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Contemporary Hollywood Cinema

This weeks films, both Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive and Andrew

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This weeks films, both Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive and Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, shift our perspective to contemporary violence in Hollywood films. The scope and presentation of violence in terms of cinematography and the interconnection with urban spaces is particularly interesting, especially in relation to Drive

In Refn’s Drive the protagonist Ryan Gosling is a modern-day archetype of the fairytale ‘Knight.’ He is handsome, smooth and polished on the exterior, and the smoothness of his characteristics are aptly mirrored with the smoothness of the slick urban city of Los Angeles. He is the epitome of restraint, masculinity, virility, action and power, yet there is noted air of serenity about his character in the way he controls his machine, his mannerisms and similarly his calmness when handling situations of intense violence and high adrenaline. From this the audience gets a sense that this smoothness is not exclusive to his physical attributes alone, but also to the texture of his mind. The music score, sequencing of action shots and the steadiness of each movement and moment of perceptive thinking heightens our understanding of the intricate violent standards of this film.

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In contrast, the protagonists of Killing them Softly is anything but the calm, cool and collected version from Drive. Brad Pitt’s hyperbolized character of the mafioso ball-buster with his leather jacket and overbearing sideburns, waltzing into bars, commanding acts of violence openly makes the film seem like the movie version of the Sopranos. There is a lack of finite detail that we see in our previous film, and this can be immediately registered by comparing the physical attributes between Gosling and Pitt, the former sharp and smooth and well groomed, and the latter disheveled with facial hair. Similarly the violence portrayed is one that is much more grainy and arguably realistic, with its slip-ups and fast/hard-talking dialogue. After comparing both films side by side one can argue that Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive is almost obsessive compulsive and socially constrained in his actions. 

The editing techniques in Drive have much to do with this portrayal of smoothness both in the realm of violence as well as in the character that commits it. The speeding up and slowing down of certain action shots, the closeness in every movement and the saturated brashness of colors makes this film enhanced visually to the point of perception simulation. 

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Domino/Gamer

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A deep contrast with the films we have had lately, Tony Scott’s Domino and Mark Develdine’s Gamer are two typical examples of sensationalized Hollywood blockbusters. Domino is loosely based on the real life of bounty hunter Domino Harvey, whose story of ‘poor-little-English-rich-girl-turned-gun- toting-LA-bounty-hunter’ captured the voracious imagination of the film industry. On researching the film I discovered that Miss Harvey was in fact very opposed to the final script and the hyperbolic depiction of her character in general. In the end, Domino Harvey ends up transformed into Lara Croft let loose in Los Angeles. This idea of Croft transitions well into the subject of Gamer, as both characters in the films are perpetuated by the fact that the former was based on a video game and the latter is in fact the story of a man who is in a video game. In this way, the protagonists of Domino and Gamer exhibit the almost super-human qualities of the stereotypical action figure of popular culture; with their Hollywood looks and personalities and ‘take no shit’ attitude they embody the personification of the video game hero in contemporary culture has taken the world by storm.

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The concept of the real-life video game is one that I personally find incredibly interesting. As technology has developed in warfare we have seen how popular video games such as ‘Call of Duty’ have shaped the psyche of the American teenager, as seen in Gamer with the player, and his controller. Nowadays this crossover from the digital world into the real world has branched into warfare through drones and even the military utilizing video games for their personnel training to simulate combat situations. Modern warfare with unmanned drones controlled miles away have transformed the hand-to-hand violence that has dominated war for centuries, and thus has altered the way in which one perceives the act of killing and violent combat. In the same way that Gamer places the viewer in the place of the character in the video game, the editing style of Domino with its rapid-fire cross cutting of scenes and shots has the effect of making the protagonist a character in the video game of her life. I feel that Scott’s experience with music videos and commercials adds a definite tone to the film that allows for this crossover, as the audience feels the hyperbolized character of Domino as a superwoman bounty-hunter ‘badass’.

In the end, both films are tributes to the transforming way in which violence is perceived. If we are to relate them to Apocalypto and The New World, we can see the incredible difference in the human aspect of killing and violent action. There is an element of removal from the character, the gamer, and the player, which alters the psychological impact of the kill, and what it means.

Apocalypto/The New World

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Both Gibson’s Apocalypto and Malick’s The New World represent historically a major collision of two worlds, the former represented as the Maya people of South America, whilst the latter represented as the Native Americans of North America. Because of this, these films are already majorly predisposed to juxtapose issues of race, religion, custom and history, as well as violence and combat. What is interesting about this pairing of films is that though they portray a very similar story, (that of settlers coming by sea and taking over the land and the natives) the end products could not be more different in the way they are both visually and thematically described.

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            In Gibson’s Apocalypto violence is paramount as the spectacle of the film. There is an overwhelming emphasis on the brutality between men, and the power struggle that ensues the violence that dictates the film. This violence is catapulted onto the screen not just through the narrative specifically, but also through the cinematography and individual shots. A prime example would be when Gibson chooses to portray the camera’s point of view from a recently decapitated head, and thus the audience is physically transported from their bystander view of the spectacle, and forcibly placed in the position of the recently sacrificed man, seeing what he theoretically ‘sees’ as his head is sliced from his torso and rolls down to the ground. In class we discussed the interesting parallel that is made between the slaughter of the Maya, and the war on terror; both violent collisions that depict a spectacle of bloodlust and power, the strong and mighty Western world with all its advanced technology against the guerrilla backwards-thinking Middle East. The parallel is no coincidence- with young men dying everywhere, and the so called ‘appeasement’ of the Gods in order to fix the world, Apocalypto sends out a very strong message. Times may have changed, but that does not mean that men or their inherent violent struggle and desire to be the resounding Superpower has.

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            In contrast, The New World chooses not to capitalize as it were, on the bloodlust of the colonization of the Americas, but rather focuses on the beauty of landscape, and the complicated but humane relationship between the colonist and the native.  Though a critical success with its delicate cinematography and music score, Malick’s film was a commercial failure, which one can argue shows that capitalization of violence is much more lucrative in the public arena. In short, people love and want bloodlust. Malick’s film is laden with beautiful landscapes that are mirrored in the score; it is no accident that the natives are referred to as ‘naturals;’ they represent the land that they inhabit, and in this way they are inherently pure, created and in correlation with the earth. Pocahontas is the bodily essence of purity; young, naive and kind she symbolizes the bridge between the two worlds. This emphasis on purity is also recognized by Captain Smith, when after they are reunited, he says to his past lover, and sadly his one and only real love, that what they had dually experienced in the New World was not a dream, but rather ‘the only truth.’ In the same way that the land and its people are authentic as raw humans, un-poisoned by greed and malice (they have no laws or understandings of property before the settlers arrive,) Malick was adamant on everything from the actors to the sets to be authentic, just in the same way the people of the history were authentic in their ‘truthful’ way of life (even the actress who plays Pocahontas was a vessel of purity, as the kiss between her and Colin Farrell was indeed her very first kiss.)

            In conclusion, Apocalypto and The New World are mirrors of history, that ended with disaster and destruction for the race that they colonized, yet they depict these incredibly important events from our past in totally different ways.

Showgirls/Point Break

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Showgirls, much like Heaven’s gate, has a reputation that precedes it as a stereotypical and hyperbolized ‘bad film.’ The film itself can be argued as an ironic parody of a ‘bad showy film’; the casting of Elizabeth Berkely shows this double irony as she portrays a failure down-and-out girl, and similarly the film itself is a failure critically. In many ways it does live up to this opinion; I had watched this film some years ago when I was much younger and remember vividly being struck by the graphic nudity and brash rawness of the characters. I distinctly remember a friend who came into the room and asked if I was watching porn, just because the acting was so over-exaggerated and similarly the cinematography with Vegas in all its tacky, shining splendor, gave off the impression of a glamorized pornography. 

This film provides many codes of eroticism; it is laden with flesh, sweat, desire, and sexually charged undertones between characters. In this way, sexuality becomes commodified, and the physical notion of the externally sexual form of the human body is exhibited as a form of the grotesque. We lose sight of the characters as internal beings, and rather judge them on their external attributions. Point and case with the protagonist Nomi Malone as she rises from from whore, to stripper, to showgirl, to finally a star, showcasing her body as a commodity to rise in the ranks, against the background of the sexually urbanized setting of the garish and vulgar Las Vegas strip. In the same way that Las Vegas is seen as tawdry and tastelessly ostentatious with its over-the top decoration, lights and glitz, we see the characters conform and mould themselves to their environment, bedazzling their nudity with sweat, sex, money and power. 

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In comparison, Point Break is a regression to the organic. In this film, the elements are as much a part of the protagonist’s transformation as Nomi Malone’s is as the Vegas culture seeps into her veins. The character of Keanu Reeves, with his uptight and conformed beginnings, undergoes a drastic transformation through the elements of the sea and air. The surfing and skydiving scenes are arguably some of the most visually compelling in all of cinema. This combination of the earth and air allows a profound connection to the naturalistic ‘highs’ in life. Whereas in Vegas it is all about the dark seedy stripclubs and artificial lighting, in Point Break we are shown the organic in the purest form, such as skydiving over the canyons and ocean at dawn. In this way, one can argue that the environment has as much a part to play in the plot and manipulation of the protagonists, as do the people and circumstances around them. In Showgirls the body is exposed as a commodity as artificial and commonplace as the Las Vegas lights, whereas in Point Break the body is much more of an essential part of the organic, whether it be on a surfboard against the waves, or in the sky. 

Die Hard/Top Gun

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One could hardly choose two more aptly genre-defined films in describing male image and raw masculinity. Both Die Hard and Top Gun portray the masculine form in its most basic and raw fundamentals; the protagonists played by Bruce Willis and Tom Cruz, perpetuate the stereotype of the American Male Hero, the former is the classically class-defined heroic ‘average Joe’ whilst the latter is the sweaty, brooding and rebellious freedom fighter.

In Top Gun the tropes of masculinity are varied; there exists a special and arguably intimate relationship between Maverick and Goose, more tightly bound than brothers (at one point Maverick indeed says that Goose is the ‘only family he’s got’). After all, their lives depend on one another. The homoerotic undertones of the film, the rippling muscles and sweat paired with the raw machinery and phallic shining fighter jet are all projections of male masculinity and what it means to be a real ‘man.’ All these themes are blatantly exhibited in the film’s very opening scenes, with the rock n’ roll music, dusk lights, smoke and the fierce fiery thrust of the fighter jet as it physically ejects off the runway. Incidentally the aircraft carrier thus becomes the ‘climax machine’ as mentioned in class; at the start there’s all this smoke, its subtle, alluring, enveloping, and starts to build up, and then as the plane takes off the music erupts. In this way the build up and layering of the senses  combine to create a stimulating tour de force for the audience; it creates this setting of a masculine-dominated, testosterone-fuelled, fantastical staging of male sexuality. This layering of sight and sound, visual and audio is necessary to fulfill all the stereotypes perpetuated by the Top Gun ‘way of life’. As we discussed in class, from the reading on aesthetics and contemporaries, ‘a blend of analogue and digital film making lays bare the inner mechanics of cinema, its texture, emphasizing the process of manipulating and creating moving images. Film, in this regard, can be conceptualized as an enormous canvas.’ In this way, Top Gun can be viewed as a film of a series of layers, both in its cinematic execution as well as its plot; the sound of the jets, the view of the smoke and the blue sky, the beads of sweat on the male body all make up a stunning picture frame which encapsulates the internal and external power struggle of the protagonist; both with his tormented past, and turbulent future.

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In Die Hard the concept of layers is also a key theme. Physically with the building itself and its numerous floors and layers that make up the main stage for the action and fighting, as well as the layers of the character of Bruce Willis, as the hard-lined NYC cop, the desperate husband, the ‘savior.’ In this film the emphasis is the restoration of masculinity; Willis not only has to ‘save the day’ but also employ the reunification of the family nucleus with his actions, thus being the true American hero both as a national icon as well as the head of the family unit. Like Top Gun there is an overwhelming desire to categorize the protagonist as the archetypal macho action figure; with his ripped wife-beater, and phallic gun, he is one man against all odds, and of course is able to overcome them all. In reference back to the theme of male relationships, in the same way that Maverick and Goose entertain a bond that is more unique than blood or marriage, so do we see the connection between Willis and Powell, as they represent their own inter-racial counterparts. Not surprisingly, women are not the focus of either film, except in a sexually dominated fashion. In this way, both films perpetuate the physical and similarly emotional and social accusations of the male sphere. They are cult, as every male American boy wants to be John McLane and Maverick.

Blue Velvet/They Live

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David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is a supreme ‘cult’ film that propelled the director to the status of a ‘cinematic auteur,’ a title I have taken from Todd McGowan’s article ‘Fantasizing the Father in Blue Velvet.’ This film is deeply core-shaking, disturbing and psychologically thought provoking. Lynch’s directorial style places much emphasis on subtle details and metaphors which are laden throughout this film, as well as many of his other works, such as Mulholland drive. In relation to They Live, both films project a sense of despair and depression- there exists a mutual consistent feeling of dissatisfaction and lack of resolution, yet also, the mutual theme of being ‘awakened.’ Both Blue Velvet and They Live are highly-senstitive works of art in my personal opinion, that use the cinematic medium to express a plethora of human emotions as well as the pandora’s box of the human psyche. 

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In Blue Velvet there is a defined notion of a divide; McGowan categorizes it as a split between ‘public social reality and its fantasmatic underside.’ In this way, the world is split between the over-saturated and hyperbolic stereotype of the ‘Stepford’ American town, and the dark bellied underside that inhabits within this superficial facade. Even so, both of these represent a false reality, or rather, a desire for a fantasy existence. Even the idyllic American town, all glowing and shiny, represents according to McGowan ‘the kind of perfectly realized fantasy world that one never encounters in reality.’This distinction is made immediate by Lynch through the films opening scenes, where we are exposed to the brighter-than-blue sky, whiter-than-white picket fence and perfectly colored roses, only to be quickly taken deep underneath it all (literally) with the gruesomely disturbing up-close shots of the various creepy-crawlies, bugs and beetles scuttering and crawling around in the under-growth. This shot, with its drastic change in color, hue and tone, not to mention the radical change in subject matter, catches the audience vulnerably off guard, and sets the tone for the film’s two-sided sets of existences. Lynch uses the quintessentially innconet character of Jeffrey to act as the escort into the dark and disturbed world of Blue Velvet, who’s discovery of the severed ear leads to the discovery of this somewhat alternate fantasy- reality.

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One of the major underlaying themes of Blue Velvet is the concept of desire, and illicit pleasure. Desire is an interchangeable sphere within the film, encompassing many forms, yet it causes the unravelling and undoing of the Lynch’s world. Like Professor Siegel mentioned in class, ‘desire is the energy that undermines the fantasy world.’ When the structure of fantasy breaks down, reality perforates. There is a constant sense that fantasy is  bound with signification, and consequently ‘the absolute commitment to fantasy produces the impossible moment at which betrayed desire returns.’ Sexual desire, romantic desire, desire for knowledge, for authority, for power and violence are all portrayed in the twisted facades of the film, with the character of Jeffrey acting as the audience’s vehicle to experience them all. But it is because of these conflicting desires that the fantasy world falls apart, and thus, fantasy and reality cease as a product of their own self-destructed demise.  

The King of Comedy/Broadcast News

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Personally I found both The King of Comedy and Broadcast News incredibly entertaining and thought-provoking as vintage snapshots of the obsessive nature of the American media culture. Off-hand these films are presented to their respective audiences as black comedies, yet, when by altering the viewing perspective of the genre lens, one alter’s entirely the psychological understanding of the films and the social context of the characters portrayed.

In Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy our protagonist Rupert Pupkin is stereotypically presented as the out-of-touch-with-reality fan of a comedy legend, who desperately wants to be a comedian himself, living in his mother’s basement as he searches for his big ‘break.’ Although sightly neurotic and somewhat deranged of his own comedic talent, the audience is moved to feel a sad sympathy for this character. A poignant example of this for example is when we see him patiently waiting by a public telephone booth desperate for a call back from Jerry because he cannot even afford his own phone. This out-of-luck individual trying to make it in ‘showbiz’ is an archetypal figure of the American media culture, something that Jerry himself comments in the films very opening with ‘we all got to start at the bottom and work our way up.’ The obsessive desire for fame, fortune and notoriety surpasses the reality of the situation, glorified in this filmic setting as Pumpkin is completely self-assured he is simply an undiscovered comedy genius. As the film develops, we see De Niro’s character’s hapless neurosis (which at first seemed endearing) descend into a deeper and more profound loss of reality. If we analyze this film under the sub-text of mental delusion and fantasy, Pumpkin becomes more and more self-deluded rather than bumbling and endearing.  Citing Langford’s text ‘Post-Classical Hollywood’ one can see this effect take place where, “one might suggest that these journeys into a fantasy elsewhere were impelled by a desire for other-worldy redemption for the disenchanted present, or even a retreat from the concerns of adult social life altogether”p219. As a result of this, we discussed in class, one is forced to pose the question is The King of Comedy even a comedy? Or rather an ironic and disturbed anti-comedy? This split-genre is somewhat difficult to come to terms with; on one hand the film is so full of hyperbole that it cannot not be hysterical in the comedic sense, yet on the other it is precisely Pumpkin’s hysteria and delusions (like when he fantasises conversations and scenarios in his mind) that shift towards a deeper and darker psychological context.

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In a similar fashion, Broadcast News is not able to fully fulfil the genre it encompasses. As a romantic-comedy, one automatically expects and assumes to finish watching with a feeling of satisfaction and euphoria, as typically everything ‘works out in the end’ with lovers coming together and big smiles. Yet paradoxically in this film, no-one really ends up with each other. I believe the ending is appropriate, yet in mainstream marketing, it is unable to satisfy the romantic comedy genre that it portrays. In this way, both Broadcast News and The King of Comedy are paradoxes of their own genres; they are unclassifiable enigmas of the sterotype genre code that dictates film and cinema.