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Capturing Hearts and Minds with Political Cinema

The readings on auteurs Ousmane Sembene and Tomas Guitterez Alea illustrate that art validates culture in global society, and film becomes a way to express sovereignty. Perhaps, because of this, Sembene is able to claim his movies have “more followers than the political parties and the Catholic and Moslem religions combined.”  To a population who can’t read, and even to one that can, film becomes a way to form a national or ethnic identity and build a past, because it casts this vision on the screen in plain sight for the eyes to digest.

As “third world” countries emerge into “developing” nations or struggle with the trials of neocolonialism, they begin to rebuild a lost history through cinema. These films also serve as reminders of the atrocities committed. In the cases of Cuba and Senegal, we see how regional film can come to represent a whole continent. In Alea’s case, he is making films specifically for the whole of Latin America, for a “continent that fights for liberation”, while Sembene seeks to demonstrate a “well-disciplined ethnic group in which everyone saw himself only as an integral part of the whole.” And while Sembene underplays the effect that art can have on society, the reaction to his films in Senegal shows that knowledge is power, and the ideology a film can impart can be just as powerful as a doctrine such as the Communist Manifesto.


The works of these artists also overturn stereotypes, such as caricatures of dancing Africans or notions of a “backward” culture, which can be easily discredited owing to the progressive view toward women described by Osumane. In addition, these films provide a place to expose the wrongdoings of colonialism, the repercussions of neocolonialism, and a critique of those elements of the past that still remain in the present. In Alea’s case, this is the continuation of bureaucracy left over from the Batista government.  Through the juxtaposition of his films, he exposes the heartlessness of colonialism and the heart of the revolutionary movement. Both artists attempt to reconstruct the past, analyze the present, and speculate about the future. By showing how “socio-historic forces” shape “human feelings,” as Alea claims, they take the political film to a level their Russian predecessors weren’t able to by capturing the people’s hearts and minds through psychology and sociology. Both artists are providing the audience with the ammunition and asking them to pull the trigger.

Hitchcock and Sexual Deviancy

Deviant sexuality is featured prominently throughout Hitchcock’s films, whether it be cross-dressing in Psycho, voyeurism in Rear Window, or necrophilia in Vertigo. In typical sadomasochistic fashion, the impotent Scottie in Vertigo is rendered powerless due to his vertigo and attempts to exercise control over his life through Judy’s sexuality. He attempts to recreate the version od Madeleine he fetishized about. By controlling her clothes and manner of conducting herself, he is dominating her, and she is playing the role of the submissive by succumbing to his wishes in order to ensure his love for her.

Deviant sexuality often trancends the notion of a person and fetishism for scenarios or objects develop. In Vertigo there is fetishism for clothes. This indicates the visual nature of male sexuality and comments on the notion of a male “gaze” indirectly. While Hitchcock’s films often do present information through this male gaze, as is argued in the article we were assigned, it is a deviant male gaze, and thus subversive in nature. This subversity, in my opinion, prevents Hitchcock’s presentation of women from being pigeon-holed by feminists as sexist.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

After screening the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I walked away with a sense of ambivalence about the debate that has centered around this film- was it a paranoid film about communist infiltration or a critique of American paranoia and conformity? As Professor Herzog aptly pointed out, a strong case could be made for either argument. The DVD commentary provided by the actor Kevin McCarthy states that there was no political ideology being represented in the film. An argument could be made that we often impose meaning on art which is not intended to be there. However, I would go a step further in hypothesizing that often art reflects on the conditions present within society without necessarily intending to do so and that there is a sort of subconscious drive that motivates and shapes the process of the creation of art. Taking this into consideration, I believe the film, intentionally or not, depicts the crisis of conformist, suburban America rather than a commentary on the thread of the spread of communism.

Invasion Promo

From the film’s inception, we are presented with images of suburban America and the people who inhabit small towns. Individuals begin to observe that people are not quite acting like themselves. Due to the fact that this threat is experienced on American soil, and people begin to turn on each other as their bodies are snatched, I would say this serves more as a comment on the nature of McCarthyism and the cultural war fought at home, which forced friends to turn on each other or face the consequences. Also, when considering the film’s initial intended ending, I would argue that this further enforces the notion of suburbia as a place where conformist nightmares take hold. If it had been a film reflecting the nature of communism, the directors would have intuitively placed the hero as the victor. However, it was the studio which forced them to tack on this ending, perhaps as an intuitive reaction to the themes the movie may have been interpreted to represent. By placing Dr. Bennell in a more hopeful position at the movie’s end, it becomes more synonymous with the struggle against communism with America emerging as the victor. However, as I stated earlier, this hopeful ending was not the director’s initial intention.

The silent issue of American conformity, as opposed to the more blatant and obvious enemy presented by communism, seems more in line with the quiet infiltration of the suburbanites by the “pod” people in the film, and the spread of “epidemic mass hysteria” is also more in line with the anti-communist sentiments that swept across the American landscape in such massive proportions. People with communist leanings were in the minority; the majority were either anti-communist or pretending to be, much like  Dr. Bennell and Becky do toward the end of the film when they pretend to be pod-people to get through the crowd of body snatchers. The threat, though appearing as something from outer space, is an unknown enemy, not easily identifiable, as the communists were. All of these factors seem more synonymous with a subconscious reflection of McCarthyism, which had a very large effect on Hollywood and most likely was on the minds of people within the industry.

Lady Eve- Reinventing the Garden of Eden

After watching “Lady Eve” for the first time ever in class, I walked away feeling that this was one of the best films I have ever seen. What struck me the most was the complicated layers of the leading lady, the honest dimensions of her character and the lack of a viable female counterpart in modern cinema. I asked myself incredulously- how can this be? How can a film made over fifty years ago capture the essence of its leading lady without marginalizing and oversimplifying her as much of today’s films do? Though “Eve/Jean” is witty, ambitious and cunning, she is never castrating like Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada”, completely devoid of femininity like Hillary Swank in “Million Dollar Baby” or utterly desperate like Glen Close’s “Alex” in “Fatal Attraction.” She isn’t waiting on the top of the Empire State Building for love to come to her like Meg Ryan in “Sleepless in Seattle”, and she doesn’t have to quit her job and be chased after like Kate Hudson in “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.”

Kate Hudson

What the film does is take the story of the Garden of Eden and turn it on its head. While the female is responsible for tempting and betraying “Mugsy” with her sardonic wit and cunning intellect, she eventually accepts love without compromising her character. She isn’t suddenly transformed into a virtuous woman because she has found love. At the same time, Henry Fonda’s character is forced to forego the idea of an ideal woman in exchange for reality. The irony is that reality is often constructed and love, an innocent emotion, is not always reconciled through innocent action. While it may be viewed that Eve mainpulates Mugsy, he gets her revenge on her as well, albeit unintentionally, because she falls in love with him. This is where the narrative turns the Garden of Eden on its head. His naivete is just as dangerous as her cunning, and they are both guilty and innocent parties throughout the film.

Sturges is able to accomplish this feat by the nature of his talent as a writer-director. It is obvious when watching the film that the narrative and dialogue are carefully constructed. Almost every line is a ringer and Stanwyck delivers them with characteristic ease. The dimensional quality of Eve could only be accomplished with a good script and this is what propels Sturges into “legendary” status. As a writer-director, he brings the character to the forefront and tackles it in a way his contemporaries were unable to.

Scene from "Lady Eve"

“Lady Eve” not only plays with gender roles and their construction, it provides a ying-yang framework for the characters. Jean is dominant and aggressive like a man yet emotional and feminine like a woman. Charles Pike is naive and dimwitted, yet educated and logical. No one’s to blame and everyone’s to blame. It is amazing that such a forward-thinking view of gender identity emerges from a period riddled by the Production Code and Hollywood stereotypes. It is even more amazing that a female character in a screwball comedy has more dimension than some of today’s greatest dramas. It lends credence to my opinion that the comedy is an oft-overlooked and underrated genre of film that should receive more recognition from the industry. Can we get an Academy award for a woman not playing a prostitute, a housewife, a queen, someone famous, a lunatic in an insane asylum or a boxer, please? Thanks!

Citizen Kane- Style over Substance?

Citizen Kane is a controversial film, not only for what it portrays, but for its reception among the film community. While many people hail the film as the greatest of all time, several critics find that the movie lacks emotional depth and speaks more to American’s preference for style over substance. While I don’t think it deserves the title of “greatest movie of all time,” to characterize the movie as dull or insignificant, as some critics have, seems like a bit of a stretch.

After screening the film, I found its technological experimentation in cinematography and sound to be advanced, even in a modern context. This is an aspect of the film most film critics agree with. However, in the interview by Peter Bogdanovich, Welles himself notes that there are gratuitous shots which utilize a certain style for no significant reason other than experimentation. If we define what makes a film the “greatest movie of all time” by its lack of extraneous shots, then Citizen Kane falls short of the mark, whereas a film such as Casablanca, where every shot, scene and technicality contribute to the overall film’s tone and story, fits the bill.

Bogart and Bergman In "Casablanca"

Other than technological experimentation with long-shots, depth of focus, and camera angles, the movie’s form is also experimental, yet contributes to the movie’s premise. We construct Kane’s precarious persona through stories and flashbacks. We never get a true sense of the character whose identity the film seeks to unravel. Some critics may lay claim that the lack of three-dimensionality in the Charles Kanes’ character detracts from the film, but in doing so, they seem to miss the film’s point. How can anyone know a man who is self-centered through the eyes of the people who knew him? We are meant to walk away from the film with the sense that we never got the full story, like the journalist in the film. While it is revealed to us what Kane meant by the utterance, “Rosebud”, it only provides us with the recurring notion that Kane was a man who lost everything that he ever had and wanted.

At times, the film is as schizophrenic as the character it seeks to portray. However, I feel this detracts from the film, as opposed to enhancing it. At certain points the film seems surreal, at times realistic; it flirts with noir and farcical comedy. While this may be the effect of attempting to chronicle a man’s life, for a work of art it sometimes comes across as disjointed.

Orson Welles as Kane

I think Citizen Kane would qualify as one of the most influential films of all time in that it defied conventions, thus creating new ones, mostly in the field of cinematography. The narrative, though disjointed, does not provide us with full disclosure, but it allows us to formulate our own opinions- another wonderful aspect of the film. It also typifies the struggle a filmmaker faces when attempting to defy convention and make a piece of art dealing with political issues. The film was believed to be about the life of William Randolph Hearst, and Mr. Hearst expended a lot of energy to make sure the movie would be a flop. Welles struggled on many levels to get the film made and many people believe it led to his undoing.

William Randolph Hearst

While it may not be the “greatest film of all time”, Citizen Kane is definitely worth studying and warrants the attention it eventually received from the film community. It is historically and politically significant and provides us with a philosophy on life, so the argument that it lacks substance falls flat. If anything, it is the film’s gratuitous experimentation which prevents it from achieving the perfection of a film like its perfectly constructed rival, Casablanca.

The Gangster – A Political Tool (Test- Draft)

In Tito Gerassi’s seminar, Theater As a Political Weapon, he made the claim that all art that lasts has a political message. We spent hours trying to dissect the secret messages of plays written hundreds of years ago. Warshow touches on this same sentiment in his article about the gangster genre of film, noting that it is the responsibility of popular culture to maintain people’s happiness, so when art seeks to reflect opposition it must do so in disguise. The gangster film, he claims, provides the perfect formula with which to do this. The audience is delighted at watching the gangster’s rise and fall, because he expresses that part of themselves that is un-American and resolves any fear experienced from seeking conformity, from moving beyond the middle class or rebelling against society.

Gangster films of the past seem to end with our tragic hero’s death, but in the modern gangster film the theme of conformity emerges, as well, albeit in a different context. In films such as Catch Me If You Can, Goodfellas, and Casino, the protagonist takes a job or is aided by the government in the film’s end, reflecting a culture bent on conformity and the inevitability of government run society.

Just as we struggle for sameness by celebrating the gangster’s rise and fall, we struggle for sameness in convention. This is reflected in the popularity of the gangster genre and other film conventions. Gnagster films, in my opinion, fall short of acting as political tools for non-conformists, but more like tools for conformity to middle class, American values. The movie we screened in class, Public Enemy, reveals this blatantly. With disclaimers at the movie’s start and end and the “I’m not so tough” near the film’s close reflect the mentality that conformity is a good goal.Reflecting on the comments made by William Wellman, the film’s director, in his interview with Scott Eyman, his main motivation for making films is money. We don’t see him going out on a limb with the production code as we do in the original Scarface. The film’s most shocking and innovative moment is its ending.

A SCENE FROM GANGS OF NEW YORK

watch?v=ODq8qv5AQmY

JUST A FEW OF MY FAVORITE GANGSTER MOVIES

 

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