Analysis #2 – Breathless (1960)

The first five minutes of the French New Wave film Breathless (1960) uses several techniques that signal the viewer of its awareness as a film. The film’s main character, Michel, directly addresses the camera. There are jump cuts between scenes and shots. The camerawork is often handheld. The lighting is uneven and mainly natural.

The beginning of the film starts with alternating shots of a close-up of Michel and a close-up of a woman signaling Michel, nodding at him. This use of close-up between these two characters causes the viewer to believe these characters are close to each other. However, when we get wider shots of them and their surrounding area, we see that they are not. The use of close-up confuses the viewer, especially those who are accustomed to the continuity style editing of Classic Hollywood.

Getting the signal from the woman, Michel promptly steals a car. We are then shown a lengthy sequence of Michel driving, talking to himself as well as addressing the camera (“If you don’t like the shore…if you don’t like the mountains…if you don’t like the city…Then get stuffed!”). The sequence is mostly stream-of-consciousness from Michel, talking about his surroundings while the camera, inside the vehicle and mostly handheld, looks at him and his surroundings. This sequence once again breaks the rules of continuity editing. By showing us this sequence, Godard does away with elliptical editing, which would have skipped this driving part almost entirely, and presents to us the candid nature of Michel.

We are then brought to the main action of the scene: Michel’s run-in with the law. While driving, Michel gets chased by the police. In an effort to evade them, Michel drives off-road and loses all the cops but one, who finds Michel and is then promptly shot by him. The shooting of the cop takes advantage of jump cuts and close-ups to disorient the viewer of what’s going on. When the cop stops and asks Michel to “Freeze,” we see a close-up of Michel and a close-up of a gun, presumably being pointed at Michel. We then hear the gun fired and we see the cop fall into a bush.

Jump cut to: a panning long shot of Michel fleeing the scene on foot through a wide open meadow. The scene is dimly lit, and with the exception of Michel’s white shirt, is almost washed out in its grayness. And that is how the first five minutes of the movie unfolds.

From a Hollywood filmmaker’s perspective, this can be seen as very amateur or daring. And it would be both as it was Godard’s first film. And indeed, if judging by the cinematic guidelines set up by the Classic Hollywood era’s continuity style of editing, it is breaking the rules in many ways. The purpose of Hollywood’s continuity editing style was to bring the story to the forefront, setting up a cinematic language that made its editing invisible and seamless to the viewer, and mainly as a mode of bringing its focus on the plot and characters.

But by breaking the rules of this style of editing, what effect does this achieve? By consciously breaking these rules, Godard and many of the participants of this French nouvelle vague were acknowledging the fact that, yes, this is a film and you are the viewer. They are not trying to hide the nature of the medium they are using to tell us a story. The editing, and many other techniques made hidden by the continuity style of editing, were now a part of the way the story is told. By acknowledging its nature as a film, the director has more options in how to convey his story stylistically. Godard takes advantage of the medium, using jump cuts, extremely long takes, close-ups, and handheld and portable cameras, to make the viewer actively participate in deciphering what they are seeing, as opposed to the passive nature of the audience watching a classically edited Hollywood film.

The stylistic choices made by the director and editors to use long takes and handheld cameras hark back to the primitive stages of film, when film was used to film actualities (e.g. people leaving work at a factory, a woman walking on 23rd Street in New York). It can even be argued that Dziga Vertov’s  Man With a Camera (1929) directly influenced Godard and the French New Wave. And, continuing this succession of influences, Godard and the French New Wave has influenced subsequent filmmakers and will continue to do so so long as their films remain as visible as their editing.

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Psycho (1960)

One needs to learn the rules before they can break them. This is exactly what Hitchcock did in Psycho. Already a master in the classical Hollywood style of filmmaking, Hitchcock deliberately broke many of the rules of filmmaking in Psycho to achieve a specific effect.

False starts. At the beginning of the film, Hitchcock gives us a protagonist and a conflict then gets rid of it entirely within the first third of the film. We are introduced to Marion, who steals $40,000 for her boyfriend, and then completely gets rid of both of these elements by having Marion killed and the money thrown away. The first third of the movie is a complete MacGuffin. What does Hitchcock achieve by doing this? If the protagonist, the hero of the story who we’re supposed to identify and sympathize with and who traditionally should triumph at the end, can be killed off, Hitchcock sets the tone that no one is safe.

The driving scenes is a prime example of internal diegetic sound.

The movie then turns into this suspenseful thriller on whether or not the killer will be caught. We are introduced to other potential protagonists (Marion’s sister Lila, private eye Arbogast) but they all run the risk of also being killed. In fact, the character with the most screen time is Norman, which is odd (for its time) because he is supposed to be the villain (or at least villain by proxy, until the reveal of his mother’s corpse towards the end).

Precedents on screen. The film is notable in that it showed many elements of a story that Hollywood directors would not show, either due to studio disapproval (Hays’ code) or its irrelevance to the story (elliptical editing). Hitchcock was already an established and major Hollywood director by the time Psycho was released so for such a major figure in film to include some of these story elements sets precedence in what can be shown in major Hollywood films.

The film starts with Marion and her boyfriend Sam in a hotel room post-coitus. It’s obvious the couple has just had sex with both of them putting their clothes back on. While the sex is still implied and seen after the fact, it’s more obvious than other films and blunt in its presentation. Hitchcock isn’t trying to hide the fact that they just had sex. This is a shift away from classical Hollywood and can be connected to the sexual revolution in 1960s America, with sex less hush-hush and more openly discussed.

While the sex is implied, there are elements to the story that the film does not skirt. For one, Hitchcock not only showed a toilet, but showed it being flushed as well. Tame by today’s American-Pie/scatalogical-humor-raised generation, a flushing toilet on screen was controversial in an era where virtually all toilets were not seen.

Shocking.

While the shower scene is the iconic scene in the film and one of film history’s most brilliantly executed scenes, my favorite scene in the movie is the murder scene clean-up. While most directors at the time would present to us a murder occurring in off-screen space and then omit the immediate aftermath, Hitchcock gives us both on-screen. The clean-up shows Norman methodically cleaning the murder scene in a slow sequence that almost feels like it’s shot in real time because it’s such a long scene. The scene is slow, quiet, and dark, almost peaceful seeing Norman mop the blood in the bathtub and wrap Marion’s body in the shower curtain.

 

Everything in its right place.

We’ve dealt with death and murder in this class and even serial killers, but the heinous action done by these characters were always shown off-screen. Fritz Lang’s M presented the murder of the child entirely off-screen, showing a balloon that signals the audience that the murder has taken place. While Wilder’s Double Indemnity brings us closer to the actual killing, it still presents it off-screen. The only film that we’ve seen in class that actually shows graphic violence and dead bodies is Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931) which was released before the Hays’ Code was strictly enforced in film in 1934. Here, Hitchcock gives us both the killing and the clean-up on-screen.

Human monsters. Prior to Psycho, American horror movies (especially ones released by Universal) usually included a supernatural element to its plot. Werewolves, vampires, creatures from a black lagoon, even the more science-fiction-oriented Frankenstein’s monster, were the focus of most horror films. These monsters were staples of the American horror film.

With Psycho, we’re given a horror movie devoid of these supernatural monsters and brings us a human monster, suffering from psychosexual problems. This shift of character launches the psychological horror movie, where the malevolence of the horror takes place within ourselves (psychological) that others can’t see (hiding in plain sight) or control, rather from an outside source (supernatural) that can either be stopped (e.g. werewolves with siver bullets) or controlled (government protection in Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

Lila is left in the dark.

The influence of Psycho’s psychological horror and its success in Hollywood on modern horror stories (and film in general) is prevalent. In this respect, the influence on Hitchcock’s film from German expressionists is prevalent as well, who were way ahead of their time as they have been dealing with these kinds of psychological issues on film 30-40 years prior to Psycho with films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and M (1931). The film is obviously influenced by German Expressionism. The film is dark in subject matter and dark literally.

Bonus. Additional screencaps that I particularly enjoyed and would be great in a “Guess the Movie” game.

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Written on the Wind (1956)

Written on the Wind is so over-the-top in every aspect of its being, some may find it campy and ridiculous (which it is). However, I find it brilliant in its use of excess because the film’s characters’ problems are so trivial, elevating their problems to such a high degree of importance and severity seems to be the only route in delivering a movie worth watching.

This notion of excess is an important aspect of the mode of melodrama. The film is not subtle at all. From the acting to the costume, everything is brought on full force.  Like a stage play, each character in the film has a want or need and in order to express these wants or needs to the audience, the actors in their respective roles cannot be subtle.

A predecessor to shows such as Dynasty and Dallas and even Desperate Housewives, the film is about rich people and their trivial woes, what I like to call first world problems. Without any financial issues to worry about, the rich fret about things those who are not rich would not usually be troubled with. Kyle Hadley is constantly emasculated by and in the shadow of his best friend Mitch Wayne. Mitch is in love with Kyle’s wife, but cannot make a move in order to honor the marriage. Kyle’s sister Marylee wants nothing but Mitch and is always acting out to attract his attention. Jasper, the father of the Hadley siblings, just wants to see his children be happy. This small family, Mitch included, is toxic and by film’s end, two of them are dead, another is left alone.

Kyle’s wife, Lucy, is the newcomer to the group, a stranger, who has nothing to contribute but trouble. Her appearance is the thing that causes the chain of events that spiral out of control and conclude with Kyle’s death. The film concluding with her and Mitch riding off into the sunset, finally able to be with each other, does not give the audience a warm happy feeling. This happy ending is tainted by the death of two people (some can even argue three, with Lucy’s miscarriage).

The look of the film enhances the effect of its campiness and excess. The set is intentionally artificial in its look, even the exteriors feel fake (the city sidewalks, the lake Marylee frequents). The costume design uses color to illustrate character traits.

At the beginning of the film, Kyle and Lucy are shown to be wearing similarly toned clothing of a silver-gray color, while Mitch wears brown earth tones. As the film progresses, Lucy and Mitch’s colors seem to synch up. For example, in the scene where Lucy and Mitch meet Kyle at the bar, Mitch and Kyle seem to have switched colors, Mitch wearing gray and Kyle wearing brown.

This switch can be interpreted as Mitch, with Kyle incapacitated by his insecurities and drinking, taking over his role as Lucy’s lover.

I’ve read theories on the film that Kyle only married Lucy to ease his father’s worries that his son might be gay. This theory is plausible in the colors associated with Lucy. It isn’t only until after Jasper Hadley’s funeral that she begins to wear green (an earth tone), and it remains her main color throughout the remainder of the film.

Marylee, somewhat of a wild card and sex maven, is frequently in pinks and reds. The brilliantly edited death scene of Jasper Hadley has Marylee draped in red, fawning over a photo of Mitch in an overtly sexual manner. The scene, enhanced by the irregularly tempo’d jazz piece, shows not only the character’s sexuality, but also the unpredictability of Marylee’s character.

The level of artificiality in this film, I believe, is making a statement on the woes of the affluent and their triviality. If the film were directed by anyone other than Sirk, and taken to a level of subtlety and seriousness (a la Welles), would it be a film worth watching?

The kid is basically rubbing his lack of masculinity in his face.

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Umberto D. (1952) – A man and his dog

The story of a man and his dog (and sometimes a woman and her dog) has been told numerous times in all forms of media. Umberto D. is another one of these stories.

One of the many tragedies in life is that a dog, man’s proverbial best friend, has a much shorter lifespan than its owner. Interpreting the ending of the neo-realist film Umberto D. is difficult because, although it ends on a somewhat hopeful note with the titular Umberto walking and playing with his dog Flike, it also struck me as very sad. Sure, they are together but for how long? Umberto just attempted suicide, who is to say he won’t try again? How long do either of them have left to live? How will they cope with being homeless?

This is one of the characteristics of the Italian neo-realist film movement. Endings don’t necessarily have to make sense or be neatly wrapped up. They focus more on realism, shooting on-location and using nonprofessional actors and dealing with harsh issues such as poverty and war in a realistic light. These films are almost the opposite of what Hollywood was coming out with during that time. Low-budget sets, non-glorified actors, emphasis on realism rather than escapism. These films are dreary and harsh, not just in story but also in looks.

They focused on real life, and as real life doesn’t begin and end neatly in a three-act structure, the films are particularly difficult to describe. What is Umberto D. about? A man and his dog living in a small apartment in post-war Italy. That last part about living in post-war Italy isn’t even that important in relation to the overall story (I use the word “story” because while the film does have a plot, it is in the loosest sense of the word). Neo-realist films, therefore, must be experienced.

 

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Scene Analysis – Citizen Kane, opening scene

great shot composition

Scene description: Opening scene of the film. This scene leads us through Kane’s estate until we reach Charles Foster Kane on his deathbed. Clutching a snowglobe, he whispers “Rosebud,” then dies. A nurse finds his body and covers it with a sheet.

Shots:

  1. Camera distance: close-up
    Angle: straight on
    Camera movement: crane up
    Length: 20 seconds
    Description: Fade in to a close-up of a “No Trespassing” sign attached to a fence. Camera lingers on sign for a few seconds before craning up to dissolve to shot 2.
  2. Camera distance: close-up
    Angle: straight on
    Camera movement: crane up
    Length: 6 seconds
    Description: Dissolve to a shot of higher portion of fence as the camera cranes up before dissolving to shot 3.
  3. Camera distance: close-up
    Angle: straight on
    Camera movement: crane up
    Length: 5 seconds
    Description: Dissolve to a shot of a different portion of fence as the camera cranes up before dissolving to shot 4.
  4. Camera distance: long shot
    Angle: low
    Camera movement: static
    Length: 4 seconds
    Description: Dissolve to a static long shot of the Xanadu estate seen from behind an ornate gate. Dissolve to shot 5.
  5. Camera distance: long shot
    Angle: low
    Camera movement: static
    Length: 12 seconds
    Description: Dissolve to a static long shot of Xanadu estate beyond the initial gate. Monkeys are seen in the foreground.  Xanadu mansion is off in the distance with a single light on. Dissolve to shot 6.
  6. Camera distance: long shot
    Angle: high
    Camera movement: static
    Length: 9 seconds
    Description: Dissolve to a static long shot to two boats in  a body of water with the Xanadu mansion with a single light on reflected on the water. Dissolve to shot 7.
  7. Camera distance: long shot
    Angle: low
    Camera movement: static
    Length: 9 seconds
    Description: Dissolve to a static long shot of the Xanadu mansion seen from ground level. In the frame are various miscellany. Xanadu mansion is off in the distance with a single light on. Dissolve to shot 8.
  8. Camera distance: long shot
    Angle:  low
    Camera movement: static
    Length: 9 seconds
    Description: Dissolve to a static long shot of a golf course on Xanadu. Xanadu mansion is off in the distance with a single light on. Dissolve to shot 9.
  9. Camera distance: long shot
    Angle: straight on
    Camera movement: static
    Length: 4 seconds
    Description: Dissolve to a static long shot of the outside of the Xanadu mansion. A veranda of sorts constructed from stone is outside. A single light is lit in the mansion. Dissolve to shot 10.
  10. Camera distance: long shot
    Angle: low
    Camera movement: static
    Length: 8 seconds
    Description: Dissolve to a static low-angle long shot of the tower window from which the single light is coming from. Dissolve to shot 11.
  11. Camera distance: long shot
    Angle: straight on
    Camera movement: static
    Length: 5 seconds
    Description: Dissolve to a straight-angle long shot of the window that emanates the light. The light suddenly dies. Dissolve to shot 12.
  12. Camera distance: long shot
    Angle: straight on
    Camera movement: static
    Length: 7 seconds
    Description: Dissolve to a straight-angle long shot from inside the mansion. Kane is lying in a bed by a large window as a diffuse light comes in. Dissolve to shot 13.
  13. Camera distance: extreme close-up
    Angle: straight on
    Camera movement: track back
    Length: 8 seconds
    Description: Dissolve to close-up straight-angle shot of a snowglobe with images of falling snow superimposed in the shot. Quick track back to reveal the snowglobe is in Kane’s hand. Cut to shot 14.
  14. Camera distance: extreme close-up
    Angle: high
    Camera movement: static
    Length: 2-3 seconds
    Description: Cut to a high-angle extreme close-up shot of Kane’s mouth as he whispers the word “Rosebud.” Cut to shot 15.
  15. Camera distance: close-up
    Angle: high
    Camera movement: static
    Length: 4 seconds
    Description: Cut to a high-angle close-up shot of the globe falling from Kane’s hands as he dies. The globe rolls for a bit on small platform before falling. Cut to shot 16.
  16. Camera distance: close-up
    Angle: low
    Camera movement: static
    Length: 2 seconds
    Description: Cut to low-angle close-up shot of the globe falling on the tiled floor and shattering. Cut to shot 17.
  17. Camera distance: long shot
    Angle: low
    Camera movement: static
    Length: ~1 second
    Description: Cut to low-angle long shot from globe’s POV as a nurse walks in. The image is distorted as if seeing through the globe’s curved glass.  Cut to shot 18.
  18. Camera distance: extreme close-up
    Angle: low
    Camera movement: static
    Length: 5 seconds
    Description: Cut to low-angle extreme close-up of the shattered globe. The image of the nurse is reflected on the globe’s glass as she walks into the room to the now-dead Kane. Cut to shot 19.
  19. Camera distance: medium shot
    Angle: low
    Camera movement: pan right
    Length: 13 seconds
    Description: Cut to low-angle medium shot of the nurse position Kane’s arms and covering his body with a sheet. Dissolve to shot 20.
  20. Camera distance: long shot
    Angle: straight on
    Camera movement: static
    Length: 10 seconds
    Description: Dissolve to a straight-angle long shot of Kane’s covered body lying in bed silhouetted against the window.  Fade out.

The scene begins with a close-up of a “No Trespassing” sign. The camera, along with the viewer who keeps watching, ignores this sign and crosses the fence, each shot inching closer and closer to the light in the window until we reach Kane on his deathbed. On our journey there, we see an empty lifeless estate (aside from the caged monkeys), huge in space but empty save for Kane and the nurse.

When we reach Kane’s deathbed, images of falling snow is superimposed on top of images of Kane and the snowglobe. We do not know if this snow is the snow inside the globe or if the snow is the last image running through Kane’s mind before he dies. This ambiguity between literality and psychology empowers the viewer in determining what it means, but it also adds a sense of finality  (winter symbolizing death or loss of life) and serenity (falling snow is peaceful). However, the distorted images from the snowglobe’s POV adds a sense of disorientation, maybe as a warning to the viewer of the distorted view and memories from the different character interviews.

Every shot of this opening scene is carefully constructed and composed. The light in the window is consistent in its position in every shot outside of the mansion. The constant use of dissolves as the camera comes closer and closer to the titular Kane on his deathbed is not only a way for the director and cinematographer to show their precision in composition, but it also adds a slow-moving fluidity to the scene. This adds effect in allowing the viewer to absorb the information in every shot and not simply spoonfeeding Kane’s entire lifestory to them. They do this in the next scene.

Opening Sequence (without sound, unfortunately)

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Citizen Kane (1941)

What can I say about Citizen Kane that hasn’t already been said? It is one of the most, if not the most, studied and analyzed films ever. Its presence is so deeply ingrained into our popular culture that even before viewing the film, I knew what it was all about. The Simpsons references the movie so much, one of the writers claims that you can recreate the entire movie by editing all the Simpsons parodies together.

I don't remember this scene.

Quite an impressive feat for a 70-year old movie.

It’s probably not an understatement to claim that Citizen Kane is a “perfect film.” Every frame is carefully crafted and well thought out, every detail scrutinized by its creators. Its use of deep focus, dynamic camera movements, and unconventional camera placement has been talked about, discussed, and analyzed countless times (and what else can be said about these aspects, anyway?). The collaboration between director Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland was truly a match made in heaven. While the film isn’t really a trailblazer with the techniques it used, it is one of the first films to use all of them.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about some patterns in the film.

I must have seen this film around 10 separate times and one of the many patterns I’ve noticed is the use of STATUES. What’s up with the statues? All them statues! So many statues.

It’s mentioned numerous times throughout the film itself of Charlie Kane’s predilection for collecting statues. We see him sending statues to the office.

One of these isn't a statue, I think.

We see his palace filled with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of statues.

On the next episode of Hoarders...

Even some of the characters begin to look like statues, especially Susan Alexander after her attempted suicide. Trophy wife, perhaps?

"It makes a whole lot more sense than collecting statues."

When the main narrative of the film begins, the deceased Mr. Thatcher is represented by his looming marble statue.

I'm not always in a blog post, but when I am, I'm just here to occupy space.

What can be said about these statues? They’re inanimate, cold, can’t hold a conversation too well. They’re also reflections of the past, representations of life. Something Charles Kane has been trying to retrieve, as his dying word “Rosebud” leads us to believe. Statues are life without life, perhaps a life surrogate or life once removed.

These statues, however, are not the only thing that represent this notion. Even after their deaths, the presence of Charles Foster Kane and Mr. Thatcher can be felt by their portraits in the office Mr. Bernstein now occupies.

This transition of scenes illustrates how Charles Kane is indeed Keyser Soze.

These are just a few examples of ONE pattern I found in the film. I can only imagine how many others there are and how many examples can be given. Even the puzzles that Susan spends all her time with in lonely, desolate Xanadu are representations of life, but not life itself. In a way, these examples are self-reflexive of the film medium itself, as film shows life at 24 frames per second, but that life is only an illusion.

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