Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #003

Here, in four chapters, is a lecture I gave to undergraduate students in the Department of English at The University of Exeter in 2010. The students had already watched the film, so if you haven’t seen it, you should probably avoid this talk until you have, as it discusses important plot developments. The title I was given was “The Politics of Privacy”, but my talk doesn’t address that idea directly: Michael Haneke’s Cache was one of several texts for that week on a module dealing with personal expression in writing and film, often focusing on postcolonial subjects. My lecture introduces students to the film and suggests some ways to interpret it and start to unravel its mysteries.

For reasons of upload limits, I have had to divide this lecture into four segments,. These were obviously not planned breaks, so each chapter will start and stop a little abruptly, I’m afraid. If anyone’s interested, I’ll also post the complete audio file for the lecture, but the video version includes slides, text, and video clips that should help to illustrate it, especially when I’m reading out long quotations.

At present, I’m only able to post all four chapters to my YouTube channel, though these are at least available in HD – Vimeo has tighter upload restrictions, so I can’t post all of them yet, but you can find updates, and earlier video podcasts, at my Vimeo page.

A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)

[First Published 8 October 2008; Updated 12 February 2009; 10 June 2010; 24 February 2012; 27 March 2012]

a_trip_to_the_moon_poster[I’ve been adding to this post occasionally since I first published it on 8th October 2008. I tagged it as a work in progress, but now that I’ve commented a little on every shot, I thought I’d publish the updates (it has more than doubled in length since it first appeared) and declare it (almost) finished. I will continue to update it every once in a while, but I hope you find it interesting and informative in its present form. I still invite comments or further information from anyone who’d like to add to the essay, or who has links or bibliographic references to recommend.]

For the benefit of anyone who is studying this film or just fascinated by it, I’m going to attempt a shot-by-shot commentary on Georges MélièsA Trip to the Moon, released in France on 1st September 1902. It might start out rudimentary and descriptive, but as I add to and re-edit it from time to time it will be embellished with notes garnered from further reading and visitors’ commentaries (feel free to add your observations at the bottom of this post), to see if we can gather together some useful critical annotations for each shot of the film. I’ve included lots of links, some of which expand upon a key point, while others offer a surprising but interesting digression, I hope.

Click here to read my analysis of the film…

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Randomised

StarWarsEpisode3PosterSee also:

Finally, we come to the end of an extensive Star Wars fest. I feel like I’ve settled into the Randomisation thing now, so perhaps it’s time to turn it towards some more challenging films. It’s not all that difficult to find something to say about narrative feature films, especially ones that spill over into so many intertexts and parallel strands of a franchise – each shot seems designed to resonate across a range of media. With Star Wars, for instance, even bit-part players might wind up with their own spin-off episode of a comic book or video game.

Before that happens, the saga must come to an end, or more, accurately, an end that sets up the beginning of the next/original trilogy of films. George Lucas might want us to watch them in order, 1-6, but there’s no doubt that Episode III: Revenge of the Sith plays on the dramatic irony of characters not knowing the significance that they will have later in the story; if it doesn’t require you to know what’s coming next, it certainly winks in the direction of those who do.

The random number generator will give me four numbers. I take frame grabs from the DVD of the frame that sits at the beginning of the minute-mark corresponding to these figures. They provide the starting point for discussion of the film. The numbers are 30, 77, 83 and 110. Let’s see what happens…
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Natalie PortmanHow often do we see people in bed in the Star Wars films? I’m sure there are some devotees who can give me an exact number, but I bet it doesn’t happen often. That sort of domestic necessity (we see people asleep, but rarely tucked up at home) is a rarity when there are more exciting things to show, and little interest in the private lives and thoughts of the characters. This is an unusually moody shot. The blinds cast noirish shadows on the wall (these people have discovered hyperspace but nobody took the trouble to invent curtains?) as Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) wakes to find her husband gone, tormented by a bad dream (premonition?) of her death. Throughout the prequels, Portman has been dressed up in some astonishing finery, at times ceremoniously decked out in Geisha style make-up and restrictively decorative robes, speaking in a cod-regal British accent through pursed lips. The story of her development as a romantic heroine (sadly, she has little to do in this film, though she does get to utter one of the only decent lines in all of the prequel scripts: “This is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause”, which really jumps off the soundtrack with its unaccustomed relevance) is told through the gradual lightening of her wardrobe load, destricting her personality in the process. But she still sleeps in jewellery with her hair up, it seems. Critics mocked the lack of chemistry between Portman and Hayden Christensen, and this is probably fair comment – they’re not given much poetry to spout to make us feel that their love is really making the blood flow, but this may be, accidentally or not, the point; could it be that the Queen has blundered into this relationship and stays with her husband out of pity or fear, discomfited by his developing violent tendencies but trapped by convention or shocked into inaction? The luxurious surroundings of the palace (those embroidered cushions don’t look very cuddly) can’t be very conducive to a mutual understanding between a monarch and a freed slave, after all.
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Ewan McGregor To paraphrase Wittgenstein, “Dude, WTF?!” This frame is so crowded with stuff I hardly know where to start. Obi-Wan is addressing one of the clone troopers, riding like a cowboy on a big, spaniel-lively lizard. Under their helmets, all of the clones look like their source material, Temuera Morrison; George Lucas even redubbed Boba Fett’s scenes in the Original Trilogy with Morrison’s voice. But, for reasons which are a mystery to me, Lucas decided that he didn’t want to make any actual, physical outfits for the troops, so they’re all digital animations. Morrison’s head has been superimposed onto a digital body. It looks ropey in places, but at least it matches the sense of manufactured soldiers, their uniformity and their slightly grotesque otherness, even if this flaw in the special effects is only inadvertently smuggling in such thematic reinforcement. The lizard looks pleasingly rubbery, giving me warm remembrances of Ray Harryhausen monsters, but the level of detail is overwhelming, with multiple planes of movement, destruction and colours that jostle for attention.
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregorWhat’s under Darth Vader’s mask? As a youngster, these kinds of questions felt important. The amount of human left behind beneath that machinic shell was a matter of urgency, a mystery that needed solving. Eventually, I got to see what was under there, and it was quite satisfying, but Revenge of the Sith promises to show you how Vader came to be that way. So here we come to the near-conclusion of Episode III, with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker duelling to the death on a beam that stretches across an infernal chasm filled with raging lava. Anakin’s eyes have gone all Emo on us, conveying a deep angst that we’re supposed to equate with a turn to the darkside. Personally, I was a little disturbed to see this tormented, child-slaughtering fascist, with or without his photogenically precise facial scars, adorning children’s lunchboxes and birthday cards. Red is obviously the dominant colour here, but the lightsabers cut through the frame strinkingly – usually, combatants fight with different coloured blades, but on this occasion the two friends fight with similar coloured weapons. I’ve heard George Lucas espousing the merits of Jordan Belson’s colourful abstract animations, and sometimes the lightsabers duels in darkened spaces transform into semi-abstract bursts of violent colour, but it’s still a couple of dudes having a swordfight. Maybe that’s going to be my final comment on the Star Wars saga – however innovative, adventurous and yes, experimental its technological showcasing might become, it remains resolutely old-fashioned in its cultural references and its commitment to showing its fans what they really want and expect to see in explicit detail, instead of shaking things up with plot twists and formal subversion.

Finally, the last frame grab from this long-running series of Star Wars Randomised posts. The 83rd minute throws out the image below. Fittingly, it’s a departure. I’ll save you some time and point out the obvious E.T. pastiche as Yoda flies off in his little pod, but I’m hoping you can add some comments on this particular frame:
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith: Yoda

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Randomised

Star Wars Phantom Menace Darth MaulSee also:

Yippee. I committed myself to finishing off a series of posts “randomising” the whole Star Wars saga. (See here if you’re not sure what “randomising” refers to on this blog.) Which means I have to reopen the wound of The Phantom Menace, Jar Jar Binks and all.

On a ratio of intensity of anticipation to quality of end product, The Phantom Menace must surely rank as one of the biggest anti-climaxes in cinema history. And it produced long-lasting unsettlement in franchise fans. Did its deep crapness mean that we had entered a cynical age that could no longer countenance jaunty battles, rubbery creatures and accident prone sidekicks (all of which were present in the “Original Trilogy”, as it came to be known, perhaps to protect it from contamination by association with its prequels)? Had Star Wars been rubbish all along and the world just hadn’t noticed? Why had we openly expressed excitement at the imminent release of a new film from the producer of Howard the Duck? I can’t answer these questions, but I can hope that the randomisation process will throw out some interesting observations on this film, whether you regard it as an underrated minor entry in a classic film series, or as the punishment beating of the collective human childhood, a joyless and perfunctory marquee for action figures, lunchboxes and Jar Jar Binks beachtowels.

The randomiser has given me the numbers 2, 49, 76 and 114. So, here we go…
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 2nd minuteThe number 2 corresponds to the 2-minute mark, so that’s the frame I’m stuck with. I thought 2 minutes would put me right in the middle of the expository text scroll that begins all of the Star Wars film, pretending to be catching you up on the backstory for a serial that spanned a bigger story either side of the one you were watching. As a kid (sorry to keep framing these films in terms of how I remembered them, but I guess that’s when I was most affected by them), the text seemed to be interminable, teasingly delaying the action. Now it’s gone in 60 seconds, and we’re straight into some scene-setting. Two Jedi Knights are being sent to investigate a trade dispute that has led the Trade Federation to blockade the peaceful planet of Naboo, a kind of pastel-coloured paradise of Renaissance palaces and Atlantean underwater cities (that actually like crystalline versions of those Habitrail things that people keep hamsters in). The Jedi’s shroud casts a shadow on most of the right-hand portion of this frame. It’s notable how often George Lucas plays on the monkish, forbidding appearance of the Jedi; does he want to draw attention to how they police the galaxy with this iconography of fearsome mystique, or the way the hoods make them look just like their ultimate nemesis, Darth Sidious (later the Emperor). We are never supposed to be troubled by the self-regulated, masonically sheltered Jedi order; we just have to accept that they are benign. At least all of their superstitious beliefs about the universe turn out to be true. But aside from trying to prevent a galactic slide into imperialism, and ensuring the preservation of their Order and all of its traditions, what are their political and ideological leanings, their worldview or their model for government. Well, aside from some quasi-Buddhist (The Phantom Menace even includes a shot of some Buddha proclamations about the interconnectedness of all things, we don’t really get a sense of the broader system of the Jedi system. Without actually ruling, they operate like a protective, interventionist priesthood, and their wider activities are subordinated to the easier, and more visually pleasing heroics of swordplay, escape and rescue. Anyway, back to this shot. The looming presence of the Jedi knight (that hood is a tantalising cover, setting up anticipation for a reveal) behind the pilot seems threatening, though it doesn’t block out the view through the screen of the blockade of starships around the green planet. There’s a striking stacking up of scales here, from the cloaked body in medium close-up through the windscreen to the distant planet whose inhabitants are abstracted subjects of the metallic ringfence that has them tightly monitored from orbit. As I’m sure I mentioned in earlier posts in this series, that shuttling between individual actions and planetary generalities is the template for the saga as a whole.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 46th minuteA nice red hue distinguishes this shot of Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, communicating remotely with Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). Qui-Gon has taken a cell sample from Anakin Skywalker, believing him to be uniquely strong with the Force. Or something. This was the moment that made Star Wars fans the world over stop and say “WTF?” or some other culturally-specific expression of dismayed disbelief. If the Force was a mystical, spiritual essence that binds everything together, yet only a few believed in it enough to be able to feel its effects, how come we can suddenly measure the midi-chlorians and see a Force-o-meter on a little screen like the one in this frame? Many were not amused. A noble belief was reduced to a bit of pseudo-scientific genetics. Was Lucas trying to scientise the franchise? If so, he could’ve gone the whole hog and had different gravity levels on different planets or something like that. Either way, the tension between Obi-Wan’s monastic outfit and the computer equipment he’s peering into (it’s almost composed like a two-shot, as if McGregor is in conversation with the screen) articulates something of the Jedi’s relationship to technology. They have great facility with it, but it sits uncomfortably with their sense of self-denial and their emphasis on the body’s oneness with spirit, as opposed to the body’s augmentation with electronic assistants.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 76th minuteJar Jar Binks received an unprecedented level of hatred at the time of the film’s release. It was as if disgruntled fans were channelling all of their disaffection into the lightning rod of the amphibious Gungan slapstick sidekick, who they suspected of being a thinly-veiled appeal to kids and the toy market. You can see his feet on the table, to the left of this frame. I wrote a paper about the Jar Jar hate campaign, arguing that it might reasonably be seen as a projection of distaste at the overuse of CGI creatures, an abject response to the coming of the virtual actor. In this shot, Jar Jar sleeps deeply, snoring and tongue-lolling in a slovenly manner that pegs him as a creature of appetites, a folksy bystander to the political machinations of the plot. Lucas may have intended him to be an oblivious guide for the viewer through the earnestness of the other narrative pathways, as if he could make you feel OK not to have a clue what was happening or why it mattered. In contrast to Jar Jar’s clueless peace, Jake Lloyd’s Anakin Skywalker cowers and scowls in the corner, diminished in the frame by those big dumb feet. One of the promotional posters for the film showed Anakin casting the shadow of Darth Vader on the wall, and I’m sure it’s a coincidence that his head appears to cast the shadow of a helmet in this shot. Both the poster and this shot play on the dramatic irony of the incongruence between the jackbooted Dark Lord of the Original Trilogy and this sullen mummy’s boy. An abnormally sensitive composition leaves him forlorn and feeble, out of step with the new space he finds himself in. It also echoes/prefigures a similar scene of Luke Skywalker, saddened and defeated by the death of Obi-Wan as the Millennium Falcon escapes from the Death Star in Star Wars.

Now, it’s become a feature of these Star Wars Randomised posts that one frame will be thrown open to the readers for their comments. Take a look at the following frame and see what meanings, interpretations, pedantries and observations you can apply to it. Any and all contributions are welcome:
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 114th minute

The Curse of Chucky

My research on cinema and puppetry is taking me to some odd places. If, for instance, you’ve never seen a kung fu movie performed entirely with glove puppets, I suggest you give some attention to Legend of the Sacred Stone. At the moment, I’m sketching the first draft of a section on devil dolls and killer puppets (seemed like the easiest place to start!), which has meant delving into the kind of stuff that wouldn’t normally land on my “to watch” list. The three hours of When Puppets and Dolls Attack, a compilation of clips from the work of Charles Band, has not been a highpoint of my cultural life. Band’s work at Full Moon Features has, as far as I can tell initially, received no sustained critical attention at all – perhaps the films are not arch enough to push them into the respectable sectors of trash film, and not good enough to stand up on their own merits, but for my purposes, they include an extraordinarily fetishistic playing and replaying of the motif of the killer puppet. I’ll put this in my “to do” pile to write about at greater length another time, save to say that there is an entire ants’ nest of movies in which murderous dolls play out their slalk-and-slash roles with numbing repetitiveness and manic persistence, carrying on a strain of cultural work that has been in play for as long as there have been puppets to be spooked by. And if The Gingerdead Man is one of the limpest puns in movie history, at least its sequel has one of the neatest (see image to the right).

Anyway, The Passion of the Crust (oh, I’m still chuckling about that one…) is not what I wanted to write about. I’ve been wading through the Child’s Play movies, a cycle of films that I had never seen before, despite being firmly within the range of their target age-group of clueless teens first time around. For those who’ve never had the pleasure, the five (so far – a remake and franchise reboot is rumoured to be in the early stages of production) Child’s Play films follow the fortunes of Chucky, a doll possessed with the spirit of a dead serial killer who desperately wants to quit the plastic body and find a fleshy one in which to be reborn. His attempts to perform the necessary voodoo ritual are always thwarted; despite his skill at offing the human obstacles to his progress with a variety of household implements, he just can’t seem to get his hands on Andy Barclay, the little boy who first receives the demon doll as a birthday gift.

Let me lay my cards on the table, although I don’t usually like to reduce my judgements to a qualitative assessment: the first three Child’s Play movies are rubbish. Derivative and predictable in their cycles of slashing, stabbing and jumping out of the shadows, tiresome in their dogged, unkillable persistence. Oh, and clunky in their execution, perfunctory in their plotting and scripting. The only point of research interest for me has been to notice the ways in which the films use puppets as figures of fear and recepticles of animist superstition. Chucky is able to get away with murder because he can always slip into “Barbie mode” (a witticism that is only cracked in the much sharper episode 4) and become inert, indistinguishable from an ordinary plastic plaything. Therefore, the films play on the doll’s loaded potential to spring into life at any moment, a simple jack-in-the-box fear generator that is endlessly replayed. In many sequences, Chucky is invested with a sense of life not just by the magic of animatronics that allow his facial features to contort with malice, snapping him out of the smiley congeniality of his factory settings, but by mediating his image through shot selections that are usually reserved for human characters in dialogue. For instance, the back-and-forth of this over-the-shoulder, shot/reverse shot sequence from Child’s Play 3 builds suspense over when Chucky will fulfil his side of the filmic bargain and enter the conversation with the barber who has yet to realise that the doll is alive and preparing to take a razor to his throat.

Cute. But the analogy of film with animistic power, the ability to endow inanimate objects with an impression of life, and the correlative use of puppetry as a shorthand for that power, is an interesting one to me at the moment, not least because it is so frequently invoked in horror films.

Everything changes with the final installments, Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky. Together, these two invigorate the franchise with greater visual invention, a sharper wit and an extreme level of self-reflexivity. Having attained full franchise-royalty status alongside cyclical slasher series such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and Friday the 13th, the Chucky movies use their lofty position to look down on their previous efforts, and to try and shift the series to the heritage site of Universal horror. They thus join the ranks of the Scream, Nightmare and Gremlins films as franchises that become so self-referential that they end up chewing on their own tails. This interests me. Can a series of horror films not go for any length of time without getting self-conscious about its own naked repetititivity? Do they always need to turn inwards and act so “knowing”? Either way, the leap in quality from the stolid and ridiculous Child’s Play 3 to Bride of Chucky is quite remarkable. Bride may not reach the giddy heights of reinvention and frenetic genre-thrashing of Gremlins 2, but it fixes a lot of the series’ original problems by acknowledging the daftness of the diminutive doll’s deadly prowess and telling the tale from Chucky’s perspective instead of hiding him in shadows. Plus, the addition of Tiffany, his sweet but lethal partner undercuts Chucky’s primacy and gives him someone his own size to bicker with. Tiffany, in human form (Jennifer Tilly) is the first to turn Chucky’s dollhood against him by locking the little bastard in a cage and treating him like a naughty baby.

There’s a long tradition of horror films offering alternative visions of family relations, whether its the inbred rustic nutcase clan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Satan’s attempts at child-rearing in The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, or the abortive, cobbled-together union of The Bride of Frankenstein, which the fourth Chucky film repeatedly references (hey, you’ll even find clips from Bride of Chucky on the Bride of Frankenstein DVD, just to claim Chucky’s place in the heritage of the Universal monster cycles). With Bride and Seed of Chucky, the formation of a new family comes to the fore, with Tiffany reincarnated in doll form and later, their son (or is it daughter? They can’t figure out which, leading to another movie reference – is he/she to be named Glen or Glenda?) struggling with his sexual identity and descent from a family of serial killers.

This increased focus on family drama (I’m stretching that definition a little perhaps) is matched by the filmic syntax of human drama, giving the puppets close-ups and reverse-shots to align the spectator more thoroughly with their story, instead of hiding them in the shadows as pop-up monsters. It kills the fear, but it heightens the pleasure.

It’s not just the way the film insinuates itself into a nest of external reference points and self-mockery that allows Bride of Chucky to raise its game: the introduction of Ronny Yu (the man behind the delirious, insane and romantic Bride With White Hair films) as director, along with Crouching Tiger’s Peter Pau on cinematography duties adds a bit more verve to the imagery, with faster cutting, canted angles and extremes of blue-hued lighting. This is in stark contrast to the flat and perfunctory style of the earlier films – there can’t be many sequences less effective in horror film history than the protracted battle in a doll factory that drags out the end of Child’s Play 2: the bright uniformity of the strip-lighting throws away the golden opportunities for the hiding places and grotesqueries of the setting, and the leaden set-ups do nothing to make the conflict more dynamic. Ronny Yu at least has some form as an action director, and even if he can’t seem to do anything without hyperbolising the moment, at least it shows someone investing the franchise with some effort, care and attention by appearing to make aesthetic choices as opposed to just the most basically functional narrational ones.

Seed of Chucky is less successful, partly because it takes the self-referencing a little too far, but there is fun to be had. Jennifer Tilly plays herself as a self-absorbed, over-eating has-been (“I’m an Oscar nominee, for Christ’s sake, now I’m fucking a puppet”), appearing in a film about the alleged Chucky murders, allowing for one of those mise-en-abime shots where the camera pulls back to reveal that the scene we were watching is actually taking place on a studio set, giving us a good view of the cables that work the animatronic puppets. There’s a cameo from John Waters, a walking representative of the heritage of trash cinema (and apparently a big Chucky fan), the death of Britney Spears and a scene in which Chucky and Tiffany decapitate their own puppeteer. This latter piece of puppetic rebellion, with the proxy people rebelling against their status as objects on strings is, as I hope my project will eventually demonstrate, a recurrent motif throughout the history of puppetry. That kind of self-reflexivity, the ability to comment on the text from the position of one of its constitutive props, occupying that bordeline place as an animate/inanimate object, not quite in or out of the fictional world, is an embedded property of the puppet. Once Chucky acknowledges his status as a doll (not just a man temporarily trapped in a plastic body), he can come into his own and start performing his true function as the focus of the story and commentator on its construction. But more on that another day. I’m shocked enough that I just wrote a lengthy appreciation of a couple of films I expected nothing from, but maybe I was just pleasantly surprised that they weren’t as god-awful as previous form had led me to expect. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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