Monday, 31 March 2014

Jacques Tati's "Playtime": A Waste of Time

As a film student I've had to watch a lot of movies. Some of them were great, others were a... much more difficult experience. I've already discussed my thoughts on Jean-Luc Godard but right now I'm looking at a different French director: Jacques Tati.

When I learned we were viewing Jacques Tati's Playtime I was interested. I've never been a huge Tati fan but I've seen a bit of his work here and there and I know he can be amusing, so I figured we'd be in for a fun little comedy with some humorous antics. What we got instead was an unfunny, boring, and frustrating movie that had no idea what it was doing and which kept dragging on far longer than it needed to.

So let's start by looking at this film's plot. Normally I'd give you a summary or something but here there isn't really much of a plot to go on. Mr. Hulot is in it again, and he kinda bumbles around and gets mixed up some American tourists and befriends a young woman among them. That's more or less the extent of any kind of plot. Otherwise it's simply a bunch of incoherent segments that don't really have anything to do with each other. Most of those moments also drag on far longer than they need to, like this one scene where Mr. Hulot meets up with an old war buddy and hangs out at his apartment.

There's an extended shot of him sitting in the apartment with his war buddy's family, while we see several other random people in neighboring apartments watching the same television program as them. The scene goes on for some time, with no audible dialogue and the only noise being from the street before Mr. Hulot suddenly leaves and goes on. In other words, this scene goes absolutely nowhere.

The part that I found really annoying, though, was the party scene that made up most of the second half of the movie. This one had a bunch of gags but none of them really paid off. We get a few gags that, with some good timing in any other film, could have been legitimately funny, like the part where Mr. Hulot smashes the door while trying to open it but the doorman continues to hold the doorknob in place and pretend to open the door for people when they come in, or the waiter who keeps getting himself dirty and having to switch clothing items with another guy.

As it is, though, none of them ever really got a laugh out of me. Heck, the joke with the waiters seemed a bit cruel and just made me feel bad for the poor guy who keeps having to put on all the dirty clothes. I also recall there were a few gags that never really paid off, like the joke about the waiters constantly putting dressing on a fish while it was still on a tray to be served to the customers, only for the customers to then say the fish wasn't their's.

And what was up with those chairs? There's this absurd running joke in the first half of the movie involving these chairs that scrunch up and make a "WHOOSH" noise when they do so. For some reason Mr. Hulot keeps encountering these chairs and seeing people who like to show them off. What's the joke? Why is this funny?

From a technical standpoint as well, there wasn't much to be impressed by. The movie couldn't even get the audio synced up. Characters speak but their voices don't match their mouths and it's really quite jarring.

If you'd like some good French comedy with some fun humor and well-timed gags, you're not going to find it here. You could try any number of other Jacques Tati films, or perhaps Amélie. With Playtime, you're going to get about two hours of needlessly long and boring scenes with almost no correlation and poorly-timed gags at best.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

My Favorite Movie Scenes

I often get asked the question of what my favorite movie is. I often identify 2001 as one of my favorites, but finding a second or third is pretty much impossible, and I've had a ton of possible candidates: Contact, The Big Lebowski, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and a ton of others. However, I can provide a list of some of my personal favorite scenes from a variety of different movies.

The "Mystery Man" scene from Lost Highway

I've expressed my admiration for David Lynch several times, and previously discussed this movie at length. It is a great movie and one that often stands out to me as one of Lynch's best (along with Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr.), but this particular scene is one that I especially remember. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is attending a party with his wife when he encounters this strange character known simply as the "Mystery Man" (Robert Blake). It becomes clear that there's something not quite right about the Mystery Man, with his unnerving appearance and his insistence that he has met our protagonist before, and is in fact at his house right this moment.

Of course, there is a really good makeup job done on the Mystery Man to make him seem otherworldly. We have the inhumanely pale face, the lack of eyebrows, the insanely big grin. The sound mixing also does a really good job to set the scene, with the party music quickly fading out and the scene going into complete silence as the Mystery Man enters, and it is only broken when he speaks. At the end of the scene, the music starts up again and things seem to go back to normal, but after this encounter neither the audience nor Fred are in any way relieved.

"OVER THE LINE" from The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski is filled to the brim with hilarious moments, but somehow this one has a tendency to stand out. It starts off with the Dude (Jeff Bridges) and Walter (John Goodman) getting into an argument after the latter brings his ex-wife's dog into the bowling alley. Things get heated quickly and Walter cuts off the argument when he sees another bowler named Smokey accidentally go slightly over the line on the alley and asks that he mark it zero. When Smokey refuses, Walter draws a gun and forces Smokey to comply with the rules.

It's hard to say precisely what makes this scene work so well. In part the humor probably has to do with the way Walter acts. He yells about how nobody seems to want to follow the rules while holding a loaded gun (ignoring the Dude's efforts to talk him down). There is also the fact that Walter's attitude keeps changing abruptly. He goes from yelling at Smokey for being over the line to trying to calmly explain the rules, to pulling out a loaded gun, and then goes right back to acting calm as soon as Smokey listens. Part of the fun in Walter's character is how he keeps acting as though he's the only reasonable and calm person around when he is constantly getting mad and overreacting to situations, like pulling out a gun over a bowling dispute.

The Philosophical Discussion with a Talking Bomb from Dark Star

Houston, we have a problem. One of our bombs is fully armed and ready to detonate but we can't release it, and it won't disarm itself. What do we do? Teach is philosophy of course?

I remember this moment became especially amusing the second time I saw Dark Star, mainly because I'd just finished a philosophy class in High School and written an extensive essay comparing the concepts of rationalism and empiricism, which are discussed in-depth here (the bomb even quotes Descartes: "I think, therefore I am." Of course, the real humor comes from the situation the characters are in, and the fact that Doolittle is trying to teach these philosophical concepts to an artificially intelligent bomb, which is intrigued but doesn't seem to fully understand.

The Marriage From The African Queen

Outside of having one of the greatest quotes of all time ("By the authority granted to me by his Imperial Majestey Kaiser Wilhelm the Second I pronounce you man and wife - proceed with the execution."), this scene does a pretty solid job of helping to show just how much the characters have grown over the course of the film.

Hepburn and Bogart started out being minor acquaintances, the latter simply being a guy who often passed by the former's mission. However, they go through a lot when World War I forces them together, and have become exceptionally close as they work together to survive in the African wilderness with only a tiny boat for shelter.

The Opening of Once Upon a Time in the West

Talk about a scene that goes on longer than it has to. The very first scene of the movie is ten minutes of absolutely nothing happening, with almost no dialogue. Weirdly, though, it's the perfect way to start. The lack of dialogue or action allows us to observe the environment, and the way the film makes use of diagetic sound (the creaky windmill, the fly buzzing around) really brings the environment to life and in fact makes it all the more shocking when our hero finally shows up, abruptly ending the tranquility of the scene by gunning the three men we've been following up to this point.

The Showdown From The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

This is another great example of Leone's fine work. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has quite possibly one of the best showdowns in any Western, perhaps even rivaling that of Once Upon a Time in the West. The three-way Mexican standoff is a great way to finally bring the characters together. The shots are timed so well, getting across the strain Tuco and Angel Eyes are no doubt feeling. 

Naturally, since this is a Leone film, we have a tense score by Ennio Morricone that really builds up the suspense. The cuts between each of the three men, the close up shots of their eyes, all of it creates a sense of anticipation for when one of them finally draws.

The Docking Sequence From 2001: A Space Odyssey

It's hard to pinpoint a specific moment from 2001 that I could call my favorite, but this one stands out. There is something about the way it's done. The Blue Danube in particular goes really well with the shots of the sort of technology we may one day develop for space travel. As always the visuals are incredible, and even if the scene is slow paced without much happening, it all comes together in such a way as to keep you wanting more.

So there you have it. Some of my personal favorite moments from movies. I'm sure these are not the only ones, and I could probably find a few more, but this is a pretty good selection. Do you have any movie scenes you really like? You can share them in the comments.

Friday, 28 March 2014

My Dinner With Andre: The Cinematic Paradox

When I first heard about Louis Malle's 1981 film My Dinner With Andre I was skeptical of its premise: two men sitting in a restaurant having a conversation. There's no other people outside of a few extras and the waiter (who has a background role at most) or scenes taking place away from the table (outside of the beginning and end).

Literally, it's just two hours of these guys sitting at a table and talking. How could anyone make that interesting? What sane director would even consider attempting such a project? After all, doesn't that violate everything you're always told to do when making a movie? (remember, "Show, don't tell") Naturally, this must be the set-up for the most absurd, boring, and pointless movie in the world, right?

From what I understand of its director, Louis Malle, he's not exactly one who likes to stick to conventional cinema. The only other film I've seen of his was Vanya on 42nd Street, in which I failed to understand the play that was being performed but was intrigued by his approach of blurring the lines between fiction and reality. We get plenty of moments where the actors appear to be casual and simply being themselves only to suddenly realize they've been in character and rehearsing a scene in their play for the past few minutes, and even when we know they're performing there's moments that ground us back to the fact that they're working in a rundown theater in New York.

Back to the issue at hand, no sane Hollywood director would even consider attempting such a project. The only sort of person who might consider attempting to make a movie that violates every piece of advice you have ever been given about film making and what in theory should be the setup to the most boring movie in the universe would be an experimental filmmaker like Louis Malle.

The weird part is that, believe it or not, it actually works. Somehow, this guy managed to take the worst possible idea that could ever be conceived for a film, and make it into something fascinating. What we have here is the ultimate paradox of cinema. How is a movie like this in any way possible?

To be fair, while My Dinner With Andre might be one of the most notorious cases, the idea of a movie driven entirely between the interactions between a small group of people confined to a single setting is hardly new. This sort of thing works fine on stage. In fact it's practical, given you're confined to a single platform and the audience can only watch from one angle. On film, theoretically, one should try to show as much as possible, but averting that can work.

Let's look at an earlier case made, ironically enough, by a Hollywood director while the Studio System was still in place. The year 1957 saw the release of a movie by Sydney Lumet titled Twelve Angry Men. Though the part about it being an all-white and all-male jury might rub some modern viewers the wrong way (there's a reason the stage version is often retitled Twelve Angry Jurors), it still manages to hold up as a compelling examination of the legal system and the pressure to ensure the right decision is made. However, when you get down to it, the basic plot is essentially just a bunch of guys in one room arguing with each other.

Heck, even to bring up a more contemporary example, Quentin Tarantino's critically acclaimed thriller Reservoir Dogs has a bit more action and some shift in setting due to the non-linear structure, and a climactic Mexican stand-off, but let's not forget that we never actually see the heist and the bulk of the plot is essentially a bunch of guys standing around in a warehouse arguing about why their heist went wrong.

So we do know that this kind of plot can be made to work, but My Dinner With Andre is nowhere near as tense as Reservoir Dogs or Twelve Angry Men, not to mention it has a drastically smaller cast. There is some dispute between the two men but they're fairly civil about it, and there's no sense of immediate urgency. In fact it's quite the opposite, Wally and Andre both take their time in their discussion, so much so that they lose track of time and end up being interrupted by the staff informing them that the restaurant is about to close.

Perhaps while the stakes were high in 12 Angry Men or Reservoir Dogs, the appeal of the conversation seen in My Dinner With Andre is quite simply the presence of an interesting conversation. Theoretically speaking, it should make more sense on film to show some of the experiences Andre talks about to Wally, but some of the anecdotes do get a bit strange. Maybe in some ways it is better this way because the image we're left with in our minds would be far more interesting than anything that could be put on screen, or perhaps it's supposed to connect us more to Wally, the introvert who hasn't been out quite as much as Andre, and could himself probably only imagine these things.

Of course, the anecdotes between Andre and Wally only make up the first act or so of the movie, and later on they get into a philosophical debate. While they both take conflicting sides and make their cases, they don't exactly end up pulling guns on each other over it but perhaps that's just what makes the movie work.

In other words, the fact that the movie breaks all the rules of what you should do when making a movie is precisely the reason why it works so well. It is the ultimate paradox of cinema, to break the important rule of "show, don't tell", and running with what in theory should be the worst idea ever conceived for a movie yet somehow creating something incredible. The minimalist structure does have a very strange sort of charm to it, and there is this sense of fascination in the simple interaction between these characters.

That right there must be the solution. Despite the minimalist nature of the setting, the two characters are complex and serve as foils to one another right down to their wardrobe (notice how Andre wears what looks like a bathrobe and what looks to be a very casual attire underneath, providing a sharp contrast to Wally's suit and tie). Perhaps what makes a movie like this so fascinating is quite simply in the way these two characters play off of each other.

Blog Promotion: Johnny's Critique

I don't normally do this, and I don't know if I'll do this for anyone else in the future, but since this is also another cinema blog that I'm acquainted with I thought perhaps it might be worth sharing.

The two of us met back in February when I'd just written my James Bond article and decided to share my blog on IMDB. I had a few... less than pleasant responses, such as one person who simply said my blog was stupid (and since deleted their post) and another guy who accused me of being ignorant regarding the "reason for the allure of James Bond" and then tried to argue why it wasn't sexist.

Still, this guy Johnny made a simple post on my thread saying he'd check out my blog if I looked at his. We're both on each other's reading lists now, and I thought it might be worth sharing him with anyone who happens to be following this blog.

Now you'll quickly notice his style is a bit different from mine, not that it's a bad thing. He does have more of a formula to his articles, sticking strictly to reviews of individual movies. He also likes to use GIFs a little bit more than I do.

The thing about his reviews is that they're extremely short and to the point. They don't take long to read but he does speak his mind. I don't always agree with him (I personally thought the twist ending of Memento was really clever), but he does get his point across clearly and concisely. That is something to be admired.

So if you're looking for some other cinema blogs to enjoy besides mine, why not head over to Johnny's Critique and give some of his reviews a read?

The Problem with Pirates of The Caribbean: At World's End

With the success of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the possibility of a sequel seemed inevitable. Enter Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, which manged to take the series into some strange but creative directions while still retaining some of the previous film's charm. That movie of course, ended on a cliffhanger, which was resolved in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

I remember there was a lot of hype when At World's End  came out (though it may have helped that the media took advantage of the fact that it was one of three third movies to come that month, along with Shrek the Third and the equally if not even more critically panned Spider Man 3). The trailers promised us a lot: plenty of action, epic swordfights,  and a few new characters. What we got was a bit of a mess. I've cited various issues as the reason why this movie failed, but I think I've finally figured out the problem. Quite simply, while it tried to go in some new directions, it may have gone a little bit too far.

The reason I think The Curse of the Black Pearl worked was because it was, at its core, simply a fun and straight forward adventure film. We had some complex characters and a bit of drama here and there but it was always balanced just right. The film never took itself too seriously but also never took itself too lightly.

Jack Sparrow was a lot of fun but his comedic antics were balanced with the much straighter characters of Will and Elizabeth. Say what you will about Dead Man's Chest but it did retain at least some of that atmosphere. There was a bit of humor but it never took itself too seriously or lightly.

The problem with At World's End was in its effort to bring in new elements it went completely overboard (no pun intended) to the point where it seems completely out of place in the franchise. Instead of being a fun nautical adventure with some lovable characters, it tried to be some kind of epic drama, which really didn't mix well with the elements that were lifted from the previous films. 

While the new characters were okay the plot itself got insanely convoluted and maybe had a bit too much going on, not to mention I was never particularly satisfied with the ways they killed off certain characters from the previous films (Norrington letting himself get stabbed when he could have easily climbed on that rope and gotten away coming to mind), and then we have this whole thing with all the "Pirate Lords" acting like piracy is some kind of international organization and they act like it's going to vanish forever (all it'd take to bring it back is one person getting onto someone else's boat and committing a robbery).

So to put it quite simply, the major problem with At World's End is that it really misses what made the other films enjoyable. I'm even one of the few who actually enjoyed On Stranger Tides, and what I'd say made that film work was that it went in a bunch of whole new directions while still understanding why people liked The Curse of the Black Pearl. We got a whole new group of characters, aside from Jack and few supporting roles, but it doesn't try to be a convoluted Lawrence of Arabia-style epic. Indeed, some movies can work really well as epics, but there's a big difference between making a movie that lends itself to being an epic and trying to convert a fun and straight forward pirate adventure into a genre where it doesn't belong.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Message for Writers in Midnight in Paris

So I had a chance to attend a special screening of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris at school. Sadly, I was the only one who showed up, but it meant I got the theater to myself. Still, seeing the basic plot of the movie, which when you get down to it, stripping away the fantastical time travelling elements, the comedy, and the unusual love triangle; is in large part about a writer having a chance to meet those who inspired him. A major theme throughout the movie is the question of what defines a "golden age", and the idea that such an event is merely a projection created by our own dissatisfaction with the present.

As a writer, I found myself strongly relating to Gil (that's a sign of some good direction, when you can really connect on an emotional level with Owen Wilson) , and it got me thinking a lot about some of the people who have inspired me. I realized that many of those from whom I drew inspiration were much older writers from previous eras: H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne, among others. At the same time outside of maybe a few odds and ends of Stephen King I never really found a writer of modern literature whose work has really clicked with me.

Like Gil, I suppose I found myself seeing modern art in a similar manner. Being inspired by Lovecraft I suppose I may have viewed the early 20th century when he wrote as a sort of "golden age", and believe me if I had a chance to go back in time and talk to him I'd take it. There's no doubting I could learn something from having a conversation with such writers.

However, in Midnight in Paris we see different people looking back on different periods as "golden ages". Gil sees the 1920's as a golden age, Adriana views the late 19th century the same way, while a group of artists from that era insist that there's no imagination and that they'd rather work during the Renaissance, and so on.

I could theoretically project this same line of thinking onto one of my own inspirations, like Lovecraft. I was heavily inspired by Lovecraft, but Lovecraft was heavily inspired by the earlier works of Edgar Allen Poe. Would it not therefore make sense to consider that he may have seen the 19th century as more of a "golden age". Furthermore Poe was presumably inspired by other writers who came before him, and I can't begin to speculate on who inspired them.

I thought this general idea was rather curious and it really got me thinking about how every great artist draws from those who came before. It's not even confined strictly to literature. Every great director was inspired by someone before them. David Lynch was inspired by Fellini, and Sergio Leone was inspired by Kurosawa. Presumably both of those inspirations also drew from someone else.

Movies Everybody Else Loves But I Hate

As a cinema enthusiast, I often find myself exposed to movies of all sorts. There's usually a ton of movies that I find myself in the position of having to see simply because they're so iconic or so influential. Oftentimes that's justified, and the movie in question turns out to be really good. Once in a while, however, I find myself in the strange situation where I find myself hating a movie that everyone else seems to like.

Now, I know what you're thinking, and I've already discussed Godard in great detail, so I'm not going to put any of his movies here, nor am I going to discuss Solaris. However, there are still a number of other well-received movies that I can talk about, so let's get started.


I've already mentioned before that I'm a huge fan of John Carpenter, so it should come as extremely ironic that the only film of his I truly hate (I wasn't so keen on The Fog, but I did find a few redeeming features there) is the one every other die hard fan of his works maintains is his best. I wanted to like this movie when I saw it. I was big into the horror genre at that time and I was excited to see one of its greatest icons.

However, when I actually started watching the movie, I found it really failed to meet my expectations. Maybe its popularity got me a little too hyped, I don't know. What I do know is that when I saw it, I found most of the plot to be really predictable and it never really drew me into the world of its story. Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence did okay (though when you get down to it, all the latter really did was remind us that Michael Myers was a dangerous psychopath, which I think we could figure out by the fact that he was wielding a large knife and trying to kill teenagers), but I never found myself emotionally attached to the other girls and if anything wanted them to die since I knew it was going to happen so I just wanted it over with.

The part that finally drew the line for me, however, was the ending. Up until this point, the story has been reasonably grounded in reality, but then all of a sudden Michael Myers turns out to be invincible. Jamie Lee Curtis stabs him twice: once in the neck and again in the chest, and he just gets up like it was nothing. I talked about this on IMDB later on and fans of the movie explained that Michael Myers was supposed to be a metaphor for evil, but I feel like if that was the intention it could have been handled better. As it is, the supernatural components of his character seem to come straight out of nowhere with the only build-up being a frightened child screaming about "the boogeyman" (that doesn't count). Maybe if they'd kept it ambiguous, at least having Michael Myers getting a limp or something, it could have been a bit unnerving. As it stands, I just found the climax more confusing than scary.


This one, at least, I know I'm not alone on. I've talked to a bunch of people from the class in which I was forced to watch this movie and I have yet to meet anyone who actually enjoyed Jaques Tati's Playtime. There may have been one or two who appreciated it on a stylistic level but never anyone who tried to defend it as a masterpiece.

I've got nothing against French cinema, but this isn't one of the best works to come from France. When watching this film, I found that it felt like the kind old comedy I should be able to enjoy, but the jokes were at best poorly timed. While I'm not opposed to unconventional narratives, I felt the plot seemed more like a bunch of incoherent segments with only the most tangential connections, all of which seemed to keep going on far longer than they needed to and quickly wore out their welcome.

And what was up with those chairs? There's this weird running gag where Mr. Hulot keeps encountering these really strange chairs that make a WHOOSH noise if you scrunch the cushions on them. Throughout the first half of the movie he keeps bumping into people who like to scrunch the back cushion and show off the WHOOSH noise on these chairs. What is the joke? How is this supposed to be funny?

Inglorious Basterds

I've got nothing against Tarantino. In fact from a technical standpoint Inglorious Basterds was a pretty impressive movie. The acting was solid, there were some tense moments, and it takes talent to be able to make a film in three different languages, especially when very little of it is done in your native language.

My main issue with this movie is that it never seemed to fully understand what it was trying to do. I remember some of the people I talked to about this back in high school used to talk about it like it was some kind of comedy. Okay, fair enough, the Nazis did some horrible things and having experience in the Unterganging community I know some might get a great deal of enjoyment in seeing harm done to them. 

However, if that's the case, than why go does the film go out of its way to make almost every German who's on screen seem sympathetic, like that one guy who doesn't want his men to get hurt and pays for it by being bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat, or the guy in the bar who is just celebrating the birth of his son. It's kinda hard to enjoy seeing the Nazis being murdered when you make it clear they're not actually Nazis but ordinary German citizens pulled into the war against their will.

On the other hand, perhaps that's just it. Maybe the film is actually an anti-war story about how war isn't all black and white, showing that not all Germans at the time were bad and that even the supposed "Good Guys" committed horrible war crimes. This could also explain the attention to detail by going as far as to have most of the movie be in French or German.

However, if that's the case, then what was the point of killing Hitler? If it was supposed to be a dark comedy about killing Nazis I could understand, but if the goal was to emphasize a very real issue of war why suddenly take a turn like that? I mean, if they were just going to kill off Hitler what was the point of trying to authenticate everything? 

It's like if you decided to make a movie about the Titanic, went out of your way to ensure that everyone's accent was 100% accurate for the time period, and then had it end with the ship successfully maneuvering around the iceberg and arriving safely at New York. If you're not going to follow what happened, trying to authenticate everything seems kind of redundant, does it not?

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

I don't care if this was directed by the genius behind Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End, this movie was stupid and pointless. The plot is absurd and full of holes, not to mention too many unnecessary video game inside jokes.

The main character is at best an idiot and at worst a complete jerk. Seriously, he abruptly ditches the girl that genuinely loves him in favor of some purple-haired girl he doesn't know in a crowded public space with multiple witnesses. Yes, I know she was much younger than him (though there may be some creepy implications by the notion of a twenty something-year-old sleeping with a high school student), but did he really have to publicly humiliate her like that? 

That's not even getting into the guy's stupidity. I mean, disregarding the absurdity of why his girlfriends ex-boyfriends (and one girlfriend) care enough about who she's currently seeing to want them dead, what sane person would keep trying to romance her? The last "Evil Ex" even gives him a chance to get out and like the idiot he is he doesn't take it

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Alienation of the Individual in Films About Aliens

Patterns and themes in science fiction films about aliens have often reflected social anxieties prevalent at the time of their release. In the 1950’s, this meant a lot of science fiction films reflected the cold war, the alien invaders representing the prevalent fear of communism. By the 1970’s, things had changed drastically with the public developing growing distrust in the American government, and there were more alien-centered films which began to reflect this new outlook.

The first major cycle of science fiction films in the 1950’s saw a large number of alien-based movies. Many of them were centered on invasion or otherwise treated the alien as a danger. Exceptions to the rule, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, were rare. Movies such as The War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and to a lesser extent Forbidden Planet, had the common trend that the government is cast in a positive light. If not soldiers themselves, the protagonists are often scientists or other individuals who co-operate with the military in defeating the invaders.

The 1970’s began to see some major changes in patterns with alien-centered films. There were still “alien invasion” stories such as the first remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, Alien. However, there was also a new trend involving a larger number of films centered on more sympathetic aliens such as Close Encounters of the Third KindE.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Starman, and The Abyss. In spite of the obvious differences in story, these films did in fact share one element in common; the isolation or alienation of the protagonists from any form of authority. This in turn reflects a massive change in outlook at the time.

The 1960’s was a period that brought about great social strain in America, largely due to massive counterculture movements such as the sexual revolution and civil rights protests for the rights of women, minorities, and homosexuals. It was also a time when there was a growing distaste for the American government, in part because of the decision to join in the Vietnam War, and this was followed by the army gunning down a group of protesters at Kent State University. Later Nixon himself was impeached and forced to resign after his men were caught trying to plant microphones in the hotel room of a political rival. 

As you can imagine, the American population had good reason to be distrusting of their government. Many of the filmmakers associated with the science fiction genre in the 1970’s and 80's, such as John Carpenter, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas, lived through this period, and it subsequently influenced the style of their work.

Traces of distrust in authority can actually be seen early on with the Howard Hawks film The Thing From Another World. In that film, the military heroes are cast in a moderately positive light. The protagonist, Air Force Captain Hendry, is seen as the proper authority and the person whom the rest of the crew trusts to handle the situation. Meanwhile, the scientist Dr. Carrington objects to Hendry’s decisions, and goes to great lengths to preserve the Thing in the name of science even after some of his own men are killed by it. 

The same cannot be said for Hendry’s superiors- from whom he repeatedly receives orders to refrain from taking action against the Thing even as it is wreaking havoc, and Hendry ultimately has to disobey direct orders in order and destroy the Thing with minimal casualties. 

The newspaper journalist Scotty is clearly upset when Hendry does not initially allow him to relay his news story about the discovery of the flying saucer, and protests that his story is one that should be heard by the whole world and he should be allowed under the American Constitution. Hendry tries to help but his requests to give Scotty clearance for the news story go unanswered, and in the end he grants him permission without receiving authorization. 

Howard Hawks was unusually progressive for his time, and here he manages to foreshadow several issues that would become more prominent during the following decade, particularly a rising awareness of freedom of speech, and most notably, the distrust and subsequent alienation from authority.

In the 1960’s, science fiction films began to become less popular, and there was a shift from using aliens to stand in for communism towards producing films directly showing nuclear war and Cold War paranoia, one of the most famous being the dark comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

The 1970’s and 1980’s would subsequently see a revival of the science fiction genre, with the rise of several associated filmmakers, many of whom had lived through and had been influenced by the counterculture movements of the 1960’s. The re-emergence of the genre would in turn see a massive change in how aliens were depicted by science fiction. Whereas the 1950’s had largely been dominated by alien invasion stories, the 1970’s saw a curious emergence of films dealing with benevolent aliens.

Stories dealing with sympathetic aliens usually seemed to come in one of two flavors. The first plot type centers on human protagonists gradually discovering the presence of the aliens and attempting to make contact or to study them, as in The Abyss.

In the second style, the aliens themselves become the central focus, landing on Earth and often befriending a human co-protagonist as in E.T. or Starman. Either way, instead of the obvious threat of the alien, the conflict instead becomes one between humans, often because of corrupt, unreliable, inflexible, or unreachable authorities.

Of course, the alien invasion concept never went away, but instead, changed with everything else. Movies such as Ridley Scott’s Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing continue to deal with threats posed by hostile aliens. The difference is that unlike the 1950’s it is no longer up to the military to save the day. 

The growing distrust of the government during the period is reflected by a distrust of authority; be it an actual government presence, the military, or even simply a person in charge. While in the 1950's it was up to the army to save the day, in the 1970's, responsibility to make things right—whether that means helping a friendly alien get home, making peaceful contact with a benevolent race, or to destroy a threat to humanity—falls upon the shoulders of ordinary individuals.

There are two common ways authority is handled in science fiction films from the 1970’s onward. The first and most straight forward is for the heroes to be cut off from any sort of government or military body, forcing them to act on their own initiative. In The Thing, it is established early on that the protagonists are unable to contact the outside world for help due to problems with the radio. It is not long after the Thing is discovered that Garry – the station manager and closest person to an authority figure – is suspected of being infected. 

It is the helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady who steps in to organize the increasingly paranoid men. Later that breaks down and the crew begin to distrust MacReady after it appears that he may have been infected. MacReady then has to resort to threatening his colleagues with dynamite and a flamethrower to maintain control, though the remaining men co-operate with him after he manages to prove himself human. 

The second way that authorities are commonly handled in films of the 1970’s occurs if a body of authority, such as the government or the military, is involved with the story. They are either seen as a serious threat, and/or treated as unreliable. The authority figure will almost always be cast in a villainous role, hindering the goals of the protagonists. In fact, if the main cast includes some form of authority figure, they will likely lose their position in the plot in favor of either a subordinate taking their place or everyone working more closely as equals (as we see with Garry in The Thing).

In Alien, it is the corporation that poses a serious threat. After three of the crew of Nostromo, including the captain and first officer, have been killed, Ripley discovers that science officer Ash was actually a robot planted by their employers to ensure the alien is brought back safely, even if it means the deaths of the crew. 

Prior to his moment, this was the person the crew had trusted with their lives in figuring out how to defeat the alien, and the whole time he had actually been protecting it. The crew are considered expendable by their own superiors, who have made it a priority to ensure that the Alien is brought back to Earth and used for research for potential weapons. 

Now to be fair, you could make the argument that the sequel Aliens casts the marines in a sympathetic light. While this is true, they do end up in a similar position to the protagonists in Alien after losing their commanding officer, and it is eventually revealed the company man who hired them has also prioritized bringing back a specimen for weapons research over their lives. Also, in keeping with the trend seen in movies of this period, it ultimately comes down to the civilian Ripley to save the day.

On a similar level, Starman has the role of authority taken by the government agent George Fox, who relentlessly pursues the title character. The Abyss has the military represented by the navy SEAL team, whose commanding officer Lt. Coffee grows visibly paranoid while still remaining in charge with his own men continuing to follow orders. 

Unlike Hawks’ The Thing From Another World, Carpenter’s The Thing eliminates the presence of organized military figures. Instead, the cast is confined to a twelve-man Antarctic research expedition. In Hawks’ film, the crew, aside from Carrington, was united against a common danger and, under Hendry’s command, mobilized to defeat it. In Carpenter’s film, the civilian crew are slowly torn apart from each other and, until MacReady figures out the blood test, forced to rely on themselves as they do not know who they can trust.

Once in a while we might get an a non-conformist within with the predominant authority who is cast as sympathetic and tries to object to their authoritarian interference. In any case, they try to do their job as best they can, but will constantly voice their opinion and in some cases even try to take action.

A good example would be the SETI astronomer Sherman in Starman, who repeatedly protests against George Fox’s plans and wants to meet the alien under more pleasant circumstances. He eventually goes as far as to deliberately provide false information to a local police unit in order to keep the Starman from falling into government hands. 

Similarly, in The Abyss, it is the Navy SEAL medic, Ensign Monk, who remains the only member of the team to treat the Deep Core crew with respect, recognize Lt. Coffey’s unreliability, and eventually assisting in disarming the nuclear warhead Coffey has sent towards the aliens. 

Both are similar to the French scientist Lacombe in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who protests in vain against the government’s secrecy and refusal to allow civilians personally invited by the aliens to be included.

This distrust continues on to more recent science fiction films, as seen in the 1997 film Contact, in which the aliens become a backdrop for a very human conflict between scientists, politicians, and religious leaders. This in turn creates a number of problems when the protagonist, Ellie Arroway, discovers the first confirmed signal of extra-terrestrial origin. 

The government is depicted as obstructive and paranoid, with security advisor Michael Kitz constantly assuming the worst and not always listening to Ellie. At the end, during Ellie’s trial, Kitz persistently maintains that she hallucinated her journey to Vega claiming there is not a single shred of proof, but he is revealed shortly after to have kept quiet about one crucial piece of evidence to the contrary: the fact that Ellie's headset recorded 18 hours of static during an event that he publicly insisted lasted less than a minute.

As a thought experiment, we could imagine how The Thing from Another World might look if it were instead made during the 1970’s (disregarding the fact that John Carpenter's remake came out in 1982). Going on the established pattern, Captain Hendry would become the ignorant, close-minded, and obstructive villain, while the arrogant and troublesome Dr. Carrington would be the hero responsible for preventing Hendry’s men from destroying a misunderstood life form. Similarly, if The Abyss were made in the 1950’s, Lt. Coffey and his SEAL team might instead have been the heroes, mobilizing the civilian crew and preventing a surprise invasion from the aliens below.

Over time, science fiction films, especially those centered on aliens, have changed from positively emphasizing dependence on authority to focusing on the individual and self-reliance. This in turn has been a reflection of changes in society over time as the public changed from being dependent on the government to slowly becoming alienated from it. Regardless of whether the movie casts the aliens as invaders or if the aliens are made sympathetic, these films have increasingly become more about the responsibility of the individual over dependence on authority.

The trends of both the 1950’s and 1970’s may in fact continue into the present day, but may also be changing to more of a balance. Nowadays we do seem to have more pro-government films such as Independence Day, Battle: Los Angeles, and Pacific Rim, which cast the authorities or military in a positive light but also manage to put emphasis on the individual. It makes you wonder just what sort of pattern is forming in modern science fiction, and what events it is in turn reflecting.

How Take Shelter Transforms an Art Film to fit the Classical Formula

If there is one thing I've learned from taking a film class, it's that there is a very sharp difference between art cinema (such as the works of Federico Fellini or Ingmar Bergman) and classical cinema (the types of movies being made in Hollywood between the 1930's and 1950's, such as the works of John Houston, Howard Hawks, John Ford, etc.), and both have made an impact on contemporary film.

For those of you not familiar with these terms, art cinema is distinguished largely by its surrealist structure: the overall story is ambiguous and open to interpretation. Meanwhile, classical cinema is identifiable as being centered on creating a comprehensible story, with every scene being used to help further advance the plot. It is possible for elements of both classical and art films to co-exist together in a specific work, but it is also possible to rework specific conventions in terms of narrative and structure, to allow components of one to work more in the context of the other.

We can see some of this blending in Jeff Nichols’ independent movie Take Shelter, which clearly draws influence from the art film in its themes of alienation and uncertainty, but is primarily classical in structure and plot due to its coherent linear progression and causality. There are several elements which are clearly taken from the structure of an art film, but they are transformed in such a way as to fit them within the formulaic structure of a classical film.

Take Shelter is a 2011 drama centered on a young man named Curtis, who begins experiencing a series of strange vivid dreams of a large storm. These visions motivate and drive him to build a bomb shelter in an effort to protect his wife and daughter from the perceived threat of the aforementioned storm, but gradually his actions begin to have huge impact on his relationship to his wife Samantha, along with everyone in his community.

Two of the most common themes in art cinema are alienation and uncertainty, and both are present in Take Shelter. In fact, both these themes are central to the plot, during which Curtis’s gradually shifting behaviour causes him to be alienated from everyone in his community. Curtis becomes increasingly uncertain about whether his visions are real or merely hallucinations.

This is notable several times in the film, such as near the end when he and Samantha have spent time in the bomb shelter following a tornado warning, and he is unsure if the storm is still happening. He touches the door and claims to be able to feel it, but when Samantha does the same she feels nothing. Take Shelter makes use of the themes of art cinema, but instead applies them to a narrative that would otherwise be entirely classical.

Take Shelter does make use of surreal dream sequences, but where an art film might gradually blur the lines between reality and fantasy, Take Shelter always makes sure to clearly distinguish the dream sequences from the scenes set in reality. Throughout the film the difference is primarily indicated through jarring cuts, with little obvious change in sound, lighting, or cinematography. This can even be seen in the opening scene, where Curtis is watching a storm come in.

The shot of Curtis standing in front of his garage and watching brown-coloured water fall onto his hands has a surreal quality to it. However, the viewer is immediately snapped into reality when the scene cuts to Curtis standing in the shower before quickly cutting to a more realistically-grounded scene in which he has breakfast with his family.

The subject matter of Take Shelter could theoretically have worked if it were structured as an art film. The story of Curtis’s battle with schizophrenia could have been presented in a non-linear and ambiguous format. Perhaps Curtis’s dreams could have begun to blur with reality, raising questions about his sanity as it becomes harder to tell where his reality ends and his delusions begin. Instead, using the framework of a classical film, the plot is made as comprehensible and straight forward as possible. The story progresses in a linear fashion and there is no “dead time”—periods where scenes happen that do not in some way advance the story.

Much like the structure of a classical film, the plot is mostly driven by causality; everything that happens is a consequence of something that happened before. The dream sequence, which opens the film, sets the plot in motion as it causes Curtis to begin feeling uncertain about his reality as well as the overwhelming need to protect his family.

Building a shelter is what starts to alienate Curtis from society. Getting help from his best friend Dewart leads to Curtis becoming uncomfortable at work and eventually asking to have him transferred. Getting Dewart transferred causes him to betray Curtis. Dewart then tells his boss that Curtis has been using equipment from work, which gets Curtis fired and in turn causes further stress in Curtis’s relationship to Samantha. Spending time in the shelter results in Samantha finally persuading Curtis to see a psychiatrist.

The meeting with the psychiatrist subsequently leads to them going on vacation just in time for a large storm to arrive. Very few scenes happen that do not in immediately advance the narrative. Even when the dream sequences do not provide a clear advancement of the plot, they still have a clear function: to emphasize Curtis’s deteriorating mental health and his growing uncertainty about the nature of his visions. In this case, the components lifted from art cinema are able to enhance the otherwise entirely classical narrative.

Both the art and classical film usually center with a personality, a goal, and a motive which influences their actions over the course of the story. The difference is that in a classical film, the inner thoughts of the characters, along with their motivations and ultimate goals would be made as clear to the audience as possible. An art film may show the thoughts and fantasies of the protagonist, but will usually refrain from explaining their deeper meanings. In Take Shelter, Curtis clearly wants to ensure the safety of his wife and their daughter, and very few, if any, of his actions are left to interpretation.

One of the key components of the classical formula is that the movie should appear to be real, and in Take Shelter there is no indication to the contrary. Curtis acts like someone battling with schizophrenia, a mental condition which causes delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech. It is also known to affect the patient’s perception of reality and as well as any meaningful relationships in their life.

To look at a specific example, we can examine the final scenes of Take Shelter, as while an art film will usually deny the audience closure, the classical film will ensure all loose ends are tied up. At this point, Curtis has finally emerged from his homemade bomb shelter to find that the storm he had experienced visions of has not happened, as he discovers when he opens the doors of his darkened shelter to a find the blinding light of a clear sky.

Though some minor damage has been done, it is not of the magnitude he had expected. Finally realizing these may be merely delusions, Curtis agrees to see a psychologist. The psychologist suggests that Curtis and Samantha go on vacation as far from the shelter as possible. When they return Curtis will start extensive therapy.

In the next scene, Curtis and his family are staying at Myrtle Beach. Curtis is playing with his daughter, helping her to build a sand castle while Samantha is inside cooking. The daughter laughs in excitement as they finish the castle, but her excitement slowly fades while Curtis maintains a smile. Suddenly the daughter stands up and looks over the horizon. Curtis asks if she sees something. She makes a gesture to indicate something which upsets Curtis.

Samantha steps outside a screen door between two large windows which reflect ominous clouds of dark grey. Curtis turns toward her, and they nod towards each other in agreement before looking over the horizon. Curtis then runs toward the house, leaving behind the sand castle. Samantha looks down at her hand, on which a close-up shows brown-coloured to be falling. It is then revealed that there is a large group of threatening storm clouds approaching. Curtis says “Sam”, and Samantha responds with “okay” before the scene cuts to black.

Typically, an art film usually denies the audience any form of closure and ends on a subjective note, while a classical film would opt to tie up any remaining loose ends. The ending of Take Shelter is interesting as it provides a middle ground between both extremes, though leaning strongly toward the classical style. Rather than ending abruptly, Take Shelter does take the time to resolve the story of Curtis and Samantha. The two are seen to finally get help from a psychiatrist and it is explained that Curtis will eventually begin extensive therapy in an effort to overcome his illness.

However, there is also one element left open: the storm coming in suggests that Curtis’s visions may have been real after all, a possibility that seems to be supported by the parallelism invoked when rain of a brownish colour lands on Samantha’s hand in a similar manner to Curtis’s dream at the beginning.

The movie ends before this possibility is explicitly confirmed or denied, leaving that one detail open to interpretation—it could be real, but it is also still possible that Curtis may be delusional and simply misinterpreting a large storm, or it could be another dream and he'll wake up in a few minutes. The ambiguity of the ending might ordinarily fit it into the context of an art film, but as this is the only component to the story without a clear resolution it still fits within the classical model.

While Take Shelter clearly draws influence from both the art and classical style, it is hardly a straight hybrid of both. In most areas the film appears to be almost strictly made within the classical model, and fits in with the style of a classical film. Whereas an art film relies on ambiguity, Take Shelter prefers to rely primarily on causality and clarity, even if the common art cinema themes of uncertainty and alienation are in fact present.