Sunday, June 27, 2010

I'm God, and yes -- I AM talking to you

Another one from the college archives, this time a look at how Jesus from The Last Temptation of Christ fits in among some of Scorsese's other famous protagonists. Based upon observations made by Harlan Jacobson.

In a 1988 review, Harlan Jacobson writes: "In the rush to spill so much passion over Martin Scorsese's divine inquiries in The Last Temptation of Christ, the first question Christ grapples with in both Nikos Kazantzakis' novel and the film has simply disappeared: not was he man or God, but was he nuts?"1 Jacobson's review tries to redirect discussion of the controversial film away from the question of blasphemy and towards consideration of the film's protagonist as a typical Scorsese character. "Scorsese's Christ," he claims, "is the central character of his canon, a smalltime weasel on the fringe who is heretofore usually Italian and definitely lunatic. He's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, guileless and too inept to make the mob. He's Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, trying to punch his way beyond the emptiness of making it in America. He's most assuredly Travis Bickle standing alone in front of a mirror in a Times Square flophouse in Taxi Driver, asking himself 'You talkin' to me?'"2

Jacobson's assertions are not at all difficult to accept. It is not surprising that Scorsese would create his own Jesus on film after having used Christ as the referent of so many of his previous screen characters. Christ symbolism is often very explicit in Scorsese s films, certainly in the three cited by Jacobson, and even in a work as early as Boxcar Bertha. That Scorsese's Christ would have so much in common with his previous screen stand-ins, then, seems entirely natural. While Jacobson could perhaps improve his argument by substituting Charlie for Johnny Boy (who is, despite his apparent "ineptness," too comfortable with his identity to be strongly compared to Scorsese's Jesus), the three films provide perfect ground for the comparison: Scorsese' s Jesus is previewed vividly in Jake La Motta, Travis Bickle, and (the substituted) Charlie.

Like Jake and Charlie, Jesus is plagued by awareness of his own sins, and constantly tries to repent. He tells Jeroboam, "I'm a liar, a hypocrite. I'm afraid of everything. I don't ever tell the truth — I don't have the courage. When I see a woman, I blush and look away. I want her but I don't take her — for God, and that makes me proud. And then my pride ruins Magdalene. I don't steal, I don't fight, I don't kill — not because I don't want to, but because I'm afraid." He considers it his own fault that Mary Magdalene hates God, and begs her for forgiveness. "I know the worst things I've done have been to you," he tells her.

Jesus seeks atonement in self-punishment. He explains in voice-over how he attempted to dispel the voices he hears in his head: "First I fasted for three months. I even whipped myself before I went to sleep. At first it worked. Then the pain came back, and the voices." Jesus invites punishment by making crosses for the Romans and carrying them to the crucifixion site, enduring the scorn of other Jews. "You're a disgrace!" shouts Judas, after throwing one of the crosses to the floor. "You're a Jew killing Jews! You're a coward! How will you ever pay for your sins?" After this chiding, Jesus binds himself with a belt of inward-facing metal prongs and carries the cross for a crucifixion party. Jews throw stones at him, Mary Magdalene spits in his face, yet he continues. He endures a personally prescribed punishment ritual in the same way Charlie does when holding his hand over flames, or as Jake does by allowing opponents to pummel him in the ring.

Also like Charlie and Jake, Jesus endures a series of punishments which leads to one final "big punishment" which indicates his success at redemption (for Charlie, the end punishment is being shot, after enduring Johnny Boy's irresponsibilities; for Jake, it is ending as a pathetic stage performer in a dark nightclub after allowing himself to be beaten in the ring). After struggling with the various courses of action suggested to him (and enduring the ridicule and apparent failure they bring him, as when he announces his divinity to the men of Nazareth, or leads the aborted attack on the temple), Jesus realizes and accepts the fact that he must be crucified. Unlike Charlie and Jake, however, whose ends suggest that they have not been redeemed and are to remain in a symbolic hell (the streets for Charlie, the nightclub for Jake), Jesus is granted redemption. The "hallucination" he experiences on the cross assures him that his actions have been worthwhile, that he is redeemed and destined for heaven as the son of God. (If this sequence is not a hallucination, as could be argued, then he is most definitely assured of his divinity, recalled to the cross years later by an omnipotent God who has forgiven his previous failure.)

If Jesus' desire to repent is previewed in Charlie and Jake, then his tumultuous search for the proper course of action is previewed in Travis Bickle. Both Travis and Jesus adopt and abandon several different roles in their search for purpose. The roles they experiment with are remarkably similar. Travis first attempts to become a romantic lover, unsuccessfully courting Betsy. He abandons this course (one of "love") for a more violent one, and attempts to become a political assassin and kill Palantine. Failing at this, he decides to become a rescuing hero, the suicidal "savior" of young Iris. Likewise, Jesus first adopts a plan of love. He stops the mob from killing Mary Magdalene — Cf. Travis on Betsy: "They can not touch her" — and tells them to "love one another." After he returns from the desert the second time — the desert being to Jesus what the "Times Square flophouse" is to Travis: a secluded retreat where he spends a great amount of time alone and gets his new "visions" — he opts for a much different approach. "I'm not inviting you to a celebration," he tells the apostles. "I'm inviting you to a war." He then tells the men of Nazareth that "there will be a flood and there will be a fire; everything will be destroyed." Similarly, says Travis, "Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets." Jesus changes his course once more after the aborted attack on the temple: He is to be crucified willingly, without resistance, in order to save humankind. "We're bringing God and Man together," he tells Judas. "They'll never be together unless I die." Compare that with Travis' note to Iris before the attempt to kill Palantine — "By the time you read this I will be dead" — and his suicidal hand gesture after the final bloodbath, a gunfight which results in the reunion of Iris and her parents. Both characters follow the same progression through love, war, and martyrdom.

Jesus also indicates that, like Travis, he would like to "become a person like other people." His confession to Jeroboam expresses his desire to have women, steal, fight, and kill. He further expresses his desire to be a normal human to Lazarus' sisters. "Don't you miss all this?" asks Mary. "Having a home, a real life?" "I admit it," replies Jesus, "I'd like it, but I'll never have it." He also admits to Mary Magdalene that he "wanted her" when they were children.

Like Travis, however, and also like Charlie and Jake, Jesus can only access "normal life" through its reproduction as image. For Jesus, this reproduction is in the form of his hallucination on the cross, in which he fantasizes about married life with Marry Magdalene and Lazarus' sisters. For Travis, normal life is depicted on television soap operas and greeting cards. Charlie and Jake access normalcy only through home movies (in Mean Streets these appear with the film's opening credits, in Raging Bull they accompany the montage of Jake's success in the ring).

Harlan Jacobson is quite correct in labeling Scorsese's Jesus a typical Scorsese character. The recognition of personal sin, the desire for a personally prescribed penance, and the struggle to define the right course of action are characteristics of many Scorsese characters, and Jesus fits among them perfectly.

See also: Scorsese's Enunciative Presence

Notes 1 & 2: Jocobson, Harlan. "You Talkin' to Me?" Film Comment, Sept./Oct. 1988, p. 32.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Iron men

Being one of the last people on earth to have seen Iron Man 2, I may also be among the last to notice the nice tribute to sci-fi classic Silent Running during the final fight scene, in which Iron Man and War Machine (Tony Stark's friend Rhodey, also in a metal suit) battle robotic "drones" inside a geodesic bio-dome before fighting bad guy Ivan Vanko, decked out in his own super-charged suit of armor (and whose defeat echoes the demise of the villain in another film, the not-classic-but-persistent Predator). This is the second time in as many films that Iron Man has been challenged by a villain whose exceptional abilities are duplicates of his own, and it begs the question: "If the only villains capable of challenging Iron Man need to be outfitted in hi-tech battle suits, what kind of variety can we expect from future Iron Man films?"

The repetition in Iron Man 2 can be rationalized in a number of ways. With the advanced technology available in the world of Iron Man, it would perhaps not be surprising that Stark's suit would be co-opted, or at least imitated by, the military. This would require lots of invention and experimentation, a conceivable by-product of which could be criminals trying to unseat Tony Stark's alter-ego by salvaging scraps of the tech race into amateur super-suits. Perhaps, but also maybe boring. It could more generously be seen as the de facto terms of the Iron Man world: If you are going to be a hero or a villain, you need an iron suit, and what differentiates anyone is how they use the suit, or at least what modifications they make to it. Such a world would have the uniformity of robot anime, where giant robots like Mazinger team up and battle with...other giant robots.

But in the Marvel movies released so far, this is not the case. Unique villains are funneled through each film franchise at super-speed. Spider-Man, for example, has taken on Sandman, Venom, and Green Goblin 2 — all in the same movie. Each of these characters had very different abilities — one was genetically altered, one was the instrument of an alien life form, and one relied upon hi-tech weaponry — and each posed a different threat to Spider-Man, testing him in different ways. So far, it seems that any challenge to Iron Man must be made with the same form of energy and technology that drives his own abilities. But if variety dictates an end to metal-clad opposition, are there any foes worthy of Iron Man? Moreover, since both Iron Man films hint at a possible Avengers movie, what hope do any bad guys have against a team that includes not only the seemingly indomitable Iron Man, but the Norse god Thor and the...well, incredible Hulk, along with the relatively second-string abilities of Giant-Man, Wasp, and Captain America?

Since world-devouring baddie Galactus has already been used in The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, I imagine the only serious challenge to a team of super-powered super-heroes would be...a team of super-powered super-villains! It remains to be seen whether budget or strict adherence to the continuity of previous Marvel movies will preclude my Dream Team of Loki (who seems to be included, according to IMDB), Red Skull, Dr. Doom (I forget what happened to him in the FF movies; rather, I didn't make it through the FF movies to find out), and the Absorbing Man (I don't even know if he's current anymore — I just liked him as a kid), though I hope Iron Man, at least, is given an opponent whose flesh and blood is a match for his own nuts and bolts.

Repeat vacation

It's been said that Hollywood turns out the same product again and again, never giving its audience anything new. Consider this list comparing gags from National Lampoon's Vacation with the third movie in the Vacation series, Christmas Vacation. Seeing that the second and fourth Vacations (European and Vegas) were laughably un-laughable, maybe repetition's not such a bad thing after all!

VacationChristmas Vacation
Clark and Ellen try to get the kids to sing songs during a car trip, but the kids won't have it
Clark and Ellen try to get the kids to sing songs during a car trip, but the kids won't have it
Jokes about being stuck with grouchy Aunt Edna
Jokes about being stuck with grouchy Uncle Lewis
Aunt Edna's dog is a pain, then gets killed
Cousin Eddie's dog is a pain, and Aunt Bethany's cat gets killed
Clark flirts with a beautiful woman in a Ferrari, then goes skinny dipping with her in a motel pool
Clark flirts with a beautiful woman at a lingerie counter, then fantasizes about her skinny dipping in the family pool
Clark drives the family station wagon over a big jump on the road to Wally World
Clark drives the family station wagon over a big jump on the road to the Christmas tree farm
Clark wanders alone through the hot desert until he finds his family at a gas station
Clark gets locked alone in the cold attic until his family returns and lets him out
After making the big jump in the family car, Clark meets some hillbillies who charge him too much for doing a poor repair job on his car
Right before making the big jump in the family car, Clark races with hillbillies who try to run his car off the road
Audrey can't hear after Clark antagonizes a bartender into firing a loud gun
Audrey can't see after Clark drags the family out into the cold to find a Christmas tree
Eddie and Catherine and their strange kids need financial help
Eddie and Catherine and their strange kids need financial help
Eddie and Catherine make a disgusting dinner of Hamburger Helper without the meat
Catherine makes a disgusting Thanksgiving dinner by overcooking the turkey and dissolving all the meat
When things look worse and the family wants to cancel the trip and go home, Clark goes on a verbal tirade, spewing obscenities
When things look worse and the family wants to cancel Christmas and go home, Clark goes on a verbal tirade, spewing obscenities
When Clark and his family finally get to Wally World, they find it closed, prompting Clark to throw a fit
When Clark finally gets his "big Christmas bonus" he finds it's only a subscription to the jelly of the month club, prompting him to throw a fit
The Griswold family kidnaps a Wally World guard only to be caught by the SWAT team at the end
The Griswold family kidnaps Clark's boss only to be caught by the SWAT team at the end

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Long take structure: Two shots from Touch of Evil

The following is a piece I wrote in my senior year in college as the final project for a directed study in film semiotics. You can read the entire article -- which includes screenshots from the film -- at the Second Reel Annex.

The staple of Classical Hollywood film, that which Christian Metz has specifically termed the "scene" — "a spatio-temporal integrality experienced as being without 'flaws,'" that is, without temporal ellipses1 — seeks to conceal its own construction by creating the illusion that what is shown on screen is everything the spectator could want to see. To this end, as suture theorists have noted, camera control is often displaced onto character point-of-view. In its most effective form, this technique presents to the spectator everything the film's characters "see," and amplifies the illusion that the entire diegetic space is being shown. The spectator sees all that the characters see, so, presumably, there can be nothing concealed from that spectator's sight.

Maintaining that illusion requires that scenes (this will refer to Metz's definition throughout) be constructed of many shots — and many edits — in order to constantly reassure the spectator that s/he has complete visual control of the diegetic space at all times. Raymond Bellour has thus observed resultant symmetrical patterns within the scene, complex patterns which structure the telling of the narrative and which belie the scene's apparent simplicity.2

It is true, however, that not every shot of every scene is a static presentation of a character's point-of-view. At these times, the lack of a diegetic agency onto which camera control can be displaced is recuperated by the camera's ability, as Stephen Heath has theorized, to "narrativize" itself; that is, the camera, when not allied with character point-of-view, simply hides its presence behind the narrative action that it always keeps in front of it.3 Even when the camera moves, the threat of that movement (and thus of the camera) becoming noticeable as a unique entity is subdued by the presence of narrative action before it.

When, however, camera movement becomes very intricate, the threat of the camera proclaiming its autonomy becomes greater. This situation arises in those long takes which present an entire narrative moment, an entire "spatio-temporal integrality experienced as being without 'flaws,'" in one shot, without editing. The autonomy of the camera is proclaimed in these shots when the moving camera leaves characters behind, abandoning them outside the frame, or when characters are allowed to leave the frame on their own. The former instance demonstrates the autonomy of the camera by showing that the camera controls the process of narrativization by selecting its own objects. The latter calls attention to an offscreen space that the spectator can not see.

Long takes of this type, then, do not adhere to the same suture techniques of the scenes allied with character point-of-view, or of those shots that are highly narrativized. This does not mean, however, that these long takes are necessarily devoid of the complex structure that Bellour observed in the Metzian scene. On the contrary, two shots from the Orson Welles-directed Touch of Evil (1958) demonstrate that the highly-mobile long take can also be structured upon those very threats to suture and narrativization, and that the resultant structures are very complex indeed.

Continue to Example 1: The Opening Shot

All footnotes can be found at the end of this essay.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Do not forsake me, Io my darling

Outland (1981), while not an "official" remake of High Noon (1952), obviously borrows from it — a lot. If it had been made in the last decade (don't look now), it would probably be called a "reimagining" of High Noon (thanks to Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes), for it uses many of the same plot elements and essentially transports it to outer space in what is, at least superficially, a science fiction movie.

I say "superficially" because Outland is really more of a "man vs. the establishment" film. It looks like science fiction due to its location in a mining facility on Jupiter's moon Io, and because it has spacesuits, talk of zero atmosphere, and the analysis of a mysterious chemical compound — a recreational and often deadly narcotic being pushed by the mining facility's administrator, Sheppard — but its central conflict arises from Marshal O'Niel's decision to stand up to corruption, a conflict which could exist among the trappings of any genre and which is not necessarily best served by a specific one. I also hesitate to call it a "space western," for though it takes place along the lawless "frontier" of deep space, the mining facility is a corporate outpost, not necessarily a future Earth colony. Based upon O'Niel's wife's desire to return to Earth, we can assume that Earth is still a desirable and livable home. But these are debatable quibbles...

Outland seemingly duplicates much of the plot of High Noon: O'Niel's decision to interfere in the drug trafficking soon puts him on the defensive against a pair of hired killers, his wife leaves him prior to the showdown, his deputies are reluctant to help, and no one else wants to take his side against the criminals. These similarities, however, are also superficial, and altered enough to make their effects significantly different than those of their counterparts in High Noon. The hired guns, for example, have no personal grudge with O'Niel, no history with him at all, in fact. Their motive is strictly professional, and while the workers on Io do not want to interfere, it is not out of friendship with the killers or with Sheppard. O'Niel's wife leaves not because of any danger a potential showdown presents — indeed, she leaves before any such showdown is foreseen — but because her husband's work has meant tour after tour at remote space facilities, which she feels are not healthy for their son. (There are subtle hints that she understands what Sheppard reveals later — that O'Niel's reputation as a whistle blower has won him a string of unpleasant assignments, but she does not explicitly give this as a reason for leaving.) O'Niel's deputy, unlike High Noon's Harvey Pell, does not covet the marshal's job — he is a knowing bystander who has been silenced by Sheppard through bribery and a desire to live.

What is most interesting in the comparison of Outland to High Noon — and what makes the former ultimately less complex and challenging — is that the factors that made Kane's decision in High Noon so difficult have been altered so much that they are virtually irrelevant to O'Niel's decision. There is no longer a citizenry whose conflicting desires make the marshal's decision questionable. In High Noon, where it is explained that life in Hadleyville was dangerous and lawless before the Miller gang was stopped, some citizens want to help Kane, but are too afraid to do so, while others look forward to Frank Miller's return. In Outland, we never hear from the workers about the quality of life before or after Sheppard became manager, nor do we know their opinions about O'Niel's actions. Furthermore, the danger in Outland is not as generally applicable — while we can assume that anyone taking the dangerous drug could be at risk of death, we are not shown that everyone on Io is taking the drug. While both marshals decide rather quickly and instinctively what their decisions should be, O'Niel's decision seems far less complicated and his course of action seems much clearer: he is an officer of the law, therefore it is his job to stop the illegal and dangerous drug-running.

There is also in Outland a moment (my favorite in the film, as well as one of my favorite bits of Sean Connery acting) that is absent from High Noon, when O'Niel admits that his motives are personal. On the racquetball court, Dr. Lazarus asks him why he is standing up to Sheppard. "You know," she tells him, "if you're the kind of guy you're supposed to be, you wouldn't stick around. That's why they sent you here."

O'Niel replies:

They send me here to this pile of shit because they think I belong here. I want to find out if...well, if they're right. There's a whole machine that works because everybody does what they're supposed to. I found out I was supposed to be something I didn't like. That's what's in the program. That's my rotten little part in the rotten machine. I don't like it. So I'm going to find out if they're right.

In High Noon, there is never as direct an admission from Kane that part of his motivation is personal. We can assume that Kane is not facing Miller entirely for the town's benefit, but we must decide the ratio of personal motivation to professional.

Comparing Outland to High Noon is easy enough to do — Outland borrows so much that it begs comparison. However, the comparison is ultimately unsatisfying and unfair, as it may lead one to feel that Outland is a failure at reproducing the complexities of the "original," instead of a success at becoming a different film entirely.

See also: The Dilemma of High Noon