Monday, 24 November 2008

The power of the cinematic medium and the validity of its use

segundo trabalho escrito para a Middlesex University.

Não me agrada particularmente. Mas aí está.

An issue that consistently occupied my mind through all the lectures and seminars during these weeks was truthfulness in the artistic creation. By this, I refer to the honesty of the artist in choosing certain creative devices in presenting his work to an audience, knowing that his approach will influence the audience’s reading. As early as the first references to McConnell’s five basic storylines and the following analysis of different ways in which to tell stories, my thoughts on this matter came less promptly, much more pensively and pondering. I argued firstly the validity of a work whose structural narrative conveyed a moral message contrary to the images it glorified. I refer to the paradoxal construction of the Western. After the following screenings - Chinese Ghost Story (Ching Siu-Tung, Hong Kong, 1987), Yeelen (Souleymane Cissé, Mali/Burkina Faso, 1987) - I dwelt on the purpose of strategies that would convey a precise director’s view in spite of involving or not the audience at an emotional level. Yet, it was the viewing (and consequent seminar discussion) of Ken Loach’s Ladybird Ladybird (United Kingdom, 1994) and The Wind that Shakes the Barley (United Kingdom, 2006) that stirred this internal discussion, as it brought along the question of realism and the consequences of the choices that filmmakers do, in a medium that is distributed in mass. These questions are what I will elaborate on in the next paragraphs.

Firstly, as I said, I will focus on the paradoxes of the structural narrative of the Western. As Schatz argues, supported by Lévi-Strauss’ theories, genre films subscribe to the label of cultural mythmaking since they have a set narrative structure that serves ‘to defuse threats to the social order and thereby to provide some logical coherence to that order’, among other purposes. Kitse’s antinominial grid, which was studied in the lectures, presented the Western’s structural narrative as a continuous fight between two opposing forces – the wild west and civilized east – in which the hero, as described by Wright , ‘uses his savage skills to combat savagery, hence to protect and defend the interests of a civilized community which eventually accepts him and which he eventually decides to join’. This means that Hollywood’s Western filmmaking created a myth – one that has surpassed any other version of that historical period, as accurate as it may be recognised – in which an independent free spirit sacrifices himself for the freedom of knowledge and order. The same symbols that Hollywood fabricated, embellished into stardom and engraved in American national identity are the ones that it sacrifices for the coming of its own civilization. This is one of the greatest examples of the terrible power that the cinematic medium holds on people’s shared conscience.

As one grasps the extension of this manipulation – mainly because it has never been a matter of fact or falsity –, the questions that arise all relate to the ethical validity of works that are now produced as realistic accounts of the present and cannot be seen as anything more than realist works and, therefore, showing a determined perspective on the object matter. In Samantha Lay’s expositive paragraphs on realism and the cinema , she explains that, for adding movement and sound to the ability of capturing life as it is (i.e. actually adding the space and time dimensions to the representation) film became for many theorists, such as Siegfried Kracauer, the unique medium ‘capable of representing the real and should do so with as little artifice as possible’ . However, while there is the theoretical possibility of a cinematic construction that objectively captures a reality, it is practically impossible for it to stand as an objective account of any event as it will always be a given perspective of a happening.

At this point are introduced the considerations upon the viewing of Chinese Ghost Story and Yeelen. These concern technical aspects of a director’s creation and their effects. These two films featured completely opposite shooting styles, acting and soundtrack performances to achieve very different responses from the audience. Chinese Ghost Story used short-timed, medium to close-up shots, with canted angles, segment shooting and composition that preceded movement to engage the audience emotionally and provoke gasps and sighs; whereas Yeelen had long wide-shots where characters roamed the land or sat comfortably telling stories to one another to allow the audience to take their time in those places and actually experience their permanence. Both of them were unmistakably fictions and had no pretence on reality – which means their directors were free to use any stylistic devices to tell their stories – and, even given concessions for being non-western films with specific local symbolisms and narrative codes, these two pieces of work can be watched and understood (be it at a superficial level) by anyone from any place of the world.

My point is that cinematic language evolved in order to convey certain messages and get determined responses – the Kuleshov effect experiences and Eisenstein’s theories were most determinant in this development – but it is up to the filmmaker to use them according to what he intends to portray. Film is not, as Kracauer intended, the most objective medium; in fact, for exactly the same characteristics he pointed out as ideal for objectivity, I would point out as ideal for subjectivity – to be able to control not just a single but multiple perspectives of an object-matter presents a more subjective view of the object-matter precisely because of the choices of perspective which are implied. In cinematic terms, a successful filmmaker will decide who the audience will support and what argument it will agree with at the end.

In Ken Loach’s films, there is the pretense that the camera is invisible and events are shown as they supposedly took place. Even though the two films watched in the screenings had very different themes – one being a melodrama and the other a historical representation – both were shot in the same continuity style way that allows the audience to engage in what is happening on the screen and forget we are not actually there. So, whereas Ladybird Ladybird focuses on the dramatic story of an ordinary woman in the present, living under the same regulations that we do, in The Wind that Shakes the Barley we follow the birth of the IRA and its struggle for Irish independence. In both of them Loach uses a television aesthetic and certain melodramatic devices of narrative, camera and soundtrack that very subtly lead the audience through the midst of the controversy presented in the films to support the character and the view he wants us to. He has often been criticized by that characteristic though, even in spite of it, his films are still under-distributed in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, Loach’s films have the power to move and impress for they so subtly place our alliances where he wants them to belong – and he has been able to create quite a national discussion, after the release of Cathy Come Home, in 1966. At an academic level, he is frowned upon for this liability – how to read Loach’s films as realist when the camera is so pointedly directed in his films, whereas in most realist films filmmakers exceed themselves in finding ways to make the camera more objective? Loach is one of those filmmakers that have a consistent production of work that covers many themes of present and past issues with a very deliberate and overtly socialist agenda and uses of cinematic strategies to mirror society as he wants it to be seen. The complete subversion of the actual historical truth that we have observed in the Western is but the extreme reaction that can be provoked by Loach’s films, whether they were more consistently and widely distributed. The issue, however, is whether his work has any validity if he as an artist sees himself in a trap where he has to lie and deceive to get his view approved. MacCabe describes it in his considerations on classic realist text : ‘The classic realist text (a heavily ‘closed’ discourse) cannot deal with the real in its contradictions and in the same movement it fixes the subject in a point of view from which everything becomes obvious’ – so in Ladybird Ladybird we are shown the couple’s perspective of the story, we see how they are not completely blameless for their misfortune but we empathise with them simply because we see the story from their point of view; also, in The Wind that Shakes the Barley, it is Damien who we follow, the brother that did not want to fight but would not surrender until a socialist republic government was established in Ireland.

Drawing onto conclusions, there is not much I would say in a definite tone. Even though these considerations on Loach strike me negatively, one might argue that it is an artistic creation, therefore, it should be expected to be a subversion of reality as the artistic project is a process by which the artist absorbs, transforms and recreates in order to express his conclusions. The realist project has a very difficult task in achieving this and fallacies like those in the works of Loach are expected to appear, not only in the cinematic medium but in other modes of expression. However, the question remains if it is not more important for the artist to be honest with his creation and the audience than to get his message across.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Strange fruit

q me perdoe a billie holiday.
prós indies.
tout le monde est artiste.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Preparando um argumento

Ontem entreguei outro projecto. Um exercício de continuity style em que duas personagens se encontrassem, trocassem um objecto e se separassem. Teve piada fazer isto. A princípio foi complicado arranjar uma storyline - sou terrível, complico demasiado e quero sempre falar de coisas conceptuais. Ainda por cima porque sou tão crente na teoria de que as pequenas coisas de ser humano são as que mais facilmente mostram verdades.. e pareço sempre incapaz de concentrar uma ideia numa acção. É tão fácil reconhecer.. e tão difícil conceber... Mas lá arranjei esta forma descomplicada de criar um storyboard em continuity style. Um misunderstanding meio cómico, uma coisa muito Coen. A ideia base foi o Mário que sugeriu por ser uma coisa interessante de filmar, eu achei piada, agarrei-me a ela e construí a narrativa. Preocupa-me esta dificuldade - será que complico demasiado e por isso não me sai nada facilmente ou será que me falta mesmo a habilidade de produzir uma história? Já na PAA tive este problema.. Neste vídeo preocupei-me bastante com a resolução da narrativa, como tinha sido uma coisa que não resolvi no da PAA. Consegui que funcionasse. Mas também não transmite nada para além de uma sensação agradável de reconhecimento dos pequenos desentendimentos cómicos da vida.
Agora tenho outra proposta e um argumento para escrever até quarta-feira. Usando um estilo self-conscious (peço desculpa, não me lembro da palavra em português e o google não está a emprestar-me o seu conhecimento), tenho de mostrar um diálogo em que uma personagem tenta convencer outra a fazer qualquer coisa. Por qualquer razão esta situação na minha cabeça está relacionada com revelações. O Joaquim chateia tanto a Joaquina para lhe fazer pataniscas de bacalhau (que ela nunca faz e ele que gosta tanto..) que ela acaba por lhe contar que não gosta de fazer pataniscas de bacalhau porque foi o que ela deu a comer ao Manel (seu antigo amante, verdadeiro amor e para sempre fantasma sobre a cabeça do Joaquim) que lhe provocou o envenenamento alimentar que o matou. De preferência algo menos idiota. . ...A física quântica insiste em meter-se no meio..mas de alguma forma faz tanto sentido. E agora que penso nisso.. se a matéria existe numa rede infindável de relações químicas que se influenciam directa ou indirectamente por que é que as experiências, que se traduzem em reacções químicas também (tão basicas como os zeros e uns dos geeks), não são também propriedade universal? O observador condiciona a matéria, a câmara activa o mundo, a presença altera a experiência. Janela Indiscreta, Blow-up, Cloverfield, REC. O que é visto e a quem o é permitido ver.

E lá está.. podia só filmar um caixeiro viajante a impingir os seus produtos a uma dona de casa maldisposta, mas ponho-me a pensar...

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - análise da cena inicial

Digam-me por favor se aqui pelo meio digo alguma coisa interessante.

primeiro trabalho escrito para a Middlesex University.

‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’’s opening scene is one of the best examples of how a director’s view effectively changes the tone of even the most conventional of stories. Sergio Leone directs a western, a genre which lives and breathes by a code of restricted filmmaking rules, self-consciously making use of its icons and strategies to talk about themselves; it is a kind of metacognitive filmmaking.

Being a genre that had been mostly produced in America, westerns that subsequently came from Europe were regarded with distrust and disdain by critics and Leone’s work was only recognized to have some artistic relevance a decade after they were released. The Dollars trilogy had been a great box-office success but hadn’t found much support in the critics, who argued Leone was subverting and mocking the very essence of the western, with ridiculous characters and settings and extremely violent sequences.

To ascertain these claims, let’s analyse the opening scene of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the last film of the Dollars trilogy. It begins with a wide shot of an arid, mountainous landscape that is quickly transformed into a close up of an ugly, weather-beaten bounty hunter’s face. It would be acceptable, in American westerns, to have a character come out from the desert as he is first introduced to the audience, probably with a low-angle American shot and a quick intervention by the character on whatever the situation is to establish themselves as the main ‘doer’ in the picture. In Leone’s picture the character is so much more than that. The bounty hunter’s kind of face, with all the desert’s hardships marked on it, is exhibited as the only kind of face that one can find in the Wild West; it is stamped over the landscape as if he himself could be it. Leone sees the icon and uses it without scruples - in fact, he celebrates it.

As the scene continues, we are slowly introduced to two other cautious bounty hunters, each as ugly and hardened as the first one. We are lead into this moment as if one could only find this kind of situations in the West. The set is nothing more than could be expected – a rundown wooden building, a couple of shacks attached, a few scattered carriages and many fabrics being blown by the wind, everything coloured with a palette of dirty dark and light browns and ochres. As Leone films a reverse shot of what the first bounty hunter is looking at, the audience as well expects something to arrive – and then arrive the two other bounty hunters on horseback. Leone takes his time, as do the characters. They do not come quickly to meet the first bounty hunter and immediately kill Tuco – these characters are more than characters, they are icons of that space, they control it and therefore Leone let’s them slowly walk to one another, filling up the space with their vicious intents, tough life experiences and apprehensions. Their faces are a strong element to convey this message and therefore extremely important to Leone – he often cuts from long or wide shots of different points of view, even crossing the axis of action at some point, to close-ups of the characters’ faces. It is easier to be impressed by a huge murderous look after one has seen its owner walking decisively towards something, however, it is my opinion that Leone puts up all this just so that the audience cannot disassociate the place and time to the character. In a way, I think he is most interested in celebrating the western and its mythology than to tell any particular story.

It is not by accident that the score in the first scene features nothing more than the faintest diegetic sounds but for a select feature of the theme song at a particular moment – the audience is not to be distracted from the pageant that these three men are performing in. We hear some gusts of wind, the sounds of the horses’ feet, the men’s boots and not much more. The space is filled with things unsaid but it’s all part of Leone’s view of the west – there is not much this kind of men need to say (which becomes evident later on once we become acquainted with Blondie, Clint Eastwood’s character), their harsh and circumspect faces let the audience know there will be a showdown and the silence intensifies the suspense of how it will unfold. Let us not forget that at this point the audience does not know who it is supposed to root for and therefore expects to make that decision with the conclusion of this first confrontation (and indeed the purpose of this whole scene is to introduce Eli Wallach’s character, Tuco).

So, it might come as a contradiction that in this first scene the leading up to the confrontation is done in near silence and the final showdown between Tuco, Blondie and Angel Eyes is shown with a beautifully orchestrated tune that not only intensifies but glorifies the whole scene. As I said, at the point when the film begins it would not be very sensible to have such an elaborate score. Firstly, because we are not even looking at the main characters yet and an epic score would elude the audience -that had to be kept for the most important and expected scene. Secondly, it is not necessary to have it to build up the intensity of the scene. In fact, the small quantity of sound effects resonates the few that exist and, again, the faces do that job perfectly. Thirdly, it is also a good way to make the desert more present physically in the audience’s mind and also bring about its mythic loneliness and hardships.

However, the theme song does appear in this scene, at the very moment we first see Tuco. As if it is not enough to have such a build-up in one scene to present only one character, Leone actually freezes the frame as Tuco is completely visible, has red lettering labeling him as ‘the Ugly’ and plays a musical sentence of the theme song, the famous cry-like sound. Tuco escapes his hunters by breaking through the window, creating ruckus and disorder in a previously very quiet series of shots. It is somehow a way of letting the audience know subconsciously that Tuco is the explosive character, the one who will start brawling everytime things do not go his way. In the freeze-frame he wears a fierce expression to go with the ‘Ugly’ label, but all the more because we find out as he rides off that he has dispatched the three frightening, tough characters we had been watching. Leone brilliantly composes this discovery, having the first bounty hunter come out trying to shoot Tuco as he flees, but being clearly wounded he rolls back into the building (which we assume is some kind of saloon because of Tuco’s holding of what seems to be a roasted turkey leg) and as he falls, reveals his two other companions shot dead on the ground.

The audience is, in this way, given a hero through violence. It is supposed to be impressed and perhaps disgusted at his skill with the gun – Leone was very much criticized by how cruel and violent his characters were, but as has already been said, this film is a celebration of the myth of the West and that is the only character, in the Leone’s eyes, that is to be found there. Even Eastwood’s character, labeled ‘the Good’, is merciless at times, though considerably more just than most of the characters.

It is interesting to notice that in this scene, the three bounty hunters can also be thought of as a good one, a bad one and an ugly one, if by nothing more at least by their colour scheme and faces (which, as we have seen, is not little to say in regard to Leone’s filmmaking). While there is a big colour contrast between the second and third bounty hunters which makes us naturally decide the one with the lighter colours must not be as bad as the one in dark colours, there is also the question of the latter being always shown a little more sideways than the former. Also, as he appears first, we tend to assume that this whole confrontation has been orchestrated by the first bounty hunter and therefore, as Tuco is presented as our hero, we might look back at him and remember him as ‘the bad one’. With all this, I just mean to point out that even in the choosing and characterisation of the unimportant characters, Leone is giving us hints to the film’s structure and that is, undoubtedly, the mark of a dedicated and passionate director.

In conclusion, Leone’s direction of ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ is a very deliberate one, with intentions of celebration and not ridicularisation. Perhaps the skepticism on the part of American critics towards Leone’s work is due to the fact that he has, from a distance both in time and space, actually made incredibly self-conscious western films that pinpoint cinematic strategies that Hollywood frowns at being publicized.