Archives for category: screen space

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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

If there’s one thing that makes The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler) really interesting, it’s the way it shows the logic behind post-war suburbanization without getting 100% behind it. I’d say the film’s more like 75% pro-suburbanization. Of the three main male characters, the younger two return to live with their parents. This return home bespeaks not just the relative youth of the military, but also the mid-century housing shortage. Suburbanization addressed the very real problem of where to put the demobbed, but it wasn’t the only or inevitable solution. The Best Years of Our Lives shows that at the end of the war, suburbia had its appeal, but it wasn’t the only potential route to coming back to the American Way of Life.

When the three returning servicemen share a cab home, they go to Homer’s (Howard Russell) place first. They’re crowded into the rear view mirror, with what we’d recognize as inner-ring suburban houses offering a spacious, homey counterpoint to crowding and enclosure.

Image

Homer, who lost both his arms in the war, returns to a family that, while it’s not always aware of how to help Homer, really wants to help him. The utopian potential for suburbia shows up in establishing shots that put a shine on Homer’s street, giving it a sense of happiness and hope.

Image

At the other end of the spectrum we find Fred’s place, in a slum in the shadow of highway overpasses. It’s dark, dingy, and crowded – and Fred doesn’t think much of it when he returns:

Image

Fred struggles to re-integrate into Boone City (Cincinatti, Ohio) society, finding the shift from war hero to order-taking soda fountain worker jarring. In the end, Fred discovers purpose in work building the new suburbs that will spread out from Boone City like the airplanes lined up for recycling (the first image resembles a street of houses, the second a well-establish suburb’s tree canopy):

Image

Image

In this way, The Best Years of Our Lives is pretty straightforward in its embrace of suburbanization. But the Sergeant, Al Stephenson, represents the appeal and acceptance of urban living. Al returns to his family home in a large, quite nice, apartment building. It’s not Central Park West, but for a middle-American provincial city, it’s plenty good.

Image

Al should be an asshole – he’s a banker, he lives in a swanky apartment – but he’s a good guy. He’s married to Nora Charles! The Stephenson family place has lots of room, looks expensively appointed, and has enough frippery to let us know that Al is on the high end of the pyramid.

Image

Image

In the first image, the children who flank the image, directing our gaze to the warm reunion, are key. The Stephensons raised kids in an apartment in the city. When it comes to domestic life, Al has a rough road to getting his shit together, but the kids are pretty alright (if anything, Al is a bit of a jerk about how his kids lead their lives, although he does see reason in the end) and his wife is supportive and perceptive without sinking into sainted suffering. When Al is at work, he approves a loan for a tomato farm on the edge of town for a returning veteran who doesn’t have any collateral (the scene is the humane version of Buck Swope’s humiliation in Boogie Nights (1997, PT Anderson)). That is to say, Al’s third of the story shows that while there’s something exciting and appealing about the suburbs, there is also a lot to recommend the city (even if it puts your kids into contact with possibly unsavoury sorts) and even the country/farm life.

Whether you’re talking about Cleopatra Jones (1973, Jack Starrett ) or Un Flic (1972, Jean-Pierre Melville), a cop movie is likely to have maps of the city (thanks to M (1931, Fritz Lang) more than anything else, I’d guess).

Cleopatra Jones map 1 Un Flic maps in police office 1 M map 6One of the interesting aspects to Cleopatra Jones is that it includes some other visual aids. For instance, one of the cops has a bar graph on his wall:

Cleopatra Jones bar graphYou don’t see a wall-size bar graph too often in cop movies. Maybe they’re tracking arrests – a spike at the end of February and again in late April and early May. Mommy (Shelly Winters), the film’s villain, uses a map in Cleopatra Jones as well.

Cleopatra Jones map 2It’s important to maintain a sense of your drug-dealing territory.

But head and shoulders above all the maps we find Reuben’s (Bernie Casey) visual aid for his community organization.

Cleopatra Jones visual aidsThere’s so much to like in this composition – the way in which the 1970s colour palette throws the primary-coloured pills into relief, the empty seat at the front of the table that clears the way for our view of the image, and the hand-drawn nature of the image itself. We know Reuben is completely above-board because of that flip-chart image.

All of these visual aids make it possible for an exploitation picture like Cleopatra Jones to get to the stuff it wants to do quicker. There’s no need to have long tedious exposition theatre scenes when you can have something else in the image carry the weight. Rather than having one stupid vocal tic that throws in a laugh line every dang scene, the current way of doing things, the stuff that sits still in the mise en scene gives us a sense of who these people are and what they do. Cops + maps (+ graphs) = collecting evidence. Villain + map + shouting = under pressure. Secondary lead + hand-drawn graphic representation of drugs to avoid = legit.

Now let’s get to the chase through the Los Angeles River.Cleopatra Jones LA River chase

 

It’s kind of amusing that Tywin Lannister is always cutting up animals in Game of Thrones. There’s the deer-butchering:

and the fishing scene (cut) from season 3:

This is why we get those pedantic scenes of Maester Luwin quizzing Bran about what’s on whose sigil. When it comes to teaching, I hate and love such moments – they’re surface-level touches that, thankfully, reward careful reading of the literal contents of the mise en scene. I love literal engagements with the text – what else is mapping the narrative locations of films but an avowedly literal approach. But I don’t know what to do with these scenes beyond the surface-level. Yes yes there’s the metaphor of butchery and blood on hands and so on and so on – but that’s all on the surface level. It certainly fills in the fictional world, but I don’t know just how much deeper it makes it.

On the other hand, something like Ballad of a Soldier (1959, Grigory Chukhray) throws out images that have somewhat obvious surface-level readings that, on further inspection and contemplation, take us to more interesting places.

There’s a wonderful continuous shot of Alyosha getting chased by a tank that does a now-standard flip (Danny Boyle uses a similar shot at the end of Trainspotting when Renton leaves with the money).

ImageImage

The obvious disorientation and unsettling of the world emerges from the imagery, but I’d also note the grand absurdity of the scene. A man, on foot, chased by a tank. The tracks that criss-cross the field add to the disorientation, but also act to pull our vision away, however briefly, and in the upside-down framing, this creates something like a fog of war. It’s hard to believe that there’s a tank chasing a soldier on foot – and it is that very incongruity that helps Alyosha to escape. Our difficulty in making sense of the situation and the imagery exists within the narrative world as well.

My favourite image in the film comes when Alyosha is trying to find a ride back to his home town, where he wants to help to fix the roof of the house his mother lives in. Here he is flagging down a ride:

Image

It may be that I’m more inclined to prefer Soviet cinema to US television, but this image equals the Game of Thrones bits above in its obviousness, but seems to signify much more. Alyosha echoes the power poles. Sure thing. Then again, Ballad of a Soldier takes place during WWII, The Great Patriotic War. That is to say, Alyosha as a member of the military, paired with rural electrification embodies things that are Great and Patriotic. The great works of physical infrastructure – one of the modernization plans – and the great works of human “infrastructure” (structures, I guess) are in concert, building, connecting, and preserving the Soviet Union.

I’m willing to be convinced otherwise – and maybe I’m stacking the deck in my favour by picking an historical example – but to my eyes, this obvious surface-level imagery generates a more complex and interesting reading of the film.

(The USSR’s modernization/industrialization projects weren’t too far behind the US’s: In the US the Rural Electrification Administration was a New Deal deal, established in 1935. It’s not that long ago: both my paternal grandparetns grew up on a non-electrified farms in north central Wisconsin. This post featured a lot of “buts”, I know.)

The revisions the outside readers asked for in an old chunk of my dissertation were not the revisions I would have asked for (I would have asked for better sentences – there’s not a S-V-O sequence to be found). One of the stranger ones was the request to chop out sections because there was too much going on. Fine by me – I kill my darlings. I thought this reading of American Beauty was clever enough to stay in, but them’s the breaks. The advantage of chucking it up here – pictures.

“Here comes the neighborhood”: Gay men, gentrification, and class mobility in the suburbs

Finally, American Beauty indicts homophobia alongside racism and nativism in the maintenance of the imagination of normalcy in American suburbia as exclusively white and middle-class. In the final analysis, American Beauty represents suburban normalcy as primarily a product of not only sexuality, but also, most powerfully, economic behavior. Homosexuality is, for lack of a better word, tolerated in American Beauty’s suburbs. Reflecting larger trends highlighted in, to cite one book-length example, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren-Tiagi’s The Two-Income Trap, the sole stable family in American Beauty does not take the form of the traditional wage-earner father stay-at-home mother (the Fittses) nor the working mother and “downsized” father (the Burnhams) but rather the two-income family with no children. The Two Jims occupy a privileged position in the film’s ideological universe. The Burnham and Fitts families are unhappy in distinct ways that nevertheless intersect in the figure of the successful gay couple. The Two Jims – tax attorney and anesthesiologist – verge on parody in their respectable, middle-class professional suburban happiness. They are the embodiment of the suburbs as seen by Carolyn (they can afford and keep a nice house), Lester (they have a stable relationship), and Colonel Fitts (they’re another part of the world going to hell). With his high and tight hair cut, all-business demeanor, and self-identification as retired Marine Corps Colonel, Fitts places himself in his new home in terms of the reasons Brooks lists for continued sprawl: order, control, education, achievement, success, and most of all, a manageable mortgage. William H. Whyte and C. Wright Mills would recognize their Organization Man and White Collar suburbanite in either Jim before they recognized it in the retired military man Fitts or the full-time realtor Carolyn. Were Jim and Jim not a married gay couple they would be the embodiment of the painfully ordinary suburbanites Jane and Rickey cannot wait to leave behind. 

amb1In this sense, the stiflingly uptight and white inner-ring suburb in American Beauty reaches its suburban – as in sub-urbane, banal, drab – zenith in the form of the Two Jims, who do exhibit none of the ennui Catherine Jurca, in White Diaspora, identifies as the default white middle-class position. Jim and Jim are ironic suburbanites – since gay men as a group have come to signal gentrification. Could the presence of Jim and Jim mean that more gay couples will move into American Beauty’s upper-middle-class suburb, leading to the gentrification of an already-affluent but slightly monochrome town? The Fitts’ family car trip that follows the Two Jims’ early-morning welcome visit writes the anxiety of sliding out of the middle class onto the suburban built environment.

At the breakfast table, Fitts voices the usual suburban concern of declining property values, barely looking up from the paper to tell Rickey that “This country is going straight to hell.” As if conjured by the statement, the Two Jims arrive with a welcome basket full of homegrown vegetables. During the drive to school, Fitts excoriates his new neighbors in pedantically homophobic terms: “How come those faggots always have to rub it in your face?  How can they be so shameless?” Ricky barely looks up from his drug-dealing accounting to defend the Jims, but Fitts cuts him off angrily. Ricky, sensing what his father wants to hear, looks directly at his father, saying with palpable irony that Fitts evidently misses, “those fags make me want to puke my fucking guts out.” If Carolyn’s sing along drive reveals a subjective landscape rooted in her sex life and Lester’s post-quitting drive shows the business world rolling off his back, Colonel Fitts’s drive with Ricky similarly deploys transit through the built environment to make concrete Fitts’s vision of suburbia. Throughout this scene, the Fitts take the very same route their neighbors the Burnhams followed in the opening sequence of the film, since both trips were home-to-school from the same starting point. However, rather than Lester’s point-of-view shots looking into a mostly empty gray sky, the street behind Fitts is a series of picket fences guarding brick houses. In every shot of Fitts during the trip, the visual shorthand of 1950s suburbia plays counterpoint to Fitts’s reactionary sense of the incursion into his suburban retirement – how, in this ideal Ozzie and Harriet setting, can people like the two Jims belong? amb2

Such a background reveals a distinctly nostalgic subjective landscape. The nondescript streets that rush behind shots of Ricky during the conversation indicate that for a military child who never made connections to his surroundings, the built environment is not worthy of sharp focus. Fitts’s violent reaction to gay men in his picket fence is without doubt based in homophobia, but there is an economic subtext to Fitts’s homophobia: his town is not slipping toward Burnfield-like stagnation, but rather may be creeping up the ladder, into not only something not white-heterosexual, but also, significantly, a price bracket he cannot afford on a military pension fixed income. 

When I moved to Christchurch, my sister was most excited by the fact that I’d live in Heavenly Creatures’ city. Our friends threw us a going-away party in the Staff Club, which was one of the shooting locations for the film.

IMG_1738

Christchurch isn’t a common shooting location for films that get global release (I proposed a paper on Christchurch’s anonymous rebuild architecture and The Frighteners for a symposium Alfio Leotta at Vic is running in September, so I’ll have a real argument about that at some point) so set jetting was pretty much Heavenly Creatures and Lord of the Rings tours based in Christchurch.

Moving to Brisbane presented something similar – it certainly doesn’t have the profile of Sydney or Melbourne or the outback. But on the walk between our place and the pedestrian and bus bridge to campus, there’s a new development: The Bogga Road Urban Village. I walked past it a couple of times and the name was vaguely familiar. But, intent as I was not to get lost, I didn’t look carefully. On the way home it hit me.

IMG_0089

The WWF wrestler Nathan Jones was, during his reboot, The Colossus of Bogga Road. He needed a reboot (before he disappeared completely) because even though had some really great hype videos prepping his debut in WWE, he was utter shit in the ring.

A jail where they made inmates shit in buckets in the 80s and 90s is now a green urban village development, with a bio research precinct next door. That’s gentrification for you.

A draft chunk out of my chapter in Film and the Presidency (coming out in 2014 on Routledge).

The box office and critical failure of Heaven’s Gate in 1980 may have wounded the western’s prospects, but by 1985 the genre was on its way to ten years of success. Comedy westerns Silverado (1985), Three Amigos! (1986), and Back to the Future Part III (1990) as well as westerns aimed at new audiences, such as the youth-market Young Guns (1988) and the kidpic An American Tail II: Fievel Goes West (1991) all turned a profit. The western as a genre for the exploration of American life and ideology showed no signs of going away, with both the revisionist Dances With Wolves (1990) and the anti-western Unforgiven (1992) winning Best Picture Oscars and critical esteem as well as popular acclaim. By the mid-1990s, indie directors Jim Jarmusch, Robert Rodriguez, Sam Raimi, and John Sayles had all made westerns in the major-minor corner of the studios.

Dave is part of this Hollywood return to the western.As Dave is a comedy-western with songs, Dave Kovic enters riding not a horse, but a pig, and soon after he’s singing about the open range. Although he is first enlisted as a stand-in for the President, becomes the real sheriff/President by accident. But pretending to be the President isn’t enough for Dave, and he takes seriously the sheriff’s/President’s charge to clean up the town/Washington DC, where Dave must protect the homesteaders/nation against the outlaw/Chief of Staff Bob Alexander, who wishes to run the town as his own fiefdom. While he’s not accepted at first, Dave works hard to win the trust of the town (and the romantic interest, Ellen Mitchell) and in short order The McLaughlin Group trumpets his comeback. Dave learns to wield his power by making tough cuts and saving good programs with the help of his unconventional deputies, like the suburban accountant Murray. The film’s final showdown takes place not on a western town’s dusty main street, but in the corridors of power; Dave kills/fires Bob Alexander, delivers a speech to Congress, and leaves so that Vice President Nance can assume legitimate power in the newly pacified Washington DC. Two images from Dave’s walk away from Washington DC powerfully signal Dave’s interest in linking an idealized but everyday President with western iconography. In the first, Dave uses a baseball cap to disguise his “real” identity of President. After Secret Service agent Duane affirms Dave’s success as President – “I’d have taken a bullet for you” – Dave exits the ambulance and, in a profile close-up, grabs the brim of the cap to pull it further over his eyes, an image common to every western. Dave western hat

After Dave pulls his hat down, he walks off, and a long shot shows Dave walking away from the camera, framed by the darkness of bushes and trees in an image that resembles, to pick one western, the doorway-framed Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1955, John Ford). As Dave’s silhouette exits the rear of the image, he heads off into the northern Virginia suburban frontier after making Washington DC a safer, more civilized place.

Dave Searchers shot in Dave Dave Searchers shot original

Dave uses two distinctly American forms – the western and the Presidency – to call for a more active, responsive, and humane government. Calling Dave a western not only has the virtue of being both amusing and true, but also resituates it within a genre studies framework, more specifically, the spatial approach Thomas Schatz develops in Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. (and from here I use “old” tools because they’re fun and still useful)