movie didn’t fair out as horribly as one might think. So I ask myself, “Why is this?” Part one of this article will go through the other “fifth films” in horror franchises leading to part two's conclusions and theories.

First up we have...

Friday the 13th Part V - A New Beginning

Slashes: 2.5/4

I group the movies comprising Friday the 13th into three groups. I deem one through three as The Same Cakes since they’re pretty much all the same movie, yet with different “frosting.” Four through six I deem The Farley’s since theyre all continuations of story lines involving a boy named Tommy (yes, i know its a clever name). And seven through ten I deem as The Leftovers since they’re just a bunch of random attempts to redeem the series, and just like leftover food they get worse through time.

Friday the 13th part five is where Tommy is granted leave from a mental institution on the basis that he must enter a halfway house. Regretfully Corey Feldman doesn’t completely reprise his role, but he does make a great cameo in the introduction. Although I haven’t seen this film in about two years, looking back at wikipedia’s plot summary does make me appreciate the movie. First off, it has a Scream-type of quality in that Jason is a real person for the majority of the film. Secondly, this film kicks off the “new” Jason through the incarnation of Jason’s spirit into Tommy’s body. Yet the killer known as Jason is never reassigned the new alias of Tommy - which could have been kind of cute.

What’s the point? Well, Friday the 13th V involves a new person adopting the Jason persona and thats pretty rad.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 - The Dream Child

Slashes: 3/4

I tried developing some sort of categorical system to group these films into, but its clear that the goal of producer Robert Shayne was to find anybody from the previous installments that was willing to be in another sequel. As I’m writing this I realize I need to rewatch this film so I will do that before I go on.


Damn, I had completely forgotten how much I enjoyed number five. This is one of the greatest late-term sequels of any horror series. That comic book sequence, man that is some badass shit! And for some reason I always vividly remember the scene when Alice’s friend arrives at the mental institution, having been scared to death of it when I was around twelve years old. Why this movie has a 4.6 on imdb is beyond me, though I’ll easily attribute it to being like a good wine that gets better with age. And how about the inclusion of some M.C. Escher inspired set pieces?! Damn! And by the way, this fact ain't on imdb so please check the website for my soon-to-be-infamous addition to Nightmare on Elm Street 5 trivia! For anyone who wants an autograph of mine leave your address in the comment sections.

Anyway, the movie involves Alice from the previous Nightmare movie (I don’t have the slightest clue what it was about) having just graduated high school, getting pregnant sometime before this. She starts having nightmares about the child, naming him Jacob after encountering a child in her dreams who is actually the creepy looking kid Dr. Grant scares in Jurassic Park. Side note: it must suck to be a child who’s sole acting quality is to look like an adolescent serial killer. And holy shit, even if you think the movie sucks stay tuned in for the credits playing a great song by Doctor Ice entitled Word Up Doc! Back to the movie though, bottom line Freddy is defeated, yet she has a kid who could be cursed with Freddy’s spirit...

What’s the point? Well, the potential for a new Freddy reincarnated into Alice’s baby seems to be the next move.

Halloween 6 - The Curse of Michael Meyers

Slashes: 3.5/4

I know what you’re thinking, Halloween six is not number five. Well no shit sherlock, but Halloween three has absolutely nothing to do with Michael Meyers so the true Halloween five is actually The Curse of Michael Meyers.

First off, there is something about this movie that is truly amazing. I have yet to see the producer’s cut, but I am willing to marry any woman who buys it for me off ebay. Supposedly it makes sense! That’s the problem with six, you feel like it could be more coherent but its just terribly assembled.

The basic premise is that Tommy, from the first Halloween, has returned and is now sporting a pretty advanced spy system in order to monitor the Meyer's house. This is along with developing an in depth research project dedicated to finding the origin of the Meyer’s curse. This whole movie is like an extremely bloody episode of Dawson’s Creek considering all of the drama and plot twists. There is suddenly a new mysterious insignia on Michael, the man in black is revealed as Dr. Wynn from the FIRST movie, and so on. Regretfully though, the ending sucks.

But hey, wikipedia thankfully has the alternate ending synopsis which makes me want to see it all the more so. And what do we find out?! That Michael originally ditched his outfit and adopts the clothing of the Man in Black!

What’s the point? Well, Micheal has gone through a transformation.

So let me recap

Friday the 13th pt. 5: Tommy becomes new Jason
A Nightmare on Elm Street pt. 5: Baby could be new Freddy
Halloween pt. 5: Micheal adopts a new persona

and Saw 5?

Officer Mark Hoffman is the new Jigsaw!

Conclusion: Number fives in horror series all seem to introduce new killers. But...the fun doesn’t end there and in part two of this research project I’ll theorize as to why this is. Check back!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Modern Day JFK

"I can't believe they killed him because he wanted to change our time, in our country" - Jim Garrison, JFK

No longer will do we have a leader who is the butt of all jokes, a man who will be remembered for the funny things he said, the wrong things he did and terrible choices made. After a 45 year hiatus we have now obtained a true hero of the times. Not since the days of the Kennedies or Martin Luther King have we had a political, intellectual figure to admire. It is a shame that some people are middle-aged now, never having experienced anyone to fulfill this role. But I guess its better late than never, and while I have the honor of being 22 years old during this time, everyone can share the privilege of being home to the country that bred this man. Of course I also get the additional bragging rights of being present at the place where this historic event took place.

With November being right after scary month I figured a political movie might be the best choice to kick start the month. This was my second time seeing the movie and given the political circumstances it took on new meaning. As happened the first time, I was pretty much convinced of the conspiracy come the end. Though while I initially viewed this movie about three years ago, roughly one year ago I saw a History Channel special that aimed to refute the claims made. And so after seeing the refute I was back to being skeptical of the conspiracy.

Now I am back to the other side of the fence, believing the corruption and power that government can have over its people. Thinking to myself that while the History Channel made good arguments, they condensed a 43 minute refute against a 206 minute argument. I don't remember much from the History Channel special, but I do know that a hefty portion of the it was spent on the magic bullet theory, to which I say, Yes, given the position of the seats and where the car was located it could be possible that a single bullet did the damage. BUT, I still argue that the history channel had never disputed the claims of the Mr. X portion - the most shocking moment of the film, and admittingly the most questionable (the video I have attached). Considering I have never read the two books JFK was based on, I can only have faith that Oliver Stone didn't fabricate the entire story. The point being that this fifteen minutes of explanation is one of the most intense monologues ever. Yes, the History Channel made good counter-arguments, but when weighed against the amount of material within the movie I'm still not convinced. This is not to say that I am 100% swayed; its just that if I HAD to choose sides I'd have to go on Oliver Stone's.

It is for this reason that I am now frightened about what is going on. Everyone has heard Iraq being compared to Vietnam, and just like the Vietnam lead to the creation of Eisenhower's Military-Industrial complex and the vast amount of profit to be gained from war, so does Iraq. Last time I checked America had spent $450 billion dollars on the war and I don't think it takes a genius to understand that some of that money is profiting the CEOs of Lockheed and Martin, Beoing, Raytheon, United Technologies, and numerous other defense contractors. The current administration having changed its story for the Iraq war between WMD's, stability and democracy all seems to be avoiding that the general public understands the true intentions - oil and middle-east positioning. Not to mention that I'm sure that should McCain have maintained our occupancy it wouldn't be more than five years before a McDonald's, Starbucks and Wal-Mart began popping up all over the country, along with the vast amount of political positions dedicated to those who supported the devastating decisions.

This all brings me to the quote at the top of the page - notice a parallel? When I heard this spoken in the film I became freaked out, so weird was the connotation between a movie made over ten years ago, discussing events from over 40 years ago and how they tied into modern times. Everyone has heard of Obama being deemed the Kennedy of our time, and thus I can't help but feel nervous. His "change" ideology is almost an exact replica of what the people say about the Kennedy administration's. Thus, it all begs the question as to what would prevent all those who are benefiting from this war to not follow in the same footsteps?

I do not think this will happen. I do not hope this will happen. But the argument presented by Stone does make me nervous, skeptical and hesitant against those who possess the will and money to make such situations capable of happening. For all those holding esteemed positions, whether politically or militarily, I hope they have the strength to be responsible with the ramifications of their decisions and support.

Yet the focus I am more directed towards is the people like Willie O'Keefe, who possess an unsupported animosity towards the liberal ideals of others. His claims against Kennedy saying he caused more violence in the streets due to the equality given to African Americans is completed unfounded. I find this no different than the hundreds of closet-case racists who try to fallaciously speak that it is the blacks fault for their horrendous socio-economic positions, that welfare and affirmative action is unfair, or the ABSURD declaration that there is a difference between blacks and "n-words." The amount of education these people possess compared to ignorance they have is shocking. How people can overlook that this minority gained equality, or at least began to, only FORTY-FIVE years ago is appalling. These people seem to overlook how through being situated into specific areas local governments created the modern day ghettos, how their education is shit compared to whites, that to this day there is STILL NO EQUAL INTEGRATION! Although Barack is president and thus has made a major stride compared to half a decade ago it remains that when I go back to my home town the mall is dominantly white, along with the restaurants, library, pool - the suburbs are white, the ghettos are black! Why do people believe this is a conscious choice? Why would anyone willingly adhere to an awful class status?

The fact remains that hate is bread out of ignorance. When two people debate at a party and one gets upset is it wrong to assume that the person who is angry is the one who has no evidence or foundation for their claims? For instance, when people claimed Obama would lead to socialism, he is a terrorist, he believes in the preaching of Wright and thus is ultra liberal completely fail to defend these claims! In college, numerous students will have teachers that profess ultra liberal ideals, does that mean they adopt the same principles? No. This was a great election because for once people were able to see through the bold, controversial claims, people were able to see that THE EVIDENCE DID NOT SUPPORT THE ARGUMENT. Yet people refuse to admit the truth and are forced into feeling frustration manifesting itself into fear and hate. Why people find it difficult to change their values, beliefs and ideologies is beyond me. An open mind is the one of the greatest traits a person can possess. I myself have been raised from an extremely conservative background. Every single one of my family members with the exception of my grandmother and uncle is right-winged. It was when I took Sociology 101 during my first semester of college that I realized how much I actually disagree with the political upbringing I have had. 

So I hope everyone can avoid the Willie O'Keefe mentality. Yet as this film has shown, whether it be 1968 or 2008, ignorant, irrational claims will continue to plague our culture no matter how positive the change is or can be.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Seymour Eights

The Five Best Lines from One of the Greatest Roles

Only Philip Seymour Hoffman could manage to develop one of the best characters of all time within 3 minutes and 20 seconds.

1.  I don't wait for old people, I don't wait for old people.

2.  I'm going to let you have this time to place your bet before I finish lighting this cigarette and when I finish lighting I'm going to roll - fuck you.

3.  You hear that I just said, "Fuck you" to the man, Jesus Christ.

4.  Da fuck ::laughs:: Oh man, you play that game? Shit.

5.  Hard six, that's a hard six old timer. That's not bad for me, that's not bad for me is it sister sledgeeee?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Scary Movie Month Ranking

And the winner is...
Results for the 3rd Annual Scary Movie Month

1.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Slashes: 4/4 
Best Moment: When the strange man approaches the car in an erratic fashion Philip Kaufman employs a realist approach, utilizing a long uninterrupted take.  As they get to the intersection a group of people run perpendicular to the road, they turn and see that the man is now dead with a handheld camera in the car.  Amazing!
Scariest Moment: When Matthew and Elizabeth are walking down the hallway they pass a door with a horrific man staring at them through it.  This is not addressed by the characters, and it occurs so early in film (before anything else really happens) that it helps push for a very creepy tension.

2. Jacob's Ladder
Slashes: 4/4 (changed)
Best Moment: Thinking to myself in a facetious manner that this whole film was probably about acid flashbacks, and then finding out I was right.
Scariest Moment: The scene at the party where the club music is playing and his girlfriend starts getting pounded by the stranger turns into some sort of monster.  The birds flying, the flashing lights, goddamn I was on edge.

3.  The Thing from Another World

Slashes: 4/4
Best Moment: When the men form a circle around the alien object, discovering its in the shape of a saucer!  
Scariest Moment: None, but considering I still give it 4/4 just goes to show how amazing the rest of the movie was.

4.  The Omen

Slashes: 4/4
Best Moment: When the priest is running through the forest after his discussion with Robert.  After freaking me out with his erratic demeanor it was perfect.
Scariest Moment: Obviously when the nanny hangs herself.  

5.  The Blob

Slashes: 3.5/4
Best Moment: When the best friend buys condoms at the drug store and the priest approaches him.  
Scariest Moment: The movie theater scene. Utilizing strobe lights to help take away the cheesy functioning of the blob made it perfect.

6. Joy Ride 
Slashes: 3.5/4
Best/Scariest Moment: See Entry Below.

7. The Fly 
Slashes: 3.5/4
Best Moment: When Seth Brundle goes into the bathroom and starts pulling out his finger nails/pukes up mucus/ear falls off/other thingy falls off.
Scariest Moment: The attempt to teleport the orangoutang.

8.  Tales from the Crypt

Slashes: 3.5/4
Best Moment: The entire story of the old man.  I forgot how good simple, short moral stories can be.  Add this with some quality horror and you got some kick ass shit.
Scariest Moment: The very Saw-esque razor blade basement scene (but considering the man was British it was better than most Saw scenes).

9.  The Innocents
Slashes: 3/4
Best Moment: When the young boy responds to the startled Miss Giddens: "It was only the wind, my dear."
Scariest Moment: When Giddens sees the man through the window.

10.  Scanners

Slashes: 3/4
Best Moment: When the head explodes.
Scariest: When the head explodes!

11.  Funny Games - 1997

Slashes: 3/4
Best Moment: The opening credits.  For being such a realist film these credits really caught me out of nowhere.  The death metal, 1970s exploitation type of approach was a great kick start in contrast to the classical music that introduced the film.
Scariest: When Hanneke holds the long take for about 10 minutes revealing the boy to have been shot.

12. Opera 
Slashes: 3/4
Best/Scariest Moment: See Entry Below

13. In the Mouth of Madness 
Slashes: 3/4
Best Moment: When they enter the small town.  I have an immense weak spot for any situation that involves outsiders entering a small town (whether it be Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Goosebumps, or horror films I get excited poop feelings).
Scariest Moment: The old man on the bicycle.  
14.  Company of Wolves 
Slashes: 3/4
Best Moment: Any of the stories the grandma told.
Scariest Moment: Waiting for some type of pedophilia to occur.

15. The Brood 
Slashes: 2.5/4
Best Moment: When the weird, small people kill the teacher.  
Scariest Moment: When the weird, small people kill the ex-husband. 

16. The Strangers
Slashes: 2/4
Best Moment: Mama Tried scene (see entry below)
Scariest Moment: Seeing the masked person for the first time (see entry below)

17. Salem's Lot 
Slashes: 2/4
Best Moment: When the husband catches his wife cheating.
 Scariest Moment: Dropping off the coffin.

18. Session 9 
Slashes: 1.5/4
Best/Scariest Moment: See Entry Below

19. Ghost Story 
Slashes: 1.5/4
Best Moment: The opening scene.
Scariest Moment: None

20.  Martin 
Slashes: 1/4
Best/Scariest Moment: See Entry below

21. Prom Night 
Fuck you!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

And that was that

Scary Movie Month is officially over, and all I have left is to finish Funny Games before I'm back to the pretentious foreign dramas and Keanu Reeves love stories. I can easily say this was not only the best SMM, but the best movie viewing month I've ever had, period. With the exception of one or two I had the longest streak of quality films. Because of this I have become a new man - I am now slowly but surely falling in love with the sci-fi/thriller films of the 1950/60s, I want to complete David Cronenberg's filmography, I want to try new vegetables, and I want to replace my orange halloween lights with a mini christmas tree.
Hopefully by tomorrow I will have my SMM Rankings posted up.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Strangers' New Technique

Mama Tried to mess with my DoF and all I got was this stupid movie

The Strangers has been a film I've looked forward to seeing for the past six months or so, back when i heard an interview with the writer/director Bryan Bertio conducted by the Creative Screenwriting Magazine podcast. From what I remembered he majored in film at the University of Texas - Austin and began working as a grip on films shot in the area. He had been submitting scripts to different contests during this time and eventually won with his strangers script. After flying in and out of LA a few times he was offered the directors position. One reason for this was his visual approach in which he stated that he didn't want the fake colors and highly stylized type of horror film prevalent today (i.e. Saw) and rather pushed for a more naturalistic method.

Now for some reason I have a deep love for these stories of first horror films, my favorite one being John Carpenter's Halloween. The reason for this is that horror is the one genre that requires an immense amount of creativity and ingenuity in eliciting terror within people. Money cannot buy fear or scares, rather it avoids problems by adding speical effects, extreme gore or large production sets. The low budget films Halloween and Psycho may seem gorey in content, but they actually have less blood than current television shows, yet people are convinced these movies possess what my mom describes as "all that blood and guts stuff." Because first time directors usually don't have access to the aforementioned equipment it requires the need to look towards other means to develop fear - Carpenter's amazing visual technique combined with a great plot, Wan's groundbreaking gorno devices, Craven's adoption of Eastern philosophy, Hooper's mastery of technique and ambiance - blogs could be written about any of these, and many other directors.

I want to talk about Mr. Bertino's technique - where he went right and how it lead to wrong.

The film opens up on a couple who have clearly just gone through a significant problem in their relationship. Given the fact that the man had this particular house in the country, it could be assumed that the problem was create by the woman. Did she cheat? Maybe they were just friends befor this point? Did she break up with him? (+1 pt for using visual rather than narrative to explain this).

Sadly, we come to find out that he proposed to her and she didn't give an answer. Now this was told in a completely UNNECESSARY flashback! As if the audience could not have put together the fact that while she had an engagement ring and was not wearing it combined with the resentful attitude of the man mean that there was a problem! Oh my god, would no one understand this?! They literally slapped us in the face for not being able to put the simple pieces together by resorting to a single flashback. I can just see the producer being like, "Although most people seeing this film will have completed grade school, they just will not get these simple facts. Hmmmm...I know, throw in a flashback!" (-2pt for treating the audience like an idiot).

Regardless, Bertino sucked us into the story of a relationship gone wrong, very similar in style to Cloverfield (where the first 30 minutes got me sucked into the subplot, almost forgetting a horror film was being viewed). It is because of this situation that the initial door pounding causes us to be so startled. While previous directors have adopted a style of either music, editing or composition in the frame to build up suspense, new horror films are now combining genres, drama and horror - sucking us out of what we intended to see and using this to their advantage.

When the girl appears at the door this also goes against our expectations as viewers. When a knock is heard within horror conventions, either no one will be there or it will be a friend or neighbor (Scream, Opera, I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc...) The idea of having a STRANGER asking if a particular person lives in the house located in the middle of nowhere at 4am is perhaps one of the creepiest things I can imagine (NOTE: look to the trivia on imdb).

The door in this situation is representing the unknown, or the hidden fear, and thus when the knocker reveals themself against conventions these hidden fears stand the chance of being wrongfully interpreted - in other words, either this person is crazy, lost, or drunk because with this house being in the middle of nowhere how else could this mistake be made? People are use to doorbells/knowkcing in horror films, but they are not use to the knocker being revealed as a creepy person. Bertino understands this fact and it develops an anxiety in the viewer. They want to answer the question of why this person knocked on the door and BOOM the anxiety seed is planted.

BUT, this is another problem I had with the movie. The establishment of the house in the middle of nowhere was TERRIBLY done. Instead of the stupid flashback they should have dedicated that time to build the selcusive nature of it. The only part of the movie that reveals the location of the house is the opening credit sequence where houses are being passed by and thus KIND OF, but NOT-REALLY-AT-ALL establishes the location. If they did this better, not only would the movie have worked out better, but the fear would have been established MUCH earlier.

So the husband leaves, and the wife sparks up the last cigarette; clearly wondering what the hell is going to happen to their relationship (+1pt for this because of its realism - although we know its a scary situation, Bertino knew that the woman's thoughts were preoccupied with other issues, and the knocker was not one of most people would respond given the circumstances).

It is at this point that the creepiest scene in the entire movie tajes place. The woman goes toward the sink, leaving screen-left open. Yet no longer does this open screen leave room for a pop out, for its not only a MEDIUM-SHOT, its a MEDIUM-LENS within a MEDIUM-SHOT. Though I assume the DP created this idea considering his track record of belonging to the ASC, this was a genious experiment. I can just see him telling Bertino "Do not play with the COMPOSITION play with the DEPTH OF FIELD to establish terror, people have become desensitized to the composition pop outs, its been played out" (look at my previous Halloween entry part 2 for an example of this).

Many times in horror the frame for pop-outs will be a very shallow, 2-DIMENSIONAL field of focus to work with - see Loomis and the window in Halloween, woman below window in Tales from the Crypt (movie), etc... This scene is an experiment with THREE DIMENSIONAL SPACE, allowing the entire kitchen to be seen. And so it happens! Because of the medium-lens, the partially shallow focus eventually reveals a blurry, horrendous figure in a mask located in the background. Bertino even fools the audience into thinking that the woman might see her as indicated by her glance into the window. The shot then reverses as she turns around, goes back to the previous and the man is gone. (+5 pts. for this revolutionary technique).

Suddenly the door starts pounding again for a marvelous sequence of heart-pounding action. She eventually reaches the bedroom and her husbands returns home just as the action stops. He's of course skeptical (as if her being frightened to death, bleeding and belligerent was all just a figment of her imagination...-1pt for this typical reaction). The scene then proceeds into what I thought was an amzing seuence involving the song Mama Tried by The Strangers playing while the best friend arrives at the house. It was a grat way to add a much more twisted element to the film, to the point that it provides almost a relief from the previous moment's horror.

This scene I feel is part of the glorified violence neo-horror (gorno) as observed in Saw and Hostel. Although I was not at the theater to see this movie I can just imagine people on their edge of their scenes, their hearts slowing down from the previous scene. Now those hearts are picking up seed again, BUT with a smile developing on their face in anticipation of what is about to happen with the shotgun. In horror films, when the audience knows something the characters do not it creates A LOT OF TENSION. I can just see neighbors telling each other, "Oh my God, the man is going to shoot his best friend!" Not because the neighbor doesn't know, but because people love to figure out movies! Bertino yet again knew this, and combined it with glorified violence. We do not know the friend, we do not care for there has been no development. In othe words, they wanted to see him get shot! With such a great, catchy song playing Bertino invokes an EXCITEMENT in the audience. I guarantee that after the friend got shot the entire theater was uproarious with laughter. This was hands down my favorite part of the film and one of the best scenes viewed in a long time. (+10 pts for this scene)

I will stop here because as far as I'm concerned after this point the movie takes not just a turn for the worse, but an instantaneous free fall into shit. It proceeds into contrived, uninspired, typical horror schema that we have all seen countless times and I do not want to spend anymore time talking about it. (-9pts for this)
I'm not sure what I was trying to accomplish with assigning arbitrary points, and I'll probaby never do it again. In the end I just needed them to equal...
5/10 or...
// slashes