Oscars 2018 – Thoughts & Predictions

This is probably the strongest set of Best Picture nominees since the expanded format was introduced in 2009. I’m well aware of the limitations of the Academy Awards; but, as a symbol of Hollywood, it is moving in the right direction by embracing a more diverse range of films. Following on from my 2015, 2016 and 2017 editions, here are some thoughts and predictions.

Call Me By Your Name

With the breathtaking Italian countryside as a backdrop, this portrait of intimacy and first love is cinematic art at its finest. The attention to subtle emotions through the performances and Guadagnino’s direction creates a deep sense of authenticity. Chalamet makes vibrant choices throughout, investing Elio with a youthful exuberance that makes the final act all the more heartbreaking. Absolute perfection.

Will win: Adapted Screenplay; Should win: Film, Actor, Adapted Screenplay.

The Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman does a Winston Churchill impersonation and some smart people have built an effective enough film around it. Certainly not a deep examination of history or character, particularly when the film lurches into earnestness to avoid anything remotely biting.

Will win: Actor, Makeup and Hair; Should win: Makeup and Hair.

Dunkirk

A pretty fine example of ride cinema, but not exactly insightful to any degree. Because it is 2017 the question needs to be asked: There were women involved in this story too – so where are they in this film? Dunkirk is ultimately quite dreary and isn’t much more than a highly entertaining ride. Nolan focuses on the immediacy of the situation making cinematic moments that have impact, but they hardly resonate after the credits roll.

Will win: Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing;

Get Out

It’s outrageous that this should be nominated in the Academy Awards given this film is fresh, relevant and so original. Its potent satire is on point and it’s masterful construction makes it easily one of the best films of last year. Welcome to the year 2017 Academy voters. I would love to see it upset in the tight best picture race.

Will Win: Original Screenplay; Should Win: Original Screenplay

Ladybird

Another wonderfully authentic exploration of meaningful characters. The highlight is the textured world created by the supporting characters; some only have a couple of scenes, but their stories resonate. The heart of the film, Ladybird’s relationship with her family, is a special journey. I’ve always loved Greta Gerwig and I’m very pleased the success of this film means more people will seek out her work.

Should win: Supporting Actress

Phantom Thread

The story of Reynolds Woodcock and his complex relationship with Alma is totally absorbing. The film is intoxicating with its finely realised world of fashion, family and desire. Anderson’s craft is at its finest here, creating sustained unnerving tension.

Will win: Costume Design; Should win: Director, Costume Design

The Post

There is social importance plastered over every frame of The Post. That’s not necesarily a criticism, because while it reinforces liberal beliefs in a mildly smug way, it is also incredibly well-crafted. The Spotlight procedural works on the intimate level, but the efforts of the film to take on an epic scope with protests on the streets of Washington and a trip to Vietnam are clumsy. Very timely, but ultimately very safe.

The Shape of Water

Incredible design realising the 1960s context with classic Del Toro vividness. The film is best when it plays more artistically with its form; elements that are played more straight like the Russians land less effectively. It’s a sweet allegory and contains some nice accessible social commentary, but I’m pretty surprised that it is leading the awards conversation.

Will win: Film, Director, Production Design, Score; Should win: Production Design, Sound Editing.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Much has been made of the tone mosaic of McDonagh’s film. I really enjoyed the jarring cuts between comedy and tragedy making for something more realistic and complex. There are no clearly drawn villains or heroes, no redemption of comforting resolution. The film is shaky on race but I loved the ambiguity of where it settles.

Will win: Actress; Should win: Actress.

Other Will Wins:

Supporting Actress: Allison Janney, Cinematography: Blade Runner 2049, Song: Coco, Visual Effects: War for the Planet of the Apes, Animated Feature: Coco, Documentary Feature: Faces Places; Foreign Film: A Fantastic Woman.

More Should Wins:

Best Editing & Sound Mixing: Baby Driver; Best Cinematography: Blade Runner 2049.

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Jean-Pierre Melville – Existential Cinema

And to Melville, the fate of the gangster-movie hero is inseparable from his style or his morality; it’s part of the form he occupies, just as his Cadillac and his chivalrous manners are.  A man has no choice; if he’s in a gangster picture, he looks a certain way, behaves a certain way, and dies a certain way.  Genre is destiny — and ethics.  In fact, Melville’s films express a philosophy that only a Frenchman could have dreamed up — and only a movie-mad Frenchman at that: it’s genre existentialism. (Schiff, 186)

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In an early scene of Le Cercle Rouge, a corrupt prison guard visits Corey who proposes a job. Within their hushed conversation the guard says: “time is short”. Such a remark may as well be a comment on Jean-Pierre Melville’s gangster films as a whole. In the later part of his career Melville became consistent with his approach to his protagonists fate; as Stephen Schiff observes, “he looks a certain way, behaves certain way, and dies a certain way” (186). This essay argues that Melville’s obsession with the mortality of his gangsters is not so much a genre consideration, but is instead a reflection on the way Melville understands cinematic time. His characters are all time-bound, routine defines them and time always runs out. The key components of this argument centre on Melville’s world as self-aware as well as his unique approach to time and space where duration is crucial.

Melville’s understanding of time is intrinsic with his understanding of cinema. This is an idea I will return to when I look at the notion of real time in Melville’s world. His films are compact. He provides his characters with situations to explore in a very self-conscious framework. More particularly, he provides his characters with a frame to inhabit by using consistent opening and closing devices. His endings deal with the thematic concerns he introduces at the beginning; often the time of the film coincides with the time of the protagonist. In other words Melville’s cinematic window is existential.

The rubrics that open many of his films demonstrate this. They present the frame in which the film will take place, and introduce the ideas that the ending must address. They support Melville’s view that films are a contained space; characters exist in the time given to them. Furthermore, they give a heightened awareness to the context of cinema. Their content is important too. The rubrics that introduce his gangster films are recurrent with the “vocabulary of solitude, choice and death and their underlying theme of the necessity of integrity” (McArthur, 190). This language is reinforced throughout the film through many techniques, but in particular Melville’s mise-en-scene.

Opening shot of Le Samouraisource

In Le Samourai the rubric introduces the main themes of the film and also addresses the notion of time. The rubric occurs over Jef’s silent apartment that we have been watching while the titles appear. It reads: “There is no greater solitude than that of the Samurai, unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle”. Jef’s solitude is integral to Le Samourai, and this is visually depicted in the same frame. Jef is seen (although as Roger Ebert notes in his review, it is easy to miss that the room is not empty [269]) reclined on his bed, barely moving while he smokes. There is no movement of light to suggest the passing of time, only the faint sight of smoke emerging from the scarcely visible body. In other words, time is almost standing still for the solitude of this man.

This rubric, as well as others, reflects the notion of fate. The ultimate solitude comes in death; as Jef is in the role of the Samurai, he must be subject to it. Le Deuxieme Soufflé is more explicit: “At birth man is offered only one choice – the choice of his death…” Melville reflects this explicitly. He does not let us forget throughout his gangster films that what we are watching are depictions of fate because of his adherence to the gangster genre and framing. Fate itself is finite. It will enforce a conclusion. His gangsters’ fates are as inevitable the conclusion of the film. Hence, Melville’s films are frameworks that often open with words that state a concern with time’s influence.

The rubrics are not the only device used to suggest the imminence of time. As mentioned before his use of genre and mise-en-scene allude to fate and time, but also significant is the dialogue. Though sparse throughout his films, there are important moments where what is said positions the protagonist in a temporal frame. Jef’s second visit to the mechanic, and the only with dialogue, contains a statement that firmly announces Melville’s intentions. The mechanic says, “this will be the last time” as Jef hands over the money. In this there is a confirmation that the film, and Jef’s existence is coming to a climax. The two mechanic scenes efficiently bookmark Jef’s cinematic existence, and in turn remind us of his imminent fate.

If Melville’s understanding of time is influenced by mortality and existentialism, what emphasis does Melville place upon the past? If one is to believe Adrian Danks, that “Melville’s cinema is essentially tonal” (6), that style premeditates his narratives about feelings rather than continuity (Groves), then the characters that inhabit them are clearly not classically constructed. Melville’s narratives are details located in the present. The past is of no interest to Melville, neither is the future beyond the death of his protagonists. Existence is fundamental. Because of the restricted cinematic framework that Melville lets his characters occupy, the past therefore has little importance.

7ff2d57fe42563e0bfb399319191399cBoth Bob Le Flambeur and Le Cercle Rouge demonstrate this. Bob’s past is suggested, but what is important is the frame on which the film focuses. His introduction in the film evokes an “old young man [who was] a legendary figure of a recent past” (Vincendeau, 111). His reputation is suggested by his silent acknowledgement of bystanders on the street who call his name. However little of this matters, it simply makes his character seem worthy of the film’s focus. Similarly, for Corey, Vogel and Jensen, what they are when they enter the narrative is what they are. Corey is just out of prison, but that is all we learn; Vogel has escaped capture for something we don’t discover; and Jensen has been a dirty cop for an unknown length of time. These are all presumed back-stories that are never referred to in terms of narrative.

As a result of this limited existence, Melville’s characters do little to lend themselves to psychoanalysis. His characters are complex, but only in the realm of the present. Perhaps this is because “Melville has a way of watching, rather than sharing, his characters’ perplexities” (Durgnet, 40). As a result they exist only in the time that Melville sets for them. There are no flashbacks to tell us of childhood trauma, there is only the present to suggest a past. Le Samourai is an exemplary example of a chronological temporal scheme where we see nothing that belongs outside the frame of the film. There are only events that imply a previously made understanding such as with the Mechanic. As a result of this limited existence, the viewer has only the present to interpret the past.

Characters therefore inhabit a space that has no past and no future. Melville’s gangster films have a prescribed framework that is both morbid and exciting. “A man has no choice,” says Stephen Schiff (186). He is trapped within the frame of a structure he cannot escape and at the mercy of the time Melville allows for him. Schiff goes on to suggest this is a genre related concern of Melville’s world. But even though it is indisputable that Melville’s films are highly influenced by the American gangster, his use of time as a signifier for fate alludes to something that is more Melville than American.

However within Melville’s understanding of time there appears a paradox. He is very cinematically aware, which immediately makes any analysis on the grounds of realism problematic. There appears no room for real time because of his cinematic sensibilities. Although a few sequences oppose this idea, a general consideration of Melville’s world sees an extended use of time, but one that is by no means pragmatic. McArthur claims the look of Melville’s films and their use of iconography “are out of cinema rather than out of ‘life’” (196). However his statement could just as easily describe his understanding of time as being one that is not real time (out of ‘life’), but rather is one that comes from cinematic awareness.

One of the ways this idea is demonstrated is in how Melville designs his space, in particular the police station in both Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge. Danks refers to Melville’s use of time and space as “peculiar” (2) situating Melville once again outside mainstream cinema. The police station of Le Cercle Rouge contains two important rooms off a long corridor. Mattei is attempting to gain the alliance of Santi in one room while holding his son on false charges in the other. His plan is unsuccessful as the charges turn out to be true, and in attempting to straighten out the situation goes back and forth between the rooms. Melville could just have easily placed the two rooms adjacent to one another, but instead he chooses to extend the space by following Mattei in tracking shots that mirror one another. The realistic length of time, of which every second is captured, is indeed “peculiar”.

In Le Samourai the space is used extensively as well. Towards the end of the police station sequence the Inspector comes up with a plan to identify Jef as the man who Wiener saw leaving his mistress’s apartment. To do so he prepares a room full of suspects and switches Jef’s hat and coat to make identification more difficult. He then returns to bring Wiener into the room. It is important to remember that both of these spaces have been established and that a literate viewer could, without difficulty, have filled in the passage of time that passes as the inspector makes his way between the rooms without disrupting continuity. However Melville does not edit this sequence to the classical tradition, instead he has it operate in real time. The camera does not track instead it cuts to a setup ahead of the inspector which then pans to follow his course to the next location. It is the space and its design that allows Melville to invest in this sequence.

Such scenes allude to heightened awareness of the presence of time, which is also expressed through time’s actual appearance. Le Samourai uses reminders of time in the form of on screen captions. It is not the actual time that is shown that is important; instead it is the suggestion that Melville’s world is a finite space. Furthermore time appears frequently within Melville’s mise-en-scene. Clocks appear repeatedly in both Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, like in the respective protagonists’ apartments. Moreover clocks are used to generate tension, such as on the Metro in Le Samourai, and in the security guard’s room at the jewel store. Arranged meetings too rely heavily on the presence of time. When Corey is waiting to meet Mattei late in Le Cercle Rouge, he is captured in a sequence of shot-reverse-shot between him and his glances towards the club’s wall clock, and then again glancing down to his own watch as if he does not trust what he has seen.

Police Station in Le Samourai – source

Perhaps the payoff from the heightened awareness of time is Melville’s investment in details, which plays close to real time. The idea of “cinema of process” has been conceived to describe the unique way in which Melville has a cinematic respect for real time. His long sequences of mainly movement, like his heists or the described scenes at the respective police stations, come under this term. This has led to critics praising Melville for honouring the “integrity of actions by allowing them to happen in a way significantly closer to ‘real’ time than was formerly the case in fictive, particularly Hollywood, cinema” (McArthur, 191). ‘Cinema of process’ is often associated with sequences of observation where events unfold often with skill and professionalism, such as Melville’s renowned heist sequences.

These scenes of observation often create a high level of tension. Melville’s editing in these sequences is crucial to generating this effect. Although little is happening, the rate of cutting generally increases. This is a reflection on Melville’s camera, which rarely moves with his characters. When Corey and Fogel make their way to the rooftop for the jewel heist in Le Cercle Rouge, they are followed by numerous stationary camera set ups that pan and tilt, but never track. In effect this creates a trust between the audience and Melville: that real time is being maintained. When time is skipped, Melville is not subtle. He frequently uses inserts, but often returns to the same camera angle to emphasise the passage of time. Even more obvious are his wipes, which are often disruptive – an effect Melville was likely aiming for. As a result real time can be assumed, which allows Melville to generate suspense.

One important aspect of Melville’s creation of tension in ‘cinema of process’ sequences is his use of sound. As well as fluid editing, diegetic sound helps to maintain continuity. Sounds that we can see being produced make time appear more continuous, especially if it is has a rhythmic quality. In Un Flic, the beginning of the film contains the constant sound of waves, which generates the dramatic drive of the opening few minutes. In the heist from Le Cercle Rouge the ticking of the recording device in the guard’s room gives the scene a heightened realistic sensibility while fulfilling the role of dramatic music. Le Samourai is filled with important diegetic sound. In particular footsteps provide an important role in generating a realistic sense of time as Jef passes through locations. Furthermore, trains in all three films at various moments indicate a heightened sense of continuity and tension with their natural crescendo and cyclic quality.

With these ‘cinema of process’ sequences having important contributions from editing and diegetic sound for their effectiveness, they provide the means for Melville to use time in an empirical manner. Just like the duration of the film, and the screen life of the characters, these sequences have deadlines. This, combined with established objectives, is important in creating the tension. Overall it is the heightened awareness of time, and its relatively realistic presentation, that gives the ‘cinema of process’ its ability to generate such drama from such apparent triviality.

Given this heightened awareness of real time that the ‘cinema of process’ has, there seems an apparent relationship between a realistic representation of time and the mortality of the characters involved. For this idea it is of more use to consider his entire films as emblematic of the ‘cinema of process’. The films begin with the introduction of fate and typically end with the recognition of its supremacy. Within this framework, the commitment to ‘cinema of process’ gives a heightened importance to time, hence acknowledging an end in a realistic realm rather than cinematic. This awareness of time is symbolic of the transience of the characters. Therefore the characters destiny is subject to the framework that Melville places them in, one where time will impact and death will consequently befall.

Overall, Adrian Danks summarises Melville well when he stated, “his films present a collection of minute observations and actions played out in what seems to be real time, while also reveling in self-conscious displays of what could pass for pure style” (Danks, 3). For any conclusion on the work on Melville, it seems neglectful to not consider style. But Melville’s use of time considered independently suggests a wider metaphor that says more about Melville than his style ostensibly could. Perhaps, considering the heightened awareness of time, the contained frameworks he adheres to, and the emphasis on process, Melville’s gangster films could be seen as a metaphor for life. Time is therefore even more important. It is a narrative agent for fate, making any of Melville’s protagonists well and truly doomed whether they inhabit a gangster narrative or not.


Danks, Adrian. “Together Along: The Outside Cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville.” Senses of Cinema 22 (September 2002)

Dickos, Andrew. Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir.

Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.

Ebert, Roger. The Great Movies. New York: Broadway Books, 2002.

Groves, Tim. “Jean-Pierre Melville.” Lectures presented at Victoria University of Wellington. 3, 7 and 14 August 2007.

McCarthur, Colin. “Mise-en-Scene Degree Zero: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967).” French Film: Texts and Contexts. 2nd Edition. Eds. Susan Haywood and Ginette Vincendeau. Routledge: London and New York, 2000. 189-201.

Schiff, Stephen. “Bob le Flambeur (1955),” Foreign Affairs: The National Society of Film Critics’ Video Guide to Foreign Films, ed. Kathy Schulz Huffhines. Mercury House:  San Francisco, 1991.

Vincendeau, Ginette. Jean-Piere Melville: An American in Paris. London: BFI Publishing, 2003.


Bob le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, Fr, 1955)

Le Cercle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, Fr, 1970)

Le Deuxieme Souffle (Jean-Pierre Melville, Fr, 1966)

Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville, Fr, 1967)

Un Flic (Jean-Pierre Melville, Fr, 1972)

Film Genre – Westerns

This workshop was delivered by Dr Claire Henry as part of Massey University’s support of the Wellington Media Studies secondary school programme. Previously they have hosted workshops on documentary storytellingjournalism in the smartphone era and teaching script writing. The session was to discuss:

  • 240px-great_train_robbery_still

    Source: wikipedia

    The value and shortcomings of a genre lens (from perspective of both producers and audiences)

  • Genre theory and the western – theorists and theories applied to texts
  • The future of the western – speculation and possibilities

One of the interesting areas of discussion was in questioning genre as an approach to text. The value includes providing a framework for critical analysis and interpretation – a lens by which to read a film. It can also be useful to see trends and navigate the relationship that genres and their ideologies have with societal concerns. Equally genre hybridity is a challenge to this approach and the lack of clear delineation. This fluidity is challenged by what Jill Nelmes considers genre to be: “a conceptual prism allow[ing] critics to simultaneously address activities or industry, audience and culture” (189).

In her discussion of Westerns, Henry suggested that trends of the genres exist with specific characteristics:

  • Classic westerns – Ford and Hawks, thinking about the racism in the films: do they advocate tolerance and difference? Or a metaphor as a challenge to civil rights?
  • Spaghetti westerns – Leone, revitalisation of genre through parody, difference between the intentions and the way the audience reads the film?
  • Revisionist westerns – Costner and Eastwood, western imagery with darker modern themes bringing the moral order of the western into question.
  • Feminist westerns – a subgenre? Role of women in westerns? Films of Kelly Reichardt.

Other discussion considered the role of the western ideology in films that sit outside the genre. Brokeback Mountain for instance as an inquiry into masculinity. The 80s, when the western was absent, had a wave of films when the ideology of vengeance was being explored. Modern trend of taking the Midwest out of the genre and examining the themes in other contexts, i.e. Australia (The Proposition) and Indonesia (Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts). Does the trend towards hybrid film genres mean that the pure Western is dead? Baroque approaches (Tarantino) and remakes might be the way forward.

Very grateful to Claire Henry for this opportunity to sit back and see the students taught by someone else. She generated a lot of valuable thinking!

Image source: Wonder Costumes

NZIFF 2017

201720poster20-20feature20slider-800-800-600-600-crop-fillAnother year, another NZ Film Festival. Overall, this one contained many a highlight, but I encountered more duds than I ever have before. This was disappointing for my holistic experience, but exciting for the diversity of this summary blogpost.

My festival kicked off with John Hamm playing a holographic version of a dead husband. Marjorie Prime contained ideas much more interesting than the execution: the text may as well have stayed on stage. On the flip side, the cinematic joy of Kiki: Love to Love was contagious. It was kink-positive and had some delightful scenes, but a story line that wants us to laugh at rape is unforgivable in 2017. The Ornithologist probably got a lot right, but not being versed in the tale of Saint Sebastian made for a challenging two hours. Finally the hot mess that was The Square shouldn’t really be in a paragraph about ‘duds’ because it really was close to something cohesive and commendable. Instead the result was one of the greatest cinematic sequences of all time, with another few outstanding scenes plus a lot of dribble. The film will stay with me, but it could have been another Force Majeure.

The festival’s closing night, Good Time, was a visceral delight. Stretching cinematic language to make something that was both raw unnerving realism and styled like a John Carpenter’s 70s back catalogue B-movie (including an synth-score). I Am Not A Witch set in Zambia was a bold in its absurdity and satire. The evocative images of the last minutes of the film are etched in my memory. Also hard to forget will be My Friend Dahmer which was chilling and extremely well made – but I’m left wondering where this serial killer fascination will end and why exactly I’m so happy to play along with the game? The game of The Teacher was delightful. A Czech story of corruption and a reminder of just how much power I have as a teacher, if I was to choose to use it…

Some of the documentaries I encounter this year were strong. I Am Not Your Negro is a contender for the best of the fest. Constructed flawlessly, for me it opened up a whole new angle to consider racism, privilege and identity. I will definitely watch it again and I will definitely spend more time finding out about James Baldwin. Step contained some outstanding subjects: the young women of Baltimore Leadership School were inspirational. The insight into their world and the school doing things differently to ensure they have the best chance of succeeding was truly moving. Less successful was The Farthest, which contained content that landed, but visual storytelling that was misguided. Completely misguided was 100 Men, which managed to mention every buzzword in gay history, but offered nothing more than a surface exploration in a highly limited form.

The highlights of the festival came in the queer cinema category. While the representation was really positive – the quality of the films themselves is really encouraging. A Date for Mad Mary is charming and quaint. While the script wasn’t flawless, it was accessible and well-pitched. God’s Own Country was another matter altogether. While it will struggle to find a mainstream audience, it has secured a NZ distribution deal which is a testament to it’s quality. It is moving – depicting the love between a hired hand and a lost local and the landscape of Yorkshire with care and intensity. Francis Lee is a filmmaker to follow. BPM (Beat Per Minute) also resonated. The context was Paris in the 90s as we follow an AIDS activist group. There is palpable tension in the political edge of the film, but it’s the interwoven personal threads which make the film so special.

The crown of the festival for me goes to Call Me By Your Name. Another queer film, this time in a Italian summer filled with literature, music, architecture and love. It observes the forming of a pure relationship with an inquisitive camera which often lingers on specific details and finds beauty throughout the sun-soaked setting. The central performances create the initially unsaid attraction and then later their beautiful sensual connection with such admirable care. It’s a masterpiece for queer cinema, but it’s a film that deserves to find a large audience as the storytelling is just so timeless.

Michael Mann – Violence and Displacement

Max: “First time in LA?”

Vincent: “No. Tell you the truth; whenever I’m here I can’t wait to leave. It’s too sprawled out, disconnected.”

For hit man Vincent in Collateral, calling Los Angeles disconnected is an appropriate way for his character to view the space. But for Michael Mann’s cinema in general, the space he portrays is not as sprawled out as Vincent might think. For Mann, spaces are defined (Groves) and often characterised in contrast to another. Space is often subject to something that does not belong, a violation of context. What was a divided world becomes the corrupted space of invasion. In Mann’s cinema this intrusion is often the catalyst for violence. Violence is not an aesthetic occupation; instead it is a result of anxiety spawned from the transgression of space. In this essay I will discuss Mann’s use of space and argue that violence in Mann expresses the displacement created by the destruction of context. Then, drawing on the ideas of Jean-Pierre Thoret and Mark Wildermuth, I will claim that this displacement contributes to an expression of dehumanisation in Mann’s cinema.

51berpuoowlAt its most basic level, violence expresses territorial claim. The competition for space has close ties with the importance of masculinity in Mann’s cinema. Existentially empty men often engage in force for survival. The Last of the Mohicans, set in 1756, positions its central characters amongst the conflicts for land between the French and the English. Each side is established in opposition to the other, wearing uniforms that establish their rivalry as well as their competition with the land. This contrast is heightened by the presence of the American Indians, who are costumed in organic colours so they are one with nature. Unlike the French and British they belong in the natural environment. Similarly, The Keep uses costuming techniques to differentiate those that intrude and those that belong. Set in Romania during World War Two, the idea of invasion is pertinent from the disorientating opening sequence. It introduces the idea of war with a convoy travelling through a mountainous landscape. In the film, characters are killed by the Golem for being in the keep, a space in which they are invading. Furthermore, characters that contravene are also killed. Both films express the masculine claim for domination and the desire for territorial right.

Another way of establishing those that belong and those that do not is Mann’s use of race. In The Last of the Mohicans, race is the catalyst for conflict and, furthermore, dictates how space is segregated and shared. While the American Indians are associated with the land, reinforced by the natural setting of the Huron’s camp, the English – introduced with a jarring cut to a geometric bridge over which they cross – only belong amongst the modernity of their Fort. (Indeed, once they leave the Fort, they are dominated and defeated by the American Indians in a natural space composed of lush greens and deep browns). This identification of space with collectives is also evident in The Jericho Mile. Like Ali, which uses segregation as a narrative agent, The Jericho Mile presents social units as a result of racial division. In the film’s opening montage, a number of different units are shot and editing together so that “we gradually realise that [the inmates] have segregated themselves ethnically” (Wildermuth, 36). The transgressing of this established space results in death for Stiles who is killed for his association with another race.

In Mann’s cinema the transgression of space invariably ignites the violence, which in the case of Collateral is the focus of the narrative. Consider the opening sequence of this film, which introduces Vincent arriving in Los Angeles at the airport. Vincent causes the conflict in the narrative; his task is to assassinate five people associated with a criminal case for a mysterious party. Vincent’s arrival is shot in such a way that it appears to be an invasion. He doesn’t belong to the space. This is achieved through something Mann often does, shooting his subject in – but not part of – his environment. His use of tight frames with short focal lengths “give the impression that individuals are on the surface of their environment” but not within it (Thoret, 8 – see below for an example). Vincent’s presence in Los Angeles, which is the catalyst for five episodes of violence, is an invasion of space, a space he does not belong to.

Capture

Violence, therefore, occurs when established groups step outside the space they belong to. Mann emphasises this displacement through costume: Vincent is the only character to wear grey significantly, Major Kaempffer’s uniform is refined while Woermann’s reflects the deteriorating environment of the keep and the aforementioned uniforms in The Last of the Mohicans are at odds with the environment. Overall, “the thread running through Mann’s films is the destruction that arises when world’s collide” (Smith, 77). This idea is applicable in the wide expanse of Mann’s film, but a more intimate manifestation of the transgression of context is present in Mann’s representation of the domestic. Films like Manhunter, Thief and Heat focus on the relationship between work and home. In doing so, the spaces are generally transcended and what characterises one from another is blurred. Often it is violence, usually associated with work, which infiltrates the domestic.

An important aspect of the idea of invasion is who is in control of space. Heat, a study in the relationship between home and work, illustrates this (Lindstrom). Both Hanna and McCauley are controlling of space. When Hanna walks in to see his informant, Albert, in the industrial quarters of Los Angeles, his confident and arrogant disposition supersedes that he is intruding in someone else’s space. Similarly later, when he meets Albert at a club that night, he has a friendly relationship with the bouncer and has access to the club’s offices. McCauley displays similar dominance at the diner when he recruits Breedan; there he uses the phone behind the counter as if he was the owner. Other spaces like the drive-thru, which no one belongs to, is a place of violence.

manhunter_michael_mann_film_posterThe relationship between working spaces and domestic spaces in Manhunter is more complex. Manhunter is an extension of the remarkable scene in Heat at the container yard where the question is ‘who is looking at who?’ In Manhunter the central character, Will Graham, attempts to catch a serial killer through placing himself in the shoes of the murderer, Dollarhyde. The crimes Dollarhyde has committed are all examples of the domestic being invaded. The opening point of view shot is an invasion from Dollarhyde’s perspective as he enters a family’s home and watches a couple sleep. We learn later that he brutally murders them; violence ensues from the invasion. Other less dramatic invasions occur: when Graham falls asleep on a plane, his photos of the bloody crime scene spill onto his fold down tray upsetting the child sitting next to him. Similarly, Graham talks to his son about the murders and his work in a supermarket.

Space, therefore, is corrupted frequently, but these spaces are also connected through videoscopic space. Dollarhyde sources his next victims through home movies that he steals from a film-processing laboratory. This is an intrusion of a metacinematic nature: the television offers visual access into the domestic. Furthermore, the audience is indicted as we are caught watching Dollarhyde watching home movies, as well as watching the movies ourselves. Moreover, we watch Graham try to pretend to be Dollarhyde watching home movies. The parallel activities are processes of exchange that invade space through the televisual world. For Dollarhyde it is an intrusion into the family’s home (an intrusion he will physically enact); for Graham it is an intrusion into Dollarhyde (similarly an intrusion he will later physically enact). Both violations of space result in violence, with the death of those who are being intruded on.

Jean-Baptiste Thoret has addressed the idea of space in Mann’s cinema in his article ‘The Aquarium Syndrome.’ He argues that Mann’s characters (in particular his male protagonists) are trapped inside a metaphorical aquarium; they can see outside, but if they leave the water they will die. To support his theory he cites Mann’s settings and framing techniques as frequently invoking aquariums, and also Mann’s narratives, which habitually focus on a character trying to get out of something. Thoret’s theory identifies an interior and exterior in Mann’s cinema, which is applicable to the ideas being presented here. What occurs when these interior-exterior spaces are transcended is the same as what occurs when the domestic is infiltrated by something that does not belong. Violence and death are central to both ideas.

An example of the fishbowl visually represented – source

However, while Thoret focuses on the interior’s inability to exist outside of the fishbowl, there is more to be said about the corruption that blurs the definitions of interior and exterior. The domestic is sometimes a threat to the outside world. The domestic, at times, infiltrates the violence. The most palpable example of this idea is in the frequency in Mann’s films that the home or domestic obligations get in the way of a man’s work. Graham’s ability to professionally track down Dollarhyde is undermined when his family is threatened. Likewise, in Thief, Frank sends away his wife and adopted child and destroys his house so that he can seek justice. In Mann, “the price of survival [in this world] is the absolute obliteration of any hope of normal life” (Hill, 2). In other words, Frank must dismiss the domestic – his idealised bourgeois lifestyle – if he is to have any hope in Mann’s world. Both Thief and Manhunter represent the domestic as something that must be detached from work for each individual’s professionalism to thrive.

Mann’s most complete and accomplished film, Heat, is a montage of all these ideas of transcending space and displacement. Heat places a large amount of importance on context. Environments are always highly detailed in Mann’s world (Groves); perhaps a reflection on the length of time Mann spends in pre-production (Wrathall, 12; Smith, 72). Environments and spaces play a key role in the narrative, especially in the opening heist, which introduces – consistent with other Mann films – the role of the domestic against the unconventional work of the film’s men. The crosscutting between the heist, performed with professionalism by McCauley’s men, and the domestic scenes of Hanna with his wife and stepdaughter, contextualises the heist and the home in contrast to one another. Work and home are inseparable. The film has been called a sociological examination of what happens when people live and work together (Steensland, 71).

Prior to the first heist, the opening few shots establish the idea of invasion and displacement with the arrival of McCauley. The dark, misty environment of the train station before dawn is captured with a sense of the hyperreal; time seems to be standing still for the train as it makes its way towards the platform. This shot is matched with another shot of a train approaching from the opposite direction. These indistinguishable trains are a metaphor for the film’s protagonists, McCauley and Hanna. Both resemble each other, but come from different directions and both are stuck on train tracks with a preordained destination. McCauley is then shot getting off the train but, like Vincent in Collateral, seems to be on the surface of his environment – not within it. This effect is achieved through the geometric shapes of the station: lines suggest the frame has no depth. Furthermore, to emphasise McCauley not belonging, he is shown walking against the grain, not with the crowd and against the direction of a traffic arrow. The idea of invasion is reinforced by McCauley’s entry into a hospital to steal an ambulance. He walks through a ward and looks into a patient’s cubicle. Mann then cuts to a close up of the bleeding patient’s body. In this short sequence Mann has shown us that “anything can be invaded, nothing is secure, and nothing is sacred in this fragmented world of incongruities” (Wildermuth, 137).

McCauley’s invasion of space is the first of many that all have implications for the narrative. The heists are also examples of invasions. In addition, Van Zant’s decides not buy the bonds back from McCauley’s gang is because he wants to ensure people on the street know it is not okay to “invade [his] space.” Invasions in this manner stir the narrative. The dramatic drive of the film comes from the interaction between the worlds of the criminals and the cops. But also, conflict comes from the interaction between the respective worlds’ domestic situations. It is a fragmented world, and deteriorating from displacement. Similar consequences are seen from the intrusion of the domestic into the working space of both sides.

Hanna’s domestic situation is falling to pieces. By the end of the film he dismisses its obligations symbolically by kicking his television out of his car. Thoret comments on the frequency of transit spaces in Mann’s cinema (“crystalline waters, freeways and skylines, empty warehouses and airports” [2]) but for Hanna, even home is also a transit space. Halfway through the film, Hanna returns home to find his wife is preparing to go out without him. He goes to do the dishes, but quickly gives up and instead leaves the house. Mann then cuts to Hanna in a helicopter high above Los Angeles. Hanna’s visit to his home is simply a transition between work and work. Significantly, however, Hanna’s home situation does not impact upon his professionalism; he prioritises his work. Like Frank in Thief, he walks away from the domestic at the end of the film.

Hanna’s space therefore, like many of the characters is subject to the idea of displacement. At home, Hanna is displaced; he does not belong. Charlene, similarly, goes to Marciano’s home for safety, but the intrusion of the police corrupts the space. It becomes a disjointed environment, a domestic space being used for work. But at the same time this situation is complicated by the need to retain a domestic façade to lure Chris into capture. A further invasion occurs to Trejo, who is tortured in his home by Waingro. His wife is killed in much the same way as Alonzo’s wife in Miami Vice; both women are murdered in their home as a result of ‘work.’ Another example in Heat occurs in the aftermath of the bank heist when Cherritto who picks up a young girl as a hostage. The child does not belong in the gunfight, nor does the gunfight belong in the downtown streets of Los Angeles. Context in these four examples is held tenuously. Just because a scene is within a home does not mean it can be assumed to be a domestic setting.

Heat is a film of interplays: “the interplay between the intimate and the panoramic” (Dzenis, 8). But, indeed, this is true for the wider works of Mann. Interplays, fluctuations and binaries are all central to Mann’s world. Heat can be read as a film about relationships between characters, between criminals and police, between inside and outside, and between home and work. Mann’s treatment of these relationships is an extension of Anna Dzenis’s analysis. She reads Heat as a film of “poetic…oscillations between elaborately choreographed montage action sequences and close, intimate interior views” (7). Furthermore, as has been discussed, it is the breaking down of space that complicates Heat, and therefore it is the overlapping of ‘action sequences’ with ‘interior views’ which are the true poetry. In Heat, characters’ respective spaces implode.

Katherine Hayles comments in relation to the writings of Jean Baudrillard: that when implosions happen, that consume the lines between interior and exterior, they point to the constructed quality of human contexts and hence further emphasise the denaturing of humanity (275-6). This is the effect of Mann’s depiction of space. The borders are well defined, but their frequent transgression points a dehumanising portrayal of the world that his characters inhabit. Thoret, similarly, makes references to Mann’s treatment of dehumanised space. His sense of dehumanisation is similar to Mark Wilermuth’s. Both suggest the high-tech, technological dependant world of Mann shadows the characters. Mann’s treatment of space contributes to this sense of dehumanisation that these critics claim to exist in his films.

Heat gives many examples of dehumanisation. The violence, which comes as a result of displacement and violation of context, escalates throughout the film. This parallels the increasing transgressions, which occur because of the breaking down of interior-exterior definitions. The bank heist illustrates this. The police surround the crew and instead of a stand off they attempt to fight their way out of the circle in which they are being ensnared. The downtown shoot-out lacks the normal definitions of interior and exterior. It is also dehumanised in the sense that for the men involved, the exchange of bullets is the equivalent of the exchange of dialogue. Like Hanna’s dream, where he sits at a social function where no one speaks, dialogue as exchange is not possible for these men at work; they resort instead to violence.

The guns in which they battle with are themselves symbolic of the technology that oppresses their humanity. In their first meeting on the highway, both McCauley and Hanna have their guns prepared; neither is prepared to rely on dialogue as a means of exchange. They must be prepared for the invasion that will result in violence. Settings also frequently displace human existence. The finale takes place in an obscure location at an airport among concrete blocks and metal transformers in a field of overgrown grass. Everything in the location exists for the machines: “human beings have no place here, there is no space for them” (Wildermuth, 148). The technological aspect of the location is further emphasised by the runway lights, which surge brightly every few seconds. When McCauley comes out of his hiding place, the lights reveal him to Hanna who turns and shoots him; “it is no longer the men who arbitrate the fight but only the light” (Thoret, 13).

Setting of the finale in Heat where light plays such a vital role – source

Violence itself is treated in a dehumanised manner. While this seems an obvious point, it is Mann’s hyperreal stylised handling of his gunfights that make this worthy of further investigation. The MTV-edited, stylised deaths that occur in Thief owe to Peckinpah their look and choreography. Barry’s death is a case in point. The violence is sudden, but the moment the trigger is pulled, Mann slows the action down so we see in slow motion Barry’s wounded body being flung against a van by the force of a shotgun. Similarly, Leo’s death at the end is captured with the same attention to detail but, furthermore, with the same sense of parody. Neither death is realistic. Both are hyperreal. The spray of blood that surges from the back of Leo’s head is an exaggeration of death, distanced as far as possible from any association with humanity.

Mann’s academics have also pointed to Mann’s apparent illustration of the male fading from society (Thoret, 2; Sharett, 254). Mann’s character’s long to disappear: (Thoret) Frank wants to escape his business, McCauley wants to move to New Zealand, and Max in Collateral frequently escapes into his picture of the Pacific. This is an articulation of the dehumanising effect. The alienation that Mann’s protagonists feel in the postmodern landscape makes them desire being elsewhere. A move from the urban landscape to something idealised, leaving the isolating environment of the city for an imagined utopia. Just as technology overwhelms the human qualities of Mann’s world and violence conveys a literal dehumanisation in a hyperreal parody of death, the desire to leave is a desire to vacate space. Dehumanisation is generated from the portrayal of the environment, and the need of characters to leave it.

This is true for Mann’s world. As discussed, characters – as an expression of displacement – transcend space. Interior and exterior definitions break down, similarly the line between the domestic and work is mystified. Wives are forced to “walk among the remains of death people,” and men in a gun battle must negotiate a supermarket parking lot. World’s interrupt each other (Sharrett, 255). This is the destruction of context; it is the effect of dehumanisation. Mann’s films rely on violence to settle these interruptions, which, instead of solving the claims for space, only emphasise the disconnection of Mann’s world. Violence therefore only complicates the spatial situation. It disrupts context by consuming the lines that represent societal barriers.

Finally, there is one space that I have not considered that appears frequently in Mann. While space is held with a degree of anxiety, given the threat of violence and the barriers that are so easily transgressed, the sea is given special significance. For Mann’s protagonists it symbolises an eternal utopia, life outside the aquarium (Thoret). Character’s look at it, imagine it, seek it, but never achieve it. Thoret claims Mann’s characters are lost in space, (8) the sea therefore gives them a bearing. It is an unchanging aspect of Mann’s geography with an expanse that directly contrasts with the inhibiting urban landscape. It is significant because it is an non-corrupted and an incorruptible space. The context is pure, and away from the displacement that disrupts the context of the urban landscape. The sea therefore represents life without anxiety, without the threat of violence, and without the possibility of displacement. It is perhaps the only untainted piece of optimism in Mann’s cinema.


Dzenis, Anna. “Michael Mann’s Cinema of Images.” Sight and Sound 14.10 (October 2004) 14-16.

Groves, Tim. ‘Lectures on Michael Mann.’ Lectures presented at Victoria University of Wellington. September 4–October 9, 2007.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Lindstrom, J. A. “Heat: Work and Genre,” in Jump Cut 43 (July 2000 <http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlineessays/JC43folder/Heat.html#n>

Sharrett, Christopher. “Michael Mann: Elegies of the Post-Industrial Landscape.” Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers. Ed. Yvonne Tasker. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. 253-263.

Smith, Gavin. “Mann Hunters.” Film Comment 28.6 (November-December 1992) 72-77.

Steensland, Mark. Michael Mann. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2002.

Thoret, Jean-Baptiste. “The Aquarium Syndrome: On the Films of Michael Mann.”

Trans. Anna Dzenis. Senses of Cinema 19 (2001) <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/19mann.html>

Wildermuth, Mark E. Blood in the Moonlight: Michael Mann and Information Age Cinema. North Carolina: McFarland, 2005.

Wrathall, John. “Heat.” Sight and Sound 6.2 (1996) 43-44.


Ali (Michael Mann, USA, 2001)

Collateral (Michael Mann, USA, 2004)

Heat (Michael Mann, USA, 1995)

The Insider (Michael Mann, USA, 1999)

The Jericho Mile (Michael Mann, USA, 1979)

The Keep (Michael Mann, USA, 1983)

The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, USA, 1992)

Manhunter (Michael Mann, USA, 1986)

Miami Vice (Michael Mann, USA, 2006)

Thief (Michael Mann, USA, 1981)

Documentary Storytelling

This lecture was delivered by Dr Claire Henry as part of Massey University‘s support of the Wellington Media Studies teacher cluster. Previously they have hosted workshops on journalism in the smartphone era and teaching script writing. The focus was on the form of Documentary and how this may be translated to students and the specifics challenges they might face in attempting this style of film making.

Introduction to Documentary as a Storytelling Form

Documentary has a fluid narrative approach, where production is an ongoing and dynamic process. Story shaping occurs during pre-production, production and post-production significantly more than narrative features which rely heavily on the pre-production process. Many characteristics of good storytelling in fictional films are shared with documentary including the role of exposition and use of narrative questions to engage a viewer.

Audience and Distribution

Documentary filmmakers need to consider the audience and distribution early – helps maintain focus of the story and give motivation for the production team. Useful to ask:

  • How does their film contribute the wider community?
  • Where will it be screened and to who?
  • What impact can documentaries have and what impact would they like theirs to have?

These considerations affect decisions such as duration and format as well as guide the storytelling process.

Collecting and Sifting for Stories

Look for ways to tell the story through more than just talking heads. A dynamc process of research could include newspaper, internet, family stories, myths and legends etc. Sift to find both an apparent subject, and a deeper subject – something that is a broader issue, something bigger. When presenting this information, ethical questions can be uncovered– how to raise the stakes? How to make the story fit the 3 act structure? Useful resource that explores these ideas is Michael Rabiger’s book, Directing the Documentary.

Narrative Perspective in Documentary220px-nanook_of_the_north

  • POV – single character – Nanook, Basterdy
  • Multiple characters – Up, Capturing the Friedmans
  • Omniscient – The War Game Peter Jenkins – complex far reaching ideas
  • Personal – Stories we tell, Cameraperson (connection to the stylistic trend of a personal voice and presence in the film, technology ubiquity, home videos)

Pre-production: Planning Models and Documents

  • Concept – the ideas (why, what, effect) in 100 words
  • Research – pre-interviews; books, articles, newspapers etc. Other docos, research the form as well as the info
  • Proposal/Treatment – an explanation of the documentary you intend to make – what will be shot and why, and how it will be arranged to make a particular statement
  • Pitch
  • Script
  • Short list
  • Storyboarding

Scripting

  • Some docos scripted in advance
  • A scriptwriter may be call in after a production to write a script from the footage
  • There may be no script and the edit is based on a proposal, treatment, or the director’s vision
  • Pre script vs post script – same format, revised with new info
  • 3 column script – simple/effective (narration, visuals, sound)

Challenges for students

  • Collaboration – newly formed group could collectively write a collaborative contract outlining
    • 1. project statement,
    • 2. group goals,
    • 3. group governance (specific roles ad responsibilities, meeting place and times)
    • 4. conflict and resolution procedures.
  • Technical and logistic issues
  • Unpredictable subject, weather, outcomes… Good project planning and contingency plans required + flexibility and problem solving skills.

Teaching Script Writing

This post originally appeared on Cargill’s Classroom 

This session led by Stuart Hoar was facilitated by Massey University for the Wellington Media teacher cluster. It focused on his experience of teaching script writing to students and what he felt, from his experience, are what young filmmakers need to understand.

Stuart regularly claimed how crucial it is for students to recognise structural paradigms in what they watch. They need to understand narrative paradigms, but not necessarily in order to follow them. This begins with the three act structure which recalls Aristotle’s three essential units of drama (beginning, middle and end).

He had many a point to make about narrative paradigms:

  • It is not a rule bound structure; it is instead grounded in principles.
  • The first draft should always be written without care towards these principles, but the review of this should always be through the lens of the paradigms.
  • The screenplay is written for the reader. The reader decides whether or not it will be made into something that is visual.
  • Tension = drama (dramatic stakes)
  • The audience wants to be engaged. We have dramatic expectations that can be capitalised on. We understand instinctively dramatic narrative; we have unconscious expectations of how this happens.
  • Genre and formula – our expectations get caught up by genre, we want surprise and comfort at the same time.
  • The dramatic structure is about what is happening to the characters and why
  • Act One makes a promise
    • It contains the ordinary world of the drama. By the catalyst, we need a perspective. We need to vicarious relate to the viewpoint. We must recognise that we are with that character.
    • Catalyst – inciting incident – sets something in motion and asks the dramatic question
    • Crossing the threshold – reaching the point of no return. Main character might refuse the dramatic question. But it is embraced by the end of act one. Audience must be engaged by 20 minutes in.
    • Sets the emotional tone, introduces the characters, takes us to the first TP – the point of no return.
    • Releasing the tension after the TP – how do you do this? Who knows. Write your script.
  • Act Two: complicates and escalates the action towards the next turning point
  • Act Three: answers the question.

Recommendations

Task: Use 2001 A Space Odyssey – first 12-15 minutes. The perfect one act structure – Kubrick not associated with Hollywood, but there is still structure. 

  • What is being set up here? Ordinary world?
  • Catalyst? Turning Point?
  • Climax and resolution? What is being paid off?