Archives for category: screen space

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)

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This John Lanchester piece in the Guardian does the business. I want to point to two paragraphs in particular, one about literature and one about film.

First, literature:

I’ve never seen a film or television programme about the importance of commuting in Londoners’ lives; if it comes to that, I’ve never read a novel that captures it either. The centrality of London’s underground to Londoners – the fact that it made the city historically, and makes it what it is today, and is woven in a detailed way into the lives of most of its citizens on a daily basis – is strangely underrepresented in fiction about the city, and especially in drama. More than 1bn underground journeys take place every year – 1.1bn in 2011, and 2012 will certainly post a larger number still. That’s an average of nearly 3m journeys every day. At its busiest, there are about 600,000 people on the network simultaneously, which means that, if the network at rush hour were a city in itself, rather than an entity inside London, it would have the same population as Glasgow, the fourth biggest city in the UK. The District line alone carries about 600,000 people every day, which means that it, too, is a version of Glasgow.

Second, film:

Orson Welles once said that the only two things that could not be filmed were sexual intercourse and prayer. I take him to mean that they were the two human activities whose significance was entirely internal: they were happening to the people who were experiencing them in a manner that could only be experienced, and not depicted. The underground is like that – not exactly like that, because there are significant differences between travelling on it and either having sex or praying, but it is on the same continuum, because its significance for us is internal. It’s a going in, a turning in, not exactly a mystical state, but one that we know deep down inside ourselves is not an ordinary or routine condition. We escape it with distractions, or we try to switch off, but we can’t entirely hide from it. That internal state, central to tube travel, is very hard to put on TV.

When it comes to literature, there are some interesting moments of commuting (I have a dissertation rattling around an old laptop that testifies to that) but not many, if any, extended novel-length (heck, chapter-length) engagements with it. For film it is much the same. But must the focus be on commuting for it to exercise itself on our brains? Part of what makes the commute for deadening is its sameness – the same route every day, at the same time. While that could work, it’s too ritualized (both narratively and formally); and ritual is another trait prayer and sex share.

The call seemed to imply that it was more a “talk about a theorist and then a text” panel rather than a “talk about a text with a theorist in mind”, which led to a little bit of a pasted-together feel. But I think the sense that action movie heroes, in their evasive maneuvers, treat the lines on maps as facts that are changeable or open to negotiation, is fun enough.

The Bourne Geography

Michel de Certeau “is interested in the relationships of place as a fixed position and space as a realm of practices – counterposing the fixity of the map to the practice of travelling” (Crang 137-8). Jason Bourne, who almost always has a map at hand in the Bourne series, conceives of mapped space in just this way. The CIA, with instant access to every surveillance camera and satellite in operation, as well as global police information-sharing networks, cares only about fixing position. Because of their inability to conceive of the fluidity of space, Bourne eludes them from the Mediterranean to Midtown Manhattan.

For example, in the Figure 1 below, from The Bourne Identity, the CIA want to place Bourne and Marie. They put a yellow pin on the paper map; it’s their best guess of where to find they because “They were in Paris at 2 am. They can’t fly. The train’s too dangerous.” In other words, the CIA did the very same thing the police did in Figure 2, from M, a film released more than seventy years previous to fix a point and an area on the map.

In Figure 3, Bourne tears an emergency exit route placard from the wall, not for the route to escape fire, but for the routes throughout the building. The map places stairwells, fire extinguishers, and fire escapes, but it also reveals paths to travel – both for Bourne and his pursuers. While his pursuers seek out one point on the map – Bourne’s exact position, as relayed through their communication system – Bourne seeks any open path.

In other words, the police wish to affix Bourne to a place, and arrest his travels, whereas Bourne wishes to continue travelling, by whatever means, through the same space. Bourne prevails because he is able quickly to turn the fixity of the map into a practice of travelling. A window is as good as a door; a sheer face is as good as a stairwell. Or, to use a later chase scene example, on the map stairs connect parallel roads, and while it’s not the normal use, but a motorbike can travel on the stairs. The more the fixed information on the map can be used for travel, both within and beyond its planned use, the greater Bourne’s – or anyone’s, really – potential for freedom.

Crang, Mike. “Relics, Places and Unwritten Geographies in the Work of Michel de Certeau (1925-86).” Thinking Space. Mike Crang and Nigel Thrift ed. London: Routledge, 2000. 136-53.

Bourne Identity Marie in France 3

M map 1

Bourne Identity route finding 1

This is a leftover observation from an article I’m just wrapping up. It’s really just a “look at this interesting little thing” kind of observation – it doesn’t really go anywhere in particular.

In Burt Reynolds’ first film as a director, Gator, Mayor Caffery is your garden-variety southern politician, the sort of guy who tells the crowd at his rally, “We gonna have the best city south of Baltimore. Who the hell gives a damn what’s north of Baltimore?”

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At the rally, Mrs Cavanaugh, carrying “Cafferey is a pinky commie” sign, is escorted aside by a police officer. After hitting him over the head with her sign, she explains, “You must understand that I am not hitting you. I am hitting Mayor Caffery and all his corruption. And here’s another blow for freedom!” As she’s being dragged away she yells to the onlookers: “What about unemployment? What’s Caffery gonna do about that? What’s he gonna do about supporting the underprivileged?”

Gator pinky commie

Gator police haul her away

What’s odd about all of this is that Cavanaugh, who’s mostly a crazy person (to the point of crazy-cat-lady absurdity), is right about pretty much everything except Caffery being a pinky commie. Cavanaugh is Aggie Maybank’s (Lauren Hutton) source for an expose. Cavanaugh reveals that there are two sets of books – and he doesn’t pay taxes on the big earning book: “Apex Finance. Dixie Entertainment. All those gas stations. All of them owned by Caffery and McCall. And all of them exploiting the masses.” Cavanaugh she leads Gator and Aggie to the courthouse’s archive, and at the courthouse there’s a slapstick chase involving two house cats, two accounting ledgers, two local cops, and a stolen police cruiser. Aggie, Gator and Cavanaugh give the evidence to the Feds and it’s legit evidence.

Gator two sets of books

There are two obvious readings of the pinky commie sign. The more obvious one is that Cavanaugh is using the “communism = bad” thinking that never fails, especially in the 1970s South. Or there’s the crazy like a fox reading of Cavanaugh using communism as a stick to beat the too-good-at-capitalism Caffery. Either way, Cavanaugh’s deployment of communism as a cudgel would be an interesting little piece of trivia were it not for another Burt Reynolds-directed film, Sharky’s Machine.

After getting busted down to the vice squad, Sharky’s sent out to arrest Mabel for prostitution. She demands fifty dollars from her potential John, which he finds a little bit pricey. Her response: “I’m a trained professional and I demand a decent wage.” All of this transpires in a long shot that keeps Mabel’s book – and its KARL MARX cover in frame. Then, in the police station after the arrest, Mabel makes a systemic critique of the criminalization of prostitution – and the approach that imprisons the women and lets the men go free. And, after that, it is Mabel’s reaction to a pimp under questioning that leads Sharky’s Machine to their first set of leads to a Big Case.

Sharkys Machine I'm a trained professional I demand a decent wage

In both cases, women who, though they are marginalized both within the narrative and by the film’s director, are proven right in the end.  It seems odd that one of Burt Reynolds’ signatures as a director would include women having a grasp on Marx and the essential information for the narrative.

The first I heard of Raising Arizona was on the radio, on the way home from a travel-league soccer game. There was a piece on it on NPR (so long ago that my now-Tea-Party-father would still listen to NPR) that featured HI’s nickel tour of the trailer.

Raising Arizona that theres the kitchen area

My favourite viewing of Raising Arizona was at the Music Box, where they thumbed their nose at the fire code to pack at least thirty more people into their small auditorium for a midnight screening. I remember that there were long stretches of the movie when you couldn’t hear the movie for all the laughter.

In an attempt to get a break from some extra-depressing shit, I popped in Raising Arizona and was shocked at a little visual flourish that I’d missed for the last 25 years. The recurrent Barry Goldwater portrait is too easy to miss.

Raising Arizona con with Goldwater picture

Raising Arizona doctor's office 2However, I’d never noticed that HI’s cellmate has a little portrait of JFK next to him in bed.

Raising Arizona con with JFK picture

This is a moment that I’m a little embarrassed about – how did I miss the red and blue in the flag given the shot’s colour palette? – but that I’ll be thrilled to include when I’m lecturing on the importance of looking to the edge of the frame, where the film fills in details of the fictional world if we’re careful enough to look.

In I Am Legend there’s the perfectly and wonderfully accurate representation of flooded tunnels in an electricity-free, and thus pump-free post-apocalyptic New York:

Thanks to this image, I can now cobble together my Five Obstructions-style article about zombie movies that doesn’t give more than a passing mention of zombies. It’s the infrastructure that matters in zombie flicks.

Tom Tykwer movies have really great establishing shots (they also have gorgeous and effective overhead shots, something I’ll write about later). I want to base this claim in a quick look at the mostly unexceptional The Internationalfor which John Mahiffe, in addition to a mess of location-specific ADs, was the second unit director.

Perhaps the key to the establishing shots in The International is the way in which they make clear how people use the space on screen. One of the first images in the film

approximates a point-of-view shot from the seat of a car in the car park that takes up the bottom third of the image. It’s not exactly that point of view – it’s from slightly higher up – but it’s close enough to make the space and its use clear. That is to say, while there’s certainly an aestheticization going on – The International does its fair share of action-flick tourism – there’s also a sense of a world working outside the bounds of the film’s narrative. This sense that the world is more than a stage for the film’s conspiracy is quite clear in the Milan sequences. Take, for example, the investigation of Umberto Calvini’s assassination:

The wonderful thing about this shot is that the sequence that follows it seems to do almost nothing with all the information provided in the shot. Instead, Clive Owen’s Louis Salinger and Naomi Watts’s Eleanor Whitman look at the bullet holes and their local police ally chats to the other police on the site. The actual/official investigation occurs on the edge of the frame, untouched by the film. The film’s paranoid narrative offers one explanation – any investigation will be whitewash – but film language offers another. When Salinger and Whitman notice the trajectories don’t match, they take to the neighbouring building’s roof to see this:

Here Tykwer not only visualizes the “alternative point of view” that sees trajectories and connections that the on-site investigators can’t/won’t see, but it also shows the actual investigation site in a wide, long shot. There’s a world at work outside and beyond the film’s protagonists that isn’t concerned with playing antagonist to them. There are more things in heaven and earth than dreamed of in our cinema, after all.

A non-generic treatment of a generic situation bears out my claim. Salinger, on foot, pursues The Real Shooter, who is in a car. But when Salinger gets to the traffic snarl where the Shooter is trapped, he faces too many choices:

In this establishing shot (of sorts) we get a sense of the life of the city. But we’re still in the realm of genre. Our gun-toting hero must now go from car to car, scaring the shit out of people who have nothing to do with the chase (that is, the film’s narrative) other than proximity. But that doesn’t happen in The International. Instead, as Salinger weaves through the cars, Tykwer goes to another kind of shot he loves, the overhead.

No one gets menaced. No one flees amid squealing tyres. In fact, the cars pull away at a reasonable speed, as if the light changed and they did what any driver would do. There’s a world out there and The International’s global financial chicanery just doesn’t enter into things that much. Salinger’s left alone, confused and the world keeps turning.

All in all, Tykwer gets more ideological mileage out of The International’s establishing shots than most films get out of their entire cinematic vocabulary, even in a middling effort.

Part of me ought to be a little upset about Topkapi, the film version of Eric Ambler’s Light of Day. First of all, the ending is completely different. So different that I thought that it was a fantasy sequence before the “real” ending. Second of all, I don’t see what whitewashing Arthur Abdel Simpson into Arthur Simon Simpson really accomplishes, especially since Arthur’s statelessness as an Egyptian-English living on the edges of legality in Greece still haunts the film. And third of all, I can understand why you’d turn Simpson into a supporting role – he comes on, screws up, gets the laughs, and then exits so we can get back to the caper business that he’ll soon screw up – for a straight ahead caper picture, but why bother with a character as compelling as Arthur Abdel Simpson unless you’re going to do something a little different with the film as a whole? All those changes to a book that does so much interesting shit on its own seems to be the sure way to ruin what good there is in Light of Day.* But formally it’s not a straight ahead caper picture.

It’s hard not to love Peter Ustinov’s performance as Simpson. But I was well and truly won over by the film’s style: the lens flares in the title sequence, the overloaded post-title sequence at the fair, the intensely strange I-can-feel-the-acid-coming-on blotches of colour as Melina Mercouri narrates the opening, and Jules Dassin’s visualization of Simpson’s fear of heights, for example, all frame the film as something other than a simple caper. Which is not to say that Jules Rififi Dassin doesn’t deliver on that score. Topkapi doesn’t go for the self-aware smugness of a caper picture that doesn’t care about the caper. Instead, the visuals repeatedly remind us that there’s something excessive in the caper. Or, perhaps more to the point, The International Caper Big Heist Picture.

The film deploys maps to great effect – they are the province of the security services and the police. Whereas the novel’s endpapers feature a map of the Mediterranean, the first time we see a map in the film, Simpson is undergoing an interrogation shot on the edges of parody (with one interrogator up close, and another few across the room):

At the end of the interrogation, the sunglasses-inside intelligence chief points to the map with a gun in a comically menacing gesture which translates Ambler’s usual approach to police authority fairly well.

When the thieves are caught, once again, a map hovers in the background as testament to the ways in which the police and secret services control space, in spite of what the smugly unified thieves might think:

Finally, the travelogue-style shots of Istanbul feature a number of interesting shots of shanty settlements, which once again places Topkapi outside the 007-style tourist vision of exotic foreign locales. At no point does the film get into overt politics, but Jules Dassin (who has it over Ambler as a committed and active lefty), even in his second-unit establishing shots, places his film in something closer to a lived-in world, rather than the world of the International Location Shoot Picture.

*I have an article (that may some day get published, Karen Elizabeth Bishop I’m rooting for you) about stateless cartography in Light of Day and Dirty Story, Ambler’s Simpson novels. In the article, I see Simpson as a stateless person who sees the future. That is, the solution that Simpson finds to the problem of post-War statelessness is an ironic embrace of the multinational corporate model: establishing a fictional personhood wherever the greatest financial and regulatory advantages are at the moment, through incorpoation documents (passports, forged of course).

While I’m not particularly interested in the geography of Norwegian cinema – unless and until my Fulbright application to University of Bergen is successful – Troll Hunter finds room for three Tom Conley in Cartographic Cinema style scenes featuring maps that drive my reading of the film.

First of all, the film is a wonderful through-the-windscreen travelogue of Norway.

Then there’s the film’s eminently sensible way of explaining why Hans would open up to the student film crew: a troll hunter’s working conditions are for shit. And even the non-dangerous stuff is soul-crushing in a Scandinavian bureaucracy run amok kind of way.

For my purposes, Troll Hunter’s use of maps rhymes nicely with the film’s Cloverfield Troll Project aesthetic. Going back into the fairy-tale past – Troll Hunter frequently returns to questions of fairy tales not matching the real nature of trolls – demands reference to an older sort of map.As Mike Peterson explained to me recently, the vast majority of topographical maps that we use today are the product of hand-tracing in the pre-digital cartography era. Accordingly, in the build up to the film’s final showdown, Hans busts out a standard-issue paper topographical map of Dovre:

On their way to Dovre, Hans and the film crew visit a power station, where they are shown a map of the area the station powers, once again on a paper topographical map:

All of this makes sense, because the maps that Hans has already shown the film crew are similarly paper-based topographical maps:

This may seem hardly worth noting, but Troll Hunter is set in the present day of its release, 2010. Student journalists have digital cameras; Hans texts his supervisor at TSS. It is a world with google earth. For a film with a shady government agency, cross-country tracking of prey, and a bunch of Big Scary Monsters that threaten Our Way of Life, Troll Hunter assiduously avoids the usual Hollywood genre conventions of, most notably, lots of CGI, but also of the high-tech HQ full of digital maps, like in the Bourne movies (which still feel compelled to include a paper map, like a security blanket).

But instead, like the film itself, something more self-consciously “hand-made” appears most powerfully not as the CG trolls, but in Hans’ obsessively annotated troll maps.

The ending to Pretty In Pink (Howard Deutch 1986) stinks. How, exactly, does Andie picking Blaine over Duckie constitute a happy ending? While it might be easy to blame meddlesome Paramount Pictures for changing screenwriter John Hughes’s ending, producing a romantic couple who solves class differences is not at all foreign to Hughes’s films. In particular, Hughes’s Shermer sequence set in the affluent suburbs of Chicago – Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club and Weird Science (both 1985), and Ferris Buehler’s Day Off (1986) – reveals more than a passing interest in understanding class in America as teen romance. In Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, for example, Mrs. Buehler works as a real estate agent in wealthy Glencoe and Winnetka and worries over the hood (Charlie Sheen) her daughter meets at the police station.  Sixteen Candles takes place in a town so staid and upper-middle-class that it must import the gross racial caricature of a Chinese exchange student, Long Duk Dong, to introduce anything resembling a class difference that disappears after one night of passion. While high-school films such as Hughes’s consistently connect romance, education, and class mobility, they tend not to engage zoning (perhaps for obvious reasons). One film that does confront the importance of zoning is Tamara Jenkins’ 1998 film Slums of Beverly Hills.

Slums of Beverly Hills begins with the Abromowitz family moving out of their apartment in the middle of the night.  They spend the night driving around before moving into a dingy little one-bedroom unit similar to their previous home.  Vivian (Natasha Lyonne), the film’s voiceover narrator, introduces the apartment complex as “Casa Bella.  Another dingbat.  Dingbats, that’s what they’re called.  Two story apartment buildings featuring cheap rent and fancy names that promise the good life, but never deliver.”  While Vivian’s too-weary-for-a-teenager voice certainly implies the standard negative-judgment connotation for the word, her description also uses dingbat to refer to Casa Bell’s specific architectural form: “a type of small apartment building, popular throughout the Sun Belt, which sits on stilts over a parking lot – a direct outcome of the ubiquitous American on-site parking requirement.  The construction of a single dingbat on a street of row houses is all that is necessary to bring down the real estate value of the entire block” (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Speck 175-6).  As a group, fourteen-year-olds tend not to use “dingbat” as a term of real estate art.  Vivian’s vocabulary, then, highlights the “Slums” portion of the title to signal the film’s interest in the ways in which setting rules for the built environment perpetuates and solidifies class distinctions. Her comment also points to the delicate work of rationalizing the unequal distribution of public services like education. In a word, Vivian tells us about zoning.

The Abromowitzes may move often, but they never leave the boundaries of the Beverly Hills School District because success in the classroom means much, much more there.  Murray (Alan Arkin) sells cars, but his second job is to keep tabs on affordable housing in Beverly Hills, whose schools offer college-prep curriculum that can turn the family’s class position – tenuously lower-middle-class – into a temporary stop on an upward trajectory. When Richie (Eli Marienthal), proposes moving outside of Beverly Hills, “somewhere cheaper….in Torrance [where] maybe we could afford other stuff like furniture,” his father dismisses the notion by explaining the one advantage to living in lousy, unfurnished Beverly Hills dingbats. “God damn it,” he yells, “we’re here for the school district.”  Though his slumped body language argues otherwise, Murray pedantically reminds his kids, “furniture is temporary.  Education is permanent.  Forget furniture.  Forget Torrance.”  The sense of education as going hand-in-hand with other long-term investments like real estate significantly motivates the continued growth of suburbia; finding “a good place to raise kids” tends to hinge on good schools. And good schools like those in Beverly Hills, predominantly funded through property taxes, tend to be found in affluent suburbs.  What’s a working-class or lower-middle-class family to do when the mechanism that makes “good schools” possible in suburbia – zoning – depends on drawing borders to minimize the number of potential beneficiaries of education-driven upward mobility? Slums of Beverly Hills and John Hughes films show that the grim secret to class mobility is an ability to work within the constraints local zoning codes put in place to find affordable housing in an otherwise high-dollar school district. But zoning is not an impartial referee; municipalities’ property-value protecting zoning restricts this sort of residential mobility to limited areas. Not-quite-middle-class teenagers like Slums’ Vivian Abromowitz, and Hughes’s Andie Walsh and Andrew Johnson locate the source of personal, familial, and social problems in suburbia not “at home,” but in a differently-zoned building.

BeverlyHillsZoning

BeverlyHillsSchool

[edited to fix word order problem]