The Vault; Volume 2

It’s time for another installment of The Vault! For this installment my choices span 84 years of cinematic history. Some of the older films on this week’s installment exhibit techniques that we still use today. When something works it just works. If a film was good before, it is still good now. Some films may become dated with time, but that does not mean that they aren’t still good. If anything, they give us a look into the past. They give us a way to see history unfold. Just think if cinema was created a couple hundred years earlier? I would love for that to be a reality. I would love to see some footage of the 1600s and 1700s. What we do have, however, is a window to the past with photography and cinema. Not all the films in this installment come from the beginnings of film, but they are all important in their own ways.

  • All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

The third film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, this 1930 adaptation of the World War One book of the same name is a great example of an anti-war film. Made at a time when audiences weren’t used to synchronized sound in cinema, the use of wartime sounds made a giant impact on unsuspecting audiences. It also used some very innovative camera work. At the end of the silent era many directors were beginning to move the cameras around quite a bit, but once sound came into the picture the camera became stationary again because of how big and clunky they were and how the microphones could now pick up the noise from these cameras. The fact that “All Quiet on the Western Front” has sweeping crane shots over the trenches and many dolly shots is amazing, considering the unique time period in which it was made.

  • Days of Heaven (1978)

This is one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve ever watched. The entire film was shot at the magic hour (the 20 minutes before the sun rises and the 20 minutes after the sun sets) when the natural light is perfect for filming. I will admit that I am a bit biased since Terrence Malick, the director of this film, is my favorite director. However, I firmly believe in the power of this film as well as its use of natural light. The plot revolves around a love triangle set during the late 1910s. It truly is a piece of art.

  • Intolerance (1916)

D.W. Griffith made this film as a direct response to the criticism over his previous film “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). This film, however, is just as innovative as its predecessor. Not only does Griffith intertwine four separate narratives from different time periods (something which is still done today), but he also built some of the largest film sets of all time. There is a sense of wonder while watching it. The film is a true testament to how innovative silent films of the 1910s could be.

  • Rear Window (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock made some of the most suspenseful and classic films of all time. “Rear Window” has to be my favorite of his. Not only do you have a mystery that persists until the end of the film, but it is also beautifully shot. Not only that, but we have Jimmy Stewart, (my favorite actor of all time), and the beautiful Grace Kelly acting in the lead roles. The entire film essentially takes place in the lead character’s apartment. This is a great example of how you can make a film in one location and never lose the audience’s attention. A masterpiece of suspense.

  • Requiem for a Dream (2000)

This film brings us into the world of drug addiction in a very realistic way. It is raw and unsettling. It is also a great piece of cinema. Director Darren Aronofsky films the subject matter in a way that never glorifies it. The editing is also of great importance here. There are sequences of very quick, high paced editing to make us feel like we are getting high with the characters. It has a great effect on us. This film is graphic in its portrayal of drug addiction, but it is never feels gratuitous. It is a film you won’t forget about once it is over.

 

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Who Shot the Sheriff; Violence in Cinema

Violence has always been present in cinema. All the way back to the 1890s. The short novelty film, “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots” (1895) is nothing more than a (fake) beheading on screen. When the production code came about in the 1930s, violence was toned down a bit, although not nearly as much as sexuality which I will discuss at length in a future article. Prior to the production code you could get away with blood. There was never a lot of it, but it was present. During the latter half of the 30s and straight through until the late 60s, you almost never see blood on screen. If you do, it’s very contained and fleeting.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Filmmakers had to think of new ways to tell the same story. The best way to do it? Force the audience to imagine the violence instead of showing it to them. Filmmakers still do it today, although not nearly as much as I think they should.

However, before we get into on-screen vs. off-screen violence, let’s first look at how it is portrayed. In the past, violence was usually played up theatrically or just avoided. Watch a film from before the 1960s and you will see what I am talking about. Someone gets shot and they stumble around holding the wound before falling to their ultimate death in a grand finish. How theatrical. That kind of acting works on stage, not so much on screen. It creates this shield for the audience. In its own way, it masks the reality of real violence. It masks just how horrible it is. The more realistic we depict it the more people will realize how horrible it can be.

Back to the off-screen vs. on-screen violence debate. I will start by saying that I believe you can show violence on screen. I don’t see any issues with it as long as it is done within good taste and within the confines of the story. Obviously a war film is going to have a lot of it, and even a crime film. Some of my favorite films have some pretty graphic on-screen violence. It doesn’t bother me until it gets gratuitous; until it borders on the ridiculous. Is it really necessary to have non-stop violence in a film? Is it really necessary for a horror film to have excessive violence? That’s not scary, it’s just repulsive. Is there a point to lingering on an act of violence for longer than a few seconds? I’ll let one extended scene pass, but multiple in quick succession? I’m not so sure.

I believe there is a way to depict on-screen violence correctly. I believe you can have graphic violence in cinema. However, if you just put graphic violence in a film for no reason, or you just have so much I am left wondering why I’m even watching the film, you probably did something wrong. I want to enjoy a film not be repulsed by it.

Off-screen violence, on the other hand, can be just as effective if done right. Our imaginations conjure up worse images than any filmmaker could possibly put on screen. The filmmaker can make us think we saw something when, in fact, we didn’t. Just because you can show something doesn’t mean you necessarily should.

 

The Vault; Volume 1

This is the first volume of what I am going to call “The Vault” series. From time to time I will be selecting a handful of films which I think are important and are a “must see” for anyone who loves cinema. I will not rank these films, however. I know that top 10 lists are all the rage, but it is really difficult to rank films. Film is art and art is subjective as hell. Instead, I’ll list them alphabetically in each post. I will be writing new additions to this series indefinitely, so be sure to check back from time to time for a new selection of films!

What makes a film a “must see”? I will be selecting films which I think exemplify strong filmmaking technique, films which changed the course of cinema as we know it, and sometimes films which I think are great examples of how to make a film entertaining. I hope you are able to see some of these films if you haven’t already. Now, let’s begin!

 

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
    • Directed by Stanley Kubrick, this 1968 science fiction film is a must see for any fan of cinema. It is a difficult film to get into on the first try, I will admit, but there is much more to this film than meets the eye. The cinematography is breathtaking, as is the use of classical music in a lot of the scenes. This is not your regular science fiction film either. It is slowly paced and has a very abstract ending sequence, but it is still a classic that must be seen at least once.

 

  • Amour (2012)
    • Directed by Michael Haneke, this 2012 film explores the relationship between an elderly couple when the woman (Anne) has a stroke and her husband has to take care of her. The film is slowly paced, but it is a combination of the slow pacing and the story that creates a truly moving film.

 

  • Goodfellas (1990)
    • Directed by Martin Scorsese, this 1990 film explores life in the mafia from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s. It is based on a true story and has some of the most memorable characters in cinema history. It is not only a very intelligent film, it is also a very entertaining one as well. Like any Scorsese film, film theory and mise-en-scene runs rampant in this film, which is part of the reason it is so good. There also some long takes that are choreographed so precisely you wonder sometimes how they pulled it all off. Definitely a must see.

 

  • Wild Strawberries (1957) 
    • Directed by Ingmar Bergman, this 1957 film was one of the first of Bergman’s films that I viewed. It got me so intrigued by his writing and style of filmmaking that I ended up watching a Bergman film, or two, a day for a couple of weeks and became a huge fan. The movie is beautifully filmed and plays around with dreams and memories. These dreams and memories of a time gone by in the life of an old man are woven into the film’s central storyline. It is a great example of how you can get inside the head of a main character visually.

Quick Analysis of The Shower Scene from “Psycho”

Yesterday was Halloween and marked the end of the period in which so many people watch horror films religiously. At the turn of the clock at midnight I could almost hear Christmas carols playing in the distance. However, since Halloween was only yesterday, why not take a quick look at a classic horror film scene? One last hurrah for the Halloween season! So let’s take a look at 1960’s “Psycho”. Potential spoilers lay ahead!

Hitchcock is one of the best film directors of all time. This is a point that most film lovers and filmmakers will agree upon. He’s made so many films which are held in such high esteem. He must have been doing something right. His film “Psycho” is one of his most famous. The simple string music that plays during the shower scene has been used since to signify something scary. When you hear it, you know.

In “Psycho”, he uses color values a lot. Just because a film is black and white doesn’t mean the director can’t fool around with color values. For example, in the beginning of the film when Marion is in her hotel room, she is wearing a black bra. Black represents something dark and sinister. She wears this color when she has the idea in her mind that she is going to steal a bunch of money. Later in the film, when she decides to reverse the wrong she has done, she is now wearing a white bra. White is the color of purity. Hitchcock even admitted to using the color of her bra for these reasons.

The scene in question, however, is the famous shower scene. The scene where Marion, after finishing up her plans to return the money, goes and takes a shower. As she is taking a shower she is murdered by an unknown assailant. Using mise-en-scene we can delve into what the director, Hitchcock, was trying to achieve in this scene visually. The first thing that stands out to me is the use of the color white. There is almost no contrast in this scene until the blood appears in the tub near the end. It’s almost washed out in white. The lighting is also high contrast, rather, very bright. Taking these two elements together, we can see that Marion is pure, at least in these fleeting moments. The washout of white, however, also serves to help contrast the dark blood which drops into the bathtub as she is stabbed to death.

The tiles of the bathroom create a crisscross pattern behind Marion’s head. This can signify that she is trapped in a cage. The lines represent that cage. This could represent that she has trapped herself by committing this crime, but it could also represent her demise. She has no place to go and is therefore trapped. The perfect place to be murdered by someone, at least from the murderer’s point of view.

Sound is another important aspect of this scene. Before and after the murder, there is no sound except that of the shower. Almost silent. When the killer arrives, and throughout the murder, the string motif plays, heightening the action happening on screen. The music makes us jump and realize what we are seeing.

This is only the beginning. We could pull apart this scene second by second if we wanted to. This is, however, a great starting point. This is how we can start to pull apart any scene in any movie.