Cinematic language – the grammar of perspective shifts, cuts, and editing that underpins movie storytelling – is immediately understood by audiences. This instantaneous comprehension is most likely because our film language has developed around the stories and plot devices that filmmakers like to use and moviegoers engage in. This explains how the use of the flashback is universally understood, and why it is taken for granted. In Spider-Man 3 when Peter looks at a photograph of his uncle’s killer, followed by a cross dissolve transition into a new scene featuring his uncle, the audience already assumes and comprehends that this new scene is set in the past. Because this convention is so established, it also means that filmmakers can play with audience expectations, as the 2016 science fiction film Arrival does. The film the subverts audience expectations of how a flashback works, and how a story is generally told, expressing an unusual use of film language in both its form and its themes.
Category: Main Slate
Akira Kurosawa’s storied career is exemplified not just by his cinematic masterpieces, but also how he subverted genre film. From detective noir like Stray Dog to thrillers like High and Low, he never shied away from challenging how audiences experience familiar genres. Never is this more on display than in his 1961 film Yojimbo.
The film is part of the jidaigeki genre, which encompasses period pieces set during the Edo period (1603-1868). More specifically, it is part of the chanbara (samurai) subgenre. Typically, films in this subgenre follow valiant warriors, whose moral code shines through from the very beginning and never wavers. The violence on screen is meant solely to entertain. Rarely do we see critiques of this, but in Yojimbo, Kurosawa steps up and calls this into question.
Hal Ashby was one of the leading filmmakers of the 1970s. The march of time relegated him to near-anonymity until lately. His work is being re-examined, thanks in large part to Amy Scott’s new documentary, Hal which explores Ashby’s success with a decade-long chain of splendid films beginning with the little-known gem, The Landlord, which addresses inner-city conflicts in 1970s Brooklyn. It was followed by Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Coming Home (1978) which won Ashby a Best Director Oscar, and Being There (1979). Harold and Maude, like many of Ashby’s other films, features a rebel who refuses to mindlessly go along with the system at its heart.
Hollywood never goes too long without holding up a mirror to itself. Biopics like Ed Wood or Hollywoodland explore (somewhat) true stories of Hollywood. Other films explore Hollywood through a more fictional lens and include King Kong , Sunset Boulevard, Singin’ In the Rain, The Day of the Locust, Sunset, Get Shorty, and Adaptation. God’s and Monsters, a film adapted from the novel, The Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, does both, offering a fictional take on the final days of James Whale, who directed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. But in choosing a fictional account of James Whale’s life for the silver screen, Hollywood perpetuated its troubled relationship with queer identities that it has grappled with since the birth of film.
There are four brief yet deeply unnerving dream sequences in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, each a disruptive and surreal slice of imagery that presents the audience with nearly identical visions of the same event. In each dream, a mysterious cloaked figure emerges out of a creepy abandoned church. This church is where a group of researchers and a priest discover and ultimately unleash an ancient, otherworldly, and demonic force into the world. Garbled narration in each dream reveals that they are actually a series of broadcasts from 1999 (the near future in relation to the film’s 1987 release). Frighteningly, they are mediated warnings of impending demonic doom sent directly to the minds of several key players across the film, most prominently lead researcher Professor Birack (Victor Wong) and young academics Walter (Dennis Dun), Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), Lisa (Ann Yen), and Brian (Jameson Parker).
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
— The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Because of its past and the rumors swirling around it, a building — like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House or Robert Bloch’s Bates Motel — can suggest to an impressionable mind, an evil presence. A person stuck such a place for a whole weekend with a guy who tells her he saw the ghost of a dead woman there might be on edge. If she gets little sleep, drinks a bunch of crappy beer, and struggles with bouts of asthma, she might careen right off the edge.
Following the monumental critical and commercial success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, it would have been safe to assume that found footage was the next big thing in horror cinema – and it was – but it took a while to get there. Rather than replicate the 16mm, and lo-fi video look of Blair Witch, filmmakers in the early 2000s turned to the increasingly democratic and cost effective landscape of digital video, eventually leading to the Spanish horror film, [REC], arguably a major turning point for the sub-genre. It would go on to spawn three sequels and an American remake that was fast tracked and released in 2008.
For those accustomed to Ingmar Bergman’s more serious fare, such as the austere Winter Light or his foreboding The Seventh Seal, Smiles of a Summer Night is a light-hearted, utterly amusing antidote. It is the Bergman film for people who don’t like Bergman. Of course, the film has some of the usual touches of the Swedish director: familiar actors such as Gunnar Bjornstrand and Harriet Andersson, a theater scene within the film, characters revealing their most intimate thoughts to others, etc. However, while Bergman typically dedicates an entire film to the intense inner turmoil of one or two characters, in Smiles there are many characters struggling with anxieties that are often exploited to a farcical end.
With Thirst (1949), Ingmar Bergman, a visionary master of cinema, made his first contribution to the exploration of marriage — a topic he would return to most memorably in Scenes from a Marriage (1974). It is often argued that Thirst’s imbalanced and loosely connected storylines and intermittent flashbacks muddle the overall effect of the film, but the individual scenes stand as brilliant musings on relationships between men and women. Pieced together from a collection of short stories, the disconnectedness of the narrative can be excused. As an early example of classic Bergman themes and aesthetics, Thirst is an interesting piece to analyze due to its raw examination of the nature of men and women as two emotionally distinct species.
Bo Burnham understands better than most what it’s like to be a lonely kid trying to find the joys of online invisibility in the real world, and with Eighth Grade, has taken a sledgehammer to the outdated myth that high school is the worst part of growing up. High school is confusing, sure, but it’s nothing compared to the three year caravan of misery through halls of kids carrying SpongeBob USB drives and horny teens begging for Snapchats.