Rocketman Vs Bohemian Rhapsody

ROCKETMAN

Most of the hype surrounding Rocketman contained at the very least a passing reference to Bohemian Rhapsody. To compare them is too tempting: rock biopics, British gay music artists, the 1970s, Dexter Fletcher, and lead by acclaimed performances. I’m writing this to dismiss Bohemian Rhapsody and explain why films like Rocketman, while flawed, deserve so much more attention and praise.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a hot mess. It fails to create any intimacy with it’s subjects, keeping them in a wholesome space so that the film can consistently celebrate the iconic Freddie Mercury and Queen. The darkness the film explores is hindered by it’s PG limitations; the queer representation is a surface level effort and the relationship conflicts are simplistic and explored in cliches rather than any nuance. It has some jarring editing decisions in between the onslaught of montages. Rami Malik has been rightly singled out for his outstanding performance, but the central spine of the film is the music of Queen. It is a remarkable back catalogue to choose from, essentially helping the film to a successive boosts of energy every time the story drags.

On the other hand, Rocketman is a revelation. I remember seeing Moulin Rouge! in 2001 and having my eyes opened to the way that playing with form can elevate the musical genre. I’ve always loved the musical for it’s ability to intensify feeling through the use of performance and the emphasis on spectacle and visual stimulation. Moulin Rouge! was the first time I saw how blending realism and fantasy to express story could really expand what a musical could achieve. Chicago was a similar exploration that found a new approach to subjectivity to stretch the genre further. I think we’ve lost that sense of experimentation with the musical form since. It has got boring, and it’s led to uninspired efforts like Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born.

Rocketman is a fresh kind of jukebox biopic. It immediately establishes a vague relationship with realism, letting the music open up the diegetic world of the film to some truly joyful imagery. It allows spectacle to emerge in a world detached from verisimilitude, elevating the music and delivering an absorbing emotional journey. One highlight is the performance of ‘Crocodile Rock’ at the Troubadour. Consider the choices Fletcher has made here; his artistry here creates an intensification of emotion in a way only achievable by a musical. This is brave storytelling: it’s exciting to watch, it has the power to surprise us and delivers a meaningful universal story.

At the end of the day, the film is not perfect: it has some pacing issues, some dialogue that is awkwardly clunky, it doesn’t serve it’s female characters well, and it’s really not as edgy in its R-rated material as it wants you to think it is. But it is a musical biopic that explodes from the screen with bold direction and artistry; it doesn’t settle for the the safe ‘mainstreamed’ choices of Bohemian Rhapsody. I hope Rocketman, despite the challenges, finds a significant audience so that the industry will continue to support exciting and meaningful films.

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Oscars 2019 – Thoughts & Predictions

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Welcome to my traditional Oscars post (2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014), but this time with a twist. I have never been more conflicted by the best picture nominations. So accompanied with my usual cynicism around the limitations of the Academy Awards, and the endless controversies associated with this year’s ceremony – I’m pretty ambivalent. But, then again, the two most nominated films are masterpieces – so I can’t help but hang in there for their success. I would be much more interested if there was more space for Eighth Grade, If Beale Street Could Talk, Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Shoplifters.

Black Panther

This is the best example of a superhero genre yet. The genre is still not without its limitations, but if every Marvel film was made with the same care for representation and storytelling then I would be much happier to see more superhero films. The nomination probably says more about the populist direction of the Oscars than the quality of the film; however, it feels like a worthwhile inclusion when the cultural capital of the film is considered.

BlacKKKlansman

It’s great to see Spike Lee getting the recognition at this level that he’s always deserved. This film is flawed, but still absolutely essential. The ending is a gut punch that feels unethical, but I applaud it. The story is relevant; the storytelling is brilliant. It is wonderfully crafted and deserves the extra attention that Oscar buzz brings.

Will Win: Adapted Screenplay

Bohemian Rhapsody

It was hard to move past the representation issues the film had that blew up on the release of the first trailer. The film is a ok biopic, but really doesn’t transcend a fairly limiting form. Take Rami Malik’s performance out of the equation and I can’t imagine the film would be left with much.

Will Win: Actor, Sound Mixing

Green Book

A boring safe problematic film. Noteworthy only for the parallels with Driving Miss Daisy which shut out Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do The Right Thing 20 years ago in 1989. It’s a whimsical, poorly directed version of 1960s racism that perpetuates so many concerning stereotypes. It packages prejudice in an apolitical format, dismissing any form of complexity in favour of trailer-ready soundbites. Legitimately could win best picture thanks to the preferential ballot system.

Will Win: Supporting Actor

The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos’ style has finely found traction in the mainstream, and it is wonderful to see his work being appreciated. Far more accessible than his previous films, it maintains an absurdist quality in its form. It is exciting simply for being a film with three fully developed, flawed and interesting female lead characters. But the film is so much more than that due to the exceptional levels of craft across the board.

Will Win: Original Screenplay, Production Design, Costume Design

Roma

Roma is a transcendent experience. Motivated by Cuaron’s memories, it takes the audience on a personal journey that masterfully moves between moods and tones. The camera, which often sits in the corners of rooms, is incredibly expressive – the long takes and choreographed action capturing meaningful moments in striking ways. The story is beautiful in his construction; when I saw Cuaron speak about the film last year, he spoke of the importance of sound and the way that it structured the narrative of the film. This creates some intriguing rhythms and draws us into an immersive world of nostaliga. It is an absolute masterpiece.

Will Win: Film, Director; Cinematography, Foreign Film

A Star Is Born

I’ve previously written about this because I was so troubled by the response audiences have had to this film. We need to talk about the gender politics in the film. It is not okay that the story has not been adapted for 2018. We understand consent so much better today, so the film’s representation is simply not okay.

Will Win: Song

Vice

As Chuck Bowen wrote, “so much is going on here that nothing seems to matter“. It is so deeply unserious in its examination, I feel somewhat betrayed. It poses an important question about power, but the film undermines the audience with stupid scenes like Donald Rumsfeld laughing at Dick Cheney and shutting the door on him. The Big Short worked, but maybe this style needs an ensemble approach rather than a biopic of an unsympathetic character. There’s a disconnect with the elements of film form here. It just didn’t work for me.

Will Win: Editing, Make-Up


Other Will Wins

Actress: Glenn Close (The Wife); Score: If Beale Street Could Talk; Animation: Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse; Visual Effects: Avengers: Infinity War; Sound Editing: A Quiet Place; Live Action Short: Marguerite; Animated Short: Bao; Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence. 

Should Win

Film: Roma; Director: Alfonso Cuaron (Roma); Actor: John David Washington (BlacKKKlansman); Actress: Olivia Coleman (The Favourite); Supporting Actor: Michael B Jordan (Black Panther); Supporting Actress: Rachel Weisz (The Favourite); Original Screenplay: The Favourite; Adapted Screenplay: BlacKKlansman; Cinematography: Roma; Editing: Roma; Score: BlacKKlansman; Song: A Star Is Born… etc.

A Star Is Delivered By The Patriarchy

I’m frankly disturbed by the praise that is being lauded on A Star Is Born. The film is a front runner for the Best Picture Oscar and likely to be one of the most nominated films of the year, so I feel compelled to add to the conversation. I was cynical when it was released but came around to seeing the film last week after all the acclaim. I was disappointed for is derivative take on the well-worn story and underwhelmed by all the production elements except for the music. However, I’m primarily writing this because I just haven’t seen many confront the film’s gender politics that feel inappropriate for the 2018.

Spoilers ahead. 

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Lady Gaga as Ally in the foreground in focus. Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine is – appropriately – in the background, out of focus.

Firstly, Jackson Maine. His behaviour at the beginning of the film is predatory. He finds himself backstage in a changing area (with consent) but it’s just a teaser for the way he will come to use his privilege. He touches Ally several times weirdly, removing her eyebrow at one point in a moment that is supposed to be…romantic? He invites her to his show that night and mishears her negative responses; he sends a driver to stalk her until she changes her mind. Later Ally wakes up and Jackson has been let into her room by her father and he is sitting on her bed watching her sleep. The Bechdel Cast recommends ‘the Buscemi test’ – would this behaviour be acceptable if it was Steve Buscemi doing it? The first act climaxes with Ally being bullied on stage to perform the song that she wrote. Jackson begins to play the song without her consent, effectively making her choose between claiming back her intellectual property and allowing him to plagiarise her work. This all happens in just the first 30 minutes of the film. Overall, Jackson has a male saviour vibe, attempting to convince us that without him Ally could not be successful.

As for Ally – who doesn’t get a last name until she marries Jackson – she starts the film with more personality than she finishes it. Signs of her character’s potential depth are sidelined for a familiar male-centric narrative. Multiple instances in the film occur when she says “no” and these are translated by men into “yes”. As Aja Romano writes, the film has a problem with consent. Her agency is eroded as she is increasingly controlled by Jackson and later by her producer. Because Jackson’s treatment of her is increasingly bad as she continues to climb the stardom ladder, she comes across as dependent on him. So when she insists on him coming on tour with her, it comes across as contractual – not as a gesture of love. Exploring her background could have helped the film to explain her choices and develop her character; however, the most significant attempt at this is derailed by more patriarchal writing and direction. This scene with her father helps us to understand her relationship with alcoholic men but the foundation of the scene quickly departs from its potential when Ally forgives her father for his behaviour without giving any focus on the impact on Ally or the pain that she might have experienced. There are only men in her life; however, the films inclusion of two best friend drag queen characters is refreshing. Ally’s career is treated as matter-of-fact. The insane standard of beauty that women in entertainment are held to is scratched at but never really explored or commented on as much more than just something that needs to be accepted.

The last point I want to make is the ending which is shoehorned into the final 15 minutes as it appears Cooper suddenly realised that traditionally the male lead in the Star is Born franchise needs to die so that Mrs Maine can sing a final sad song in an emotional climax. Cooper goes for a suicide, but irresponsibly treats this as a moment of heroism. Once again Ally is deprived of agency as she could very easily just leave him or they could attempt long distance while she tours. Instead Cooper, inspired by a convenient plot beat from Ally’s producer, decides gallantly to end his own life to deprive Ally of any chance to make a decision that might put her career before him. Making the scene more problematic is how Jackson is not sober. This is only a step away from the irresponsible representation of suicide in ’13 Reasons Why’. It’s hard to align this scene and Lady Gaga’s work on mental health.

It so easily could have been different. A remake could have revitalised the story by inverting the genders or at least updating the gender politics. The best version of this film would have cast Shangela and Willam as the leads. This kind of familiar straight white privilege patter should be unwelcome in our modern cinemas. But strangely, it is apparently the best film made in the last year.

BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture Series – Alfonso Cuarón

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The BAFTA Screenwriters Lecture Series gave me the opportunity to sit mere metres from one of my cinematic heroes and hear him talk for almost two hours about cinema. It was a magical experience, and one that only managed to deepen my respect and admiration for Alfonso Cuarón and his craft. Here is a selection of things I noted while listening to his talk:

  • His belief is that “cinema is a language in its own form” and it is made from tools. Tools like sound and performance – but the fundamental tool is the screenplay. Cinema is form built on the idea of storytelling.
  • The relationship between cinema and time. Cuarón said “when you’re reading a book, a piece of, a novel, you get immersed, you get lost in those pages, but you’re not bound by time”. His idea of cinema is that time is the element that is most important: “the sense of time binds us with the now”. Screenwriters need to understand this fundamental and write for an experience that will happen in real time.
  • The idea of the music of screenplay – how a screenwriter can orchestrate an experience through the use of rhythm. Tarantino is a writer that is about the rhythm of his dialogue; Cuarón’s approach is about trying to find the rhythm of the character.
  • As a filmmaker he tries to ignore the distractions around economic models for cinema and the different approaches to distribution. At one point he made the plea to us to see Roma at the cinema, not on our TVs. But this was clearly motivated by his intent as a filmmaker to share his vision with an audience in a pure cinematic way.

The most moving thing about Cuarón’s talk was when he was asked about what is cinema to him – and this is where the full transcript was handy.

For me it’s this language in which…all of these other things around are just tools for that, for the sake of that language….[Y]ou have seen other expressions of amazing, amazing, amazing films and masterpieces that have been done without sound. Without music, without colour, without actors, even without stories but there is not one single masterpiece that has been done without images….[W]hat matters is those images flowing in time… I’m not really interested in …series, they are fantastic and I love watching them because I can watch most of them with my eyes closed.

But most of, I have to say most of contemporary mainstream cinema is the kind of cinema that you enter the theatre, you get your popcorn, you sit down the lights go off, you close your eyes you eat your popcorn, the movie ends and you didn’t miss one bit. You know it’s more like, again, it’s more like books for lazy people. And when it’s about cinematic is when the dance between the elements are greater than the sum of the elements…And that is what is amazing; that is what I consider cinematic.

Casting & Representation

A recent activity I did with a Year 12 Media class who are working towards their L3 BTEC qualification raised some interesting bias. The students have created a pre-production for a new Netflix series that they were pitch. They needed to cast their shows, and had unlimited budgets to do so.

To facilitate some brainstorming around this, I gave them a slip of paper to write a brief character bio to find an actor that fits. The class then roamed the room, and made casting suggestions on each slip, folding it over each time so they could not be influenced by the other suggestions. The outcomes of this activities were fascinating. Here are some observations:

  • Of the 42 characters that there were bios written, the gender split was 50-50. (However, the class is 80% female).
  • The bios were prompted to suggest age, gender, appearance, occupation, … No student mentioned anything about class, sexuality, or disability. Gender was treated understand as binary, with no one making any offers about diverse expressions of femininity or masculinity.
  • If the ethnicity was not stated on the sheet, all the suggestions of actors were white.
  • All characters appeared to be middle-class or upper middle-class based on their descriptions. No narratives explored issues around class.
  • While there were a lot of teenage characters, the most common suggestions for these characters were older actors like Zac Efron (30), Michael B Jordan (31), even Ryan Reynolds (41). Students struggled to remember the names of actors under the age of 25.

This was an unscientific study, but as these findings came clear and the dialogue around them developed, I felt as though a lot of reflection and examination of personal bias was going on.

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.

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)