Monday, December 17, 2007

Do the Right Thing and post to your blog

Well, this was by far the most-discussed film in class this semester. Hopefully, you haven't exhausted every wonderful thing you have to say about it. Once again, here are the criteria for the blog posts. Pay attention to the note beneath the bullet-points:

o Discuss/analyze an important scene
o Expand on a discussion question from class, whether from a film or a reading
o Make a connection to the real world/current events
o Discuss/analyze an aspect of cinematic style important to the
o Discuss/analyze a topic or theme important to the film
o Relate it to another film, either from class or personal viewing
o Discuss ideas for future viewing inspired by film

Note that none of these bullet-points includes saying that you really, really liked or disliked the movie and why (that's what the polls at the top of the page are for). It's not that I don't care whether or not you liked it, but I'm far more interested in your analysis and interpretation than a cursory opinion.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Battle of Algiers blog post

OK, for this blog post, go to this page, and link to one of the six reviews/discussions of the film. Note that two of the links are audio (so, if you're tired of subtitles, here you go). Read/listen to the piece, and write a response to it. Write about what you learned, what the writer/critic missed, what it made you think about, etc. Remember, these reviews came out 3-4 years ago -- feel free to mention anything that's happened since then in your response.
Note: It's likely I'll ask you to comment on someone's post at a later date, so keep in mind you're not writing this for me.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown ... Now, where was I?"

No matter which neo-noir you watched, Chinatown or Memento, you were treated to some shocking revelations near the end of the film that made you reevaluate everything that came before them. They also helped elevate their respective films from the thriller/crime genre into something harder to put your finger on -- both films transcend the fates of their protagonists and leave you (or should leave you) unsettled about the awful capabilities of human nature.

All of this is to say that thinking and writing about the larger implications of your film's mysteries might be one way to approach your last blog post on film noir. If you watched Memento, you might want to check out this site, which could shed some light on a few questions you have about the film. And as always, here are other possibilities:

o Discuss/analyze an important scene
o Expand on a discussion question from class, whether from a film or a reading
o Make a connection to the real world/current events
o Discuss/analyze an aspect of cinematic style important to the film
o Discuss/analyze a topic or theme important to the film
o Relate it to another film, either from class or personal viewing
o Discuss ideas for future viewing inspired by film

Note that none of these bullet-points includes saying that you really, really liked or disliked the movie and why (that's what the polls at the top of the page are for). It's not that I don't care whether or not you liked it, but I'm far more interested in your analysis and interpretation than a cursory opinion.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

"I fell in to a burning box of fire ... "

If you're looking for ideas on what to write about Kiss Me Deadly, here's an idea: do a little research on one of the allusions that Dr. G.E. Soberin made -- he had quite a few, even one when he was dying of a gunshot wound -- and discuss the relevance of the allusion to the film. Here are the main ones I can think of: Pandora, Lot's wife, Medusa, Cerberus. Feel free to write about another one that you remember.

Or, if you want to continue to discuss the apocalyptic ending, here's a link to an excellent article about possible reasons why there are two different endings and the writer's (excellent film/DVD critic Glenn Erickson) interpretation of them. Neither of them look like this, the ending of Mickey Spillane's novel on which the film is based:
In the novel Hammer finally catches up with femme fatale Lily Carver just after she's taken an alcohol rubdown. He offhandedly ignites her with a Zippo. She burns in agony. He takes calm satisfaction from his deed. It's sort of a followup to outdo the sadistic I the Jury ending. There Hammer shoots a wrong dame in the stomach with the quip, "It was easy."
So, yes, it's actually possible for Mike Hammer to have been more sadistic than he was in this movie.

Lastly, just because I want to prove to you that this movie is regarded as a classic, and that I didn't choose it by throwing darts at a noir dartboard, here's a link to an essay by noted film noir scholar (yes, such people exist) Alain Silver that analyzes KMD's stylistic hallmarks. I don't expect you to read the whole thing, but at least glance at a few paragraphs.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

"Ass-kicked by fate"

That's one of the great quotes -- in this case, about the noir protagonist -- from this primer on film noir, which is written by noted noir expert Eddie Muller. I love his examples in answering the question of whether noir is a genre or a style, and he also talks about whether or not noir is made today.

Speaking of which, for you Sin City fans, here's an excellent site that comes to the conclusion that this movie might be the quintessential film noir. If you're a fan of the movie, you need to read it.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Groundhog is Jesus

Or so says a film critic in this article from The New York Times on the surprising popularity of Groundhog Day among religious scholars.

Michael Bronski, a film critic for The Forward who teaches a course in Jewish film history at Dartmouth, said he sees strong elements of not only Jewish but also Christian theology. "The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays," he said, adding: "And when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect."

But before you dismiss the whole article as claptrap, you should read it and see how neatly the message of the film (the way the scholars interpret the message, anyway) fits into the beliefs of so many different faiths. Maybe it says more about the similarities of the world religions than it does about the movie, but it's still an interesting read. It would be fantabulous if you worked a reaction to this article into your post (4th and 6th hour students, that is).

Monday, October 29, 2007

Don't be that guy (or girl)

Warning: sermon ahead ...

A lot of people liked Unforgiven or Once Upon a Time in the West much more than Stagecoach or My Darling Clementine. That's cool -- as much as I love Clementine, I'd probably pick those two over it as well. But a lot of people listed this as one of the reasons they preferred the revisionist Westerns to the classics: they were in color.

This is not cool.

Now, your taste is your taste, and obviously, you're entitled to like or not like whatever you want. But I implore you to judge films not by how old they are or if they're in black and white or color, but by how well they do their job. For example, Citizen Kane is utterly unthinkable in color. Remember all that low-key lighting with pockets of deep shadows? If Orson Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland photographed those scenes in color they would've completely altered that effect. So am I saying black-and-white is superior to color? Of course not. If Citizen Kane were photographed in color (and yes, color film stock was around in 1941, though it was much more expensive than black and white), Welles and Toland would've made different choices regarding their lighting, and who knows, they could've come up with images every bit as stunning. To dislike Citizen Kane because you thought that the photography was over-the-top, distracting, show-offy, etc., is a valid argument. But people who say they dislike Citizen Kane because it's in black and white say a lot more about themselves than they do about the film.

It's a form of reverse snobbery, if you will -- how would you feel if I said old movies were inherently superior to movies of today? You'd say I was a jackass, and you'd be right -- like any art form, most of what gets produced during any era of cinematic history is going to be disposable, including the '30s and '40s, the golden age of Hollywood.

Anyway, I came across the following in The Onion A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of our nation's finest satrical newspaper. They have this feature called "Ask the A.V. Club," where readers write in to have their questions answered by the A.V. Club staff. Please read it, paying special attention to the last paragraph, and feel free to leave your comments below. I will now dismount my soapbox.

Not Hooked On Classics

I am a huge movie fan, having seen pretty much all the greats from the '70s on. However, I felt my knowledge was lacking from having not seen many of the consensus greats from the '60s on back. Working from several top-100 lists by reviewers I like, I began watching these oldies, and found they weren't so great. I found The Big Sleep to be a huge letdown, with Bogey's hammy line readings and an uninspired story. I understand why Citizen Kane is considered great, but I had to hear the commentary to really appreciate it. It is not until the French New Wave of the '60s that I find films I really dig. I wonder: Do these old films seem mediocre because I'm seeing them after witnessing the films they inspired? Was acting in the '40s and '50s not real enough? Am I the only one who thinks that these films, while great at the time, should be looked at as historical sources of modern cinema and not placed above far superior modern films?

Brian P. Adams

A mortified Noel Murray replies:

First off, when you refer to "far superior modern films," you do realize that you're talking about a matter of taste, right? There's very little that's quantitative about evaluating movies. For example, naturalistic acting is just fine, but it's far from the only effective mode, even in 2007. Christopher Walken is about as natural as high fructose corn syrup, but when he's on the screen, it's hard to look away from him—even in bad movies. Similarly, no one kind of storytelling is superior to another. In fact, sometimes "storytelling" is the last thing on a filmmaker's mind. Just read interviews with the late Robert Altman, who considered his films' stories secondary to their record of human behavior. Or hold a séance and consult with the creators of The Big Sleep, who were more interested in rat-a-tat dialogue and abstracted tough-guy posturing than in revealing who killed who and why.

It's not that the classics are unassailable, by any means. They can be problematic thematically, too clunky in the staging, and, yes, the acting can be distractingly broad. But when seen in the context of the other films from their era, the reasons why they're considered great—and not just "great for the '30s"—become plainer. Once you get used to some of the snags of older movies, from the accidental racism to the fakey studio "exteriors," you can focus on other things, like the odd charisma of stars like Humphrey Bogart, the intense clarity of the images, and the complex revelations about human nature.

What you don't want to do is become one of those willfully ignorant movie buffs who becomes convinced that film art has been perfected in the last 10 years or so, and that everything that came before was just a trial run, not worth studying in and of itself. That's such a shallow, arrogant, wasteful way to approach art. It's basically saying, "Since I only want to see what's familiar and immediately enjoyable to me, yet I still want to think of myself as a person of taste and intelligence, I have to find some way to assert that the things I already like are the best, and the things I don't want to deal with are inferior." Brian, you seem smart and well-meaning… please, don't be that guy.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Final word on the Western

I think I mentioned this article in Time awhile back, but I wanted to highlight a few excerpts that I think are relevant to our study of the Western. First, here's James Mangold, who directed the new 3:10 to Yuma:

"There's an assumption in Hollywood that the western is a homeless genre," says Mangold, "that it doesn't have a built-in audience. The adults who might want to go don't go to the movies, and the young ones are locked into the superhero world." Mangold also sees "a Hollywood bias against the America between New York and L.A. The movie industry is basically built serving 14-year-old males, and they aren't interested in rural America."

Along those same lines, here's another excerpt about how audiences today don't seem to relate to the Western:

Then there's the problem of tempo. Other modern movies move at warp speed, but the cowboy hero is a man with a slow hand. As Christopher Frayling, author of biographies of Eastwood and Leone, notes, "You can speed up spaceships and
cars, but you can't speed up horses." A director also has a tough time making
the old new--and the western is 19th century. "Americans don't like the past," says Andrew Dominik, the New Zealand-born writer-director of Jesse James. "They're O.K. with future and the present, but they can't remember anything before 1980." They see the western as a historical costume drama--Merchant Ivory in chaps.

So what do you think? Do you think people your age are "locked into the superhero world?" Do Americans really not like the past? Leave your comments below.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

What you've been writing about

Here's a nice mix-tape of your recent blog activity: Jack wonders what makes the Western so American; Anniessa has 5 reasons why she thinks hookers make such popular subjects for movies; Ryan makes a convincing case for Stagecoach and Snakes on a Plane being peas in a pod (oh yeah; and he also has a German rap video he made, plus details of his forthcoming musical about dogfighting QB Michael Vick); Caitlin has an insightful review of a Steven Spielberg movie I've yet to see, The Color Purple; and Jessica points out some interesting things about Citizen Kane's narrative style that I haven't seen anyone else talk about. Kudos to you guys.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Due Tuesday -- Journal #3

Here's a link to Roger Ebert's viewer's companion to Citizen Kane that can work as a mini-model for you in figuring out what to write about for your behind-the-scenes journal. For example, the "Deep Focus" and "Optical Illusions" sections in Ebert's commentary pertain to photography, "Visible Ceilings," "Matte Drawings" and others to set design, "The Brothel Scene" to script writing, and so on. Much has been written about who deserves credit for the script, and the fallout for Welles because of the poor reception of the film. Why do I mention all this? Because your job for this assignment is to find similar nuggets of info for the film you watch that can help you understand and appreciate the film a bit more.

Don't forget to cite your source by saying something like, "According to Roger Ebert's Viewer's Companion to Citizen Kane," and make sure to link to any online sources you use. It's a good idea to use excerpts from these sources, too, and not just because they increase your word count. Oh, and turn in your page of notes on the film in class, too. Good luck!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Due Thursday -- blog post on first Western

In case you don't have your blog assignment sheet handy, here are some ideas for writing thoughtful posts. Make your post on the first Western we watched in class 2-3 paragraphs long:

o Discuss/analyze an important scene
o Expand on a discussion question from class, whether from a film or a reading
o Make a connection to the real world/current events
o Discuss/analyze an aspect of cinematic style important to the film
o Discuss/analyze a topic or theme important to the film
o Relate it to another film, either from class or personal viewing
o Discuss ideas for future viewing inspired by film

Your comments (at least 3) are due Monday -- they'll always be due two days after the initial post. I realize now I didn't give you very good guidelines for commenting -- I'd like you guys to move away from the whole agree/disagree thing, which basically ends up being a lot of backslapping and telling each other how great you are. Now I don't have anything against positivity, but in addition to praise I'd like you to add more of your own ideas. What did this post make you think of that you can add to the discussion, instead of just repeat it? If someone leaves you a thoughtful comment, respond to it on their blog. Look at this link for a good example of commenting from our blogs, and this one to see what happens on other film blogs. In both, you'll see a bit of conversation developing. That's what we're after here -- conversation.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Due Thursday -- blog post on Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane is the culmination of our introductory unit on the language of film -- Kane is significant, in part, because of the way it synthesized stylistic techniques like no other previous film in the sound era.

For your blog post on this film, choose one of the following elements of film -- narration, mise-en-scene, cinematography (let's include photography here), editing, or sound -- and analyze how Orson Welles and his collaborators used it in Citizen Kane. For example, for mise-en-scene, you could talk about the low-key lighting and how it helped establish certain character traits. If you need help getting started, refer to your notes packet to look at all the techniques again. And hey, there's always Wikipedia! Make sure to check the external links at the bottom, and obviously (I hope) cite your sources if you use them.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Ebert on Citizen Kane

Here are a few excerpts from Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" essay on Citizen Kane, focusing on the meaning of "Rosebud" and a sequence we analyzed in class. Read it and see it how compares with your experience of the film [text in green highlighted by me]:

Rosebud is the emblem of the security, hope and innocence of childhood, which a man can spend his life seeking to regain. It is the green light at the end of Gatsby's pier; the leopard atop Kilimanjaro, seeking nobody knows what; the bone tossed into the air in ``2001.'' It is that yearning after transience that adults learn to suppress. ``Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get, or something he lost,'' says Thompson, the reporter assigned to the puzzle of Kane's dying word. ``Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything.'' True, it explains nothing, but it is remarkably satisfactory as a demonstration that nothing can be explained ...

``Citizen Kane'' knows the sled is not the answer. It explains what Rosebud is, but not what Rosebud means. The film's construction shows how our lives, after we are gone, survive only in the memories of others, and those memories butt up against the walls we erect and the roles we play. There is the Kane who made shadow figures with his fingers, and the Kane who hated the traction trust; the Kane who chose his mistress over his marriage and political career, the Kane who entertained millions, the Kane who died alone.

There is a master image in ``Citizen Kane'' you might easily miss. The tycoon has overextended himself and is losing control of his empire. After he signs the papers of his surrender, he turns and walks into the back of the shot. Deep focus allows Welles to play a trick of perspective. Behind Kane on the wall is a window that seems to be of average size. But as he walks toward it, we see it is further away and much higher than we thought. Eventually he stands beneath its lower sill, shrunken and diminished. Then as he walks toward us, his stature grows again. A man always seems the same size to himself, because he does not stand where we stand to look at him.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Personal viewing blog for Thursday

For Thursday, you can write about a specific film if you want, or anything film-related, really. I'm leaving this one wide-open to see what you guys come up with. For mine, see below:

My favorite movie blog is Scanners by Jim Emerson (linked to the right under "Film Blogs") -- he discusses a great mix of contemporary and classic films, he posts pretty frequently, and I always feel like I learn something from his writing and the comments from other readers that follow them. A post that is near and dear to my heart is right here -- I won't quote ad nauseum, but I'll provide this excerpt, which comes after Emerson wonders why people always ask him, "Why do you like old movies and foreign movies so much?"
I like to counter this narcissistic question with another proposition: "Think of the new music you've heard that's been issued over the last year. Is more of it "better" than what's been made over the last 100 years? Would it be "elitist" to say that it's more likely you'll find more favorites from the last 99 years than from the last one? Even in purely statistical terms, it just makes sense.

I hate to get too defensive over this, but considering I get the same attitude from my family and friends as I do from students, it gets a bit tiring to continually defend watching movies I genuinely like. If you're wondering why we're watching old movies like Citizen Kane instead of 300 in class, I hope you'll remember Emerson's quote about music.

Recently, he participated in a poll of online film writers to "determine" the best foreign-language films. You can read the whole post here, but for funsies, here's the list the 174 writers came up with. See how many titles you recognize:

1. "The Rules of the Game" (Jean Renoir)
2. "Seven Samurai" (Akira Kurosawa)
3. "M" (Fritz Lang)
4. "8 1/2" (Federico Fellini)
5. "Bicycle Thieves" (Vittorio De Sica)
6. "Persona" (Ingmar Bergman)
7. "Grand Illusion" (Jean Renoir)
8. "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (Werner Herzog)
9. "The Battle of Algiers" (Gillo Pontecorvo)
10. "The 400 Blows" (Francois Truffaut)
11. "Fanny and Alexander" (Ingmar Bergman)
12. "Tokyo Story" (Yasujiro Ozu)
13. "Rashomon" (Akira Kurosawa)
14. "Ikiru" (Akira Kurosawa)
15. "The Seventh Seal" (Ingmar Bergman)
16. "Ran" (Akira Kurosawa)
17. "Jules and Jim" (Francois Truffaut)
18. "The Conformist" (Bernardo Bertolucci)
19. "La Dolce Vita" (Federico Fellini)
20. "Contempt" (Jean-Luc Godard)
21. "Breathless" (Jean-Luc Godard)
22. "Ugetsu Monogatari" (Kenji Mizoguchi)
23. "Playtime" (Jacques Tati)
24. "Au Hasard, Balthazar" (Robert Bresson)
25. "Andrei Rublev" (Andrei Tarkovsky)

For the record, we're watching two titles that are in the Top 10 in The Art of Film I: M and The Battle of Algiers. The director of the film at No. 9, Werner Herzog, is the subject of the documentary Burden of Dreams, another film we're watching here. We'll watch Ran in The Art of Film II. Also, the 400 Blows is also part of the English 10 curriculum. What I'm trying to say is that we as English teachers have impeccable taste in film.
Kidding. Relax.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Journal #1 sample

Don't forget: journal #1 (critique the critic) must be posted on your blog by class time Tuesday. Be sure to include a link to your review, a picture or other image, and some relevant excerpts from the review (use the block quote feature -- the quotation mark button). Here's something (600 words, to be exact) I wrote up on a review of the new Western, 3:10 to Yuma.

J. Hoberman of the Village Voice is one of the few critics I read regularly who seems to offer different takes on film than mainstream critics, yet manages to avoid being a contrarian (just taking the opposite view of the majority in order to be different and, therefore, smarter). He does that again in this review of the recently released 3:10 to Yuma -- his review still makes me excited to see the movie, but he ratchets down the expectations enough so I won't go in thinking I'll be watching the greatest Western since Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven.

Hoberman lets readers know they're in capable hands right away by establishing his knowledge of both the Western genre and the 1957 original upon which this film is based:
Based on a story by Elmore Leonard, 3:10 to Yuma had an obvious kinship to High Noon, which appeared five years earlier. In both, a lone citizen is pitted against an insouciant criminal (and his gang), as well as confounded by a social order too craven to defend itself: The various moral issues are subsumed in the 11th Commandment that a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.
This breadth of knowledge is important to me, because a Western is never just a Western -- so many have been made throughout American cinematic history that each new one is, in a way, having a conversation with scores of other Westerns that came before. By placing the new 3:10 to Yuma in a historical context, Hoberman lets the reader know that this isn't a paint-by-numbers review. This especially comes across in sections of the review in which he compares this version, directed by James Mangold, with the original, directed by Delmer Daves. Although Hoberman thinks the story still works in the new Yuma, he clearly has an issue with the pacing and the scale, which he implies is too much like the typical Hollywood action flick. After a few references to the big battle scenes, he says:

What's lost in Mangold's rough-hewn exercise in barroom-brawl baroque is the original one-on-one ... The original's argument becomes purely situational here—per the dictates of contemporary ADD entertainment, moral judgment is always in the moment.

Another way in which Hoberman shows his knowledge of the Western is the fact that he acknowledges that there was more to them than just showdowns and whiskey drinking. They were made to help resolve conflicts that people could relate to:
Back in the day, America used the western to ponder certain things—among
them the nature of right and wrong and the basis of the social contract.
Hoberman goes on to say that Mangold's explorations of themes like this are "louder" than Daves', but it was heartening to hear that this film stays true to the nature of the Western by examining weighty issues -- so many people still think of the Western as mindless entertainment, when in actuality it tells us so much about how Americans view themselves and their history.

I like that Hoberman saves his comments about the acting until the last few paragraphs. Too many critics devote too much space to discussing the actors, basically playing into Hollywood's shallow celebrity culture. Yes, acting can sometimes make or break a movie, but so can every other element of film. I also have to admit that I like the potshot Hoberman took at Russell Crowe, who I think is kind of overrated, save for his performance in The Insider.
This review reinforced my earlier thoughts about seeing the film: rent the orignal first via Netflix, then watch the remake.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

How to Do Stuff

How to embed a video from YouTube:

1. On YouTube, when you've found the video you want, click inside the box that says "Embed." Right-click and select "Copy."
2. On your blog, while you are creating the post, click on the tab that says "Edit Html."
3. Right-click and select "Paste."
4. If you want to add text above or below your video, you need to click the tab that says, "Compose."
5. When you are finished, click "Publish Post."

How to do everything else like edit your post, create links, add pictures, etc.:

Go here. It's the Blogger help section. Know it, love it.

"Why is my blog under review?"

I've been getting this question a lot. It turns out that if you didn't create a long enough post (or didn't create a post at all) when you created your blog, Blogger thinks you might be spamming. So here's what you do if you're told your blog is under review:

1. Sign in to Blogger
2. Click "Create a Blog"
3. Start over (I know, this sucks). You should be able to keep everything the same except for your URL. Consider just adding a number to the end of your URL so it stays mostly the same.
4. Make sure to post a longer entry this time -- at least 100 words. It can be about anything film-related. Or it can be your first journal entry
5. Lastly, repeat the final step from the first time around -- post your first name and last initial, hour, and URL in the comments section of my latest blog post.

Shift Happens

Monday, September 3, 2007

"I've been teaching the same class for the last five years, and in no way is that depressing."

I really mean that, too, because it's not the same class every year. Not only do you, the students, change, but every semester I tweak at least a few things in a never-ending effort to create the best possible class experience for you. I alter assignments, I swap out films, and this year, for the first time, I'm adding a class blog. My Edline page will be the home for checking your grades and the assignment calendar, as well as printing out assignments if you (perish the thought) lose your first copy. But this is the place to go for regular updates about the goings-on of recent classes, important links, polls, and sometimes, just fun posts that I whimsically add. The most important feature of this page, though, is that it will house the links for all of your blogs. This way, you'll be easily connected, not just to the blogs belonging to students in your class, but all The Art of Film I classes. The goal of the blog project is to generate an ongoing, illuminating and fun conversation about film. In order to do that, you'll have to check back here frequently. For now, check out some of the links, participate in the poll, or even comment on this entry. Stay classy.
EDIT: Post your blog info in the comments to this post, just like I and several students have already done. Don't use your last names, just first name and last initial. Don't forget to title your blog, too.