Category Archives: Week 4 (2/14): Reclaiming the Past: The New Hollywood?

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, DIR. WES ANDERSON / NOSTALGIA

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) directed by WES ANDERSON is about the reunion of a dysfunctional wealthy New York family.  ROYAL TENENBAUM played by GENE HACKMAN, a former successful attorney now bankrupt, returns to his family after a 20-year residence in a luxury hotel.  ROYAL has three children with his wife ETHELINE played by ANJELICA HUSTON, an archaeologist.  The Tenenbaum children were all child prodigies gone emotionally and psychologically unstable.  CHAS played by BEN STILLER became a corporate investor when he was in elementary school; RICHI played by LUKE WILSON was a U.S. Nationals tennis winner; MARGOT played by GWYNETH PALTROW was Braverman Grant awarded playwright in ninth grade; she is also adopted.  ROYAL leaves his family when the children are young; his betrayal ruined their success and wounded the family for two decades.  When he suddenly returns, their past resentment remains rigid even when he claims to have only six weeks to live.  Although his contention of a stomach cancer is a lie, his desire to reconnect with his family is sincere and has a life-shifting effect on the Tenenbaums, each of whom are in the midst of coping with dissatisfied hopes and relationships.  RICHIE’S love for MARGOT, whose unhappy marriage to RALEIGH ST. CLAIR played by BILL MURRAY is told alongside ETHELINE’S unconventional engagement to HENRY SHERMAN played by DANNY GLOVER, all of which overshadows CHAS’ mourning his dead wife and over-zealous pursuit to ensure the physical safety of his two boys.  With narration by ALEC BALDWIN, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS also co-stars OWEN WILSON who plays ELI CASH, the Tenenbaum children’s childhood friend and love affair of MARGOT.

Formally, WES ANDERON’S consistent use of “Futura Bold” font on title cards, frequently in yellow, is referential to the 1960s and 1970s, when type face was popularized; (while “Helvetica” spearheaded in 1957 as a departure from “Futura Bold”, the font became well-known by artists featured in MoMA during the Pop and Conceptual Art movements, growing to this day to be the most commonly used lettering in corporate advertisement, especially those with aesthetic priorities).   Through excessive use of his renowned center framed, ceiling down, above shot, ANDERSON captures an iconic interpretation of mundane objects like record players, plates of food, envelopes, books, newspapers, suitcases, index cards, and most famously, hands.  It is the flatness of the image, which confers the object as iconic.  There is an old photographic quality to the frame—what feels kind of like an antiquated means of archiving.  Todd McCarthy of Variety called the film “As richly conceived as the novel it pretends to be,” which I consider another trait of the film’s nostalgic essence: its title cards breaking the film up into chapters coupled by BALDWIN’S narration renders the film much like a book.  The art direction of the Tenenbaum house is a highly stylized, seemingly random consortium of furniture, art, and tchotchkes, all of which appear to be antiques; while a significant number of them are modernized, the combination fills the scene with a quirky sensibility.  The eccentric design appears homemade even arts-and-crafts-like, characteristic of ANDERSON’S films, specifically in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001), it justifies the materialistic as nostalgic, paralleled emotionally: the characters are reliving the past when they reunite in their home that has remained a museum of their happier life.

In the second clip, RICHIE TENENBAUM played by LUKE WILSON is returning from the hospital after an attempted suicide.  As he walks into his childhood bedroom, he first contemplates a wall-full of portraits he drew of his sister MARGO TENENBAUM played by GWYENTH PALTROW when he was a boy.  The wall of portraits is organized in a sort of fetishized homage to his incestual love for her.  WILSON finds PALTROW sitting inside his boyhood tent listening to records and smoking a cigarette.  While  the scene is bittersweet, both a confession of their mutual love and a recognition that it is forbidden, in terms of nostalgia, it is also a reminder, how gone are the days of yore, when being a kid felt like a term-less realm of infinite possibilities and here to stay is the harsh reality of heartache and unfair adulthood.  The scene ends with a crescendo of the chorus from Ruby Tuesday by the Rollingstones, a song that thematically conveys the uncertainty yet inevitably of missing the memory of a free-spirited woman.

With his use of memorabilia-type objects that wouldn’t necessarily be of any exceptional use in the time the film takes place (as there obviously have been technological innovations since that would replace their function or aesthetic), but whose presence in this society are imbued with not only history but this particular aesthetic nostalgia, ANDERSON creates a world that reverberates with the audience as our romanticized artistic or intellectual life.  ANDERSON crafts a reality that invokes us to feel more like the poet, musician, painter, or philosopher we often pretend to be.  And by connecting us to things past, things with aesthetic associations of various eras glamorized, we channel a sense of reminiscence.

In HOLLIS FRAMPTON’S essay, On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters, his description of his time spent photographing, told in a nostalgic manner, specifically documents his symbolic portrayal of the crucifixion of Christ using materials found in a bathroom, a four month series of a plate of pasta, among other conceptual approaches to eradicating signifiers while still trying to establish an idea—as well as abstracting formally while not departing from common subject matter.  His essay understates, photographically, compositional strategies to convey content he has found dissatisfying.  He concludes, “When I came to print the negative, an odd thing struck my eye.  Something standing in the cross street and invisible to me, was reflected in a factory window, and then reflected once more in the rear-view mirror attached to the truck door.  It was only a tiny detail.  Since then, I have enlarged this small section of my negative enormously.  The grain of the film all but obliterates the features of the image.  It is obscure: by any possible reckoning it is hopelessly ambiguous.”  Inherent in his tone, is also apparent in ANDERSON’S film as well, the attraction to what has been obscured or made ambiguous over time or over numerous re-focusing, I would assert is the allure to something lost.  Just as FRAMPTON idealizes the potential clarity of the blurred negative, does ANDERSON idealize the old days of record players, books, and novelty household items?  Perhaps it is the overally aestheticized-social-participant’s perspective that philosophizes the significance of such a point of view.

Bruno’s Recitation 2/15/2012 (Section 7)

We started off the class by Bruno introducing a Portuguese word, “saudade.” This word correlating to nostalgia, the main theme that we repeatedly discussed throughout the recitation, is a word that Portuguese take pride in as it cannot be fully translated into other language. Likewise, the emotion of nostalgia can never be fullly put into words and the complexity of nostalgia displayed by “saudade” served as an interesting trigger for the discussion.

We then talked about the relationship between nostalgia and the burning of photos in Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) (1971). We related the burning process of pictures to resurrection process, as the burning itself made new, distinct, physical images of the photo. One student suggested that its process was like the cycle of pheonix, destroying itself to make a new meaning. Moreover, every photo was burnt in a different way, creating a unique image. While it was being destroyed, it simultaneously being created. The film itself suggests that the photos, which represent the past and memory, are never gone because while they are being burnt, the film itself is left eternally. Then, we talked about the relationship with time in this movie. Having the narration one ahead, the viewers have to think about the future and the past at the same time which requires an active spectatorship somewhat similar to the effect of Andy Warhols’ Chelsea Girls (1966). Frampton’s deliberate off-timing of narration forces the viewers to constantly think about the time that is not present and the viewers have to choose whether to look forward to the future photo or to think back at the past photo. Frampton constantly revisits the past through this film which might be the reason why he named the film (nostalgia); he recorded the past by taking the photos, revisited it by writing the narration about the photos, and destroyed it but made it last forever by filming the incarnation process. Here, we observed that technology has both triggered and interrupted our memories. By preserving the representation of the memory, we can prolong our memory but also distort it.

We moved on to how nostalgia is depicted through various medium. As mentioned before, technology is closely related to memory and different medium has different way of provoking the sense of nostalgia. For example, visually, flashbacks, romantized visions of past, and foggy images try to portray nostalgia in films. Similarly, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) chose to use black and white film to capture the sensibilities of nostalgia. Also, in choosing the music for the film, Peter used the music that was from the old times and played it in the background to seem more like a part of their lives than the soundtracks. The aesthetic choice of using black and white film and music from the past period exemplified how the movie carried nostalgia to the viewers.

The Last Picture Show is intriguing in that the film asks the viewers where the nostalgia is. Nostalgia can be defined as the romanticized vision of the past and the visions that viewers see the most are the sexual activities. Furthermore, sex is depicted in non-erotic and ordinary way, far from romanticization. The depiction of sexuality is discrepant from what the viewers expect and this discrepancy parallels the difference between characters’ perception of sex and reality of it. Also, the depiction of masculinity and feminity also deviate from the viewers’ expectations and stereotype. Women seem to have more power in sex as they are seeking for status whereas men are sensitive and emotional. Nonetheless, both women and men are stuck in the town, stuck in the past, perhaps feeling nostalgic for the future to come.

We finally talked about the impact of TV in The Last Picture Show. We pointed out that only the female figures were watching TV and suggested that it was TV that might have made the women behave in distorted and thwarted way. Also, the last scene showing the end of film age due to TV indicates that the way of living has also ended with the downfall of film. We concluded that the film itself was nostalgic about its own art form, such as western imagery of landscape, and that it could be an homage to cinema itself.

Jaap Recitation 2/15 9:30AM

The class began with Jaap showing a clip from The Exorcist.  The scene showcases the changes brought about from the demise of the production code in 1968 and the establishment of the film rating system thereafter.  For the first time ever mainstream movies in Hollywood were allowed to show more controversial material with less fear over losing out on support from the studios.  The clip from The Exorcist proves this change with its graphic dialogue, violence, and sexualization of a young girl.  However, the clip also relates to the change in the way films of the time began to depict female sexuality in a more frank manner than ever before.

Next we moved on to a discussion of the film (nostalgia) by Hollis Frampton. Frampton plays with the histrionics of personal memory by simultaneously burning his photographs and filming them to ensure their immortality.  We then discussed whether or not photographs and film can be utilized as completely objective representations of the past or whether we insert our own personal nostalgia onto the visual media.  We related the idea of visual media as evidence of past events to clips shown of the JFK assassination and the Rodney King beating and we questioned whether or not images can sometimes be a distortion of reality.

We then moved on to a discussion on Lewis.  We talked about how violent and often sexual incidents were occurring in society during the 60s and 70s, but were being largely ignored by the cinema at the time. However this changed with the demolition of the production code, which also helped to lead into the New Hollywood era of filmmaking. This was an era headlined by auteurist filmmakers, who were themselves film brats, that took much of the control of filmmaking away from the producers.  This than moved into a presentation on Sklar who discusssed the Hollywood Renaissance which was able to help save the film industry by bringing viewers back to the theaters.

We then moved to a discussion on the change in film gaze in relation to gender and race. We talked about how The Last Picture Show broke ground by depicting women as in control of their sexuality and by putting into question the idea of male masculinity that was present in classical Hollywood cinema.  Instead of showcasing men secure with their masculinity, movies began to show men searching for how to behave like a man, which ultimately allowed for women to finally enter the picture in a more equal fashion. We then moved this to a discussion of race in the blaxsploitation movement of the 70s. Jaap showed the opening sequence from the movie Shaft and relayed to us how the movie had been one of the first african american focused films to also be successful among caucasians.

We ended the class with the opening sequence from American Graffiti and discussed how that film and The Last Picture Show used rock and roll and country as a way to establish nostalgia through music.  We talked about how this nostalgia was fully indulgent, that by making movies like American Graffiti and The Last Picture Show one establishes a nostalgia for a time that doesn’t exist by romanticizing the notion of the period in history.  These movies may never be able to divorce themselves from this romanticization precisely because they are saying something about the past from the mind-set of the present.

Jaap Recitation 2/14

Jaap began the recitation with a clip from The Exorcist (1973). The clip relates to what is discussed in the Lewis chapter in regards to the change in the rating system. The new rating system allowed for directors to show what they wanted to show and still have studio backing. The Exorcist scene is very graphic, oddly sexual, deals with religious issues, and contains violence with a minor. The film was an example of how directors had new possibilities of showing what couldn’t be shown before. In addition, The Exorcist portrays a changing representation of women in mainstream cinema. The new Hollywood differed from the previous tendency to focus mainly on men in films.

After the clip, a presentation was given on (nostalgia). We discussed how Frampton explores memory and the way we tend to romanticize them. Frampton dug up old photos, however, when he saw these photos again, they weren’t as good as he thought they would be, so he decided to destroy them. Similarly, The Last Picture Show deals with nostalgia as well. During this period of time in American cinema, different depictions of the past were portrayed in films as mindsets were changing towards what the United States means and what it is. This was especially relevant after the Vietnam War. (nostalgia) also comments on the changing status of photography. Photographs are evidence of a past, but in a way, can they reflect something different than reality? Jaap then showed the Rodney King video, evidence that was used in the trial in which some argued that it was a distortion of reality, making things seem worse than they actually were.

Next, the Lewis presentation was given. We discussed the rise of auteur Hollwood—film became very personal, and more artistic films were receiving studio backing. The presentation focused especially on Scorsese, Mallick, and Speilberg. Each director employed their own personal techniques (oddly, all of these directors are each nominated this year for Best Picture).

The last presentation to be given was on Robert Sklar’s “Nadir and Revival”. We discussed the 2 categories Sklar brings up: The Age of Turbulence and the Age of order. We again mentioned the first generation of emerging directors graduating from film school. This led into a discussion on The Last Picture Show. We looked at the gender depictions,. Women were inferior, however, some argued that they had the control in sexual acts. Jaap ended recitation with the opening credits from American Graffiti. We compared its presentation of nostalgia to that of The Last Picture Show.

Bruno Recitation 2/15

This week the focus of discussion was on the the value of nostalgia as commentary on the past. Questions were raised as to how changes in technology impact and inform such commentary. In relation to Frampton’s film, we were asked to consider how nostalgia impacts the viewer, as well as any similarities it held to ‘Touching’.

One of the main talking points was the out of order commentary present in Frampton’s film. By forcing the viewer to pay attention to the current image, and past/present commentary at the same time, ‘Nostalgia’ breaks barriers of time usually present in most films. Some said this was heightened by the use of a third-person narrator commenting in the first person. Others simply found that it made things too difficult for the viewer  and questioned how repetition was supposed to destroy meaning.

From here we went on to discuss the context of early seventies American cinema. Specifically the impact of the MPAA rating system, threats to traditional cinema such as the rising porn industry and television, as well as the auteur theory which created a new kind of star system based on a director’s individual style.

Finally we came to discuss “The Last Picture Show” and initially focused on the role of sex/gender within the small town setting. How sex was seen as escape yet portrayed as underwhelming. Some spoke of how the sex scenes unglamorous presentation seemed to reflect a female director. The lack of sanctity in marriage was touched upon, as well as JC’s role as a kind of “gateway to adulthood.” Lastly we discussed water, contrasting the side by side scenes of the pool “stripshow” and Sam the Lion’s monologue at the fishing tank. Most of the talk focused on the contrast between purity and artificiality (pond vs. pool), as well as the role of bystanders (horses vs. kids).

We finished with a warning to speak more in future recitations.

 

Presentation summary of Lewis (281-327)

Pages 281 to 327 of Jon Lewis’ book American Film describes Hollywood from 1968-1980.  Lewis contextualizes the decade in film with several important historical events such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Nixon’s election amid failures in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, racial tension, an increase in feminism, and economic inflation.  Lewis points out though that very few of these issues are addressed in mainstream movies during the early seventies.  Even the Vietnam War was rarely depicted until 1975.

During this decade a new generation of filmmakers was moving into Hollywood.  They were called the movie brats, as they were young and had attended film school.  They introduced the auteur renaissance, which was a new system in filmmaking in which the director had creative control over the film rather than the producers, who had always told the director what to do.  This reminded me of the reading we did for last week about the making of Easy Riders.  BBS Productions must have been one of the first to embrace the auteur theory when they took a backseat to Dennis Hopper during the making of the film.

This decade was called the New Hollywood.  Lewis describes three aspects of New Hollywood:

1)      There was a new system of film classification.  In 1968 the Motion Picture Production Code was put to rest and there was a new system for rating movies.  This allowed more adult-themed movies to be made and allowed studios to find their target audiences.  The only thing that confused me about this new system is how the movie HEAD (which must have been one of the first movies to use the system) got off with a G rating.  It had explicit drug references, disturbing images from the Vietnam War, and sexual innuendos.

2)      Studios embraced the auteur theory.  Coppola’s film The Godfather was one of the first movies made by an auteur director and it was a huge financial success.  Studios realized they could make a ton of money by embracing the auteur theory, so therefore many more of these movies were made.  (The Godfather came out just a year after The Last Picture Show, which had a theme of a way of life passing and is said to have been a farewell to the Golden Age in Hollywood).  Ironically, although he had started it, it was Coppola who ended the auteur renaissance with his film Apocalypse Now.  Studios decided that films such as this were beginning to be too much of a financial risk.

3)      Studios needed to eliminate competition.  In the early 1970’s porn started to out-earn many of the major studio releases.  Deep Throat was one of the top box office successes in 1972.  The success of porn triggered more explicit scenes in mainstream movies.  It seems crazy to think that only seven years prior to Deep Throat when Fuses came out people were outraged, despite the fact that Fuses isn’t even porn.  This shows the clear shift in the movie eras.

2/15 summary of Jaap’s 9:30 recitation

To start off class on Tuesday, Jaap showed us a clip from The Exorcist.  We discussed how the clip relates to the readings we did for last week.  It provoked discussion about the Production Code as it was a very violent and somewhat sexual scene.  It also led to a discussion of how the two female leads represented female sexuality, which we would discuss further in depth later in the class when we related it to The Last Picture Show.

Then we discussed the issue of nostalgia.  Nostalgia is a painful recollection of something in the past, and perhaps Frampton is trying to convey the pain in his memories by burning the photographs in (nostalgia).  We discussed questions like what is the purpose of the photographs in (nostalgia)?  Why did Frampton show the photographs after telling their story?  What is Frampton trying to convey with his film?  What is he saying?

We compared the personal memory from (nostalgia) to the cultural memory in The Last Picture Show.  To give us a better understanding of cultural memory, Jaap showed us clips from the Zapruder film and the Rodney King video.  The JFK assassination and the police brutality towards Rodney King became a part of the nation’s collective memory.  We discussed how the films can be used as evidence and how this evidence made these two events part of our cultural memory.

After the presentations on the Robert Sklar and Jon Lewis readings, we picked back up on the discussion of the representation of gender in films that we had started in the beginning of class.  Women are often objectified in films, since there were very few female directors.  The images we see on the screen are therefore always from a man’s perspective.  Men were always in control in film.  The Last Picture Show shifts that as it portrays the women as being in control of the sex (despite several objectifying scenes of women, such as the nude swim party).  We tied the film back to The Manchurian Candidate.  Both films portray a strong feeling of uncertainty for men and spark the question of what does it mean to be a man?

We then watched the opening scene of Shaft and discussed how there had previously been very few mainstream movies with an African-American lead.  Then we watched the opening clip from American Graffiti and discussed its similarities to the opening scene of The Last Picture Show, such as the music and the idea of nostalgia.