All posts by John Ottinger

Race, Ethnicity, and Film

I want to preface this by saying that I believe diversity in films is good and that everyone should have their share of accurate representation, I am just exploring what I think of story telling and how diversity could be handled in film.

The ability to write certain characters into film has always been difficult because of the purpose the character serves for the overall meaning of the film can be something tricky to justify if there is no legitimate reason as to their inclusion.  As a film writer, I have always stood by “write what you know” and, after attending Justin Simien’s Dear White People panel here on campus, what he said about the writing yourself into the film industry resonated with me.  He said something along the lines of “If you don’t see a representation of yourself in film, write that representation.”  This resonated with me because as a Caucasian male in an ever changing political landscape, it’s hard to decide whether I have a social obligation to complying with what the modern audience wants, a diverse cast of characters, or what I think would make for a good story, a story with characters who I believe have a purpose in the greater meaning of my story.

Now, I’m not saying that I think a good story is one that is dominated by characters much like myself, white and male, but at the same time, having an oversaturation of diversity in a story just to satisfy a quota is also not a good story.  I believe a good story comes naturally, and to write extraneous characters in, to satisfy a diversity quota or not, detracts from the meaning of the story.  I think this because then when you’re writing the story, you need to spend exposition on why that character is there and, if written/justified poorly, can make an otherwise good story feel shoddy.

How I think a good story can come naturally while also having a diverse cast of characters, referencing back to “write what you know,” is to recall experiences where you’ve been surrounded by diversity, find the inspiration to write, and then talk about the experience, or lack there of, and how that might play out, using film like an essay to explore your theory of why that experience, or again lack of experience, was meaningful in a broader sense.  A story which emanated from an experience, I think, would then reduce the misrepresentation of marginalized groups because it came from an unbiased memory and, using that memory as a reference, would very more or less better represent said group.  Yes, if the writer/director/producer had bias, that would be seen clearly in the film, but, if the story-teller meant to represent a memory accurately and unbiased, the method I’ve described could be a possible path for story-tellers to follow if they fear misrepresenting any group in a film due to error in any sense (writing, aesthetics, casting, etc.).

I know that a story with a diverse cast doesn’t strictly have to come from a memory, but if you have a story to tell and you’re writing the persona of a character you’ve never actually experienced, I think it’d be better to draw from inspiration that you know of rather than just making up an image for that character which may have repercussions later on.

Masculinity And Film

As a response to my previous post about how men and women are subjectified and objectified in film, I’d like to further expand on my point of the male object.  Specifically, from how I had thought the use of male actors in film to become objects of fetishism were too far and few, it wasn’t until reading the UFT chapter on masculinity that I found a much broader pool of examples to pick from.  The use of Arnold Shwarzenegger  in Conan The Barbarian, for example, is what I had long thought was the ideal level of male appearance since the idea of appearance was incepted into my brain due to social norms.  The way in which the chapter discusses the use of males in film to represent masculinity reassured my own thoughts on masculinity because, as the chapter seemed to imply, being masculine can be anything from a brainless brute to a genteel fellow.  The way in which masculinity is defined is that basically a man can be anything he wants to be as long as there is confidence in the image, even if the image of that character is someone who is shy; the male character identifies with a trait and sticks with that trait, whatever it is.

Something that I thought was interesting that was highlighted in the chapter is the emphasis of the male gaze at the male object and how the film industry tries to avoid that situation by damaging the object to imply that any homosexual feelings should be abandoned and replaced with violent reactions.  It is with this notion though that the viewership is increased because, at first, the fetishism of the male object attracts the female viewership and the destruction of that object then attracts the male viewership due to the competitive nature of male anxiety.  Having a male character that any man could identify with would relate back the the idea that a male character’s essential trait is something of a jumping off point, where then the viewer explores how they and the character are similar and different.  It is with the narcissistic form of identification that I can see why women find themselves at odds with the film industry due to the portrayal of women in film; there is very little of women in film that explores all the different ways a woman can be, unlike a man.  The roles proposed by longstanding stereotypes seen in film don’t allow women the chance to identify with a broad spectrum of traits and thus don’t see themselves at all in film because of the narrow one or two representations used and recycled in many films.  If more female characters in film were able to be as flexible in terms of image as men have been (barbaric brute vs gentleman :: amazon princess vs lady), then the gender equality gap I think would be much smaller.

On Women And Subjects

As a male audience member and film creator, I have known, as others have, what it means to objectify women in film to just their physicalities but what it means to subjectify a woman in film, or even a man, has eluded me.  When I’ve heard both objectify and subjectify in context, they both have seemed to have negative connotations but, from reading Linda Williams, I’ve interpreted that in order to include a character in plot at all, you either subjectify them or objectify them, which means that they are rivalrous to some degree and thus, in my mind, means that they antagonize each other only in context and don’t have an exclusive connotation of good or bad.

To connect my interpretation of Williams to examples, I will use Hermione from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Steve “Captain America” Rogers from Marvel Comics.  These examples act as validation to what I believe it means to subjectify a character, both female and male, in a plot.  To start with Captain America, an example I feel more comfortable with in disceminating meaning, he is a manifestation of the rights Americans are meant to be privileged with as well as their sentinel protector.  He is subjectified to be a champion of freedom and justice.  On the other side of the gender spectrum is Hermione, a character unlike Captain America in many aspects but still can be grouped in much the same way.  Although not an avid fan of the Harry Potter series (thus not knowing every little detail), Hermione has always been the character from the trio that I’ve thought to gotten the most development.  She has been characterized as the smart (sometimes know-it-all) member of the three main characters and, more than that, has been used not as any kind of sexual object or focus of male gaze, but from my perspective, a character who’s come to represent the nobility in knowing yourself and staying true and confident to what it means to make your own destiny.  That representation is her subjectification.  She represents something greater than herself just as Captain America has been.

The antithesis to subjectivity, objectivity, can also be found on both ends of the gender spectrum as well.  To get it out of the way, there are plenty of examples of women being objectified in film (*coughMeganFoxcough*) but there are also examples of the objectivity of men as well, off the top of my head comes to mind the likes of teenage Zac Efron and Taylor Lautner.  From when I’ve seen the two in movies and/or television, they’re usually unclothed in some regard, most generally shirtless.  As a male, the same appearance standards apply as they do for women, i.e. “how am I ever supposed to get as good abs as they have within my lifetime?”  To some degree, it seems that objectification is embedded within culture to satisfy the fetishization fantasies of men and women, albeit the ratio is widely disproportionate, indicating perhaps the more deep-seeded values intrinsic to male and female cultures.

Ghost Dog and Further Eastern Values

I looked over the notes I took on Ghost Dog and some of them, such as “shops all closed at night,” “Three mobsters = 3 Stooges,” and “Poetry of war,” made me start thinking about the analogy of East Meets West a little bit more.  With those three notes I specifically began to imagine the generic narrative of imperial Japan under circumstances of Yakuza rule, headed three idiot mob bosses who flamboyantly brandish their power.

The shops in the part of Jersey Ghost Dog drove through seemed predominantly closed and that made me think of japanese stories of the extortion of the poor and helpless, saved by the blade of the wandering samurai.  Although it was never explicitly said that shops were closed due to mob activity*, the imagery was dark and foreboding enough to seem that maybe there was a dark aura looming over the town, equating that aura to the presence of the mob.

As for the third note about the poetry of war, I’m not all too sure where it originated from, but I recall that there was a scene in the film that made me feel like there was some poetic aspect, either through mis-en-scene or narrative, and as causality, I thought of the Chinese treatise “The Art of War,” a book that each chapter deals with some aspect of warfare.  Although it isn’t Japanese literature, I think the inclusion of some reference to it is another analogy to how the East meets West narrative can be applied.  The way Ghost Dog takes down each boss is poetic in each way he decides to end them; instead of sniping the main boss from afar, he is met by a bird that changes his decision, making the kill personal by going in headlong, as he had described is the Samurai way.


*I acknowledge that there was a scene where the superintendent threatens the mob that he’ll throw them out if they don’t pay up their rent, which demonstrates that perhaps the common man isn’t as scared of the mafia as usually believed.

Genres and Sub-categorization

Corrigan and White discuss the utility of breaking down how genres came to be a staple of the film experience by identifying commonalities between films of similar subject matter, collecting them into groupings called genres.  One can find that movies with similar narratives are usually under the same genre because they follow the same “blueprints” as to how characters, settings, etc., are used within the context of the film.  In relation to auteur theory, it is through genres I think that those who are Auteurs can better  define themselves because of the certain privileges and limitations that genres provide.  A movie can fall into any genre, but it is because of that principle that, in reverse, when using the syntax and semantics of a genre as building blocks to a film, an auteur has already been provided the seeds needed to try and stand out from the generic exemplary films of a genre.

I thought Aristotle’s point about the construction of a tragedy added an alternative perspective to how we determine a genre.  He said that a tragedy was a full action that delivered a message and that if not for the correct positioning of events, then the tragedy wasn’t pure.  I find that genre based on construction of a movie is like another filter added to a Netflix search and that, as time has moved on, how genres are perceived have changed as such.  Now instead of looking at the order of events in a tragedy, we look at if a movie has the correct semantics (and loose syntax) to be labeled a tragedy.

It is with this change in distinction of how we determine what genre a movie fits into that I believe we can find an auteur.  Because we know from Aristotle that the order of events of an action are important, and from C&W that there must be some familiar semantics involved to dictate a genre, the combination of both is how I find that an auteur can develop him/herself.  Just as a cook can be distinguished by the order of ingredients s/he uses to what degrees, an auteur can become distinguished in the same way, but instead of using a recipe and eggs and milk, the auteur has Aristotle’s model and Rick Altman’s Semantic/Syntactic approach.

Doubled-edged sword of authority

Andrew Sarris makes a point about how auteurship can mis-identify what the key component is of a film when he exemplifies how Esquire Magazine  had predicted that Two-Lane Black was to be successful in theaters but ended up failing to meet with positive reviews from critics and audiences; “the magazine sheepishly shifted the blame to director Monte Hellman, accusing him of being an auteur” (357).  So often I find that people crave the attention of being credible for a applaudable piece of work so it’s surprising to think that sometimes that same credibility can shift the other way too.

I find this effect interesting because of the value we put into actors, directors, and writers as those who provide quality content for the mass consumers.  Of all the celebrities who have been able to master their professions, it’s all far too often to not realize all those who haven’t been able to reach their level and have even been labeled as notoriously “bad” at what they do for a living.  Why this is interesting to me is because despite the uneven proportion of those who fail compared to those who succeed, so many people everyday make it their aspiration to become the best director, or best actor, or best writer, etc., while the odds are not ever in their favor.  This makes me wonder if the human condition is naturally a risk seeking phenomena and if there is some quality about those who have made it that sets them apart from those who have not.  Despite Hellman’s misplaced blame, as we later read, there had to be someone who had done something at some point to have caused the poor reviews, and by isolating that quality, one would be able to refine the process and replicate it to have a more positive outcome, in theory.

Marvel’s realistic and formative tendencies

Kracauer notes that “everything depends on the ‘right’ balance between the realistic tendency and the formative tendency; and the two tendencies are well balanced if the latter does not try to overwhelm the former but eventually follows its lead” (298).  It is with this notion that I can understand the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it blends the realistic with the formative, but does so that the fantasy aspects never overtake the realistic aspects and keeps the universe it is building confined to the measurement of reality: science.

Every Marvel movie explains the uncanny in terms of science, which is a familiar concept to the layman which attempts to maintain a level of verisimilitude that can keep an audience grounded.  It is only after the scientific world is established that the audience can find themselves prepared to face the formative tendencies of creative control.  It’s at this point where Marvel introduces the fantastic powers that define the superhero genre, but only in small doses.  The first of the Marvel movies, Iron Man (2009), centered around an industrialist who found himself in a real-world captive situation.  The world has established that it is mostly like our own reality, maintaining the realistic tendencies of film, and then introduces the formative aspect of the Iron Man armor, which begins to uneven the scales of the balance of the cinematic approach.  It is through the slightest of fantastic teases that keeps the real and unreal balanced, and the audience entranced.

Marvel introduces that fantastic aspects of their films in a way that doesn’t sway the viewer to realize how improbable the events actually are.  Only when there have been broad introductions of magic has Marvel struggled due to the unfamiliarity of what a reality that included such things would be like, making it hard to believe the science of those worlds and thus brings it to the forefront of consciousness that they may be plausible but ultimately, they are conspicuous manifestations of the creator’s imagination.


Lola Rennt

I found that Run Lola Run made great use of Maya Deren’s point about the reversion of time and how, if the technique is used within a film, it is most generally meant to undue time.  Run Lola Run took that concept and really ran with it.  As demonstrated by the multiple playthroughs of events, it felt as if Lola was a video character who was being reset until the best outcome occurred.  I felt that it was also a great film to demonstrate the idea of learning from your mistakes as seen by how Lola slowly corrects herself through trial and error, albeit supernaturally.

We see that these corrections also have positive affects for other people as well.  We see that her father ultimately decides that the best option is to put off talking about the baby with his mistress instead of completely abandoning his family altogether.  The woman with the carriage eventually turns from being a person who steals children to a woman who finds religion, becoming a child of a being that is greater than her; becoming one who steals to one who is found.  We see that the woman who works at the banks goes from ending her life to starting a new one with the bank clerk.  These are examples of how chaos theory is also weaved into the film via butterfly affect.  Despite Lola’s father being injured in the car crash with Ronnie, no one left the final run-through any worse than they did initially, highlighting the fact that Lola’s presence may have some magical control over how time mechanisms work.  I found that due to the short time frame of the runs, it was incredible how just small moments of interaction could send ripples through the timestream.

To note however, the music never quite changes from run to run.  It is the same techno beat used each time with slight variances in the soundtrack as she visits different places each run.  The three key places she visits that are different each run are the Grocery Store, the Bank, and then the Casino.  Each having their own symbolic variances as well.  The grocery store is the cheapest place to find the 100,000 marks, the Bank the most wealthy place, and the Casino the most probable place.  What sets the Casino above the Bank in terms of affluence is that at the Bank, one can only withdraw however much money that have there whereas at the Casino, the men and women there most likely each had enough to replace the 100,000 marks, and they were just gambling it away, thus making it the best choice Lola could have corrected.

What commentary Tykwer is making about the correction of time and the legal robbing of the rich via Gambling is amiss to me, but, there is something there, I just need to run it through my mind a few more times until I can find out what it is…

Fleeting Information

Maya Deren makes a metaphor on page 153 where she compares the parts to a film to those of a table.   She states that there are a multitude of characteristics to the table that different people would appreciate more such as an artist would appreciate its color, an antiques dealer its age, and a child “its inaccessible height.”  She goes on to say that, if the table were in a scene and it were to break, only one of its characteristics might be appreciated, it’s age (due to frailty), and all other information about that table would be useless.  The color had no role in its destruction and neither did its height.  This point resonated with me because, without the consideration of metaphor, in any scenario where you know the outcome, you can exact what piece of information is the most important and determine that the rest of the information is useless in terms of progressing a story.  Within the metaphor, it brings film to a point of definition.  You can interpret frames of a film in a multitude of ways but when it comes to the contextualization of those frames, as the film moves forward, there are less interpretations that can be made because most of the given information begins to be stripped away and meaning begins to reveal itself.

I found this point to be so interesting because I rationalize it as like trimming fat from an essay or removing filler from a story.  To have this applied to the idea that films are forms of art fueled by ideology, it makes sense that in the same way we try to wrap up a persuasive essay, we want to go from broad to specific, and I can see how that can be done in film from plot, to production, to ideology.