Archives for category: cinema studies

The reader reports for “Where Is France in French Cinema, 1976-2013” all noted that the tone was a bit….less than professional and academic. Thankfully, the editor of the special issue, Jane Stadler, didn’t mind me doing things like calling Brisbane a backwater and gleefully admitting that I hadn’t watched a bunch of movies and, probably most of all, saying that I’m not worried about being wrong because what I really care about it using visualizations of narrative settings to reconsider how we think of film history.

The marketing people at University of Edinburgh Press picked my inappropriate-tone article to highlight in the most recent issue of the hilariously named International Journal of Humanities and Arts ComputingIt’s right here.

I thought I’d find a way to include In the Company of Men to the chapter on small and medium sized cities, but it just didn’t fit.

In the Company of Men parking garage establishing shot

This little paragraph is as far I got into things:

Neil LaBute’s adaptation of his own play, In the Company of Men (1997), never declares where it is set, but it was filmed in what was at the time of its release the ninety-ninth-largest city in the United States, Fort Wayne, Indiana. An exterior long shot does not appear as an establishing shot until more than thirty minutes into the film; the first third of the movie pushes the buildings to the rear of the frame, making them barely visible through the blinds on office windows. When the film goes into the city, it marvels at the incongruity of an interesting space: Howard notes with some amazement that the town has such a good zoo – “really nice, for a place like this…a city this size.” While Fort Wayne does not have an extensive skyline, the Art Deco Lincoln Bank Tower and One Summit Square, which looks like a half-finished larger building because it is (the product of Fort Wayne’s faltering economy in the 1970s), provide the city some visual architectural identity. “Few contemporary films,” Stephen Prince claims, “have given us so ruthless a picture of the connections between personal and economic predation” as In the Company of Men, “an audacious and acidic portrait of sexual cruelty that links the callous behavior of its characters to the predatory ethic of corporate capitalism” (Prince 74, 73). The lack of identifiable buildings features or landmarks in In the Company of Men accentuates the (unnamed) city’s generic, anonymous office buildings and public spaces, foregrounding Chad and Howard’s misogyny and misanthropy as something universal in the white-American-male and embedded in the nation’s economic order, rather than a set of location-specific traits.

In the Company of Men first exterior establishing shot at 33 minutes

In the Company of Men nice for a city this size

An early version of the introduction to a chapter on Nashville, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Las Vegas in prestige films between 1980 and 2000.

My mother lived above a grocery store in Lincoln Park, Chicago until 1956. The Giallombardo family apartment was within a half-hour El ride of Oak Street Beach on Lake Michigan, the Magnificent Mile, and the (future site of the) John Hancock Building. A slightly longer El ride would take them to the (future site of the) Willis/Sears Tower and the Art Institute. Their pre-gentrification Lincoln Park neighbourhood was where the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre happened; it’s where Dillenger was killed. That is to say, there are a number of physical locations in Chicago that are immediately recognizable, such as the tallest building in the world (for a while), major pieces of architectural history, public cultural amenities, and a popular history of gangsters. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, there were Chicago-set gangster movies like The Untouchables (1987, De Palma) and Mad Dog and Glory (1993, McNaughton), movies set in the city’s museums, like Ferris Beuller’s Day Off (1986, Hughes) and The Relic (1997, Hyams), films set in its public housing projects like Candyman (1992, Rose) and Judgment Night (1993, Hopkins), and films set in its working- and middle-class African-American community, such as Love Jones (1997, Witcher) and Soul Food (1997, Tillman). Chicago-set romantic comedies like My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997, Hogan) and period pieces like Eight Men Out (1988, Sayles) feature local sports stadiums and teams, an action film like Chain Reaction (1996, Davis) can be set at the birthplace of atomic weaponry, the University of Chicago, and some early (good) David Mamet films are also set in the city. Chicago may not have the cultural cachet of New York or Los Angeles, but its identity is as a major, world, city takes the form of this cinematic variety.

My father, on the other hand, grew up on Rockdale Street in Green Bay, Wisconsin. If you were to sit in the driveway of the house during a Packers home game, you would hear the public address announcer clearly, as the house is a little more than half a mile away from Lambeau Field. For the longest time the tallest building in Green Bay was St. Vincent’s Hospital (not named after Packers coach Vince Lombardi, and a ten minute drive from Rockdale Street) although after a recent upgrade, Lambeau Field is now the tallest building in Green Bay. I mention how close the Long family house is to Lambeau because the Packers are probably the only thing the majority of people in the US know about Green Bay. Two Hollywood films are set in Green Bay: Bingo (1991, Robbins) and Semi-Tough (1977, Ritchie). In Bingo, a family moves to Green Bay because the father, a football player, is traded from the Denver Broncos to the Packers, and in Semi-Tough the fictional football team the Miami Bulls go to Green Bay for a playoff game.* The Green Bay on view in Semi-Tough – snow banks, grey sky above – bears more than a passing resemblance to the Ice Planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Kershner), not only because it is, in the popular imagination, the Frozen Tundra, but also because it represents the single-biome planet written onto a small city.[2] The Star Wars films are full of single-biome planets: Coruscant (city), Dagobah (swamp), Endor (forest), Felucia (jungle), Hoth (ice), Kamino (ocean), and Tatooine (desert), and the United States is full of single-biome-planet cities.

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In Monkeys Go Home!, when Henry first arrives at his new Provencal house, there’s a short “Henry takes it in” low-angle shot that leads to a reverse shot of the house:

Monkeys Go Home first arrival with power lines

Every time I’ve rewatched Monkeys Go Home! (I had to quit for a while because I started thinking it was under-appreciated) this  image makes me laugh. The power line kind of ruins it. But in the end we’re so used to seeing power lines that they’re essentially invisible.

Except when they aren’t. Power lines act as a key part of the mise en scene in Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo e Outro, where they stand for the way in which the crooked police trap everything in their system:

Elite Squad 2 wires as a spider web

The mass of power lines tends to accompany scenes in the crowded, teeming streets of cities, as in The Bourne Legacy chase scene through Manila and an establishing shot from Gangs of Wasseypur:

Bourne Legacy Manila chase 3

Gangs of Wasseypur utilities

But not every big city has crowded thickets of electric power lines overhead. Some images from early Soviet cinema – Man With a Movie Camera – and a shot from Farewell, a recent French film set in Moscow, show a much less cluttered power infrastructure:

Man With A Movie Camera landscape 2

Farewell Moscow 6

There’s a similarly well-controlled set of power lines in Napoli, in Le Mani Sulla Cita, New York, in The French Connection, and in Los Angeles, in Lethal Weapon.

Hands Over the City Napoli 1

French Connection chase 16

Lethal Weapon LA streets 4

New York can generate its sense of crowding from the ratio of building height to street width (combined with pedestrian traffic) and doesn’t need tangled power lines, as we can see in In the Cut:

In the Cut NYC 3

One thing that makes Harlan County USA visually interesting is the way in which power lines are quite extensive, as seen in this wide shot of Brookside, Kentucky:

Harlan County USA Brookside KY 6

The power lines are more extensive, but not more intrusive in the mise en scene than in another coal-mining area, Clairton, Pennsylvania (or the Wasseypur, India in Gangs of Wasseypur) as seen in The Deer Hunter.

Deer Hunter Clairton PA 3

As I went through all the screen grabs from movies, power lines started to move out of the mostly unseen background, which made this image from The King of Marvin Gardens catch my eye. The Atlantic City, New Jersey we see in The King of Marvin Gardens is certainly on the downward slope and ramshackle, but it has a streamlined corner of downtown, and the total lack of power lines slicing through the sight lines does a great deal of work in this image:

King of Marvin Gardens Atlantic City 1

This is, if nothing else, an advertisement for alleys behind main streets, a place to put the infrastructure that makes the city run.

Henry & June is full of every cliché about Paris and writers – garrets and fog and life-as-art and the whole demi-monde business (no Eiffel Tower establishing shot). Clichés have to start somewhere and the Paris Anais Nin and Henry Miller wrote in had those qualities. I guess that the first-person nature of Nin and Miller’s writing makes much of this happen.

Henry & June garret 0 Henry & June Paris 1 Henry & June Paris 5

What I enjoyed in the film was the presence of plenty of dogs, which seems to fit a different, but less writer’s-life, set of Parisian cliches.

Henry & June dog de Anais Henry & June dog 1 Henry & June dog 3 Henry & June dog 4

Rewatching Dirty Dancing for the book project – I’m going to pair it with The Flamingo Kid (with some other 80s nostalgia-comedies like Heaven Help Us) – I was struck by two curious moments.

The first is the opening of the film, which uses the Ronettes’ song “Be My Baby”. It’s a little embarrassing to put a character’s name so far up front so early and in so ham-handed a manner, but there’s something else. Another movie got there first, and it’s a really good movie: Mean Streets.

I must have been in an Italian-American filmmaker state of mind from the use of “Be My Baby”, because a scene at the end of Dirty Dancing seemed to quote from The Godfather Part II in such a way that I want to propose an alternate ending to the film. Jake Housman sits in the gazebo, looking out over the lake, crushed about the whole sex and abortion and dancing and class mixing that his daughter’s gotten involved in.

Dirty Dancing Michael Corleone

It may be that I’ve seen The Godfather Part II so many times that I always have it in the back of my mind and the corner of my eye, but that image reminded me quite a bit of the image of Michael after he has Fredo killed:

Godfather II Michael 2

When I went back to look for this shot, I realised that I’d combined it mentally with a shot from the outside of the house from before Fredo gets shot:

Godfather II Michael 1

Combining these two images creates the Dr Housman contemplates the changing mores of American society image. It also creates a seriously dark undertone to the apology Baby makes to him. The undercurrent of familial violence that the image brings with it makes me wonder what happens after the big “I Had the Time of My Life” number. (As an aside, what I like about Dirty Dancing is that, like another middling film, Little Miss Sunshine, it has faith in dance as an expressive form – it doesn’t talk you to death when the joyous dance sequence happens.)

Something terrible and predictable happens when you watch a film over and over and over to write about it, especially when it’s a film no one has written about. A film like Monkeys Go Home! I had to put the chapter away for a while, because I started to convince myself that Monkeys Go Home! was an unacknowledged masterpiece. I don’t want to give away too much, since Intellect will want the book to be as all-new as possible, but here’s an earlier draft of what I find kind of crazy about the movie: After dispensing with the political conflict underpinning the narrative conflict, Monkeys Go Home offers a magical, ideological solution to the narrative conflict itself – everyone works for Hank for free because he previously proposed to have his chimpanzees work at all the farms in the village gratis. Paired with this second-hand neighborliness is that old standby, the romantic couple. Not only do Hank and Marie pair off, but Marie provides a male chimpanzee for (one of?) the four female chimps. Father Sylvain, unlike Don Camillo, picks a side and overtly collaborates. He helps the American capitalist; for his efforts he is paired off with Paraulis, who finds religion, or at least finds sanctuary from the mob, in the church. The anti-imperialist communists, the village’s villains, are thus redeemed by the exposure of their faux-intellectual Paraulis (who does look a little like Jean-Paul Sartre). But Carlucci, the sincere communist who looked to have lost the argument about American imperialism, does not find religion, does not take part in the mass pro-American demonstration of volunteerism at the end of the film, and does not disavow his political beliefs. He just goes back, one assumes, to his dog-ravaged butcher shop to pick up the pieces, alone. The logic of the Hollywood/Disney happy ending mistakes Carlucci’s quiet departure and lack of romantic partner at the conclusion as being proven wrong, but otherwise Walt’s anti-union, anti-communist populism clearly and joyously wins the day. I will add some images later.

Added images:

Monkeys Go Home slogan 2

Monkeys Go Home slogan 3

Monkeys Go Home slogan reply 3

When I was a student at University of New Hampshire, I took a class co-taught by Jane Bellamy (who is now at University of Tennessee Knoxville). Two things she said that semester stick with me. The first is more a question of how she said things. She would talk about how a book is about concrete things (its plot/content), but about other things (its larger formal and ideological significance/s). When she said the second-meaning about, she would drop her voice an octave and add gravel to it. I stole this approach immediately, and use it to this day.

The semester after Bellamy’s class (which she co-taught with Sandhya Shetty), I took a class that Janet Aikins Yount taught. During one class, she told the class that anyone who does their standard reading on any and every text (what Jane Bellamy called “pouring the book into the theory grinder”) is doing the text and themselves a great disservice. Your reading of the text, she made quite clear, needed to emerge from the evidence in front of you. Thus, I wrote a not-particularly great seminar paper for that class. I took some solace in her comment that she was happy to see that I tried to stretch myself.

I’ve been thinking about Jane and Janet a fair bit as I’ve been watching Jack Nicholson movies for a chapter in Hollywood’s Imaginary Geography. I don’t really like Jack. If pressed, I’d probably say About Schmidt is my favourite Nicholson film. But so help me, when I sat down and looked at the films that get lumped together in the Hollywood Renaissance canon, I saw that he occupies a significant place in the canon. The empty space at the centre of the Hollywood Renaissance’s vision of America is especially clear in Nicholson’s films through 1980.

The pink dots are the more or less agreed-upon Hollywood Renaissance films, the grey the top 25 films from 1967-1980, and the green dots are Nicholson movies from 1967-1980. I can already see that I forgot to add in Richmond VA from The Last Detail and Estes Park CO from The Shining, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

Hollywood Renaissance Jack Nicholson Top 25

What we can see in the Nicholson locations is the road trips his films take up the coasts (Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail) and across the bottom third of the country (Easy Rider) with a few coastal locations (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Carnal Knowledge, Chinatown). There’s no middle America. In fact, the only distinctly middle American filmmaker in the Hollywood Renaissance is Peter Bogdanovich, who has Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show. But otherwise, the sense of “flyover country” is quite strong. To riff on the tagline for Easy Rider, when the film brats went looking for America, they couldn’t find it anywhere in the midwest.

Last Detail Portsmouth NH 3

Chinatown Echo Park 1

Five Easy Pieces derrick 2

I would never have consciously decided to write about Jack Nicholson (at least not like I was happy to write about Burt Reynolds), but what his movies are about, in terms of their locations/geography, emerges quite clearly out of the data.

Sometimes there’s a map that could be just about anything. This map, from kinomatics, is one of those maps:

ScreeningsMapAus-300x209

This map is part of a piece that is completely dead right about the never-ending calendar of film releases. Hobbit movies come out in December, but stay in theatres longer. Does that make them movies from their year of release, or the next one? The “Hobbit Year” solves the problem nicely, and you can also imagine an overlapping Marvel Universe year.

I’ve run into this micro-periodizing problem myself – I’ve opted to solve it by using Variety’s calendar-year grosses. My approach creates some problems — it pushes some December-release hits lower on the list — but release patterns were a little different between 1960-1975 or so, which made me opt for calendar year.

Release patterns are really the problem I have with the map of places The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug played. The map of Hobbit locations looks almost exactly the same as a map of Australia’s population (from here):

Australia_Population_Map

In the end, the two messages of Kinomatics’ Hobbit map is, “every theatre in Australia played it” and “the major urban centres played it before regional locations.” I’m all for saying the things we leave unsaid, but…

The Hobbit map shows the booking pattern for any blockbuster: open wide, on multiple screens in the biggest theatres you can find, and try to get as much in the first weekend as possible, while it’s an event, not a slog ruined by word of mouth. In Australia you’d then move out to the regions (and maybe whatever remote locations you can find a bit later). For a prestige film you’d hit Melbourne and Sydney and ignore/skip Launceston and Cairns.

Similarly, you could make a map of prestige films being released in North America and every map would have really dark circles for the first cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Toronto. Similarly, the really light circles for later playdates would be in smaller less film-buffy cities like Nashville, Cleveland, and St Louis.

While I’m having trouble getting Tableau Public to do anything resembling co-operate, here’s a screen grab of the narrative locations of Disney’s live action films from 1960-1999.

Disney Live Actions 1960-1999

Compare that to the locations of the top 25 films set in the US during the same time period:

Top25 1960-2000

There’s much less of a focus on New York for Disney, and quite a bit of the SoCal locations are more or less speculative – it’s not quite clear where the films actually take place. For instance, a number of Disney live action films, like The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) take place in a fictional location – Medfield College. In cases like this, I combine shooting location and fictional location to say that the film takes place in Pomona. Disney featured a fair number of mountain west locations, in contrast to a relative lack top 25 films set there (although the next 25 have quite a few mountain west/southwest settings). In addition, the upper midwest features quite a bit more in Disney – again in speculative locations like “Hickory, Iowa” in Follow Me, Boys! (1966) (which was a film they showed to all of us at Hough Street School one year – a 16mm print that was in pretty good shape, seeing as how it never once broke or melted) and in real locations like the Dakota Territory ones in The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968).

Perhaps most interesting to me is the way in which the Disney live action films don’t linger anywhere. It’s a smaller set of locations, but no place appears more than two or three times, with the exception of the fantastic Medfield. To preview the argument in the book, it’s this set-all-over-ness (and this includes the rest of the world) , combined with a general avoidance of avowedly urban settings, that makes Disney films so powerful as hegemonic white suburban texts – they’re set where those kinds of people are – various anonymous suburbs and small towns all across the country. But more or less minus the south. The chapter after the Disney live action chapter will cover that – first in terms of Burt Reynolds as a necessary movie star and then in terms of prestige films after the Civil Rights Act.