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.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film The Lower Depths is set in Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868), and is about the poor tenants of a rundown residence. In this featured scene we see three, and then four, men circle dance using traditional hand movements. From their simple “stage” to the faux flautist, these peasants are performing their own rustic version of Noh Mai, which is a form of Japanese dance theatre typically enacted to music made by hand held drums and flutes.
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.
Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark tells the story of Caleb, a naïve young man who falls for the winsome blonde vampire Mae and finds himself struggling to adjust to her nighttime world of murder and mayhem. Transformed by a bite from Mae, Caleb nevertheless struggles with the morality of feeding on humans. Bigelow’s vision of star-crossed love among bloodsuckers is at once wildly romantic and frankly gruesome. It offers a rare mix of beauty and ugliness – grace and brutality.
I wanted to watch The Player tonight not only to see all the nice designer suits everybody wears in it from the 90s, but also to get a sense of what was called the developing shot. Now you might, if you’ve seen The Player, think to yourself, “well crap, they do a lot of long takes in that, don’t they? Where’s all the editing?”
According to Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), the protagonist of Darren Aronofsky’s directorial debut Pi, math is a language – a series of distinct characters, each with values that, when strung together in an equation, express a new value. It is like Spanish, or music, or code. Yet Max’s assumption, though, is that math is not just any language but the language of nature. And it is this assumption that drives Max to search for a pattern within the mathematical constant pi so as to explain the operations of the universe, a pattern he believes he can find in the stock market.
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.