Saturday, February 16, 2008

"Psycho" Babble

Paper Abstract:

Psycho is an undisputed masterpiece, and arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s finest one at that. Its esteemed place in Hitchcock’s impressive oeuvre is due to its unprecedented subject matter, revolutionary technical achievements, and the deepest examination of his common themes, such as identity, guilt versus innocence, bondage versus freedom, and psychology. Psycho is so unparalleled because of the extraordinary way Hitchcock utilized every technical and stylistic tool at his disposal to explore these issues, thus providing startling insight into the human psyche. Hitchcock tackles the dark side of human nature in Psycho through the characterization of Norman Bates and Marion Crane, his unique visual style, and the use of mise-en-scène. This paper examines these three crucial aspects of Psycho’s successful execution while also discussing the emergence of Hitchcock’s distinct themes in these areas and throughout the entire film.

Paper Excerpts:

Since the audience is completely devoted to Marion, the fact that her murder occurs just after she decides to repent makes it even more disorienting. After Marion’s brutal death, the viewer desperately clings to Norman as the new hero. Actually, the transition to Norman as the protagonist is an easy one, because he is an immediately likeable, sympathetic character. When he greets Marion at the motel, he exudes a childlike innocence, which is reiterated later by his compulsive eating of candy corn. He is shy, nervous, and a bit awkward, but he is gentle and endearing, especially when he mentions the Bates Motel stationary to Marion, “in case you want to make your friends back home feel envious.” This first impression gives no indication of the madness lurking inside of him, making this the ultimate case of the distrust of appearances.

Soon after this initial meeting, an argument with his oppressive mother explains Norman’s twitchiness. Norman is very lonely, made painfully clear by his remark, “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” Norman also discusses the theme of bondage, “I think that we’re all in our private traps...” Marion suggests putting his mother in an institution, and Norman snaps. He angrily denounces the cruelty of the institutions, reverting to a trancelike state, but he calms down, uttering the film’s most famous lines, “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?” After Mother apparently kills Marion, Norman is horrified by what he sees in the bathroom. But, like a devoted son, he cleans up his mother’s mess, marking the most important transfer of guilt in the film. This transfer of guilt intensifies as Norman continues to conceal Marion’s death, as well as Arbogast’s. He assumes his mother’s guilt by covering the crimes up. As he watches Marion’s car sink in the swamp, he panics when it stops, causing the viewer to panic. When it sinks, the audience morbidly shares his relief.

When making his films, Hitchcock fully grasped the powerful impact of a close-up at just the right moment in the story. After Marion takes the $40,000 home with her, a close-up shows the envelope of money resting tantalizingly on her bed. This shot represents Marion’s confusion of identity and the temptation of evil. In an extreme close-up, Norman’s eye watches Marion undress through a peephole in the wall. This violation of her privacy raises questions about Norman’s trustworthiness. The shower scene consists of a series of extreme close-ups depicting Marion’s victimization, including her bare stomach, the knife, her mouth screaming, and her hand clutching at the shower wall as she dies. These close-ups, like the one of Norman’s eye, force the viewer to be a part of the action, allowing no room for escape or solace. An extreme close-up of Marion’s lifeless eye is the most upsetting in the film, reminding the audience that Marion will never gain the freedom she deserves. Near the end of the film, a close-up of Mother’s ghastly, shriveled head with hollow eyes brings the audience face-to-face, literally, with evil and insanity. These close-ups emphasize the film’s dark and sinister mood.

Like other Hitchcock films, staircases play an important role in Psycho by standing for mystery and danger. The stairs between the motel and the house symbolize a path between the normal and the insane. Actually, the motel only appears normal, so maybe the stairs represent travel between different levels of insanity, specifically in Norman’s own mind. In the house, the only normal place is the main level, but even a murder takes place there. Nothing good comes of going up or down stairs; in Psycho, stairs lead to madness. When Norman goes up to the house or upstairs to his mother’s room, it reinforces his bondage. Not quite as prominent as the staircases, Marion’s car still serves a dramatic function. Originally a symbol of freedom, Marion’s car changes into a symbol of confinement. She uses the car to escape her ordinary life and seek something better and more exciting, so of course this sin of curiosity must be punished. However, the car becomes her coffin, the ultimate trap.

Even before The Birds, Psycho displays Hitchcock’s fascination with the feathered creatures. Stuffed birds watch over Norman’s parlor, hovering menacingly despite Norman’s description of birds as “passive,” and pictures of birds line the walls of Marion’s room. In a way, birds represent the freedom so elusive to Norman and even Marion. But the stuffed birds look dangerous and keep a watchful, oppressive eye on Norman, signifying his complete helplessness. Most significantly, the extensive use of mirrors symbolizes the duality of human nature. The first mirror appears in Marion’s home after she takes the money, which indicates that she is split in two between her good and evil sides. Mirrors represent inner conflict and the struggle between good and evil, but they also serve as reminders of guilt, like when Marion’s image is reflected in various mirrors or when Norman checks the cabinet in the bathroom after cleaning up his mother’s crime. A mirror also suggests illusion and the idea that appearances cannot be trusted, such as Norman’s reflection in the window (a mirror substitute) outside the motel when he brings Marion her dinner. Certainly, Marion and Norman are not who they appear to be. For Norman, mirrors reflect his individual psychology. Since he suffers from split personalities, the mirror refers explicitly to his two halves. Due to the powerful combination of the use of costumes, settings, and props as meaningful imagery, Hitchcock’s camera style, and characterization, Psycho presents an unparalleled examination of the human mind.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Deconstructing the Hitchcock Blonde

Paper Abstract:

Alfred Hitchcock is famous for, among many other things, his propensity for utilizing blondes in his films. These women have earned the distinction of being called the “Hitchcock blonde.” Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, and Tippi Hedren span three decades of blonde-ness, proving to be arguably the most memorable blondes, as well as some of his most frequent collaborators. Interestingly, all three actresses starred in back-to-back films in their respective decades – Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946), Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955), and Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). The close proximity of their roles provides ample opportunity for careful comparison and also to appreciate the diversity of the actresses and the characters. The Hitchcock blonde is not just a pretty face; she is a real tough cookie and encompasses a broad range of traits. The paper looks at all six characters, compares and contrasts them, briefly summarizes the biographical relationships of the actresses to Hitchcock, and makes broader connections between the characters and their social-historical contexts, especially concerning women’s roles in society.

Paper Excerpts:

After Spellbound, Bergman jumped at the chance to work with Hitchcock again in Notorious. She delivers a complex performance as Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a Nazi. Alicia displays reckless behavior obviously caused by deep emotional pain. She drinks excessively, and her relationship with Devlin (Cary Grant), an intelligence agent, is volatile from the start. They fall deeply in love, but their love is strained by her secret mission to infiltrate a gang of Nazis. This involves Alicia using sex to get close to Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), and Devlin manifests his jealousy by acting aloof and cruel toward Alicia. Alicia approaches her assignment with forlorn resolve, almost like could not care less what happens to her. She eventually marries Alex, and she performs her job brilliantly. When Alex learns Alicia’s true identity, he and his mother (Madame Leopoldine Konstantin) begin poisoning her. Eventually, Devlin comes to save her, and he finally admits his love. At last, Alicia is safe and happy in Devlin’s arms. Over and over, Devlin and his colleagues make references to Alicia’s bad reputation, including her alcoholism and promiscuity, but she overcomes this reputation by displaying tremendous bravery in fulfilling this dangerous assignment. By risking her life for her country, Alicia Huberman shows that being a Hitchcock blonde involves depth and courage.

During World War II, American women achieved a new independence by virtually taking over the workforce. “The war overturned attitudes about working women and altered women’s place in the labor force more radically than any other event in the twentieth century” (Hymowitz 311). Since men were fighting overseas, women had to assume their jobs. Amazingly, “six million women took paying jobs during the war” (Hymowitz 312). However, just as quickly as this explosion occurred, it ended. Spellbound and Notorious perfectly coincide with the end of the war and communicate its dramatic effects on American women. Released in 1945, the same year the war ended, Spellbound emphasizes the working woman. Constance Petersen is the only career woman with a serious job of the six characters to be examined. Despite the men around her trying to diminish her power by referring to her femininity in a negative way, Constance perseveres and thrives. She represents the epitome of the wartime woman with her fierce determination.

Released in 1946, Notorious presents a startling contrast to Spellbound. “When the war ended, the nation welcomed the men home and began enforcing the promise the women workers had made – or the country had decided they had made – to give up their jobs for the returning soldiers” (Collins 394). Whether it occurred involuntarily or not, Alicia Huberman represents this slap in the face to all women of forcing them back into the home. Even though Alicia is brave and independent, the men belittle her, use her as a prostitute, and basically call her a drunk and a slut. Only a year before, Bergman played a promising psychoanalyst, but Alicia acts as a reminder of men’s insecurities upon returning home and seeing women doing their jobs just as well or even better. In its social context, Alicia seems like a warning to women to resume their proper duties, like a symbolic slap on the wrist. “Once the war was over, the woman worker was no longer a symbol of patriotic ardor but rather a threat to social and economic security” (Woloch 469). Like all threats, they had to be neutralized immediately. Spellbound and Notorious quite accurately resemble these turbulent times for women in American society.

During the 1950s, American women continued to work, but it lacked the excitement and meaning of the war years. “Within a few years of the end of hostilities in 1945, employment of women was just about back to its wartime peak, and still climbing. However, the jobs they were holding down were not, for the most part, careers. Women were typists and sales clerks and telephone operators and receptionists…” (Collins 399). Mostly, women in the 1950s struggled against the confines of domesticity. Women were encouraged to stay home and raise families and basically just bow to the oppressive male system. “They dropped out of college, married early, and read women’s magazines that urged them to hold on to their husband’s love by pretending to be dumb and helpless” (Collins 398-399). Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief glaringly parallel the social atmosphere of the 1950s. Margot Wendice and Francie Stevens are secondary characters, the most obvious difference between these characters and the ones in the films from the 1940s and 1960s. Grace Kelly receives second billing, and the characters played by Ray Milland and Cary Grant really drive the stories. She is basically reduced to the role of sidekick, albeit a very attractive one.

In fact, quite a bit of the action of Dial M for Murder occurs without her in it, and she only appears in earnest in To Catch a Thief about a half hour into the film. Actually, most of Hitchcock’s films from the 1950s focus on male characters, such as Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, and North by Northwest, a clear articulation of the decade’s priorities. In addition to a surprising lack of screen time for Kelly in both films, especially Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief raises another question: Why was it acceptable for Cary Grant to play the romantic lead in 1946 and again in 1955? For a man, getting older makes him distinguished, but women had to be replaced with new and younger models, like cars. Among the six Hitchcock blondes, Margot is the only true housewife, and her character remains relatively undeveloped, especially compared to Tony. Also, even though Francie is by no means weak and would never be a housewife, she seems flat in comparison to the rich characterizations in Spellbound, Notorious, The Birds, and Marnie. Despite wonderful performances by Kelly, her films suffer from a reduction of the Hitchcock blonde to eye candy status. All of these issues regarding the Hitchcock blonde are totally congruous with the social climate and women’s roles in the 1950s.

At the beginning of The Birds, the Hitchcock blonde assumes the form of Melanie Daniels in the first of Hedren’s two films. Cool and self-confident bordering on arrogant, Melanie is a socialite accustomed to the good life. At a bird shop, she eyes Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and finds him attractive. She decides to pursue Mitch, and she drives all the way to Bodega Bay to do so. Even though Melanie acts immature at the start of the film, she transforms into a pillar of strength once the bird attacks gain momentum. Mitch’s sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), takes to her immediately, and Melanie protects her in a very motherly way. Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), dislikes Melanie upon her arrival, but Melanie exhibits compassion toward her during the crisis. Of course, Melanie and Mitch bond even faster than usual because of the situation. While everyone else falls apart, Melanie remains strong. Despite her pampered life, Melanie exudes strength and courage. At the end, she is stunned when some birds violently attack her, but the shock does not make her weak. Melanie exchanges a tender look with Lydia in the car, so in addition to falling in love, she finds the mother she never had. Under immense stress, Melanie Daniels demonstrates the resiliency of the Hitchcock blonde.

Quite consistent with the increasing popularity of the women’s movement, The Birds presents a strong heroine, completely unlike the subordinate characters of the films from the 1950s. In fact, Melanie Daniels is actually the strongest Hitchcock blonde out of the set, because she transforms and matures much more than the others. Even though Mitch also remains calm, Melanie commands the situation and concerns herself primarily with the well-being and safety of others. She demonstrates the take-charge attitude prevalent in American women of the 1960s. Certainly, Melanie and Marnie are more developed than the characters in the 1950s, much like the characters of the 1940s. Once again, female characters propel the story. Despite Marnie’s illness, she fights for her independence. It also seems like more than mere coincidence that the appearance of a psychotic female character, Marnie, occurs at the same time as the emergence of a new feminist perspective in society. Could it be, perhaps, the manifestation of male insecurities, or even a subconscious attempt to curb the momentum of the movement? Conspiracy or not, The Birds and Marnie illustrate the pervasive influence of society in the 1960s and emphasize important changes in the roles of American women.

All in all, the Hitchcock blonde is more than just a beautiful stereotype. Even though they enjoy the company of many other blondes, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, and Tippi Hedren virtually defined the concept of the Hitchcock blonde with their inspiring incarnations in films released only a year apart. In six films, the Hitchcock blonde assumes the identity of a psychiatrist, a spy, a reluctant killer, an amorous heiress, a hero, and a disturbed thief. In addition to highlighting the variation among the roles, these films prove that art cannot escape its social context by definitively commenting on women in American society in three different decades. Much controversy has surrounded whether or not Alfred Hitchcock was a misogynist. While these six Hitchcock blondes experience a lot of turmoil, they all emerge stronger and indeed triumph over it. Rather than being misogynistic, these characters are actually quite empowering for women. Besides, the men in Hitchcock’s films do not exactly have it easy either, and his audiences similarly suffer along with the characters. If anything, it appears that Hitchcock was an equal opportunity sadist.

Rhett, Scarlett, and the Word "Damn": Censorship in "Gone With the Wind"

Paper Abstract:

The film and book versions of Gone With the Wind are compared and contrasted in terms of censorship, their relationship to the Production Code, and the requisite changes from the book to the screen. On a filmmaking level alone, Gone With the Wind is practically unparalleled in its scope and production issues, but the Production Code Administration (PCA), the governing censorship body of Hollywood, kept a close, critical watch on the preproduction and production of the film. The censors wanted to eradicate the book’s racier elements. Many compromises were made to satisfy Production Code regulations, and many battles were fought over the content and representation, but the film remains remarkably faithful to the novel in spite of the circumstances. The paper discusses some especially prickly censorship issues, including one scene in particular with Scarlett O’Hara propositioning Rhett Butler for money. For all the trouble caused by the Production Code Administration, Gone With the Wind emerged relatively unscathed, and there are still moments when the viewer senses the filmmakers winking, quietly celebrating something they managed to sneak in under the censors’ noses.

Paper Excerpts:

When Daniel Lord and Martin Quigley drafted the Production Code, they established the rules of morality that would govern films for over thirty years. Basically, the Production Code assigned movies the daunting task of teaching the masses about morality, essentially turning art and entertainment into religious indoctrination. Luckily, many filmmakers found ways to get around the rigid confines of the Code, but more often than not, it involved significant compromises, much like in Gone With the Wind. One major part that suffers due to compromise and alteration is the scene where Scarlett visits Rhett at the jail and propositions him for money. It is not that the scene does not work in the film, because it works adequately enough, but it pales in comparison to the original scene in the novel. The scene suffers more from omission than from any real creative changes. Basically, the chapter selection on the DVD says it all by calling the scene “Appeal to Rhett.” However, the book makes it abundantly clear that this “appeal” is actually an indecent proposal.

Upon seeing Scarlett’s overworked hands, Rhett senses an ulterior motive. In the film, he simply accuses her of putting on an act to get something, but in the book, his anger at her deception borders on verbal abuse. “`But no, you had to come jingling your earbobs and pouting and frisking like a prostitute with a prospective client’” (Mitchell 570). At this point in the film, Scarlett begs for the money to save Tara, and when Rhett asks for collateral, she implores, “You once said you loved me. If you still love me, Rhett…” After he reminds her that he is not the marrying type and she says that she remembers, he looks her up and down very quickly, and a heavy pause lingers between them, causing Scarlett to cast her eyes down. Finally, he breaks the silence, “You’re not worth three hundred dollars. You’ll never mean anything but misery to any man.” During that pause, one could almost infer that something other than marriage is being considered, so maybe this was a way for the filmmakers to get the real point across. But before the viewer can really question it, Rhett’s comment about Scarlett bringing misery to men negates that idea and definitely implies marriage. Also, the use of the word “love” in the film clearly points to marriage, thus making Scarlett’s offer grudgingly acceptable according to the Code.

On the other hand, the word “love” does not enter the equation in the novel. Scarlett decides that she will do whatever it takes to get the money, whether that means marriage or simply sex. Instead of “love,” the words “mistress” and “prostitute” get thrown around, but their use would have been strictly forbidden in the film. Finally, when Rhett asks her for collateral, she boldly states, “`I – I have myself’” (Mitchell 573). She further supplicates, “`You said – you said you’d never wanted a woman as much as you wanted me. If you still want me, you can have me’” (Mitchell 573). Again, the book uses the word “want,” whereas the film uses “love” to make it seem honorable. Finally, Rhett responds, “`What makes you think you are worth three hundred dollars? Most women don’t come that high’” (Mitchell 573). Clearly, they are discussing sex, and only sex. Rhett torments her by bluntly summing up the situation, “`I’ll give you three hundred dollars and you’ll become my mistress’” (Mitchell 574). The filmmakers did not really try to get around the Code or subvert it; they merely changed the sex to marriage and love in order to appease the censors. Unfortunately, this change causes the scene to lose some of its original desperation and meaning. In the book, it is important to understand just how far Scarlett is willing to go to save Tara. Maybe the filmmakers circumvented the Code a bit by suggesting that something else is happening with a long pause, but the implication is so vague and subtle, if it is even an implication at all, that it could hardly be considered subversion. This scene perfectly encapsulates the pervasive influence of the Production Code on filmmaking.

When producer David O. Selznick purchased the rights to Gone With the Wind, he made one of the biggest and riskiest decisions of his life. Since the novel contains graphic depictions of war, violence, rape, and various other immoral behaviors, it was only a matter of time before the PCA became involved with the production. “The censors first paid attention to Gone With the Wind in September 1937 – sixteen months before the movie started shooting. As usual, the anxieties of the Production Code Administration centered on sex – implicit, explicit, or illicit – and the consequences of sex” (Harmetz 137). Obviously, some of the biggest sexual issues involved prostitution, Rhett’s rape of Scarlett, and any relations between Scarlett and the married Ashley. These concerns, along with many others, were detailed by Code administrator Joseph Breen after reading the first draft of the script. “When the first screenplay for Gone with the Wind was submitted, Breen’s response on October 14, 1937, consisted of seven pages with fifty specific warnings and suggestions” (Walsh 149). Sex was hardly the only problem Breen had with the film, but it was certainly the main one.

In the novel, the Ku Klux Klan plays an integral part, but the PCA and Selznick reached a mutual agreement to cut out the Klan entirely from the film and to eliminate the word “nigger.” Considering the backlash from Negro associations against the portrayal of blacks in the novel, this was a wise decision (Cameron 42-43). Selznick fought another major battle with the censors about the scene where Rhett rapes Scarlett. The main debate concerned Scarlett’s positive reaction the next morning. “Breen objected strongly to Scarlett’s ‘figuratively licking her chops’ after having been raped by her husband” (Walsh 150). Eventually, the scene got cut shorter, but surprisingly, it still made it into the film. Scarlett literally glows with ecstatic contentment in her bed the morning after her husband rapes her, a true victory for Selznick. Undoubtedly, the biggest clash between Selznick and the PCA transpired over the use of the word “damn” in Rhett’s famous line at the end of the film. In a personal letter to Will Hays from October 1939, only two months before the film’s release, Selznick pleaded his case: “A great deal of the force and drama of Gone With the Wind, a project to which we have given three years of hard work and hard thought, is dependent upon that word” (Behlmer 245). Ironically, with so many controversial subjects to choose from, one four-letter word created the most trouble and almost jeopardized the effectiveness of the whole film. Luckily, Selznick triumphed, and that little word ended up costing him $5,000 (Cameron 216). Clearly, the PCA formed an intensely close relationship with the production of Gone With the Wind.

Reflections in the "Mirror": The Work of Ebrahim Golestan

Paper Abstract:

In May 2007, legendary Iranian filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan came to Chicago for a retrospective of his work, which included short non-fiction films and features. It was the first time one feature, The Brick and the Mirror, was shown for an audience in over thirty years. Golestan was present at that screening and others to engage in discourse with the audience. Now over eighty years old, Golestan is still sharp and totally charming. The four short documentaries are described and critiqued as vividly as possible because the reader will probably never get to see them. Additionally, there is a detailed discussion of The Brick and the Mirror (also unfortunately unavailable to the public), a feature-length fiction film released in 1965 about a taxi driver who must care for a baby that has been left in his car. It is funny, tragic, ultimately poignant, and a great work of social commentary. Golestan’s own comments about his films are intertwined with the analysis.

Paper Excerpts:

After showing his film The Brick and the Mirror to the public for the first time in over thirty-five years, Ebrahim Golestan, a distinguished-looking man of over eighty with a shock of white hair, slowly approaches a podium. As a microphone is attached, the Chicago audience applauds. Finally, he says, simply and humbly, “Thank you.” After that, he asks, with a wry smile on his face, “Is there anything I can do?” The audience laughs, and this establishes his demeanor – easy-going, direct, and witty, something very rare in filmmakers today. Golestan, the legendary Iranian filmmaker, has traveled to Chicago for a retrospective of some of his rarest and most significant works. After viewing four short documentaries and one feature-length fiction film, a distinct style emerges – honest and confrontational, funny and often heart-breaking, and deeply, personally human. He proves that even when working on commission, he could create works of art. With his four short documentaries and The Brick and the Mirror, Ebrahim Golestan definitively secured his place in world cinema, and these works still resonate and provoke discussion today.

At the screening of his early documentaries, the first film shown was The Wave, Coral and Rock, a film actually commissioned by the Iranian Oil Company, presented in dazzling Technicolor. Watching the beginning of it, it recalls a show entitled Planet Earth that is very popular today, a series that searches the globe for beautiful and often previously unseen places. There is definitely a nature show feel about this documentary, but it is much more lyrical and almost epic. The camera explores the depths of the water in the Persian Gulf and the stunning aquatic life, “oblivious of the torments of thought.” Throughout the entire film, and actually all of the documentaries, the camera is sweeping, penetrating, and constantly moving, which further emphasizes the poetic nature of his work. In the midst of this natural splendor, an oil field is being built, and the focus shifts to that process.

As Golestan himself made clear after the screening, this film was not made as a condemnation of industry. He said that when he made it, that was not “fashionable.” Yet the film does seem to be a comment on nature versus technology, but more about nature’s ability to survive in spite of technology. It is actually a hopeful message. This film also very closely resembles Fernand Léger’s 1924 film about the beauty of machinery called Ballet Mécanique. There is a very musical, rhythmic quality to the pacing, fluidity, and choice of shots in Golestan’s film. He makes something inherently ugly beautiful. Golestan’s narration completely elevates the film above a traditional industrial documentary. At one time, it is said about the machinery that the “metallic branches are in bloom,” a stunning metaphor.

At the same time, his visuals are just as meticulous and gorgeous. He also maintains a heavy sense of irony, which makes it difficult to believe that he had no subversive intentions whatsoever, although one would certainly never argue with the director. At one point, sheep relax under the shade of pipes ready to be laid for the gigantic pipeline. It is a powerful image, but it also emphasizes his assertion that he did not have any ulterior motive when making this film. The sheep look totally happy; in fact, they are probably much happier under the pipes than before. Where else could they find that sort of respite from the hot sun? Industry does not always destroy nature, and sometimes it is possible for the two to work in harmony. This massive undertaking took over one million days to build. The last shot shows the pristine, sparkling sea once again, unchanged and unphased by the weight of the pipes passing through it.

Of all the four documentaries screened, The Iranian Crown Jewels is by far the most controversial. It was commissioned by the national bank in order to glorify Iran’s wealth. Unlike the other films, this was blatantly and intentionally subversive. He utilized the commission to denounce the practices of past rulers. Basically, all of the jewels were taken violently or through other unjust means. As Golestan says, “There is no glory in that.” So his film was butchered to make it more acceptable. What suffered the most was his narration, which he provided in its entirety to the audience at the screening. It reads like an epic poem, but it is highly confrontational. He insists that “majesty and magnificence do not derive from dazzling ornaments. They come from the core of being alive. And to be dazzled by décor is the beginning and the key to decadence.” The film begins by showing images of people living extremely simply, not unhappy but clearly very poor, which makes the presentation of the jewels even more striking and heavily ironic and denunciatory. After all, what good is the wealth of a country when it cannot aid its inhabitants?

While the first four films are short non-fiction works, The Brick and the Mirror, released in 1965, is a feature-length work of fiction. Golestan produced, wrote, edited, and directed the film, proving his incomparable versatility and skill as a filmmaker. The film, at times very funny and at other times very tragic, takes place over the course of a day (most of it takes place overnight) and tells the story of a taxi driver named Hashem who discovers that a woman has left her baby girl in the back of his car. He then must examine his conscience and decide what to do, aided by his girlfriend, Taji. Hashem leaves the baby at an orphanage, causing an irreparable rift with Taji. She desperately needs something in her life that will give it meaning. As Golestan posed after the screening, “Do we have a need for a savior? Who is the savior? Is a savior sent to us by some higher authority?” After she lambastes him for his cowardice at not keeping the baby, he is forced to grapple with his decision, wandering the streets in his car alone.

After Taji yells at Hashem, she visits the orphanage, and it is one of the most devastating and poignant sequences in film history, a scene that brings tears of joy and pain to the viewer’s eyes. She goes there to try and find the little girl she has lost, but when she enters, she discovers hundreds of children, all alone and needy. In one room, about a dozen little boys eagerly await visitors. When they see her, they light up and start to bounce around, coming closer to her. It is truly adorable, and Taji laughs and plays with them. However, the sad realization sinks in at the same time for both the audience and Taji. This heartwarming scene suddenly transforms into a moment of sheer horror. These precious children have no one to care for them. She cannot possibly take all of them home. It is so desperately sad that these children, no disrespect intended, act like wounded shelter animals performing tricks to try and get someone to accept them. This seems like something they do all the time. When she has to leave the room, they scatter, another possibility lost. They are used to the disappointment.

Without a doubt, the silence in the building is not the fault of the orphanage. They are doing the best they can with an impossible situation. Golestan explains, “She went into the orphanage to find the factor that she thought was the savior, and then she realizes that all of those babies could be that.” Taji leaves the main room with all the children and leans against the wall in the hallway for support, emitting a few quick sobs, but otherwise too shaken to even cry. The camera pulls away from her slowly, tracking backwards down the long, empty hallway, a move that Golestan feels emphasizes her loneliness. The fact that this is a real orphanage makes the film even more upsetting. Golestan’s bravery in exposing this grave social problem is inspirational, and he approaches the issue with the utmost sensitivity. Near the end of the film, Hashem stops in front of some televisions on display in a store window and watches a program on the sets. The man on television says something to the effect that remaining silent in the face of injustice is a crime. This is what Golestan believes, and what everyone should believe.

All in all, Ebrahim Golestan, even though he has been removed from his audience for so long, remains one of the most intelligent, thought-provoking, and influential filmmakers, certainly in Iranian cinema, but in the history of cinema in general. Whether making industrial documentaries or narrative features, he possesses a poetic visual style, grace, and a sense of humor, all rare qualities today. What really makes him so special is his ability to speak the truth. His message may be blunt or harsh for some people, but it is honest: “Life goes on, and things happen.” He explained that life, as mentioned in The Brick and the Mirror, is like the lottery – sometimes you win, and sometimes you do not. Golestan also understands that real change has to start within. When talking about the theme of The Brick and the Mirror, he insisted, “I know that it is me, a human being, who is responsible for his own life.” A member of the audience asked him if he thought the ending of The Brick and the Mirror was hopeful or hopeless, and he said that it was neither, and that it did not matter. After living a difficult life, he still manages to remain wryly optimistic, “You can always have hope. I have hope now, even at the very end of a desperate situation.” Basically, he knows that a filmmaker cannot tell someone whether or not to believe in hope; they need to find that in themselves, like he did. When he started the discussion, he asked the audience if there was anything he could do. He has already done more for the world than he can ever realize.

Out of the "Fog"

Paper Abstract:

Most people do not realize that the documentary genre includes widely varying subgenres other than the most commonly-known “talking head” approach, such as educational, persuasive, performative, participatory, and poetic. Most great documentary filmmakers incorporate several styles. One such documentarian, and arguably the greatest, is Errol Morris. His Oscar-winning 2004 documentary The Fog of War is a startling, candid portrait of former Secretary of Defense (during the Vietnam War) Robert McNamara. The film combines extensive interviews with McNamara (through Morris’ unique Interrotron device, which allows the subject to look directly at the camera and still maintain eye contact with the interviewer), archival footage, previously unreleased and classified taped conversations, a dazzling array of visual techniques and montages, and an unforgettable score by Philip Glass to create one of the most stunning documentaries of all time. He proves that documentaries can be highly artistic and aesthetic. The paper also covers some of the key points made by McNamara and explores their implications for today’s world.

Paper Excerpts:

According to Bill Nichols in Introduction to Documentary, documentary films fall into six categories, or modes of representation. However, they seldom, if ever, fit neatly into one category. Often, documentaries combine characteristics of two or more types. The Fog of War is primarily a participatory documentary. “Filmmakers who seek to represent their own direct encounter with their surrounding world and those who seek to represent broad social issues and historical perspectives through interviews and compilation footage constitute two large components of the participatory mode” (Nichols 123). Since the film utilizes an interview with Robert McNamara and archival footage to attempt to make sense of history, it clearly falls into the latter component.

In The Fog of War, the interview between Errol Morris and Robert McNamara acts as the film’s foundation. “The interview stands as one of the most common forms of encounter between filmmaker and subject in participatory documentary” (Nichols 121). What makes the interview particularly engaging is a device that Morris uses when filming that allows the subject to look directly at the camera when speaking. This gives the sense that McNamara is actually talking to the viewer and establishes a certain intimacy between subject and audience. In fact, there are times when the close-up shots are so extreme that the viewer can look McNamara right in the eyes. There are also moments during the film when Morris can be heard off-screen prompting McNamara with questions or comments. Since Morris was obviously prompting him the whole time, it was a deliberate choice for him to leave these parts in the film. He includes his voice when he wants to draw attention to the issue or when something sensitive is being discussed, such as Vietnam or the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the history of the United States, the Vietnam War is one of the most controversial and polarizing topics. Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense from 1960-1967 during the first years of the conflict, bore the brunt of the blame at the time and still continues to be blamed today. However, he explains in the film that the responsibility was ultimately the President’s. This does not mean that he does not acknowledge his role in the events or account for his actions, but he feels that they were doing what they thought was best at the time with the information they had available to them. In the film, he admits something that seldom escapes the mouth of a government official, “We were wrong…And it carried such heavy costs.” Basically, nothing the U.S. could have done would have changed the situation, and the Vietnamese resented the intervention. Also, the U.S. had no support from other countries. McNamara explains, “None of our allies supported us…If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better reexamine our reasoning.” By shedding light on the past through his personal encounters with it and the benefit of hindsight, Robert McNamara clearly brings a unique perspective to the Vietnam War.

In order to establish rhythm, Morris uses a brilliant and very distinct montage technique. He bombards the viewer with pictures, words, charts, and numbers in relation to the topic at hand. The tempo starts slow and then increases until the visuals are practically blurring together on the screen. For instance, after McNamara talks about the protests to the Vietnam War, a montage that encapsulates the general consensus about him during and after the war shows the beating he took in the media. Some of the images include articles with emphasis on particular words or phrases, such as “warmonger” and “two-faced,” as well as pictures and satirical cartoons. This not only establishes rhythm, it also serves to set a tone. Depending on the subject matter, this tone can be triumphant or horrifying. Morris employs this technique effectively in several other instances in the film. Lastly, the original score by Philip Glass contributes immensely to the overall mood of the film. Music is an important aspect of both the poetic and performative modes of documentary. The performative mode “freely mixes the expressive techniques that give texture and density to fiction…” (Nichols 134), such as a musical score. The haunting score perfectly compliments and enriches the film, sets the mood, and lingers with the viewer long after the film is over.

All in all, The Fog of War is an intimate and uncompromising look at history through the eyes of someone who experienced it personally. On an ideological level, the film goes even deeper still. It indicates the dangers present in today’s world, and both Errol Morris and Robert McNamara are imploring world leaders to pay attention. When talking about the United States, McNamara asks, “What makes us omniscient? Have we a record of omniscience?” These questions hit especially close to home in regards to the present war in Iraq. He urges people today to think about the consequences of their actions. He challenges, “I think the human race needs to think more about killing, about conflict. Is that what we want in this 21st century?” He predicts, “The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations.” If people do not heed these warnings with the way things are going today, he may very well be right.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Fast Food Industry: The True Story of the American Nightmare

Paper Abstract:

Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary Super Size Me and Eric Schlosser’s 2001 exposé Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal both bravely attack the fast food industry and its poisonous influence on American culture. Although they have different modus operandi, Spulock and Schlosser share a common goal, which is to educate the public on a part of life that most people take for granted or dismiss totally. In Super Size Me, Spurlock takes on McDonald’s by embarking on a month-long diet of only McDonald’s food – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As his body and health deteriorate, he also explores the total lack of exercise and proper nutrition in schools. Spurlock truly endangered his life for this experiment, and the results and ramifications are shocking.

In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser attacks the industry from all angles and leaves no corporation unscathed. While Spurlock focuses primarily on the health risks of fast food and specifically McDonald’s, Schlosser examines all the companies, as well as the health dangers, the grievous mistreatment of workers, the homogenization of global business (Spurlock touches on this, too), the chemical modification of food, the meatpacking industry (especially slaughterhouses), the potato industry, the poultry industry, and diseases caused by these misdeeds. McDonald’s emerges as the ultimate villain, not just in Super Size Me, but in Fast Food Nation, where it bears the brunt of the criticism, simply because its practices are the worst. These two works should be mandatory viewing and reading for all Americans, but especially for kids in school. The brainwashing by these companies starts early, and maybe easy access to this information and more proactive awareness could stop it.

Paper Excerpts:

Whereas Super Size Me is mainly about the ramifications of fast food in terms of obesity and the impact on children and education, Fast Food Nation is perhaps the most brilliant, important, and complete piece of muckraking ever written. Schlosser exposes the greed and corruption of the government and the biggest corporations, including McDonald’s, as well as their negligence in taking care of the industries and workers responsible for providing this food to the public. These two works perfectly compliment one another and illustrate the problems plaguing society today, and even though they focus on different issues, their messages are the same. “During a relatively brief period of time, the fast food industry has helped to transform not only the American diet, but also our landscape, economy, workforce, and popular culture” (Schlosser 3). Both Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation point out the monumental flaws present in the fast food industry today, specifically emphasizing the industry’s impact on world homogenization, business practices, advertising, education, food production methods, and obesity.

Ron English, the artist of the eerie paintings of Ronald McDonald displayed in Super Size Me, states in the film, “America’s been McDonaldized, you know. It’s been franchised out.” And this is not only in America; it is happening all over the world. “Becoming a franchisee is an odd combination of starting your own business and going to work for someone else” (Schlosser 94). Again, this merely represents the growing trend of homogenization, as the same businesses pop up everywhere. In the suburbs of Chicago, for example, it is practically impossible to drive more than a few blocks and not see a Walgreen’s. The same fast food restaurants and the same stores appear over and over, even in the most astonishing places. Spurlock draws attention to a McDonald’s in a hospital, perhaps the most appropriate location for one, except maybe a cemetery. But nothing is more appalling than the location of one McDonald’s in Germany, sitting practically on top of the entrance to Dachau, “the first concentration camp opened by the Nazis” (Schlosser 233). Of course, McDonald’s claimed they were not trying to capitalize on the horror of the Holocaust, but “the curator of the Dachau Museum complained that McDonald’s was distributing thousands of leaflets among tourists in the camp’s parking lot…`Welcome to Dachau,’ said the leaflets, `and welcome to McDonald’s’” (Schlosser 233). Trying to turn a profit on the systematic murder of millions of innocent people surely earns the McDonald’s corporation a special place in hell. Apparently, nothing is sacred when it comes to franchising.

During his month-long McBinge, Spurlock visits various schools to see what the kids are eating. At one school (and undoubtedly at most others), the kids are offered a cornucopia of junk food – candy bars, bags of chips, fries, and Swiss Rolls. When one of the workers tells him that they provide Gatorade and lemonade instead of soda, Spurlock points out that a can of lemonade contains just as much sugar as a can of soda. Many kids simply order fries for lunch, and the schools naively think that the kids are eating the fries as a side dish, not the main course. Spurlock follows the kids to their tables and finds that, indeed, kids are eating fries, candy, and chips for their main courses. At another school for kids with behavioral problems, they are served healthy, fresh, non-processed foods, as well as no beef or soda. The attitudes and behaviors of the students improved dramatically. Remarkably, this program costs just about as much as the other programs, but no one wants to lose the money that corporations provide them for placing their products in the schools and keeping them there. Paul Stitt, founder of the company that provides the healthy food program to students, bluntly declares, “They want to be there to addict the children for life.” Also, physical education has been cut drastically in the school system, making it almost obsolete. In fact, says Spurlock, “in the U.S., only one state requires mandatory physical education for grades K-12.” The lack of physical activity and the unhealthy food being provided by the schools could very well prove to be a lethal combination for the nation’s kids.

In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser asserts, “What we eat has changed more in the last forty years than in the previous forty thousand” (7). And since the foods have changed so rapidly in such a short period of time, the ways that the food is made has had to change just as much to keep up. “In the potato fields and processing plants of Idaho, in the ranchlands east of Colorado Springs, in the feedlots and slaughterhouses of the High Plains, you can see the effects of fast food on the nation’s rural life, its environment, its workers, and its health” (Schlosser 8). Gradually, farmers and ranchers are being brutally pushed aside to make way for suppliers that are more suitable to the needs of McDonald’s and the rest of the fast food industry, and the suicide rate among that group has increased considerably (Schlosser 146). Instead of building a competitive market, the potato, beef, and poultry industries are being taken over by a handful of conglomerates that completely own the market. “Today the top four meatpacking firms – ConAgra, IBP, Excel, and National Beef – slaughter about 84 percent of the nation’s cattle” (Schlosser 137-138). In addition, “the McNugget helped change not only the American diet but also its system for raising and processing poultry” (Schlosser 140). Fast food has irrevocably changed the way people make food, and that change is not a positive one.

Similar to the fast food companies, the meatpacking industry relies on a workforce comprised of people it can exploit to the fullest – immigrants. These workers are unaware of their basic rights, and joining a union is practically forbidden. Since the number of cattle that need to be slaughtered keeps increasing with the rising demand of the fast food companies, specifically McDonald’s, it makes sense that the number of injuries on the job also keeps increasing. Schlosser found that workers were “under tremendous pressure not to report injuries” (175). For whatever reason, as things got more dangerous, the government got more lax about safety laws, most likely because the corporations were giving an awful lot of money to make sure things went their way, even at the expense of their workers. In one of the most despicable incidents of deception, IBP was actually found to be keeping two sets of logs, one that contained actual injuries, and a fabricated one that they showed to inspectors (Schlosser 180).

After only thirty days on his McDonald’s diet, eating three meals a day there and restricting his physical activity to the bare minimum like most Americans, Spurlock was in danger of damaging his body beyond repair. His liver had taken a serious beating, his cholesterol increased by sixty-five points, he experienced depression, and he gained twenty-four and a half pounds. When he tried to reach someone from McDonald’s for an interview, he was unsurprisingly given the runaround. Spurlock acknowledges that his project was extreme, and he counters, “But the scary part is, there are people who eat this food regularly. Some people even eat it every day.” Anyone who works at McDonald’s can no longer claim that eating its food has no harmful side effects, because even if people eat it less often, it is still harming them or even killing them, just at a slower rate. As Daryl M. Isaacs, one of Spurlock’s doctors in the film, rightly says, “And there’s no reason whatsoever why fast food has to be so disgusting.” A mere six weeks after Super Size Me’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where Spurlock took home the Best Director prize, McDonald’s decided to do away with Supersized portions, claiming the decision was not influenced by the film at all.

All in all, Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation boldly attack the very nature of our culture today, leaving no institution unscathed in their searing criticisms. The entire fast food industry shares the blame, but McDonald’s is an easy target because, quite simply, it is the biggest and the worst of them all. Things do not have to be this bad. “The fast food chains insist that suppliers follow strict specifications regarding the sugar content, fat content, size, shape, taste, and texture of their products. The chains could just as easily enforce a strict code of conduct governing the treatment of workers, ranchers, and farmers” (Schlosser 268). But at the end of the day, “nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food” (Schlosser 269). The real people who have the power to change the system are the people who buy the product, and as long as people keep giving fast food companies their money, nothing will ever change. Every human being should be required to watch Super Size Me and read Fast Food Nation, and anyone who can still eat at McDonald’s afterwards is in serious denial.

Makin' Whoopee with "The Fabulous Baker Boys"

Paper Abstract:

The Fabulous Baker Boys, released in 1989 and written and directed by Steven Kloves, is a romantic comedy in which the “romance” manifests itself between two brothers, rather than in a conventional male-female relationship. This decidedly moody film, paralleled by its turbulent production process, about two brothers, Jack and Frank, with a long-standing piano nightclub act stars Jeff and Beau Bridges as the title characters. Strapped for cash, the brothers recruit a hot, young singer named Susie (Michelle Pfeiffer) to spice up the act. Jack and Susie have romantic chemistry, and while at first it might seem like Frank will express his interest in Susie, as well, it is soon abundantly clear that the only person Frank is interested in is his younger brother. Obviously, it is not a sexual attraction, but they function as the film’s romantic couple, caught in the genre’s familiar tropes. Released in the late 1980s, the film reflects the uncertain social climate of the time in Jack’s angry solitude, the characters’ financially precarious world, and class tensions. Within the romantic comedy genre, The Fabulous Baker Boys emerges as a comedy of romance, in which the logistics of relationships are explored rather than whether or not two people will simply end up together. The film has a historical lineage in its similarities to The Heartbreak Kid, both featuring the archetype of the self-exploratory male, and its implementation of genre conventions in order to tell an unconventional love story about two brothers.

Paper Excerpts:

During one of many heated brotherly battles in The Fabulous Baker Boys, Frank (Beau Bridges) whips a kiwi at his younger brother Jack (Jeff Bridges) in their shared hotel suite. Jack responds by hurling a pineapple at him. Watching incredulously from the doorway of her room, Susie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer) muses, “It’s like the fucking Newlywed Game.” Indeed, even though the film might appear to be about the relationship between Jack and Susie, it is quite clear from the beginning that this is a romantic comedy about two brothers. From the time of its conception until its release, The Fabulous Baker Boys encountered numerous obstacles. Released in 1989, the film indicates the nation’s exhaustion at the end of a tumultuous decade. Within the romantic comedy genre, The Fabulous Baker Boys is a direct descendent of The Heartbreak Kid, with some significant differences. Both films feature an apathetic protagonist overflowing with self-loathing. The Fabulous Baker Boys endured an arduous production process that contributed to the mood of the film, reflects the precarious social climate at the end of the 1980s, and represents the romantic comedy genre by exploring existing conventions.

Since no film can ever escape its social context, it makes sense that The Fabulous Baker Boys, a film about a family musical act that does not seem to have any particular agenda, still mirrors the society in which it was produced. Just a few weeks after the film was released, the Berlin Wall crumbled, effectively bringing an end to the Soviet Union’s Communist reign and leading directly to its collapse and the end of the Cold War. While The Fabulous Baker Boys certainly did not precipitate these monumental events in any way, it is important to note the chaotic state of the world at the time of its release. Perhaps Jack’s confusion and anger about his place in life, consciously or not, parallels the global situation and increasing tensions in the United States over the Cold War.

Throughout the film, Jack inexplicably takes care of a young girl who lives in the same apartment building. Her mother totally neglects her, but since “family displacement had a growing effect on children during the 1980s” (Kallen 68), she represents an indictment of that trend. Also, during the decade, “studies showed that the gulf between rich and poor grew wider” (Kallen 60), and nowhere is that more evident than in The Fabulous Baker Boys. Jack, Frank, and even Susie perform in places they could never afford, and the entire film takes place against the backdrop of a rundown Seattle, peppered with homeless shelters and dilapidated buildings. The bleak setting and class issues also serve as a reminder of the downfalls of the greed plaguing America at the time, because “the 1980s will be remembered as an era of high-flying mergers, frenzied investment, corporate raiders, S&L collapse, and a roller-coaster stock market” (Kallen 61). The Fabulous Baker Boys remains a virtual time capsule of the late-1980s by exploring, inadvertently or not, political, economic, and social issues.

When it comes to romantic comedies, they do not always focus on conventional sexual relationships. Granted, The Fabulous Baker Boys does end with Jack and Susie’s likely romantic union, but a strong argument can be made that the film is really about the relationship between the two brothers, and Susie is only the irritant that stimulates change. The brothers are even total opposites, the quintessential odd couple. Jack, the younger brother, is acerbic and rebellious, while the married Frank is the uptight square. They have been playing professionally for fifteen years and bicker like an old married couple. When they first hire Susie to sing with them, Frank appears attracted to her, which sets up a Sabrina scenario. However, nothing ever transpires, and she functions solely to bring out Frank’s jealousy. In a borderline creepy scene, the three of them get drunk, which prompts Frank to shower Jack with compliments, calling him “brilliant” over and over. Frank gazes at the sky and reflects, “It was just like this on our honeymoon. The moon, the stars…Remember, Jack?” He matter-of-factly responds, “I wasn’t there.” Frank then proceeds to dreamily watch Jack and Susie dance under the moonlight.

In the 1960s, the romantic comedy definitively branched off into two separate paths – the more traditional romantic comedy in which boy gets girl, and the comedy of romance which explores the intricacies of human relationships. During this reconstruction, a new archetype emerged, called the outsider or the self-exploratory male. He oozes self-loathing, lacks social skills, and is extremely bitter and cynical. This archetype appears in both The Fabulous Baker Boys and The Heartbreak Kid, with slight variations. Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin) in The Heartbreak Kid is callous, selfish, superficial, confused, and does not believe in anything. He marries Lila (Jeannie Berlin) and immediately gets annoyed with her. At a diner, he grits his teeth, grinning with faux enthusiasm, and tells her, “There’s a lot of things that you didn’t notice about me, and a lot of things I never noticed about you.” He then falls for Kelly (Cybill Shepherd) on his honeymoon, prompting him to break up with Lila in the middle of a restaurant.

On the other hand, Jack Baker at least recognizes his flaws at the end of The Fabulous Baker Boys. Still, he is very much from the same mold of the self-loathing male. His speech consists of monosyllabic grunts. He hurts everyone he knows because he hates himself so much for not pursuing his dreams. When Susie tries to reason with him, he counters, “I didn’t know whores were so philosophical.” Like Lenny, he has no clue what he is doing with his life. Frank rightfully assesses, “You never could commit to anything, even a conversation.” However, The Fabulous Baker Boys offers a much more hopeful, if not more unrealistic, ending. Jack realizes the error of his ways and makes amends for his hostile behavior. He will be okay, but Lenny will not. The Fabulous Baker Boys does not really contribute anything unique or revolutionary to the genre, but its connection to The Heartbreak Kid highlights a very distinct evolutionary lineage in romantic comedies.

All in all, The Fabulous Baker Boys remains an unremarkable, yet sufficiently endearing example of the modern romantic comedy. So while the film does break with tradition in the sense of focusing on two brothers, it sticks painfully close to conventions in every other respect.

Eternal Sunshine of the Music Video

Paper Abstract:

This paper looks in-depth at Michel Gondry’s music video for the Foo Fighters’ song “Everlong.” Before he directed films, Gondry directed music videos very successfully and prolifically. A music video is a type of short film and can be executed creatively and artistically, and no one understands this better than Gondry. He is truly in a league of his own. The “Everlong” video is extremely experimental, and the paper explains the plot and technical choices in great detail to paint a picture of this extraordinary achievement for the reader. Parallels are drawn between Gondry and Spike Jonze, who also started in music videos before turning to film, and between the video and Gondry’s own decidedly experimental filmmaking.

Paper Excerpts:

In an interview on a collection of Michel Gondry’s work that features selections as eclectic as the director himself, he shyly speaks about making music videos in his charming and heavily-accented speech, “Because I’m French, I don’t really understand every word of the song. Especially when I listen to the track, I don’t really get most of the lyrics. I catch maybe 10% of the lyrics and then I recreate all the bridges between each word with my own universal…my own story.” Gondry, a director synonymous with experimental filmmaking, humbly continues, in a dialect that itself possesses a musical cadence, “But lucky enough, it kind of matches sometimes closer to what the singer had in mind of his own lyrics.” After watching his brilliant video for the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” made in 1997, it seems astounding that a talent of his caliber can still exude such grace and modesty. Beginning with a delightful parody of the Mentos commercials in their video for “Big Me,” the Foo Fighters exhibited a penchant for bizarre humor early in their musical career. This made them a perfect match for Michel Gondry’s own blend of non-linear narrative structure, humor, and surrealism. In his music video for the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” Michel Gondry breathtakingly translates his uniquely experimental visual style into a richly-layered story, and it also invites comparison to his other works and helps define his relationship to modern cinema.

When Michel Gondry said that he does not really comprehend the lyrics in the videos he directs, he mentioned it in a segment specifically about “Everlong.” However, he does not give himself enough credit, because the story he tells visually perfectly complements the song’s lyrics, even if it does not appear that way on the surface. The song, a catchy rock anthem of the late-90s, is essentially a love story about a man’s devotion to a woman and how he would wait “everlong” for her, as well as his acceptance of a real relationship with the impossibility of perfection. The video is also a love story at the core, albeit expressed in Gondry’s wonderfully warped way. To put it very simply, the video finds a couple (the man played by lead singer Dave Grohl and the woman played by drummer Taylor Hawkins in drag) asleep in bed, plagued by nightmares. In these dreams, the man must repeatedly rescue his “lady” love from two evil villains (played by the other band members, Pat Smear and Nate Mendel) in farcical situations straight out of horror films. They naturally vanquish their foes together, and then they both sleep peacefully.

To signify a transition to a dream, Gondry employs a visual effect that looks like water cascading over the screen or like heavy rain on a window. The sleeping Grohl morphs into a very angry-looking Grohl dressed like a punk rocker, complete with tall, spiky hair. Now, he is at a party and the world is in color, but it looks sepia-toned. As the lyrics start, he makes his way through the throng of party-goers until he sees his love interest (Hawkins) being harassed by the two villains. Back in black and white reality, the emphasis shifts to the restless Hawkins and goes inside of her dream. In a comically remote cabin deep within the woods, she unsuspectingly reads a romance novel, the screen now bathed in a blue glow. Outside, her significant other gathers firewood, dressed in a brightly colored, impossibly nerdy striped shirt, his hair now slicked down innocently. Back inside, a hand reaches up through a door in the floor, and she screams, morphing into a furious Grohl at the party again, back in punk mode. The sepia tone has been replaced by a throbbing red hue that mirrors the ferocity on his face.

If the video sound confusing, it is, and it is meant to be. This is the rare music video that challenges the audience to think. Similarly, experimental films, on some level, challenge the viewer by breaking with traditional narrative conventions. They celebrate bold and often radical innovation. And yes, to many people, experimental films are usually confusing. But a good experimental film builds upon that confusion and offers viewers a chance to seek personal insight and a deeper connection to the material, if they are willing to look. Like expressionism, these films inspire thoughts and emotions rather than provide logic. Based on these criteria, Michel Gondry’s “Everlong” video is unquestionably an experimental short film. He adapts elements of traditional genres, such as romantic comedy and horror, to a thoroughly surrealistic objective. Within this exploration of genres, he infuses the video with a distinct sense of nostalgia, clearly harkening back to films released in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Also, he completely obliterates any concept of a linear narrative. Dreams constantly mingle with reality, and the viewer can never really be certain if the reality is actually reality at all.

All in all, the Foo Fighters’ video for “Everlong” remains one of Michel Gondry’s most astounding accomplishments in an increasingly impressive career. It also proves that music videos can be as experimental and cinematic, if not more so, than something that is simply called a film. In an interview about Gondry’s work, Dave Grohl explains the director’s motivation for including the giant hand in the video. Apparently, when he was a little boy, he used to have nightmares about his hands growing to a gigantic size, and his mother would have to come to his room to soothe him. Grohl muses, “Maybe he’s actually emotionally invested in the video so much that all of this represents something that he hasn’t explained to the band, much less anyone else…Maybe every one of his videos is some crazy nightmare or some phobia or something inside of him that he’s afraid to tell anybody and he just makes videos. He puts it into film.” This anecdote demonstrates a basic human sensitivity that any good director needs to have, and that Gondry has in abundance, as evidenced by his work. It also proves his sheer passion for filmmaking, no matter if it is a feature film or a five minute music video. Even though Michel Gondry may not understand English very well, he is fluent in the language of the human spirit.