Audiard’s and Vinterberg’s Ghosts

[Horatio:] O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

[Hamlet:] And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

                                                     — William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Ghosts may seem meant—too meanly meant, these days—for a medium based, for more than its first hundred years, on a flickering light in the darkness, trying to haunt a (movie) house with apparitions on a wall. But ghosts are often shrilly, screamingly one-note in Hollywood—they’re usually all about fear; horror, tending to rely on the sudden visual shock for cheap thrills, has tricked out demon-like phantoms in fright-and-flight finery. What’s now mostly ghouls-gone-wild with murderous mayhem, though, used to be spirits mirroring grief and desire. They were embodiments of trauma or truth-tellers or the means for mortals to reconcile themselves to death. Epic heroes descended to the Underworld to talk to the shades of parents, siblings, or lovers. Hamlet’s father returned to tell him how he was killed. Dickens’s three spirits in A Christmas Carol embody three different times for the miserly Scrooge and terrify him most when offering harsh truths about his stingy actions. They’re as much outer as inner, as much supernatural as part of what we’d now call Ebenezer’s “unconscious” (and repressed conscience). And it’s not just past times, in stories of yore, which wreathed wraiths in so many weird and wondrous ways; on film, other cultures still twist and turn those winding-sheets in different directions. Beyond our Judeo-Christian frames, a wide spectrum of spectres hark back to their complex folk-culture, pagan, or animist origins. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Recalls His Past Lives (2010), for instance, offers a Thai world of reincarnation where a red-eyed, black-furred Monkey Ghost—as much human as animal—sits at a table with his human mother; a ghostly sister reappears for a conversation. See-through second selves ethereally exist next to their mortal counterparts.

Culture-clashes and culture-crossings inspirit Jacques Audiard’s prison-epic A Prophet (2009), a French film whose otherworldliness seems steeped in Islamic lore. That’s because, after Corsican mob-boss César (Niels Arestrup) pressures—in a grisly initiation and conversion (to imperial César’s side)—lapsed Muslim Malik (Tahir Rahim) into killing a trial witness-to-be, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), Reyeb returns in moments of phantasmagoria. In a compound vice-gripped by a brutal hierarchy meting out nightmarish violence, these are surreally beautiful, funny, oddly comforting scenes between murderer and victim, now thoughtful cellmates. He’s not a conscience, Audiard has said, but a conscience reincarnated as a kind of soulmate. On the inside, after César hurts Malik, Reyeb seems to offer Malik a salving prophecy—a vision of deer and a deer-warning country road-sign; it flickers forth like a dim, through-a-peephole road-movie—which happens

to save his life when he’s on the outside (on day-release). Some Muslims believe in jinn—these could be ghosts wandering the earth after being killed, but another notion has it that every human has a partner jinn. The Qu’ran states that “the jinns did He create from a smokeless flame of fire” (55:15). Reyab puffs on a cigarette and the smoke comes out of the fatal gash in his neck; later, his back’s on fire. When Malik Brutus-es César and rejoins

the jail’s Muslim faction before he finally leaves, a mob-boss himself now, he’s been led to his strangely expiating resurgence—risen from the underworld, a newfound (criminal) leader of his people—by the victim who hauntingly befriended him.

One of the most tender, complex re-imaginings of the ghostly in recent film-lore is Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998). A Danish film by way of the constraining Dogme 95 manifesto, it’s set on a vast estate (the manse is run as a hotel) where a son must contend with his father (the hotel-owner, celebrating his sixtieth with family and friends)—and so it’s shadowed by Shakespeare’s play about that great Dane. Vinterberg and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle halo a cracklingly atmospheric, spiritual aura around Christian’s memories of his dead twin Linda (in the process breaking the manifesto’s Rule 7: “Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden”). Christian’s dreamy vision of his sister on the “other side” is connected to the billowing-curtain, opaque-window, and refracting-water image-motifs throughout, especially when her spirit seems to hover over the three siblings, linked in crosscut scenes, as sister Helene, in her late sister’s white sheets-covered room (“Look, it’s spooky. Really ghostlike.”), is about to enter a bathroom (from which we briefly see, in eerie slo-mo, Helene and a hotel employee uncovering the adjoining room) and discover clues leading to Linda’s farewell note. A curtain, a window-pane (through which we see the family patriarch running beside a child), and bathwater (in which Christian’s sweetheart Pia submerges herself) eerily evoke: the filmy barrier between our world and another (our future?), the diffraction and

distortion of memory (including the secrets of Christian and Linda’s abuse by their father in the past), and the rippling effects of Linda’s watery, Ophelia-like suicide (stirring up the present—Christian decides to tell the truth at the dinner-table). Amid sexual tension and trauma, Vinterberg and Mantle float us beyond the earthy and the earthly, infusing scenes of confrontation and chaos with liltingly sublime moments of humanist transcendence—of Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) and Helene (Paprika Steen) looking beyond themselves to a secret which must be voiced, to honour their memories of Linda and for the greater good.

The brutishness of the patriarch, Helge (Henning Moritzen), is overwhelmed by the strange calm and secular holiness surrounding the scenes of Christian’s inner determination to tell the truth, an atmosphere suggesting the right-ness and justice of his personal (but not sole—it’s twinned in spirit with his sister and fellow-victim) mission. This determination, fired by her memory—the present-ness of Linda, passing but not past—provides the lasting hope and solace here, and leads us to re-envision the candle-light in the film, much like the light of a film in the darkness, as not merely flickering. It’s a signal-reminder of Christian’s need to be constant to his sister and speak the truth—for himself, too. And so, after his revelation, in Christian’s dream-vision, when he and Linda hug, the star-point of a candle-flame shines like a beacon as Christian reconciles himself to life, the truth, and the loss of his twin. The final shot, after fading out from Christian’s face, is of a sparking, moving flame, and the credits are shown under light-dappled water, as tragic death and traumatic memory have been cleansed.

But as the curtain goes down on The Celebration, consider once more the film’s curtain-motif—also a metaphor for the flimsy screens put up by Helge and others to block the truth. Christian shines a light through this barrier at last, unsettling it (as he shakes a glass of still water in that cross-cutting sequence) until the curtain’s parted. Yet the curtain’s also the fragile demarcation between our world and the afterlife . . . which Christian briefly breaches after he spills the truth and is reunited for a sweet, fleeting farewell to Linda in his dream-vision. A curtain to be lifted—between the audience and the stage, between the viewer and the screen, between our world and another. A curtain, ghostlike in its diaphanous whiteness, its nearly sheer barrier, veiling yet beckoning us toward a world only just, barely, beyond our imagination.

Works Cited

The Celebration [Festen]. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, Nimbus, 1998.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843.

A Prophet [Un prophète]. Directed by Jacques Audiard, UGC, 2009.

The Qu’ran. c. 609-32. The Quranic Arabic Corpus, University of Leeds, 2017,

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. c. 1600. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Oxford UP, 1995, pp. 653-690.

Uncle Boonmee Who Recalls His Past Lives. Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Kick The Machine, 2010.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

Project Yourself

Film-scenes with glass—and some of the greatest can be found in Asghar Farhadi’s shattering domestic-drama A Separation (2011)—can vibrate with a private thrill because motion-pictures, for so long, appeared through glass. Celluloid steadily fluttered along, held just-so among the sprockets

and gears so it moved smoothly between the plates in that tiny aperture where the light shines through each frame, out into the darkness. The beam of the projector, its reels lit up from behind to pass through a lens, passed through swirling dust-motes and then, often, through another pane of glass—in the projectionist’s booth—before landing on the big screen.

The psychologist’s sense of “projection” as the “unconscious transfer of one’s desires or emotions to another person or some external object” first appeared in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1909 (via Jung). Filmmaking was on the cusp of becoming a full-fledged industry in the United States. This movie universe, without big-name celebrities, seems unthinkable now but, pre-1910, motion-pictures relied on company names, not star power. Directors and actors weren’t credited (partly to prevent demands for higher wages). Longer contracts meant more screen-time for some, though; soon, viewers were requesting names or photos. Reviewers joined in, lobby picture-posters followed, and the first fan magazine popped up in 1911. The star system had landed just as studios crossed the continent to a place dubbed Hollywood.

Flash-forward to today, when stars have agents and negotiate salaries or gross-percentages before signing on to a picture, and the result’s a dazzling mirage, celebrity-aura blurring with name-brand marketing as the actual movie trails behind. The star system’s so accepted that it’s tainted reviews—some critics waste lines on assessing an actor or on their sense of that actor based on her/his celebrity persona. Acting’s just one mise-en-scène element, but it’s been vaulted into the stratosphere (helped by the close-up, dominating films since the small screen’s rise, starting in the ’50s with TV). The fame-game’s glare has warped many a viewer’s perception of and interest in a film, too.

It’s become tough to tell if a role’s canny persona-playing or movie-marketing. A-list actors deemed to be dramatically not playing themselves often get the spotlight come awards-time. And the system tends to chew up and spit out actresses, so reduced to their image that their marquee-glow has a shorter light-span. Male stars seem more durable and bankable because of the industry’s sexism—more starring, complex roles for men—while some starlets get more tarred by tabloid-ish coverage: as spurned or betraying or sluttish or washed-up wreck. There’s also the Complex Leading Man stereotype—from Brando on through De Niro, Pacino, Depp, and Day-Lewis, it’s male stars, supposedly, who best become their roles, finding more method-acting in their talent-madness. (Most of these stars are white; Will Smith and Denzel Washington are recent exceptions proving the rule, since they usually play characters palatable to white audiences).

But perhaps many of us are content to have celebrity-actor personas to be irritated or beguiled or fascinated or reviled by, and we see a movie because it’s like watching someone we sort of think we know act a little bit like what we expect—a comfortably false front in an already untrue tale that only helps us escape our too-real lives that little bit better. That’s the self-editing motive behind a meta-cinema comedy that came out just fifteen years after “projection” was coined and star power’s wattage was amped up.

In the 1920s, as celebrity-power exploded—Houdini was followed by Chaplin as one of the few internationally-recognized sensations—actors’ gestures and body-language took centre-stage in silent comedy. Joseph Frank “Buster” (the name given to him by Houdini after he saw the boy tumble down stairs at six months, unharmed) Keaton did his own stunts, even fracturing his neck, he discovered years later, in the making of Sherlock Jr. (1924). The film was, reputedly, in part co-directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, whose court case—he was falsely accused of rape—was one of the first great Hollywood scandals (it, in part, led to the Hays Code, adopted in 1930 and stringently enforced from 1934 until the 1950s).

The two movie-making Keatons—actor and director—become two movie-influenced characters: a small-town projectionist, aspiring to private-eye-hood, falls asleep at the spinning reel-wheel and dreamily astral-projects himself onto the screen as a super-sleuth. We first see the fellow sitting in the cinema, reading the instruction-guide How To Be A Detective, but we’re

asked to play detective, too—to observe the ironic echoes of the projectionist’s real-life story in his dream-film plot (including his fantasy-demotion of his boss to his sidekick, Gillette—the surname of the first stage-actor to famously play Sherlock Holmes). And Keaton’s famously stone-faced look leads us to project emotion onto him or try, like plush-seated shamuses, to deduce what he’s feeling.

The projectionist’s film-fantasy is an American Dream—the hapless working stiff in life quick-changes into a too-cool, even cocky, dapper detective in his movie. But the title-card introducing the object of his affection, “[t]he girl in the case”, glass-smears fantasy and reality too by stating the actress’ name, Kathryn McGuire, beneath her character. In the movie of his mind, the

woman has no power—she’s a defenceless plaything, kidnapped by dastardly do-badders and sneeringly threatened with rape—but in reality she’s the best detective around, discovering that it was the projectionist’s rival who stole and pawned her father’s watch (that father? played by Keaton’s father). His dream’s an unspooling of his power-fantasy, where he rescues the girl, while in reality he’s unlucky and hapless until she exonerates him, even coming to him in the projection-booth to tell him so.

At the surreal start of it all, though, when his dream-self double leaves him, stands by the other projector, looks at the screen, and transforms the characters there into his real-life rival and his love-interest, this machine-

operator rises up to become both director of the story and projectionist-editor, splicing his real-life and reel-life together. (That other famous projectionist-film, Cinema Paradiso, ends with a reel of spliced-together romance-scenes which the town’s diocese had demanded the film-operator cut from the original screenings). To marry projectionist and projection, he walks down the aisle through the packed house; the projectionist’s projected self scampers on-stage and enters the screen-space. He’s tossed

out by his rival, “the sheik”, but leaps back in. Now, in frames within frames—he faces a mansion’s front door-frame, within the movie-frame, within the frame for Sherlock Jr.—and in frame after frame, the projectionist finds himself dreamily lurching, in cut after cut, from one fictional setting or set to another: that mansion, then a walled garden, a street, a cliffside, a jungle with lions, a desert, an ocean, a snowy mountainside, and then back to that walled garden (reminiscent of the Capulets’ estate; the melodrama within the romantic-comedy here, Hearts and Pearls, is a “Veronal Film Co.” picture, and Veronal was also the name of a sleeping barbiturate).

In this absurd interlude, film’s the stuff of dreams (what theorists call “oneiric”) but, when the projectionist crosses into the screen, he’s crossing not only into the dream-world but crossing from stage to screen, moving from theatre (and the world of vaudeville, with its previous generation of stars) to a comedy that can only be told, so amusingly, by film techniques. Most of the jokes depend on camera angles, cinematography, sets, props, and costumes. And it’s as if there’s a prankster god-in-the-machine cutting from one scene to another when the projectionist is in the film, causing him, for instance, to dive from that rock in the ocean into the snow on that mountainside. The cuts serve only to frustrate and bamboozle the projectionist, making him a plaything of cinematic fate. He’s controlled by the scene—made a foolish prop in someone else’s show. (And when we laugh at his tripping trials, does it mean that, in some small way, we’re happy to see this wanna-be bumbling and stumbling through the spotlight?) In a film, and a film-within-a-film, which often seems predictable, decorous, and bound by the conventions of melodrama, this flurry of metafilmic mayhem surges with surrealism, dislocation, and anarchy, turning comedy into an anti-heroic spectacle, stripping the would-be star of self-will. He can’t yet find any fixed position or safe place—there’s no secure spot for him yet in society. The projector (the dreamer) and the projected (the dream-vision) soon become inextricably linked, the fantasist head-over-heels in thrall to his fantasies. And while the dream gradually reveals that its dreamer doesn’t believe much in himself, it also helps him, through imitation and role-play, grow determined and act out a sense of authority and mastery. But with that initial trespass, that fourth wall-break-in—more slap-shot than slapstick—for a few wild, glorious moments, cinema seems a world without rules; it’s free-fall, chaotic, and full of surprise.

As the film-within-a-film plays on, though, the man whom Houdini nicknamed Buster exposes what cinema is—optical illusion. Keaton deconstructs movie-magic (a house-front’s shown in cross-section, exposing the ways sets were built with false fronts), adds up mathematics and angles to equal comedy (surveying equipment was used to set up the exact angles, depths, and positions for that shot-jolting sequence), and even inside-puns on the real-life crime (the villainous rival steals a watch, i.e., plays fast and loose with time, and the film’s comic cuts do the same). But while film’s fleetingly exposed, through the projectionist’s wonky looking-glass, as a medium capable of sudden, uproarious shifts in time and space, it’s also a class-machine, turning a near-nobody relegated to mechanical work in a backroom into a debonair star front-and-centre on the screen, surrounded by nice cars and high-class people, sporting expensive clothes, and searching for a pearl necklace. (Gender can camp and decamp, too: the detective dons an old lady costume for a getaway; his assistant dresses up as a frocked tie-peddler to help him escape.) The greatest trick of all may be the projectionist’s rise in class, but his American Dream, just like his screen-dream, bursts when he’s awoken. Then he’s no longer at the centre of his own idealized world, the star of his dream-script. He can’t turn to the screen as a wonderland to escape into or a mirror-land of model behaviour to be imitated. In the end, the projectionist, in the dark about romance, follows the movie hero’s moves by kissing the girl’s hand, then putting a ring on her finger, and next pecking her on the lips . . . only to be befuddled by the cut to the next scene, where husband and wife are raising newborns. The last we see of the projectionist is him, framed by the little window into his projection-room, scratching his head in confusion, as if bewildered by the world, imitating adult (e)motions but not yet ready to truly star in his

own everyday life. Projecting yourself—your voice, your image, your desires—can only stretch you so far, Sherlock Jr. suggests. Soon enough, the lights come up and you’re back in the un-reel world.

Works Cited

“Projection, n. 6. c.Oxford English Dictionary, June 2007,

A Separation. Directed by Asghar Farhadi. Sony, 2011.

Sherlock Jr. Directed by Buster Keaton [and Roscoe Arbuckle]. Metro-Goldwyn, 1924.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

The Child Creeps

There’s creepy children’s literature and film and there’s the creepy child in literature and film. Creepy children’s literature in English began with J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911). A tale turned play turned novel, it’s a botched fairy-go-’round where the narrator resents Peter, calls children “heartless”, says “I despise” Wendy’s mother, talks over the child-reader’s head, and, to complete our squeamish squirming, offers sexual innuendo about little Wendy: “Now Wendy was every inch a woman, though there were not very many inches, and she peeped out of the bedclothes”; “She made herself rather cheap by inclining her face toward him”; “there can be no denying that it was she who first tempted him.” But it’s harder to pinpoint when the creepy child began on the big screen.

The noxiousness may have been planted with The Bad Seed (1956). Based on William March’s 1954 novel, this noir-ish B-movie wah-wah mutes America’s trumpeted family values into a high-pitched horror-show a year before Leave It To Beaver. Eight-year-old Rhoda kills a classmate, leading her mother—who learns that her own mother was a serial killer—to wonder what bloodily runs in her family (the novel’s ending was altered so

Rhoda didn’t get away with murder but was fatally punished; Warner Bros. plastered an “adults only” label on ads for the picture). By the anti-establishment ’60s, when exploitation-flick Spider Baby (1967) featured three inbred, devolved, deranged young siblings and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) saw a mom-to-be struck with unholy fear over her child-to-come, the creepy kids had arrived. Horror-makers haven’t missed a heartbeat-beat-beat-thud! since, even adding freaky-looking toys to the mix—and so the creepy child’s doll (Chucky, Annabelle) has reared its stiff little head, too. In Jennifer Kent’s ghoulish debut The Babadook (2014), the monster pops up from a storybook.

And still, in whatever form or association, the preternaturally precocious child has become such a commonplace in the genre that a script may just wink at the cliché to turn it into more of a twinkling in-joke than an annoying trope. In Babak Anvari’s debut, the socio-political chiller Under The Shadow (2016), set during the Iran-Iraq War, mother Shideh goes to talk to a neighbour, Mrs. Ebrahami, about her cousin, Mehdi, a young boy who’s apparently been telling Shideh’s daughter, Dorsa, ghost-stories about jinn.

But, Mrs. Ebrahami replies, Mehdi’s been mute since his parents were killed—still, she admits, “the boy is creepy.”

Kids have grown creepier on TV and film these last few decades as there are more and more child-actors, seeming far older than their years and much more alert to the camera. Such self-consciousness makes them un-child-like, since only non-children can truly be conscious of childhood. It’s a state we’re unaware of while in it—imagine a child declaring, “How much better it is to be 8 than 7!” or “Being a child’s so much better than being a baby!”—and can’t possibly be aware of, since we don’t yet have another state to compare it with. Adults determine childhood because it’s defined against adulthood; largely an imaginary, past place, childhood’s increasingly nostalgic-ized in our culture.

And the instant children seem too alert to being on-camera—a camera wielded by an adult, in a scene written and directed by adults—they’re not really children anymore, because they’re too self-aware. There’s a phantom-spirit of childhood lingering, but it’s trapped in an adult workspace. Even in a documentary such as Miss Kiet’s Children (2016), which observes immigrant children in a Dutch classroom—many of them refugees from Syria’s civil war—some of the kids seem to act up for the camera: dancing for it after bullying other kids in the schoolyard; looking at it with a smile after being complimented by the teacher of the title.

 But what if children mark out their own trials and tribulations in a handpaint-smear of fiction and reality? Amid the second generation of the Iranian New Wave, a filmmaking movement which has washed away the dusty line between documentary and fiction and brimmed over with social-realist yet allegorical films about children, Samira Makhmalbaf made waves with The Apple (1998). She was 17 and her directorial debut starred pre-teen twin sisters, Massoumeh and Zahra Naderi, as themselves in a story based on their own fettered lives. They’d been kept at home by their parents (the father’s played by the man himself, too) until 12, when they were removed by social workers who were following up on a complaint. A tale of feral children and locked-up females would almost always be creepy gothic-horror, yet Makhmalbaf’s docudrama leaches it of all sensation, instead seeding a hothouse social-issue with symbolism.

The first, tableau-like shot is of a wall, a large pot with a small plant in front of it. An arm stretches down and out as far as it’s able, the hand holding a plastic cup, to water the plant. Soon, a letter notifying authorities of the girls’ confinement is signed by several neighbours, but an apple is placed on top of it to mark the film’s title. And so image-motifs of growth and Edenic innocence have already been twinned and troubled.

Then come snippets of news-footage of the case: a social worker talking to the father; the house’s barred inner door and the blind mother, completely covered; the girls talking to reporters. Both make animal-like sounds; Massoumeh licks a reporter’s microphone with her tongue. In a streetside interview, a woman, tucking her hijab around her face, keeping only her eyes, nose, and mouth visible, avers, “The fact is, they’re prisoners.” The mother visits, fretting over her daughters not wearing headscarfs, asking to take them home, and calling them “[l]ittle bitches.” The parents lead the girls home by the arms; the twins, one clutching an apple, hobble down the building’s hallways and out into the sunlight. (Later, their father explains to the social worker that an instruction-guide for fathers states: “A man’s gaze is like the sun and a girl is like a flower.”)

In their home, the film begins in earnest. Massoumeh and Zahra are soon behind that inner door, gazing out between its bars. They daub ink-stained

Description: mage result for the apple 1998

handprints on a wall; Massoumeh waters two small flowers. Once or twice, they’re reflected in their small hand-mirrors. (Later, the father, distraught to read of legal action forthcoming, wails, “How hard it is to put back together the pieces of a broken mirror!”) He has them sweep the courtyard and wash clothes or else the “social worker will say you haven’t learnt anything.” Upon her arrival, she’s appalled at their confinement—he futilely protests, “If I don’t lock the door, boys climb over the wall [to fetch balls] . . . If anyone touched [my girls], I’d be dishonoured”—and sends the pair outside.

The girls are drawn to an apple which a boy up in a window bobs on a string above them. He descends and, dangling the apple behind, leads them away. Meanwhile, the social worker’s locked the father in. After the girls return with two newfound friends, the social worker gives Massoumeh and Zahra the key. In an ironic inversion and sad parody of their longtime captivity, they struggle to free their once-captor father, finally unlocking the door and bringing him to buy a watch for them. Their sightless mother, enveloped in her chador, wanders out and stands in the alley as the boy dangles the apple before her. The last image is of this shrouded, blind woman taunted by an apple—she reaches for the fruit and, as it slips from her hands, the frame freezes and the credits roll.

In this veiled criticism of patriarchal Iran’s infantilization of females, temptation (that apple), contained reality (those mirrors), and maturity (the two small flowers) are the braided-together fringes of a shabby, careworn carpet. Our notions of innocence come undone—after all, the father not only locked up his daughters to protect his honour but to preserve their innocence. As we watch, childhood’s a barred space that’s wrenched open. The twins, already more poised and acculturated, are being themselves but also playing characters (and playing against assumptions about them); they’re both ingenuous and knowing as their private space, their holding-cell home for eleven years, is made public by the camera. But, when they trail the boy with the apple, are they playing a game or being led astray? Having fun or struggling along? During hopscotch with another girl, is Massoumeh told to rap her playmate on the head with an apple, or does she decide on her own? (Afterwards, she gives her an apple.) “Innocence” is exploded as this supposed innocent does a mean thing, but it’s for the camera . . . is she re-creating an upbringing of carrot-and-stick punishments, echoing a time when she knew no better (is it innocence or meanness?), or was she told to act that way? In a 2000 documentary, Massoumeh and Zahra, by then 14, speak well, look sophisticated, and act like young adults. Zahra talks about being “saved by ‘The Apple’. Now we go to school.” During the interview, though, Samira, off-screen, instructs her (sit straight, speak up), as much director as parent.

The Apple shows siblings catapulted over their house walls into precociousness—they must grow up, even in the spotlight—and demystifies the creepiness of their stunted, claustrophobic childhood. Defying categorization and easy judgment, it also expands the Naderi sisters’ story into an allegory for female repression in modern Iran. Makhmalbaf’s fourth (and so far last) film, though, was not only little-seen (after some festivals, it only played in cinemas in France, Spain, and Belgium) but stoked controversy for its concept and execution, as if the making of the film tainted its child-actors’ innocence.

Two-Legged Horse (2008), written by Samira’s father Mohsen, is hard to watch and harder to look away from. Redefining “unflinching,” it depicts a brutalized, crippled Afghanistan where life is cheap and childhood, as most “developed” countries like to think of it—so innocent that it’s often cute-ified, made preciously precocious in dramas, or turned creepy in horror films—is non-existent. The film’s first words are: “I want a boy. One dollar a day. A clean, strong boy.” Boys swarm out of long, trench-like pipes—some with smoke pouring out—to clamour for the job, but the man soliciting picks a tall boy with a speech defect, Guiah (Ziya Mirza Mohamad); he places his son (Haron Ahad), one leg lost to a mine, on Guiah’s back. Day after day after day, Guiah walks around, bearing this rich boy, holding onto his ears or mouth, home or to school (Guiah waits there among horses; close-ups of him are cross-cut with shots of a newborn foal). Guiah’s called “my horse” by his smaller “master”, who hits him, chucks stones at him,

and can be condescending and insulting. Guiah carries him in a race against boys riding donkeys (the finish line’s near the main image-motif—a leafless, gnarled, lone tree by the road) or charges with him in organized schoolyard fights. The reins of abusive co-dependence are entangled in quasi-friendship. (The film also observes the objectification of females, particularly a beggar girl, whom Guiah’s master wins with money.) Not long after Guiah’s fitted with a bridle, bit, saddle, and stirrups to be rented out for riding by other

boys, he quits at last. The father solicits a replacement in that smoldering, hellish place: “I want a boy. One dollar a day. A clean, strong boy.” The cycle continues.

Brutally forthright and deeply disturbing in its hard glare at poverty and violence in a war-torn Afghanistan—where life can be reduced to a brutal struggle or cheap bargain—Two-Legged Horse evinces total disregard for a soft Western gaze at foreign hardship. It’s an astounding lunge forward in social-realism but also an appalling fable that holds a mottled looking-glass up to the living conditions for so many children in so many countries riven by class gulfs. Any criticism that the kids are being used for an easy allegory seems specious; children’s literature—from fairy-tales and picture books to the Narnia chronicles and Harry Potter series—has been replete with symbolism and allegory (and animal-child associations). Two reviews, though, imperiously called the filmmaking into question, condemning its ethics. One said it “reeks of bitterness and loathing against the powers-that-be, while it raises serious questions about the use of child actors in such roles . . . repulsive . . . the most human response . . . is just to look away”. So, as Makhmalbaf draws our attention to neglected children’s horrible states, we should refuse? The other said it’s “repellent” and crosses the line “between dramatizing physical abuse and causing genuine physical harm to actors”. (Yet no claims of any abuse of actors on set were, it seems, ever alleged.) Such misplaced guilt (for watching the film, not the state of affairs in Afghanistan) and far-away concern (months after the film was made) for Afghan boys smacks of paternal protectionism and easy assumptions about childish innocence as the Western media was getting more uneasy about the faltering war over there. Yet we’ve not crept so far ahead in our own views of children as we like to think; it’s such “progress” that Two-Legged Horse starkly questions.

In the “First World”, kids seem so innocent because they’re rarely associated with abuse, labour, and death. But, until four generations ago, widespread infanticide, abuse, abandonment, poverty, and child labour meant many youngsters suffered deprivation and hardship long before adulthood (if they even made it that far). For centuries, kids were considered property; during the Industrial Revolution, a lot were cheap labour, with some as young as four slogging through 15-hour days or worse until working-hours began to be reduced in the mid-1800s. The sense prevailed in literature, especially in evangelical writing until the 1870s, of children as little beasts needing discipline.

In the U.S. and Canada, those wee creatures only began to be officially protected from abuse in the 1870s, after New York City churchworker Etta Wheeler found 9-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson living in a brutal state. She petitioned the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—animals were protected but not children—appealing on the grounds that children are members of the animal kingdom. The ASPCA intervened, moving the girl into foster care; in 1874, the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formed; in 1887, the Toronto Humane Society was established to prevent cruelty to children and animals.

Still, today, it’s pets and children who are seen as so “cute” (kids’ adorable-ness is used to sell products in commercials, yet that’s seldom seen as exploitation). Kids remain linked with animals (in Peter and Wendy, the nanny devoted to Wendy and her brothers is a Newfoundland dog) because they’re often regarded as Other—more defenceless, in need of protection—and exist outside adult language in their early years. The history of child-protection, as with Makhmalbaf’s all-too-real refraction of the child-slavery and child-poverty continuing today, reminds us that the basic relation between child and adult—sometimes horribly, truly creepy—is a dynamic of power. The real creepiness lies not in children but in our lying about that power-imbalance, with TV and film often still distorting our view of those who are already just like us—everyday people.

Works Cited

The Apple [Sib]. Directed by Samira Makhmalbaf. New Yorker, 1998.

The Bad Seed. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Warner Bros., 1956.

Barrie, J. M. Peter and Wendy. 1911. Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens [and] Peter and Wendy. Edited by Peter Hollindale, Oxford UP, 1999.

Koehler, Robert. “[Review of] Two-Legged Horse.” Variety, 7 September 2008.

Two-Legged Horse [Asbe du-pa]. Directed by Samira Makhmalbaf. Wild Bunch, 2008.

Under The Shadow. Directed by Babak Anvari. XYZ, Vertical, 2016.

Young, Deborah. “[Review of] Two-Legged Horse.” The Hollywood Reporter, 24 September 2008.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

Nibblers of the North

In the early 1920s, just as the age of “heroic” polar exploration was ending, a landmark chronicle of natives on Quebec’s Ungava Peninsula brought the Far North back to “civilization”. But this self-glorifying act of anthropological salvage, much like a self-important nature-study, exalted its maker’s pioneering spirit and technological prowess while making its subjects, from a predominantly oral culture, seem all the more animalistic.

More docudrama than documentary, Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North (A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic) begins, in his intertitled “Preface”, with the movie’s brave I: “This film grew out of a long series of explorations . . . I carried out . . . with only two or three Eskimos as my companions.” But it is also keenly self-aware of the camera’s brave new eye on the world. “After a lot of hardship,” the director declares, and “wintering a year . . . [three of us] got out to civilization along with my notes, maps, and the films.” Then, after the negative burned, he saw “that if I were to take a single character and make him typify the Eskimos . . . the results would be well worth while.” Flaherty even showed “my character and his family” some of these “results” so that they “could understand and appreciate what I was doing.” And yet his main man did not get it: “Poor old Nanook hung around my cabin, talking over films we still could make . . . He never understood why I should have gone to all the fuss and bother of making the ‘big aggie’ [referring to the Akeley cameras, i.e., the film] of him.” Nanook “starved to death” but Flaherty’s picture “has gone into most of the odd corners of the world” and so many have “looked upon Nanook, the kindly, brave, simple Eskimo.”

In this prelude’s romantic, imposing, white narrative of bravery and discovery, there is the contrast between the bold, intrepid Flaherty behind the camera and the humble, addled “Eskimo” captured by it. There is the slip from “my character” to the pitiable yet somehow now-real “Nanook” (posthumously preserved, as if in ice—it is Flaherty’s made-up character, Nanook, not the real man playing him, who never lived and so cannot truly die). There are the contradictions of having the star-subject see himself on-screen to appreciate the project only for him to then plan more films even as he still does not comprehend, apparently, why he has been filmed (though he seems to have referred to the cameras with casual, insider lingo). And film-exploration itself, a marker of “civilization”, is opposed to pre-modern Northern natives often masked, not revealed, by Flaherty—the Eskimo Nanook was played by an Inuk, Allakariallak. In this Self (Flaherty the observer, objectifying) vs. Other (Nanook and family, the observed racial subjects) ethnographic set-up, Nanook and his people are set apart and cut off by the film, left behind as oral-fixated semi-humans in the wild. And by prefacing the film with Nanook’s death, Flaherty casts his hero in a tragic light, enhancing the viewer’s pity, only to then suggest his film is more important than its protagonist or the Inuk actor playing him . . . and, sure enough, the picture sparked, as scholar Asen Balikci later coined it, “Nanook mania” in many countries (“Eskimo pies”—soon called “Nanooks” in some places, as Georges Sadoul notes—were trademarked that year).

Flaherty’s work seems to merge travelogue and industrial-life study, two popular genres in film’s first two decades. But in what instead becomes a(n Arctic) nature-(pseudo)documentary—critic Fatimah Tobing Rony dubs it “ethnographic taxidermy”—Nanook is drawn closer to man’s best friend than to us humans watching. Over and over, he and his fur-swaddled family, associated with biting and chewing, are dog-like. One intertitle notes “the wolf—his forebear”, as if fierceness and animalism were bred into Nanook; Flaherty then cross-cuts between close-ups of a snarling wolf and Nanook, with friends and family, killing and biting into seal meat. Nanook’s little son Allegoo and a friend are shown tearing away into a seal flipper, tug-of-warring the meat between their mouths, right before some of it is fed to Nanook’s dogs. And in the story’s dramatic climax, the huskies delay the Eskimo family as it grows dark, imperilling them on the chill barrens. At

film’s end, just before “the little family” is safely ensconced in an igloo and falling asleep, lying together under animal skins while their dogs are huddled outside, amid moaning, ominous music, we are told that “[t]he shrill piping of the wind, the rasp and hiss of driving snow, the mournful wolf howls of Nanook’s master dog typify . . . the melancholy spirit of the North”.

Much of the film’s presiding spirit is actually corporate: Flaherty got backing from Revillon Frères, a French fur company (noted on the film’s title card), and a trading post is shown benefiting the natives, with the furs it sells protecting Nanook and his family. (The critic—and, later, groundbreaking documentary-filmmaker—John Grierson remarked that Flaherty’s work “was in the first place an advertisement for furs, though it appeared in theatres all over the world as a straightforward epic of Eskimo life”.) At the post, where the trader personifies European superiority—he is in control of technology, commerce, and medicine—soon after Nanook “proudly displays his young ‘huskies’”, Nanook’s wife Nyla, “not to be outdone, displays her young husky, too – – one Rainbow, less than four months old”. The baby’s shown sitting naked on fur pelts, petting husky pups. Soon, his father Nanook is puzzling over a gramophone before he bites a record (not once but thrice), even though many Inuit knew of gramophones already and the actor, Allakariallak, apparently knew how to fix gramophones. Next, the children eat lard given to them by the trader but

son Allegoo apparently indulges himself and gets sick (he is fed castor oil by the trader and promptly licks his lips before and even while smiling at the camera). Over and over, we behold utterly ignorant (but meant to be cute?)

and noble savages who, husky pup-like, know through touch and taste. Or perhaps they are less than canine-like—would a dog ever bite a record? Nanook is marked out as clearly uncivilized and uncomprehending of the audio-visual. And these native people’s mouths are not even associated with story-telling (such as, say, the legend of Atanarjuat, passed down through the generations and re-told on film in 2001 by Zacharias Kunuk).

Nor is this Northern people’s orality linked to physical affection—Nanook’s polygamy is skirted around (second wife Cunayou is rarely shown). According to Rony, though, an Inuit whose father was Allakariallak’s friend said the two women playing Nyla and Cunayou were “common-law wives of Flaherty”; another story has it that the director had an affair with lead actress Alice Nuvalinga (Nyla), whose son he never acknowledged. So this absent yet presiding-over-all white man’s paternalistic tone (“the most cheerful people in all the world—the fearless, lovable, happy-go-lucky Eskimo”) seems bitterly ironic, especially since, when Nanook and his comrades requested Flaherty’s help during the walrus hunt, asking him to use a gun to shoot the creature, not the camera, he pretended not to hear, hiding behind the pretense of objective detachment, and kept filming to get them to kill the old way. The godlike, removed outsider-director looked on while his dressed-up native subject re-enacted passé ways of hunting for his image-capturing technology, all for a faraway, truly civilized and appreciative audience.

When most of the cold-weather cast is introduced—Nanook, son “Allee”, wives Nyla (and her baby) and Cunayou, and the dog Comock—they keep emerging from one kayak, one by one by one by one (anticipating the clown-car routine by three decades). Nanook paddles up to a rocky shore and keeps the craft fairly steady so that it stays in shot for the tripod-camera to capture this comic moment, with Cunayou smiling away for the lens after she disembarks and Nanook seeming to smile as he puts the husky pup onto the ground (Nyla, “The Smiling One”, has already been shown embodying her name in a close-up). The audio-visual, framing all, is progressively, supremely modern and human; its docudrama subjects’ orality is always animal: “Nanook,” we are told, means “The Bear”, while

“Eskimo” was an outsider’s term, meaning “flesh-eater”, with its implication of cannibalism. When we first witness him hunting, “Nanook, overjoyed at the sight of food once more, kills the big [fish] with his teeth”; he and others eat some walrus right after the kill and later, wolfishly, that seal meat. He is shown licking a knife, over and over, to better cut blocks of snow for an igloo; later, “Nyla chews Nanook’s boots to soften them”. When mother rubs

her child’s nose—“the Eskimo’s kiss”, it is explained—the act now seems little different from a dog nuzzling her young. And when fur-swaddled Nanook and family, half-baby- and half-canine-like, emerge from the kayak or from the igloo (adding to the childish man-dog similarities is the fact that Nanook makes an igloo for the husky pups, too), it is as if they are emerging from a mouth—being spit up for our on-screen amusement. Allakariallak

never talks for his other self, both because Flaherty’s film is silent and its intertitles speak only about, not on behalf of, Flaherty’s Eskimo protagonist. Thus Nanook of the North ventriloquizes for a figment of noble-savage Other-ness. Only 90 years later was Flaherty’s film justly redubbed, when Inuk throat-singer Tanya Tagaq—as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s retrospective “First Peoples Cinema: 1500 Nations, One Tradition”—sang live over the film, remaking it in the sound of her people, the land’s true pioneers. Such vocal reclamation, as Tagaq noted, means not only revising but re-envisioning: “I remember being really, really embarrassed and annoyed when [I saw Nanook] biting on the record. And there were a couple of scenes like that where I’m embarrassed and annoyed . . . that’s why it’s great to sing over it.”

Works Cited

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Directed by Zacharias Kunuk, Odeon, 2001.

Balikci, Asen. “Anthropology, Film, and the Arctic Peoples.” Anthropology Today, vol. 5, no. 2, April 1989, pp. 4-10.

Gordon, Holly. “Inuk Throat Singer Tanya Tagaq on Reclaiming Nanook of the North [sic]”., 25 January 2014.

Grierson, John. “Propaganda Film Technique.” Kinematograph Weekly, 18 December 1930, p. 35.

Nanook of the North (A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic). Directed by Robert Flaherty, Pathé Exchange, 1922.

Rony, Fatimah Tobing. The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle. Duke UP, 1996.

Sadoul, Georges. Dictionary of Films. 1965. Translated, edited, and updated by Peter Morris, U of California P, 1972.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

Tripping Alone Together

“He was his usual self.”

               — Rob Brydon, on Steve Coogan, at the end of The Trip

Two famous English actors—friends—best known for their comic roles hit the road together for a six-day tour of top-rated restaurants in the postcard-pretty Lake District. Mouth-watering food-porn? Nope, because the restaurant scenes are mostly taken up by the pair trading impressions or banter or otherwise, well, cracking wise. Picturesque travelogue? Nope, because the panoramic vistas are mostly interrupted by the pair, even when driving, trading impressions or banter or otherwise (you guessed it) cracking wise.

Michael Winterbottom’s six-part TV series The Trip (2010)—edited down for release as a film later that year and succeeded by two sequels—seems to have niche arthouse appeal (as a gastro-tour/foodie’s film) and play off viewers’ cozy familiarity with its stars, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (whose “Small Man Trapped In A Box” voice became popular after he did it on a quiz show; he then turned it into a phone app). It’s a buddy-comedy easy to dismiss as pals-larking-about, playing thinly veiled personas of themselves, mugging for the camera on an epicurean sojourn in Cumbria. But, really, it’s an extended riff on the anxious, mid-life performance of masculinity by two stars concerned with their place in the grand hall of fleeting, fickle fame.

Much of the tension in this semi-improvised sitcom steams out of the low-boil juxtaposition of childish creativity and pricey fine-dining—a twist on British TV’s taking-the-piss-out-of, silly vs. posh (or twit vs. wit) class-comedies. Coogan and Brydon are unsettled versions of themselves touring the Lakes for an Observer food piece which Coogan’s writing. We behold the food elegantly plated in the kitchen, the often-accented waiters’ introduction of it, even the exorbitant bill for each extraordinary-looking meal. But these kid-like, kidding-around comics will, irreverently, poke fun at the descriptions or trade quips about an ingredient. Brydon tends to indulge in usually spot-on impressions—sometimes repeating certain ones—of other actors, while Coogan offers wry, sometimes bitter cracks: at their first restaurant, he pooh-poohs some of Brydon’s shticks (“I think

anyone over 40 who amuses themselves with impressions needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror”) and contends that his North has as much of a self-identity as Brydon’s Wales. He seems faintly envious of Brydon’s cock-eyed optimism, worries about ever getting a big break in his film career, and misses his girlfriend—they’re “on a break”. (Brydon, her replacement for the trip, can be an irksome reminder of love lost, especially when, in their first hotel, only one room’s been booked for them; next day, over lunch: “God, I wish you were Mischa.” “God, I’m glad I’m not.”)

Quickly, though, as they dig in for a Michael Caine-off, followed by competing Anthony Hopkins impressions, Brydon and Coogan whisk up their competitiveness with camaraderie. Their duelling becomes, more often than not, duetting. Anything before them is potential for the temporary, bittersweet balm of mockery or the good cheer of a laugh: Coogan notes one concoction looks like “sputum”; Brydon makes fun of their server having grandly said “resting,” as if the food’s lying in wait, ready to pounce. There are imagined line-readings and made-up scenes (mocking, say, the rise-for-battle cliché in an historical drama). Low- and high-culture (singing pop songs, reciting Romantic verse) come together. The temporariness of food, and of eating, is tossed into a mix with the joy of irascible friendship, then swallowed down with a tangy aperitif of ruefulness—over career paths, personal travails, and just how faintly unpalatable life can sometimes be. (Coogan even plays a typically downbeat Joy Division song, “Atmosphere,” on their arrival in the Lake District.)

Brydon and Coogan seem almost always “on”—on show, they spur each other on, eager to show off and one-up—but underneath simmers a sense of something a little off. And their self-awareness only adds to the fug of loneliness in the air. (For a shoot, the photographer suggests Coogan pose as a lone walker and Brydon promptly quotes Wordsworth’s famous line “I wandered lonely as a cloud”.) In this existential cringe-comedy, Coogan’s abiding lonesomeness is spackled over by a keening narcissism, occasionally combative banter, and flashes of mid-career worry. In a meta- moment, the monotony of middle age underlies Brydon’s wondering if this show’s already established a formula: “Do you think we have the same conversation in every restaurant?” (Coogan does, wryly outlining their routine.) And in this Echo-and-Narcissus-chamber of personas and impersonations, Coogan, standing outside in Holbeck Ghyll, shouts his famous character Alan Partridge’s catchphrase “Aha!”—trying to reassert himself by announcing his best-known alter ego’s presence—and listens to it reverberating back.

The two men’s impressions impress, but it’s easier for these actors to play others than to be themselves. Their imitations of role-playing models—superstar-thespians who came before them—are less forms of flattery and more like jokey, faintly uneasy efforts at self-deception and self-evasion. Performance is their fall-back and their exit-strategy, but it’s also a way to feign leading-man status (Brydon contends, though Coogan demurs, that “I’m a leading man with a character actor’s body and face”). Coogan tries to seem—perhaps to trick himself into feeling—the rugged man, packing a pickaxe and crampons into his four-wheel-drive Range Rover as he leads them forth with the help of maps (no GPS-assistance for him); he even vies with Brydon, in a churchyard, to vault a fence. His relationship’s

“in limbo” but his life feels that way, too; he sleeps around, bedding an employee at the first hotel they stay at. Bristling with an actor’s neuroses, he rings his agent in search of auteur-driven “good films” but rejects his complimentary buzzwords (“You get ‘momentum’ when you’re going downhill”). The sense of middle-aged melancholy usually washes back over each episode by the end, capped by Michael Nyman’s mournful piano score: in the blue-black night, wind howling, Coogan has a snippy phone conversation with his faraway, slipping-away girlfriend; on a stone bridge the second evening, after some boosterism from his peppy American agent (“It’s a good time to be Steve Coogan!”), he flicks his dying cigarette over the parapet, into the water below; on two evenings, just before bed, Coogan tries out his own weak variations on his pal’s “Small Man Trapped In A Box” voice; finally, in a sequence cross-cut with Brydon’s return to his wife and child, Coogan returns home and, alone in his high-rise flat, looks out on the city, head bowed and sighing, calls that agent to turn down a series in the U.S., and gazes out the window into the darkness of the London night.

Wafting through this sublime melancholia—the loneliness of the long-distance, peripatetic actor—is the pair’s concern with great artistic men of days past, the Romantic poets who lived and wrote in the Lake District. Where do they themselves stand? (Brydon: “I put us in with comedians and entertainers”; Coogan wants to be seen as more than that.) They stand in the shadows of giant men of letters whom they reduce to humorous or mock-dramatic line-readings, whittling their work down to their own anxious size as they look back with some respect and envy. Coogan quotes Wordsworth as they drive out on their second morning; Brydon does “Kubla Khan” in Richard Burton’s voice; Coogan smokes pot in an echo of Coleridge’s laudanum-taking; at Dove Cottage, Brydon takes a side-profile camera-phone pic of Coogan posing next to a side-profile portrait of Wordsworth; Brydon reads aloud Coleridge’s “The Pains of Sleep” on an early-morning drive their fourth day, recites the opening of the Wales-set “Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” in two different voices, and declaims Wordsworth’s verses about “Bolton Abbey” as Ian McKellen. There’s wistfulness recollected amid false tranquillity—Coogan’s often checking his phone, Brydon’s calling home—and there are intimations of mortality: Brydon shows Coogan his receding gums; they talk about what plastic surgery they’d have done; in a graveyard, Brydon asks Coogan if he’d show up at his funeral—“Of course I would, if only to pad out the numbers”—and Coogan runs through for him the back-handed eulogy he’d give. After Brydon asks if he finds it “exhausting” to be chasing women, Coogan, a bit downcast, confesses, “Everything’s exhausting at our age.” (The four-season series, a kind of episodic epic, appropriately ends in Greece, and in Manchester, on a deeply elegiac note.)

Buffeting at a po-mo tragedy-comedy fusion restaurant, The Trip undercuts its ostensible raisons d’êtres: two mates indulging in gustatory pleasure, two stars indulging in semi-improvisational comedy. Instead, scraping away at a near-empty plate, Winterbottom’s buddy road-trip picks through the leftovers—what’s beyond and behind physical pleasure, stardom, and a certain middle-aged white male privilege? What are our reasons for still being . . . and for not staying still?

Works Cited

The Trip. Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. BBC, 2010.

Wordsworth, William. “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Poems in Two Volumes. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1807.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous / Here we are now, entertain us / I feel stupid and contagious

                                              — Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

There are so many teen movies these days that you could organize a film-fest around just one year in American girl-becoming-woman-hood. Take 17, an age that feels on the edge of something, or not edgy enough. For Winona Ryder’s dweebette-by-association Veronica Sawyer, 17’s when she fell in with bullies, cliques, and much, much worse in Heathers (1988). For Reese Witherspoon’s super-keen Tracy Flick, 17’s when she ran for the highest office in her suburban Omaha school-land in Election (1999). For Emma Stone’s Olive Penderghast, 17’s when she embraced her falsely-rumoured skankiness, stitching a scarlet letter to her clothes in Easy A (2010). For Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine Franklin, in The Edge of Seventeen (2016), loneliness is her not-so-silent foe. And for Saiorse Ronan’s Christine McPherson in Lady Bird (2017), an East Coast university is her distant hope, come her senior year of Catholic high school, for escaping Sacramento.

That second decade, many a teenangster-film likes to recall, is when, supposedly, growing up’s hardest to do. The hornymoans, the prison of home-life, the girls who like boys and boys who like girls, the prison of school-life, the pubescent mood-swings . . . But some of the best recent teen films have shown, beneath the raging anxieties, sarcastic quips, and boiling frustrations, how adolescence isn’t an isolated coming-of-age but an early, painful, often more honest grappling with the same issues haunting us as adults. And as more arthouse films tackle teen-sexuality, it’s harder to tell if society, out there, or one’s changing body, right here, is the stranger, more monstrous force.

When adolescence popped up in Hollywood as nostalgia in the ’70s, with American Graffiti and Grease—under the California sun, leather jackets and sweater tops kissed in the backs of Impalas and Thunderbirds before greasers burst into song—teenagehood was an epoch for baby boomers to look back on fondly, a rosily re-imagined time of small-town, white American values. The ’80s saw the triumphant teen on screen. 17-year-old Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) went back to the ’50s in a DeLorean and time-jumped through two sequels. 17-year-old Scott Howard (Fox again) turned werewolf. 17-year-old Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) skipped school with pals, joyriding ’round Chicago in a ’61 Ferrari. Rebels without a cause, these near-adults suddenly had the power, with scant school authority to oppose. What to be teenangsty about?

In 1998, Lukas Moodysson’s debut Show Me Love (Fucking Åmal) slyly reworked the genre. Its formulaic elements—parties, teasing, peer-pressure, frustrated young love, parents who just don’t get it—were tweaked; its dilemma was a tad different: in a town that feels so small, bookish Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg) falls for Elin (Alexandra Dahlström), who won’t admit she’s not straight. Gender and sexuality are the hurdles (the barrier motif springs up in a Romeo-and-Juliet balcony-scene and in a bonding-moment on a bridge at the edge of town, capped by Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is”). At an age of faltering confidence, when peers pressure and parents can’t help and a dull post-teen world looms, where to go and what to do? Love—that bridge between two kindred spirits—seems the only way out. And the struggle to get there is what makes this new couple’s true coming-out (of a school washroom, together) and the closing scene—one of those lovely mundane moments together that a relationship’s based on—so touching. These two teens, not always likeable, grapple with concerns that

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still plague our supposedly mature societies: the macho-ness of masculinity, the expectation to act straight, sticking to social norms, feeling “weird”, and one’s purpose: “It’s all so fucking meaningless.” Teens feel more torn between meaning and meaninglessness, Moodysson implies, desperately needing to escape and to feel as a future of adult conformity looms.

That yearning to escape, the pressure to make it or “do it”, those bursts of popular music to express inner turmoil, the tottering bridge from childhood to adulthood . . . it’s all heightened in Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever (2002), a small odyssey writ wrenchingly epic, and one beginning not in media res but at la fin. A girl’s weakly running down a sidewalk, industrial band Rammstein’s “My Heart Burns” is pounding, and then we see her face, bruised and heavy with a fatigue that should be well beyond her youth. A bird circles above smokestacks. She stops at a bridge, looks down, closes her eyes. The film cuts to black and its title before flashing back, showing us how Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) got here, lost. (Lilya’s based on Dangoulė Rasalaitė, a Lithuanian girl lured to Sweden in 1999.) Lilya’s end begins when she thinks she’s leaving with her mom for a better life in America—anywhere, really, but here. Here is the middle of what feels like nowhere, a run-down vestige of the former Soviet Union (the film was shot in Estonia). Its military base is derelict; Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky) plays basketball with a smashed-up pop can; teens sniff glue. Adults show only a me-first ruthlessness or an army-style iron fist. Lilya flashes the casual, irritating arrogance of a teenager, boastful of her escape with mom and her boyfriend. (There, already, sex isn’t so much a way of connecting as of colliding and escaping—and, foremost, making money.) Then, over dinner, her mom mentions to Lilya that they’ll go on ahead and she can come later. Mother and daughter’s final moments together sink into that mire of callousness, abandonment, and escape-at-all-costs which swamped Russia and its former republics with the USSR’s break-up. And, afterwards, Lilya’s still stuck. (Akinshina, then 14, is formidable, her performance all about the slow thaw of a teen’s icicle-spiky self-resolve.) Lilya’s left in what’s still a man’s world. She’s cat-called and insulted by boys; her only friend’s the more innocent Volodya. Kicked out of her apartment but still pretending to

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herself that she’ll follow her mom while keeping up a hard front to others, she warily turns to the first man who seems even remotely kind. He says he can get her to Sweden.

The snatches of relief from this infernal odyssey come in Lilya and Volodya’s sweet camaraderie and her dreams and fantasies. In that smoky sky, the bird of her imagination circles, seeking escape. Influenced by the (Russian Orthodox?) oleograph on her wall, depicting an angel leading a child along by the hand, she imagines a heaven with her and Volodya as

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angel-winged cherubs. It’s a scrappy, surreal sight, this place of carefree play, Lilya’s safe return to youth. Left behind by her mom, she only knows now how to go back, trying to retreat into a more innocent time of connection. That wish, flashing through Lilya in brief moments of respite, makes this anti-fairy tale so achingly poignant, even as her life’s growing bleakness exerts its awesome, awful, too-truthful power. And there’s the title itself—a phrase scratched into a bench, the small, timeless mark that Lilya wants to make in the world for herself.

And then there’s the pointed pointlessness of Warwick Thornton’s debut Samson and Delilah (2009), etched out in a backwater down under. In its opening stretch, there’s almost no dialogue; when it comes, what little there is is for others in their native tongue (Warlpiri, subtitled for us “whitefellas”). It’s Northern Australia, where lank-haired young teen Samson (Rowan McNamara) rises each day in his brother’s shack, sniffs petrol, walks outside in the dust and heat as his brother’s buddies wail out tunes on electric guitar and drums, and . . . that’s pretty much it. Soon, though, he grows interested in Delilah (Marissa Gibson), making dot paintings with her grandmother. Over three days, the repetitive, feet-dragging drudgery of Samson’s existence shuffles into a Chaplinesque dance of romance—a back-and-forth between Samson’s lunging, leaping like for Delilah and her scowling shrug-off of him. Once we’re engaged by this odd couple—living in a place white civilization ignores as the dying-out

boonies; marginalized in their colonized land (only 3000 people still speak Warlpiri)—the film’s “pointlessness”, as Germaine Greer puts it, becomes entrancing. Greer notes that it “gets very close” to “embody[ing]” pointlessness, but it’s the visceral and dreamy sense of the physical—stripping down teen-romance to young bodies not quite knowing how to get close while feeling so alienated and numbed by mainstream “whitefella” culture—that animates Samson and Delilah. After they run off to Alice Springs, where they’re confronted by indifference, two scenes of (non-explicit) violence to Delilah’s body bond us even more to the couple. The first is shot in a haze, woozily mirroring Samson’s state and our shock. The second’s a horrible jar, a jerking rupture of reality just as we’re still getting our breath back.

This heightened sense of bodily harm, or of physical strangeness, in the teen-years also got its growth-spurt in the ’80s, when teens didn’t just get their freak on more, but turned increasingly freakish. That Fox-turned-werewolf movie? Teen Wolf (1985) may not have singlepawedly heralded the Teen Hormophosis Genre but, as wiser writers stopped talking down to or for teens as poor infection-able creatures, teens, feeling so much like freaks in their schools, in their homes, down deep in their bones, saw their bodies change on film . . . into vampires and werewolves. Blood-soaked changes, heavy petting, and necking get literal; compared to becoming hirsute lycanthropes or fanged nightstalkers, worries melt away but are also Franken-magnified.

Metamorphosis masks but can also make room for gender and sexuality twists. Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984), adapting Angela Carter’s revision of Red Riding Hood, jumped out a year before Teen Wolf. That female-centred film—along with ’70s predecessors The Exorcist, with possessed 12-year-old Regan, and Carrie, its anti-heroine panicked by her first period or bullied into unleashing her teen-born telekinesis—set the stage for prom queens becoming the beasts of the ball. Girls didn’t have to be vampires to get new life from the undead—Joss Whedon’s hit TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) rose up from the film, where the cheerleader’s slaying abilities only cast her out from her pompom-waving peers. The concept vamped up grrrl power and hyper-charged larger-than-life teen-concerns about connecting with your parents, forbidden love, sex, depression, and trying to “find yourself”. Wanna-be women went wolfish in Ginger Snaps (2000), which turned two Goth girls’ death-fixation into a loaded, lycanthropic look at puberty. And in another Swedish film, Let the Right One In (2008)—Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel—the vampirism-metaphor whets that thirsty need for friendship in our teenangster years. 12-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) even cuts his hand to mark a blood-bond with his gender-ambiguous beloved, Eli (Lina Leandersson). In this post-Columbine film, bullies—bloodily sadistic without any need to be, unlike vampires—are the enemies, getting their fatal comeuppance in a pool when Eli massacres them. Adolescent loneliness, isolation, and need-for-companionship are all accentuated by Eli’s solitariness, desperate bloodletting, and confinement in a box in the eerily sweet final scene as the pair escape their restrictive little town, together, at last.

Transformed-Teen Terror Tales seem silver bullet- and wooden stake-proof, a cinematic creature lurching on. The genre reflects teen angst so it’s supernaturally important but also entertainingly, even soothingly, worse than reality. Vampire lore, from Stoker’s Dracula on, has reflected concerns about female sexuality but also sexual diseases (syphilis back then, HIV more recently). In Charles Burns’ comic Black Hole, about a STD mutating 1970s Seattle suburban teens and further alienating them from the world, one changed character suggests the horizon for the Teen Hormophosis Genre is so night-fright moon-bright because our high-school horror-show is what we all fear is a rehearsal for what’s coming: “It was like a déjà vu trip or something . . . a premonition. I felt like I was looking into the future . . . and the future looked really messed up.”

That messed-up future is very much, very horribly, here already in David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014), where the innuendo of “coming of age” darkens quickly as sex meets the awful unknown in post-industrial Detroit’s leafy suburbs. Jay (Maika Monroe) learns she’s slept with a carrier and now

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“this thing—it’s gonna follow you. Someone gave it to me and I passed it to you.” If Jay sleeps with someone else, she passes it on, but if Jay’s killed, then it, impersonating anyone, will slowly but surely pursue the person who gave it to her. This daisy-chain-reaction premise intertwines, like creeper vines, the outward and the inner, the social and the physical, peer-pressure and sexual-shame. (The title also coldly voices an implacable cause-and-effect logic.) If doing it, like the it it unleashes, can be senses-filled or senseless—giving a teen a sense of purpose or a purposeless, temporary escape from real problems—then sex can be both mature and immature. Yet many pubescent-creature-features still mask a pat moralizing—a Bible-chastity-belt warning—about that Pandora’s Box of dangers which losing your virginity supposedly unleashes. (Indeed, the “it” here can take on the guise of authority-figures: as a half-naked mother, it kills one victim; as Jay’s dad, it nearly kills her in the fluid-filled climax, in an indoor pool.) But Mitchell’s film weaves together sex-as-punishment and casual-sleeping-around—now that she’s infected, Jay should seduce and trick others into sex for her own self-preservation. It Follows pushes those frightful notions of puberty-as-monstrosity in The Exorcist and Carrie, twisting the sensationalized consequences of teen-sex into a senseless scourge, a stalking killer both supernatural and sub-human—as much a

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cultural-conservative threat made macabrely manifest as a sexually-spread virus turned bestial, Hyde-like force. The camera’s a meta-horror force to be reckoned with, too—slowly panning or gradually zooming-in or steadily tracking, it leads us to follow the next possible victim that it follows. And the film’s about what fades, with these teens on the verge of slipping into—or maybe they won’t live to see—adulthood. This is a fading American landscape, dotted with 20th-century relics: ’70s cars, Polaroids on Jay’s wood-framed vanity; an old cinema (with an in-house organist); the score’s burbling synthesizer-interludes. It all seems on the edge of the end of summer, and these late teens feel a great aimlessness. Jay recalls, in the back of an old car in the weed-choked parking-lot of a vast, derelict building, her early-teen visions of driving around with a date: “It’s never about going anywhere, really. . . . Now that we’re old enough, where the hell do we go?” What’s scariest of all, it seems, is what’s next—what follows young-adulthood.

Works Cited

Burns, Charles. Black Hole. Pantheon, 2005.

Carrie. Directed by Brian De Palma, United Artists, 1976.

The Company of Wolves. Directed by Neil Jordan, ITC, 1984.

Easy A. Directed by Will Gluck, Screen Gems, 2010.

The Edge of Seventeen. Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, STX, 2016.

Election. Directed by Alexander Payne, Paramount, 1999.

The Exorcist. Directed by William Friedkin, Warner Bros., 1973.

Ginger Snaps. Directed by John Fawcett, Motion, 2000.

Greer, Germaine. “What a petrol-sniffing Aboriginal boy tells us about Australia today.” The Guardian, 28 March 2010.

Heathers. Directed by Michael Lehmann, New World, 1988.

It Follows. Directed by David Robert Mitchell, RADiUS-TWC, 2014.

Lady Bird. Directed by Greta Gerwig, A24, 2017.

Let The Right One In. Directed by Tomas Alfredson, Sandrew Metronome, 2008.

Lilya 4-Ever. Directed by Lukas Moodysson, Newmarket, 2002.

Samson and Delilah. Directed by Warwick Thornton, Madman, 2009.

Show Me Love [Fucking Åmål]. Directed by Lukas Moodysson, Sonet, 1998.

Teen Wolf. Directed by Rod Daniel, Atlantic, 1985.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

Two Thieves and a Bike

Thievery, that shifty work, seems worlds away from the factory and its shift-work. But Europe-born social-realism—on-screen since the first film, of workers leaving the Lumière Factory, in the first public picture show, which brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière put on for Parisians on December 26, 1895—welds the two together. Social-realism, countering romanticism, had sprung up in French painting in the mid-1800s (it would bleed into socialist realism, focussed on workers’ struggles, in the Soviet Union, and into kitchen-sink realism on stage and screen in ’60s and ’70s England). As realism became more popular in France, along with Émile Zola’s and others’ literary naturalism, a moving counterpart flickered forth.

The genre’s lingering interest in factory work—the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night (2014) is a recent example—may seem curious in our post-industrial age, but social-realism suggests the industrial age’s nagging, Marxist questions and concerns haven’t left us. Many still have a ragged, on-the-spot feel, because of lightweight technology, documentary film’s influence, and Italian neorealism (1943-57)—epitomized by Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948)—with its emphasis on non-professional actors. So, in some of these films about the labour struggle—the grind or scraping by or the scramble for work—we observe people learning the craft of acting, working on their first film. De Sica’s picture debuted non-professionals Lamberto Maggiorani, a factory worker, and Enzo Staiola. (Afterwards, Maggiorani was laid off—business was declining and management decided to fire someone seen as newly rich.)

The original sense of “factory”—from the Latin facere, “to make”—springs up again and again in Bicycle Thieves. Antonio Ricci (Maggiorani) and his family, beset by worries, live in the outskirts of a post-war Rome being rebuilt and re-made, populated now by legions of men working or seeking work, street-peddling or pedalling the streets. Antonio can make his life anew when he gets a job hanging posters (including film posters, advertising movies like this one), but he pawned the bicycle he needs for the work. As he helps his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) lug pails of water to their apartment, he laments his near-mythic lot: “I feel like I’m a man in chains! I’ve been cursed since the day I was born.” Maria visits a fortune-teller, a Sibyl-like prophetess, to pay her for predicting Antonio’s job; Antonio, though, declares, “I’m the one who got the job”, as if it wasn’t luck or circumstance (yet, on his first day, a colleague tells him, “Good luck!”). But the driving-force in this woebegone odyssey is a desperate, threadbare hope—hoping beyond hope to feel a pride in one’s work again, to have days to look forward to. (Later, thinking he’ll get his bike back: “For a minute, I hoped again.”) Antonio lifts Maria up to look through a window at his new workplace; he has her re-sew his new work-cap so the hatband fits snugly; uniformed Antonio and son Bruno (Staiola) stand on the threshold and say goodbye to Maria with big smiles on the morning of Antonio’s fateful first day.

After his wife had sold bedsheets so he could buy back his bike, it’s stolen—with its network of managers, scouts, and thieves, bicycle-nabbing is a well-oiled operation—as Antonio’s putting up a poster (of a larger-than-life, glamorous Rita Hayworth). Reduced once again, he and Bruno, more little man than bambino—he works at a roadside gas-station—scour the city, first with the aid of a friend and his street-cleaning co-workers. They start at a market where, factory-like, stolen bikes have been stripped down into parts, then put up for sale there on the street (the city, too, seems stripped down by the war, only to be slowly rebuilt, block by block). Father and son’s criss-crossing of Rome, searching high and low, only reflects how off-track Antonio feels, wandering, adrift, bereft of a trade: “To think if I had my

bicycle . . . we could live again.” Desperate, he visits that fortune-teller; outside, happening upon the thief, he confronts him only for neighbourhood men to gather around, denying their local boy’s guilt (Rome now seems less a city of communities and more a patchwork of mobs). Unable to prove his accusation and then reduced to a thief himself—he contemplates the act at an intersection, feeling more and more cornered—Antonio’s broken down into less than the man he was two days before. Stripped of his self-worth and dignity, he’s not just humbled but humiliated before his son. Sobbing, he holds onto what he has helped to make—Bruno—and they trudge home, melting into the milling throngs of people.

The boy-becoming-man in Erick Zonca’s The Little Thief (1999) acts as if he doesn’t need proper work. At 62 minutes, it’s the runt in Zonca’s litter of social-humanist features (The Dreamlife of Angels, Julia) tracking prickly protagonists. Beginning with bread, the quintessential French food, it quickly becomes all about making dough. Esse (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is fired as a baker’s apprentice; next, he’s talking tough to Sandra (Emilie Lafarge) about not needing a job—he’ll make plenty by stealing. (The anger of tough guys and wanna-be toughs is often expressed here as frustrated, simplistic socialism—a taking-back of the riches that the wealthy don’t deserve.) His first theft is as petty as it gets, pilfering Sandra’s pay-envelope after he sleeps with her, then taking off into the night. Landing in sun-soaked Marseilles, wanna-be Esse (Latin for “to be”) falls in with a crew of thieves, starts to kick-box, and gets paid to sit guard outside the workplace of his boss’s brother’s prostitute. It’s the stuff of noir: thievery, gunplay, gangsters and whores, boxing rings. But Zonca, in homage to Breathless        

and other French New Wave works about outsiders, slashes through it all with razor-sharp cuts, cuts which foretell a brutal slash near the film’s end. Fittingly, too, the picture’s all about eyeing: thefts mean sweeping rooms and looking out for cops; Esse’s boss is called “The Eye”; a wayward look provokes Esse’s sickening humiliation—a brutal moment when all the macho, angry, quasi-homoerotic posturing and posing here comes to a head.

Beyond its feral glances, whipping pace, and unlikeable but transfixing anti-hero (much like the Dardennes’ protagonists, especially Rosetta in that eponymous film, also released in 1999), The Little Thief’s greatest ingenuity is its view of crime as hard work. (All three films also proffer Biblical allusions: Job-like struggle, sacrifice, and cutting echoes of the Crucifixion; the thieving suggests the Penitent Thief, on a cross next to Christ.) The gang’s got a more rigid hierarchy—Esse must slowly work his way up, doing menial, boring duties—than the legitimate working-world. And this time, when the film returns, as in The Dreamlife of Angels, to the grinding mundanity of shift-work—Esse slashes those tell-tale marks on a baguette after rolling the dough—it comes as a relief after our crawl through the nasty, brutish undergrowth of French society.

In social realism’s sideways slips or headfirst plunges into demimondes, black markets, and underworlds, some of the main questions that so many of the best (legal and illegal) work-world films ask are: What do we lose and what do we gain when we surrender to a more mechanical world? How do we wade through the moral murk of the workplace or try to wash our hands of it before we head home? How much does our job become our life? And what impression do we stamp out, what rut do we grind down, to leave behind for the next generation, about to start their first shift?

Works Cited

Bicycle Thieves [Ladri di biciclette]. Directed by Vittorio De Sica, Produzioni De Sica, 1948.

The Little Thief [Le petit voleur]. Directed by Erick Zonca, MK2, 1999.

Rosetta. Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Les Films de Fleuve, 1999.

Two Days, One Night [Deux jours, une nuit]. Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Mongrel, 2014.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

Roger & Me & She

Roger & Me, which launched the career of that post-ampersand me, Michael Moore—the best-known documentarian of the ’90s and ’00s—is now seen as a seminal non-fiction film. But it remains easy to dismiss and easy to misunderstand. Its chronology is badly fudged; Moore did meet and talk with Roger Smith (in 1987, two years before making the film); the individual-quest ignores group efforts—strikes, protests, etc.—in Moore’s hometown of Flint to oppose the closing of General Motors factories, making Moore the me-first product of the same “go get ’em” individualist attitude he is questioning. And then there is the treatment of one unnamed woman, bluntly associated with the bloody lengths to which a Flint resident might go to get by.

This personal and rhetorical film-essay is best as an attack on a dominant 20th-century American mindset—“the key becomes the attitude”, one person says, and we witness much hollow “can-do” cheeriness. In all its slogan-like reiterations of bromide-prescriptions (pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can make anything of yourself, hard work pays off in the end, etc.), the American Dream, Moore argues, is a vast delusion blanketing the chasm between classes and foggily obscuring the abdication of responsibility by corporations like GM (which sold itself with family values, making out it was a cornerstone of the community). He suggests that such corporations, legally equivalent to persons under U.S. law but refusing to recognize their political or personal obligations (to the citizens in a community and to workers feeding their families), have hijacked democracy and revised the social contract, making crucial decisions which affect a place but remaining unaccountable to it. Although nudged awry by its Roger-vs.-me showdown-framework, the film makes a “we the people” argument, taking a populist, pro-proletariat, blue-collar approach. (Moore’s outrage about Flint’s fraying social-safety net seemed sadly relevant again, twenty-five years later, when news of Flint’s water-contamination broke.) But then there is Moore’s house-call on the woman whose “Rabbits or Bunnies[:] Pets or Meat” sign is posted on a telephone pole.

After cutting from GM spokesman and lobbyist Tom Kay—declaring there may now be even “more opportunity” in Flint than in GM’s heyday—to that hand-painted sign, Moore knocks on the door of this lupine-entrepreneur’s house. He clarifies what her sign means, leading her—“Meaning I can buy the bunnies to have as a pet or I can buy them for . . .”—to say “meat”, then cuts to her explaining, in front of rabbit cages, “I butcher the babies when the babies reach four or five months old.” Moore reacts to this explanation with a few winces, some strained chuckles, and a sardonic “Well, that’s good.” He stands one or two cautious steps away; his arms are behind his back and he is stooping, peering at the cages as if examining, through a microscope, a strange new world. The woman explains that she is on social

Rhonda & Me Roger & Me

security and her only other income comes from selling the rabbits and raising Doberman Pinschers. But Moore, wearing jeans, a jacket, and a ball-cap, as if he is just one of Flint’s folks (though it is a fishing cap, suggesting some animals are more okay to kill than others) has first shown her to us, as if through his oversized glasses, as a strange, slightly distasteful, white-trash woman getting by on the suffering of “bunnies”. By the time she explains her straitened circumstances, we are less likely to cringe but now more likely to pity her and how low she must go to make ends meet. It is difficult to see her just as matter-of-fact-ly as how she speaks and presents herself—that is, as someone making the most of what she has.

When Moore returns to the “bunny lady”—as she is designated in the DVD’s chapter scenes—she tells him that the health inspector visited and she has to make a number of (presumably costly) improvements so that her dressing of the rabbits will be more sanitary. He asks how she “slaughters ’em” and she tells him; he asks her what happened to her “brother at the factory” and she says he was laid off; then Moore and his crew film her killing a rabbit. This sequence generally sees her oppose Moore more—“What kind of coat does rabbit fur make?” “A rabbit coat—what else do you think it makes?”—and, in showing how quickly she can skin and gut a rabbit, we appreciate her expertise. She is, in many ways, a shrewd, hard-

working survivor of a tattered social-safety net, but Moore’s introduction to her still uncomfortably lingers. She, remaining unnamed, was never framed as a respectable “lady” at all. Was Moore betraying a middle-class squeamishness over her rabbit-farming? And, if so, how genuine is his schlubby, ballcap-wearing, Everyday-Joe appearance? When, in the parade of interviewees that Moore returns to in the closing-credits, she, stroking a bunny on a picnic table, talks of her plans to go to school for “veterinary assistance” and “dog grooming”, since “there’s a lot of animals that needs taking care of”, she seems exposed again to Moore’s and our social judgment—as if someone who kills rabbits for stew cannot be trusted to be a steward of them, too. This non-lady remains easy to dis-miss and easy to misunderstand.

Yet Moore returned to the “Pets or Meat” woman after the film’s release. In a 1990 interview with David Ehrenstein and Bill Reed, Moore framed her work as metaphorical: “‘Pets or meat. That’s the town. Either you’re working or you’re meat. That’s GM’s attitudes towards its serfs. The clubbing and skinning of the rabbit stands for the violence. Why aren’t people upset by the violence of a black man getting shot two minutes later in the film? Why are there walk outs [sic] during the rabbit section, but not during the shooting? That’s the image they’re used to, but they eat their meat every night.’” But, of course, her work is, first and foremost, her practical way of eking out a living, not a metaphor. Moore yokes it to his film’s message, as if further exploiting her in an exploit-or-be-exploited world. And while Moore makes a strong point about some viewers being more upset about violence to animals than racial violence, he is guilty himself of opening up the rabbit-seller to our slight condescension and even judgment of her fitness as an animal-owner—perhaps that initial look-down at her helped make people feel more entitled to walk out on her. Then, saying he is “‘paying the rabbit lady’s tuition to veterinarian school,’” Moore subordinates her plight to himself and his project once again. He comes off as her beneficent patron, his individual charity a response to a failing system. Class, not race, seems the film’s blind spot.

But Moore was not done with the woman, Rhonda (Britton). We learn her first name in the 23-minute follow-up to Roger & Me, “Pets or Meat: The Return to Flint” (1992), commissioned for PBS’s POV documentary-series. It revisits a Flint beset by more layoffs and relaunches an offensive against that still emptily peppy, now Bush-era boosterism. Moore returns to Rhonda by returning to his use of her work in Roger & Me as metonymic for the assembly-line, only he is not individualist this time: “When we first saw this sign, we felt, ‘Heh, that’s our life with General Motors. First we’re pets, then we’re meat.’” With that “we” and that “our”, Moore’s trying harder to align himself with not only Rhonda but other everyday folk in Flint, especially those affected, directly or indirectly, by GM’s layoffs. And yet, while the rest of the segment avoids condescension, there is still a sense of Rhonda as Exhibit B (for “Bunny Lady” or perhaps “Barometer”) for hard times in Flint. She is even more defined this time by display and display-value, as if she cannot escape being a sign, or signpost, for where Flint’s at right now. She shows her baby (and her husband) to Moore, then a long print-out list, from the bankruptcy court, of her bills owing—slowly reduced by money deducted from the paychecks for her job at K-Mart. Then she shows off rats and mice and, yes, those rabbits again, which she sells as snake-food. Moore’s voiceover—“Rhonda had discovered a new market”—emphasizes her more as an entrepreneur now but the segment still frames her less as someone enterprising and more as someone driven to desperate means. And it is difficult, in the light of Moore’s “pets or meat” analogy, not to see the busy, scurrying Rhonda as mouse- or rat-like herself while she’s slowly devoured by the serpent of corporate, Reagan-and-Bush-era greed (sure enough, to complete the metaphor, Moore soon acidly notes, “Okay, so the ’80s were bad for a few million people and a couple of bunnies”). She asks Moore if he would like to film a snake devouring a rabbit and laughs as he, again, brings it back to him: “No . . . you know, I got in enough trouble with you clubbing that bunny in the movie—I am not going to go watch a snake eat a rabbit whole.” Sure enough, cut to: a rabbit being pounced upon by a snake, about to eat the furry, flop-eared prey, only for an interruption (a scene from the 1967 musical Doctor Dolittle) “brought to you by Dog Eat Dog Films,” Moore’s production company and a reminder that Moore’s focus is on the rapacious, predatory nature of capitalism. A shame, though, that it comes, not once but thrice, at the faintly condescending and dehumanizing expense of a lower-class white woman, made too much of a case-in-point for the sake of Moore’s otherwise astute argument.

Works Cited

Ehrenstein, David and Bill Reed. “Michael’s Big Adventure: David Ehrenstein and Bill Reed on ‘Roger and Me’.” International Documentary Association, 1 Dec. 1990,

“Pets or Meat: The Return to Flint.” Directed by Michael Moore, PBS, 1992. YouTube,

Roger & Me. Directed by Michael Moore, Warner Bros., 1989.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

“Herald Tribune!” and Tati’s Tribute-Time

“the human race is the only species [that has] forgotten the whole purpose of life, the whole meaning of existence, is to have fun”

“without the existence of copies, we wouldn’t understand originals”

                                         — Certified Copy, dir. Abbas Kiarostami

Nowhere do two meanings of the French folie, as “delight or favourite dwelling” and as “madness”, seem more merged than in the roadways and roundabouts of the hyper-modern, wee world of Jacques Tati’s PlayTime (1967). Its drollery’s so stylized, quirky, and rife with chuckle-worthy moments, tucked away in the corners of this carefully constructed mini-metropolis, that the “Tatiesque”-ness of the comedian’s “Tativille” is madly, wholly original—a film-folly sui generis. The toll was certainly great enough: the writer-director used his mortgage and some of his planned inheritance to finance the set-construction, on Paris’ outskirts, where the 65mm widescreen shoot dragged on for a year, employed then-complex stereophonic sound, and took nine months to edit; it was a flop on release, bankrupting him and forcing him to sell off his rights to his own films.

Yet, like many auteurs’ works, Jacques Tati’s tour de force quotes from or riffs off films before it. Eerily, this arch triumph even looks ahead to a towering film still-just-to-come. These visual reflections and refractions in its faux-city’s hall-of-mirrors—remembrances of French cinema past and a foretelling of a futuristic classic—turn PlayTime into an even more joyous, riotous work that’s playing and flirting not only with film-time but Parisian-space. Fantasy, comic modernity, a kind of surreality, and nesting cinematic-worlds—a children’s social-realist allegory, French New Wave, Anglo-American sci-fi—colourfully collapse into each other in this epic, carnivalesque caper.

Tati’s “shout-outs”—one whisper-like, the other a literal cry—are to two major post-war French films which also boldly re-imagine Paris’ cityspace. In an elaborate meta-joke, this comedy (for which a toy-like city-block was built), itself teeming with replicas, copies, imitations, and other simulacra (passing through, in a steady series, are lookalikes for Tati’s famous Monsieur Hulot, first appearing fifteen minutes in), reflects winkingly back on not just a cutout-Paris—the city’s tourist landmarks shimmer forth for mere moments in reflections in glass doors, and Tati used photos for those shots—but on the City of Lights re-made on-screen.

Amid the playful, dancing colours in PlayTime’s festive finale are various bobbing red balloons, all of them single balloons held by individual children. They’re a collective homage to a then-recent cinematic landmark. The Red Balloon, Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 Palme d’Or-winning children’s film—Parisian boy’s new pal is a fat red balloon—remains the only short to win an Oscar outside that category (for best screenplay). Soaring from its

Belleville streetscape-shots—which boast a Cartier-Bresson-like photographic beauty—into a naturalist story-turned-allegory (people’s occasional, playful efforts to grab this floating, carefree thing soon become grasping and destructive), Lamorisse’s film toys with how happy post-Occupation France is to forget the carnage of Hitler’s war a decade before. A petty, squabbling mass threatens to ruin things until the film ends on a gust of magic-realism, lifting Pascal (played by the director’s own son) out of this rigid, petty, earthbound life. And Tati moves those poles—rigidity vs.

freedom-and-ease—further apart. After all, the red balloons (one of them prominently held by a girl, standing up in an open-sunroofed VW bug, whose brown hair is cut like Pascal’s) are just some among many colourful markers of Tativille’s parade-like ending. Its spectrum-soulmates include

the red-and-white, corkscrew-like maypole at the centre of a traffic circle-turned-carousel, a revolving red-and-white-striped cement mixer, a red-and-white plastic trumpet, and a red car moving up and down on a hoist.

This merry-go-round’s long been hinted at, though. There’s Hulot’s own occasional crossing of lines, zigging when he should zag in a cold, routinized, rectilinear office-world. And there’s his crossing-of-paths with American-tourist-in-Paris Barbara (Barbara Denneke), as if they’re flirting . . . until they (Adam and Eve-like) spend some carefree time together in a makeshift bistro-club within a restaurant (the Royal Garden) going on the fritz. At film’s end, he buys her two souvenir-presents: a scarf with drawings of Parisian landmarks (none of which she got to see up close) and a flower resembling each lamppost that Barbara’s airport-bound bus is passing under just then. (Tati apparently had an affair with Denneke, his neighbours’ former au pair, though Tati’s wife, biographer David Bellos claims, appears too, as the white-gloved driver of an open-topped Sunbeam Alpine—her own car—making the rounds in that traffic-circle.)

Flirtatiousness is at the heart, too, of Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature, À bout de souffle (Breathless), the French New Wave’s first breaker to crash through cinemas. American-student-in-Paris Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) flirts, jousts, banters and generally plays at badinage—and more—with petty thief Michel Piccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo). (Meanwhile, Godard plays, in his jump-cutting postmodern collage, with photos, ads, newspapers, movie poses, social realism vs. fourth wall-breaking self-awareness, and more.) But the first time we see Patricia, as Michel seeks her out, dreamy music playing, the waif-like young woman with the boyish haircut is trying to seduce customers. “New York Herald Tribune!” she calls—her shirt declaring the paper’s title, too—while walking up and down the the Champs-Élysées. Godard’s film extends the street-shot realism of

Lamorisse’s film—where most passersby didn’t seem aware of the camera, their curiosity tugged towards the simple, handsome sight of a little boy holding a red balloon—with the camera moving down the middle of streets, amid pedestrians on sidewalks, in and out of a movie theatre, through a building lobby. But, like Tati’s film, Breathless is a mélange (of genres, places, high and low culture, colourful characters) that’s also Atlantic-bridging major film cultures of the time: America and France come together as the Italian-American Patricia, barker-like, tries to sell, in siren-like English, her black-and-white New York-based wares on a major Parisian thoroughfare while this fripouille (rogue) Michel chats her up. (The newsstand where she kisses him goodbye is evoked by the flower-stall, standing in for a bygone Paris, in PlayTime.) Tati’s film, flirting with an

American-French romance, cheerily evokes Patricia’s introduction when, entering a hotel lobby just after the glass doors reflect the Arc de Triomphe (from which radiates, among other streets, the Champs-Élysées), a blue-jeaned young man—his yellow t-shirt emblazoned with the paper’s title—wonders aloud if anyone wants a copy of the “Herald Tribune” he’s selling

that evening. In a cubicle-dotted and expo-showroom landscape of products and facsimiles, Tati cheekily reproduces, reworks, and remakes a Breathless landmark-scene—playing Godard, if you will—for a moment.

And so, from parody to parade—that carnivalesque playfulness into which Tati’s re-created world erupts at PlayTime’s rollicking end is an especial relief because it seems to dissolve the cubicle or glass walls of so many TV-box-like surveillance-spaces before then. The red of those balloons dances at last, after targeting (a bullseye-like circle at the airport) or leading (a pulsing red circle tails off into an arrow pointing to the restaurant’s entrance) or glaring—as when Hulot enters the picture, stepping out of a bus (marked “hotel de ville” and “champs – elysees”) to show up for an appointment in an office tower’s lobby. There—just before a Kubrick-like hallway shot—on a big computer console, a red light blinks on when the muttering, befuddled doorman presses a button to tell someone that Hulot’s

arrived. This red pupil’s reproduced in the red object on the lapel (at Hulot’s eye-level) of each suited man seeming to peer down from every portrait hung up around the adjoining waiting-room as Hulot and a younger lookalike sit expectantly. But this sentry-like crimson Cyclops also eerily looks ahead to the red eye of all-seeing HAL, in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space

Odyssey (released four months later; Tati quite admired Kubrick). Other moments and spaces, too, bristle with a sense of surveillance: a rotating, panopticon-like secretary at the centre of a grid of cubicle-like rooms; an apartment-complex shot as if neighbours, separated by scrim-like walls, are looking at one another; beyond and behind this aquarium-tank complex of closed-off yet linked televisual spaces, there blinks off and on from a billboard, glowing red and eyelike, a pair of overseeing glasses. Tati’s and Kubrick’s films are among the first to emphasize contained, cubicle space,

as if humans are trapped inside TV-like boxes while we, the viewers, monitor them. (CCTV, envisioned in the ’30s and ’40s by New York Times columnist Orrin Dunlap as workplace surveillance, had just been invented, in 1966, and would be patented in 1969.)

PlayTime (and 2001), so radical in its re-imagining of film-time and film-space, relied more heavily and expensively on careful, precise, planned-out design than almost any cinematic work before it. If, for much of Tati’s film, screen-space seems an insulating, cold, cerebral design for a constrained, detached, dispassionate life, the halting, then ultimately erupting, comic breaking-down of that set-up seems to be a rebellion against a too-sterile, too-constructed film-set—as if Tati’s staging a mischievous self-mockery. A walk through a business-only reflection of très modern Paris becomes, step by skip by trip, a frolic in comedy’s Elysian Fields. The hints of Lamorisse and Godard are flickers of disruptive japery, flashes of intertextual film-fun waiting to burst out (while the prevision of Kubrick, questioning the surveillance-spaces we’ve fallen into, anchors the film in a more reflective, philosophical sense of wonder). With PlayTime, Tati’s whimsical plaything and play-set and even playground, cinema’s reframed as not just a wondrous illusion of worlds within worlds but a freewheeling, post-modern wonderland, twinkling with little quotes and in-jokes and meta-moments and echoes sprinkled here and there, sparkling away. It’s a film about the coldness and strangeness of the work-work-work-world that ends up finding not just solace in play but a festive cheer in its own film-ness, jesting merrily with those impish little movie-moments romping in its rooms.

Works Cited

Bellos, David. Jacques Tati. Harvill, 1999.

Breathless [À bout de souffle]. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, UGC, 1960.

Certified Copy. Directed by Abbas Kiarostami, MK2, 2010.

McCarthy, Anna. “Closed Circuit Television.” The Museum of Broadcast Communications,

Play Time. Directed by Jacques Tati, Jolly, Specta, 1967.

The Red Balloon. Directed by Albert Lamorisse, Lopert, 1956.

2001: A Space Odyssey. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, MGM, 1968.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

Cold Cuts

In the late ’90s and early ’00s, Walter Murch became the most famous film-editor around. That’s partly because of some of the weighty films on his résumé—sound-work on The Conversation and The Godfather: Part II; editing (and re-editing two decades later) Apocalypse Now; a 1998 cut of Welles’ Touch of Evil—and the awards on his mantelpiece: Oscars for his sound-mix for Apocalypse Now and for his sound-mixing and film-editing for Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient in 1996. But it was also because of a 2002 book by Canadian poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. And yet much of the cutting-room detritus from Murch’s revision-project then, Minghella’s Civil War epic Cold Mountain (2003), adapting Charles Frazier’s 1997 novel, is a profound, regrettable loss.

The film opens in July 1864, in Petersburg, Virginia, where Union soldiers have laid explosives under the Confederate Army’s dugouts. That’s where battle-weary W. P. Inman (Jude Law) awaits orders. The blast rips clothes off men’s backs and shreds flesh; the maelstrom of blood, guts, and filth—as the Northern soldiers attack in a chaotic swell, only to find themselves below steep dirt embankments running up to their Southern foes’ trenches—is sickening, powerful cinema. Later, Inman, injured in a raid, deserts the Confederate side to return to Cold Mountain, North Carolina, and his sweetheart Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman). His Odyssey-like trek home through the Appalachians to his waiting Penelope brings: a Circe-like old woman who rescues and nurses him; the siren-call of seduction one night in a too-welcoming homestead; the Calypso-like temptation of war-widow and single mother Sara (Natalie Portman); the threat of roaming, raiding Union soldiers; a lecherous preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman). In Cold Mountain, lower-class Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger) has shown up to tend Ada’s farm, saving it from ruin, but Teague (Ray Winstone) has taken over the town—he lusts after Ada and kills any returning deserters, deeming them traitors.

The final version, though, largely neglects the issue of slavery that rankled at the socio-economic heart of the Civil War and tends to evade concerns with race, apart from showing Ada and Inman, especially, as always kind to black people. But in the first deleted section, from early on in the film—“Scene 2: Cold Mountain Chapel”—a townsman questions one young man, to his face, about whether he’s going off to fight for “the South” or for “King Cotton”. Then, in the cut-out “Scene 12: Battlefield”, as Inman looks on silently, a fellow Confederate soldier keeps attempting, with one after another from a pile of discarded guns, to kill a black man (“Where you think you goin’, jigaboo?”) crawling away from a pile of bodies. The third one he tries is loaded and the helpless man’s shot dead. That scene exposes

Inman’s complicity in Southern racism while equating the guns and bodies—as if these men, especially Negroes, were being used simply as tools of war, so cheaply and easily dumped and forgotten afterwards. In another outtake, “Scene 53: Hospital By The Sea”, Inman, amid other white soldiers convalescing on the seashore with the help of black servants, watches as former slaves trudge along a road with all their possessions. Inman’s helped

out of the ebbing surf into which he’s hobbled by an attentive black man—so, some of these Negroes, their enslavement being what Inman and all his

fair-skinned comrades fought to maintain, are still tending to them in their rehabilitation, while other Negroes wander on, searching (as if their collective plight is more truly representative of a losing, and lost, South). These scenes, flecked with brutality and lyricism, mixing pathos and metaphor, dramatically expose the blind spots of a hypocritical white Confederacy . . . yet they were excised. (Two of the other scrapped bits develop the tender affection, and bridge the class gulf, between Ada and Ruby on the homefront—in one instance, they even sleep cheek-to-cheek out in the cold.) Some of the film’s disturbing power was leached here by the puzzling removal of scenes which dwell on the primary motive for the war; instead, the film increasingly foregrounds a heterosexual romance, with the conflict and its context pushed to the distance.

In Minghella and Murch’s audio-commentary, the editor seems to partially rationalize his cutting of the convalescence scene as a necessity of character and rhythm (a letter from Ada means he must, “Lazarus”-like, arise and come quickly). But there’s no mention of the social character or political rhythms of the time and place—that is, history. (Generally, the emphasis in the commentary is personal, not political—the stress is on production, character, and emotion, not on politics, even though this was the epoch of America’s greatest crisis!) In Murch’s conversations with Ondaatje, he implies that a finished film is often the result, ultimately, of an editor, who “works at both the macroscopic and the microscopic level[s] . . . ranging from deciding how long precisely each shot is held, to restructuring and repositioning scenes, and sometimes to eliminating entire subplots.” And so, in that supreme position, he “is the only one who has time to deal with the whole jigsaw.” In the case of Cold Mountain, though, it distinctly feels as though a few pieces are missing.

Works Cited

Cold Mountain. Directed by Anthony Minghella. Audio-commentary by Minghella and Walter Murch. Miramax, 2003. 2-disc collector’s edition DVD [including deleted scenes].

Ondaatje, Michael. The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. Knopf, 2002.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.