Memento

Everything, MDA 1700 Film Communicating in Film: Styles and Movements

Momento is the second feature film from director Christopher Nolan. It was also his first large budget, mainstream Hollywood film. The story revolves around a man suffering from an extreme form of short term memory loss, as he attempts to discover who murdered his wife. In order to do this, he creates a system, utilizing notes and tattoos on his body to remind him of his progress in his investigation.

The story is told in a very unique fashion. The chronology of the film is entirely non-linear; it starts at the end, and is told backwards. In other words, a scene will play out, and then the next scene will take place ten minutes before the previous scene in the chronology of the film, and then the next scene, 10 minutes before that. On top of this unique structure, the film is also inter-cut with a secondary timeline, a series of flashbacks that begin before the initial timeline, and work their way up to the present by the end of the film. The two timelines are divided visually, one is in colour, and the other is in black and white, simply to differentiate one from the other. The ultimate effect of having such a unique chronology, is a film that is told entirely from the first person, revealing information to the audience at the same pace as the protagonist is learning new information; there is no dramatic irony in this film, the audience know no more than the main character.

If the film were to be told in a linear fashion, it would not be a first person experience, as the protagonist, due to his memory loss condition, would have forgotten all of the information that he had previously learnt in the film, yet the audience would have gained information, causing dramatic irony and ultimately separating the audience’s experience from the protagonist’s. Because of this, Memento requires some active reading from the audience; the film is much like a puzzle, as the audience have to actively think about the information being communicated to them in order to make sense of the narrative.

In order to keep the reverse storyline comprehensible, each scene is related to the next. For example, if the previous scene consists of the protagonist talking to a woman in a cafe, the next scene will end with the protagonist entering the cafe and sitting down with the woman. Each scene overlaps into the previous one for a few seconds before cutting to the next one. The separate, secondary black and white timeline is also connected to the main, colour timeline via objects, notes and dialogue. The film is also narrated by an internal monologue of the protagonist to. The narration is not entirely necessary to the narrative exposition, as it could all be revealed through visual storytelling and dialogue, however it would be fairly incomprehensible without some kind of an explanation, so the narration does improve the film. 

The film fails in the final sequence. Up until this point, the entire film consists of brilliant, innovative visual storytelling. The entire mystery of the film is told almost entirely through a unique, visual exposition that not only complements the broken nature of the plot, but is entirely unique to film as a storytelling technique. It is a good example of a story that is far superior when portrayed through a visual medium; the use of notes, tattoos, objects, characters and locations to progress the narrative is close to perfect. Which is why I always find it odd when it comes to the ending of the film. This brilliant build up ultimately leads to a scene in which the entire mystery of the story is simply told to the protagonist in a dull dialogue scene. Nolan uses one of film’s most prevalent fallacies; he tells us, and doesn’t show us. Up until this point the film is entirely driven by excellent, innovative visual exposition, which leads me to believe that Nolan didn’t know how to finish his film, copped out, and just decided to literally tell everything to the audience in a speech at the end. This, in my opinion, is what makes the film fall just short of greatness.

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Chungking Express and Godard

Everything, MDA 1700 Film Communicating in Film: Styles and Movements

It is quite obvious that ‘Kar Wai Won’, the director of ‘Chungking Express’ (1994) is influenced heavily by ‘Jean Luc Godard’ and french new wave cinema. Not only is Chungking Express similar, stylistically, to Godard’s work, but it is also influenced both thematically and in it’s narrative. Here are some similarities between Chungking Express and Godard’s 1960 film ‘Breathless’

Cinematography

Chungking Express borrows many camera techniques from Breathless; handheld camera shots help give both films their gritty, realistic feel. This, accompanied with the long takes during dialogue scenes gives the camera a human personality. The camera feels like an extra presence in the room. Both films also incorporate many big close ups on character’s faces, emphasising their facial expressions. These techniques ultimately bring the audience closer to the characters, letting them empathise with, and understand them on a more human level, as they observe the scene from the perspective of another character (as opposed to simply observing characters through an omniscient camera, with no personality, as you do while watching a Kubrick film).

Editing

The most noticeable similarity between the two films are the frequent use of jump cuts to progress time, and communicate information. Breathless is famous for being one of the first films to use jump cuts as a stylistic element, and a regular form of narrative exposition. The editing style in Chungking Express is directly influenced by Godard. The film also uses other editing techniques such as freeze frames, recurring imagery and montage which are all present throughout Godard’s work.

Themes

The narrative of these films are both driven entirely by one underlying theme; love. Both films follow characters who have fallen in love with someone, yet this love isn’t exactly mutual. In Breathless, the girl, whom the male protagonist loves, turns him into the police, resulting in his death at the end of the film. In Chungking Express, both love stories are left open-ended and ambiguous. Love is both complicated and dangerous within these stories.

Performance 

Both of these films have very naturalistic performances and dialogue. There are often scenes within the films where two characters are having normal, everyday conversations which don’t necessarily have much to do with narrative progression. This, accompanied by the cinematography, gives the characters a real sense of authenticity.

The locations

Streets, small cafes and bedrooms. These films are set in two of the most photogenic, aesthetically pleasing cities on Earth; Hong Kong and Paris, and yet the film-makers have chosen not to portray these cities as the grand, extravagant metropolises that they are known as. We see little of the famous landmarks and buildings that are associated with these locations. Why? Because the film follows realistic, everyday citizens. These people wouldn’t be visiting these tourist attractions if they live in these cities. The choice of small, humble locations adds to the overall realism of the films.

National Cinema Exercise – MDA 1700

Everything, MDA 1700 Film Communicating in Film: Styles and Movements

National cinema exercise. Choose a decade, choose a nation. Discuss the key films released during that period and what unites/divides them. Do they fit into first, second, third or fourth world cinema?

New Hollywood, The American New Wave, Post-Classical Hollywood… These are terms used to refer to a period in American cinema, between the late 1960s and early 1980s, in which a group of experimental film-makers, sometimes referred to as the ‘movie brats’, emerged and decided to challenge classical film-making techniques, breathing new life into an artistically and financially depressed Hollywood. Many of these film-makers were young, fresh out of film school and had been picked up and given movie deals by large production companies who, due to a financial depression, had nothing to lose. It could be argued that these film-makers simply happened to be in the right place, at the right time. Here are a few of the many major figures during the New Hollywood movement, along with their most well known work during this era:

  • Martin ScorseseMean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull
  • Woody AllenAnnie Hall, Manhatten, Sleeper
  • Francis Ford CoppolaThe Godfather part 1 & 2, Apocalypse Now
  • Stephen SpielbergJaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Stanley Kubrick2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining
  • Terrence Malick – Badlands, Days of Heaven
  • Dennis HopperEasy Rider 
  • Mike NicholsThe Graduate
  • Brian De PalmaCarrie 
  • Sidney Lumet – Dog Day Afternoon 
  • Ridley ScottThe Duellists, Alien

A lot of film-makers during the New Hollywood era were heavily influenced by ‘French New Wave’ cinema from the 1950s and 1960s; film-makers like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard who’s intentions were to challenge classical film convention. The New Hollywood film-makers were very much influenced by auteur theory, an idea that also came out of the French New Wave. An ‘auteur’ is a director who has full control over his film. Auteur theory argues that a director is to a film, what a writer is to a novel. In other words, an audience watching a film directed by a true auteur should be able to tell who the director is, simply by looking at the screen; the film would have the stamp of the director, a recognisably and distinct style that sets them apart from the rest.

All of the directors listed above can be referred to as auteurs. You could watch a Scorsese film from the 1970s and instantly know that you are watching a Scorsese film due to his stylistic choices, dialogue, shot selection etc… That being said, there are still some notable film making techniques that were commonplace during the New Hollywood movement. Many of these techniques broke the ‘rule book’ of classical Hollywood editing, cinematography and writing. For example; the use of jump cuts (also largely used during the French New wave), line crosses (breaking the 180 degree rule), whip pans/zooms, sudden changes in cutting tempo etc… Many of these techniques were directly used to take the audience out of the movie, to jar the audience and remind them that they are watching a film, as opposed to using the ‘invisible’ techniques from classic Hollywood to let the audience forget that they are watching a film and get lost in the story.

A lot of (not all) the New Hollywood film-makers wanted the audience to be conscious of film-making decisions, especially editing, which up until that point in American cinema, had remained an invisible art form; the final shooting scene from ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, the transitions in ‘Easy Rider’, the breaking of the fourth wall in ‘Annie Hall’, the famous bone-to-spaceship match cut in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ are all good examples of this.

In relation to the question, it is difficult to categorise the New Hollywood movement into first or second world cinema. Technically it would be first world cinema, as it is still Hollywood, and many of the films/film-makers were huge, blockbuster, money making machines. However, the movement adopted so many second world cinema ideas and techniques, such as the rejection of Hollywood convention, and auteur theory, that it could be considered as an honorary member of second world cinema.

Poetry and Dreams

Everything, MDA 1700 Film Communicating in Film: Styles and Movements

For our module ‘MDA1700 Communicating in film: Styles and Movement’, we were required to visit a surrealist exhibition titled ‘Poetry and Dreams’ in the Tate Modern art gallery. The exhibition houses artwork from famous surrealists including Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Man Ray. As we looked at the artwork, we were asked to think about 3 aspects that relates to our film course, or more specifically, what we had been learning in relation to surrealist film.

1) Can you see any similarities between any of Dali’s paintings here and ‘Un Chien Andalou‘?

There were 3 Salvador Dali paintings in the exhibition:

Salvador Dalí ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’, 1937 © Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2015

‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ (1937)

Salvador Dalí ‘Autumnal Cannibalism’, 1936 © Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2015

Autumnal Cannibalism (1936)

Salvador Dalí ‘Mountain Lake’, 1938 © Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2015

Mountain Lake (1938)

All of which, I thought, have noticeable similarities to Buñuel and Dali’sUn Chien Andalou‘. The first, and most obvious, similarity I saw was the use of multiple images, personified in Dali’s paintings through ‘double images’, and in Un Chien Andalou as match cuts/transitions. For example; the slicing of the eye with a straight razor in juxtaposed with the thin cloud passing in front of the moon in Un Chien Andalou (as seen below).

This technique of merging two similar images together can be seen within a lot of Dali’s paintings. In the Metamorphosis of Narcissus painting, Dali has used a double image to represent the transformation of Narcissus (from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus); 2 figures can be seen, one is the body of a man crouching in a lake, and the other is a hand holding an egg from which a flower is growing. Although both figures are entirely different objects, they both have the same basic form/structure. The same technique can be seen in ‘Mountain Lake’, in which the lake can also be seen as a fish, through double imagery.

2) Apart from Dali’s paintings, pick out two other art works that have made an impression on you. How have they engaged your interest and curiosity? How do they convey meaning? How are ideas communicated in these surrealist works?

Joan Miró ‘Painting’, 1927 © Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Joan Miró – ‘Painting’ (1927)

This painting grabbed my attention when I first walked into the exhibition. I think the first thing I noticed was the striking, vibrant, bright blue canvas; it’s almost monochromatic aesthetics stood out from other paintings with more diverse colour palettes. I love the simplicity of the painting; the small simple forms, and vast empty spaces. The manifesto states that the artist associated the colour blue with dreams. I read this painting as a visualisation of what it actually feels like to dream; small, vague, ambiguous forms and images appearing from the deep subconscious (the blue) that could be fully open to interpretation.

Dorothea Tanning ‘A Mi-Voix’, 1958 © DACS, 2015

Dorothea Tanning – A-Mi-Voix (1958)

I enjoy the raw energy of this painting. How the artist managed to depict such intensity and movement with such muted, dull colours is impressive. The artist quotes: “I just wanted to paint a white and grey picture that would still have colour in its veins as we have blood under our winter-white skin”. I believe that she captured exactly what she set out to. The forms within the painting are abstract and open to interpretation but, to me, it looks like 3 people sitting around a table; a man in the middle and two women beside him.

3) In addition, think about Hitchcock’s Vertigo that was screened this week. Do you find that the film has any association with what you looked at in the exhibition?

Hitchcock, in general, had many associations with the surrealist art movement. He even worked on a dream sequence with Salvador Dali in his 1945 film ‘Spellbound’. Vertigo’s dream (or nightmare) sequence, I think, directly references surrealist art. The portrayal of dreams through abstract imagery and unstructured logic, as seen in many surrealist paintings within the exhibition, is referenced heavily within this sequence. The overall plot of the film itself is very surreal, and it deals with similar subjects that surrealists did such as the psychology and the subconscious.

‘Blackmail’ – Sound in film

Everything, MDA 1700 Film Communicating in Film: Styles and Movements

Sound has always been a part of film. Even during the ‘silent era’, music was used to complement the moving image. Sound combined with the moving image is irrefutably effective in achieving reactions from the viewer. I would like to talk about the first ‘talkies’, or the first films with synchronised sound. More notably; Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 film ‘Blackmail’. ‘Blackmail’ was the first British film with synchronised sound, and is an interesting film due to the fact that, arguably, it was the first film to use synchronised sound as more than just a gimmick.

To explain further I shall have to backtrack to 1927, when an American film titled ‘The Jazz Singer’ was released. ‘The Jazz Singer’ was the first feature film ever to use synchronised sound, however, the synchronised sound in this film was not used to any noticeable artistic effect, but rather the film was largely used an excuse for Hollywood ‘show-off’ this new found audio technology.

Alfred Hitchcock, being the genius that he is, decided to take a different approach. He decided to take this new technology, and use it as a storytelling technique. the film ‘Blackmail’ used sound as a form of narrative exposition. Here is an example: (In the chronology of the film, this scene takes place after the main character, played by Anny Ondra, has just killed a man, by stabbing him to death.)

In this example, Hitchcock has manipulated the dialogue in such a way that it evokes empathy towards the protagonist. The main character (the blonde girl seen in the close up) has just murdered somebody, and has a feeling of overwhelming guilt and paranoia. These over-looming emotions, felt by the main character, are emphasised through the use of sound, by lowering the volume on every bit of dialogue spoken by the woman, apart from the word ‘knife’. By doing this, the audience hears sound from the protagonist’s perspective, it puts the viewer in the shoes of someone guilty of murdering a man with a knife. Any mention of the word ‘knife’ would get said person’s attention.

Obviously the word ‘knife’ is not used this frequently in everyday conversation, however, from the perspective of the protagonist, paranoia may cause her to feel as if she’s hearing the word ‘knife’ an excessive amount of times. It is more than likely that the word ‘knife’ was not used this much in reality, therefore the sound is used to express the auditory hallucinations one might feel when suffering from paranoia.

This was a very important film. Hitchcock has effectively used dietetic sound to express the emotion of a character, and evoke empathy from the audience. This added an entirely new layer to film that had not been present before. It opened up new opportunities for film makers; exposition through sound.