The Influence of Bazin’s Ontology of Film on Richard Linklater

 

Context: This essay has dominated my thoughts over the last few months. I began thinking about this topic long before Northeastern, and even Gordon. Incredibly inspired by the video essay by Kogonada (which I highly suggest anyone watch), I got turned on to Linklater and a whole new way of watching and appreciating cinema. I really tried to make this essay accessible by giving more context to some of the films and historical movements. Not everyone’s read up on neorealism, and that’s totally fine. Linklater his definitely one of my greatest influences, and it’s rewarding to try and understand the influences others have made on Linklater.

In the aftermath of World War II, the neorealist movement began in Italy.  Noted for its use of non professional actors, shooting on location, small budgets, and profile of the lower class, the neorealism movement aimed to address the post-war distress felt by disparaging economic conditions and political upheaval. In 1953, director Vittorio De Sica began shooting a new film set in called Terminal Station. While De Sica cut a version of this film, American producer David O. Selznick recut another, entitled Indiscretion of an American Wife. While the films share the same principal photography, they are two drastically different films. Selznick, operating under standard Hollywood continuity protocol, follows the main character, cutting everything that does not progress the story or plot. De Sica, however, holds the shot longer, letting the camera linger on extras, a choice that decentralizes the main character in a sense, a message which would make an American audience uncomfortable.  Sight & Sound’s visual essayist, Kogonada, says that “the act of walking only needs to be implied, not endured,” showing how Selznick uses jump cuts during a restaurant scene, deeming the task  of walking as excessive. De Sica’s cut of the film ran eighty-nine minutes, whereas  Selznick’s recut had a runtime of sixty-four minutes (Bosworth 244). De Sica’s extra twenty-five minutes contain the essence of neorealism. By letting the moment linger, De Sica shows how he values “time and place seem more critical than thought or story” (Kogonada, “What Is Neorealism”).

Meanwhile in France, the left-leaning, Catholic, film theorist Andre Bazin was busy writing. Over the course of his short life, shadowed by leukemia, Bazin produced thousands of essays on cinema, greatly influencing key players within the French New Wave, the spiritual continuation of the neorealist movement that started in Italy. In his essay The Ontology of the Photographic Image, Bazin outlines several important elements  regarding the nature of cinema.

Bazin’s thesis within Ontology begins with the psychology of the pharaohs: “by providing a defense against the passage of time [mummification] satisfied a basic psychological need of man, for death is but the victory over time… It was natural, therefore, to keep up appearances in the face of the reality of death by preserving flesh and bone” (5). Bazin illustrates that man has this desire to conquer time, by imprinting an aspect of reality, therefore freeing it from its fate of death. And so this pattern continues within the “plastic arts” (arts which represent solid objects), kings are satisfied that their legacy live on through a portrait, and our current rulers with a well taken photograph. As technology advanced, man adapted the desire to capture and represent reality with the tools of the time. However, a so-called crisis emerged within the fifteenth century; Bazin writes: “perspective was the original sin of Western painting” (7). Artists we faced with two competing tendencies; a desire to satisfy man’s aim at realism (the defeat of time) and spiritual expression. It is no surprise then, that film during it’s infancy experienced a similar crisis-torn between the, “aesthetic, namely the expression of spiritual reality wherein the symbol transcended its model” and the reproduction of reality (the psychological) (Bazin 6).

This battle can best be seen within the competing forms of Melies, and the Lumiere brothers.  While the Lumiere brothers were concerned only with a recorded presentation of the world, Melies wished to utilize film as an artform. Bazin argues however, that cinema is a gift to all artists who struggle to balance these two tendencies:  “photography and the cinema on the other hand are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and by its very essence, our obsession with realism” (Bazin 7). Using a camera and lens, an image of the world is formed automatically, forcing the viewer to accept the real existence of the object being reproduced. A critique of the reality of film may actually be redirected towards the documentary value of an image, because regardless, process of creation requires an object’s true existence.

Le Corbusier, a French architect passionately wrote about the mechanization of the camera lens, and how it’s impassivity is beautifully contrary to the way humans view the real through their own eyes.  The lens reveals a scientific reality which is unattainable through human vision, therefore, “the cinema appeals ‘to the eyes that see.’ To the men sensitive to truths. Diogenes has found a light for his lantern: no need for him to Embark to Los Angeles” (MacKenzie 43). Diogenes was an ancient Greek Philosopher, and was often said to have wandered with lamp during the daytime, saying he was looking for an honest man, in the same way visual artists have sought to capture reality. Bazin would call a great artist one who could combine the two tendencies (the aesthetic and the spiritual), someone who worked by, “holding reality at their command and molding it at will into the fabric of their art” (Bazin 6). Where painting is torn, cinema is freed. The len’s sees with God’s eyes. Understanding the nature of film as an artform which captures and represents reality, cited by Bazin, was influential on the Italian neorealists and the directors of the French New Wave, who valued his ideas because it placed significance on the present reality of the moment captured. Furthermore, the significance of Bazin’s ontology extends into the far reaches of North America, and the beating alternative heart of the United States.

Austin, Texas, notable for its blue presence in a predominantly red state also serves as the locale of American and auteur filmmaker Richard Linklater. Linklater started the Austin Film Society in 1985, a catalyst for the city’s film culture,  and spiked his flag in Texan soil, building a filmmaking home that still stands (Kohn). Maybe unironically, Linklater’s presence in Hollywood has always been countercultural. His forays into studio filmmaking have been quirky, light-hearted, films for younger audiences, such as Bad News Bears or School of Rock (films which undoubtedly helped Linklater fund other films) or the more subtly serious Dazed and Confused. These films are all unlikely creations when compared the the bread and butter of Linklater’s filmography; philosophic films noted for their loose, youthful, vignettes exploring people, relationships, and the present moment. Linklater’s early career is particularly dominated by this kind of film; almost as if Linklater embodied the early slacker revolt of the 90s, the films themselves defied the norm of the classical Hollywood standard, featuring at times, zero plot, decentralized characters, and long wandering takes. The style of these slacker films, however, is not new, but barrows from the neorealists: non professional actors, shooting on location, the emphasis on time and place rather than plot and protagonist. Film analyst and author Rob Stone in his book on Linklater’s auteurship writes, “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books [Linklater’s first feature film] and Slacker were so pro-Austin that they were only coincidentally anti-Hollywood” (Stone 18). Linklater knows his Bazin.

Standard continuity Hollywood style editing, and the formation of classical Hollywood genres, leaves modern audiences with an oversaturation of literary films which focused on telling stories through dialogue rather than what makes cinema truly unique: the capture and reproduction of time and space. Tarkovsky claims a similar critique when he says, “If art can stimulate emotions and ideas, mass-appeal cinema, because of its easy, irresistible effect, extinguishes all traces of thought and feeling irrevocably. People cease to feel any need for the beautiful or the spiritual and consume films like bottles of Coca-Cola” (Tarkovsky, 179). French film theorist Andre Bazin would articulate that this system of classical continuity editing removes the viewers free will from the matter, instead replacing it with a director’s calculated neurologically induced response. In this way, no communion can take place. Instead of willingly coming to the table, an audience is pushed forward into an understanding they could never have control of (Hughes). When Bazin wrote about the ontology of film, he saw how the crisis of realism was solved through the impassive lens. While Bazin saw this as a reason for victory, allowing artists to focus on artistic and spiritual expression, the tables ironically  turned. With mechanical realism becoming so available, cinema, in Tarkovsky’s opinion, fell prey to consumerism, and the fight for artists became not that against time and the reproduction of reality, but for the more ancient practice of spiritual expression.

For Linklater, the present moment is one of the most spiritual. The power of the moment first strikes in Linklater’s first film It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, which plays as a series of moments strung together-no plot, merely moments. Featuring many shots of trains and travel, Plow shows the transitory nature of the present.  This idea is also present in Slacker. The camera roams the streets of Austin, pausing for a instant, observing the conversation of a passerby, before veering off and following another slacker resident. Plow and Slacker are films built from moments, and contain little plot. The long takes of Slacker let conversations play out and real time. Although the idea film being truly “real time” is an illusion, and one that Linklater plays with in his “Before Trilogy” .

Before Sunrise, Before Sunrise, and Before Midnight: a trilogy of films that came out nine years apart from each other, and featured the same protagonists. When the audience first meets them, Celine and Jesse are a young couple, who, over the years, age alongside the audience (this utilization of the medium to show the passage of time can be seen within Francois Truffaut’s filmography as well, and his character Antoine Doinel). The content of the trilogy also follows its form, and the dialogue is frequently concerning time, life, and the passage of time.  Linklater says, “[time is] the big element of our medium. The manipulation of time, the perception of time, the control of time. It’s the building blocks of cinema” (Koganada, The Long Conversation). Linklater appears to comment on Bazin’s understanding of man’s desire to conquer time, and throughout the “Before Trilogy,”  Celine and Jesse try and find their way through life, and understand their meaning and place within a large, transient universe. While walking the streets of Vienna, Jesse quotes to Celine from the W.H. Auden poem, As I Walked Out One Evening:

But all the clocks in the city
  Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
  You cannot conquer Time.

The “Before Trilogy” is Linklater’s reminder to the audience that even though film may record and re-present reality, time remains unconquered.

Therefore, Linklater’s answer to Bazin’s ontology lies in a different film: Waking Life. Released in Fall of 2001, Waking Life, was certainly not the film everyone had on their minds. The film is rotoscoped, producing a hypnotic, hallucinogenic animated effect, further emphasizing, and not allowing, the audience to forget that the character is experiencing a dream reality, and experience the hazy effect of memory. While many filmmakers would simply animate Waking Life’s dream odyssey, Linklater chose to film it and then create the animation effect in post-production; a spiritual exercise of capturing and representing reality, only to alter it, revealing a deeper truth through the form. Just over halfway through Waking Life’s runtime, the camera flies through the rising “O” of a string of hovering text reading “The Holy Moment.” Settling, the audience finds themselves drifting into a movie theater. The dream walking protagonist sits alone, and the camera pushes in towards the screen, making the audience watch a film within a film.

In the midst of a passionate rant, experimental filmmaker Caveh Zahedi finally exclaims: “Holy, holy, holy!” (words which mirror those called out in Isaiah 6:3 by the prophet: “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory”). Caveh, in his ramblings, is interpreting the film theories of Andre Bazin conversationally to another man. He goes on to connect that Bazin was Catholic and found God to be manifest in all creation, and within the present moment (Bazin was perhaps inspired by Ephesians 4:6, “One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all”). Caveh says “reality and God for [Bazin] are the same, so what film is actually capturing is God incarnate; creating” (Waking Life). Therefore, if film is the creation of a new filmic reality, our experienced reality re-presented, then every image ticking by at twenty-four frames a second bears witness to a reality of the manifested of God in creation.

By rotoscoping Waking Life, Linklater respectfully responds to Bazin, showing that the endgame of cinema is not reality, but dream. In another interview with Sight & Sound, Linklater says: “Cinema has existed for hundreds and thousands of years in the dream state, and people immediately how to watch films because they’ve been doing every night forever. Technological advances met consciousness in a new art form” (Koganada, The Long Conversation). Linklater argues that perhaps films are not captured and freed moment’s of reality, but rather present moments  that can be recorded and experienced as a dream (as seen in Waking Life). Linklater’s films do not intend to conquer time, but rather to become a part of it, and present holy moments, for the experience of watching a film is a holy moment in of itself. “Life is just memories of something,” Celine muses in Before Sunrise. And in Waking Life, while waking up in bed, Jesse responds to Celine,

“You [Celine] often feel like you’re observing your life from the perspective of an old woman about to die.”

“Yeah. I still feel that way sometimes. Like I’m looking back on my life. Like my waking life are her memories.”  (Waking Life)

Life consists of a series of present moments, distinguished through memory, and strung together in order to create a sense of psychological continuity. Film is constructed in a similar way. Linklater claims,

“Time is a really powerful factor-but it is in all of our lives. You look at yourself in a picture of yourself when you’re ten years old, and stare at that for a second, look at yourself in the mirror. That’s a powerful connection, unique to that person, and we all have that” (Koganada, The Long Conversation).

Seeing a reflection of oneself breaks, for a moment, the psychological continuity of memory. For an instant, we are faced with the dream like reality of the present moment, and the reality of our travel through space and time.

The ontology of film, and, due to it’s nature, cinema captures and represents reality, cited by Bazin was influential on the Italian neorealists and the directors of the French New Wave. Furthermore, the significance of Bazin’s ontology extends to Linklater’s cinema; one that shows cinema being life, and life being cinema. Conversations ramble and wind, and moments fade into each other as scenes themselves weave together like a stream of consciousness, and memories of existence; allowing the viewer to experience reality, ushering in notion that perhaps all of “life is but a long, long, chain of dreams” (Gertrud). Linklater suggests that the closer artists move towards realism and truth, the more oneiric their art will become.

 

Works Cited

Auden, W. H. “As I Walked Out One Evening.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Bazin, André, and Hugh Gray. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Film Quarterly, vol. 13,4, 1960, pp. 4–9. www.jstor.org/stable/1210183.

Before Sunrise. Dir. Richard Linklater. Turner Home Entertainment, 1999. DVD.

Before Sunset. Dir. Richard Linklater. Warner Home Video, 2005. DVD.

Bosworth, Patricia. Montgomery Clift: A Biography. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996. Print.

Gertrud. Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer. Film-Centralen-Palladium, 1964. DVD.

Hughes, Darren. “Seeking ‘Holy Moments’ at the Movies.” Seeking ‘Holy Moments’ at the Movies. BreakPoint, Apr. 2003. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

Indiscretion of an American Wife. Recut. David O. Selznick. Perfs. Jennifer Jones, Montgomery Clift. 1953. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2001.

It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books. Dir. Richard Linklater. 1988. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2013.

Kogonada. “The Long Conversation: Richard Linklater on Cinema and Time.” British Film Institute. Sight & Sound, 2016. Web. 8 Dec. 2016

Kogonada. “What Is Neorealism?” British Film Institute. Sight & Sound, 2016. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

Kohn, Eric. “Richard Linklater’s 30 Year Vision: An Oral History of the Austin Film Society.” IndieWire. Penske Business Media, LLC., 2015. Web. 28 Nov. 2016

MacKenzie, Scott. Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology. N.p.: U of California, 2014. Print.

Slacker. Dir. Richard Linklater. 1991. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2013.

Tarkovsky, Andrey. Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Trans. KittyHunter-Blair. Austin: U of Texas, 1989. Print.

Terminal Station. Dir. Vittorio De Sica. Perfs. Jennifer Jones, Montgomery Clift. 1953.DVD. Criterion Collection, 2001.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984. Print.

Waking Life. Dir. Richard Linklater. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2001. DVD.

Dream is Destiny

Context: Richard Linklater is currently my favorite director. He tells stories about what he knows- a bunch of white guys hanging out in Texas, and I can relate to that. Beyond the surface level masculinity and stoner art house film vibes, there is an incredibly serious man, telling incredibly important stories using the medium of cinema. Quiet stories about the present moment, the passage of time, and the experience of dream. This essay served as the forerunner for my essay on Bazin.

Austin, TX, notable for its blue presence in a predominantly red state also serves as the locale of American and auteur filmmaker Richard Linklater. Linklater started Austin’s cinematic revolution when he founded the Austin Film Society in 1985, and spiked his flag in Texan soil, building a filmmaking home that still stands (Kohn). Maybe unironically, Linklater’s presence in Hollywood has always been countercultural. His forays into studio filmmaking have been quirky, light-hearted, “kid’s” movies, such as Bad News Bears or School of Rock or the more subtly serious Dazed and Confused. All unlikely creations when compared the the bread and butter of Linklater’s filmography; philosophic films noted for their anti-plot, youthful, vignettes exploring people, relationships, and time and space. Linklater’s early career is particularly dominated by this kind of film; almost as if Linklater embodied the early slacker revolt of the 90s, the films themselves defied the norm of the classical Hollywood standard, featuring at times, zero plot, decentralized characters, and long wandering takes. And therefore, by doing so, Linklater creates a visual meditation on the spiritual reality of holiness found in the moment, by revealing the filmic reality of holiness found in the moment.

Standard continuity Hollywood style editing, and the formation of classical Hollywood genres, left modern audiences with an oversaturation of literary films which focused on telling stories through dialogue rather than what makes cinema truly unique: the capture and reproduction of time and space. Tarkovsky claims a similar critique when he says: “If art can stimulate emotions and ideas, mass-appeal cinema, because of its easy, irresistible effect, extinguishes all traces of thought and feeling irrevocably. People cease to feel any need for the beautiful or the spiritual and consume films like bottles of Coca-Cola” (Tarkovsky, 179). French film theorist Andre Bazin would articulate that this system of classical continuity editing removes the viewers free will from the matter, instead replacing it with a director’s calculated neurologically induced response. In this way, no communion can take place. Instead of willingly coming to the table, an audience is pushed forward into an understanding they could never have control of (Hughes). Conversely, Linklater focused on creating films against that film grain.

Film analyst and author Rob Stone in his book on Linklater’s auteurship writes, “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books [Linklater’s first feature film] prefigures Waking Life in its individualised search for transcendence promised by the experience of travel, which Linklater aspires to convert into a metaphysical journey that will cure some existential malaise” (Stone 20). This existential malaise, especially found in Linklater’s earlier films, but nonetheless found throughout all of his works, is perhaps most expressively seen in Waking Life. The film is rotoscoped, producing a hypnotic, hallucinogenic animated effect, further emphasizing, and not allowing, the audience to forget that the character is experiencing a dream reality. It is interesting however, that in recollection, memories of Waking Life bare no striking dissimilarity than memories of my childhood. My childhood was never rotoscoped, but the same hazy, distorted, hypnotic movements of childhood memory, in my experience, are uniquely captured through Waking Life’s production. While many filmmakers would simply animate Waking Life’s dream odyssey, Linklater chose to film it and then create the animation effect in post, a spiritual exercise and the practical execution of Andre Bazin’s “holy moment”.

In the midst of a passionate rant, experimental filmmaker Caveh Zahedi finally exclaims: “Holy, holy, holy!”-words which mirror those called out in Isaiah 6:3 by the prophet: “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory”. Within Waking Life, Caveh plays himself, a filmmaker, and elaborates on the film theories of Andre Bazin. Bazin was Catholic and found God to be manifest in all creation. (Bazin was perhaps inspired by Ephesians 4:6, “One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all”). Therefore, if film is the creation of a new filmic reality, our experienced reality re-presented, then every image ticking by at twenty-four frames a second is the manifestation of God.

While Bazin was a Christian, and his film theories bare the marks of his Christian worldview, and Linklater is a follower of Bazin’s theory, nonetheless, Waking Life shares many connections with the theories of Chinese Tiantai Buddhist, Zhiyi. Matthew McConaughey at one point has even quoted: “Linklater is so Buddhist he doesn’t even realize he’s Buddhist” (Gross). An example of this within Waking Life takes place when Linklater, playing himself within the film, asserts, “There is only one instant, and it’s right now, and it’s eternity”. Author Ronald Green claims this idea directly connects with the “Zen moment” found in haiku poetry (Green 41). Furthermore, Waking Life’s protagonist can be seen as experiencing reality through a Buddhist lens throughout the film: “Wiley Wiggins, the protagonist of Waking Life experiences several “false awakenings” Linklater (in character) calls them. In these moments, the audience is also left with the ambiguity of reality, unsure of whether an awakening is true or not . Similarly moments exist within Buddhism. A Buddhist is concerned with shedding the present, dream reality” (Green 33-34).

Waking Life allows viewers to drift with Wiggins through a dream world. Asking the same questions the audience could be asking about their own lives: Is this reality the true reality? Could I still be sleeping? The nature of film  (the capture of reality and the creation of a new filmic reality on screen) lends the medium to be an articulate voice in this larger philosophic conversation surrounding reality; appealing to experience and feeling, rather than philosophic campfire chats, or academic research and rhetoric.

Waking Life re-presents a series of dream-like moments. Conversations that ramble and wind, and moments that bleed into each other as the scenes themselves weave together; allowing the viewer to experience a dream while awake, ushering in notion that perhaps all of life is but a long, long, chain of dreams (Gertrud).

 

Works Cited

Gertrud. Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer. Film-Centralen-Palladium, 1964. DVD.

Green, Ronald S. Buddhism Goes to the Movies: Introduction to Buddhist Thought and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Gross, Joe. “Documentary on Richard Linklater Captures Director, Austin…” MyStatesman. Cox Media Group, Mar. 2016. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

Hughes, Darren. “Seeking ‘Holy Moments’ at the Movies.” Seeking ‘Holy Moments’ at the Movies. BreakPoint, Apr. 2003. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

Kohn, Eric. “Richard Linklater’s 30 Year Vision: An Oral History of the Austin Film Society.” IndieWire. Penske Business Media, LLC., 2015. Web. 28 Nov. 2016

Tarkovsky, Andrey. Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Trans. KittyHunter-Blair. Austin: U of Texas, 1989. Print.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984. Print.

Waking Life. Dir. Richard Linklater. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2001. DVD.

Star Wars and the Success of Manipulated Genre

Context: Here is another academic essay. Star Wars is pretty beat to death, but it’s still fairly fun to write about. One correction of sorts would be the fact that Star Wars is heavily influenced by the space opera genre. While this is true, I still believe that the Western holds some serious weight as well.

George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) walks the traditional line of a Hollywood science fiction film, while containing many syntactic and semantic patterns held within the traditional Western genre. Rick Altman, an established film theorist, believes that traditional genres form from the relationship between Hollywood and the audience – the audience expecting certain things from films, and Hollywood putting money in places where money has been historically earned. In this way, many genres form through a dance of audience interaction (ticket purchasing) and Hollywood financing (producing films that audiences will see) and the end product is a time tested genre that American culture knows and loves. Genres such as gangster, science fiction, Western, and noir are the result of audiences’ willingness to see a predictable film and Hollywood’s eagerness to produce it. A developing modern example would be the hundreds of millions Marvel has put into developing a cinematic universe of superhero films (another genre) that relies on almost comically consistent formulas that audiences crave to see. Star Wars, however, pulls from an even deeper source than formula and predictability.

Star Wars drawing heavily from the acclaimed monomyth, largely explored, defined, and popularized through James Campbell’s book Hero With a Thousand Faces (Higgs), tugs at the hearts of Americans by appealing not to their expectation of genre, but their subconscious understanding of timeless, archaic myth. The franchise is populated with the many archetypes outlined in Campbell’s book. Star Wars possesses, as film theorist John Cawelti expounded, a nostalgic quality necessary for the transformation of a genre. This nostalgia is perhaps routed in the interwoven presence of the monomyth throughout Star Wars, and the reintroduction of myth to American society. With prophets, princesses and mentors, it is no coincidence that perhaps the most mythical of all Hollywood genres, the Western, is the genre with the greatest influence in Star Wars. Altman says that “the successful genre owes its success not alone to its reflection of an audience ideal, nor solely to its status as apology for the Hollywood enterprise, but to its ability to carry out both functions simultaneously” (Altman 223), a truth that is reflected in the astounding commercial success, mass popularity, and the yet seemingly contradictory cult status of the Star Wars franchise.

Star Wars opens with an ultra-wide shot of space, echoing the semantics established in the frontier landscapes seen Hollywood westerns such as John Ford’s Stagecoach. Both films frequently reflect upon the open vistas, with the beautifully haunting, and iconic Monument Valley seen in so many John Ford films representing underlying danger. Star Wars’s protagonist, Luke Skywalker,  is born on a desert planet, riddled with Native-esque Sand People. The Sand People are shown from afar, using the long shot to create a feeling of looming danger, until they appear seemingly out of the blue, similarly to the way Natives are treated in Stagecoach – far in the distance one instant, and racing their horses alongside you the next. Furthermore, the underlying danger of the journey that follows the stagecoach progress across the desert runs parallel with the dangerous and secretly chartered space journey with the cowboy resembling Han Solo. When we first meet Han Solo, he’s in a Mos Eisley cantina, a barely disguised Western saloon – music and all. It even carries the iconic sound effect of the dropped music, used to accentuate the awkwardness and tension after a fight. But of course, seconds later it is back to normal – business as usual on the frontier.  These twisted semantic elements provided audiences with the same desired predictability while simultaneously presenting something different and new, giving an edge of spontaneity.

Star Wars also shares many syntactic elements with Westerns as it does with science fiction. For example, the development of a heroic character (Western), is counterbalanced with the the down to earth quality of the protagonist (sci-fi). Star Wars is also riddled with many syntactic political elements – the small Rebel Alliance faces off against the cold, numerous masked troops of the Galactic Empire, shouting the song of anti-authoritarianism sung by so many other science fiction films. Additionally, George Lucas did not structure the political elements of his films haphazardly, for Star Wars, for all its political ambiguity (when it comes to specific Game of Thrones, or House of Cards style politics), sends a clear response to the United State’s engagement with Vietnam, and the ability of a small rebel army to stand against an incredibly large technological superpower (Hill). Star Wars lacks the articulated politics of science-fiction and the American landscape of  a Western, yet these deviations from Hollywood genre leave the audience to their imaginations, making the politics of the galaxy enthralling, and the various planets spin as a syntactic vestige of the expansive American  frontier.

Star Wars’ identity as a Hollywood blockbuster success and genre-relocating cult classic is the reflexive result of George Lucas’ heart for experimental filmmaking and classic Hollywood adventure films. Lucas once confessed that he believed he’d end up making cinema-verite style documentaries at a local television studio. But the unexpected success of Star Wars forever changed the young, American filmmaker’s future, a future which was dominated by enfranchisement, and seeming disloyalty to the virtues he professed in film school at USC (Brooker 13). While ideals and actions of Lucas are embodied in Star Wars, a film which for all its independent, cult qualities serves as the foundation for one of the most marketed and profitable film franchises of all time, the film stands as a testament to the ability of a film to transform genres, and land the coin on its side – perfectly aligning audiences with Hollywood in a cultural phenomenon that the world can’t seem to shake, even in 2016.

 

Works Cited

Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: British Film Institute, 1999.

Brooker, Will. Star Wars. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.

Cawelti, John G.. “Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films.” In Film

Genre Reader, edited by Barry Keith Grant, 183–201. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1986.

Higgs, John. “The Hero’s Journey: The Idea You Never Knew Had Shaped “Star Wars”.” SalonSalon Media Group, 07 Nov. 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

Hill, Jim. “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe Reveals the Political References That George

Lucas Worked Into Episodes I – VI.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 04 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

Donnie Darko, Jesus Christ, and Religion in the 80s

Context: This is an essay I wrote for a film analysis class, as such, tone is very formal.  Movies are much more fun than they sound in an academic essay. None the less, Donnie Darko is a neat film, and it was great to combine my interests of cinema and religious studies.

The cinematic experience is inherently dreamlike. How many times have you walked out of a movie theater in a daze? Or memories of a film twist and distort with memories of a dream? The basis of dream is routed in a concrete physical reality, yet what makes dreams memorable are their deviations from it. In Donnie Darko, the physical reality of high school in the late 80s is a concrete visual and cultural stage rich for deviation. Love struck teachers fawn over the dashing motivational speaker Jim Cunningham, students pull knives out in bathrooms, on the first day of class, the teacher says “Sit next to the boy you think is the cutest” as if she is echoing the thoughts running through everyone’s mind. Donnie’s mind however is fraught with hesitations about what he sees. At night, when he should be dreaming, he sleep walks out of his house and experiences the first of many encounters with a haunting, six foot tall bunny rabbit named Frank.

Following the voice of Frank, whispering “Wake up. I’m watching you”, Donnie walks past his sleeping/dreaming family out into his typical upper middle class suburban neighborhood. As Donnie walks closer to Frank’s voice, he walks into focus, and hears Franks foreboding words about the end of the world.  No one else but Donnie hears, and he’s the only character aware of the end of the world throughout the film. With this in mind, the scene as he moves through the house, and the visions he has in the bathroom are symbolic Donnie’s awakened state of mind, even though he still can be classified as a schizophrenic.

The new, enlightened Donnie, joking with Gretchen about his alliterative name, says: “[superhero], who says I’m not?], unintentionally alluding to his awakened perspective. While attending one of many sessions with his psychiatrist, Donnie projects his fears about dying alone, and the existence of God (or rather, the lack thereof) expressing what is perhaps the crux of the film. Furthermore, many of the film’s adult characters, including Mrs. Farmer and Jim Cunningham use religious language. Donnie’s family however is never shown going to church. With all of Donnie’s existential musings, the lack of any church scenes is surprising. During the 80s, the height of the Evangelical movement, and the Christian right, it would not be strange to see a suburban neighborhood with empty garages on Sunday morning, especially due to Richard Kelly’s attention to 1980s detail (the film could be considered a period piece). When Donnie goes to visit his science teacher, the conversation ends when it steers towards theological territory. “I could lose my job,” the teacher claims.

Donnie’s fears about dying alone, and living in a world without God, are manifested through his visions of Frank, and the world-ending event he attempts to reverse. For if someone can actually die for someone else, maybe there is a God, and maybe he won’t die alone. This is where, as Siegfried Kracauer puts it, the “realistic tendency” and physical reality of 1980’s suburbia dances with the “formative tendency” of Donnie’s psyche. Donnie’s trip “down the rabbit hole,” so to speak, is an existential journey to find the answer to Donnie’s, and American Suburbia’s deepest questions about the universe,. On one of Jim Cunningham’s motivational video tapes, Jim advises that the viewer look beyond themselves and into the mirror, figurative advice which Donnie takes literally when he he takes a knife and attempts to stab through the bathroom mirror into the 4th dimensional hallucinogenic (or not so) reality – into himself. As Donnie’s quest to save the world continues, he becomes more and more a sacrifice, similar to the theology surrounding Jesus Christ. Christ sweat blood in Gethsemane, as the path before him was achingly revealed, and he accepted his mantle and assumed the sins of the world – in order to save it – by willingly sacrificing himself (Following a Reformed theological train of thought). Donnie, by carrying out his mission to save the world, proves to himself that someone really can die for someone else, that the world maybe isn’t so lonely, and that it’s maybe not so empty after all.

 

If you’re interested in reading about Kracauer a little bit more, here’s a short post about some of his basic concepts:

Siegfried Kracauer Basic Concepts