MIFF 2013: Next Gen

13 May 2013
Next Gen 2013

Image from Day of the Crows

When not reviewing films I work for the Melbourne International Film Festival on the programming team. The first part of  the 2013 MIFF program was announced today and I’m very excited, as it is one of the sections that I worked on. The following is a presentation I gave last Friday to launch the Next Gen program for this year:

Next Gen is a program of entertaining and challenging cinema selected for a youth audience.

The program was established in 2007 to enrich the cinema experience for younger viewers, as well as stimulate discussion and social awareness. Encouraging students to become active viewers, who question and challenge the moving image, is essential in a media-saturated era. The films this year were selected for their diversity, innovation and high quality, as well as being relevant and accessible to audiences of all ages. Through drama, documentary and animation, issues such as family, prejudice, injustice, violence, rebellion, identity and overcoming hardship are explored with integrity and depth.

With a handful of exceptions, these are not films many people would traditionally classify as ‘kids’ or ‘family’ films. Instead, they are a diverse, innovative and high quality collection of films that will appeal to people of all ages.

Valentine Road

Valentine Road

The documentary Valentine Road is something that will resonate with very wide audiences. It is about the 2008 murder of 15-year-old Lawrence ‘Larry’ King by one of his classmates. It becomes apparent that the murder was a hate crime, committed in response to King’s sexuality and gender identification. Director Marta Cunningham, who will be a festival guest, allows the teachers, friends and legal experts involved in the subsequent trial to speak for themselves without overt judgment. By doing so Cunningham delivers an insight into how young people are affected by the environments they grow up in, especially ones that cultivate and even excuse violent crime, as a response to somebody deemed different.

Another film to confront the impact of violence is the Irish film What Richard Did, by director Lenny Abrahamson. This extremely sophisticated drama is about the kind of guy Australians would consider ‘a good bloke.’ Richard is charismatic, friendly, attractive and a high achiever. He’s a good friend, a respectful son and looks after others. He then does something in the heat of the moment that has an unexpectedly devastating effect. This film about culpability, masculinity and the dangers of alcohol is particularly relevant to Australian audiences, many of who will no doubt recognise how closely the events in this film reflect various stories in the news from the past twelve months.

An interesting contrast to Valentine Road and What Richard Did is the Canadian film Blackbird, about a teenage boy falsely accused of planning a school massacre. Evoking recent films such as The Hunt and West of Memphis, this is a film about persecution as a result of mob hysteria. Many will identify with the young protagonist who identifies as a goth resulting in an outsider status that sees him bullied at school and then falsely accused after he vents his frustration by writing a revenge fantasy short story that he then unwisely shares online. Director Jason Buxton shared the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival SKYY Vodka Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film with Brandon Cronenberg for Antiviral.

I Declare War

I Declare War

On a lighter note, the Canadian film I Declare War is a sort of updated Lord of the Flies with a touch of Where the Wild Things Are. The film is set in a forest on one summer’s day, where two groups of kids play an elaborate war game. The kids carry sticks and water bombs, but the film depicts their ‘weapons’ the way the kids see them – as machine guns and grenades. Constantly alternating between fantasy and reality, I Declare War is a parody of war film clichés, a kid-centric adventure film and at times a disturbing look at learned behaviour. However, it’s mostly a lot of fun.

Also fun is the South Korean supernatural romantic comedy/drama A Werewolf Boy, which is thankfully far closer in spirit to Edward Scissorhands than it is to the Twilight films. MIFF regulars may recognise the name of filmmaker Jo Sung-hee as the director of End of Animal from MIFF 2011. However, it is unlikely that audiences will detect any similarities between the two films, which are completely different from each other in terms of style, tone and pace.

Another regional film in Next Gen is Touch of the Light, a Taiwan/Hong Kong co-production featuring the young vision-impair pianist Huang Yu-siang playing himself in a fictionalised story of his experiences entering music school. This crowd-pleasure was a huge hit in Taiwan and has been supported by the acclaimed Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai.

Capturing Dad

Capturing Dad

Also close to home is the odd yet endearing Japanese comedy/drama Capturing Dad, about two sisters awkwardly attending the funeral of a father they never knew. It’s refreshing to see a film with such a strong and sophisticated focus on the relationship between sisters (and between mothers and daughters), and Capturing Dad manages to be extremely charming without ever resorting to sentimentality. In fact, a lot of the humour is surprising dark.

Other films that edge more into crowd-pleasuring/family film territory are the Kurdish-language film Bekas and the German film Patty’s Catchup. Based on the experiences of the films writer/director Karzan Kader, Bekas is a spirited adventure film about two orphaned brothers trying to flee Iraq during Sadaam Hussein’s rule. Tina von Traben’s Patty’s Catchup is a fun family drama about three sisters attempting to run a sausage stand, despite one of the sisters preferring to follow her dreams of being a renowned chef.

The film most suitable for very young audiences is the lovely animated film Moon Man by Stephan Schesch, based on Tomi Ungerer’s classic picture book of the same name. However, there are enough Monty Pythonesque and surreal visual gags to keep audiences of all ages entertained.  It is also nice to see a film that aligns scientific curiosity with childlike wonder while satirising governments that are obsessed with jingoism and aggression.

Another animation in the program is the stunning beautiful and moving Day of the Crows by Jean-Christophe Dessaint. Although it is a French-language film, it contains more than a hint of influence from Studio Ghibli, not just visually, but with its blend of fantasy, humour and whimsy, with some very grounded themes concerning persecution and parental neglect. It also features voice acting by Jean Reno and the late Claude Chabrol.

Approved for Adoption

Approved for Adoption

The other impressive French-language animation in the program is Approved for Adoption, the Audience Award winner at last year’s Annecy International Animation Film Festival. A sort of animated memoir in the vein of Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis, it is about the childhood experiences of Jung, the film’s writer and co-director (with Laurent Boileau). After the Korean War Jung was abandoned as a baby and adopted by a Belgium family resulting in a childhood where he struggled with his cultural identity and sense of belonging.

The final film in the Next Gen program is English language, but by French director Laurent Cantet, who won the Palme d’Or in 2008 for his film The Class. The film is Foxfire, based on a 1993 novel by Joyce Carol Oates. Featuring nearly all young female cast, the film is set in 1950s upstate New York and follows the misadventures of a group of teenage girls who begin to fight back against the patriarchy. The mixture of protofeminism, socialism and teen rebellion results in an exhilarating film that explores how criminality and organised resistance are regarded.

More information: miff.com.au/nextgen

School bookings and study guides: metromagazine.com.au/nextgen

Thomas Caldwell
Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator
Melbourne International Film Festival

River of Life and Death: Women, Religion, Power and Purity in Water

12 February 2013
Water: Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam)

Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam)

Water is the third and most accomplished film in director Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy, which consists of three films that are thematically linked together rather than being films with an ongoing story and reoccurring characters. Water is set in 1938 in the holy city of Varanasi, which is situated in India on the banks of the Ganges, a sacred river in the Hindu religion. The film is unusual for having three protagonists – Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam), Kalyani (Lisa Ray) and Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) – all of whom are widows. Due to very conservative interpretations of Hinduism, the three women are expected to live the remainder of their lives in poverty and chastity in a segregated temple with other widows from the area. As widows they are regarded as spiritually unclean and an economic burden on their families and society.

In the background to their stories is the beginning of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s campaign to drive the British out of India and establish an independent India movement through non-violence. The hope and progressive thinking that Gandhi introduced into Indian society provides a stark contrast to the sad and oppressive lives that the widows must endure. Through the lives of the three main characters, Water exposes and comments on the appalling treatment of widowed women in some parts of India, since even today the attitudes that are depicted in the film in the 1930s still exist. It also uses the treatment of the widows to represent larger issues about how religion is misused by people in a position of power to deny human rights.

While specific colours dominate all the Element Trilogy films, the use of white and blue in Water is especially important in the way the film engages with notions of purity. In the context of the film white is both the colour of mourning and traditional notions of purity. This makes it a particularly oppressive colour since the widows do live a death-like existence due to religious instruction to remain chaste out of respect for their deceased husbands. This concept of purity is aligned in the film with religious hypocrisy designed to keep the widows subservient since doing otherwise would mean caring for them properly and therefore having to spend money.

Blue is the colour of water, which has the power to give life and to take it away. Furthermore, in Hindi water represents feelings, intuition and imagination, which are all characteristics that are traditionally associated with femininity. This is appropriate since the film is about women and the way women are expected to behave. However, when removed from the motif of water, the colour blue is used in Water to challenges the dogmatic representation of purity as self-denial and obedience. Rather than following a set of social and religious rules designed by people in power, expressions of true love and compassion are presented in Water as true moments of purity and these moments are evocatively associated with the colour blue.

Deepa Mehta and the Elements Trilogy

Deepa Mehta was born in India, but migrated to Canada in her early twenties. Her films draw upon both western cinematic traditions and Indian customs to pursue a feminist ethical agenda. She explores power structures in Indian society, both historical and contemporary, to critique the inequality created through gender discrimination, religious hypocrisy and class. Mehta first received international prominence in 1996 with the release of her critically acclaimed and highly controversial Fire, which was the first film in the Elements Trilogy. The same-sex relationship themes caused considerable unrest from many conservative religious groups and political parties that even resulted in a cinema being burnt down. The hostility towards Mehta from groups within India meant that production for Water was shut down in 2000 when protestors destroyed the sets the night before shooting began. Mehta had to relocate production from the banks of the Ganges in India to Pakistan and the film could not commence shooting until 2005.

The common themes in all the films in the Elements Trilogy are religion being misused for political purposes, women being made subordinate, the oppression of female desire and forbidden love. In Fire the forbidden love is between two women and Mehta explores the politics of sexuality not just between the same-sex couple, but within the dynamics of two passionless arranged marriages. The second film in the trilogy is Earth (1998) set in 1947 during the dissolution of the British Indian Empire. It was a time of enormous religious tension between the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims as 12.5 million people were displaced as geographical divisions were formed based on religious demographics. The nature of forbidden love explored in Earth is between a man and woman with different religions, with Mehta exploring the politics of nationalism and how this can manifest in religious extremism and violence. In Water the forbidden love is the widow Kalyani falling in love with another man, which is seen to be an act of betrayal against her dead husband. Mehta explores the politics of religion to highlight how religious hypocrisy is used to ensure women are undermined and made subservient for economic purposes.

Chuyia

The first of the three protagonists in Water is Chuyia, a child who has become a widow as a result of an arranged marriage to a man she never met. At the beginning of the film she is presented as something of a free and rebellious spirit despite the absurdity and unfairness of the situation she is placed in. Happily eating a sugar cane she is introduced gleefully playing with the feet of her dying husband as he is being transported. It is not until the reality of having to live in the widow’s temple sinks in that she displays any actual signs of grief and the contrast between her colourful and decorative clothes to the white robes she is forced to wear is very pronounced. However, even once in the temple Chuyia stands out as a force of life with her head painted by Shakuntala in bright yellow turmeric and the flurry of quick edits as she runs through the temple, providing a playful and disruptive break to the static and slow camera movements that are otherwise used within the temple.

The sense of playfulness within Chuyia is expressed throughout the film through her constant movement and the movement of the camera during many of the scenes she is featured in. Her catatonic stillness during the film’s conclusion is therefore devastating to witness. What happens to Chuyia comments on the dual symbolism of the Ganges in the film to purify and to take away life. While the Ganges is the site for purification for Hindu people, it is also the passage to the upper class homes where Chuyia is tricked into prostitution. It is fitting that Chuyia’s escape from Varanasi is in the arms of Narayan (John Abraham), whose father has committed so much damage, and by train. While water is traditionally a symbol of change and progression, in Water the Ganges ultimately becomes like institutionalised religion – a destructive force that destroys lives while continuing the pretence of being about purity. The train on the other hand is a force of modernity and progress that takes Chuyia and Narayan into Gandhi’s new India and away from the oppressive traditions and abuses of power in Varanasi.

Kalyani

Chuyia isn’t the only character who is harmed by the Ganges as Kalyani is literally killed by it when she drowns herself after being denied marriage to Narayan, ironically by his father who had been using Kalyani as a prostitute before turning on Chuyia. Throughout Water Kalyani is compared to Chuyia as an older version of the woman Chuyia may have become if she stayed in Varanasi. Kalyani is also a widow who was married to a man she never met and she was being prostituted by Madhumati (Manorama), the exploitive older widow who runs the temple. When Kalyani’s long hair is cut off by Madhumati, who presumably only allowed Kalyani to grow it long in the first place to appear attractive as a prostitute, the scene mirrors the earlier scene when Chuyia’s hair is cut before she enters the temple. The graphic matches establish the strong relationship between Kalyani and Chuyia, and the danger of Chuyia sharing the same fate.

Kalyani’s religious devotion is important to note as being different from the misuse of religious rhetoric that is seen throughout the film. Mehta is not attacking religion in Water but critiquing the way it is used for economic and political gain. Kalyani’s faith and charity represents religion in its purest and most noble sense. She compares herself to a lotus flower, which is a divine symbol in ancient Asian traditions representing the virtues of sexual purity and non-attachment. When Kalyani first appears in the film she is shot from a low angle so she majestically appears above the rest of the temple. Chuyia even momentarily thinks that she is an angel. Kalyani is also shot from a similar low angle during the various scenes with Narayan, although scenes when she is in the temple and he is on the street are often framed so she appears behind the bars on the balcony to give the impression of her being imprisoned.

Kalyani is also strongly associated with the colour blue and says when she remarries she will wear blue, the colour of Krishna. Blue is not only a colour commonly used to represent water, but in the film is the colour of life and associated with characters during moments of spiritual transformation. The very romantic sequence when Kalyani sneaks out to be with Narayan features a heavy use of blue light and blue backgrounds to indicate the purity, in the true sense, of the love that has developed between the pair. In this way blue is used in the film to symbolise falling in love as an act of spiritual transformation. The other major use of the colour blue for a moment of spiritual transformation is associated with Shakuntala in the moment when she follows her conscience despite it so significantly conflicting with her religious beliefs.

Shakuntala

The moment when Shakuntala is bathed in a blue light is when she directly stands up to Madhumati to free Kalyani. Up until that moment Shakuntala had been an enigmatic character. She is another widow at the temple, somehow above Madhumati’s authority but until this moment had never directly challenged her. Even more so than Kalyani, Shakuntala displays a sincere devotion to her faith that frequently manifests through her taking on a nurturing role with some of the other widows including Chuyia and Kalyani. While something of a peripheral character during most of the film, which focuses on Kalyani through the eyes of Chuyia, Shakuntala emerges as the final protagonist when she directly confronts the religious rhetoric that she has been living by to make sure Chuyia leaves Varanasi so that she won’t be abused again.

Towards the end of the film, possibly as a result of witnessing what was happening to Kalyani and Chuyia, Shakuntala begins questioning her faith. This culminates in the scene when she confronts the priest Sadananda (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) about the scriptures concerning widows. A sympathetic character, Sadananda explains that the relevant scriptures do list a life of self denial as one of the options for widows, along with being burned with her husband or marrying the husband’s younger brother. However, he also reveals that there are now new laws in favour of remarriage, but religious groups have ignored these laws since the laws do not suit them. This is a crucial scene in the film since it directly addresses the danger of religion having too much power and influence to the extent that it can bypass the law for its own end. It also exposes how religious beliefs can be hijacked to serve the needs of people in a position of authority.

Water concludes with Shakuntala performing an extreme act of kindness, generosity and sacrifice by saving Chuyia from the widow’s temple and Madhumati’s clutches. The audience are not completely certain about what Shakuntala’s risks by doing this, but it is a reasonable assumption that by defying Madhumati and the local customs Shakuntala will at the very least be cast out of the temple to fend for herself in an environment hostile towards widows. Her act of defiance is also one of religious defiance against a set of powerful beliefs she had lived with her entire life.

It is significant that Shakuntala takes Chuyia away from the Ganges, and all it represents, to the train and other symbols of progress. Not only is Ghandi, who is on the train, a symbol of the future but he speaks into a microphone, which represents new modes of mass communication that would allow messages such as his to travel further than they ever had before. As a member of the new generation of Indian people, Chuyia has a chance to reap the rewards of these changes so ‘escapes’ on the train with Narayan who by accepting the responsibility of looking after her is somewhat redeemed from his previous passivity and inaction. On the other hand, Shakuntala is left behind, with the train receding into the background, as she is trapped in an old way of life. Water ends with the arresting and provocative image of Shakuntala starring into the camera in a mixture of sorrow, hope, despair, uncertainty and defiance. Her bold glare into the camera could even be read as a challenge to the audience to confront the injustices within their own lives.

Originally published in issue 64 (Summer 2012) of Screen Education.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

The Art and Ideology of Walt Disney

25 March 2012

This article was written in response to the Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairy Tales exhibition, which was on display at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image from Thursday 18 November 2010 to Tuesday 26 April 2011.

Tangled

Tangled

In 1937 Walt Disney produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (William Cottrell et al), the first ever full-length animated feature film. It was also full colour and the first ever film to use Disney’s new cel-animation technique to such an extraordinary extent. It was an enormous ambitious project that Disney had begun three years earlier and during its development Hollywood insiders referred it to as ‘Disney’s Folly’. However, despite the doubters Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made cinematic history and is still regarded as not only one of the greatest animated films ever made but also one of the all time great American films.

In 2010, 37 years later, Walt Disney Studios released its 50th feature length animated film, Tangled (Nathan Greno and Byron Howard). Based on the story of Rapunzel, Tangled is similar to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in that it is also an adaptation of a classic European fairytale; in fact both are based on Brothers Grimm fairytales. Tangled also had a three year production but this time the challenges faced by the artists were how to best utilise computer-generated and 3D animation techniques to create the characters and world of the film.

Timed to coincide with the 6 January 2011 release of Tangled in Australia cinemas, the Australian Centre of the Moving Image (ACMI) is currently displaying the Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairy Tales exhibition. Originally created for the New Orleans Museum of Art, Melbourne is the exhibition’s second location and on display are over 600 items from the last 80 years of Disney animation. Some of the rarely displayed treasures from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library include concept art, storyboards, maquettes (character models used by the animators to draw from) and original animation cels.

While the focus of Dreams Come True are the items from the Disney ARL, the exhibition also attempts to examine the fairytale origins of key Walt Disney Studio films in order to explore the rationale behind why the original European morality tales were changed so significantly for the animated films. As well as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Tangled the exhibition looks at some of the early short films that originated from fairytales plus other much-loved feature films Cinderella (Clyde Geronimi et al, 1950), Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi, 1959), The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements and John Musker 1989), Beauty and The Beast (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1991) and The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker, 2009).

Unlike the Il Etait une Fois, Walt Disney (Once Upon A Time, Walt Disney) exhibition that was on display in Paris, France and then Montréal, Canada during 2006 and 2007, Dreams Come True is focused on presenting the evolution of artistic ideas from within Walt Disney Studios rather than looking too closely at external sources. While Il Etait une Fois looked at the inspiration that Disney and his artists found in painting and early cinema (with a fascinating examination of the German Expressionist influence on the Disney films), Dreams Come True predominantly looks at the stages in which the various characters and settings for the Disney films would change throughout production. This does provide for some fascinating insight into things like character development. For example, the early sketches of Snow White reveal that at one point she resembled an adolescent Betty Boop, which would have given the finished film a very different focus given the sexual nature of the Betty Boop character.

Another key difference between the two exhibitions is the design and layout. The French exhibition was a mixture of the objects with large wall props, atmospheric lighting and audio/visual content to create a range of moods and environments for the visitor as they passed through. On the other hand, Dreams Come True adopts a more traditional approach of simply containing artworks hung on coloured walls, objects in display cases and selected clips from the films played on screens dotted around the exhibition – some requiring headphones for small numbers of visitors to privately experience at a time and some playing publicly, which provides an effective soundtrack for the exhibition. A markedly different use of the ACMI screen gallery space to the recent Tim Burton exhibition, Dreams Come True is sparser but this does allow for larger groups of people to pass through the exhibition more comfortably.

The final difference between Il Etait une Fois and Dreams Come True that is worth commenting on is that while the French exhibition explored the various criticisms of the powerful Disney hegemony on popular culture throughout the world (even displaying subversive anti-Disney works of art) Dreams Come True carefully avoids such content. This is not surprising or unreasonable considering it is an exhibition curated by Walt Disney Studios and the exhibition does to an extent acknowledge the cultural impact of the Disney films in terms of re-packaging the fairy tale stories. Various quotes by Disney that adorn the exhibition walls grapple with this issue, such as the one stating, ‘The fairy tale film – created with the magic of animation – is the modern day equivalent of the great parables of the Middle Ages.’ Indeed, this quote displays the extent in which Disney openly embraced the idea that his versions of the fairy tales were to become the dominant ones for 20th century audiences.

The Dreams Come True exhibition begins by showing the different types of stories that Walt Disney Studios appropriated for their short animated films, which date back as far as 1922. In what is perhaps the most interesting part of the exhibition, we see on display artwork and excerpts from early animations based not only on fairy tales but also on fables (cautionary tales such as Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare), folk tales (exaggerated stories of real or mythical human triumphs such as the American John Henry stories), myths (such as Ovid’s story about King Midas) and nursery rhymes (which frequently contained political and social commentary). However, Walt Disney was predominantly drawn to the European fairy tales, which combined many aspects of fables, folk tales, myths and nursery rhymes with magical and fantastical elements plus core moral lessons.

Disney certainly believed in the preserving the basic essence of the original fairy tales and the exhibition quotes him saying that, ‘The screen version must perceive and emphasise the basic moral intent and the values upon which every great persistent fairly tale is founded.’ On the other hand he also states, ‘Literary versions of old fairy tales are usually thin and briefly told. They must be expanded and embellished to meet the requirements of theatre playing time’. The various placards in the Dreams Come True exhibition that are used to introduce the artwork from the key films, discuss the extent in which the violence and horror of the original fairy tales were toned down by Disney. So how do we as modern audiences grapple with the idea that Disney changed so much of the stories to maintain his perception of their moral intent while making sure the resulting films would be as popular as possible?

In many cases the changes seem reasonable considering the brutal and sadistic content of the original stories that seemed more designed to make children neurotic rather than instil real values. For example, the cruel trials and tortures that Hans Christian Anderson subjected many of his protagonists to frequently evoke Old Testament-style morality where only through suffering and terrible sacrifice can one achieve spiritual superiority (Tatar 2002: 302). The modern Walt Disney Studios film The Little Mermaid is far more palatable than the 1837 Anderson version where the price the mermaid (named Ariel in the Disney film) has to pay for becoming human is to have her tongue cut out and endear unbearable pain while walking.

On the other hand, some changes seem naive such as changing the meaning of The Pied Piper story in the 1933 Silly Symphony short. The original versions of the Pied Piper story serve as a warning to children to not put their trust in strangers, especially strangers offering them temptations. In Disney’s Silly Symphony version the children are rewarded for following the Piper by escaping from labouring in the adult world to enter the magical Happyland. Removing the dark edge from the original variations of the story, where the children usually end up dying, Disney lost the important cautionary message behind this early stranger-danger story.

However, not all the changes that Walt Disney made to the original fairy tales were bad ones and in fact the act of adapting them to accommodate what he believed to be contemporary vales and attitudes was no different to what various other storytellers had done before him. The Brothers Grimm, for example, were so keen to preserve the sanctity of motherhood that in their versions of popular fairy tales, such as Snow White (Sneewittchen) and Cinderella, both published in 1812, they changed the original conflicts between biological mother and daughter to conflicts between a step-mothers and step-daughter (Tatar 2002: 80). So Disney was by no means the first to adapt fairy tales for audiences at the time as many of the versions of the fairy tales that may be mistaken as the originals or definitive, were accordingly adapted as well.

What is more of a concern is not that Walt Disney adapted the fairy tales by removing so much of the violence and horror, but how he used the stories to express his own values through the guise of family entertainment. His love for the magical fairy tale world also resulted in extremely questionable depictions of race, gender and class in a fantasy world where monarchical rule was frequently unquestioned and women, racial minorities and socially subservient classes knew their place. Walt Disney’s membership of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and his allegiance with the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPAPAI), strongly indicated his conservative and fiercely anti-Communist beliefs, which are reflected in the idealised plutocratic view of the world in many of his films.

Even non-fairy tale Disney films reinforced the rightful rule by the privileged perspective, often demonising lower classes who dare to challenge the system. For example, the butler Edgar is the villain in The AristoCats (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1970) for simply acting against his mistress when she decides to leave her fortune to her cats instead of him, her loyal servant for several decades. Even Scar in The Lion King (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994) is motivated to commit his crimes due to his anger over his little nephew being first in line to the throne before him. Questioning, or even worse preventing, born-to-rule traditions is a major sin in the Disney universe.

Non-whites, or animals distinctively adopting stereotypical looks and behaviours associated with non-white races, are portrayed either as figures of ridicule or down-and-out characters who are happy in their poverty. The now rarely seen Song of the South, a 1946 feature film that mixes animation and live action, was criticised at the time of release by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for the ‘impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship’ in the way it depicts the happy-go-lucky kindly old slave character Uncle Remus in the Deep South in the second half of the 19th century (Cohen 1997: 60–68). Although sympathetic characters, the jive-talking crows in Dumbo (Samuel Armstrong et al, 1941) are an example of anthropomorphic animal characters perpetuating African-American stereotypes. It would not be until The Princess and the Frog in 2009 when African American characters were given lead roles as the heroes.

While The Princess and the Frog signalled a progression in the depiction of race for Walt Disney Studios, it still reinforces the myth of lower classes being happy in their place in class-base communities and the idea that one can only really aspire to greatness by either marrying into aristocracy or royalty, or discovering that one was aristocracy or royalty all along, as in the case of Tangled. Furthermore, this is also tied into one of the most persistent problems with the Disney films, the fairy tales in particular, where the young female heroes are frequently depicted as either aspiring to become a princess or can only find true happiness through becoming a princess.

The core message of Walt Disney Studio films of pursuing your dreams to achieve what your heart truly desires is a sound one but all too often the goal or reward is the unobtainable one of becoming royalty. Rapunzel in Tangled is yet another Walt Disney Studios lead character who begins as an unfulfilled virgin whose coming-of-age is signified by her getting married and (in her case) discovering that she was a princess all along. It is a very conservative depiction of what young women should aspire to.

The older Walt Disney Studios films are a lot more problematic as the agency is taken away from the young female heroes. Certainly in the case of Snow White and Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, the lead characters lose a significant amount of what agency they had during the majority of the film when the prince characters, who are mostly kept in the background of the narrative, finally turn up at the end and supposedly win the day by agreeing to marry the girls. At least from Sleeping Beauty onwards the princes started to become fully rounded characters who actively did something to earn their credentials, as opposed to simply showing up.

The goals of wealth and status may still remain but at least in modern Walt Disney Studio films like Tangled and The Princess and the Frog, the female protagonists are assertive and active characters, making far better role models than their more passive predecessors. The modern Walt Disney Studios films also give the females heroes far more empowerment than they did in the original tales. Female servitude was a big theme in many classic fairy tales and it is believed that some early versions of Beauty and the Beast were designed to prepare young girls for arranged marriages to older men (Tatar 2002: 58). The original Rapunzel stories reflected the practise of isolating or segregating women from the male population (Tatar 2002: 105).

Dreams Come True is a celebration of Walt Disney and Walt Disney Studio’s work producing short and feature-length animated films that have entered popular culture and the public consciousness so effectively. The exhibition fully succeeds in displaying the immense technological and artistic contributions that Disney made to animation and seeing so many items from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library is indeed a unique privilege. The exhibition also makes a convincing case for the versions of the fairy tales as told by the Disney films to be regarded as the versions most relevant to today. However, the degree in which the values of the Walt Disney Studio films reflect or shape social attitudes towards class, race and especially gender is a discussion that goes beyond Dreams Come True.

Bibliography

Cohen, Karl F, (1997), Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America, McFarland & Company, Jefferson

Tatar, Maira (ed), (2002), The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, WW Norton & Company, New York

Originally published in issue 61 (Autumn 2011) of Screen Education.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Aliens: Mothers, monsters and marines

23 September 2011
Aliens: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jorden (Carrie Henn)

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jorden (Carrie Henn)

James Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens contains a fascinating exploration of the way Western culture has traditionally aligned feminine characteristics onto nature while masculine characteristics have been aligned with civilisation. However, far from the more clear cut representation of this dichotomy that Cameron would later explore in Avatar (2009), where feminine/nature equalled good and masculine/civilisation equalled bad, Aliens has a more complex exploration by presenting two extremes of femininity with masculinity caught in the crossfire in the middle. With the alien queen as the monstrous version of motherhood facing off against Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) as the nurturing version of motherhood, the hyper masculine marines are at best rendered ineffective and at worst killed or used as incubators.[i] A further complexity is added by having the ruthless corporate interests at play in Aliens to be more reflexive of the parasitic aliens than the values of most of the human characters.

Exploitative commercialism

Commercialism features heavily throughout Aliens creating a very cynical depiction of humanity in the future still being obsessed with making money despite the great technological advances we have made as a species. This theme began in Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror/science-fiction film Alien, which Aliens is a sequel to, with the crew constantly bickering about their bonuses. It was then revealed that the company they reported to (not directly named as the Weyland-Yutani Corporation until Aliens) had an economic interest in the deadly alien, wanting to get it back to Earth, and considered the crew expendable.

The focus on economic gain over human life is introduced in Aliens during the very first line of dialogue when the salvage crew worker expresses his disappointment over the fact that because Ripley is alive they cannot claim her shuttle for themselves. Later when a panel of executives from Weyland-Yutani are questioning Ripley, they seem more concerned about the loss of the mining ship the Nostromo than taking what Ripley is saying seriously. There is also an early scene depicting the LV-426 colonists debating the claim rights to what they’ve been sent to investigate.

The concern over losing infrastructure and resources over preventing potential harm to humans is later expressed when Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) speaks out against the idea of destroying the LV-426 colony (and the aliens who now infest it that he describes as an ‘important species’) because of the investments his company has made. The true extent of Burke’s cold-hearted economic opportunism comes to light later when it is revealed that he intentionally ordered the colonists to investigate the derelict spaceship and when he deliberately exposes Ripley and Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jorden (Carrie Henn) to two of the impregnating spider-like ‘facehugger’ creatures in the hope that he can then smuggle the alien embryos back to Earth for the company’s biological weapons division.

Two types of parasites

AliensRipley may say that at least the aliens do not try to short-change each other for a percentage but the symbolic dichotomy of the company/alien allegiance versus humanity is set up in the original Alien film. The alien is the ‘perfect organism’ with its capacity to kill, acid blood defensive mechanism and parasitic reproductive system putting it at the top of the evolutionary food chain. The company is so purely focused on generating profit that it is similarly ruthless in its disregard for human life. Both the alien and the company exist to survive and continually grow.

In Aliens the primordial nightmare of the natural world that is the aliens is further emphasised but this time its human foe, specifically Ripley as the only survivor from the original film, is also aligned strongly with the natural world. Therefore, the opposing forces in Aliens are the brutal survival-of-the-fittest version of nature, reflected by both the aliens and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, and the nurturing version of nature in the guise of Ripley.

Nurturing and destructive nature

The alien creature in Alien reflected a range of cultural anxieties about motherhood and nature. It was ‘born’ from a human who was forcibly impregnated through oral penetration, an act with overt sexual overtones. The monstrous femininity in Alien was further emphasised through the naming of the Nosromo’s computer as Mother, which on company orders treated the human crew as expendable. The symbolic conspiracy between the alien and the company is further established in the scene where Ash (Ian Holm), the crew’s android who was acting under orders from the company, tries to suffocate Ripley by forcing a pornographic magazine down her throat, repeating the image of sexualised oral violation.

The opposing team in Alien that went up against the deadly creature was the working-class crew of the Nostromo, which included Ripley. While not overtly masculinised, the Nostromo crew and their dilapidated mining ship were products of industrialisation and therefore represented the forces of civilisation (traditionally aligned with masculinity) opposing the threat from the natural world (traditionally aligned with femininity and overtly so in the Alien films). Set 57 years later, Aliens continues the mise-en-scene emphasis on industrial spaces although this time there is the introduction of a strong miliary aesthetic. This gives the human characters a heightened masculinity to face off against the heightened monstrous femininity of a large nest of aliens with a queen alien at its centre.

Aliens: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)

The themes of nature and motherhood throughout Aliens are very pronounced with Ripley on the one hand being situated as the ‘good’ mother/force of nature while the alien queen is situated as a ‘bad’ mother/force of nature. Ripley is presented as caring, nurturing and protective towards the orphaned Newt while the alien queen symbolises nature at its most destructive and a nightmarish version of birth where unwitting subjects are forcibly penetrated and then made to carry an alien infant, which is ‘born’ by bursting out of their chest.

While there was little backstory given to Ripley in the original Alien film, in Aliens we learn that she was coming home to a daughter (no mention is ever made of a father) who has since grown old and died during the time Ripley was in her extended period of hypersleep. When Ripley discovers this news, and is naturally upset, she is sitting in a room with an artificial projection of a forest, which demonstrates just how far removed from Earth and the natural world she is, despite being on an orbiting space station. And yet Ripley is aligned with nature both as her role as motherly protector for Newt later in the film and the very dramatic graphic match edit at the start of the film where the Ripley’s sleeping face fades into a shot of the Earth.

Hyper masculinity and technology

By including the information about Ripley having been a mother she is given a specific motherly femininity that was not necessarily present in the original Alien. This is necessary to then contrast her with the marines whom she travels with to the LV-426 colony. The marines all have hyper-masculine bodies, including the women marines, one of which is joked about for being mistaken for a man. The marines are physically in peak condition but their ultra toned and toughened bodies give them an almost manufactured appearance. They have been mentally and physically conditioned for the purposes of combat and are far removed from the intuitive and empathetic Ripley.

While treated as somewhat of a novelty the marines are not bothered by the presence of Bishop (Lance Henriksen), an ‘artificial person’, perhaps because they are just as programmed as he is, possibly more so. The dialogue spoken by the marines is also an almost nonsensical combination of military jargon, bravado and slang. It is not until after the devastating initial attack by the aliens that the traditional chains of command break down, Ripley unofficially becomes their leader, and the marines all start talking more normally as well as displacing more emotions.

Aliens: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn)

Ripley and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn)

Before arriving on LV-426 everything about the marines and the settings they inhabit is artificial, aggressive and militaristic. The actual ship they travel in, the Sulaco, looks like a giant gun floating through space and while the awakening from hypersleep sequence mimics the sequence from Alien, this time, as the camera floats through the empty spaces of the ship, it, by contrast, focuses on the weaponry and other pieces of military hardware. When checking their weapons Private Drake (Mark Rolston) and Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) move as if they are in some sort of dance with the heavy machinery. Private Hudson’s (Bill Paxton) boast about the marines ends with him almost in an ecstatic rapture as he lists all the weapons at their disposal. Even when the film hints at the possibility of a romance between Ripley and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), it is done through Hicks offering Ripley a tracking device (completed with a joke about it not symbolising an engagement ring) and then demonstrating the use of one of his guns.

The artificial, technological and manufactured world of the military in Aliens initially excludes Ripley because of her status as an outsider. There is an anti-intellectualism in the way the marines reject her as an expert since all they think they need to know is what to point and shoot at. However, Ripley’s first act of endearing herself to the soldiers is when she demonstrates her proficiency in one of the giant robot-like cargo-loader units. By effectively giving herself an artificial giant mechanical body, Ripley is now one of the warriors who can use technology to improve upon nature. At the climatic final showdown at the end of the film it is the use of the cargo-loader that allows Ripley to defeat the queen alien. The mechanical body defeats the natural abomination. Curiously director James Cameron would later significantly alter the mechanical body symbolism when it is used in Avatar to again represent the military but this time as a destructive force that is threatening the natural world.

While Ripley does successfully use technology, machinery and weaponry to defeat the aliens she does so in an inventive and resourceful way that distinguishes her from the militarised approach of the marines. Firstly, for all their bravado, the marines in Aliens are very quickly shown to be completely out of their depth. Their weapons are useless underneath the cooling towers and they quickly discover that they are facing an enemy that does not abide by the rules of war that they are accustomed to. The aliens are the ultimate guerrilla warriors who use stealth and surprise in their attacks, discriminating against nobody. The aliens kill and impregnate the humans regardless of gender, age, class and race. After the first confrontation with the aliens most of the marines are killed (or possibly taken away for impregnation) and of the marine survivors only Hicks and Vasquez retain any sense of composure. Hudson falls to pieces and Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) proves to be ineffective and out of his depth.

The bitch versus Mummy

AliensWhile Ripley is aligned with feminine and natural characteristics through her nurturing instincts, she is far removed from the alien creatures that represent the natural world at its most brutal and savage. The aliens are compared to both ants and bees and it turns out that the species is socially structured like an insect colony with a queen at the centre doing all the reproduction while her workers/drones go out to find bodies to be impregnated. By aligning the aliens so closely to the insect world Aliens is able to remove all audience sympathy from them as being part of the natural order. They are not a misunderstood species that only attack when provoked but are a deadly parasite that destroys other life so that it may continue. There is no doubt that the aliens must be destroyed and the charge to do so is led by Ripley, the human character most associated with nature.

The only character who does speak out in defence of the aliens is Burke but his motives are purely opportunistic rather than being out of a sense of animal welfare. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation’s desire to use the aliens for their own biotech weaponry almost symbolically removes the aliens from the natural order and aligns them with the most exploitive aspects of humanity. The company may not have created the aliens but they are responsible for the events that have caused human life to be lost due to exposure to the aliens. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation employees, Burke in particular, and the aliens mirror each other as different types of ruthless parasites. Again, it is curious to note that Cameron’s approach to the natural world is remarkably different in Avatar where all the creatures are valued as sacred life, including the hostile ones. The various representations in Aliens of the natural order versus the human order are a lot less clean cut.

The ultimate portrayal of the brutal natural world in Aliens is the perverse process in which the aliens give birth via human bodies. Humans are first exposed against their will to the eggs that contain the facehugger creatures that forcibly penetrate its victim orally. The aggressive sexual penetration symbolism is even more aggressive and violent when the queen alien impales Bishop on her tail at the end of the film. Once impregnated the alien embryo grows within the human body until it is ready to rip its way out through the chest cavity, killing its victim. Even Newt recognises the similarities between human and alien pregnancies with the later being a nightmarish parody of the former.

Aliens: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)The alien queen is the monstrous mother figure as opposed to Ripley’s nurturing mothering figure. Gigantic and grotesques the alien queen is the most spectacular creature to be seen at this point in the film series, laying the deadly eggs via a giant birthing tube while her worker/drone aliens wait in attention on the side. The alien queen does also seem to possess an intelligence that the other aliens do not – she recognises the threat Ripley poses so keeps the other aliens at bay, she is able to work out how the elevator works and she is able to get on board the second dropship. Her intelligence suggests a more calculated level of menace that had not be seen previously. The initial standoff between the alien queen and Ripley is one of strange mutual recognition not just of the power each other has to destroy the other but also the motherly role they have each adopted for their own species. However, while Ripley comes up out the film being called ‘Mummy’ by Newt, the queen mother becomes the ‘bitch’ who is thrown out into space by Ripley with the aid of the cargo-loading suit. The pure harshness of the animal world as expressed in the insect nature of the alien is defeated by the nurturing mother who masters technology and machinery to defend herself.

Over twenty years after making Aliens, James Cameron uses the nature/female versus technology/male dichotomy in Avatar to make a clear statement of support on the side of the nature/female versus technology/male dichotomy that is so prevalent in so much popular culture, past and present.  Even in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Cameron has Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) give a speech about women creating life while men create machines of destruction. However, back in 1986 in Aliens, perhaps particularly due to the mythology Cameron inherited from Ridley Scott’s original Alien film, the traditional alignment of female characters with nature facilitates the positive representation of femininity as resourceful and nurturing but also the much more negative representation of femininity as destructive and monstrous. However, rather than concluding that Aliens is therefore a confused text in terms of gender representations we should instead see it as a complex text that both reflects cultural anxieties about femininity and promotes progressive attitudes towards femininity. After all, the mother is the one who ends up defeating the bitch.


[i] For a full discussion on the monstrous feminine in the Alien films refer to Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Archaic Mother: Alien’, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Routledge, London and New York, 1993.

Screen Education

Originally published in issue 59 (Spring 2010) of Screen Education.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

Bookmark and Share


Free Will, Technology and Violence in a Futuristic Vision of Humanity – 2001: A Space Odyssey

3 June 2011

2001: A Space OdysseyStanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the greatest films of all time and it is the director’s most profound and confounding exploration of humanity’s relationship to technology, violence, sexuality and social structures. Kubrick’s philosophical inquiries about the nature of humanity are explored to various degrees throughout all his films but in 2001: A Space Odyssey he explored his preoccupations most substantially by examining the place that humans occupy in the universe, asking some extremely weighty questions about the way humanity has evolved and suggesting what the next stage of our evolution will be like.

Although loosely based on the short stories ‘The Sentinel’ and ‘Encounter in the Dawn’ by the acclaimed science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who would simultaneously write the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey while Kubrick wrote the film’s screenplay, the film transcends its literary origins. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a work of cinematic poetry and its combination of philosophical musings with its special effects, sound design, production design, cinematography and editing make it just as visually impressive and thematically fascinating now as it was when originally released in 1968. It is a film that has inspired countless science-fiction films since, including Duncan Jones’s acclaimed feature film début Moon (2009), which is a direct homage.

While Clarke’s excellent novel is often used to unravel many of the narrative intricacies that are not immediately apparent in Kubrick’s film, it should largely be put aside for the purpose of conducting any serious analysis of the film.  Clarke’s novel is excellent science-fiction literature, but Kubrick’s film uses the visual and audible powers of cinema to their full potential to create a work of art that produces a sensory effect on the viewer that the written word cannot replicate. The majority of the meaning to explore in 2001: A Space Odyssey is in its visuals, not in its dialogue or characterisation.

2001: A Space OdysseyMost of Kubrick’s films contain a sense of despair over the way humans are capable of treating each other. Institutionalised violence and different types of unnatural conformity feature throughout Kubrick’s films as dehumanising and soul-destroying forces. In Paths of Glory (1975) three innocent French soldiers are executed for cowardice during World War I in order to deflect responsibility of a failed attack away from the orders of an incompetent upper command. The horror film The Shining (1980) places its supernatural elements into the background and functions as a parable for domestic violence when the father of a family looking after a hotel violently takes out his frustrations on his wife and son. The American soldiers in Full Metal Jacket (1987) are first stripped of their identities and transformed into killing machines during their training to then be sent to Vietnam where they symbolically align themselves with cowboys and joke, ‘the gooks can play the Indians’.

Kubrick does seem to believe that violence is innate to humanity and the role of civilisation is to create structures for suppressing that violence without going too far to the other extreme where the social structures are themselves violent or overly restrictive in nature. The exploration of violence within humanity can be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey and yet it is arguably the only film Kubrick made that could be interpreted to offer some hope for humanity to transcend its inherently destructive ways. However, before suggesting that 2001: A Space Odyssey can be therefore regarded as an optimistic film it should be noted that this hope comes in the unlikely guise of alien interference and the cold and cynical guise of sterile technology.

2001: A Space Odyssey begins with the birth of technology during the section titled ‘The Dawn of Man’. The ape-like primates who will later evolve into modern humans are depicted as on the brink of dying out. They are herbivores with not enough to eat, they are vulnerable to predators, they squabble over a small pool of water with a rival tribe and they are terrified of the dark. After encountering the alien black monolith one of the apes simultaneously learns to use a bone to hunt with as well as use it to kill with. Technology is used to kill for food and to kill for territory. Tools and weapons are thus depicted as being linked together throughout humanity’s evolution with one group having to kill another in order to wield power for their tribe to survive.

2001: A Space OdysseyIn one of the greatest graphic match edits ever depicted in cinema, Kubrick cuts from the bone being triumphantly thrown into the air to a satellite in orbit three million years later. This dramatic cut links the two objects as tools of humanity but also draws attention to the vast differences between them. One is a crude and Earth-bound tool/weapon with a simple function while the other is a sophisticated and complex object that has left the planet to now serve humanity in space.

Kubrick seems to have extremely mixed feelings about technology as it is frequently depicted as a threat to humanity (for example the doomsday device in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964) and yet he also views it as something beautiful. The first sequence set in outer space in 2001: A Space Odyssey is an extended, dialogue and plot-less sequence where Kubrick simply allows technology to dance. At first glance this sequence depicting the various satellites and spaceships, set to Johann Strauss’s ‘The Blue Danube’, may seem long and unnecessary but it is a crucial scene to understanding Kubrick’s vision of the future. The use of music and movement is designed to give the impression of the machines waltzing, which is the ultimate expression of the state of grace that humanity-built technology has now achieved. The days of bashing each other over the heads with bones is long gone as now humanity is capable of creating technology that can reach the stars and operate with the finesse of lovers dancing.

Not only is the use of Strauss’s waltz music romantically evocative but there is also a sexual symbolism in moments such as the space-plane docking into the wheel-shaped shape station (the wheel-shape also commenting on how far technology has progressed). Kubrick had previously presented machines in a sexual way in Dr. Strangelove when during the opening credits the image of a B-52 being connected midair to a fuelling plane is underscored by a lush orchestration version of ‘Try a Little Tenderness’. This sequence in Dr. Strangelove and the films overall sexual wordplays and innuendo is deliberately comical and suggests an absurd sexualization of objects of war. Kubrick would again do this in Full Metal Jacket when the army recruits are encouraged to sexualise their rifles.  However, in 2001 the effect is different as the sexualization of the machines is far les brutal, comical or overtly suggestive. Instead there is something almost chaste and sterile about the sequence.

2001: A Space OdysseyThe sense of sterility is further reflected by the extremely clean and corporate look given to the space station that Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) disembarks onto. The modernist furniture, bright white lights and smooth surfaces all reflect a bland uniformity that is not dissimilar to the corporate branded world that is satirised in Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air (2009). The conversation between Heywood and the Russian scientists indicates that in this version of the future the Cold War persists, or there are at least still tensions between the USA and Russia, however, discourse is polite and there is no hint of violence. Is this the price of humanity has paid for evolving beyond the desire to kill – complete blandness?

The idea of technology erasing violence but also erasing the desires and freewill that define what makes us human is also explored by Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange (1971). As part of a zero tolerance approach to crime the film’s protagonist, the charismatic yet sociopathic teenager Alex DeLarge, is subjected to a controversial behavioural-correction treatment that makes him experience nausea whenever he starts to have any violent or sexual feelings. A Clockwork Orange suggests that stifling such urges is a bad thing because it suppresses the will and therefore the identity of the subject. What good is it for somebody to do good when they have no choice otherwise? In Alex’s case he also becomes sickened by the sound of Ludwig van Beethoven’s music as a side effect of his treatment. While Alex’s violence is clearly depicted as destructive his neutering also has a morally adverse effect.

Kubrick is clearly anti-conflict and anit-violence but he is also against any system of over regulation that reduces humans to virtual automations. While the utopian technology of 2001: A Space Odyssey is something to be marvelled at it also comes with a price, which is fully explored in the ‘Jupiter Mission’ section of the film. The dehumanising effect of over-regulation is critiqued in this section by depicting the human characters Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) as almost emotionless servants of Discovery One. The three other scientists onboard are kept frozen in cryogenic hibernation making them virtual machines waiting to be switched on when required by the two ‘caretakers’ Bowman and Poole. The music that Kubrick uses during these scenes evokes the lonely emptiness of space but if Bowman or Poole feel melancholia, or any other emotion, then they don’t show it. Even when Poole receives a birthday message from his parents on Earth he barely registers any emotion.

2001: A Space OdysseyThe only character on board Discovery One with any traces of humanity is the computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). Programmed by humans to conceal key truths from Bowman and Poole as well as preserving the mission at all costs, which ends up translating as resorting to murder, HAL is still the most sympathetic character on board. His flawed programming that results in violence is the result of his human developers, suggesting that humans have once again misused technology. While the deaths of the human characters are cold, mechanical and emotionless, HAL’s death is extremely moving. Pleading with Bowman to not shut him down and then spiralling into delirium, HAL’s death is given the most dramatic significance in the film.

Placing sympathy and humanity onto a machine character instead of the human characters is an effective way of establishing the dehumanising effect of the modern world. It is a technique that has since become very popular in science-fiction films making a similar comment about a society where the humans are so machine-like that the machines seem human by contrast. The replicants in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), Bishop in Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), Murphy once he has become the cyborg enforcer in RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987) and even The Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991) all express compassion, passions and degrees of empathy that most of the human characters in the films fail to possess.

At the conclusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey humanity has reached a point where civilisation and technology have appeared to have outgrown the primitive brutality of violence that developed when humanity first evolved due to the intervention of the monolithic aliens. However, this evolution has now brought humanity to a false-Utopian state of sterility, passivity and clinical coldness where a computer resorts to killing the humans it is supposed to work for in order to preserve its mission. Just as the early human-ape creatures at the start of the film were at the point where they could go no further by themselves, the humans in the film’s version of the year 2001 are also required to now undergo the next step in evolution.

2001: A Space OdysseyThis next evolutionary process is depicted in the concluding segment of 2001: A Space Odyssey titled ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’ when the film adopts the point-of-view of Bowman to take the audience through an extraordinary psychodelic experience that is designed to represent the enormity and significance of what is happening. While the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey informs the reader that Bowman is physically transported through an alien made Star Gate, the sensation of the sequence in the film could easily be interpreted as a mental or even spiritual transcendence onto a higher plane of consciousness. Delivered into an ornate eighteenth-century room that is uncanny in its out-of-context familiarity, time appears to fold in on itself as Bowman witnesses himself in progressively older incarnations, before adopting those incarnations to eventually be reborn.

As the distinctive notes and crashing drums of Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ are heard for the final time to once again signal the next giant step for humanity, we are left with what we are to assume is what Bowman has become – an unborn child floating in space looking down on planet Earth. This dramatic final shot contains a sensation of awe and triumph and then the repeat of the  ‘The Blue Danube’ waltz over the end credits reinstates a sense of hope and beauty with this outcome.

However, what should we really deduce from this ending? Is humanity being transformed into the blank slate of an unborn star child something to hope for? Does such an ending suggest that given the way we are now there is no other hope for our species to survive? Since Kubrick is so critical of social and political structures that force humans to adopt a way living that is restrictive and contradicts freewill then what do we make of the idea that the entire human race have been manipulated by an alien intelligence since the very beginning? Is being under the control of a higher intelligence a source of comfort or the ultimate irony in Kubrick’s cinematic exploration of violence and artificial codes of behaviour throughout his career? The ultimate meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey is as deliberately ambiguous as the motives and origins of the black monoliths whose gift of heightened intelligence gave humanity the tools it needed to both survive and self-destruct.

Screen Education

Originally published in issue 58 (Winter 2010) of Screen Education.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

Bookmark and Share


Spectacle is not the problem; mediocrity is

21 December 2010

This paper was originally delivered as part of The age of the spectacle: developing critical thinking in a time of eye candy panel at the VATE Jubilee Conference on Tuesday 7 December 2010

Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory

Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895)

In 1895, French cinema pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière screened the first film they ever made. It was a 46 second long, continuous shot that was taken from a single fixed position. The film was called Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon). The image of the workers filing out of a factory was not so much what was of interest in the film but it was the technology itself that enthralled audiences. They were seeing something they had never seen before – moving photographs. Other early filmmakers then went further to explore the potential that cinema had in order to create optical illusions and primitive special effects that were designed simply to mesmerise the audience. Cinema began as a form of spectacle.

While cinematic storytelling techniques were developed almost immediately, the idea that the visual component of cinema would be regarded as subservient to a story did not really occur until the 1910s when the classical Hollywood era of cinema began. This era, which lasted until the 1960s, defined the cause-effect narrative structure that we are now accustomed to, which includes making sure that the means in which cinema is constructed is kept hidden from the viewer.

A Trip to the Moon

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

However, one thing that has remained true throughout the history of cinema is that it has always primarily been a visual art form and therefore what some may call eye-candy is in fact the essence of cinema.  And just like the audiences watching the people exit the factory in 1895, we are still fascinated with what technology can do and we want to be dazzled by something we haven’t seen before. Hence, the type of spectacle that cinema delivers has constantly changed to include sound, colour, panoramic screens to compete with the advent of television, special effects and today we have IMAX screens, new 3D technology, computer generated images and digital effects that continue to push the boundary of what can be achieved on screen.

So we aren’t living in an age of spectacle because spectacle has always been a part of cinema.

In terms of how we relate to popular culture now, I do not believe that spectacle is the problem. Instead, mediocrity is the problem and mediocrity intrudes upon all forms of cinema. A loud, noisy, big budget special-effects driven action extravaganza may draw more attention to itself when it succumbs to mediocrity but this doesn’t mean that all spectacle films are bad and it doesn’t mean that it is not a problem other films face. As an exercise, try to think of how many comedies, romances, dramas, thrillers or family films that you’ve seen over the past decade that were worth your time and money as opposed to how many were completely disposable. Genuinely good films are in the minority, however, that’s nothing particularly new or revelatory.

The first major crisis of mediocrity in film history (in terms of the dominant Hollywood cinema anyway) was during the 1950s and early 1960s after the old studio system was dismantled. The industry fell into the hands of business people who only saw film as a commodity and much of what was produced in that era were second rate attempts to capitalise on earlier successes. However, the New Hollywood era of the late 1960s and 1970s turned this trend around when a bunch of film literate filmmakers who were heavily influenced by European cinema were given a shot to make something different, since nothing else seemed to be working. Coinciding with the growing counter culture revolution the New Hollywood era is still arguably the finest point in American film history and it also resulted in an audience of cinemagoers who were hungry for intelligent and artistic films that they could engage with.

Top Gun

Top Gun (1986)

Unfortunately it’s been downhill from the 1980s onwards as Hollywood has become increasingly about producing films that adhere to specific formulas in order to be most effectively sold. There was a slight peak in the 1990s of independent American filmmaking and Hollywood films taking an independent sensibility but most of that ended after 9/11 terrified everybody into bunkering down to make safe, crowd-pleasing, unambitious distractions that toe the line and not dare be subversive. We’re still in the wake of that era and it hasn’t helped cinema that so many good writers have moved into television.

So where does that leave contemporary cinema? With all the good stuff that’s happening on made-for-cable television is cinema now just a refuge for brain-numbing banality? Not quite. There are still extraordinary films being made and screened but they do run the risk of drowning in the tidal wave of mass-marketed junk. Furthermore, there are plenty of formulaic crowd-pleasing films that are actually extremely good and commendable for doing something original and interesting within the confines of their generic trappings. And some of these films are films that we’d all identify as spectacle films. The trick is to become visually literate and culturally savvy enough to identify the spectacle films with merit and the ones that offer a vacuous and empty experience.

Part of the problem is that film is increasingly being taught in the context of it being an English or Literature text rather than being aligned with things like Art History and Fine Arts, like it is in many universities although that is changing too. So when you approach a visual art form as a purely narrative text you do run the risk of missing what it actually is that defines the film and that’s the elements of film style that in their most basic form can be summarised as the four areas of sound, cinematography, editing and mise-en-scène. Mise-en-scène, which is what we actually see in the film, can be further broken down into setting, costumes, lighting and acting-style. These elements of film style can exist without the film containing any substance and that’s when we get mediocre films, but these elements usually are vital in telling the story and sometimes they are the story.

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette (2006)

So, telling the difference between films that are style without substance and films where the style is the substance is crucial. For example, Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette) creates mood pieces with little narrative drive but the essence of her films comes with the way she constructs each scene and presents the world to us. The recent film The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010) was criticised by some for being an average film because once we strip away the beautifully constructed visuals you are left with a generic hit man film. But the point is you are not meant to strip away the visual elements to then reduce a film to just one aspect of its identity and in the case of The American the use of cinematic space, the setting and the references to 1960s and 1970s European cinema were designed to create a complex mood piece that functioned as a metaphor for the way America situates itself in the world.

Finally, to look at two films from 2009 that are easily identifiable as spectacle films, we can see the difference between something that appeals to audiences craving unchallenging mediocrity and something that is trying to show us something different. The example of mediocrity is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, by director Michael Bay. This is a film that aims to do little more than distract us with explosions and cleavage. Being a spectacle film without a tangible story is not a crime itself, as that is how cinema began and continues to thrive in many art house and experimental movements. The problem with Transformers is that the spectacle is rubbish – it creates the pretence of excitement by distracting the audience with a constant bombardment of sound and motion, and most significantly, through the incredibly rapid editing (a trademark of Bay’s) that prevents the audience from ever latching on to anything that is happening. Transformers is an action film where it is impossible to follow the action. However, you are made to feel that you should be excited because the music swells and the editing quickens to inform you so.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Not that rapid editing is the enemy but using it to distract from the otherwise emptiness of a film results in mediocrity. It also doesn’t help that the Transformers films continue a prevalent conservative trend in Hollywood of ridiculing intellectuals and government workers at the expense of the military who are seen as the real thinkers and noble characters of the film. Transformers is also extremely guilty of continuing the tradition of pornographically portraying its female characters as items of desire that always require rescuing.

Finally, we come to a film that is markedly different from Transformers and yet it is all too easily dismissed as junk cinema simply because it is spectacle. That film is James Cameron’s Avatar, a film that not only set the benchmark for 3D technology (in the sense that it is the only 3D film to date to feel fleshed out and not just a gimmick) but it created an all immersive world that allowed Cameron to give a modern spin to a group of archetypal characters and to recycle familiar narrative traits in order to tell a modern story based on contemporary concerns and attitudes.

One of the most extraordinary things about Avatar is its incredible technological accomplishment in using 3D and digital technology to create such a vibrant world. The textures, depth of field and seamless blend of digital imagery with human actors was truly remarkable. And yet, this was somehow viewed as a bad thing as if such a visually accomplished film was somehow an inferior product. One commenter on my blog declared it to be a terrible film but then stated, ‘Yes, the special effects were wondrous and magical’.

This taps into the automatic bias that many people still have against the visual element of cinema. Furthermore, it taps into the belief that some aspects of cinema are praise worthy while others are not. For example, many critics seem happy to praise other isolated aspects of a film – like the acting, or writing, or maybe cinematography – but creating special effects is still frequently seen as somehow a lesser art form. A film is the sum of all its parts and learning to appreciate all these aspects is crucial for effective analysis.

Avatar

Avatar (2009)

But, what of the story at the heart of Avatar, which even I’ll admit is little more than Pocahontas in Space. The story is a simple one but I don’t think it’s fair to assume that it’s therefore a stupid one. It certainly isn’t any more simplistic that the much-loved original Star Wars films. At it’s worst Avatar is a white-man-leads-the-natives-and-saves-the-day film, however, at its best it is an archetypal hero’s quest story were the villains are a militarised corporation who feel that destroying an indigenous culture and their environment is an acceptable action to take in order to pursue profits. The fact that some critics labelled it as therefore a left wing film just goes to show how deeply entrenched conservative values are in Hollywood. It’s a worry when being anti-genocide is regarded as being subversive.

So in conclusion, don’t worry about spectacle, worry about mediocrity. Cinema and popular culture are not the enemy but the influx of films and other cultural products that are designed to stupefy us are the enemy and they come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t be so quick to dismiss spectacle films as eye-candy as you may miss some of the most interesting, thoughtful, and well-crafted films that are out there.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

Bookmark and Share


Tim Burton: The Exhibition

29 September 2010

Into the Weird and Wonderful Mind of Cinema’s Most Popular Outsider

Tim Burton at Tim Burton: The Exhibition

Tim Burton at Tim Burton: The Exhibition

There are three defining aspects about the entrance to Tim Burton: The Exhibition that express the core ideas about the world of filmmaker Tim Burton. Running from 24 June to 10 October 2010 at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), the Burton exhibition begins with you entering through a giant cartoonish monster mouth to go down into ACMI’s appropriately dark screen gallery. The big mouth is more comical than menacing, reflecting Burton’s love of both absurdity and horror. Violence in Burton’s films is often the punch line to a joke but always in a way that reflects the darkly humorous tone of classic fairy tales rather than any sort of post-modern ironic violence.

The next element you encounter as you walk into the Burton exhibition is a projection of a giant spiral with weird animated characters swimming through it. Not only is the animation something that could have come straight out of a cheesy-hypnosis scene from one of Burton’s beloved B-grade films of the 1950s and 60s, but it presents us with the idea that we are going into the vortex that is Burton’s subconscious and that is the subconscious of an adult man who still has a childlike view of the world.

Mars Attacks! artwork from Tim Burton: The Exhibition

Mars Attacks! artwork from Tim Burton: The Exhibition

Inside the actual exhibition you get a further indication of Burton’s dark and playful comedic style where several drawings indicate his lifelong obsession with the macabre and his morbid sense of humour. The clip playing from Mars Attacks! (1996) of the white dove of peace getting zapped by the aliens and the clip from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) where the animatronics attraction (which is clearly a parody of the famous Disney “It’s a Small World” ride) bursts into flames, are classic Burton. Both are wickedly funny scenes but both are also moments where something innocent goes horribly wrong. The Burton childlike view of the world is not all delights and adventure but something sinister too.

Another key element to the entry of the exhibition is the publicly displayed Batmobile from Burton’s Batman films. As one of the first things that visitors to the exhibition will see, the Batmobile reminds us that despite having pursued his very personal artistic vision throughout his career, Tim Burton is a bankable director and Hollywood success story. His films have broad appeal across mainstream audiences and the various subcultures that have adopted him. Burton’s playfulness, love of retro pop-culture, Gothic sensibilities and reoccurring themes of the outsider, problematic parental figures and concealed identity have resonated widely, making Burton one of the most popular and accessible of the auteur directors.

Screen EducationThis is an excerpt from an article printed in issue 59 (Spring 2010) of Screen Education. The full article contains a closer look at the entire exhibition and the reoccurring themes in Burton’s films.

Read Cinema Autopsy’s profile of director Tim Burton

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

Bookmark and Share


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 366 other followers