Final Paper Analysis of The Fifth Element

December 4, 2009

Luc Besson’s film The Fifth Element has an anti-technological bias conveyed in an unusually subtle way. Generally, when a science fiction film is anti-technology, it conveys this by depicting robots murdering humans in the streets (or something similarly obvious); in The Fifth Element, however, the bias is conveyed by setting up two characters’ worldviews as oppositional, and then encouraging the viewer to identify with the point of view that is opposed to technology.

By manipulating our impressions of who is looking at certain scenes (as described by Daniel Dayan) and taking advantage of our identification with the camera (as described by Christian Metz), we are presented with two ways of seeing associated with our two lead characters. When the pacing, mise-en-scene, and sound design of the shots vary in concordance with these two views, we come to see the viewpoint of ex-military 23rd-century taxi driver Korbin Dallas (played by Bruce Willis) as complicated, technologically-oriented, and sexless, and the viewpoint of the world-saving divine alien being known as Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) as calm, simple, and romantic. The film then endorses Leeloo’s philosophy by having Korbin, throughout the course of the film, change his life to become more like Leeloo.

To exemplify this conveyance of this ideology in the film, I have chosen a short sequence that is something of a turning point in the movie, in which Korbin is strongly attracted to Leeloo (and everything she represents), but still distances himself from her. The scene is almost perfectly halfway through the movie, and immediately precedes Korbin’s decision to abandon his current life in order to pursue and help Leeloo. The sequence I will analyse runs from timestamp 1:05:5 until 1:06:49 in the film; this is from 0:05 to 1:06 in the clip below, which also includes a few extra shots for context.

First, there is the process by which the oppositional viewpoints are defined. The real origin of every image in the clip above lies, of course, in the camera and the filmmaking process. However, through the conventions of suture, “the real origin of the image–the conditions of its production represented by the absent-one–is replaced with a false origin and this false origin is situated inside the fiction” (Dayan, The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema, page 117 of Film Theory and Criticism, 7th ed.). Suture is to be expected in any conventional film, and yet I think the choice of false origins in this sequence is being used to tell us more about the conflict of philosophy within the film, and the ideology ultimately promoted by the film. So, let’s look at who, exactly, is looking at whom.


Korbin looking at Leeloo

Part 1 consists of only shot 1, which is 41 seconds long and begins at 0:05 in the clip above. An earlier shot/reverse-shot sequence showed us Leeloo, and then Korbin looking at Leeloo, so we predict that this shot will once again represent what Korbin sees. However, instead of a more traditional reaction shot showing Korbin’s face, we see Korbin and Leeloo together, as Korbin’s look at Leeloo (both the implied look of his earlier role as absent-one, and the literal look depicted in the scene) pulls him closer into her world. At the beginning of the shot, Korbin rummages through a cupboard, throwing things over his shoulder to clang noisily on the ground, separate from Leeloo as in his usual life, but after he begins to dry her off his field of vision shrinks. As he is influenced by her calm, he goes from chatting and drying her vigorously and glancing from one part of her to another, to silently gazing into her eyes.

The camera colludes in this tunnel-vision. As the shot progresses, it quite elegantly removes all traces of technology from the screen, so that the closer we are to Leeloo the further we are from anything that marks the scene as happening in the future. To accomplish this, it moves slowly forward throughout the shot, transforming a cluttered medium shot into a clean close-up, an action it carries out so subtly that I almost didn’t notice it even after several viewings. We are meant to see Leeloo as Korbin sees her: a stable center with an inexplicable allure that draws our attention away from the other distractions of life. And so, she never moves from the middle of the frame, while we, as camera-Korbin, physically move closer to her without quite realizing our own movement, and literally lose sight of anything but her.

The remarkable change within shot 1 which goes un-remarked on.

Our attraction to Leeloo is romantic, with soft horn music, the close physicality of drying off, and especially the near-kiss toward the end all contributing to a sexually-charged atmosphere. When Leeloo and Korbin stand close to each other, as they do throughout most of the shot, there is a sense of belonging. It is notable that Korbin’s shirt is so bright orange; throughout the film, this colour is strongly associated with Leeloo, so when Korbin begins to wear it as well it is a sign of his increasing allegiance to Leeloo’s way of life.

So, when Korbin looks at Leeloo, he sees simplicity and calm, and he is attracted to what he sees.


Leeloo looking at Korbin

Part 2 consists of the following 4 shots: shot 2, in which the bed slides out of the wall and Korbin rips Cornelius (a monk trying to help Leeloo save the world) out of the plastic; shot 3, in which Leeloo comments, “autowash” and begins to take off her suspenders; and shot 4, in which Korbin pulls Cornelius to his feet.

When shot 2 begins at 0:50 in the clip above, it’s not immediately clear who is seeing it. Here we must visit Dayan and his The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema, to consider the process by which a moviegoer decides upon the false origin of the images presented. Dayan says,

“Within the system of suture, the absent-one can therefore be defined as the intersubjective “trick” by means of which the second part of a given representative statement is no longer simply what comes after the first part, but what is signified by it. … On the one hand, a retroactive process organizes the signified. On the other hand, an anticipatory process organizes the signifier.” (page 116-117).

Thus, when we see the bed sliding out of Korbin’s wall in shot 2, just after Korbin turns his head away from the camera in shot 1, we are thinking both, “Ah, this is what he was looking at before” and “Who is looking at it now?” We provisionally consider that Korbin is still the signifier in shot 2, but then at 0:51 he runs into the shot, and we realize that he can’t be looking at himself. Since Leeloo is the only other person in the room, we think it is probably her, but we have been wrong before; when shot 3 shows us Leeloo simply pointing and saying “autowash,” it is not for the purpose of the joke, but to reassure us that Leeloo really was our absent-one in the shot before, and to confirm that we have changed our perspective from Korbin-seeing-Leeloo to Leeloo-seeing-Korbin.

So, what changes when we start looking through different eyes? For one thing, technology and clutter have both returned to Korbin’s life. The sound bridge connecting shot 1 to shot 2 is a mechanical whine, and when Korbin first enters the frame of shot 2 he kicks an aluminum can and sends it clattering across the floor. Most obviously, a bed emerges from the wall, a concrete example of the ways that technology drives Korbin’s life. The soft horn music also ends, completing the shift from romantic timelessness to science-fiction technology.

Sex has also been totally removed from the equation. It is somewhat ironic that it is Korbin’s bed to come out of the wall just after his romantic moment with Leeloo, because it is very clear that no sleeping, euphemistic or otherwise, is likely to happen. For one thing, Cornelius lies on top of the sheets, and the bed has been made. For another, Cornelius has been wrapped in sterile plastic. Additionally, the character of Cornelius is actually a monk– an embodiment of celibacy.

Shot 2 and shot 4: technology, plastic, and clutter.

Leeloo’s reaction to both of these changes is very much that of an outsider. Whereas Korbin and Leeloo share focus equally in shot 1, in shot 3 (the only shot in which they appear together) the depth of field has narrowed so that only Leeloo is in focus, and Korbin is set apart from her. Leeloo does not get involved in the action of rescuing Cornelius, merely passing comment on the action while she continues with her own business of dealing with her wet clothes.

The world without Leeloo is also less happy than the world with her. This is evident both on the obvious levels of the previously-mentioned cluttered mise-en-scene and change in music, as well as the nature of the action, but it is also true on a more subtle level: the camera moves more obviously, with a distinctive handheld shake, and everything within the shot is moves as well– the stability provided by Leeloo has been lost.

At the end of shot 4, Korbin and Cornelius look directly at the at the camera, making us ask quite explicitly, “What are they seeing?”

This shot demands a reverse-shot.

The answer, of course, is Leeloo.


Korbin and Cornelius looking at Leeloo

Shot 5 shows Korbin and Cornelius looking behind them at Leeloo, and then immediately turning back to face the camera because Leeloo has taken off her wet shirt to wring it out. They stand awkwardly, and then Korbin edges out of the frame to get coffee. Even though this shot expresses their view of Leeloo, we never get a clear look at her at all; the depth of field is narrow and Leeloo, behind the two men, is totally out of focus.

Shot 5: trying not to look at Leeloo.

I find this shot most telling because in it, Leeloo expresses what she really represents, and Korbin aligns himself with the monk to quite literally turn his back on her. Leeloo, as a symbol of straightforward sexuality, has no qualms about taking off her wet shirt to wring it out: how else would she get dry? But this is still the middle of the movie, the point at which the hero must decide whether or not to accept his quest, and at this point he is determined not to accept. The camera, like Korbin, obeys the authoritarian message on the wall to “Keep Clear” (an artifact of an authoritarian society), and refuses to look at her, blocking her out with the two men who represent the usual way of things in this science fiction world.


The true origin of the looks: the camera

The story becomes more complex when we remember that Korbin and Leeloo are both fictional characters, and therefore cannot possibly look at each other. In Christian Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier, he attempts to tease out the truth behind the spectator’s experience of identification with film.

“The spectator’s look… must first “go through”… the look of the character out-of-frame. … This invisible character, supposed (like the spectator) to be seeing, will collide obliquely with the latter’s look and play the part of an obligatory intermediary.” (page 700)

Thus, we are the ones beginning to feel alienated from Korbin’s technologically-focused, conflict-driven life, and we feel attracted to Leeloo’s simpler way of living.

However, we must not forget the fact that “as he indentifies with himself as look, the spectator can do no other than identify with the camera, too, which has looked before him at what he is not looking at.” Although our look is more real than the look of the fictional character, it is still not the cause of the image; the true origin lies, as always, in the camera. We take a stance on technology not through our own will, then, but as a direct result of the camera’s placement—or rather, the director’s placement of the camera.

Thus, the beautiful slow zoom in shot 1 is caused not by Korbin’s attraction to Leeloo (the false origin), but by the director’s desire to make the viewer subconsciously associate Leeloo with calm, gentle feelings. The shots get jumpier and shorter starting with shot 2 not because Leeloo is disoriented by Korbin’s world, but because the director wants the spectator to consider the world disorienting. Every detail has been orchestrated with intent, and at great cost, to cause us to identify with a very specific ideology.

Finally, let us consider how the film ends: when Leeloo does save the world, it is as an embodiment of love, not as a technological weapon. In the epilogue, the President wants to speak to Korbin and Leeloo to thank them, but, as a scientist awkwardly explains, they are “occupied”; they are encapsulated in a healing device, no clothes in sight, unashamedly having sex. That is, Korbin has completely embraced Leeloo’s world, and brought the spectator into seeing a “happy ending” that consists of keeping out the rest of the world, in order to enjoy life on a primal, uncomplicated, “uncivilized” level.

The Fifth Element, despite its surface similarities to technology-glorifying science fiction romps, therefore subtly encourages the spectator to identify with an anti-technology ideology.


Shots from The Fifth Element

November 30, 2009

Shot 1

Shot 2

Shot 3

Shot 4

Shot 5

A Shot-by-Shot Analysis from The Fifth Element

November 17, 2009

In the film The Fifth Element, the world in general and protagonist Korben Dallas’ life in particular are complicated, strange, and dangerous. Life is fast-paced and science-fiction devices abound. However, the alien Leeloo, sent by ancient beings to prevent the destruction of the universe, represents a peaceful return to normalcy, both for humanity, whom she saves, and for Korben, with whom she falls in love.

The contrast between the world with and without Leeloo’s influence becomes particularly evident in a scene in the middle of the movie, in which Korben accepts a military mission representative of his old life in order to pursue and help Leeloo. The camera motion, shot length, mise-en-scene, and sound all change from calm simplicity to frantic complexity as Korbin turns his attention from Leeloo to the rest of the world. The scene itself is almost exactly halfway through the movie, and the sequence I will be analysing starts at timestamp 1:05:56 and runs until 1:06:49. (In the clip, this is from 0:05 to 1:06 — I included a little bit more for context.)

My first shot is a long one, lasting 41 seconds. As part of the plot preceding this scene, Korbin has hidden a number of people in his apartment: Leeloo in his shower, the priest Cornelius in his bed, and three soldiers in his fridge. Leeloo, the orange-haired humanoid alien, is the first to be rescued; immediately prior to this shot, Korbin has retrieved his shower, which retracts into the ceiling and out of view, and discovered that Leeloo is now soaking wet because of an “autowash” feature.

In this shot, the camera moves very little; it starts with a slight pan to the right as Korbin helps Leeloo out of the shower, but this is primarily because the previous shot was moving, and to keep the transition smooth it must cut from motion to motion. After the pan, it begins moving forward in a very gradual, slow process which makes the framing simpler and more intimate as the scene goes on but which will probably not register consciously as camera movement.

Leeloo also doesn’t move– she stands in the center of the shot, shaking, as Korbin walks behind her and noisily tosses items out of a hidden cupboard. His apartment in general is very cluttered, and as the unidenfitifiable objects as they hit the floor their clanging highlights his unsettled state.

He finds a towel and walks back to Leeloo to wrap it around her. He starts by vigorously drying her off, but the more time he spends with her, the slower his movements become. His dialogue also changes from being more high-energy to calmer the longer he is with her; he begins by explaining and apologizing for the autowash, then comments that this is the second time today that Leeloo has ended up in his arms, then falls silent as he contemplates that fact and her face.

The moment around 1:06:25 best encapsulates the mood of Korbin-with-Leeloo. He has finally stopped frantically moving around, only absently stroking her shoulder from time to time, and he has stopped talking. The camera has moved forward enough to cut the shower and the cupboard out of the shot, giving us a view of Korbin’s apartment with an unprecedented lack of clutter. He is totally engrossed in looking at her face; we expect him to kiss her at any moment. The slightly cheesy romantic music, which has been playing since Leeloo appeared, becomes most audible at this moment.

However, a whining/ moaning noise also becomes audible, and at 1:06:31 we begin our transition out of Leeloo-land. Korbin physically turns away from Leeloo to look behind him for the source of the sound, and asks (in a voice that has become a whisper through her influence), “Did you hear something?” and the music stops. When she answers, “Cornelius,” he is silent for a moment, and then we finally cut away from Leeloo and to our next shot.

In my second shot, we see a return to the world of action and technology that represents Korbin’s life without Leeloo. The music stops abruptly, and instead we hear a mechanical whine (which actually begins to be audible in the last few seconds of the previous shot) as Korbin’s retractable bed slides out from the wall, with Cornelius trapped under its plastic wrap.

The camera begins moving again as Korbin runs into the frame. In his haste, he kicks a aluminum soda can, which clatters metallically;  it’s not meant to be noticed consciously but as with the junk thrown out of his cupboard in the shot before, it calls to mind the clutter of Korbin’s usual life. As the can skitters away, Korbin rips the plastic off the bed, and Cornelius sits bolt upright with a loud gasp for air. The shot lasts four seconds, a mere tenth of the shot before.

We cut back to Leeloo for the third shot. It’s a dirty single, with Korbin’s out-of-focus back in the foreground of the shot. However, it’s not very dirty, since Leeloo is standing in front of the only blank wall in Korbin’s apartment, and absolutely none of his things are visible. It is essentially a reverse-shot, showing Leeloo’s reaction to to action in the shot prior.

Leeloo is unworried. She does move, but it is to begin taking off her own wet clothes, not to get caught up in the action surrounding Cornelius. Instead, she simply points off-screen to the action, and comments, “Autowash.” (It is probably worth noting, for those who have not seen the movie, that Leeloo does not yet speak English in this scene; she speaks primarily in one-work proper names, but we are meant to read a further eloquence into them; they do not represent an intellectual deficiency on her part.)

However, Korbin is no longer engrossed in the calm world of Leeloo, and this shot lasts only two seconds.

In the fourth shot, the camera jostles back and forth as Korbin pulls Cornelius to his feet (a motion which also pulls a huge swath of plastic into the shot). We are once again looking at the messy part of Korbin’s apartment, with open drawers, cupboard doors, and shelves of books, awards, photographs, and knickknacks.

The men shove at each other for a few moments, Korbin in an attempt to brush Cornelius off, and Cornelius in an attempt to brush off Korbin’s attention (and to express his annoyance). Korbin is talking loudly again, saying almost the same thing he was saying to Leeloo when he pulled her out of the shower– lots of “sorry.”

Then, with an amusing swooshing sound effect, they both look directly at the camera.

In shot five, the two men are in the foreground in focus, obscuring Leeloo as she takes off her wet shirt behind them. We get the swooshing sound again as they both in unison turn their backs to her. Korbin awkwardly offers Cornelius a cup of coffee and steps out of the shot as Leeloo wrings out her shirt (the water splashing audibly on the ground) and mutters “autowash” to herself.

By standing with Cornelius and literally turning his back to Leeloo, Korbin has rejoined Cornelius’ world of action (a world that does not have time for romance). It represents a complete reversal of his position towards her earlier, which was romantic but devoid of action. It also represents the general tone of the movie, a tone that Korbin consistently tries to escape by pursuing Leeloo.

As the scene continues, we see Korbin pour a cup of coffee, then a reverse shot of Cornelius standing awkwardly, then a point of view shot as Cornelius notices some plot-important cruise tickets and grabs them, then a reaction shot of Cornelius as he crosses himself and grabs an award statue of Korbin’s, then a shot of Korbin and the coffee as Cornelius runs forward to bash Korbin on the head, and then a shot in the hallway as Cornelius and Leeloo flee– all of which happens in barely thirty seconds, less than the time Korbin spent just drying Leeloo off!

Overall, these five shots (and the context surrounding them) perfectly encapsulate the two worlds of the film, and Korbin’s reaction to them. When we move away from Leeloo, the camera moves more, the shots come faster, the mise-en-scene is messier, and the sound changes from peaceful music to motion-driven sound effects, whereas the closer we get to Leeloo, the calmer all of these things become. Because of this, throughout the movie, Korbin is drawn to Leeloo, and in fact puts up with more frenzied action than usual in order to gain the happy romantic “clinch” at the end.

Noir Style in Citizen Kane

October 31, 2009

Glancing through our readings the last few weeks, ruminating on the many concepts we’ve discussed in search of a topic, it occurred to me that although Citizen Kane doesn’t follow a quintessential noir theme, it almost-perfectly coincides with the seven noir stylistics outlined by Paul Shrader in his Notes on Film Noir.

He names seven definining stylistic elements, providing a perfect structure for our blog post.


“The majority of scenes are lit for night.”

Although the journalist’s investigation in Citizen Kane takes place over the course of a week, and the flashbacks cover the course of many decades, the overall look of the film is dark, and many scenes take place in the dark for no narrative reason. For example, think of the picnic that Kane forces Susan Alexander to go on. We have two brief shots of all the cars driving out during the daylight, but then we cut to the night when we see the actual events of the picnic (a cut that goes along with the amusingly appropriate lyrics, “It can’t be love”).

The scenes in the newspaper offices (both “past” and “present,” Kane’s and his investigators’) are often similarly dark, as are Susan Alexander’s opera performances, and the little restaurant in which the journalist meets with her.


Here, for example, we see Kane in his opera box after the end of one of Susan Alexander’s performances. Although the house lights have gone up and everyone is clapping, the shadows are stern as if the pervasive darkness present during her performance hasn’t left yet. It all contributes to a feeling that “if the lights were all suddenly flipped on, the characters would shriek and shrink from the scene like Count Dracula at sunrise.”


“As in German expressionism, oblique and vertical lines are preferred to horizontal.”

The lighting in Citizen Kane is very expressionist in general– just consider the scenes in which the “present” journalists talk amongst themselves, an image that is among the most defining of the movie.

citizen_kane_5However, the expressionism also also, quite evidently, tied to a preference for oblique lines. However, although lighting is sometimes used to create these lines, it is more common for the architecture of the set to do so. Consider the two images below; the first is from Citizen Kane, the second from Chinatown.



The light crisscrosses Kane in much the same way as it does J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, but the similarity in feel stems, in my opinion, primarily from the oblique lines of the ceiling in the first, which mirror the oblique lines of light in the second. Although the movie as a whole does not give the impression of “windows… cut out with a penknife,” we still get a strong feeling of unreality and oppression from the composition of the space, as can be seen in all of the following shots.

Kane 3

Annex - Welles, Orson (Citizen Kane)_01



“The actors and setting are often given equal lighting emphasis.”

citizen_kane_6More importantly, “[an actor’s] face is often blacked out by shadow as he speaks.” We never see clearly the faces of any of the journalists who investigate Kane’s story after his death. None of them! They are thus often featured in the most fantastically-lit and expressionist scenes, such as the one to the left (note the oblique lines again, this time created with light as is typical.) However, even in less extraordinary scenes, such as the final scene, in which the whole journalistic team wanders through Kane’s warehouse of antiques, the light and the camera conspire to conceal their faces from us.

Due to the difference in subject matter, this doesn’t give so much of an impression that the characters are insignificant compared to the ciy and that “there is nothing the protagonists can do; the city will outlast and negate even their best efforts;” however, it does contribute to the impression that the journalists’ search is futile and that Kane’s “true” identity and story will never be known to them, and in fact that such a thing is impossible to define in the first place. They are indistinguishable, not from the dark city that is the typical theme of noir, but of the lack of identity that is the particular theme of Citizen Kane.


“Compositional tension is often preferred to physical action.”

This is the stylistic element that first got me thinking of Citizen Kane in terms of noir. Throughout the movie, composition is used to show interpersonal relationships, often as the only means of doing so. For example, consider Kane at the breakfast table with his first wife. At the beginning of their marriage, they are close:


But after their marriage has deteriorated, they are distant from each other, and the newspaper has come between them:

marriage2(Notice, also, the increased effect of the oblique lighting and architecture, and the way that they are given equal lighting emphasis as their surroundings.)

Most emblematic of this element, to me, is the scene in which Kane insists that Susan Alexander will continue to sing opera. Susan is sitting on the ground, surrounded by newspapers, while Kane is standing. In the shot/reverse-shot sequence, Susan is always shot with the camera above, looking down, and Kane is shot with the camera below, looking up. When Susan begins to insist that she is done singing, she rises to her knees, claiming a little more space and height in the shot. At the moment when Kane shouts that she will continue to sing, he moves closer to the camera, growing larger in his frame. When we cut back to Susan Alexander, his shadow moves to cover her entirely, and she cowers and becomes smaller. The scene ends and the narrative moves on, the argument resolved by nothing but a change in composition.

(Watch from 1:15 to 2:10 to see the sequence discussed.)


“There seems to be an almost Freudian attachment to water.”

Of the connections between Citizen Kane and noir style, this is one of the weakest. Water and rain are certainly present in the film, but they don’t have the pervasiveness and importance that they find in more traditional noir. As such, for the most part, there is little to say here. However, I will posit that the following scene, in which we meet “present-day” Susan Alexander for the first time, could out-noir almost anything:


“There is a love of romantic narration.”

The story of Kane’s life is told through the flashbacks of those who knew him, making far more use than usual of voiceover narration. Jedediah Leland, in particular, tended to editorialize the stories he told, trying to explain why Kane did the things he did, but in a way that conveyed “an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate, and an all-enveloping hopelessness.”

Consider the video cited for stylistic #4; it begins with Leland, an old man, talking to the journalist. Immediately before we watch Kane bully his wife into continuing to sing against her wishes, Leland tells us, “He was always trying to prove something. That whole thing about Susie being an opera singer, that was trying to prove something. You know what the headline was the day before the election? Candidate Kane found in love nest with quote, “singer,” un-quote. He was gonna take the quotes off the singer.” When the next scene begins, then, we already know how it’s going to end and why it’s going to unfold that way.

Or, consider this earlier scene, in which Leland begins narrating before the image of Kane and his wife Emily has fully finished fading away.

The camera pulls away from Kane and Emily, revealing the distance between them, and the journalist asks, “Wasn’t he ever in love with her?” Leland answers, “He married for love. Love. That’s why he did everything.” Only then does the image of Kane and his wife fully fade away, as Leland continues to narrate: “That’s why he went into politics. It seems we weren’t enough; he wanted all them voters to love him, too. That’s all he really wanted out of life, was love. That’s Charlie’s story: how he lost it.”

Leland, like the others, directly tells us Charles Kane’s story, and it’s a story whose sad ending is already known. Even if the narrative of the story is not the most noir of plots, the narration is most definitely noir.


“A complex chronological order is frequently used to reinforce the feelings of hopelessness and lost time.”

When a film begins with the death of its titular character, you’re almost guaranteed a complex chronological order and a feeling of hopelessness, in the sense that nothing can change the ending of the story. Citizen Kane comes back to certain events, such as the day he lost the election, or the night Susan Alexander left him, again and again, revealing more of the hopelessness of the situation each time. The significance of the snowglobe, for example, seen at the beginning of the movie (which is the end of his life) is explained all out of order– we don’t see him pick it up until near the end of the movie, when Kane’s butler tells the story of the night Susan Alexander left (which is, incidentally, not even the first time we hear that particular story).

It’s difficult to cite examples when describing the overall structure of a film, so instead I will cite Shrader: doesn’t this sound exactly like Citizen Kane? It “use[s] a convoluted time sequence to immerse the viewer in a time-disoriented but highly stylized world.” That, to me, is Kane in a nutshell.


Overall, I expect that people can poke holes in the idea of Citizen Kane as a noir. However, even if Citizen Kane is not a noir film, I feel it is safe to say that Orson Welles is a noir director. Kane is only his first film, and 1941 is early for the noir genre, and yet it already demonstrates a strong preference for noir style. As film noir and Welles himself become more established, he creates much more typically noir films, such as The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and Touch of Evil (1958). It is no surprise, then, so see so much of the style of the noir present in Citizen Kane.

Hitchcock and Feminist Theory in Suspicion and Rear Window

October 9, 2009

Identifying as a feminist, it seems, is really quite different from having a working familiarity with feminist film theory! I found myself fascinated by all the new analysis I encountered in  Tania Modeleski’s excerpt “The Master’s Dollhouse: Rear Window” (Google books link) from The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (Amazon).


Rear Window shows us the story of a murder, as viewed from the apartment of a photojournalist temporarily using a wheelchair. L.B. Jeffries, injured getting photographs of a car race, passes his convalescence spying on his neighbours with binoculars and powerful camera lenses, with occasional company from Stella, his insurance company masseuse;  Doyle, a detective friend; and, most importantly, Lisa, his girlfriend.

Modeleski says the following of Rear Window:

Because of Hitchcock’s relentless insistence on the male gaze, even critics like Robin Wood, who are anxious to save the film for feminism, restrict themselves to discussing the film’s critique of the position of the hero and, by extension, of the male spectator whose “phantasy position the hero occupies.” But what happens, in the words of a recent relevant article by Linda Williams, “when the woman looks”? I shall argue, against the grain of critical consensus, that the film actually has something to say about this question. (Film Theory & Criticism, p. 723)

Modeleski’s argument completely convinced me. Although L.B. Jeffries is (usually) the one holding the camera or binoculars, “…it is Lisa’s interpretation, arrived at through identification, that is ultimately validated” (p. 731). It is important, first, because her interpretations are validated. This is true of her small comments and her key assertions. A popular neighbour isn’t “a queen bee with her pick of the drone’s,” she’s ” doing a woman’s hardest job– juggling wolves”; one of the men, who fails in his attempt to restrain her after a brief visit to the balcony, later assaults another neighbour. If a woman’s handbag is usually hung on her bedpost, it is her favourite handbag, and she would never leave it behind on a trip, nor would she leave her jewelry, and least of all her wedding ring; indeed, the woman has been murdered.

However, to me, it is even more important because these interpretations are “arrived at through identification.” The male gaze can see what is happening, but it takes a female gaze to see why. Because nearly all the crucial evidence in the case hinges upon Lisa’s knowledge of what a woman would or would not do, the viewer must identify with a woman in order to continue in the narrative, making the “gaze” of the movie as a whole far less straightforwardly “male”.

However, this is all just considering Rear Window; what happens when the majority of the film is centered around the “female look”? Earlier in the class, we also watched Hitchcock’s Suspicion, which unfolds entirely from the perspective of Lina McLaidlaw.


Lina is a Hollywood Homely young woman who falls for a charming man named Johnnie, and defies her parents to marry him. As soon as they are married, however, she begins to suspect that his charming exterior is hiding something; she returns from their honeymoon to discover that he is entirely bankrupt and unemployed. As the film progresses, she discovers lie after lie– he sold her antique chairs to gamble, he lost his job, he didn’t spend his whole out-of-town trip in London– and she is plagued by suspicion, and eventually fear that he plans to kill her. In the final scene, she attempts to leave him, and he convinces her that he was only researching poison in order to kill himself, not to harm her, as well as explaining away several other lies; the film ends with a typical “clinch” and they drive off into the sunset.

Throughout the film, our intense suspicion stems from the fact that we are only allowed to see what Lina sees. Johnnie’s reports on his off-screen action are increasingly proved to be unreliable, and we are constantly in doubt of his intentions. Our fear, as it mounts, is Lina’s fear, and it is also a typically female fear; domestic violence remains primarily an issue of men harming their wives, in 2005, 1,181 women were murdered by intimates, versus 329 men, even though far more men are victims of murder than women are; the threat to women comes disproportionately from the men they are supposed to trust.

Lina’s gaze, as the only guarantee that what seems true won’t be revealed later as false, becomes the authoritative gaze, and through it, we identify with Lina not just as a protagonist, but also was a woman bound by very specific societal restrictions and roles. (When it is revealed that Johnnie has no money, and doesn’t want to get a job, it’s never even suggested that Lina might work.)

suspicion.JPGNear the end of Suspiscion, Lina wakes in bed after an illness, where her author friend reveals that she has told Lina’s husband the recipe for an untraceable poison easy to find in every home; Lina asks if it is painless, and upon being reassured that it is, closes her eyes, as if resigned. That night, her husband brings her a glass of milk. As she watches it on the nightstand, we look at it with her look– wondering if it is poisoned, wondering if she should drink it anyway to end the endless fear, or ignore it, or perhaps empty it to pretend it has been drunk, or throw it against the wall…

rear_window_ringLina’s moment of greatest weakness reminds me of the moment in Rear Window, when Lisa, by putting on a murdered woman’s wedding ring in order to smuggle it out of an apartment as evidence, symbolically “marries” a wife-murderer. Modeleski says of the following of the incident:

A female spectator of Rear Window may…use her special knowledge of women and their position in patriarchy to see another kind of significance in the ring; to the woman identifying, like Lisa herself, with the female protagonist of the story [i.e., the murdered wife], the episode [in which Lisa wears the dead wife’s ring to smuggle it out of the apartment as evidence] may be read as pointing up the victimization of women by men. … But it is not only the female spectator who is bound to identify with Lisa… Jeff himself–and, by extension, the male film viewer–is forced to identify with the woman and to become aware of his own passivity and helplessness in relation to the events unfolding before his eyes. (p. 732)

Similarly, male and female spectators alike are bound to identify with Lina and her helplessness to determine the truth of how her husband behaves when he is invisible to hr gaze. We don’t know what Johnnie is thinking, but we know what Lina is thinking, because we are thinking it too. An earlier draft of the movie had Lina drink the milk intentionally to die; the version released has her ignore it and live. Both versions, to different degrees, ultimately validate the idea that anything not seen by Lina cannot be trusted.

I could never argue that the male gaze does not exist, or even that it is not often privileged; even if it is reduced in Suspicion, it is of great importance in Rear Window, and of course in untold thousands of other movies. However, I found it fascinating and noteworthy that, perhaps sometimes unnoticed, there is also a strong female gaze in both of these Hitchcock films, and once you begin to see what it sees, a great deal more is revealed.


Cinema Paradiso and the Hollywood narrative

September 4, 2009

(Note to regular readers: this is another film studies post. This assignment was to consider David Bordwell’s Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures in relation to the movies we’d seen in class; I am addressing primarily Cinema Paradiso.) 

TotoAlfredohorCinema Paradiso depicts the life of Salvatore Di Vita (called “Toto”) and his relationship with the cinema in his small Sicilian town as he grows from a child to an adolescent, and finally to an adult. It begins with the adult Toto learning of the death of his childhood mentor, Alfredo, but soon jumps back to his early childhood and proceeds mostly chronologically from there. Toto’s childhood is spent haunting Alfredo in the projection booth of the theatre, run by the church. His adolescence, running the booth alone, now under the supervision of a local businessman. His adulthood, escaping the small town for an impressive American film career– or at least trying to. Everyone in the film is obsessed with movies, especially Toto and Alfredo, and especially Hollywood movies. Which brings me to my main thoughts on the film in relation to Bordwell’s article:

Although Cinema Paradiso revolves lovingly around the idea of the classic Hollywood film, it is questionable whether or not is is like one.

Bordwell identifies a number of features of classic Hollywood cinema that I want to explore now, both because I recognized them at once and because I had to wonder whether Cinema Paradiso complies with them.

First, there is the idea that the film’s plot is goal-oriented, or, as Bordwell put it, “causality is the prime unifying principle” (p. 19). The characters have goals, obstacles arise, the characters address these obstacles, and then the goals are either accomplished or not. In every scene, some previous line of action is resolved, and some new line of action is left hanging– someone answers a phone, and learns of a funeral; we’ve learned who was calling but now we want to know who has died. Every shot is propelled by cause and effect on to the next shot– the camera shows us a phone ringing, so the next thing we want to see is the reaction to the phone, and who will answer it. This is still very much the standard mode for commercial American film, seen just as much in Transformers as in Philadelphia Story.

However, I’m not convinced that it’s seen much in Cinema Paradiso, at least on the level of scenes progressing to new scenes. The plot seems driven much more by the passage of time than by Toto’s goals, or anyone else’s. Certainly, by the end, I don’t feel comfortable declaring what the driving goal was, or whether or not it was accomplished. Toto loved movies, and Alfredo didn’t want Toto to be stuck in their small town forever, but quite a lot of screen time was dedicated to events, such as Toto’s time as an altar boy, or Alfredo’s attempt at the primary school exams, which may have related thematically but were not driven by the sort of direct causality that drives, for example, a murder mystery. Until the camera opened on the classroom and Alfredo entered, we had no idea that he might be there, and in any given scene, it’s nearly impossible to name the goals of the characters in that moment.


Second, there a the specific kind of goal-obstacle-accomplishment plotline that is nearly required for classic Hollywood and yet nearly absent here: yes, the heterosexual romance. Now, Toto does, in the middle segment of the film, pursue a romance with a girl in a rather familiar format. While filming strangers at the train station, he captures and becomes captivated by her image; he stumbles when he tries to speak to her, but to win her over he stands outside her window every night for 100 days until she relents and reciprocates his love. All the familiar true-love-based-on-appearance and stalking-as-devotion that one still finds in films today! Initially I was quite unimpressed. However, I think that the story of the film is aware that he is mostly in love with her image, and with the movie-like story of their romance; it feels more like an extension of his love for movies than a separate plot in its own right.

This is especially true because of how it turns out: they date happily for a while, but then she goes away to university and he to the military (via a draft), and they suddenly lose contact and never meet again. That is to say, the romance is mostly dropped in the middle third of the movie! In the classic Hollywood film, the main plot and the romance plot are very much intertwined, both being resolved either simultaneously or in quick succession at the very end, to the extent that, Bordwell tells us, more than 60 out of 100 randomly selected Hollywood classics ended with the couple united happily in the now-stereotypical “clinch.” The fact that Toto, at some point in the movie, kisses a girl, does not mean that Cinema Paradisio has a classic Hollywood romance! This is, I think, the clearest way in which Paradisio differs from the movies it glorifies.

Finally, the ending: Bordwell proposes “that the classical ending is not all that structurally decisive, being a more or less arbitrary readjustment of that world knocked awry in the previous eighty minutes” as opposed to “the crowning of the structure, the logical conclusion of the string of events, the final effect of the initial cause” (p. 21). I can actually see both ways on this one.

cinema paradisoOriginally, I thought only of the story of Toto’s childhood progressing through to his adulthood. Although I found the “goals” I mentioned earlier, Toto’s love of film and Alfredo’s insistence that Toto escape their small town, somewhat lacking as plot-propelling motivators on the scene-to-scene analysis, when considering the film as a whole they are both quite well wrapped up when Toto willingly witnesses the destruction of the cinema and subsequently joyfully re-embraces his film career in America. Toto is propelled rather logically by his and Alfredo’s wishes, both of which subtly permeated the entire film, making it feel very much like “the final effect of the initial cause.”

However, I forgot that the film actually began with Toto as an adult, returning to his apartment to receive the news of Alfredo’s death and suddenly wanting to return home for the first time in 30 years. If we regard his resulting nostalgia for his childhood as an obstacle to his continued independence in America, then the ending scene, in which he joyfully re-embraces his life as a filmmaker outside his hometown, is very much a restoration of the status quo. It does flow quite naturally from the ideas and feelings established very early on in the film, but that does not necessarily make it a direct cause and effect– there’s no specific reason given for Toto’s decision to return home; we just accept that it’s what he will do. He even gets a very classic “clincher,” in the montage of Hollywood kisses that Aldfredo has left to him; it joyfully resolves both the story of Toto’s love for film and the story of Alfredo’s love for Toto.

I think that Cinema Paradisio, even though it felt like a rather un-Hollywood viewing experience, was a lot more like classic Hollywood than I realized. Which is really only proper, for a film about the love of classic film.


Narrative as the essence of film

August 31, 2009

(Note to my regular readers: this is the first of many posts written for my film studies class. In some ways it will be different from my norm, but in other ways I hope you’ll find it interested and relevant. This particular post was meant to consider the idea of narrative as the essence of film, using Amélie, Fight Club, and Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction as inspirations.)

The part of Walter Benjamin’s essay that most caught my attention is the following paragraph in section XIII:

By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones “which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions.” Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, it extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.

(Emphasis mine.)

This is what film can do that no other art form can: it can move through and around and right up close to an object or an action, at an unnaturally fast or unnaturally slow pace, in order to show us our world not the way that is looks to us, but the way that it feels. Especially when using Amélie as a model, this can feel like the primary function of film; there is a narrative in Amélie (her love story) but it takes up comparatively little of the screentime. People don’t fall in love with this movie for the plot, but for all the tiny stories it tells throughout. The most delightful sequences are those in which nothing much happens. Consider the opening sequence:

English translation of the narration: On September 3rd 1973, at 6:28pm and 32 seconds, a bluebottle fly capable of 14,670 wing beats a minute landed on Rue St Vincent, Montmartre. At the same moment, on a restaurant terrace nearby, the wind magically made two glasses dance unseen on a tablecloth. Meanwhile, in a 5th-floor flat, 28 Avenue Trudaine, Paris 9, returning from his best friend’s funeral, Eugène Colère erased his name from his address book. At the same moment, a sperm with one X chromosome, belonging to Raphaël Poulain, made a dash for an egg in his wife Amandine. Nine months later, Amélie Poulain was born.

The narration by itself isn’t nearly as compelling as the combination of the narration and the images, so I really do recommend watching the video! And it’s because the words aren’t as interesting as the film that every time I see this, I find myself ready to declare, yes! It is a criminal error to promote narrative as the essence of film!

Watching Fight Club originally confused this feeling. I just didn’t like the movie. I sympathized with the lead’s feeling that the systems driving modern life had made it soulless, but thought blowing up an apartment was going too far, and blowing up a series of credit card companies in order to intentionally collapse the financial system– I just couldn’t see how that could possibly make things better. Luckily, when I dislike a film I like to talk about it and nitpick why it bothered me, and this time I had the good fortune to do so with a friend who liked it a great deal. She pointed out my error: I was getting caught up in the narrative again. I was asking her, “why did he say it this way?” “why did he do it that way?” about so many little details, and she just said, “I don’t know. I don’t really watch it for the surface level stuff.”

And so, from a totally different direction, I am led to the same conclusion: narrative is not the essence of film. I plan to re-watch Fight Club, will full knowledge of the twist ending and of the fact that the narrative is not the point, and I think I might like it better. (I also plan to pick it apart purely on the narrative at some point as well, since that is my usual modus operandi for this blog, but that will be different.)

I do still somewhat resist the idea that narrative is not central to film, but this comes from a different aspect. How can you make several hours of footage interesting if you don’t have some connection through the piece allowing the readers to make sense of it? Isn’t art all about the story of humanity? I am coming to realize, though, that narrative is not the same as storytelling. I knew this already– paintings and sculpture and music all tell us stories without adhering to a narrative structure– but I am still only partially able to acknowledge that film is also exempt from this requirement. My love for Amélie makes it clear again: just think of the character introductions, the lists of little likes and dislikes, so individual and so easy to identify with, and so disconnected from what one would call a plot.

No, narrative may be a common feature of films, but the essence of film is its ability to show us our world without literalism, but with truth.