All posts by Christine Shanahan

Ghost Dog, Cartoons, and the Lack of Authorities

After Ghost Dog stole the second car, something struck me as strange: where are the police? Clearly, the low socioeconomic setting as well as the presence of the mob indicates that even if there were a police presence in this city, they would probably be corrupt and horribly racist. Nonetheless, it struck me as odd that there wasn’t a single policeman to be seen, despite the number of people who had been shot, houses that had been broken into, and cars that had been stolen. Shortly thereafter, as Louie was driving back to the city, he was pulled over by a policewoman for speeding, the pettiest of crimes in the whole movie. Louie’s dying fellow mobster commented “how come when your in the city, you never see a single cop?” (I jotted that down in my notebook and it’s more likely than not a paraphrase of what was actually said, but the sentiment remains).

This could be a bit of a stretch, but I actually think the answer to the where are all the police in the city lies in recurring presence of the cartoons. Each of the cartoons shown, minus Betty Boop waving a flag at all the pigeons in the beginning (which was graphically matched to Ghost Dog’s actions soon after), showed some sort of competition and violence between two cartoon characters. These cartoons all possessed certain Western elements to them, especially the presence of guns. Additionally, and perhaps more to the point, these types of old-timey cartoons operate in a lawless world. The cartoons shown in Ghost Dog struck me as familiar, although I can’t place the names. They all did, however, remind me of the Road Runner cartoons I watched growing up, where Wiley Coyote was constantly chasing Road Runner, who in turn dropped anvils on his head (Tom and Jerry is another cartoon that has this antagonistic set-up). In Road Runner, there was never any sort of authority figure that looked into the fact that someone was being crushed by anvils. These characters, like the characters in the cartoons in Ghost Dog, existed in a lawless society. Similarly, the world Ghost Dog created was a nearly lawless society. People could shoot each other without any fear of being thrown in jail. There was such a lack of authority that the mobsters didn’t even have to bribe the police in any way. They simply weren’t there. I think the presence of the cartoons hints at the lawlessness of society; the world Ghost Dog is in exists as the ugly side of that cartoon world, where lawlessness and violence is just as abundant, but this time actual human lives are at stake.

There is a ton of graphic matches made between the cartoon world and real life in Ghost Dog. Towards the very end, we see the cartoon characters pull out large gun after large gun until their weaponry is the size of the earth and they end up destroying it. I think this is intended as a sort of warning; now that Ghost Dog, the only one with a sort of moral code, or at least sense of loyalty, is gone, the world could deteriorate very quickly. The audience is left with a glimmer of hope that Pearline will take up his post and restore an ounce of sanity and good to the otherwise insane world. The cartoon at the end, however, seems to predict that the world is bound be destroyed by all the violence and lawlessness in society.

Auteur and Genre Theories

We spoke a bit yesterday in class about how genre theory emerged partially in reaction against auteur theory. While I can see why this would occur, I also wonder if it is possible for the two theories to work in harmony. Specifically, in the genre theory chapter of Understanding Film Theory, one theorist is highlighted that suggests this possibility. On pages 26-27, the chapter focuses on Edward Buscombe, who wrote about genre theory in the 70s. According to the textbook authors, Buscombe was interested in the semantics portion of a film as a means of assigning it to a genre. However, Buscombe calls the semantics “the outer form” or “formal elements.” The definition, however, remains the same as the one we discussed in class; the outer form is the “setting, clothes, tools of the trade, and miscellaneous physical objects” of a film (27). The authors then write that “these four interlinking elements impact on the narrative framework and dictate to a certain extent how stories are told” (27). Thus, it is the mise-en-scene (or outer form or semantics) that situate a film firmly in one genre. The authors then go on to say that “Buscombe claims that genre enables good directors to excel” (27). Thus, good directors use genre, and its accompanying outer forms, as a blueprint for the film; if they are making a Western, directors know what essential props, costuming, etc. are needed and came work within the narrative framework. They excel when they push the boundaries of a specific genre and approach it in an original manner.

I am wondering, though, if we an extend Buscombe’s argument to reach a connection between genre and auteur. If we were to apply Buscombe’s argument that good directors can excel when working within the confines of a specific genre, one that possesses specific outer forms, to the inner form, or the central themes or ideas, what would happen? Take Scorsese’s body of work for example. As the auteur theory chapter asserts, Scorsese’s films are connected due to their preoccupation with Catholicism. That, I believe, qualifies as a specific inner form or recurring theme across a number of films. While not all of the Scorsese’s films look the same, could they still be contained within the same genre? Could a qualification for an auteur therefore be that they oftentimes work within one specific genre, based on the inner form/theme/syntax of their films? Or, is the outer form of a film more indicative of a genre and taking the themes of an auteur director not enough to say that a director works within one genre?

Auteur and Bias

In the short section on Roland Barthes and his piece “Death of the Author,” Judith Mayne and her discussion on the role of the spectator came to mind, as I’m sure it did for most people. At the end of the insert, it states that “whereas the passive reader allows information to be absorbed without any conscious effort, the active reader will question and challenge the text. This allows an endless play of meaning; the text is no longer closed but instead remains open. The ‘death of the author’ leads to the ‘birth’ of the reader” (11). In her piece, Mayne argues that films can be read different between viewers and that readings can change over time. However, these readings still work within a specific framework, as the filmmaker still has a specific idea of what the film will look like and what message he wishes to convey. Thus, while readers can challenge a film’s ideological message or examine it from different angles. For example, looking at a film from a feminist perspective will most likely lend a different meaning than looking at it from a queer perspective. Nonetheless, the filmmaker still had a specific vision and ideology when making the film. Thus, I find the notion that the “death of an author” leads to the “birth of a reader” to be problematic. Instead, I would argue that understanding auteur theory lends itself to a smarter audience. Viewing a film as the work of an auteur alerts the viewer to the potential bias of that film. Either consciously or unconsciously, one will walk into a Tarantino film expecting certain things (mainly bloody and violent things) to occur. By being consciously aware of the style of a director, a viewer can be smarter and more critical about the message the film conveys. I don’t mean to make this sound like all viewers should be suspicious of all filmmakers based on style alone. Oftentimes the idea of “identifying bias” can have negative connotations. I think that it is important to identify bias, whether based on background or ideology, in order to gain an understanding of why a filmmaker made certain decisions in a piece of work.

Auteur Theory and Interior Meaning

As we discussed in class, auteur theory is multifaceted and flexible. To me, there isn’t one specific definition or list of characteristics that make someone fit into the framework of auteur theory; I think that is what makes it so complex and thought provoking. One thing that has been bugging me since our class discussion is the tension between interior meaning and possessing a body of work. Sarris, in both the summary of his earlier work found in Understanding Film Theory and the article we read in Critical Visions in Film Theory, touches on the need for films to have an interior meaning. According to Sarris, auteur theory can inform the interior meaning that is attributed to a film. The elements that make the film, especially those that create a specific technique and personal style, come together to inform the its interior meaning.

When thinking about interior meaning in relation to the importance of possessing a body of work, the question for me arises is: does interior meaning have to span a body of work? To me, the interior meaning refers to the deeper themes that the filmmaker is trying to explore. But say a filmmaker explores a specific theme in one film and decides to explore something completely different in his next film. Would people not perceive the filmmaker as an auteur? Is the exploration of a specific theme intrinsically tied to a signature style of a director? This seems limiting in terms of what a director can and can’t explore through storytelling.

To me, the director that breaks the convention of auteurism is David O’Russell. His films span a wide variety of themes. I must admit that I have seen a number of his films, but most of them I saw at a time when I wasn’t thinking very critically about film form and how it influences the meaning of a film. That being said, I believe that O’Russell has proven himself to be a talented director who is able to explore a number of themes as wide ranging as American hegemony, as seen in Three Kings, and as intimate as finding love, as seen in Silver Linings Playbook. I don’t see his films as connected in terms of interior meaning or personal visual style. But does that mean that he does not possess a certain amount of authorship over his films? The interior meanings in each of his films seem to exist within that one specific world he creates, they don’t seem to carry over from one film to the next. Does that mean that one cannot think of each of his films as “a David O’Russell film”?

Defining Reality

Reflecting back on our class discussion today, I kept thinking about what was said about Kuleshov’s piece on montage and how he believes cinema can define reality. The point was made that perhaps the reality Soviet’s sought to portray was more mundane than that of the bourgeoisie American reality, with the in class comparison being Soviet photography in the 1970s that showed people standing in a field. Thinking about it more, and at the risk of sounding overly pretentious and critical, I think it is important for us to consider what “reality” means to an author when they write about cinema’s relation to it. Additionally, I think it is important for us to keep both the time period and place that a piece of film theory was written. Surely Baudry, Mayne, and Kuleshov would all agree that cinema works within an ideological framework. However, Kuleshov distinguishes himself from the rest of the authors we are reading because he does not criticize exclusively American films. The issues that Baudry and Mayne seek to address, as well as their shared point about cinema’s inability to portray reality, focus only on how it applies to classic Hollywood films.

Kuleshov, on the other hand, addresses American, European, and Soviet films. When speaking about the reality that film can portray, I believe he is speaking exclusively about Soviet film’s ability to do just that; given his background and the analogy he used about the capitalist vs. communist newspapers in the beginning of the piece, I think it is logical to conclude that he writes from a pro-Soviet, anti-capitalist perspective, and therefore believes that only Soviet films are rooted in any sort of reality. Additionally, I think it is important to remember the time period that he is writing in: 1935. During this time in the Soviet Union, socialist realist was the predominant genre of art, whether it was painting, literature, or film. Socialist realism as a genre sought to show the bright “reality” that the future held once communism became fully entrenched in society. Thus, art that fell under the socialist realist genre, which was most art that was available to the public at this time, created a reality that people believed was achievable, but did not necessarily reflect the reality that they were experiencing at the time. I would argue, therefore, that by asserting that cinema reflected reality, Kuleshov was not employing the same definition of reality as those who examined exclusively American cinema.

I’m not entirely sure what this rant all adds up to, but I think it speaks to the importance of keeping both the author’s mindset and the period each piece was written in in mind.

La Nuite Americaine and Citizen Kane

Many of our readings thus far have attempted to grapple with the issue of film’s potential to capture an objective reality. At the risk of overgeneralizing all the authors we have read, the consensus, unsurprisingly, is that film does not capture any sort of reality. Instead, film presents a highly controlled and artificial representation of reality based on the manipulation of the various pillars of film form, as well as the manipulation of space and time. The artificiality of cinema and struggle to portray any form of reality was also at the center of La Nuit Americaine (1973), as the film depicted the creation of a movie. Many of the shots showed the juxtaposition of what one would see if watching the film that was being made and all the equipment and behind the scenes work that goes into creating this “other world.” Thus, La Nuit Americaine offered a metanarrative of sorts, as it sought to showcase to the audience just how fabricated films are. Of course, the viewer should also be aware that this “behind the scenes” take on what goes into making a movie is in and of itself an artificial take on the reality of producing a film.

In order to convey to the audience the difference between cinema and reality, the film employed a number of techniques, such as the overhead shot of filming the pool scene, in which half the pool only had the actress swimming around and the other half of the pool was covered with a platform for the camera to sit on. What was the most interesting means, and perhaps the most mysterious way, to showcase the fabrication of reality that film creates was the repeated dream sequence. Three times, the audience saw the director sleeping; the beginning of these sequences started with a shot of the director sleeping with marquises overlaid, indicating the competing realities of real life versus film. After, the audience was launched inside the head of the director and watched his dream. It was not until the third sequence that we saw the dream play out in full, in which the little boy steals still photos of the film Citizen Kane (1941) that were on display.

The little boy stealing the photos from Citizen Kane is an interesting and subtle way of illuminating what La Nuit Americaine has to say about the reality that film presents as well as all the characters’ struggle to understand the difference between real life and film. Citizen Kane, of course, examines the life and legacy of the recently deceased Charles Foster Kane; the interviews conducted offer multiple realities of the same person, all of which revolve around his public life. The competing versions of Kane, as well as the inability to fully understand his private life, which turns out to be the key to understanding why his last words were “Rosebud” demonstrates the same type of tension between reality and artificiality that film possesses.