Errol Morris’s Milkshake

When did objects—its and bits, odds and ends—begin to take on reel lives of their own? Not long after film took lives of its own.

After the 1800s—Bainbridge’s setting up shop for the department store, Dickensian Christmases’ good family cheer overtaken by store-bought items waiting under the heavily-decorated tree for eager wrapping-rippers, Veblen’s theory of “conspicuous consumption”, the rise of store-displays and mail-order catalogues—more leisure-time meant not only more shopping-time but more viewing-time. In Dziga Vertov’s city-symphony documentary Man with a Movie Camera (1929), a movie theatre’s seats seem to come alive, perhaps warming up before patrons file in to sit on them; later, thanks to more stop-motion magic, the tripedal camera assembles itself, then

gives a merry little dance, tripping the shutter-light fantastic. But the trip could turn deadly—film was a dangerous object. The image-strips whirring through projectors then were made of nitrate, so inflammable that it could even burn underwater. There were theatre infernos, as on January 1927, in Montreal’s Laurier Palace, when a blaze erupted during a children’s movie and 77 people between the ages of 4 and 18 perished in the smoke and flames. (Bill Morrison’s 2002 found-footage film Decasia is comprised entirely of moldering, blistering nitrate reels whose spectral images often seem to bubble and melt into each other in a delirium of decay.)

After cinema was already turning humans into objects on-screen and early film-strips could, on tragic occasion, turn cinema-goers into inferno victims, objects truly began to take on eerie film-lives of their own after the hellfire and ashes of World War II. That raging cataclysm, its horrors beggaring belief and staggering the imagination, saw the Nazis not only treat Holocaust victims as less-than-human but render Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and the disabled down into objects (from Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”: “my skin / Bright as a Nazi lampshade, / My right foot / A paperweight, / My face a featureless, fine Jew linen”). And perhaps the greatest reason of all for such possession-obsession came with the mind-blowing power of one object to annihilate so many of us all. The atom bomb’s horrific might heralded homo sapiens’ scientific bending of nature to our murderous will. If the “disappointed shells” in Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” have more life than the weary soldiers they just fail to hit, by 1945 only one large, nuclear-energized shell needed to hit the ground to erase life (and raze the earth) for miles around, and on into future generations.

There was a shift in art, then, to an entirely new sensitivity to objects, along with the ironic celebration and reimagining of materialism—Postmodernism. Take this passage from Thomas Pynchon’s paragon of postmodernism, noir mystery-quest The Crying of Lot 49 (1965):

The can [of hair spray] hit the floor, something broke, and with a great outsurge of pressure the stuff commenced atomizing, propelling the can swiftly about the bathroom. . . . The can, hissing malignantly, bounced off the toilet and whizzed by Metzger’s right ear . . . the can continued its high-speed caroming; from the other room came a slow, deep crescendo of naval bombardment, machine-gun, howitzer and small-arms fire, screams and chopped-off prayers of dying infantry. . . . The can knew where it was going, [Oedipa] sensed . . . The can collided with a mirror and bounced away, leaving a silvery, reticulated bloom of glass to hang a second before it all fell jingling into the sink; zoomed over to the enclosed shower, where it crashed into and totally destroyed a panel of frosted glass; thence around the three tile walls, up to the ceiling, past the light, over the two prostrate bodies, amid its own whoosh and the buzzing, distorted uproar from the TV set. She could imagine no end to it; yet presently the can did give up in mid-flight and fall to the floor, about a foot from Oedipa’s nose. She lay watching it.

This zany Exhibit A of the Pynchonesque presages the birth of so many movies where far-too-lively objects become the killers, imbued with sinister self-awareness, “hissing malignantly” towards us . . . and we’re helpless before this suddenly murderous “stuff” in our lives. It’s a mad, bad reminder of just how much objects have taken over, so much so that these things often have more life than the people supposedly in possession of them. And it’s as if we’re projecting our own, often Freudian, fears on the many not-always-so-good goods we buy and own and use—our things biting the hands which purchase them with that ultimate object, money. And so Killdozer! (1974) trundles into terror-town three years after Steven Spielberg’s first feature Duel—amid America’s curious ’70s craze for “good buddy” CB-chatting trucker-culture—has a trailer-truck (driver unseen) targeting a hapless highway driver. There’s Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), dissolving unsuspecting victims in its acid-goo waterbed-mattress before remaking itself and even snoring. A vacuum cleaner roars suckingly to life in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The TV screen proves evil in Poltergeist (1982). The Lift (1983) drops us into a killer elevator. A killer car’s the star of Stephen King’s Christine (1983). The Stuff (1985) is whipped cream which consumes the consumer, eating away their insides and zombie-fying them. And King’s directorial debut, Maximum Overdrive (1986), featured consumerist pleasures of the land of the free turned into one long buyers’ beware: an insulting ATM, a murderous vending-machine, a child-flattening steamroller,

lawnmowers running amok, chainsaws turned lumberjack-rippers, arcade machines gone berserk, and trucks making humans roadkill.

These days, the newfound power of the computer—turning on us in Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—to connect or disconnect us may have much to do with cinema’s recent object-lessons in inanimate malevolence. Because when objects take on such destructive power, they can reduce humans to mere things; in an object-filled world, we may be stiffly packaging, vacuum-packing, and compartmentalizing our primal emotions more and more (of course, movies especially have been charged with desensitizing assailants and killers to violence). In 2011, a convicted murderer, at his parole hearing in Hamilton, recalled fatally shooting the woman who rejected him seventeen years ago: “I could see what I was doing, but I couldn’t stop. I was so upset. It was like an inanimate object.”

Both that sense of lives as things—or nothing—and the sense of a mere few things—pieces of evidence—determining one man’s death-row fate haunt what may be the only film to free a man from a life-sentence. In Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988), David Harris talks of his crime, for which Randall Adams has been wrongly convicted, with that conscience-less sense of impersonality and detachment: “I never really concerned myself with it.” But Morris, in his restrained, artfully classical film—seeming as much a chilly drama, especially with its Philip Glass score, as a documentary—is greatly concerned, and deeply concerns us, with the case. While largely removing himself from the picture—there’s no mention of: Morris as a private investigator; the murder for which David Harris is in prison is a killing he committed on the day he was supposed to meet Morris for an interview; Adams’ release (almost certainly thanks in large part to Morris’ film)—he draws us in more and more. We’re investigating, watching the crime-scene re-creations (based on often conflicting eyewitness testimony), following police-procedure (or lack thereof), and examining not just suspects but tell-tale objects. These significant, perhaps even innocence- or guilt-determining objects are shown in close-up: a map of Dallas, a diagram of Officer Robert

Wood’s bullet-entry wounds, a drawing of the murder weapon, November and December 1976 newspaper articles about the case, a TV guide (related to Adams’ alibi), a police car’s flashing red light, a clock, crushed-out cigarettes in an ashtray, even a spilled milkshake. Because the little details of life suddenly matter: adding up to clues, suggesting ways to track down the killer, comprising evidence which, pieced together, make up a case . . . but are they also red herrings? A license plate turns out to be a false lead after it was wrongly recalled by the murdered officer’s partner, Teresa Turko, the woman who dropped that milkshake; it’s also never resolved, at least in Morris’ film, where she was—in the patrol car or out of it.

In a 2008 essay by Morris in The New York Times, online, elaborating on his film’s construction, he notes:

A crime-scene diagram prepared by investigating officers suggests that Turko was not being entirely truthful. The telling detail was the location of where the milkshake landed: 14 feet from the door of the police cruiser. [Its location suggests that Turko was sitting in the patrol car when her partner was shot, not positioned at the rear of the stopped vehicle, according to procedure.]

Why care about the milkshake? Why does the milkshake matter? Because we assemble our picture of reality from details. We don’t take in reality whole. Our ideas about reality come from bits and pieces of experience. We try to assemble them into something that has a consistent narrative.

. . . I also talked at length to Teresa Turko herself, but was never able to interview her on film. She had been consigned to a desk job, filing documents, and was not particularly anxious to revisit the past. The murder of her partner and the Internal Affairs investigation that followed had destroyed her career.

Turko—never explicitly named in the film—is first seen drinking “the malt” in the second re-creation of the crime-scene; in the third re-creation, when we’re told by a policeman the “speculation was” that she was in the car, not outside, backing up her partner, she’s sitting there and, when the shots are fired, she throws her milkshake out the window. It flies through a black void. Then the Burger King drink hits the ground, the lid

on the paper cup coming off, the liquid oozing and pooling out onto the roadside.  Now the milkshake takes on a weight, an existential force—the thing becomes something more than a thing, standing in for where its drinker was or wasn’t. It also, emotionally, stands in for Turko herself—her guilt, her responsibility, her perspective (otherwise missing from the film). It’s a crucial fact, and factor, and force, in a narrative in flux—shifting a little, re-forming itself in our rearview mirror with each new witness testimony.

In Morris’ masterpiece, which sifts through pieces for a master-narrative—the truth—re-enactments gain weight and importance with every new detail and interview. Real-life documentation—maps, diagrams, Adam’s signed confession, newspaper reports, film listings (Adams and Harris went to a drive-in together), that TV guide—is much more serious and important than the reel-life documentary, for the words taken from Adams “can be used against you in a court of law”. As Morris has said:

I believe there is an objective truth. The Thin Blue Line is the perfect example of that. Someone shot the cop, it’s not up for grabs . . . Now, people may give varying accounts of [that murder] which are self-serving, are self-deceiving, are wrong. That’s part of who we are, and how narratives are constructed, and how people relay events and lie about events, but none of that means that there is no underlying truth or reality to be uncovered. . . . Pursuing the truth is trying to provide answers to difficult questions using evidence through interviews, forensic evidence, etc., etc. It’s a quest, it’s a pursuit, it’s an investigation, a mystery. . . . you should use any tool available to you to try to ferret it out, to try to get at it, to try to uncover it. . . . [Despite not qualifying for the Academy Awards because it was not classified as a non-fiction film,] it was a documentary, and indeed it was concerned with the truth. . . . It was a result of two and a half years of investigating, sometimes with a camera, sometimes without a camera, but investigating. Trying to answer questions. Trying to interview witnesses. Trying to get at the truth, which to me is what this is all about.

But can a truth-seeking film become possessive itself? Once freed, Adams objected to his life being objectified as a story, one of those constructed narratives. He got into a legal battle with Morris over the rights to his story; the director, for his part, remembers that “he became very angry at the fact that he had signed a release giving me rights to his life story. And he felt as though I had stolen something from him. Maybe I had, maybe I just don’t understand what it’s like to be in prison that long, for a crime you hadn’t committed. In a certain sense, the whole crazy deal with the release was fueled by my relationship with his attorney. And it’s a long, complicated story, but I guess when people are involved, there’s always a mess somewhere.” A mess of things; a mess of competing claims; a mess of details.

Documentaries, interviewing or investigating human subjects and no more objective than fiction-films (the only difference is documentaries’ closer relation to real-life events, i.e., things which actually happened), offer us the illusion of navigating, with the guide of a constructed narration tying together objects and evidence and interviews and arguments, mess (often called “life”). A mess of information and data and things and objects. And navigating all those objects so that we can rediscover simple human truths, or even just one—not who did it, but who did it.

Works Cited

Christine. Directed by John Carpenter, Columbia, 1983.

Clairmont, Susan. “‘I just kept on firing . . . It was pure rage.’” The Hamilton Spectator, 21 January 2011,–i-just-kept-on-firing-it-was-pure-rage-/.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Directed by Steven Spielberg, Columbia, 1977.

Decasia. Directed by Bill Morrison, Icarus, 2002.

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. 1977. Directed by George Barry, Cult Epics, 2003.

Duel. Directed by Steven Spielberg, Universal, 1971.

Killdozer!. Directed by Jerry London, Universal, 1974.

The Lift. Directed by Dick Maas, Sigma, 1973.

Man with a Movie Camera. Directed by Dziga Vertov, VUFKU, 1929.

Maximum Overdrive. Directed by Stephen King, De Laurentiis, 1986.

Morris, Errol. “Play It Again, Sam (Re-enactments, Part One).” Opinionator (New York Times Blog), 3 April 2008, play-it-again-sam-re-enactments-part-one.

Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum est.” 1917-18. Poems, Chatto & Windus, 1920.

Plath, Sylvia. “Lady Lazarus.” 1962. Ariel, Faber and Faber, 1965.

Poltergeist. Directed by Tobe Hooper, MGM, 1982.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. J. B. Lippincott, 1966.

The Stuff. Directed by Larry Cohen, New World, 1985.

The Thin Blue Line. Directed by Errol Morris, Miramax, 1988.

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.

Prisms of Pain

. . . the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

                                         — William Shakespeare, The Tempest

The first twist in Citizen Kane (1941) is also its plot-trigger and greatest inside-joke. It comes with “THE END”—the end of a 9-minute newsreel (“news on the march”), covering the life and times of the titular newspaper magnate, revealed now to have been playing for not only us but others on a screen, the projector’s beams slashing through the darkness. We’re ushered out of this film-within-a-film and into a small screening-room

where a clutch of newsmen talk about what we’ve all just seen: “How about it, Mr. Rawlston?” “How do you like it, boys?” Mr. Rawlston, looking for more of an “angle,” directs reporter Jerry Thompson to “find out about ‘Rosebud’”—to decipher the meaning of Kane’s last word. This sudden inclusion of us, the audience, on the launching-notepad of the film’s investigative-quest and in this film-space within the film—a theatre within our theatre—both seems to expand Citizen Kane’s world and to shrink it, as if enlarging its cinema-scope to include us in our seats while collapsing its structure on itself, calling attention to its own fiction film-ness. But the world of Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane had already collapsed ten minutes earlier.

That was when he died, the snowglobe in his hand falling out to break on the

floor. It’s a stage-scene which seems to reflect the shift of Welles himself from the boards (as co-founder and leader of the Mercury Theatre) to the screen, moving us from a more operatic and theatrical opening amid the Xanadu set to a visually striking, modernist cinema of fragments and layers. In a deep-focus close-up of the snowglobe—this sudden memento mori—its miniature snow-covered log cabin is exposed in the foreground, while in the curved, broken glass are reflected (middle-ground) a nurse, opening the door, and, above her, in the background, the distorted, still form of Kane in his deathbed, an ornate,

latticed window above him. And with that, not just the film’s pane-filled world and its framing device shatter open—drawing us into its inner workings—but Citizen Kane’s ever-shifting, glittering, refracting metaphor is exposed before being laid out for us, again and again, in kaleidoscopic new ways.

Over and over, meta-theatrical stage-effects—as in The Tempest, where Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre metamorphoses, through metaphor, into an all-containing miniature “globe” of a world—are replicated in Welles’ film as little meta-cinematic glass-worlds. It’s as if, with close-ups and zoom-ins and deep-focus, the camera’s crystal-clear lens can lead us back in to scuffed and cracking or buffed and glistening mini-capsules of memory, magnifying them for our contemplation. That intriguing sense of enclosed, secret spaces—petalled layers within layers, like a rosebud—envelops us from the start. A forbidding “NO TRESPASSING” sign is shown outside Kane’s palatial estate, but we gain privileged access, the panning-up camera dissolving from the fence into wire into a gate and then a cage before we’re led into the castle—that keep of a rich recluse’s mind and memory—and that house within a snowglobe held by a dying man, what critic Laura Mulvey calls “[t]he womb . . . within the tomb”. The (in)questing Thompson, trying to raise Kane, leads us back into the past when he enters pane-filled rooms for his interviews. In one enclosed, glass-windowed, exclusive or semi-private

space after another—after-hours nightclub, private library archives, Mr. Bernstein’s high-rise office, retirement-home atrium, Xanadu—we’re caught up in prisms of memory.

Yet Welles’ film is also a Trojan horse—an imperial epic, posing as bio-pic and projected through the ghost-like figure of Kane, about the grandeur, ambition, and poison of the American Dream. But if that Dream isn’t only an objective but an object to be sought out, grasped for . . . well, Welles’ film is about, too, those objects which have an intensely personal association for us and no one else. (Little wonder that, when his second wife Susan—an Oedipal echo of his long-lost mother—leaves him, Kane reacts like a lumbering, overgrown boy, smashing and trashing objects in her room.) In trying to regain his childhood in that log cabin where he lived with his mother in Colorado—his

sled “Rosebud” outside in the snow, waiting to be ridden—Kane’s striving (running newspapers, collecting objets d’art, treating people like pawns) is a constant effort, through his handling of enterprises and things, to regain a paradise sold (the boy was handed over to a banker to be educated in the deal for his mother’s deed to a mine). His American Dream, from before li’l Charlie Kane could realize it, offers an illusion of recapturing the past. If only, like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby looking back to Daisy, “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” he could recover his simpler child-self by recovering such dear possessions as his Rosebud (there among the miniature, film set-like city of prop-like objects and collectibles sprawled through Kane’s mansion in the final shot). And, with it, one could, just maybe (but of course not really), hold on tighter to one’s near-tangible memories of a better time; it’s the comforting, insulating illusion of nostalgia. That’s why the most pathetic yet prized possession in Kane’s life, and the film’s world, is the microcosm of his childhood—the snowglobe.

But that snowglobe’s the microcosm of this film-world, too, the world of Citizen Kane. It’s a story of flashbacks, set off by an object—when that snowglobe falls and breaks, it’s as if the globe of the film’s world breaks open, too. (There’s so much shattering: Kane killed his Abel-like younger self, destroying—his first marriage, his friendship with Jedediah, Susan’s psyche—even as he tries to re-create.) And the flakes drifting across the screen as Kane intones, “Rosebud,” presage the cold, distant memories which will soon blizzard the screen as Thompson, trying to wade through the snow of

headlines, pictures, and clips about the tycoon’s death to some revelation about Kane the man, interviews acquaintance after acquaintance, hoping to explain “Rosebud”. The snowglobe’s first shown to us as broken, suggesting that Kane, too, became a broken man, unable to stitch himself back together after being torn away from his mother and his family homestead; those jagged pieces of snowglobe also set up the puzzle structure of the film. We trail Thompson as he travels around the country to try to put shards of the mogul’s friends’ and ex-wife’s and acquaintances’ memories together, to reassemble the whole . . . or at least to explain that final word which bloomed and faded like a flower on Kane’s lips: “Rosebud.”

Again and again, Thompson’s investigation is framed by glass within glass, offering the illusion that he’s delving deeper and deeper, breaking one layer after layer another as he descends into Kane’s unconscious. When he visits a sotted Susan (Dorothy Comingore) in a nightclub-space, “El Rancho,” that’s a pathetic parody of Kane’s childhood ranch, we descend through the glass skylight and soon, in a deep-focus shot, Thompson’s calling in to work, with the waiter standing outside the folding glass door of

the phone booth and Susan just beyond him, yet another glass of memory-blurring, pain-dulling alcohol in her hand.

Curiosity moves us to track Thompson, but, as Welles well knew, the curio of the snowglobe reduces Kane’s life, in a media-saturated world, to a fleeting curiosity, a piquant mystery to be quickly resolved or left behind, tossed aside like a passing fancy (or fanciful past). Kane is reduced by the spotlight to a glinting, kaleidoscopic curio—“what we need is an angle,” says Rawlston. Curiosity about Kane’s past, and curios from his past, also connect him to his soon-to-be-second wife Susan. He’s on his way to a warehouse to look at items gathered from his mother’s home when he runs into her. In a mirror-inversion of Thompson’s unsentimental sail through Kane’s rippling social circles, Kane tells Susan, “Tonight I was going to look at [my mother’s things], you know, a sort of sentimental journey.” And in Susan’s room, by the looking-glass reflection of Susan

talking to Kane (as he, ironically, says, “See that?”), the snowglobe sits on her dressing-table. So, the snowglobe is substitute-mother Susan’s, but refracts such personal moments of his lost childhood and distant home that Kane will clutch it to himself in his final moments, in his last, lonely, grotesque imitation of home—Xanadu, itself a hollow re-creation of the “pleasure-palace” in Coleridge’s poem of wondrous worlds-within-worlds, “Kubla Khan” (1816).

As Mulvey notes, though, the Kubla-like Kane’s collection of objects reveals his fetishized obsession for women especially, a distortion of his thwarted wish to return to his mother. In trying to preserve and monumentalize his past, Kane also tries to make himself larger than life in the present, first through press ownership, then through political ambition. As Mulvey points out, that log cabin in the glass ball is a crystallized image of the country boy breaking through to become President—recalling young Abe Lincoln’s rise to power—although Kane’s political hopes are thwarted, ironically because of his affair with Susan, kindled in that room by shared memories of their mothers. The snowglobe becomes, for a time, a hothouse—the window-filled conservatory where

Kane, during his first marriage to Emily, the niece of a President, breakfasts and seems, in his debonair style and witty talk, a candidate-in-the-making.

Both the political stage, on which we see Kane announcing himself to the throng

even as he denounces his opponent, and the Chicago opera-house stage, where Susan makes her debut, backed and pushed by Kane (looking down on her as, at one point, she trills in French, “Oh, gods, rescue me”), are like containing globes, too, stages-within-stages that magnify Kane’s ego and ambition. These are shifts in scale, mirroring Kane’s shifts: from smiling bachelor to bitter divorcé; from big-idea man to aloof hermit; from gregarious media-magnate to petty, wife-managing recluse; from little boy playing outside a simple Colorado log cabin to old man tottering around a massive, overwrought Florida estate; from a rising parvenu eager to make his mark on the world of newspapers to an aged eccentric retreating into his memories and dwelling on his pain. It’s these telescoping shifts, where a “great man” fails, in so many ways large and small, to recover what he lost as a little boy, which make the pane-filled worlds-within-worlds of Citizen Kane such a profoundly reflective psychological epic in an art-form where light, shining through the glass of that projectionist’s booth and streaming overhead to the screen, offers the grand illusion of casting out the darkness all around us.

Works Cited

Citizen Kane. Directed by Orson Welles, RKO, 1941.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment.” 1797. Christabel, Kubla Khan[:] A Vision, and The Pains of Sleep, John Murray, 1816.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925.

Mulvey, Laura. Citizen Kane. BFI, 1992.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. c. 1610. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Oxford UP, 1995, pp. 1167-89.

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.

Full Metal Freud

No film better shows the programmatic breaking-down and re-assembling of men into weapons—state-sanctioned serial killers—than Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). It’s about schizoid masculinity and thus a film of two halves—or, as Joker cracks in one of the script’s self-referential jokes, “the duality of man . . . the Jungian thing”. The first half: marines at boot camp in 1967 build themselves up into a hard corps, all at the expense of one—Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), who can’t take the nagging persecution of him by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) and his comrades-in-training. He loses it in the “head” (the toilets), assembling and loading his rifle even as he breaks down, killing Hartman and then himself. The second half: some of these green recruits, in Vietnam in 1968, build what’s left of themselves, after some comrades were picked off by a sniper, into a war-zone’s “fuckin’ hard core” club (they chant the “Mickey Mouse March” at film’s end), one by one at the expense of them all. In the final rite of passage, Private James T. “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine) loses it (he’s devirginated as a killer) by shooting in the head the wounded sniper, whom they stand over as if gang-raping her—this fucking hard corps now hard-core fucking.

Becoming one with a hard body of Marines means forging a hard, cruel core, all to leave corpses in this gung-ho gun-gang’s onward-marching wake.

Kubrick had attacked militant American masculinity before, in the midst of the Cold War, soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the zanily and darkly comic Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), tough-soldier-ness is fissured with tragi-farcical sexual neuroses on the verge of meltdown and personified by xenophobic, teenageishly sex-obsessed, gung-ho ol’ boys bursting with John Wayne-ish jingoism. The opening-credits sequence sexualizes a military refuelling plane and a bomber, the coupling machines joining the mile-high club to the tune of an airy arrangement of “Try A Little Tenderness”. General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), when he’s summoned to the War Room—where President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) and his advisors await—is interrupted in flagrante delicto with his Playmate-like mistress; she’s “Miss Foreign Affairs,” according to her centrefold, studied hard by Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) in a bomber. From its bay is soon launched the masturbatingly patriotic Kong, whooping and hollering and riding the bronco-like bomb to an orgasmic D-Day. Back in the War Room, crazed and wheelchair-bound ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers), musing on life underground and the need to “breed prodigiously” in a survivors’ colony where the ratio will be “ten females to each male,” stiffly rises, brought to excitedly upright life by this epic explosion’s coital prospects.

And there’s Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who triggered the entire crisis, certain of his tapping-and-sapping theory—struck upon when he found himself feeling post-sex fatigue—that the Commies, tainting American water with this new-fangled fluoridation process (an actual anti-Communist theory in the ’50s), have been slyly emasculating all-American boys for years, causing their “loss of essence.” (He further remarks, with fatuous grandiloquence: “A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual.”) In a Freudian riposte to all this pseudo-sexual tension, Ripper’s shooting a missile the Soviets’ way. As he explains all this to us and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers)—looking at the sex-maniac Ripper as if he’s as mad as a mandrake flower’s said to make one—Ripper’s shot from below, at a sharply low angle, his long, phallic cigar jutting out of his mouth as he fumes away.

In his Vietnam film, though, Kubrick erects a symbol of militarized masculinity far more subtle and devastating. As the latest Lusthog Squad leader—nicknamed, in an echo of John Wayne, “Cowboy”—lies dying, shot by the sniper, and just before his buddies pledge to avenge him by storming the building and killing his killer, a phallic tower can be seen in the distance behind Cowboy; it’s in flames. As they burn up with

anger in this crucible of urban combat, these men’s spiritual cores are being hollowed out, left to crumble away, reduced to rubble and ash. Their masculinity, like that tall, blockish structure in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is monolithic and slowly self-consuming. But is it also anti-filmic?

As if anticipating Lawrence Weschler’s argument in Harper’s, during the (Second) Gulf War, that anti-war cinema may be impossible, since some soldiers and gung-ho viewers will avidly turn war-films into celebrations or even endorsements of war for their own enjoyment, Kubrick’s searing dissection of the Vietnam debacle is deeply skeptical about not just war-films but the camera itself. In his Cold War comedy, he made sure the set-design of the War Room emphasized its mad, and madcap, moments there as a satire of big boys’ perversion of movies into fantasy-projections of warfare and pseudo-sexual conquest. There are projectors and a big scrim-like board on the wall which Turgidson refers to as a great authority: “I mean, he’ll see everything . . . he’ll see the big board!”; “Look at the big board!”. In Full Metal Jacket, Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) extols the Marine training of Charles Whitman, recognized by only one trainee as the UT-Austin tower shooter, and Lee Harvey Oswald, recognized by all present as President Kennedy’s assassin, likely in part because so many frames from the Zapruder film had been published in Life. Joker’s colleague, photographer “Rafterman,” is exhorted by one squad member to shoot him posing happily with the corpse of a North Vietnamese Army enemy soldier—the Lusthogger smiles at the camera and us as he waxes rhapsodic about

“[t]hese . . . great days we’re living!”. And it’s Rafterman who first shoots, in a much different way, the sniper. That’s when gun and camera—tool of war and tool of pornography—are sickeningly linked in a leering, sneering, cocky male gaze. It’s also a self-satisfied, even masturbatory triumph. Earlier, this bunch had been standing around paying one-liner tributes to two slain comrades, one of them “Hand Job” (the camera, looking up from the men’s posthumous viewpoints, emphasizes Rafterman’s phallic-like

camera lens, eyeing it from nearly the same low-angle at which cigar-loving Ripper was shot). In the climax, this ring of killers, shot again at a low-angle, as if looking up from the dying sniper’s viewpoint, exhorts Joker to give a deathly hand(gun)-job to a woman even as they whoop it up, offering jokey, self-congratulatory comments. In this brutally gyno-centric reduction of Darwinian survival, it’s a fuck-or-be-fucked man’s world.

As Kubrick and his crew film this all for us, though, how different, Kubrick makes us wonder, are they from the film-crew we see interviewing the Lusthog Squad individually in Hué City or crouched down near the front lines and recording the squad hunkered down and ready for action? Joker declares, “Is that you, John Wayne?” Cowboy cries, “This is ‘Vietnam: The Movie’!” Others, playing themselves up for the lens, joke about role-playing. (In a blackly ironic in-joke about what’s passed down to the next generation, Kubrick cast his own daughter, Vivian, as the news-camera operator

filming a mass grave.) And this is two decades before soldiers’ souvenir-style photos of Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse reminded us, yet again, that soldiers can use not only guns but cameras to distance themselves from and even excuse their action-adventures when they go well beyond training and break with Geneva Conventions.

But what happens when a real-life and real-death showdown blurs into action-entertainment? José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda’s documentary Bus 174 (2002) looks back on the life of Sandro Rosa do Nascimento, climaxing in his fatal hostage-taking of a bus in Rio de Janeiro in June 2000. (He was asphyxiated to death in police custody, in a car speeding away from the scene; the hostage he’d had with him as he left the bus was fatally shot by an officer.) Reporters rushed to cover the incident and it was soon broadcast on most of Brazil’s TV channels—a standoff turned into a reality-show. Of this street kid, in and out of jails, long near-invisible yet a survivor of the infamous Candelária massacre (eight street children were killed one night by a group of men, including police officers), one interviewee remarks, “I think that seeing all those cameras made him feel powerful.” Yet the cameras are shooting Sandro and the police—snipers all around—are waiting to; when there’s talk of a “clear shot,” we see it in a clear camera shot. The cameras take precedence, for the police, we learn, were told not to do anything to embarrass the city—an estimated 35-million Brazilians were watching. And in this show of a showdown, Sandro tries to be the director, encouraging hostages to scream and look desperate—perhaps wanting them to look and feel as desperate as he did—even while insisting on unmediated reality at times, declaring, “This is no fuckin’ action movie!”

For Kubrick, too, war films were no mere action movies, the gunning-down of bad guys to be enjoyed vicariously as it’s projected up there as epic entertainment. But, to paraphrase an earlier auteur, the camera’s the thing that tempers the conscience of the king-like viewer. Many soldiers, war aficionados, and others, irony-proof, still cheer on the Lusthog Squad’s exploits and quote their fighting words, as if these anti-heroes are objects of emulation, even celebration; many live-TV viewers of the Bus 174 hostage-taking, according to a poll, wanted Sandro dead. The very awareness of a conflict’s movie-ness, it seems, makes some shrug off morality more easily . . . and it’s much the same desensitization to violent death that many real-life soldiers must assume, masking their empathetic natures—what art, like cinema, is supposedly so good at developing. Yet when it mattered most, in those villages denoted on maps of Vietnam as “My Lai” and “My Khe” on March 16, 1968, or outside the Candelária church on July 23, 1993, or in a street in the Jardim Botânico neighbourhood on June 12, 2000, any compassion burnt up and smoked away, like ignited celluloid . . . or as if from the barrel of a gun.

Works Cited

Bus 174. Directed by José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda, New Yorker/Zazen, 2002.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, Columbia, 1964.

Full Metal Jacket. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, Warner Bros., 1987.

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

Weschler, Lawrence. “Valkyries Over Iraq: The Trouble with War Movies.” Harper’s Magazine, vol. 311, no. 1866, November 2005, pp. 65-77.

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.

Of Bambini and Dogmen

It is Italy’s duty to battle for change, not to descend into the most boorish nativism.

                  — journalist Roberto Saviano

You see, the truth is that Italians naturally go for the strongman.

                                                           — novelist Andrea Camilleri

One of the most recent times that I was in Italy—visiting my uncle-in-law in a small town in the Dolomites—my partner and I came across a man, his grandson sitting on his lap. The kid, just a ragazzino, was laughing away as he steered a giant tractor—a diesel-powered, big-wheeled farm-machine, not a toy—up and down a road. He was just three or four years old.

From tractorboy to Dogman, then. The creature of the title of Matteo Garrone’s 2018 film is Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a lanky, sunken-eyed, Roman-nosed, seemingly dopey dog-groomer in Castel Volturno, north of Naples, who doles out coke on the sly, including to one thug rabid for it, bruising thief Simone (Edoardo Pesce). (The film is loosely based on a late-1980s true-crime story, which was far more brutal.)

A small-scale sibling to Garrone’s adaptation of the true-crime epic Gomorrah (based on journalist Roberto Saviano’s book) released a decade before, Dogman rules by triumvirate. First (as the area’s disused one-track kids’ coaster and gone-to-seed playground suggest), Dogman utterly deglamourizes the crime-drama, as if that genre is nothing but a pathetic, broken-down thrill-ride. Second, with its crumbling waterside-neighbourhood slipping into a muddled, Stygian darkness, the film scathingly anti-tourguides us through a tawdry, failed nation-state. Third, in what Marcello’s concerns with loyalty, camaraderie, and respect lead him to do, it searingly vivisects Italian male culture. And it’s this last, most social and inter-personal, element of Garrone’s work that’s perhaps least understood, or most underappreciated, by an audience abroad.

Anthony Lane, in his review for The New Yorker, notes that Marcello and Simone “make an odd couple. In any litter, Marcello would be the runt: long-snouted and toothy, he grins nervously upward at Simone, who is three times his size and, I’d guess, built from reinforced concrete. (During a fracas in a workshop, full of molded plaster casts, Simone slams someone into Oliver Hardy—a painted statue, with blood now dripping over its mustachioed face. It’s O.K., we get the message.) Does the little man simply fear the larger one, or is there a twitch of love between them, all the more fraught for being unexpressed?”

Certainly, there’s an odd-couple tragicomedy to many scenes with Marcello and Simone, but Marcello looks less like Stan Laurel and most like a near-hangdog mix of Buster Keaton, Rowan Atkinson, and Al Pacino, his face working awful wonders. And so the jaws of this fateful crime-opera clamp down and hold fast . . . until there’s just a dog, and a man, lost even to himself.

Considering the title, the comic, canine odd-couple that Marcello and Simone most closely resemble is Chester the Terrier and Spike the Bulldog. In the two Warner Bros. cartoons—“Tree for Two” (1952) and “Dr. Jerkyl’s Hide” (1954)—featuring the small-and-big dog-duo, the pair are looking for a cat (Sylvester) to beat up. (In both, after eager, tagalong Chester encourages the scowling Spike to beat up their common enemy, switcheroos, hi-jinks, or Hyde-like transformations ensue, Spike’s whupped instead, and li’l Chester ends up feeling smugly superior).

The Chester and Spike ’toons are about a recognizably general male relationship—little pal looking up to and aspiring to be like the big fella (a kind of reversal of the George-and-Lennie friendship in Of Mice and Men, played with in many Warner Bros. cartoons, starting with “Of Fox and Hounds” [1940])—and, more obliquely, about a boy-man relationship forged by urged-on, whipped-up violence as a spectacle to be admired and emulated. Such Chester-and-Spike-ness means reasserting top-dog status through physical conquest or intimidation of another male, as happens over and over in Garrone’s film with the glowering, looming, growling Simone, dogging and hounding Marcello to do his bidding. And Dogman is most of all a grotesque re-telling—even more incongruous than letting a pre-kindergarten child steer a super-sized tractor—of the patrilineal learning of machismo in a crime-and-graft-ridden, Berlusconi-era Italy. The relatively diminutive, son-like Marcello is forced to work for the boss-like, father-like Simone. Marcello is forced to be maschio—a word that can mean not just a “boy dog” or “the male of the species” but also “macho, virile, manly”. Dogman is, above all else, a film about the horrible cartoonishness, or cartoon-horror, of the unbearable pressure to be the tough alpha male of the species, the salariato (bread-winner) and the one with the coglioni (balls) and the one who won’t incasina (balls-up) things . . .

And so Lane’s reading of the film’s finale, and its setting, is only halfway there. “The skin of Castel Volturno has been peeled and scraped,” he writes, “as if the very buildings were diseased, and the final shot—of a playground in the broad square, facing the sea—is a bleak rejoinder to the beach scene that closes ‘8 ½’ (1963). Fellini lightens the mood with strolling players and circus tunes, but the slide and the swings, in ‘Dogman,’ are noiseless and bereft of kids.” But the playground doesn’t end there—the whole derelict area, often shot in the bruise-like colour of a greyish blue-green, is a space

for these seemingly dominant males of the species to play-act and ride out a self-destructive, fateful, brutish, and short-lived toughness. And it’s not bereft of kids—Marcello, this pathetic-tragic child, forced to follow Simone and in the end only able to wreak his revenge in a way that’s so imitative of Simone’s infantile sadism, is left there, standing, trying to reckon with himself and what he has done and what he has become . . . so far from manhood, there in this fallen paradise. What is most diseased is the machismo culture of an Italy that’s been, for far too long, ruled over by fascist-like child-men. It’s a patriarchal self-destruction that the country hasn’t tried hard enough to reckon with. And so Garrone’s Dogman is, ultimately, not just devastatingly feminist. It is also viciously, snarlingly critical of, well, not what Italy—its long-ago Roman Empire mythically founded by twins raised by a wolf—has become but what it has, for too long, been: a place going to the dogs.

Works Cited

Dogman. Directed by Matteo Garrone, Rai, 2018.

“Dr. Jerkyl’s Hide.” Directed by Friz Freleng, Warner Bros., 1954.

Lane, Anthony. “Ties That Bind.” The New Yorker, vol. 95, no. 9, 22 April 2019, pp. 76-77. Online at

Saviano, Roberto. “Italy’s war on migrants makes me fear for my country’s future.” The Guardian, 19 June 2018,

Tondo, Lorenzo. “‘Italians go for the strongman’: Montalbano author on fascism and the future.’” The Guardian, 5 April 2019,

“Tree for Two.” Directed by Friz Freleng, Warner Bros., 1952.

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.

Tramping The Light Fantastic

[The Tramp:] “You can see now?”

[The Flower Girl:] “Yes, I can see now.”

— the end of City Lights (1931)

Genius filmmakers—and Chaplin’s the sprite-like spirit presiding over all—rarely, if ever, let the stitching show on their film-finery. The “Chip” and “Street Crossing” outtakes from the Great Director’s City Lights and Modern Times—uncovered by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow and first shown in their documentary Unknown Chaplin (1983)—are so alluring because these scrap pieces left on the floor of the maestro comedy-designer’s workshop seem to promise a glimpse of an opus-in-progress, the feel of a scuffed Chaplin. Only the excised scenes aren’t toss-away gags but mini-masterpieces, offering existential contemplations of one’s (in)significance in a teeming city, posing questions of social conformity, and building microcosms of narrative-film’s power—its alertness to human relations and observation of reserved emotions. They’re scintillating mini-object lessons in Chaplin’s vision for cinema itself, and they’re still so startlingly modern, even 21st-century, in their signs and screen-sense.

The seven-minute City Lights outtake—a June 1929 page of story notes calls it the “Chip” scene—begins with a hustling, bustling city intersection, aswarm with people and cars. Then a corner of sidewalk, fronted by a shop-window on both sides. Through these two panes of glass, we espy the Tramp, shuffling along amid much more spiffily-garbed pedestrians who have places to go, places to be, homes to live in. The Tramp comes into view—comes to life, really—from behind a mannequin. There are three in the window, all better dressed (echoing the finished film’s scene where the Tramp attempts an appreciation of the statue of a female nude in a store-window). He rounds the corner and, dawdling there on a grate, attempts to look the semi-respectable aspiring gentleman, not out of place, but he’s a

little too self-conscious, too alert to being the outsider. And he can’t stay still, reminding us that homelessness isn’t laziness and indigence isn’t indolence. He’s always in motion, always up to something, always working away.

A single shoe in the display-window emphasizes the Tramp’s sole-ness, but it seems to (subliminal advertising?) subconsciously prompt him, now, to try to casually examine his own shoes. His footwear’s a bit ragged, as usual, his waistcoat’s slightly unkempt, as always, his pants too baggy, as ever . . . and then he spots a long chip of wood stuck in the grate. (The Tramp sees more of what’s below him than above—he’s a social climber yet fated, it seems, to gaze down at the gutter rather than up at the stars.) The piece of wood is, like him, stuck in the city, jammed in, yet standing out. The Tramp prods it with his cane, popping it up, then he steps on it, but it flips back down. The Tramp comes to again, suddenly aware that he may be stared at by members of the madding crowd—though we, as ever, look on, expectant—and briefly whistles, as if he’s up to nothing of note. (This “nothing to see here” attitude only prods us to look on, intrigued, in-the-know voyeurs of comedy-in-motion.)

The Tramp, though, slyly reflecting our own growing interest in this scene, becomes fixated on the piece of wood. Much like our relation to that big screen up there from our little seats down here, it’s a strangely private preoccupation in a semi-public place. He can’t let it go; he forgets how he may look. The Tramp, unlike Chaplin (or perhaps just like him when the director’s caught up in a long, arduous film-shoot), loses sight of his public. He slams his cane into the wood, sometimes missing it, stomps his foot on it, but still the piece won’t be dislodged (its stubbornness, steadfastness, and stuck-in-the-cracks-ness are most Tramp-like). A man stops to look on—he’s come across not just one urban curiosity but two: the piece of wood and its aspiring dislodger. (In trying to remove it, the Tramp’s acting like those many cops and other authority-figures booting him out or moving him on—eager to get this nuisance out of their way.)

A crowd quickly gathers ’round; this mannequin-like figure of genteel-

looking poverty that everyone had been walking past is now the one on display. He notices them, gives a casual whistle, doffs his cap as if they’ve pried into his private street affairs, and they all, a little abashed, return to their daily rounds. (It’s tempting to see this push-pull with a throng of admirers as a metaphor for Chaplin’s feelings, at times, about fame; he was the second global celebrity after fellow showman Harry Houdini.) Then a delivery-boy (anticipating the paper-boy at the corner who shoots peas at the Tramp in the final scene), verging on manhood but slack-jawed, dazed (comically contradicting the “express” on his cap), unobservant of social

niceties, happens by and just stands there, staring at the Tramp, spitting seeds from his munched orange in his general direction. The Tramp, miffed, tries to rise above and ignore this invader of his patch of sidewalk, but a big-bite squirt of citrus in his eye proves too much to bear. With all the dignity muster-able, he goes a few paces around the window-corner. But when the boy stamps a little on the piece of wood, the Tramp, feeling proprietary, returns, shooing this interloper away. (And, again, there’s his hapless, tic-like return to the wanna-be respectable—doffing his hat with his ragged gloves and brushing off his lapels as the delivery-boy departs.)

When two women arrive to look at the store display, things get really risqué. The older, stouter one’s standing over the piece of wood, now sticking straight up, phallic-like. This seems, well, unseemly to the Tramp; guttersnipe-gentleman that he is, he leans in behind her, moves his leg between her skirt, blowing slightly above the grate (23 years later, Marilyn Monroe’s skirt would billow up oh-so-sexily in The Seven-Year Itch, though Chaplin may have been riffing on that scene’s inspiration, the 1901 short “What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York City”). He pushes the prominent piece down with his foot but she felt his presence; she’s appalled. She walks off in a huff. The Tramp continues to work on the wood—not deigning to wrest it out by hand, of course, as that would be beneath him, especially in public—but now a window-dresser, attending to the mannequins (treating them better than the flesh-and-blood Tramp is treated in the world beyond the window), stares from in there at this creature out here. He advises him to just push the wood-piece down, sending it into the sewers, out of sight (as some would like the Tramp and his ilk to be done with?). But the Tramp can’t hear him through the thick pane (their social-spheres are so tantalizingly separate, so close yet so far apart). Yelling at him through the glass now, the window-dresser condescendingly explains the physics of the dilemma to the uneducated Tramp, telling him to hit the piece of wood dead-centre, so it falls. Passersby, drawn to the sound-show (though the scene’s silent; that reel-life world and our real-life world are so close yet so far apart), gather ’round again, becoming onlookers, allied with us, the audience, once more. And it’s the window-dresser who gets most poked-fun-of by the crowd, as he becomes so incensed at the Tramp that, turning back to his work, he mistakes a shop assistant for the mannequin and sticks a pin in her by accident. The throng of onlookers, now so large and spilling-off-the-sidewalks that it’s a problem for traffic, draws a policeman. Yet again, the law comes down on the Tramp. Under the impatient, watchful eye of the state, that ultimate power, he finally manages to send the piece of wood

plummeting into obscurity; the cop tells him to move along now; he does, still as basically cheerful as ever. Then the cop tells everyone gathered—us included—that the show’s over. But the beauty of this cutting-room sample lingers. It resplendently clothes its concerns about special-ness, outsider-ness, fitting-in, and purposefulness in a film-like fascination with looking on as this figure of fun contends with an urban oddity.

The Modern Times snippet’s another exhibit of Chaplin’s full-fashioned genius; it comically confronts us, too, its eyebrows quizzically raised, with questions about social-obedience even as it plays archly self-aware games with comic-language. It’s another city corner, people milling about everywhere, but crosswalk-signs (are meant to) establish an order, their railway arm-like signals popping out and up to direct pedestrians to stop or go. But the Tramp can’t read this urban-language (he’s illiterate, as were around 5% of Americans over the age of 14 in 1936; nearly a quarter of black Americans couldn’t read or write). Besides, this sidewalk-trotting black sheep’s never been good at taking direction (the demanding director Chaplin must have been aware of this irony). So he crosses against the

current, stepping blithely across the intersection, nearly hit by two cars before reaching the other side, where he finds himself told by a cop to go back and do it all again, properly. (The store sign on the other side, echoing the “Chip” outtake and reminding us of this oft-solitary man’s tramping-about, reads “solo shoes”).

The most important (mis)reading here isn’t the Tramp’s misreading of signs and their timing but our reading of the comic signs and timing of Chaplin’s scene. We read, in short but clockwork-like order, the body-language of: the cop’s thumbing-it thatta way, buddy, to which the Tramp thumbs but I’m

going this way; the cop’s seizing of the Tramp by the collar, turning him around, with the Tramp dutifully trotting out into traffic, only to get yanked back by the officer, pointing at the sign that’s only now about to change to go; the Tramp’s proper crossing-over and then attempted crossing-back, stymied by rude, shoving urbanites out-passing-by him; the Tramp’s now successful crossing-back, because he’s gone during the stop sign; the exasperated cop’s overruling of the signs when he steps out into traffic himself, halting it by hand, then forces this hapless fellow back onto the far curb; the cop’s calling-over from the other side now and the Tramp’s

befuddled, unsure stepping-out and stepping-back (like a child dipping his toe into water, unsure if he wants to go in), ’til he doffs his cap ever-so politely and says I’ll just go down along the sidewalk this way, thanks very much. And so the Tramp, after another walk-in with the law, trusts it that little bit less. The city’s social order isn’t quite restored, to our delight (in comedy as anarchy).

Both outtakes are strikingly modern and self-aware in their sense of urban man on display, with signs and screens and cameras not only guiding or watching us but able, perhaps, to channel and direct our emotions. And Chaplin’s comedy-masterpieces are such works of genius precisely because they’re self-aware and yet so humble. The outtakes from Chaplin’s two greatest works are even of a piece with the short film that birthed cinema’s single greatest character.

Chaplin’s third film, “Kid Auto Races at Venice” (1914), was the Tramp’s debut. He actually came up with the wandering, jobless, hungry but wanna-be-gentleman persona—the narrow mustache beneath that small bowler hat; the too-tight coat and baggy trousers; the scuffed, oversized shoes; the thin whangee cane—for his second Keystone picture with director Henry Lehrman and Irish-Canadian producer Mack Sennett. (It was shot first but released two days after “Kid Auto Races”.)

Now, we can watch the six-minute short—shot January 10, then edited, its negative sent from LA on January 17 and received in NYC on January 26—via YouTube on just a phone, almost anywhere. But the Tramp’s public debut is all about that strange, amazing, even befuddling newness of watching on-the-fly and off-the-cuff, of pointing a camera at real life and recording it for all to see.

“Kid Auto Races at Venice” is a docu-comedy, essentially about the ideal-of-cinema itself—turning life into art. It was an “event” film, shot on location and quickly—45 minutes one Saturday afternoon at a boys’ soapbox-cart race, the Junior Vanderbilt Cup. The basics of the child-like Tramp are sketched out before our eyes, from his hat-tipping, back-kick, and tumbles to his obtuseness and meddling. Only here he’s disrupting a film shoot, a process he sneers at, even grimaces at in the final shot. He’s a reel-life rebel against the very art form that would make the man in costume a superstar.

As a spectator, when the Tramp first emerges from the crowd, he seems intrigued by the camera. The camera, meanwhile, seems intrigued by people and its own power to document them, taking in the crowd, filming the cars, and trying to avoid this increasingly annoying fellow who keeps finding his way into the shot. The Tramp variously poses or shows off for, mocks, or sticks his nose up at this powerful new medium . . . which, 91 years later, would help usher in not merely YouTube but a new way of mediating the world and “connecting,” i.e., screen culture.

The director, Lehrman himself, as if trying to deal with an unruly actor, gets into the frame to get into the farcical fray, interrupting his film to get the Tramp out of it—but Chaplin/the Tramp’s already stolen the show, and will for a generation. (Frank D. Williams plays the cameraman; it’s thought everyone else isn’t acting but is truly caught up in Chaplin’s act.) A second camera’s even used, showing the Tramp just standing around before the film crew. Amid all the playfulness, “Kid Auto Races at Venice” is one of the first films to really show a camera and a cameraman at work, simultaneously demystifying and remystifying the act of capturing play-acting on reels of celluloid.

All this metacinematic comedy comes second, of course, to the basic antics and physical comedy of slapstick, that choreography of disruption which Chaplin perfected, turning layered, subtextual gags into bittersweet projections of the class struggle, hunger pains, and labour woes of his tramping American Dreamer. Chaplin himself toiled for the art of it—for instance, he spent more than 21 months on City Lights, demanding 300 takes for its famous last shot, climaxing the greatest ending in cinema. That shot caps a sequence that begins, yes, with a shop window. The Flower Girl, her sight restored, has moved up in the world and is on the inside now, in a flower shop—her very own. In a twist of fate, she recognizes the Tramp, her benefactor, just released from jail, by touch. The look, the feel; from eye-contact to heart-wrench. It’s as if Chaplin, celluloid’s Shakespeare, is turning the world not into a stage but a film; the left-wing filmmaker, who—like the Dickens, another Charles, before him—never forget his poor, hungry childhood in London, distills the art down to its ideal essence. Through not merely looking but truly seeing can come, just maybe, emotion, compassion, an abiding love and respect for others. From seeing what’s on the screen to feeling beyond it; from director’s vision to the viewer’s understanding. “You can see now?” “Yes, I can see now.”

Works Cited

City Lights. Directed by Charlie Chaplin, United Artists, 1931.

“Kid Auto Races at Venice.” Directed by Henry Lehrman, Keystone, 1914.

Modern Times. Directed by Charlie Chaplin, United Artists, 1936.

Unknown Chaplin. Directed by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow, FremantleMedia, 1983.

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 Importance of Being Awful

“‘What is truth?’ Pilate asked.”

— John 18:38

The silent era’s most commercially-successful release pioneered the American epic film and crucially developed the establishing shot, the close-up, the panoramic view, the flashback, and intercutting. It also featured blackface, championed the Ku Klux Klan, and had a white Southern maiden leap from a cliff to her death to escape the Negro Union soldier relentlessly pursuing her. In D. W. Griffith’s 195-minute The Birth of a Nation (1915)—adapting Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman (1905)—black Americans rig an election and black politicians are shown in the state legislature plopping their bare feet up onto the desks as they drink whisky and eat fried chicken; the movie’s hero founds the KKK after his Eureka!-moment of seeing white

children don white sheets to scare black children.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People strenuously fought the movie’s release, to no avail. In Indiana, a white man came out of a showing and shot dead a Negro teenager; the re-launched KKK made its first public appearance outside the movie’s Atlanta premiere (the group would have around 3 million members at its peak, a decade later); the Klan was still using The Birth of a Nation as a recruitment-tool in the 1970s. As critic Xan Brooks notes, “the movie is rancid . . . [it] is cinema’s toxic tide-pool, its corrupted semen. It is the original sin that sired a century of dreams.”

Twenty years after Griffith’s infamous work came another that would be studied in university classrooms and outside them, by such directors as George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and Peter Jackson. It would influence the Rockefeller-for-President TV ads and the medal ceremony capping Star Wars. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) celebrates the 1934 Congress of the National Socialist Workers’ Party, held in early September in Nuremberg. After an astounding aerial opening, tracking the plane of party-leader Adolf Hitler, this supposed documentary (actually financed to the hilt by the party, with many scenes staged for the cameras) touches down and tank-trundles along, relentless and remorseless. From Nazi flags to Nazi torchlight-ceremonies, from Nazi officials’ bombastic speeches to Hitler’s bombastic speechifying, from the adoring faithful lining Nuremberg’s streets and greeting Hitler to stadiums and churches filled with Nazi acolytes . . . it is a constant bombardment, an onward jackboot-march, an incessant pulpit-pounding, meant to awe or cow us into submission as it proclaims, over and over, that glorious Hitler and Germany are one and the same, and that the party’s will shall triumph. (A year later, at the 1935 Congress, the anti-Jewish “Nuremberg laws” were introduced.) 

Cinema has more than its share of stinkers, even those that should sink overrated directors (She Hate Me in the case of Spike Lee, Savages in the case of Oliver Stone, and the discredit-list rolls on). But what about cinematic creatures both great and small—movies that are important and vile? What does it mean that two—two too many—seriously important, influential, popular, and populace-rousing movies are so odious? Can The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will and their ilk be both (bad) art, in technique, and (obvious) propaganda, in content? Brooks argues, from the safe distance of a socially-progressive century later, that, if “we accept that art can also challenge and provoke us, does it not follow that it can disturb and outrage us – and possibly even repel us?” But NAACP co-founder and author W. E. B. Du Bois argued at the time, as Dorian Lynskey writes, that Griffith’s work was “a public menace . . . not art, but vicious propaganda”. Surely, at least, in our more edified times, nothing the like of Griffith’s and Riefenstahl’s offences has been released to any acclaim or success, nothing to cast a dark light on the unbearable awfulness of certain movies’ being?

In 2004, though it was rife with subtitles for the Aramaic and Latin dialogue, one longtime A-list actor’s production became the all-time top-grossing independent movie—financed by the co-writer and director himself—and was the third-most commercially successful release that year, raking in $612-million worldwide. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ stays closest to the Book of John in tone and content—from Judas’ kiss and Jesus’ healing of Malchus the soldier to King Herod and Jesus’ dialogue—and it’s John (Hristo Jirkov) who follows Christ (James Caviezel) in his final hours, accompanying his mother and Mary Magdalene as they watch the prophet’s torture and death. (The movie spans a time that takes up not even two chapters in any of the gospels.)

John’s is the only account to state that “Jewish officials” arrested Jesus. It pins the crux of the blame on those Jews crowing for Christ’s death: “The Jews insisted, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God’” (19:7); “Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, ‘If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be king opposes Caesar’” (19:12). In his movie, Gibson (also the co-writer of the screenplay) has the crowd cry, “We have no King except Caesar,” then snicker. And while there’s no explicit mention of those agitating for Christ’s death as “Jews”, an early slo-mo shot focusses on a sneering high priest throwing a bag of money to Judas in return for his betrayal of Christ, while the priests and other elders, though seemingly disturbed by Christ’s whipping and beating, persist in calls for his crucifixion and exhort their unthinking followers to demand the same. Crucially, Gibson’s movie

associates the Jewish priests with money (only disparagingly; they do not take the money that Judas throws back at them but, in Mark, the priests do and say, “‘It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.’ So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners” (27:6-7)). It shows Jews demanding Christ’s death—one of the Jewish leaders mocks Christ while he’s on the cross. And Gibson includes Christ’s words to Pilate (John 19:11), implicating the Jewish high priest Caiaphas—the rendering here is “‘it is he who delivered me to you who has the greater sin.’” After the first hour of showing the Jews’ blood libel, the only mention of “Jew”, when Simon of Cyrene—helping Christ bear his cross only after telling lookers-on that he isn’t a condemned criminal himself—is derisively called one by a Roman soldier, seems a clear sop to politically-sensitive critics.

As propaganda—a channeled, controlled, myopic interpretation of events meant to sway an audience into believing a certain “truth”—The Passion of the Christ runs counter to the Bible, which subjectifies and complicates truth by offering four versions of Christ’s life and death in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Gibson’s version of Christ’s betrayal and suffering is explicit, unthoughtful, and bloodily declaiming one fixed “truth”: Jews feared, reviled, and condemned Jesus, who then suffered horrifically. Two years after the movie’s release, when pulled over for speeding in Malibu, Gibson declared to one of the police officers, “Fucking Jews . . . The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world . . . Are you a Jew?”.

While The Passion of the Christ was controversial on its release, with some groups and academics criticizing its anti-Semitism (and the movie depicts Herod as a roly-poly, mincing, wigged orgiast), it was such a colossal money-maker by Easter, even in some of the Middle East countries where it wasn’t banned, that Hollywood moguls were talking about “faith-based” films as the next great wave. For those roadside comments in July 2006, though, Gibson was exiled to Tinseltown’s wilderness. And yet his directorial comeback, a decade later, was stamped by the same propaganda-template as his religious screed, generated no controversy, received some critical praise, and even garnered six Academy Award nominations (winning two), including one for Best Picture.

In Hacksaw Ridge (2016), Gibson again follows a braveheart-warrior passion-play formula. Again, guts and gore glorify a saintly, self-sacrificing hero, only this time “Japs” are vilified. The nailing of Christ, dislocated arm and all, to his cross was shown in all its frieze-frame, nauseating, gory glory; the World War II movie’s first half is rife with tableaux and slo-mo, meant to engrave in our visual cortexes Desmond Doss’ (Andrew Garfield) seriousness of moral purpose and latent heroism. He has a quasi-revelation about pacifism; he glimpses his higher purpose as a medic and first beholds his true love, a nurse, at the same time; this Seventh-Day Adventist endures Christ-like trials and tribulations at boot camp, climaxing in a court-martial (where he’s saved by his father, arriving deus ex machina).

The Biblical epic offered slo-mo shots of Christ flagellated 32 times by switches and then his flesh ripped by barbed whips; the camera lingers over the criss-crosses seared onto his body and the crimson spray and pools of scarlet ribboned on the ground around the post which Jesus has gripped while brutalized; Gibson recreates

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John’s bloody version of the post-crucifixion Christ, with a fearful Roman soldier piercing the dead man’s side with a spear to release a pseudo-baptismal fount of blood and water. It’s martyr-porn, where Christ’s so exsanguinated that even his eyes are bloodshot. The war epic offers a hellish assault, during the Battle of Okinawa, riddled with brutality—shot-through faces, intestines hanging out, body parts flying—and intended

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to shock and awe and ultimately consecrate Doss’ bravery. The Japanese swarm up from underground like rats or advance like a demonic horde. Some later wave the white flag, but it’s a ruse (those “Nips” don’t fight fair, boys!); one’s shown strangely committing harakiri and getting decapitated by a subordinate (they won’t

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even die like us, boys!). Meanwhile,Doss has saved dozens of wounded (and one Japanese) on his own, lowering them to safety—it’s “a miracle” and all those heretical recruits who spurned him become comrades beholding him now with reverence. A sunlit baptized-by-battle image is soon followed by a shot of Doss on a stretcher that makes it seem as if he’s ascending to Heaven. Thus, beatified and blessed by the camera, Doss is another holier-than-thou hero in another of Gibson’s violence-as-a-means-to-salvation big-screen sermons.

But each and every one of these four vile movies is wedded to a narrative of suffering and salvation (“20 years after the war, 16 years after the German suffering, 19 months after the rebirth . . .”). In Griffith’s and Riefenstahl’s films, too, the (Klan and Nazi) warrior-hero’s righteousness is consecrated by fire, blood, and embattled toughness. All are preoccupied with descent and ascent: the South’s humiliation and the rise of uppity Negroes vs. the triumphant resurgence of the South thanks to the KKK; the descent of God-like Hitler on Nuremberg to make the annunciation of Germany’s glorious rise; Christ’s betrayal and suffering for all of us fallen sinners before he ascends to his father’s kingdom; Doss’ rise from distrusted soldier to hallowed comrade and battlefield-hero.

Yet these four entries in the Movie Hall of Infamy don’t stand alone. The sheer bigotry of these works can be seen in other barnstorming blockbusters, albeit to a lesser degree: James Cameron’s True Lies, with its cartoon-villain Arabs and dismal sexism; the class-fantasy, epic mush of Titanic; jingoistic Uncle Sam ads like Top Gun or Pearl Harbor. So why don’t these marquee movies’ laziness, offensiveness, even hatefulness, condemn them to Never-Never-Watch Land?

Perhaps there’s something about the visual-concreteness of film images that makes it easier to set stereotypes in stone, as if etching commanding figures into a tablet. “It’s like writing history with lightning,” said President Woodrow Wilson of Griffith’s epic after a special White House screening in February 1915. Riefenstahl’s fascism-glorification offers many a recurring, graven image, from standards and swastikas to a sun-lit eagle and its own title in steel-like letters. Gibson’s dogmatic duology offers pre-formed archetypes, each character epitomizing an emotion or reaction (the Jewish high priests embody anger, Judas personifies guilt, Barabbas is a Manson-like psycho, Mary exudes maternal grief, Christ is beatific, Doss remains quietly persistent, the Japanese are villainous Others, etc.).

Griffith’s movie set the template for big-screen mythic propaganda propelled by stock storylines and cardboard-cutout heroes; that easy appeal abides, apparently. But it may also be that the self-conscious importance—read: grandeur and epic-ness—of many of these movies is itself a big part of the problem. It’s as if the graveness and greatness of the movie’s subject-turned-mission should be respected, stamping what’s on screen with respectability. (Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations and the recent spate of comic-book movies have only made for even more self-serious mythologizing in cineplexes in these days of epic blockbustering and blustering.)

There’s also a common misunderstanding about what makes a film offensive or disgusting. Horror flicks or scenes of extreme violence, for instance, are often seen as offensive, disgusting, even controversial. But a movie’s ideology isn’t considered as violent or offensive or even, usually, worthy of much post-viewing discussion or debate. Despite auteur-theory and film studies trying to re-view subtext and much cinema as art, Hollywood’s longstanding showtime-promotion of movies as mere entertainment persists, making it easier for studio-products to mask their messages and for audiences to take images at face-value (even expressing more concerns about casting than content), not dig the depths for meaning. The greater illusion of personalized choice, nowadays via Netflix and other streaming services, only adds to a sense of what-I-want rather than a concern with what-they’re-saying.

And, of course, the monolithic ideology looming over all mainstream-moviemaking is capitalism—no industry tracks its profits more quickly, with the opening weekend now all-important for major studio releases. With all the film-trade markets, trailers, tie-ins, on-screen product placements, spin-offs, brand-building, or franchise-extensions bombarding our viewer-demographic eyes and pounding our consumer ears, the bottom-line between craft and crafty propaganda (aka advertising) has been blurred so much, it sometimes seems like a strange, secular miracle that we can even see through to the art of it anymore.

Works Cited

The Birth of a Nation. Directed by D. W. Griffith, Epoch, 1915.

Brooks, Xan. “The Birth of a Nation: A Gripping Masterpiece … and a Stain on History.” The Guardian, 29 July 2013,

Hacksaw Ridge. Directed by Mel Gibson, Summit, 2016.

Lynskey, Dorian. “‘A Public Menace’: How the Fight to Ban The Birth of a Nation Shaped the Nascent Civil Rights Movement.” Slate, 31 Mar. 2015,

The Passion of the Christ. Directed by Mel Gibson, Icon, 2004.

Triumph of the Will. Directed by Leni Riefenstahl, Universum Film AG, 1935.

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.

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.