Author Archives: Dan Hofman

F for Fake

While watching Stories We Tell I thought a lot of its themes, ideas, and execution were pretty similar to Orson Welles’ famous documentary F for Fake. Sarah Polley even cited it as an influence in one of the interviews we watched.

Stories We Tell explored the idea of truth as it relates to memories and stories, while F for Fake explored truth as it relates to art. Orson Welles explores the story of a famous art forger to bring up the ideas of truth. With art forgery, you never know if the piece you are looking at was actually created by the artist you think. Elmyr, the art forger in the documentary, was apparently able to convince the best experts that his paintings were actually Picassos or other famous artists. F for Fake really makes you question whether most of the paintings you’ve seen are real or fake, and it makes you ask whether it even matters in the end. Stories We Tell makes you ask the same questions about memories and stories.

F for Fake is an especially interesting documentary because it makes you question the authorship of itself. Orson Welles edited the documentary, but he did not create most of the footage contained within it. He just took another documentary about Elmyr and recut it to explore the themes he wanted more deeply. He also added a few of his own segments. So Welles makes you further question authorship of art through the idea that new art is just inspired by old art and manipulates old art to be something new.

There is also a segment in F for Fake where Welles begins telling a completely made up story that sounds plausibly true and then reveals it was fake. This is similar to the way Polley made fake footage of her mother and family members when they were younger. It turns out none of it was real, but aren’t the ideas behind them still important?

So Polley’s ideas aren’t new, but as F for Fake asks us, are any ideas really new and does it matter in the end?

Historical Accuracy in Film

I personally do not care about historical accuracy in film. I can’t completely cast it off though because as Dr. Jordan pointed out, there are practical considerations with historical accuracy such as when filmmakers might make up facts in order to propel a dangerous message inconsistent with history. But I am talking more in terms of quality. Historical accuracy or inaccuracy never changes my view of a film. Whether a film is true or not should not affect its actual quality.

Now, I have probably lost some people already who think teaching history can be a valid purpose for a film. I, on the other hand, have the base assumption that film is art and should not be confused with nonfiction. If a movie’s purpose is to teach, then it should no longer be a film but a video essay. Film is a very inefficient medium with which to teach. I think everyone can agree that Lincoln is not a great movie to teach the history of Lincoln’s presidency during the passing of the 13th amendment. Even if it was entirely historically accurate, it is still a small part of the picture, all that can be fit in in two and a half hours. And of course all of the filmmaking techniques that make the movie a spectacle remove it from being in any way unbiased.

Why should we be more invested in a film just because it is “based on a true story”? If the film was entirely the same but those five words were taken out, would you like the movie less? The Coen Brothers played on this with Fargo, by putting those words at the beginning of the film, even though it was entirely fiction.

To me, it is irrelevant whether the events in a film actually happened or not. Film is an art, and it is most successful when instead of just articulating facts, it attempts to convey deeper, universal truths. These truths are independent of any specific events. They still exist even if the story that conveys them is made up. Werner Herzog has talked about these ideas before and employs them in his own films. He says that what is more important than facts is “ecstatic truth” and fabricating reality is okay if it contributes to an ecstatic truth. The result may not be true under a factual analysis, but it is true in a deeper way.

This discussion applies to documentaries too. Documentaries, like dramas, are not the best way to actually teach topics. For me, the best documentaries are good because they are just inherently good movies regardless of whether the events in them are wholly true or fabricated. I judge documentaries as if they are fictional movies. Why should they be held to lower standards just because their content is supposedly true?

Fight Club’s commentary on ideology

Every time I watch Fight Club, I can’t help but sense it is making an astute commentary on ideologies in general. It is not talking specifically about politics, or religion, or gender, or anything. All of these ideas can be equally applied and are referenced throughout the film.

Fight Club ultimately seems to be championing individualism. People who become trapped in ideology in this film end up being cast in an unfavorable light. The film does not so much hate all ideology, but instead suggests using ideas in mediation rather then being extreme on either side.

The narrator’s Dissociative Identity Disorder is a manifestation of his pull towards two opposite but extreme ideologies. On one side, he can be part of the system of consumerism without any identity or appreciation of self, but when he is pulled towards Tyler’s side, it seems to originally start with good intentions of being an individual and experiencing real pain and rejecting consumerism, but it soon lands in the same pitfalls as the society the narrator was originally trying to escape; everyone is stripped of their identity and blindly follows orders, and instead of living their own fulfilling lives, just wreak havoc on society. The film does not present either side of the coin as reasonable. The narrator’s ultimate struggle is to become a true individual by not adhering to any ideology, but following his own path. Fight Club seems to be an existentialist film in a way then.

These ideas of adhering to ideology without individualism can be easily applied to politics and religion, and the film makes these connections. The society that Tyler comes to represent becomes a clear analogue to fascism. Tyler is also viewed as a God figure which brings up religion, and their are other scenes in the film that conjure religion like when Tyler gives the narrator a chemical burn, the narrator tries to use Buddhist-like meditation to escape the pain, but Tyler urges him to receive and fully experience the pain.

The paradox driving Network

Network with all of its themes about media contains a very interesting contradiction central to the plot. It is the fact that Howard Beale’s attempt to break away from TV only drives himself closer to it. It’s a very strange dynamic that persists throughout the film, and we didn’t talk about it much in class, so I just wanted to draw some attention to it.

At the beginning of the movie, Beale goes on TV and calls out the media for its “bullshit.” The result is not that Beale quits TV and urges others to do the same; the result is instead that Beale becomes further enveloped in the world of TV and creates a bigger media monster than the news with his Howard Beale Show that propels as much “bullshit” as his old news job. Beale on the show tells people to turn off their TV and stop paying attention to the media, even though he himself is the media, and he just gets more views from these statements rather than less. We even get visual irony in these scenes because while Beale denounces media, a camera in the frame reminds us that Beale is the media too.

So Network with this interesting contradiction is communicating the inescapability of TV. Anyone who stays on TV is getting good ratings, so even if they have good intentions, they might still be part of the problem. This inescapability is actually a bit similar to some themes we’ll see in Fight Club shortly wherein a revolution to escape a materialistic society just turns into a materialistic society itself.

I think this dynamic in Network really adds a lot to the movie because it makes the audience question a lot about what they think about TV and their own viewing habits. There’s the question of whether the Howard Beale Show has merit. If Beale can get good messages across while still being part of the system he is fighting against, is he still accomplishing his goal? Or is Beale just feeding the monster he is fighting against? Is it possible to fight against a system while being part of it? Or on the other extreme, is it necessary to be a part of a system to fight against it? I think these are all really good questions without clear answers. They are certainly important to consider in order to understand the beast that is media.

Ultimately, Network does have a bit of a defeatist attitude. It does not even attempt to offer any solutions because frankly there probably aren’t any. As Network shows, media just gives audiences what they want, so any change has to originate from the viewers of a show, not the show itself. Many humans just prefer sensational presentation, and we won’t evolve an aversion to it anytime soon, so things will probably stay the way they have been.

Kubrick’s take on civilization

I think there is a common theme through most of Kubrick’s filmography about the primal vs. the civilized. It’s pretty clear how this theme relates to 2001. Kubrick seems to say with many of his films that humans are just fundamentally animals, acting according to their primitive instincts. Civilization is something we use to hide our own animality, but underneath we are still animals.

We saw in class how Kubrick compares humans with their ape ancestors in 2001. When the apes first learn to use tools, their first actions are to assert dominance over others animals, and Kubrick establishes that tribal warfare is fundamental to humans. When he jump cuts to the future, nothing has changed about humans, only that we are less blatant about it. There is still the tribal warfare of the United States vs. Soviet Union. Technology has been weaponized, and space exploration is not a quest for knowledge but an exercise in one-upmanship. In the grand scheme of things, Kubrick in some ways characterizes humans as clueless as they were thousands of years ago with the parallel shots of the ape and Dr. Floyd curiously touching the monolith.

I also find HAL very interesting with respect to the themes of human’s primal instincts. In2001 the AI we create is not proof that we are some more advanced civilization because the AI takes on all of the dysfunctionality and flaws inherent in humans; it acts somewhat irrationally and has a survival instinct that forces it to act competitively like a human. It almost goes to say that anything a human creates, or anything completely contained within the human system, will still be primarily human. We cannot advance beyond our own species without external influence first. This is my reading of 2001 anyway since in the movie, humans really don’t advance until the higher dimensional beings put our advance into motion. Even if HAL was a perfect AI, he would not be able to function perfectly within human civilization since it is irrational in many ways. One theory I heard for why HAL acts up is because he receives conflicting orders: protect the mission, stay alive, keep the message about the moon secret, protect your crewmates. This theory is in some ways in line with some of the ideas I brought up.

Many of Kubrick’s other films have similar themes about civilization. Barry Lyndon seems to be on some level about dispelling any misconception that 18th century European nobility were of high class and very “civilized.” Like many of Kubrick’s characters, the actors in Barry Lyndon are very concerned with their own power and ego, and their upper class speech and etiquette functions ironically as it is totally dissonant with their carnal behavior. Eyes Wide Shut too looks at how society implores fidelity and monogamy to create the image of familial harmony while many of society’s members are torn on the inside by their animal instincts to break this mold.

The Mise-en-scène of The Graduate

The Graduate has a ton of interesting cinematography. We already talked about a good amount of it in class such as with the aquarium or the scuba diving scene or the claustrophobic conversations Ben has with family friends at the beginning of the film. I wanted to look at some of the clever shots we did not get to discuss in class.

One thing I always liked about the opening shot with Ben on a conveyor belt is the fact that he moves from the right side of the screen to the left. We already associate moving to the right as progress, and it feels more natural to us as we also read from left to right. There have also been psychological studies in film that show that we associate more positive emotions with people moving from left to right in a shot. So Ben being carried leftward at the start of the film indicates that he is not progressing, and it adds to the sense of dread we feel. It also seems purposeful that Ben is on a conveyor belt as he gives up control while on it. He is carried in a certain direction by an external force, and this is the current condition of his life. There is some parallelism with the shot that follows as we see his suitcase on a conveyor belt moving in the same direction:

This editing seems to say that Ben has as much free will as his suitcase on the conveyor belt.

I also wanted to mention the sun glare shot. After the montage showing the progress of Ben and Mrs. Robinson’s relationship, Ben is lying on a raft in the pool, and his dad starts lecturing him that he needs to do something with his life. We can barely make out his dad’s face because of the sun beating down on the camera:

This is just another of many shots that illustrates the dynamic among Ben and his parents. They are blinding and suffocating, constantly looking down and beating down, like the sun in this shot.

Speaking of the sun, I wanted to briefly mention the motif of tans I noticed in this film. It seems every single character has a tan. In the same scene with the sun, we see how much color Ben’s back has. And by the midpoint of the film, we are pretty familiar with Mrs. Robinson’s tan lines. These tans seem to be another artifact of the cloying life that Ben has become disillusioned to. They indicate a social pressure for good looks and the presence of leisure in the middle class life, as everyone seems to have the free time to lay down and get a tan.

The last cinematographic technique I wanted to point out is the use of dramatic zoom such as in this shot of Mrs. Robinson, if you remember:

Right after Ben comes out of Elaine’s room, we have a closeup of Mrs. Robinson’s face, and then it zooms out into this shot. It reminds me of the zooms in Kubrick’s filmography. From what I have seen, I think many filmmakers do not utilize these zooms because they are very dramatic and call attention to themselves. I don’t know why, but I love these zooms. I think it may be because it makes the moment feel very important. When these zooms are used effectively, it is never in a shot with action. It is during a quiet moment with no movement. Something serious just happened, and this is the moment of realization. I think it is the stillness of such a grave moment, combined with the camera movement which builds intensity, that makes this technique so immersive for me.

Rear Window and Space

The cinematography in Rear Window was great, and showed restraint in never giving a perspective too far removed from Jeff’s apartment and often obscuring action. This movie is all about spaces, and we are largely within Jeff’s space throughout the film. The long opening shot establishes two main spaces; there is the outside world in the courtyard where everyone else lives in their own apartment, and there is the space behind Jeff, his own apartment with his furniture, photography, and people he knows. The former space is external composed of others outside his life while the latter is internal, comprised of his own thoughts, personality, and experiences. These two spaces are separated by the window.

The framing of each shot emphasizes the separation of these spaces.

We don’t simply peer into any apartment. Most of the shot is the outside wall, which separates what we are supposed to see and what we are not. Having the action take place in only 25% of the screen makes the apartments feel very closed in from our perspective. This composition accentuates the privacy of the apartment space and makes the audience conscious that it is violating that person’s privacy.

The Thorwalds’ apartment is even more interesting because Lars’s space is separated from Emma’s. The rooms they are currently in during this shot are the rooms that identify them most, that they spend most time in. The walls are even different colors to hint at their lack of cohesion. The apartments are not only physical places that people live in, but also represent their internal state. Using a room that a character lives in to mirror their own mental state is a common technique in filmmaking (e.g. Barton Fink), and it is done pretty effectively here. The brick wall that separates the two spaces is also used strategically to obscure important action in the future to enhance the suspense. Hitchcock shows himself to be a rather resourceful filmmaker here.

The visuals are only one aspect that define spaces in this movie though. Different sounds become identified with different spaces as well throughout the film. From Miss Torso’s apartment we hear the music that she dances to while from the Songwriter’s apartment we hear the progression of his composition. And we hear a scream at night that we desperately try to identify to a space.

The same way we do not get shots from inside an apartment, we do not get sound from it either. As Dr. Jordan discussed in class, all of the sound in this movie is diegetic, and further it is only what can be heard from the space of Jeff’s apartment. So during the climax of the film instead of hearing a dramatic soundtrack to elevate the suspense, we hear jazz from the Songwriter’s apartment, which is very dissonant with the action of Lisa being attacked by Thorwald. This sound, like the framing, accentuates the privacy of the apartments we are peering into. The fact that we cannot hear what goes on in other people’s spaces demonstrates that we should not be seeing what goes on in them either.

Italian Neorealism

Italian Neorealism was a big influence on On the Waterfront, so it would be worth our time to look into this interesting movement.

It came out of post-WWII Italy. Italy throughout the ’30s was under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, and it suffered great economic instability as it made its first transitions into an industrial economy. The high cost of the war only made matters worse. Italy had terrible social and economic issues throughout WWII, and no one could speak up about it under the censorship of their government. So when Mussolini’s regime fell in 1943, filmmakers immediately began to broach the issues they felt were important. Italian Neorealism was born out of this situation.

This movement sought to depict the reality of Italy’s working class in the wake of the war. It had an anti-Hollywood aesthetic; no “happy endings” were allowed. These films focused on social problems and difficult moral decisions. Ordinary people were the subject, and the dialogue was simple, not literary. In general, Italian Neorelaism lacked big stylistic flare, opting instead to portray itself with simplicity.

The filmmakers who wanted to expose Italy did not have very much money to fund big projects, so their movies were filmed largely on location with nonprofessional actors. These characteristics were functional too because filming where the social problems actually took place with the people actually effected would present the situations authentically.

The only Italian Neorealist film I have personally seen is Bicycle Thieves (1948). It is one of the movement’s typical examples. It matches the characteristics point by point. The plot involves a father who has a very difficult time finding work and once he finds a job, he needs to own a bicycle to do it, so he gets one with all of the money he has left, but it is soon stolen. What follows are some devastating moral quandaries. The movie really has a helpless feel, and it puts you right into the mindset of the working class. This film goes highly recommended from me.

On the Waterfront very much takes from its Italian Neorealist predecessors. Obviously the subject matter deals with the working class and with difficult moral issues involved therein. But also On the Waterfront was filmed on location in Hoboken, NJ. Of course the main characters were played by professional actors, but many extras and minor roles were played by Hoboken residents. Clearly Kazan and Kaufman took some inspiration from Italy to give the film its gritty feel.



Philadelphia Story and the Art of Characterization

Characterization is one of the most integral elements of film, and for me, excellent characterization can make any film great, no matter the quality of its other aspects. It’s pretty clear I value characterization since my favorite movie of all time is Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which is almost entirely an exercise in the characterization of three principal characters.

Philadelphia Story is the first movie we have come across this semester where I really found the characterization to excel. I usually have a main criterion that separates good characterization from bad: moral ambiguity. Compare Philadelphia Story to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In Mr. Smith, it is pretty clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Some viewers may enjoy this clarity, but from a critical standpoint, there is very little to analyze about Jefferson Smith or Jim Taylor. The ideas that each character represents are obvious. But with Philadelphia Story, you cannot simply categorize any character into “good” or “bad.” When you start looking closely at each character, you see that everyone has both good and bad qualities. Try to think about your reaction to each character and how your view of them changed throughout the movie. I know that personally I did not respect either Tracy or Dexter at the beginning of the movie as they both seemed a bit full of themselves and resentful. I also initially saw nothing wrong with George as he seemed like a fine, unobtrusive husband. All these ideas changed and shifted throughout the film. This is what I mean when I say “moral ambiguity”; there is complexity behind the characters.

Now, first of all, it is very important to point out that a more complex characterization is not only in line with the theme of the movie, but necessary to back it up. C. K. Dexter Haven throughout the movie talks about how people must tolerate others’ flaws and be cognizant of their own. Both Tracy and Mike need to come to the realization that nobody, including themselves, is perfect. People have flaws. This paradigm that C. K. Dexter Haven espouses is consistent with reality as we know it, and this is why characterizing people with flaws and moral ambiguities can be so poignant. No one in real life is just a good or bad person. Everyone is some unique mixture of different qualities. Movies have the power to explore many unique and different characters that are neither good nor bad, but both and neither, that are undeniably themselves and no one else. That’s why this sort of complex characterization is so interesting to me; I’ve seen my fair share of Jefferson Smiths and Jim Taylors but never a Tracy Lord or C. K. Dexter Haven.

I was very pleased to see a romantic comedy that explored such interesting ideas. Professor Jordan is right that I cannot think of any other romance movie that really brought up the idea that lovers should challenge each other and accept each other’s flaws.

Grapes of Wrath: Acting and Cinematography

Was I the only person who felt that Henry Fonda was a bit out of place in this movie? The only other movie I’ve seen with him is 12 Angry Men, and I certainly liked him there, but in this movie he somehow stuck out like a sore thumb. Every other character seemed to meld perfectly into the environment, but I could only see Fonda as a Hollywood actor. I think part of it could have been his makeup. We saw in class how he was made not to look too dirty so that his Hollywood charm could shine through. I think this factor, in part, made him stick out from his surroundings. But I also just felt that his delivery was not on point. He did not sound conversational, but instead like he was rehearsing speeches, and his voice did not sound like that of a farmer’s at all. You could tell he was a city slicker from the way he spoke.

I found some pretty interesting tidbits about the acting. Apparently Darryl Zanuck prefered Tyrone Power for the role of Tom Joad, but John Ford convinced him Henry Fonda was right for the part. As a compromise, Zanuck had Fonda sign a seven-year contract with Fox even though Fonda tried to stay an independent actor. In the future, he came to resent this contract.

John Ford’s process for directing actors is very interesting as well. Apparently John Ford preferred to do everything in one take because he thought rehearsing scenes would make them too artificial and that scenes have the most emotion in the first take. I was surprised to read about this process because I’ve read lots of stories before with talented directors (especially Kubrick) being very specific and requiring tons of takes. Henry Fonda talks about Ford’s directing in his autobiography Fonda, My Life:

We both had enough sense not to tell Ford how we felt, though, because we’d worked for him before and you didn’t make suggestions to Pappy Ford. He’d say ‘You want to direct this film, Huh?’ And you were on the shit list right away. He didn’t like to have anybody ever recommend anything…

Well, the scene I’m talking about started in the tent where Tom Joad goes in and wakes up Ma. He’s going away, and he wakes her up. Without waking the other people in the tent, Pa and the kids.

I had to light a match, and the cameraman, Gregg Toland, Rigged a light in the palm of my hand with wires going up my arm. The light, which was supposed to be a glow from the match, had to light Ma’s face just right. It took half an hour to set up that piece of business.

Then I tapped her and she opened her eyes and she went outside with me. We walked around the tent and up to the bench that was the foot of the dance floor. Ford wouldn’t let me get into the dialogue. By the time he was ready Jane Darwell and I were like racehorses that wanted to go. ‘Hey, boy have we got a scene. We want to show you.’

Then with Ford’s intuitive instinct, he knew when we were built up. We’ve never done it out loud, but Ford called for action, the cameras rolled, and he had it in a single take. After we finished the scene, Pappy didn’t say a word. He just stood up and walked away. He got what he wanted. We all did. On the screen it was brilliant.

I also wanted to briefly discuss the cinematography because this was the first film we’ve seen in this course where I felt the cinematography was impressive. We got many nice, wide artistic shots like this:

Shots like this were rare in anything we’ve seen before, but they populated the mise-en-scene of Grapes of Wrath. Also, the point-of-view shot of the car driving into the Hooverville was just pure eye candy for me. When there’s so much detail put into a set like that, anything on film can be beautiful, even things that are dirty. (If you want to see how things that are excessively filthy can be beautiful on camera, check out Hard to Be a God (2013). The entire film is like that Hooverville scene to the max.)

Interestingly enough, the cinematographer of this film, Gregg Toland, went on to be the director of photography for Citizen Kane the next year, and if any of you have seen that, you know it is a great achievement in cinematography.