Film as Text
In 2005, I completed editing and submitted for publication a book to be called Film as Text. I entered into a verbal, unnotarised contract with the publisher of Metro to prepare a book about films, based on articles in Screen Education, for the use of secondary school students of media/cinema and their teachers. In the event, the book was not published. Many of the proposed chapters are, however, available on the Web. I am making available here the introductory material that linked them, which would have made it a book.
Although I wrote some of the articles, I believe that I cannot make them available on this website as I signed contracts which gave the rights to ATOM (Australian Teachers of Media). I shall honour this contract. I can, however, write links to the ATOM site where they are available for purchase. Some articles, although published in print, are not on the internet: the ones mentioned below on Breaker Morant, Crocodile Dundee, Hilary and Jackie, and on Secrets and Lies.
These are the films discussed in this 'book'.
Film as Text
Edited by Garry Gillard
The notion of 'film as text' is a metaphor drawn from the idea of reading a book. It suggests that in many ways reading a book is like watching a film, and that we might take some of the things we know about the one and apply them to the other.
The storage means are different, of course. A book has words printed on paper (although it can also be read on a screen or read to you by a voice on a tape or disc). A film is stored on plastic film (or tape or disc) and is displayed on a screen. Various kinds of optical illusions have to occur for our eyes and brains to register what we see as continuous action like what we normally see around us: people talking, and so on. With a book, a different set of 'imaginative illusions' also allow us to 'see' and 'hear' in our minds the events described.
Our metaphor (film as text) means that in both cases, book and film, we can 'read' the story, both in the sense of taking it in as it goes along and in that of being able to hold 'all' of it in our minds, after taking it in, for evaluation, analysis and enjoyment. The various chapters in this book are about these last activities, considering films after we've 'read' them, and talking about our 'readings' of them.
The word 'text' comes from Latin and has to do with weaving. The idea is that there are several stories and ideas in a given book or film, usually associated with several people, and that these cross over each other and join to create something (in our minds) a bit like a weaving. The different strands seem to combine to make a 'whole' novel or movie, although we can still see and make out the different strands if we wish (without pulling the weaving apart).
All of the chapters in this book were originally published in the journal Screen Education (formerly Australian Screen Education). With the intention of assisting teachers and students better to understand films of interest, each writer provides ways into one film. Writers were free in most cases to take whatever approach they choose, whether sociological, say, or historical, biographical, psychological, ethical, and so on. In fact, most writers have written something about both of the two fundamental considerations which arise in approaching a film: What is the story about? How is it told?
The first question also breaks simply into two more: the 'story' and the 'about'. The first of these asks what kind of story this is, including what type or 'genre' of film this is, while the second asks what is the meaning, or theme, or ideology of the story. Most writers in this book present a reading in the latter terms, giving a reading of the system of ideas manipulated by the film, an interpretation.
The second question is about style, which may include cinematography, editing, sound, acting, costumes, and production design, also known as 'mise-en-scene': that is, everything 'put into' the scene. Most writers support their interpretation of the film by adducing examples from the style of the film, discussing ways in which the film-makers construct meaning out of its elements.
Rather than reading the book through, it is more likely that you will go to a film that interests you at the moment. I hope that in each case you will find a bright idea to assist with your own reading of the film, or a direction to take in further investigation, or perhaps confirmation of something you were already thinking yourself. Many chapters include questions for further consideration, which is also the main function of the brief introductions to each.
Garry Gillard, 'The invisible deity of "Good Form": The Age of Innocence', Screen Education, 37, 2004: 159-161.
This chapter takes up most of its space in comparing aspects of Edith Wharton's novel with Martin Scorsese's film. As the main concern of both is the manners of the society depicted, it concentrates on how characters behave in the different contexts, and particularly what they do with their hands. This is in the service of looking at the larger question of the right way to behave generally. 'Manners' may be seen as only of superficial importance, an importance which decreases in proportion with the distance from which they are viewed, but beneath their superficies there is ultimately always a a real concern with the fundamental questions of ethics: as to what is good and right. In a sociological context, manners may seem to function merely as a way of drawing lines around a social group and creating barriers to keep out those who are seen as undesirable, but there is usually a broader ethical context.
The article mentions several gaps in time: the one between Wharton's youth, when she had experiences like those described in the novel; then the one between the time of the novel's composition and that of writing the screenplay. The gap between the date of the film's appearance (1993) and that of you reading this may be smaller, but it may still be worth asking the question: what seems to have changed since then? The main question to be asked is, however, the obvious one: how do you feel, in your present time, about the events and feelings presented in the film (and the book, if possible)? What is different about Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska from you and your situation, and what, if anything, do you have in common with them?
The chapter deals in some detail with only two scenes. You might like to take another scene to think about: perhaps the ending, as it's easy to find, and beginnings and endings are always important. Why does Newland not want to see Ellen one more time? Do we want to see her again? What would you do in his place? Why does the film conclude with a view of him alone? The very last words of dialogue are: 'Just say I'm old-fashioned. That should be enough.' Why does Scorsese choose to end with this idea?
The film's beginning and ending enclose the story in the man's point of view. It begins with women on display: first showing the soprano in the opera on stage, then looking across at the women in the boxes, and especially Ellen and May. The juxtaposition of the two subjects, and the movement of the men's opera glasses (binoculars) from the one to the other, make it clear that women are there to some extent as the object of men's gaze. If this is a woman's story, written by a woman, why do Wharton and Scorsese choose this perspective?
Note that on the webpage the names of the author of the article and of the novel and of the director of the film are all spelt incorrectly.
Corrections to this chapter. Please replace the following paragraph with the one that follows it. (I made a mistake in the description of the scene.)
He merely takes her fingers and bows stiffly. This is a front-on two-shot. Scorsese then heavily underlines the meaning of the moment (the difference between the manners of the two key characters) by showing the reverse shot, from behind the characters, looking down to the stage. Archer lets go of Ellen's hand, but Michelle Pfeiffer's character continues to hold up her arm for what (when you think about it) is quite a long moment, while looking at Archer in what one is presumably meant to assume is some surprise.
He merely takes her fingers and bows stiffly. This is a conveyed in close-up, in a sequence of three shot-reverse shots. Scorsese then heavily underlines the meaning of the moment (the difference between the manners of the two key characters) by showing a longer shot, from behind the characters, looking down to the stage. Archer lets go of Ellen's hand, but Michelle Pfeiffer's character continues to hold up her arm for what (when you notice it) is quite a long moment, while looking at Archer in what one is presumably meant to assume is some surprise.
Nola Galagher, 'Bleak visions: Ridley Scott's Blade Runner: Director's Cut', Australian Screen Education, 29, 2001: 168-173.
Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is noted among many other things for its mise-en-scene: its production design, sets, costumes, and acting. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Production Design and for Special Photographic Effects.
Nola Galagher's provides an excellent brief introduction to the film, using design among many other approaches, and then moves to an analysis of four key scenes with a number of questions on each. All you have to do is to follow her lead.
Corrections to the text of this article.
Ridly => Ridley
saxaphone => saxophone
subserviance => subservience
Brian => Brion James
lead up => leadup
Descartes is one word, so Descarte's is impossible; Descartes's is the correct form (because the final s of the name is not pronounced), altho Metro/ASE style might (wrongly) prefer Descartes'
in the viewers' mind => in the viewer's mind
Garry Gillard, 'It's the music that matters? Brassed Off', Screen Education, 41, 2006: 124-126.
Brassed Off is one of the few British films considered in this book, and so seems to invite comparison with the majority: those from Hollywood. There is in Britain a tradition of social realism: of showing the less glamorous lives the ordinary people like those in films like Secrets and Lies and other films by Mike Leigh or Ken Loach or Alan Clarke. But audiences will not generally be large for films which show only bleak lives unrelieved by more cheerful aspects, and so we have films like this one. The lives of the mineworkers in Grimsley at a time when the pits are being closed - or at any time for that matter - are not the merriest; and yet in Mark Herman's film we have glamour and romance (Ewan and Tara), fine music (the brilliant Grimethorpe Colliery Band), and (black) humour (the performances of Mr Chuckles). So this film leavens its political seriousness with geniality, with resulting popularity.
This chapter takes a critical view of the film's ideology, its system of ideas, in both appreciating and praising the way in which it makes its point, but also in drawing attention to the questionable assumptions which underlie its presuppositions.
Films about musicians afford us the opportunity to think about the importance of the arts to our lives, and music in particular. This is not a 'musical' in the narrow sense of a narrative in which the story as such is carried forward to a significant extent by playing and singing (and dancing). But it is, first, about the importance of such matters, and secondly, does use musical performances at key points in the story. So it raises questions about the relative importance of the benefits of work and the uses of leisure and the effects of both on family, friendships and social groups.
Karen Ford, 'Abused by the motherland: Breaker Morant', Australian Screen Education, 31, 2001: 91-93.
Breaker Morant is both an historical film and a war film, and can be read as either, both, or indeed much more than either. It is also quite possible to ignore the fact it is a film, and read it as an historical document, one version of the facts represented in it - which is the approach taken by Mark Enders.note 1 Karen Ford begins from the same perspective, but includes some useful notes on the filmic treatment of the story. Her main theme is the notion of Australian identity, and of course the film offers an excellent basis for thinking about what it means to be Australian in the context of a war fought overseas under Imperial (British) orders against a (different) colonial enemy (the Boers of South Africa). The fact that Harry Morant, an English Australian, is played by an English actor makes the subtle ambiguities of what is in play all the more crucial.
There is a visual ambiguity also at play. The film is one of the disproportionately large number of films shot in the versatile state of South Australia, standing in quite effectively on this occasion for South Africa. This is a convenient analogy with the Boers, who stand in for the enemy in the earlier events in the story, although the real 'enemy' turns out to be the men who sentence Morant and Handcock to death as scapegoats (in Kitchener's terms they are to be 'sacrificed'). In filmic (and historical) terms, therefore, this film makes for a pertinent comparison with Peter Weir's Gallipoli, which deals with very similar situations although in another war, as does another film about yet another war, the conflict in Vietnam, The Odd Angry Shot (Tom Jeffrey, 1979).
The scene which cries out for shot-by-shot analysis is the closing sequence: the execution. What is the effect (on the audience): of shooting the scene in the horizontal light of dawn? Of Handcock and Morant holding hands? Of them sitting in chairs - which tip backwards with them and freeze? Of Morant's last line: 'Shoot straight, you bastards!' (which, by the way, is the title of a book about him)? And what about the music, which is so often taken for granted? The sounds from outside which are heard intermittently in the background of the courtroom scene and the reading of the verdict are those of a brass band outside playing military-themed music: 'Land of Hope and Glory' and 'The Harp that once in Tara's Halls'. The execution is carried out without non-diegetic music, but once it is done, it is time for the vocal version of the song 'Soldiers of the Queen', sung by none other than Edward Woodward, who of course plays Morant. The tunes may not be familiar to many in today's audiences, but people may at least hear the words of the final song as a comment from the film-makers.
Shirley Law, 'Film, memory and nostalgia in Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso)', Australian Screen Education, 33, 2003: 111-116.
Shirley Law's chapter is a very comprehensive survey of many issues raised in and by Cinema Paradiso, a particularly signficant film and the only one dealt with in this book which is itself about cinema. This self-consciousness, giving it the status of meta-film, also allows for the introduction of bits of many other texts in the work. All texts are intertextual - that is, all texts refer potentially to all the other texts that have ever existed and most actually refer to some specific and recognisable previous texts. In this case, however, the intertextuality is particularly tangible and functional. I mean that all the other texts that are quoted, visually and verbally, add meaning to the story of Salvatore di Vita.
Cinema Paradiso provides many opportunities for the analysis of scenes which have scenes on the screens within them, to examine examples of the operation of relationships between texts.
Clueless is, to some extent, related to Jane Austen's Emma, as Jane Mills's title implies, and her chapter begins with that idea. However, the work it does is an exemplary piece of film analysis, taking the first few minutes of the film and breaking it down into filmic categories: production design, cinematography, and so on.
Harriet Margolis's chapter, on the other hand, stays with the comparison between novel and film throughout, making a thorough job of the moral differences and similarities between the situations of Emma and Cher and their social and physical contexts.
Clueless is the only film to have two chapters devoted to it in this book, as they provide strikingly different ways of approaching a filmic text. One goes deeply into its morality, that is, its ideological dimension, using a comparison with another (written) text; the other treats the film as a technical assemblage of all those elements which make a film different from a novel, while still being aware of the things they have in common. It is to hoped the comparison between the two chapters will in itself be useful.
Hunter Cordaiy, 'Teaching Contact', Screen Education, 36, 2004: 149-152.
Hunter Cordaiy's chapter makes for a revealing comparison with Jane Mills's. She regards her film (Clueless) as unproblematic: certain decisions were made about the design and the shooting, fine. Hunter Cordaiy, on the other hand, discusses one of the problems involved in making films, one that is of particular interest to readers of this book: how do you convey the internal life of the characters of a fiction? As he points out, the novelist can convey this either with simple thought report ('Ellie ... tried to imagine what was going on there') or else by conveying in free indirect style the contents of that thought ('It was an irresistible notion ... intelligent life, and just next door'). But film-makers (unless they use a voiceover simply reading such material) have to convey interiority in other ways. The chapter includes useful discussion and examples of this.
Garry Gillard, 'Crocodile Dundee: "like a Tarzan comic"', Screen Education, 44, 2006: 125-128.
This chapter deals with Crocodile Dundee as a collection of stereotypes. There are many other ways of dealing with it. What type of film is it? Parts of are a bit like a western: in what ways? But it's basically a comedy, isn't it? What is the humour based on? Take a particular scene and see how the comedy works. The chapter mentions the first encounter with Neville Bell (David Gulipilil): it might be interesting to examine the comic effects of that scene in more detail.
The most remarkable thing about this film is its incredible popularity, especially as measured by the money it made, both in Australia and in the USA. What made is so acceptable in each country? In Australia, is it because it appeals to views of Australian nationalism, or the Australian character? In what ways is Mick Dundee typical of an idea of what an Australian is like? Is its American appeal based on its exoticism, the strangeness of the people and animals of this distant country? Are audiences in both countries intrigued by the contrasts and comparison between the two countries? It's quite intentional that all three of the Crocodile Dundee films are partly set in both Australia and America: what are the effects of that?
Adam Trainer, '"They made me do it": the mad world of Donnie Darko', Screen Education, 37, 2004: 138-142.
Many films are now being re-released in the form of the director's cut, as the emergence of DVD has made this easily possible, if not almost obligatory. But few director's cuts are also re-released in theatrical form, as was the case with Donnie Darko. Adam Trainer gives us a rather complicated definition of what is meant by a 'cult film', but a simpler one might be along the lines of a film that becomes so popular over time that people want to see it again (and again), so that distributors might even be prepared to take the considerable risk of spending large amounts of money on prints and advertising to put a film back into cinemas again.
What is it about Donnie Darko that has made it so remarkably popular? Among other things it may be something to do with the combination of the highly unusual with the comfortingly familiar, plus some of the trappings of youth culture (popular music) - cults these days usually being youth phenomena. Donnie Darko in himself combines the unusual - his strange mental states - with the commonplace - he's an adolescent. But there are characters who are much more extraordinary than Donnie, not only Grandma Death with her Philosophy of Time Travel, but even more so Frank, the six-foot rabbit who appears to be a projection of Donnie's psychosis.
As Trainer makes clear, the film-makers have chosen the music for the film with great care, not only so that it underlines or makes the emotional and ideological points at the appropriate moments, but also so that it is recognisable as popular as well as specific to the period of the film's setting.
'Cult films' might also be recognisable as those which on the one hand create a large group of loyal supporters but on the other are barely tolerated by those who do not come under their influence. Where do you stand with regard to Donnie Darko, and why? Are you a fan?
Garry Gillard, '"I have become a Virgin": Elizabeth', Screen Education, 37, 2004: 153-155.
What strikes me about Shekhar Kapur's version of the Queen Elizabeth I story is its modern sensibility, but it also takes great pains to achieve the effect of historical accuracy. One of the ways of approaching it is of course through history, and it might be useful to compare different accounts of the events with the one here. Where there is a variation from the received historical consensus, you might ask if it is in the service of narrative or stylistic convenience, or if it is trying to throw a new and different light on the period and the people. You might ask similar questions in an approach from the specific biography of Elizabeth. Obviously, a selection has to be made from everything that ever happened in her life, and you may want to consider what has been left out and why.
The chapter reads the film as a kind of thriller and detective story. Is it not also a love story? The lover, Dudley, is certainly given a good deal of prominence in the film. But if it is, it is an unusual kind of romance. You might like to see how you see its success in telling this particular version of the boy not getting the girl.
Garry Gillard, 'A sort of war memorial on celluloid: Gallipoli', Screen Education, 38, 2005: 129-131.
This chapter is about attitudes to war; and it's quite difficult to think of any other way in which to approach Weir's film, due to its particular subject and its undeniable strength. I've watched the ending of the film many times, and its power has never diminished for me: I find it very hard to watch.
As with Elizabeth, and indeed Breaker Morant, there is an official historical record with which to compare the representations of the film, so that is one possible approach. And, as with Crocodile Dundee, questions of the Australian national character arise (or at least the male aspects thereof); but whereas Mick Dundee is a loner, Gallipoli hangs to a large extent on the relationship between two men, the two friends Archy and Frank: two 'mates'. And so the theme of 'mateship' is also an important one.
Dmetri Kakmi, 'The mystery of being in Gattaca', Australian Screen Education, 35, 2004: 88-90.
Gattaca has often been written about in the pages of Australian Screen Education. Julie Clarke discusses the film in the context of the pseudo-science of eugenics, which is an important aspect of its background.note 2 She provides information about history of eugenics and its relationship with the idea of genetic engineering, which is a very lively issue today, perhaps most notably with regard to the issue of genetically modified (GM) food. Kathleen Ellis reads the film in the context of the representation of disability, to make the point that although it ventilates the issue it is fundamentally conservative and not directed towards cultivating attitudinal change.note 3 These are valid approaches and of great and continuing interest.
To illustrate the point that there are usually a number of different but still enlightening approaches to any text, yet another is taken in the present chapter, one which might be called 'philosophical'. Dmetri Kakmi uses the myth of Prometheus as a different way of referring to the human desire and/or ability to make and remake humanity itself. While aware of the everyday application of such notions to such a mundane matter as life insurance, he also refers to other stories and therefore to films which are interested in notions of creation, perfection, utopia (an ideal state) and dystopia (its opposite).
Science fiction films are the site par excellence for the ventilation and discussion of, well, scientific ideas - and also ethical and other philosophical inquiries: hence the large number of films mentioned in this chapter. This one film, however, alone raises a large number of matters for discussion, any of which may give rise to fruitful personal responses.
Peter Wilshire, 'Revenge, honour and betrayal in High Noon', Screen Education, 36, 2004: 137-141.
Newspapers reported as a news story the memoirs of a White House employee who recollected which films were popular with various presidents and how many times they had been viewed in the presidential cinema. High Noon was one of the more popular. Why would this be the case?
Well, think about the analogies between the position of the president of the USA and that of the marshal in the film. Will Kane sees himself: as holding the highest office in the immediate area, as being abandoned by his friends and advisors (and even his wife), as having to make the hardest decision alone, as having to put the general good before his own safety and needs (including love), and as triumphing over the most diabolical adversity, including a threat to his own life, and demonstrating his superiority over the enemy and his contempt for lesser mortals. Surely this is a scenario that appeals to anyone who sees himself as a potential alpha male, and especially to one who already has taken up the currently ultimate version of that status.
This chapter does a very good job, in a short space of dealing with many aspects not only of the text of the film but also the context. Peter Wilshire mentions the McCarthyism and the Korean War, both of which were in the background of the film's creation, in the 1950s. It might be interesting to bring this up to date and think about how an American president like Barack Obama might identify with this film. Might he see an analogy between the marshal Will Kane and the country USA going it alone to keep the peace in a lawless world, fighting against the evil would-be murderers (terrorists)? Or perhaps he might see himself as Will Kane, forced to keep the peace alone?
If the film is read in this way, I wonder how anyone would justify the killing in the scene where the marshal's wife Amy shoots one the bad guys in the back! while he is reloading his gun? Presumably this means that any use of force whatsoever is justified if right is on your side?
Corrections to the text of Wilshire's chapter.
Kane's refusal to compromise and except the dictates ... except => accept
Kane, visits Martin Howe ... delete the comma
zeros => zeroes [zeros is correct for the noun but not the verb]
climatic => climactic
"You can really feel the heat and taste the dust." I suggest that this sentence should be deleted - or at least the word "really".
Note to the author of the article: Will Kane does not put his marshal's 'badge' under his boot and step on it; he merely throws it in the dust, as you write later, and we see it in front of his left boot as he turns to get in the wagon. ... But the effect is much the same as if he had. (It has been pointed that there appears to be another tin star there, behind the boot, perhaps from an earlier take. But having looked very closely, I don't think it is a prop, just some sort of rubbish on the ground, or just an illusion.) And the townsfolk don't emerge 'tentatively': they come a-running - but it's a mere quibble.
Richard Armstrong, 'In this our life: Hilary and Jackie', Screen Education, 37, 2004: 143-146.
Among many other good things, this chapter provides a useful introduction to the idea of 'women's film', in which women get to have lives with aspirations and successes, rather than being 'love interests' and objects for men to look at and desire. The downside, however, given the culture in which we still live, is that they have to be 'punished' for getting above themselves and their subordinate place in society - as Jacqueline du Pré is 'punished' by dying of MS (although of course this also happened in real life to the cellist).
Richard Armstrong points out that the story is told twice, as it were, in two parts, one each from the point of view of only one of the sisters. It might be useful to think in more detail about the effects of this narrative strategy. What are the things about Jackie that are only partly disclosed in the Hilary section, and what difference does it make when we see the 'same' events from Jackie's viewpoint? What might be the effect of telling the 'two' stories the other way around? Would we be more sympathetic at the outset to the genius (in the family), rather than finding her at first quite irritating before coming to understand better why she acts the way she does? And would we then see Hilary as being lacking in a true appreciation of her sister? As it is, the story has a nice balance.
To take up an even more extreme conjecture: what if the story were told from the point of view of one of the two husbands? After all, it's quite likely that someone might want to make the story of the life of famous musician Daniel Barenboim into a film. What would Jackie du Pré's character look like in a male biopic, the life story of a man, as opposed to her presentation here, in a woman's film?
Lantana is a kind of experiment in seeing how many coincidences you can get away with cramming into a basically realist story. Melanie Beal's chapter includes a diagram with a confusing number of arrows in it, which is one way of indicating who comes across whom in Andrew Bovell's plot. It might be fun to get a group of students to work this out. Give them the character's names - which in three pairs gives the primary, married relationship (John Knox and Valerie Somers have different surnames, although married) and ask them who meets whom. On the bare facts, some of these meetings are not particularly plausible, but that is the way stories like this work. If there were none of these surpising chance events, there would be no story to tell.
If you do draw such a diagram, note that there is one character missing from Melanie Beal's diagram. She has eleven characters. To make it up to an even twelve, so that there are six pairs, you have to remember that the homosexual Patrick Phelan (Peter Phelps) has a temporary partner, who later apparently turns out to be married with a family. He does not have a name in the film, but the actor's name (Lani Tupu) supports the idea that he is Maori, or at least Polynesian. Note also that the diagram does not have Leon Zat meeting either Patrick Phelan or his Polynesian partner, which he does.
Lantana is a family melodrama which works a bit like an experiment in the number of different permutations you can get out of two-person adult relationship - whether a marriage or not. Another kind of diagram to draw is a simple line, a continuum, along which you can plot the most to the least successful relationship, perhaps with Nik and Paula at one end and John and Valerie at the other (given that she's dead). This might give rise to useful discussion as to the reasons why some relationships work while others do not.
Ryan Scott, 'History and memory in Life is Beautiful', Australian Screen Education, 30, 2001: 139-142.
Other approaches to Life is Beautiful deal with it in the context of historical accuracy,note 4 and in the context of the problem of using the comedy genre to deal with something as serious as the Holocaust: something you might consider discussing.note 5 Ryan Scott's chapter simply and sympathetically describes the film in its own terms. He does, however, draw attention to the difference between memoir and history, and basing stories on fallible memories.
My co-writer of this article wanted to use the sub-title: 'size does matter'. And there is some validity in considering the question of size in relation to The Lord of the Rings - and not just with regard to hobbits and ents. It is one of the largest film projects yet undertaken. Three long films were made in the same space of time, a whole country (New Zealand) provided a wide range of locations, an army of graphic artists was employed. And now that the films have left the cinemas for the time being, you can buy the whole thing in a set of no fewer than twelve discs.
Part of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings is down to marketing, of course - and that is part of the meaning of what is meant by a 'blockbuster'. But the film (taking the whole thing as one film) does seem to have been genuinely popular. And it's worth asking why that might be the case. Of course the book was itself was already known and loved - but that was not as a result of marketing, and therefore something to do with its intrinsic nature. So there is apparently something inherently meaningful about book and film which appeals to a large number of people: what is it? Or, if there is more than one feature: what are they?
One crude answer might be the first mentioned: size. If people have made the considerable commitment of reading the long book or seeing the long film(s), they might enjoys the simple rewards of belonging to the community of those who have read the book. This is not necessarily trivial, as it means having coming to have knowledge of a large and coherent narrative structure. The chapter points to Tolkein's nostalgia, and perhaps that it part of the story's appeal. And then, it offers entry to an alternative world, and one where values are simpler: good and evil are ultimately clearly identifiable. Fourthly, it is a world where magic is an actual power, and as Harry Potter has also shown, this is something that people enjoy imagining. And Jackson's film, like Tolkein's book, is aesthetically satisfying in many ways, both large and small, in whole and in part.
We saw, with Gattaca, that science fiction films are a forum in which ethical and other philosophical and scientific inquiries may be promulgated and evaluated. Fantasy fiction like The Lord of the Rings may be simply escapist, but if it is large a phenomenon as LOTR clearly is (there's that size thing again), there is probably quite a bit more than that going on. What are some of the little things with which viewers identify here, and why do they find them meaningful? By 'meaningful', I don't mean 'symbolic', as the search for symbols can result in discussions ending in simple and uninteresting equivalences: I mean to ask what narrative elements are meaningful in terms of people's own stories, and why?
Garry Gillard, '"Close your eyes and you can start all over again": Memento', Screen Education, 40, 2005: 115-117.
This chapter concentrates on unravelling the story, in an effort simply to say what 'actually happens'. I'm not sure that what is here is the last word on what is right, and there will almost certainly be discussion about different interpretations.
But when the story has finally been sorted out, the question remains: what is the thematic point, what can we learn from it? After all, it's a rather nasty little story about a man who kills out of revenge, after having perhaps killed his wife. Having got our interest, however, it does raise one of the fundamental philosophical questions, that of epistemology: how do we know what we think we know? Does one of the answers seem in this case to have something to do with writing?
I suppose thematically the film is in the company of those in which the basic point turns out to be: carpe diem, seize the day, live each moment as though it is your last, make time stand still! Though the film itself suggests this in a rather negative way (morally speaking), the apparatus surrounding it, the Jonathan Nolan story and the website, tend to support this idea.
How does the film get our interest? The answer partly depends on technical effects, like the film running backwards at the outset, a photo fading, a gun flying into a hand; and also on the use of passages in colour alternating with others in black and white - not to mention a man with inscriptions on his body. Such effects suggest that there is a puzzle here that we - like Leonard - have to solve.
Garry Gillard, '"It's the way things are": Once Were Warriors', Screen Education, 39, 2005: 119-123.
The structure of this chapter is mostly organised around 'problems': who has what problem, and what do they have to fall back on in order to deal with it? In addition it looks at the way in which certain scenes are shot to parallel the situations in which characters find themselves.
Another way to approach the film is through mise-en-scene, and particularly the settings in which contrasting scenes are shot. What do we see of the interior of the Heke house? How is the backyard photographed and why? How is the Royal Tavern presented? And the car in which Toot spends his days? Are these scenes generally different from those in settings which are connected with traditional Maori culture?
That last question raises the broader one of cultural tradition. This film is something of a case study of the situation of the indigenous people in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Does the film appear to construct a particular argument or take a particular line on the question? How does it compare with the situation of indigenous peoples in other parts of the world?
Helena Sharp & Garry Gillard, '"A path of great courage": The Piano', Australian Screen Education, 35, 2004: 109-112.
Several of the films in this book deal with aspects of the contact between indigenous people and colonisers. This will be more obvious in the case of Rabbit-Proof Fence, but it is still present in The Piano. It is something completely ignored in this chapter, which deals with the film in the context of the genre sometimes called the 'women's film'. It is, however, something in which the film takes great interest, and something which might well be inquired into.
None of the Maori characters is a principal player, but they are never far from the action, and function to some extent like a Greek chorus, commenting either explicitly or implicitly on the goings-on among the pakeha (the non-indigenous people). They also have a direct influence on some of them, most notably perhaps on Baines's face, a sign of the fact that he is becoming increasingly comfortable dwelling in the midst of Maori culture and learning the language. In what other ways do the Maori and pakeha come into contact in The Piano, and with what effect on each? Is colonialism a feature of that contact, either inside the story, or in the way is it told in the film?
Garry Gillard, 'Signs, lines, tracks and trails: Rabbit-Proof Fence', Screen Education, 40, 2005: 119-122.
The following chapter actually takes up the metaphor which gives this book its title: the idea that a story is a bit like a weaving (the Latin word for which gives us the word 'text'), in which several strands are combined to to make a whole. The idea is also used here in a contrasting way, seeing the story itself as being about the tearing apart of something that should not be undone: the contact between mothers and children, that rupture we now call the Stolen Generations.
Colonialism is clearly such an important matter in Rabbit-Proof Fence that it is hard to think about anything else than the policies of the Australian government in 1931 and their effect on the indigenous people of the country. Phil Noyce's film is a work of art, but it is also a structure which exists to a large extent to persuade and to teach. It would be a challenge to look at it as persuasion rather than art, and ask in what ways it works to influence our attitudes as we watch it.
Perhaps the most harrowing scene in the one in which the three children are taken away by the policeman in the car. (Apparently, it was also very upsetting to film for all concerned, cast and crew.) You might profitably look at that in some detail, at the way the camera is used to control the point of view, so that the maximum impact of the enforced separation is shown. Who do we identify with, feel with? Do we have any sympathy for the policeman? Does he even have a name? It might also be useful to contrast this scene of separation with the one of reunion at the end of the film. Look at the different lighting, and movement of the camera, for example.
Ceridwen Spark, 'Reading Radiance: the politics of a good story', Australian Screen Education, 32, Spring, 2003: 100-104.
Radiance is another film to do with the Stolen Generations issue, though in a much less explicit way, and it is enlightening to contrast this aspect of the film with Rabbit-Proof Fence. Phil Noyce's film makes its sympathies quite apparent, whereas Rachel Perkins' film (as written by Louis Nowra, based on his play) reveals its political implications subtly, through the revelations of the story. However, the political implications are clearly there, as pointed out by the following chapter.
The film makes much of its impact through the dialogue and the acting, as the discussions between the three women and what they reveal take up most of the screen time. In this way, the film shows its theatrical origins. However, there are some stylistic elements which lift this version into the realm of film. Consider the use of fire. This is introduced in the film's prologue with the slow motion shot of burning matches flipping over and over: clearly intended to create anticipation of the film's climax, when the tainted house burns down - or at least an artistic connection with the event. Less dramatic, but more important, is another element: earth. This is included in the form of the island to which Nona crosses in order to scatter the mother's ashes - another form of 'earth' (dust to dust) - to make a unique claim to that land. Nowra's screenplay says at that point that Nona is "making a joke" about making a land claim, but it is fairly clear that the film is not.note 6
You might like to think about any other stylistic elements that help to create meaning in the film. Clothing is important to Nona: is costume (and the absence of it) important also to the audience? And then there are properties (props): there is the Radiance nougat tin which partly gives the film its title: what is the meaning of that? What about the hat that Nona finds, and Mae's bridal veil? Why is the turtle included in the story?
By a happy coincidence, Neil Murray's song 'My Island Home' had just been made well-known by a singer who is herself a (Torres Strait) Islander, Christine Anu, and that is the song we hear at the end of the film, underlining in music the importance of land. Are there are any other significant sounds?
Adam Trainer, '"The business of living": Secrets and Lies', Screen Education, 36, 2004: 127-129.
That Mike Leigh's prefers a naturalistic, quasi-documentary social realist style for his films is pointed out by Adam Trainer in referring to the very plain way in which he uses the camera, only raising it significantly in the one scene near the end which leads to not only the climax but also the words of the title of this film.
A scene to which Trainer refers, but does not comment on in stylistic terms, is the one in which Cynthia and Hortense have tea in a cafe near Holborn station. A fifteen-minute sequence contains only three scenes. Hortense approaches Cynthia at the station entrance in a scene shot from across the street with the camera panning to follow Hortense as she walks up and down. They then sit at a table in the cafe; after which Hortense drives Cynthia home, shot in the usual shot/reverse shot technique used in cars.
It is the scene at the table that is most remarkable, and perhaps one without which the film might not have been nominated for so many awards; and yet, in filmic terms, nothing much happens. The establishment shot in the cafe - showing no staff, and only one other customer in the background - lasts for thirty seconds, as the conversation gets underway. The principal part of the scene is then shot in a static two-shot (showing just the two characters and the table in front of them) and lasts for a quite remarkable seven minutes and forty seconds. The camera is unmoving; the scene is anything but, and Brenda Blethyn gives an unforgettable performance as Cynthia realises that she is fact Hortense's mother.
Why does Leigh shoot this critical scene in this way? In fact, if you look at the film with this question in mind, you find that the cinematography is about as plain as could be. Even the shot that Trainer draws attention to, at the barbecue, only has the movement it does to keep the seven characters in frame as Hortense joins the company in the garden. Once she has sat down, however, the camera stays exactly where it is, while everyone sorts themselves out. So it looks quite like a documentation of real people. As it is, however, a fictional drama, the question arises: what kind of drama is it that actually wants to resemble a documentary film - perhaps one that is not all that fictional?
As this chapter argues, Strictly Ballroom is not a 'musical' as such, but is nevertheless a 'musical film', in the sense that the story is carried forward by music-related activity to a very large extent. Dance does not only develop the relationship in the girl-meets-boy part of the story, it is an integral part not only of the sub-plot involving Scott's father and mother, but also of the story involving Fran's family as well. The dancing ability of Scott's and Fran's father has an effect on the outcome of the whole story almost as important as that of the hero and heroine themselves. But whereas Scott's father Doug's great days are past, Fran's father Rico has a direct on the dance that the young couple perform.
The fact that Rico is played by a real dance teacher who is also a real Spaniard (or Spanish-Australian) throws even more emphasis on the multicultural theme which runs through the narrative: a characteristic of the film which can be profitably explored. The basic idea of multiculturalism - which is government policy as well as an ethical idea - is that immigrants are encouraged to maintain some aspects of their traditional culture while at the same time fitting into the broader Australian way-of-life in most respects. This is well integrated into the story of Strictly Ballroom On the one hand, Rico shows the passionate concern for his daughter that one might expect from someone from a Spanish background, but he also displays the same passion for the traditional artform that he chooses to maintain and promote, as do the people around him, and especially Ya Ya, Fran's grandmother. What effect does it have on the story that Fran is second-generation Spanish-Australian?
It's indisputable that Rolf de Heer is an auteur: an artistic film-maker who leaves his mark on all of the films he makes. So it's not surprising that The Tracker is not much like any other film made in Australia. We can therefore ask in what ways it is different and unusual. What is the effect of replacing some of the more violent scenes with still paintings by Peter Coad? What is the effect of using songs performed by Archie Roach to replace what might otherwise be conveyed with dialogue (or voiceover)? (Credit is taken for the songs by the director, together with his usual composer, Graham Tardif.) What difference does it make to identify the characters by Type, rather than the usual fictional names? Other questions are raised below about narrative, style and theme.
Richard Armstrong, 'The world in a fresh light: To Kill a Mockingbird', Australian Screen Education, 35, 2004: 84-87.
Richard Armstrong's introduction provides excellent coverage of To Kill a Mockingbird, and some very helpful leading questions. Armstrong expertly places the film in its context in the United States of America in 1962. How does its exploration of the perception and effects of race and class sit in the context of the present day in Australia?
The Truman Show raises large philosophical questions, such as the problem of free will, raised in this chapter, but it also gives us reasons to think about television programs of a certain kind. Why do we (sometimes) prefer to watch programs which are 'real' in some way? What difference does it make that there are 'real' people in the show?
On Big Brother, to take an obvious example, the people are carefully selected much as professional actors are, and they are placed in a constructed set ('the house') and in artificial situations designed to produce dramatic outcomes. There is no memorised script, of course, but then there are also a great number of films in which the dialogue is improvised, as in real life. The Truman Show simply takes Big Brother to the extreme; the participant has not chosen to be on reality TV, and does not know he is being filmed constantly, but the interest is similar: the viewers (in the film) are watching a real person, who will act unpredictably (they hope).
The extra layer of interest in Weir's film is we, the viewers not in the film, are able to see the TV show (which, by the way, for us is not real) and also the apparatus which supports it. This is further complicated by the process of identification, the normal means by which we enter any imagined world such as that of a film. In that sense, from moment to moment we may be (to some extent) in the show with Truman or in the apparatus with another character, such as Christo for example - while in adjacent moments (or perhaps even at the same time) we are simply appreciating and enjoying the fiction.
What do you find most real in The Truman Show?
It is tempting to play around with the religious overtones and implications of Witness, particularly as the Amish are a group partly defined by religion. Of course they have names from the Bible, like Samuel and Rachel, but so does the Harrison Ford character, whose name, John Book, sounds like one of the Gospels. And witnessing, the theme of Sofia Ahlberg's chapter, is itself something signalled in the name of a Christian denomination familiar to anyone with a doorbell, the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Another way to approach the film is to look at and listen to how it is told/made; and it is striking that in terms of tone it is clearly divided into two: the scenes of life on the Amish farms, and the action-adventure scenes in which the cops try to kill each other. The narrative is book-ended with peaceful rural scenery which suggest that this is the reality one could have - if it were not for the brutality of the conspiracies, crimes and violence which come in between. The opening shot shows that the Amish people come out of the earth and therefore suggests that they belong to it. The closing scene shows Daniel coming to claim Rachel as John Book leaves, looking as if he (Daniel) knew all along that he would get her in the end - although the film does its best to keep us in suspense about her decision.
In that respect the film is like Casablanca, in which the woman also gives up the hero for a higher cause and a more admirable way of life. So the film's meaning - if a film can be said to have a meaning - is that, when forced to make a choice, one should choose the path to which one is directed by ethics rather than by sentiment and sensuality. Note, by the way, that this reading places the woman character at the centre of the narrative, rather than the man.
But the film is also like LA Confidential, say, or any other film where there is intense interest in danger, action, violence and moral confusion, a conflict between good and bad authority. Weir's seems to enjoying directing action (as in Master and Commander, say) as much as creating Edenic scenes (as in Picnic at Hanging Rock). So when the three bad guys walk onto the farm with their big guns, you know, as in any western, that there's going to be action, a shootout, and the good guy will beat the bad guys, both physically and morally.
As Sofia Ahlberg points out, good and bad are clearly differentiated in this film. It might be useful to compare scenes showing the two opposed moral universes to see how different are the styles of the two, and particularly the cinematography and the sound, including music. The obvious ones would be the barn-raising on the one hand and the fight in the (other) barn.
1. Mark Enders, '"Breaker" Morant': Colonial underdog versus Imperial overlord, Australian Screen Education, 29, 2001: 192-195.
2. Julie Clarke, 'Only healthy seed must be sown: Gattaca', Australian Screen Education, 30, 2001: 103-107.
3. Kathleen Ellis, 'Reinforcing the stigma: the representation of disability in Gattaca', Australian Screen Education, 31, 2001: 111-114.
4. Tiziana Gerrero-Regis, 'Rethinking Life is Beautiful', Australian Screen Education, 33, 2003: 105-110.
5. Kate Matthews, 'Serious laughter: Critics of Life is Beautiful and the question of comedy', Australian Screen Education, 31, 2001: 105-109.
6. Garry Gillard, 'Perspectives on Radiance', Australian Screen Education, 29, 2001, p.182.
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