Thursday, December 18, 2008

Jackie Brown, the Final Paper!

Yeah, here is the last of my film papers for the semester. Don't be sad, I now have more time for seeing movies, and next semester I am taking Film History 2, which covers the 50s through the present.

This paper is on Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino's interpretation of Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch. I really liked it, which kind of surprised me. I tend to think Tarantino takes to many liberties when it comes to pushing the boundaries of political correctness, but I didn't find to much to really complain about here that Leonard didn't do first.

But that's not what the papers about. The thesis is - "Tarantino uses art direction and character development to pay homage to these films and Leonard's writing."

Please note, diagetic is a word we cinema nerds use when we talk about the difference between music that would occur naturally in a scene (non-diagetic), i.e. a car radio, and music that is used to evoke emotions (diagetic), for example, the Star Wars theme.
So, here you go!

Jackie Brown vs. Rum Punch

Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown is the story of a flight attendant who trafficks money for a low-grade arms dealer, Ordell Robbie, in L.A. When picked up by the ATF, and knowing that Ordell will kill her to save his own skin, she hatches a plan to not only save herself from a choice between prison or death, but to get hold of Robbie's money as well. Jackie Brown is based on the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, the main character based on Leonard’s character Jackie Burke. Tarantino's other influence for the film, Blaxploitation films of the 1960s and 70s, gives a unique flavor to a film set (and made) in the mid-90s. Tarantino uses art direction and character development to pay homage to these films and Leonard's writing.

The fact that Tarantino had to make significant cuts to scenes and characters comes as no surprise. However, what he does include was chosen very carefully to create the proper ambiance for his characters to develop with an Elmore Leonard feel. In the scene where the law enforcement first pick up Jackie, not only is the dialog identical, but the description could have been directly inserted into the scene as well. Brown is cool and collected right from the beginning, knowing what's coming and not bothering to fight it, lighting a cigarette instead, just like in the book. Although we are introduced to Robbie and Louis differently, the gun show scene where Robbie is showing off his knowledge of guns to Louis has a similar effect. And later when Louis is described from bail bondsman Max Cherry's viewpoint, Louis is described as having “dull eyes that didn't seem to have any life in them but never missed anything” (Leonard), which encapsulates DeNiro's performance; not saying much, keeping his head low, but twitching at every sound and glancing out from behind his greasy bangs. However, although he doesn't miss anything with his eyes, he doesn't have the competence to understand what he sees, another key component to the character and the plot, both in the novel and the film. Tarantino is able to change character attributes which to some readers/viewers would seem important, such as names or race. However, because Tarantino keeps so closely to the character's personalities, their tics and their motivations, the characters come out the same.

Tarantino's use of soundtrack stands out in many ways because it is meant to be observed by the audience. He plays with the use of diagetic and non-diagetic sound; just when you think he is using the sound non-diagetically, the character pulls over, shuts off the car and the music stops, without morphing into diagetic music, remaining silent instead. In many ways this mimics the feeling of reading a book. In the novel, when Cherry comes to call on Louis, he asks what the music playing is and Simone says that it's the Marvelettes. Even not knowing who the Marvelettes are, or if they even exist, the type of music immediately pops into a reader's mind as a background for the scene. But when the scene is over there is no more background music, the scene is set anew with no 'audible' carryover, as there often is in film with diagetic sound. Tarantino also uses sound diagetically, as in the scene when Cherry bails Brown out of jail. Seeing her for the first time, he falls for her and the music is used in a classic way, the lyrics and tone reflecting the way he is feeling. The sound is also used as a tool to evoke the 60s and 70s heyday of funk and soul use in film. Before blaxploitation films, funk and soul were rarely heard, if ever, in films, especially diagetically. Tarantino pays homage to this contribution to cinema, in that “the soundtrack clearly functions quite differently from the classical Hollywood score” (Howell), just as in blaxploitation films such as Shaft or Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.

Tarantino's art direction is reminiscent of cinema of the 70s, without being condescending. It is hard to determine from scene to scene if the 70s feel comes from a use of cinematography techniques or simply the plastic materials. More often than not it's the latter. In the opening scene when Jackie Brown is traveling along a moving walkway, everything from the music to her clothes to the colors of the tiles give the scene a vintage look. Even the plane pulling into the gate behind her is the design used in the 1970s for United. Although many contemporary film goers see 70s film, and the blaxploitation genre in particular, as, at best, corny and, at worst, highly offensive, Tarantino saw this as a golden age of cinematic storytelling, one that shaped him as a person and a filmmaker. This gives him a unique opportunity to respectfully recreate some of the key elements for cinematic evolution. The end result is a timeless narration, where, while paying homage to the 70s, set in the 90s and viewed in 2008, the film remains cohesive and not in the least outdated.

When a film is inspired by a book, the idea should be to reformat the story for the screen, though some simply see the scenes and complain that they are changed from the book. Quentin Tarantino manages to satisfy both these requirements in Jackie Brown, using direct dialog and description parallels where he is able, but otherwise focusing on carrying over the overall sense of character and plot, motivation and moral.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Paper Three

This paper was supposed to be about an over arching Coen Brother's theme. I wrote about the American aspects of their film making, things that make them American Filmmakers, versus just Filmmakers.

To see this trend, it really does help to see a bunch of their films in a row (or, like me and my class, all of them)

Here's the paper! Oh, and keep in mind that I wrote this in an hour and I am not at all saying I did a great job on it!

That American Feeling

The Coens’ films have long been hailed for their eccentricity, their refusal to bow to the whims of those footing the bill, and their over-the-top, bloody plots. Sounds a bit like a country I once knew. A quintessentially American feeling permeates the Coen library. Through a combination of bleak landscapes that become characters, plastic materials that accentuate the satirical, and their ability to both ridicule and praise the American Dream, the Coens create an America that is more raw and honest then mainstream Hollywood films.

America is one of the few countries in the world that can look at the nature of anything from snowy-peaked mountains to rain forests to deserts and claim ownership. The Coens use this to give their films a distinct feeling. Raising Arizona and No Country for Old Men, with their stark rolling deserts and Fargo with its mimicking tundra; Blood Simple and O Brother, Where Art Thou? with their farmlands and forests; even the skylines of Hudsucker Proxy and the suburban monotony of The Man Who Wasn't There. Dialog scenes don't always hide indoors (with the notable exception of Intolerable Cruelty), and action isn't relegated to jumping over empty parking ramps. The use of desolate landscapes is often indicative of the characters’ situations, as in Fargo, or their personalities, as in No Country, where the harsh, unforgiving Texas desert mirrors the cold nature of Chigurh. In this way, the Coens utilize all the visual advantages that come with setting a film on American soil.

Plastic material is used as everything from McGuffin to social commentary in the Coens’ films. One of the reasons Blood Simple was such a hit with cineastes was the way they used conventional cinematic wisdom. In one piece of plastic material, a lighter left on a table that had no real pay off, they were able to utilize the rule of three and the McGuffin, not to mention the way in which it gave us more insight into one of the main characters. In Burn After Reading, plastic material is used throughout as a social commentary about the Bush administration. For instance, when Clooney and Swinton are lying in bed discussing their affair and possibly leaving their spouses, the bedding is made of American flags. The Coens are ever so subtly saying that our leaders screwed around us, and then lied about it not only to us but to those they screwed around with, too. Similarly, the horrific mess that is created with Washington D.C. as a backdrop is used to comment on the fragility of our nation’s capital.

The “American Dream” is an ever-evolving phenomenon, but its basic principle is that anyone can 'make it' – it's the definition of making it that changes. In recent history, America has had a habit of making celebrities out of regular people based on their wealth and/or status, creating a false sense of intimacy with the general public, as well as a hope that it could happen to you. The Coens mock this in their films by highlighting the lives of the average person who doesn’t make it big, but still has big things happen to them. In Raising Arizona they juxtapose the story of two average Americans, Ed and Hi, with the Arizonas, who are twice famous, once for their fortune, and again from their multiple birth. (The Arizonas are not unlike the oil mogul Kardashian family or the Hiltons). In The Man Who Wasn't There, they again turn it on its head by showing a man whose life fits the American Dream almost to a tee on the surface, but who upon further examination has a lot of issues. Some of the influence for this could have come from families they observed growing up in suburban Minnesota, the crime and violence of their films a way to “compensate for the fact that [their] lives were incredibly mundane” (Coen, J. - Levine)

None of this is to say that the Coens have not been influenced by foreign film, simply that they play out their influences in a different way. With a filmmaker like Tarantino, for example, you may get a hodge-podge of American, Hong Kong and New Wave film story-lines, whereas the Coens seem to have been influenced in practice more than style or story line. With World Cinema becoming more and more accessible to a general audience, the desire to have talented and thoughtful American filmmakers has increased, welcoming the advent of a mainstream embrace of the Coens’ films. The Coens learned early on what foreign filmmakers have known for sometime – a filmmaker cannot deny that where they came from has an effect on their storytelling and therefore on their audience. Hopefully, American moviegoers will catch up, too.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Paper Two

Now here's a paper that was due at the beginning of the semester and I just couldn't seem to come up with anything worth writing about, until it was past time for me to do so!

The Coen's most recent film, Burn After Reading, is pretty funny. It's not as artsy-fartsy as a lot of their other work, but really, we all need to take a break from those sorts of films, even the people who make them.

And without further ado, the paper!

The Coen brothers’ 2008 Burn After Reading tells the intertwined stories of a diverse group of people including gym workers, CIA agents, their love interests and the complete debacle they get themselves into. As with Coen films such as Blood Simple (Film Noir), Miller’s Crossing (Gangster), and Intolerable Cruelty (Romantic Comedy), Burn mimics a film genre, the spy thriller. Moreover, as in many of their films, Burn is infused with over the top characters and challenges to the status quo.

In their comedies more than their dramas, the Coens like to play with the audience’s assumptions about the complexities and non-complexities of their characters. For instance, when asked about the deficiency of their characters in Fargo, Ethan responded, “ go against the Hollywood cliché of the Bad Guy as a super-professional who controls everything he does” (Allan). Admittedly, it is hard to tell who the bad guy is and who the good guy is in Burn After Reading, and that's another Coen element in and of itself. Frances McDormand’s character, Linda, appears to be just what is expected; a shallow middle-aged woman looking to improve her appearance and thereby her chances for romance. However, Linda is the only character with any goals in the film, goals which she achieves in the end, however superficial they may be. Other characters are driven by different desires – Clooney by sex, Malkovich by recognition, Jenkins by love – but Linda is the only one who takes her desires and creates a goal, to re-invent herself, thus leading to her victory, being one of the few who lives and the only one whose desires are fulfilled. Pitt’s character appears to be devoid of even desires. He simply floats through life, much like a dog, without any concerns, and doing whatever his friends tell him to. When he first calls Malkovich, his only real intent is to return the CD-ROM, and by inspiration from McDormand, he thinks a reward may be in order. The response Malkovich gives him is expected (by the audience), but Pitt's reaction is devoid of any organic emotion – it is entirely supplied by McDormand, her emotional response at having this chance at money slip past her. Pitt's lack of motivation and willingness to be led by others leads to his sudden demise, the first killing in the film. But, here too, the Coens turn our assumptions of what an empty character without motivation looks like. Pitt is empty, but not bland. His character still has little things that make him stand out, such as his insistence on trying to be a Good Samaritan or his affinity for biking and pop-dance jams. These are the kinds of motivations a writer can give an actor to enable the actor to bring the character to life, and the kinds of motivations the Coens are so good at.

A concept often seen in CIA films is a character knowing the full story, someone who has all the pieces of the puzzle, or has at least pieced it together. The Coens play with this concept by showing the meetings between the two CIA officers ranked higher than Malkovich. The two know the entirety of what is happening, but they never quite get a handle on why. The Coens use this for a few reasons. The first, and most obvious, being a slap in the face to critics and film theorists who consistently ask why. Their point is that sometimes the ‘what’ can stand on its own – even though it never does in their films. A simple, satirical, rationale is that the supposedly sophisticated espionage professionals really don’t know what they are doing, and their overriding goal is always cover-up. Which leads to yet another advantage to including these scenes - it allows the Coens to involve a clean-up crew in their story. In some of their earlier films, questions arise; “Where are the police?” “Why hasn’t anyone noticed all these dead bodies?” Much hilarity comes of seeing the ways in which the CIA agents try to clean up this mess, a mess whose origin is a complete mystery to them. They work triage like medics in the field, taking a lot of the omnipresent power the CIA is usually shown to have, and turning it on its head.

Although Burn will most likely not go down in the film theory books as one of the Coens’ masterpieces, it contains enough of their standard elements to come out on top, containing that Coen Brothers feeling, if you will. As Ethan Coen once said, “ have the feeling you're attending a congress of misfits!” (Allan.)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Catching Up

This past week I wrote and handed in four papers. Yes, I am a Strandskov, and yes, I work better under stress, thus the procrastination. But let's not harp on that point! Here for your enjoyment (?) is the first of the papers, with a mini-review before hand in case you aren't into the whole three page paper about a film thing!

The Take is a rather moving film about industrial workers in Argentina who, after having the factories they work in shut down, take them over to show that they can run them better than their bosses did. It's a pretty socialist concept, but at the same time it really make sense in a capitalist way too. One family talks about how they have to choose between paying off debts or feeding their three daughters - surprise! They feed their kids. But at the same time they miss luxury's and they definitely want them back on top of the basics. It's a pretty awesome film and, as I think I say in the paper, all the better because the filmmakers, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, are up front about their relation to the movement and their liberal ideology's...not that they could have hid it, but I give them props for owning up to it, unlike a lot of documentarians.

So, here's the paper!

The Take (Canada)

Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, self-proclaimed “activist-journalists”, set out to answer the question, “What next?” when it became apparent that protesting the widespread illness that capitalism has experienced over the past decade wouldn't be enough. Lewis and Klein sought to do more than document people who were protesting outcomes of the actions taken by world leaders (political and private); they wanted to find people who were doing something about it. Enter Argentina. Factory workers in Buenos Aires created a system in which they take back the closed factories they used to work in and make them viable again. It is a very egalitarian system, with many of the factories paying every employee the same salary. Lewis and Klein don't try to hide the fact that they are on the worker's side. Instead, they declare themselves biased and then back their bias with logos and pathos.

It seems as though Lewis and Klein try to go the conventional journalism route of showing both sides of the story, worker and owner. They have an interview with one of the factory owners in what appears to be his lavish office, complete with a bottle of champagne chilling in the background. This is in stark contrast to the images of how former factory workers live, barely surviving, and practically begging to be sent back to work. So when the owner says, while reclining in his velvet chair, that the factory is his because he is the one who has worked for it, the logical response is that he is either lying or delusional, because the filmmakers have shown him only as a man of leisure and the workers as men of toil. The owner claims that the factory is his, though he is smiling throughout his interview, apparently indifferent to the fact that the factory that he worked so hard for now sits gathering dust; while the workers are brought to tears thinking of this place standing empty.

B-roll footage is used to create both logical and emotional responses in the viewer. The roaming shots of the cobweb-filled factories are juxtaposed with musically enhanced, Metropolis-like, assembly line shots of working machinery. These evoke first a logical response - “Why can't that factory be up and running?” In the industrialized world it is logical to assume that a factory with working machinery and workers who wish to work can, in fact, work. Without needing a narrator or subject to directly explain the connection, Lewis and Klein use the editing of the b-roll to force acceptance of the preposterous situation. An emotional response follows, brought on when the viewer realizes that politics, wealthy men, and close-minded views of capitalism are all that stand between working factories and working men. This is highlighted in a scene recorded outside a courtroom while the workers are trying to prove to the judge that the factory trustee has been selling off the contents of the warehouse and factory. They are incredibly respectful to the judge, but when she begins to yell at them, they recoil, saying that perhaps they are not addressing her correctly. Including this scene demonstrates the way these otherwise tough men feel belittled and removed from their own justice system. Throughout the film the workers never label themselves as anarchists or communists, even though they refer to each other as ‘compañeros.’ Most of them vote in their presidential election and happily reminisce about their previous materialistic life. Roger Ebert writes about the issue of modern capitalism versus classic capitalism in his review of The Take: “Is this sort of thing a threat to capitalism, or a revival of it? The factories are doing what they did before…but they are doing it for the benefit of workers and consumers…This is classic capitalism as opposed to the management pocket-lining system, which is essentially loot for the bosses, and bread and beans for everybody else.”(Ebert). However, the judge speaks to them condescendingly, telling them that she wants to help them get their jobs back and that she can’t do that if they keep resisting. She has a very narrow, more modern, view of how the capitalist world works, and it does not include workers running their own factories.

Emotional triggers of tears and children are used throughout the film. Made in Argentina by Canadians for a mainly Western audience, the sight of a grown man crying is more distressing than a woman or child crying because it is so outside our cultural expectations of men. The filmmakers utilize the rule of three and show men crying three separate times. We first see a man crying after being back in the factory for the first time in five years, then when Freddy Espinoza (a worker whose family story is followed during the film) is telling his story to the men gathered at a conference of workers, and finally when a man calls his mother and father to let them know that a law has just been passed to allow them back into their factory. Espinoza's wife is brought to tears when she talks about this experience robbing her husband of his dignity. But the men's tears are more effective because they show us, in a more visceral way, the pain these men have felt. Children are used as silent reflectors of this economic carnage. There are three daughters in the Espinoza family; the oldest attends a workers’ meeting with her father, silently observing; the second is given close-up treatment, drinking from a Minnie Mouse cup while her mother discusses making the decision to feed her children rather than pay her bills. In the final shot of the film the youngest runs to catch up with her father and sisters who have disappeared into the now up- and-running factory. Ending the film with a little girl running off-screen creates a Lorax effect – “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not” (Geisel). For the moment her future is up in the air, with a victory for her father, but the political and economic situation still roiling.

The filmmakers of The Take use a developed-world lens to examine the turmoil created by a developing country falling in line with the demands of Globalization. Logos and Pathos are two of the oldest tricks in the proverbial book to win an argument. Lewis and Klein were able to utilize them through their imagery and editing and the end result is an inspiring, if sobering, film that gives one possible answer to their question of, “What Next?”