The action film is defined by masculinity. It’s a genre where hard muscles and big guns are the engine, and testosterone is the fuel. The genre has succeeded for decades with male audiences by staying true to a simple formula: men behaving manly in the face of lesser men in order to validate their own superior manliness. The heroes of the action film are the definition of the heterosexual man. They’re fearless, taciturn, stoic, virile, and above all, deeply faithful to the masculine construct. The entire structure of the genre was built around this androcentric ideology. It’s a genre created by men, for men, in celebration of men. Classic action films don’t just reaffirm this ideology, they force it down the viewer’s gaze, indoctrinating the values that heterosexual men are supposed to hold sacred. And yet, after seeing enough action films, an unintentional pattern begins to emerge, a pattern that is buried deep beneath the masculinity. It’s a phenomenon that’s inherent to the genre, yet antithetical to the genre’s ideals. No matter how much the action film adheres to its established structure, the pattern is always present, tapping faintly in the distance like a persistent drip, waiting to be discovered. In 1991, a single pioneering action film was made that not only exposed the pattern, but pulled back the genre’s curtain completely, revealing just how gay the action film really is.
In my recent takedown of The King’s Speech, I focused largely on director Tom Hooper’s overbearing use of "short-siding" (i.e., framing a shot so a character looks and speaks towards the edge of the frame that they are most closely positioned rather than across the length of the frame to where their partner in conversation will appear after the next cut).
As with any artistic choice available to a director, short-siding is not inherently evil. But by making it the default mode of framing in The King’s Speech, Hooper turned it into a mere gimmick—conspicuous, but never compelling. When used sparingly and with intelligence in a richly designed scene, the short-sided shot becomes a component to help convey apprehension and conflict. When used well, you may not even notice that short-siding was ever used at all.
Below are but two recent examples where short-siding was used by a director to great effect.
Oh, lord. Here we go again. Somebody, please stop the ride. I think I’m going to throw up.
If you’ve spent anytime in a movie theatre over the last few months, you’ve no doubt been subjected to the trailer for the latest film adaptation of Les Misérables. Repeatedly. And although Anne Hathaway’s vocal performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" that plays over the teaser is truly breathtaking (without a doubt the greatest "Holy shit!" moment I had at the movies this year), the images themselves are a canted, shaky, fish-eyed mess. The biggest question for me during this year’s run of awards-contending films has not been "When will I find the time for all these movies?," but "Can I really stomach another Tom Hooper film, even if it is guaranteed to contain that performance?" I’ve never been to France, but if Hooper’s vision of Les Misérables is to be believed, it’s a place where visitors should always be on the lookout for the nearest handrail in order to avoid losing both their balance and their lunch.
In the thirty years since its release, Alien has become a film of hot debate amongst film theorists. Academic analyses of the film draw attention to many differing themes that lead to feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytic, and other readings. But these theories exist in a vacuum of their own space, playing to each author’s pet theories rather than looking to analyze the film from the screen and then out. Most critiques, academic and otherwise, ultimately conclude that Alien is a feminist film because of its representation of the workplace as a home to equality and a place where traditional gender roles have been obliterated. But there’s something else lingering under the surface: fear. Not the fear of the devouring Alien, but a fear and anxiety of a future where the equalizing of the sexes might lead to the blending of sexual biology as well. What is ultimately revealed by Alien is the anxiety of men during the era of second-wave feminism in which the film was produced.
I know what you’re thinking. Last year for April Fools I doctored up the infamous joke ending of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest in order to make it just a taaaad more obvious. Y’know, for the people that only felt the rush of wind as the original joke sailed right over their heads. So you might be expecting that this post will be a joke too, right? Well, here’s the thing: last year was somewhat of an anomaly. I’m not really a big April Fools kinda guy. But just because this isn’t an April Fool (hey, it’s only March 31st!) that doesn’t mean that this post won’t have funny bits. And, yeah, I might even doctor up another video so stick around ’til the end.
There’s been a lot of buzz lately about The Artist, especially with tonight’s Academy Awards looming. But the conversation hasn’t just been about the merits of the film on the whole, but also about its appropriation of one of the most famous musical cues to ever be attached to a film. That piece would be Bernard Herrmann’s "Scene d’Amour" from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece, Vertigo. Is its use in The Artist intended as a loving homage as The Artist‘s director, Michel Hazanavicius, claims? And if The Artist takes home an Oscar for Best Original Score, can we really say that at least some of the credit doesn’t belong to the now-deceased Bernard Herrmann for the music he created for a different film entirely? [Update: The Artist just won for Best Original Score.]
The films of Pixar are heavily populated with references to movies of the past, to the films most beloved by the studio’s many writer/directors. Consider WALL-E‘s villainous robot AUTO whose devilish red-eye brings to mind HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey; or The Incredibles‘ hilarious Edna as a doppelganger for real life costume designer Edith Head; or even A Bug’s Life whose entire plot—a defenseless village hires warriors to protect itself from bandits—is lifted right out of Seven Samurai. Most of these homages are created as comedy. They’re cinematic in-jokes for the initiated, connections that simply make one smile. But Pixar’s films are far greater than the sum of their homages. Most often they are great films, the kind that reveal hidden nuances with each additional viewing. Toy Story 2 is one such film.
Jane Campion’s In the Cut is a film designed explicitly as an example of feminist filmmaking. The film might be classified as a thriller or even a slasher film, but viewing the film with such genre expectations would only lead to dissatisfaction. In terms of plot, In the Cut is a film about a serial killer. But the film dodges narrative convention at every turn in order to present something entirely different. There are no clues to drive the audience towards a suspect; to guess at his identity would be arbitrary and beside the point of the film. In fact, the serial killer plot is relegated to the background. To view the film in terms of its plot and the conventions of the thriller genre can only lead to frustration as the film does not work through such a reading. Instead, if we are to connect with the film, In the Cut must be read as a study of the psychoanalytic theory of cinema presented by Laura Mulvey in her landmark essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." I have no intention here of providing a value judgment on Mulvey’s theories. Instead, my aim is to illustrate how director Jane Campion integrated Mulvey’s theories into her film, and then subverted them in order to strike another blow against "the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions" that Mulvey was so interested in breaking down. Director Jane Campion uses the language of cinema and the machinations of plot to render the film around the subjectivity of a woman, to challenge the myth of romantic love and the "cult of the female star," and to establish a world where the male gaze is presented not as a pleasurable vantage point for the audience but a viewpoint to be feared.
Earlier this week, I received my first-ever IKEA catalog. At nearly 400 pages and about a half-inch thick, it’s easily the largest piece of direct mail marketing I’ve ever seen show up at my house. There’s been steady talk about the new store all year. Some simply marveled at the shear size of the building that was being erected. For those who have never seen an IKEA, try to imagine an immense, bright blue warehouse of a building with the enormous words "IKEA Home Furnishings" christened in bold yellow letters on all four sides of its exterior. It’s kind of like the country of Sweden just planted a 415,000 square foot flag right next to the interstate. Some people buzzed about the new store constantly as though the appearance of a new brand in town promised to positively effect the quality of their lives. In fact, hundreds of people lined up several days ahead of its grand opening, not unlike the throng of Star Wars geeks who camped out for the premier of The Phantom Menace. Fight Club‘s Narrator, an unnamed, wispy shell of a man played by Edward Norton, would probably be there as well if he actually existed here in the real world. He’d be among his people. People who had become "a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct."
"The opening shot of Robert Altman’s ‘The Player’ establishes the film as a self-reflexive deconstruction of the Hollywood system and those who run it. With its prolonged shot length, the take is also designed as a means to introduce the bevy of players who work on the lot and to setup the film’s general plot—or at least its tone—as a thriller/murder mystery."
So begins my essay on the opening shot of Robert Altman’s The Player, just published over at Jim Emerson’s Scanners blog as part of his ongoing "Opening Shot Project."