Monthly Archives: February 2012

Nostalgia in The Tree of Life 

The Tree of Life is a 2011 film directed by Terrence Malick. After the unexpected death of his little 19-year-old brother, we follow the adult Jack O’Brien, a lost soul in the modern, contemporary world, reminiscing about his childhood life at home in Texas in the 1950s. In a very allusive and associative structure Malick depicts the film’s central themes of love, death, grief, and humanity’s existential choice between the way of nature and the way of grace.

The Tree of Life is not only a cinematic version of the past, here the 50s, but also a very subjective one through the eyes of one protagonist. The Tree of Life presents nostalgia realized not through selection of an era’s greatest hits, but through the resonance of personal emotional memory. The viewer shares Jack’s emotional fragments of memory, selectively remembering good and bad memories from his youth that function as a bridge-way on his return-path to “home.” But while Jack’s memories take him back to his youth, his nostalgia is ultimately one for the “absolute” as he tries to find the way of his mother and brother: the way of Grace. In this scene, Jack and his brothers are at their happiest when the patriarchal father goes away on a business trip, leaving mom in charge and sparking the film’s most idyllic family sequences. Lightness and brightness are fanning the house. The camera follows Mrs. O’Brian and the three brothers very floatingly, moving back and forth, panning, almost like the memory In Jack’s mind. The lighting, the attention to details of furniture, e.g. the fridge, and to Mrs. O’Brian’s clothes and finally the quiet piano music make the scene feel like an aestheticized dream-like childhood memory.

In his article Movie-Made America Robert Sklar defines nostalgia very simply: “the desire to return in thought to former times“. Jack is torn between his mother, who represents grace and love, and his father, who beliefs in a natural survival instinct and the included possibility that people can oppress each other and is therefore the disciplinary in the house. The adult Jack is a troubled and conflicted persona in a modern world and Jack’s nostalgia is a kind of homesickness, a longing for better times when his brother was still alive. Therefore, in the film the term “nostalgia” must be seen in reference to the power of memory and the desire for a sense of “home”. To feel nostalgic is to be filled with memories, which produce longing for that metaphysical sense of home, or, that place where fulfillment and significance meet. It is this feeling of home that Jack is reminiscing for, because if you cannot make sense of the present, you are looking back to the origins, to the past, to the place you were coming from.

So all in all, Malick depicts a nostalgia that is very personal and is deeply rooted in the longing for home, warmth and feeling of security.


Paranoia and Cynicism in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the movie adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed novel, tells the story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell and his journey to find the lock that fits a mysterious key, all while coping with his extreme paranoia and fear of the world, and the death of his father during the 9/11 attacks.

Oskar is a very peculiar boy. During his meeting with Abby Black, the first on his list of individuals to meet in New York City with the last name Black, Oskar declares that many people call him odd and that he’s even been tested for Aspergers, but the results were inconclusive.  Although Thomas Horn does a convincing job at playing the very aware Oskar, various technical cinematic elements greatly add to the feeling of paranoia throughout the film. Oskar has very acute hearing, making the buzz of the city more loud and disturbing than usual. When he has a moment where the world is just too overwhelming, most of the background noise is muted and very distinct sounds are amplified in order to allow the audience to put themselves in Oskar’s shoes. Along with slow-motion camera pans and medium to up-close shots, there is this “incredibly close” feeling that is emitted from the film that works very well to heighten the overall tone of the characters thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Because the conflict in the movie takes its basis in the 9/11 attacks, there is a reminiscence of the this inherent paranoia that came about surrounding that very traumatic day. People were left with so many questions – what happened, why did it happen, who did it – and for a while, it was hard for many people to return to their regular lifestyles, especially if they had suffered from a personal lost, and especially if they were a child who was trying to understand it all. Oskar didn’t understand why his father was taken. He didn’t understand how people could do such horrible things and he felt that if it could happen to his father, than it could happen to anyone, including himself. This idea added on to the list of fears that Oskar already possessed, unwilling to take certain forms of public transportation,  go on the swings, take the elevator, or do anything else that could seemingly put his life at risk. Once he finds the key in a vase amongst his father’s things and begins his search, with the help of who he believes to be his estranged grandfather, the seed is planted in his mind that his search may never yield any results. This incessant need to find what he believes to be a message left by his father overtakes his every waking moment, consuming his thoughts and though introducing him to many different people, distancing him farther from reality.

It can also be said that Oskar exhibits a sort of cynicism towards the adults that surround him. Oskar lives a fact based life; he is very knowledgeable, but instead of thinking things through and understanding them, he takes information at its base, excepts it for what it is, and moves on. It’s because of this that he believes that no one understands him quite like his father does, and after he dies, Oskar’s relationship with his mother deteriorates. Oskar resents his mother because he doesn’t feel that she can connect with him on the same level that his father did. He doesn’t fully comprehend the fact that his mother is grieving just as much as he is, but in a different way. He goes on his journey thinking that his mother has no interest in knowing what he’s doing, when in actuality she had been one step ahead of him the whole time. It could be because of his age or his utter lack of understanding for really anyone but himself, but Oskar has this kind of selfish outlook that causes him to believe that he and his thoughts and his objectives are more important than everyone else’s, making them inferior to him in his mind (for example, the doorman played by John Goodwin). There is also a sense of nostalgia present in the film, one because it is taking the viewer back ten years in the past and forcing them to recall a time of great loss, but also because throughout the film, Oskar looks at a sort of memorial that he’s constructed in his room of old pictures of his father, along with the answering machine that has the six messages his father recorded before he had died.

In Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia), through the use of images and voiceover, Frampton highlights the disjunction between images and sound. As each image appears on screen, the next image is being described. This creates this sort of anticipation of what’s to come and the memory that lies within the photograph at hand. What Frampton tries to get across is this idea of a romanticized view of a moment in time through a photograph, though what’s pictures and what’ s interpreted may not have been exactly what had occurred. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Oskar takes photographs of each of the Blacks he meets. He documents them in a specific moment in order to recall the life of that specific individual, and possibly how they may have effected him. In the article Notes on (nostalgia), Frampton says “The actual making of the film was dogged by misadventures so thorough in keeping with my subject’s character that, as they accumulated, I gained confidence.” To me, this idea is similar to how the photos that Oskar took effected him. After hearing each individual’s story, and how others too were in pain, but still wished him well on his adventure, Oskar began to understand that he’s not the only one who’s suffering and that everyone has a story. This feeling of not being so alone could have propelled him further, knowing that complete strangers were on his side. While each photograph may not depict the moment which Oskar wanted to remember most, but each image held a kind of vulnerability that allowed Oskar to prescribe whatever connotation to it that he needed to make the photo most meaningful.

Cynicism and Nostalgia in The Way We Were

In 1973 Sydney Pollack made the film The Way We Were starring Barbara Streisand as Katie Morosky and Robert Redford as Hubbell Gardner.  The story follows the unexpected connection and ultimately tumultuous love affair between the two obviously polar characters.  However, the theme of cynicism stems from a different aspect of the plot that still seemingly pervades the distance between the two characters.  While the whole film is presented in flashback  (one could say that this fills the requirement for nostalgia) we first see Hubbell and Katie together in college in the 1930s.  Katie is vehemently passionate about political issues and voices her Marxist opinions openly to the whole campus with protests.  Hubbell however comes from a preppy, conservative background and was notoriously popular and handsome while Katie was isolated and scorned for being a Marxist Jew.  Katie’s character is consistently an anti-war protestor and in the last scene we see her with protestors protesting the production of the atomic bomb.  This is the direct connection to the topic of cynicism regarding the political climate of the time.

As far as the formal ways in which the topics at hand are conveyed, as far as the issue of nostalgia, the beginning of this scene is a double exposure of Katie daydreaming and the outside of the Plaza where the last scene takes place.  The audience can essentially see what she is seeing in her mind through this device.  In regard to a formal manner of portraying the cynicism, I cannot say that I can identify any specifics other than making the last shot quite busy with lots of people and cars to overwhelm the audience with the importance of Katie’s message.

In Robert Sklar’s essay, Movie-Made America he describes the way that film was essentially a dying art form at the end of the 60s and that going into the 70s people watched much more television than they did film.  This is fascinating to me and also inspires me to look at the way that Pollack chose to present this film. At the time, political turmoil was heated and I would imagine not many people would want to pay to watch a film that discussed permutations of the renowned political views of the time.  Consequently, they made a political story a love story- broadening the audience for the film to younger audiences while still holding to political issues. 

Bruno’s Reciation 2/22 – Paranoia


We started the class discussion beginning with paranoia. We defined it, and then discussed how it has arisen in class. First we went over the acid trip in the film Easy Rider, depicting Dennis Hopper and others violently tripping on acid. There were no special effects; however, through brilliant camera angles and acting, the acid trip is extremely life-like and absolutely fascinating.

We then talked about Shaw from The Manchurian Candidate, and how absolutely possessive his paranoia was, Shaw did not know what he was doing at all times during the day, he felt controlled, helpless, and absolutely paranoid, because he could not control his actions and did not know if he would be forced to murder someone at any time of the day. Living like this would be utterly unbearable and I  think that is why the Manchurian Candidate strikes the viewer so deeply. It makes the viewer uncomfortable, the viewer has no idea of what is going on, and truthfully the viewer, themselves, becomes paranoid. This sort of paranoia that leaps off the screen into the viewers minds is absolutely incredible and a real sign that a film is a great one.

After discussing paranoia, we started talking about the short film, New Improved Institutional Quality: In the Environment of Liquids and Nasals a Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops. The title of this movie is quite long for a short film, but I found the film to be absolutely hilarious and entertaining. We first delved into the satirical aspects of the film, looking at how funny and stupid the main character looked trying to draw numbers on different objects around a house while at the same time looking completely confused. We went over these topics and then a student in the class said that these films were pointless, I obviously disagreed with his point and an engaging argument ensued. What are the purposes of these short films? I believe that one won’t get anything of out of them if we look for a beginning middle and end or a full film; however, the purpose is to convey a specific aspect in many different ways. This specific film showed how stupid people are taking tests, and how we feel obliged to follow directions from an unknown higher voice, just because it is a higher voice.

Angel, another student then did a great presentation on his article and after that we watch a clip from the exorcist and further discussed how paranoia was manifested into the minds of all who watched that movie. I mean I would have been scared back then if I had seen that. Afterwards, we watched a clip of Taxi Cab, and then got onto the real discussion of the true paranoia.

We started watching The Conversation and talked about the ending of the film where the camera panning mimics a surveillance camera, Gene Hackman, the main character at this point realizes that he will always be watched no matter what, he will always play his saxophone in his apartment and face the wall, he gives up on his own privacy and rests in his apartment, this is his last resort. We then watched a clip of Gene attaching a surveillance device in a bathroom and when he witnesses a girl being murdered. There is very little sound at the beginning of the scene and this creates an intense suspense. Out of nowhere a really loud screaming sound reverberates in his mind and becomes part of the soundtrack playing, it almost sounds as if it is reverberating in our own heads as we watch the film.

In a way, the film talks about the balance between freedom and surveillance, how much freedom are we willing to give up in order to be surveilled? and be safe? If we give up too much freedom will we become highly paranoid like Gene Hackman and resort to only using a pay phone to make phone calls and live a life of recluse? Must we sacrifice all of this just be safe?

Davy Jones

As many students have pointed during recitations, our very own Davy Jones has passed away today. The New York Times has reported the fact on their blog, but the obituary is yet to be published.

I leave you with Davy’s dance scene with Toni Basil, from Bob Rafelson’s Head (1968).

Nostalgia and Cynicism in “Mean Streets” (1973)

***SPOILER ALERT: I don’t recommend reading this or watching the ending clip if you have not yet seen Mean Streets!

Mean Streets is a gritty 1973 drama/crime movie written and directed by Martin Scorsese. The film is about two young Italian American men, Charlie (the film’s protagonist, played by Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy (Robert de Niro), and the story of Johnny’s irresponsible personality and his destructive, downwards spiral (told through the eyes of Charlie). We also learn about their friendship, family, and involvement in the New York mafia because of their familial ties. The movie is brimming with feelings of nostalgia and cynicism.

The opening sequence of the movie begins with Charlie abruptly waking up in the middle of the night. He gets up, and looks at himself in the mirror for a moment. He proceeds to get back in bed, tearful and distressed. The 1963 song “Be My Baby,” by The Ronettes begins to play. The nostalgic tone of the film is exemplified by the soundtrack, which mainly consists of early 1960s songs from Scorsese’s youth (including The Chantels, The Shirelles, Betty Everett, etc.). The film then cuts to a shot of an old movie projector, followed by a flashback montage of home movie clips. We see a baby’s baptism, a birthday party, and the young male characters of the film, back when they were all still friends. We feel Charlie’s longing for the past, before the chaotic events in the movie unfold and the relationships amongst everyone turn sour. The last shot in the montage is of an illuminated church – the film has a heavy overtone of Catholicism, which also adds to the nostalgic feeling.

The film ends on an extremely cynical note. Johnny Boy, Charlie, and his girlfriend, Theresa, are in a car, fleeing the wrath of a mobster that Johnny has offended. They talk and laugh, and for a moment, the tone seems optimistic – almost as if the characters are going to successfully evade their problems and escape. But suddenly, a car speeds up beside theirs, and another young mafia man (played by Scorsese) shoots at them, striking both Charlie and Johnny. Blood violently spurts out of his neck, gushing everywhere. Charlie loses control of the car, and crashes. The men that shot them flee the scene. The following shots are interspersed with a traditional Italian band playing, as well as clips from old movies (more nostalgia!). Charlie resigns and collapses on the ground, until a police officer arrives to the scene and drags him into an ambulance. Despite the joyful music, the conclusion to the film is very dismal and hopeless. We can safely assume that Johnny does not survive the incident, and there is no resolution for Charlie, who has struggled so much to save Johnny from his self-induced fate, and will also inevitably continue to be entangled in the mafia.

Week 6: Blaxploitation and its Cinematic Respondents

Today’s class saw a slight shift in focus, to the development of African-American filmmaking in the 1970s. The overwhelming majority of the films we’ve looked at thus far in the class were made by white males. This, of course, is still the case in today’s Hollywood, experimental, and independent cinema.

It is also important to remember that up until the 1970s, there were no mainstream African-American film directors, and very, very few African-American film stars, with the notable exception of Sidney Poitier, whose career we discussed.

Robert Sklar:

In the period around 1970, when debates over race and gender had become fully articulated not only in words but in social action, it was as if there existed two completely different discourses, one in society, the other in movies. Against the vividness of social actuality the movies were in no position to interpose, and any mediating was up to the moviegoer.

More specifically, we considered the rise and fall of the Blaxploitation genre, and various cinematic responses to that genre. In doing so, we looked at how the cultural and industry conditions of the 1970s opened up the potentiality for an independent black cinema, and once again look at the relationship between independent and mainstream modes of filmmaking. Some of the questions that guided our discussion:

What constitutes a “black” film? Does it merely include an African American director or actors, or must the plot center on the African American community and cultural themes?

How has African American filmmaking been marginalized? Why does it continue to be? Is this a function of the industry, the audience, or both?

What are the potentials for, and limits to, film as a political tool? As a revolutionary platform? As a conscious raising one?

How is African American masculinity depicted in these films? What is the relationship of the individual to the larger community in these films? What is the tension between integration and separation in these films? How does the representation of marginalized or underrepresented communities rebut or confirm the putative universality of film?

This week, we read Howard Zinn’s account of the civil rights movement in order to help contextualize the social and political currents that shape what we’ll see on screen today. One of the recurrent themes in Zinn’s essay is the question of how best to resist an oppressive regime—violently, or non-violently? By assimilating, or by asserting difference?

Ed Guerrero cites three factors that led to the rise of Blaxploitation:

These concoctions were marketed to a basically inner-city, black youth audience in anticipatlon of substantial box office profits. The guiding argument of my discussion is that the Blaxploitation genre emerged out of the dialectal interactions of three broad, overdetermining conditions of possibility. The first and most obvious to observers of the late 1960s scene is that these films were made possible by the rising political and social consciousness of black people (taking the form of a broadly expressed black nationalist impulses at the end of the civil rights movement), which translated into a large black audience thirsting to see their full humanity depicted on the commercial cinema screen. This surge in African American identity politics also led to an outspoken, critical dissatisfaction with Hollywood’s persistent degradation of African Americans in films among black leaders, entertainers, and intellectuals. Ultimately, the mounting pressure of these conditions coincided with the near economic collapse of the film industry at the end of the 1960s. In turn, this forced Hollywood to respond to the rising expectations of African Americans by making black-oriented features in order to solve the film industry’s political and financial problems.


Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971)

We paid special attention to Van Peebles’ methods of independent production (he wrote, produced, directed, edited, and starred in the film) and disruptive formal strategies (optical printing, jump cuts, split screens, sound/music); the depiction of Sweetback’s hyper-libidinal masculinity; and the film’s depictions of the black community.

Also, here’s one of the many Occupy Wall Street videos that have appropriated Van Peebles’ “Love, That’s America,” from his film, Watermelon Man (1970):

Then we took a look at Poitier’s response to Blaxploitation, Uptown Saturday Night (Sidney Poitier, 1974):

…as well as Charles Burnett’s low-budget lost classic about life in Watts, Killer of Sheep (1971):

…and we concluded with Richard Pryor‘s seminal, autobiographical, and decidedly raunchy (as well as being the first theatrically released stand-up film) Live in Concert (1979):

As a bonus, here’s Pryor in 1977 as America’s “First Black President,” from his short-lived Richard Pryor Show: