Category Archives: Week 5 (2/21): Cynicism and Paranoia

City Island

In this clip from City Island (2010) , the son, Vince Jr., gets smart with his parents when they stress the importance of good grades, stating that regardless of how high one makes their grade point average, one will be destined to have an insignificant career in the long run. He’s talking about himself and his father, who works as a corrections officer. Vince Jr. is shown to smoke on school grounds and skip class, but what is most indicative of his character is that he is infatuated with large-set women. His fixation on them makes clear that he strives to be different, which becomes a running theme in the film.

The movie follows this family on City Island that is buried in strife as a result of the lack of communication between its family members. It reminds us of how the ideal American family is a broken ideal and that it cannot exist in today’s world. Secrets will be had from each other and individuals will engage in self destructive behavior as a result of that, regardless of station in life . The daughter hides her expulsion from college and becomes a stripper; the mother seeks an affair with her husband’s illegitimate son (unbeknownst to her). The son’s objective in the movie is to peek on the BBW porn star that lives across from him. The severity and oddity of each of the characters ordeals seems to make a statement that even in a well-established infrastructure like the American family, there lies chaos. There is no safe, secure station. Andy Garcia’s character, Vince, his acting teacher still has to audition for the same film roles as he goes for.

However, the movie offers a solution to the seeming inevitability of failure to live up to the ideal. Vince Jr. meets the porn star and uses her help to win the affections of another slightly obese girl. They spend their date baking at the porn star’s house. In a strange, slightly outlandish situation, Vince Jr. manages to live his dreams. For the rest of the family, once their secrets are let out into the open, they come to a place of resolution. In striving to escape the ordinary which seemed to eclipse their lives, they were able to salvage their decaying family by being truthful, no matter how odd the truth was. The film shows that cynicism is born out of the failure to accomplish the strange desires people have, and that just because a goal is peculiar, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be achieved.


Nostalgia, Paranoia, and Cynicism in Pleasantville

In the 1998 film, Pleasantville, Toby McGuire and Reese Witherspoon are transported into their television to live in a show that takes place in a small utopia in the 1950’s.  In the begginig of the film Toby’s character is sitting around watching old tv shows getting carried away with nostalgia.  He watches the shows about the good old days where everything was perfect. Reese’s character is angry that hes hogging the TV and they start fighting over the clicker. They hit a magical button that transports them into their tv right into the old sitcom, Pleasantville. This Pleasantville is completely in black and white and the editing keeps it that way for us. We are now watching two characters from present day try to fit into a utopia where life is simple and black and white. At first Reese is extremely cynical about the town. She runs around pointing out every thing that is wrong. She hates its perfection and flawlessness, but Toby loves it. Toby is now living his dream nostalgic life for real. This contrast between Toby and Reese and the arguments they have cause a perfect battle of cynicism and nostalgia.

Reese then meets and attractive innocent boy that she knows she can take advantage of. She then forces sex onto him and this is the turning point where things start to change.  Suddenly everything that looses its innocence gains its natural beautiful color. This massive change that is starting to take place causes hysteria and paranoia within the town. The loss of innocence in a utopian town does not go over very well and there is lots of resistance. The adult town leaders act as if their town is experience and unknown epidemic.  The spread of color is seen as poisionis. The towns people, along with Toby start to feel their perfect life spiral out of control and become extremely paranoid and cynical. Reese is the leader of this color movement and Toby tries to force his nostalgic beliefs on her. He explains that things were perfect and she cant just change things, that things need to stay how they used to be. This paranoia of change and the unknown carries deep within the town and there are riots, rebels, and prejudice.

The town eventually becomes completely colorful. The paranoid and cynics must accept this change and realize that its not that bad. Things start to happen that have never happened before in Pleasantville. People start doing beautiful works of art and having fights. They are now experience the full spectrum of life rather then just the perfection. This suggests that nostalgia can be dangerous and paralyzing. The characters who fight change and just want a nostalgic life are the ones portrayed as villians. The happy ones are the ones who embrace this change and get the most out of life. This shows that if we constantly are living with nostalgia we will never experience real life. A good message in a great film.

-John Fiorentino

Female Paranoia in Silence of the Lambs

Personal paranoia plays a large role throughout the entirety of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, especially as it relates to gender. There is often music when Clarice and Hannibal speak, however each of them seems to have a different instrument assigned as their own. Often times, when Clarice speaks, we hear strings, yet when Hannibal speaks, we hear much lower tones of brass instruments. Often times, as tension builds, we are led into the scene by minor, dissonant music, which inevitably cuts to silence at some point. Furthermore, whenever Clarice travels to a more “small town” landscape, a different type of music, perhaps more subdued and melancholy, is introduced. When Hannibal and Clarice speak about Clarice’s past in the prison, the conversation begins with, I think, timpani whenever Clarice speaks, and brass whenever Hannibal does. However as the exchange and editing get more and more rapid, the instruments blend into one instrumental piece. The low tones for Hannibal whenever he is onscreen keep us constantly on edge and wary, so that despite becoming more accustomed to his character, we never feel at ease with him. Beyond that, as Clarice succumbs to Hannibal’s manipulation, she finds it more difficult to maintain her own ground and control, and thus, in a way, blends with Hannibal, just like the music.

Though Silence was made in the 1991, not a time of particular political uprising, I think it was a time when gender was perhaps a bit more on the forefront of the countries mind. With the AIDS epidemic in full swing, certainly questions of homo and heterosexuality were burgeoning, and with those discussions comes an increased awareness of gender. As Brenda Cooper writes in her piece, Boys Don’t Cry and Female Masculinity: Reclaiming a Life and Dismantling the Politics of Normative Heterosexuality, “…media narratives that challenge hegemonic masculinity have the potential to destabilize the heteronormative gaze. Masculinity, Halberstam (1998) argues, is “what we make it.” More provocative is Halberstam’s assertion that a core principal of heteronormativity – that the “penis alone signifies maleness” – corresponds specifically to a tendency among gender scholars to limit their discussions of masculinity solely to men.” I think this raises an interesting point for Silence. Clarice even at the beginning of the film is almost comically presented to us in an elevator with only other giant men, her own small stature waiflike in contrast. There is certainly a covert sexual threat underlying this entire film, between both Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill. Despite being obviously threatened by Lecter at first, Clarice bonds with him in a way that a man almost surely wouldn’t have been able to, which is interesting because oftentimes gender is not overtly alluded to by either Clarice or Hannibal.

Furthermore, Clarice is doing a very masculine job as a petite female. It certainly raises the question of whether “female” and “feminine” and “male” and “masculine” aren’t always intrinsically tied. Despite Foster’s low voice and intensity, she remains a lot of her femininity in the film. She dresses not in the gender neutralizing uniform of a cop, but in her plain street clothes much of the time. She seems to be set apart from many of the other women in this film, especially in the childhood room of one of the young girls who has been abducted. For some reason an allowance, a separation, is made for her by Lecter. If anything, I think the film asks us to question our paranoia, especially as women, not in it’s validity but in it’s source.

Bruno’s Recitation 22.2.12

Bruno began this recitation by reviewing our second blog post assignment and giving us pointers on what was most important to include. After this we had a brief discussion on paranoia- what the term generally means (having a mindset of irrational fear toward something or someone), as well as how it is portrayed in cinema. We talked about The Conversation, and came up with ways that Coppola indicates Harry’s paranoia (he always needs to lock himself away in his apartment, he is always wearing a raincoat, etc). The discussion of paranoia then took on a broader context and we discussed what external factors might have prompted Coppola’s decision to make this film, namely the Cold War, Watergate, and general government conspiracy.

Next we covered the nostalgia for radicalism that was prevalent in the 70s, and how cynicism became the law of the land. We defined cynicism as the mindset that everything is wrong but there’s nothing one can do about it. There was skepticism during this time that indicated a total disbelief in human goodness. As far as film is concerned, we can see this explored in the fact that most films of the era ended with either no solution, or the bad guy being victorious.

Then there was a presentation by yours truly, in which I covered Hoberman’s article about paranoia. I talked about the circulation between reality and film, with a concentration on Warren Beatty’s role in each. I talked a little about his political leanings and the various films he made in the 70s. Then I explored the concept of terrorism as entertainment, particularly noting Patty Hearst’s kidnapping and how this incident was handled in the media. I also talked about disaster films and the myth of the middle class hero. After this, Bruno expanded on the Hearst kidnapping and the concept of brainwashing.

We then watched a clip from The Exorcist, and discussed how the paranoia of the audience was mimicked in its narrative (“it could happen to anyone”). Then the conversation went back to The Conversation, and we talked about the unclear narrative and argued for a good 15-20 minutes about whether or not the couple knew they were being watched in the first scene. That’s pretty much it!

Week 5, Cynicism and Paranoia; section 3, 11:00 AM – 12:15 PM, Jaap

In recitation, section three, on the twenty-second of February, Jaap elaborated from last night’s lecture on the second blog post assignment. Going into the week’s subjects of conspiracy and paranoia in the 1970’s, he presented a clip from the torture scene in John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man. In discussion of its relevance, we pointed out the fact that all parties—Dustin Hoffman in the chair and Laurence Olivier and his henchmen, as well as the audience—are both trying to figure out something to no avail, hence paranoia. We also pointed out that we as the audience—as well as Dustin Hoffman—cannot figure out the meaning of the organized actions going on—Hoffman’s kidnapping, entrapment, repetitive questioning (“Is it safe?”: We do not know what “it” refers to), and torture—, hence conspiracy; the theme of underground Nazism in the film was also mentioned as pointing toward the theme of conspiracy. We also discussed the device of the MacGuffin, an object in a work that drives the plot forward but is not actually very important in relation to the narrative as a whole; in Marathon Man, for example, the “it” in “Is it safe?” is a collection of diamonds stolen from Holocaust victims and survivors, but by the time we figure this out, we care more about Dustin Hoffman’s safety. In The Conversation, there are numerous MacGuffins: Has there really been a murder? Is Harry Caul’s (Gene Hackman) apartment bugged at the end of the movie? Who stole the recording? Whether these are real events or cerebral ruptures in the mind of Harry Caul, they still play as parts of a metastasizing paranoia. With the presence of ambiguity, what remains to be seen is the individual’s response.

Following this discussion, we had a presentation by Julien on “The Man Who Would Be King”, Chapter 5 from Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Pointed out in the presentation were the themes of conflict in the ranks of Hollywood production—namely intergenerational conflict—and the near-fiasco production of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, with Francis Coppola acting as both a sell-out—as maker of mainstream Hollywood films, instead of pursuing his dream of his own independent “auteur” status as per the French New Wave—and as a rebel—refusing to back down from most of his demands, from the actors he wanted to shooting on location in New York City in a 1940’s period setting. Also brought up was the idea that “Success comes from conflict,” which about sums up all of the stories in that chapter, from the production of The Godfather to the production of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Jaap took over afterward and added on with the reinvention of “old, traditional” genres, with The Godfather reinventing the gangster genre and Chinatown reinventing film noir. He also brought up the sequel boom that followed The Godfather, Part II’s winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, giving rise to multi-film franchises, including Star Wars, Jaws, Death Wish, Halloween and Friday the 13th.

We returned to the topic of paranoia with the close-ups scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Jaap cited Blow-Up as the inspiration for Francis Coppola’s The Conversation, the two films being similar for their questions of realism and of truth taken through forms of media, as well as the possible corruption of the senses through media. This segued with Emily’s presentation on “Ciné Paranoia: Conspiracies Unmasked, 1973-75”, an excerpt from J. Hoberman’s book The Dream Life. Brought up was a relating of the 70s’ to the 60s’ times of rebellion and denouncing of major authority figures, although instead of protesting rights to freedom of voice, people were now protesting the freedom of the mind in the landscape of media overload and government conspiracy, giving rise to the new question, How much of the media is fiction? Following the presentation, Jaap showed the two consecutive  sequences from the opening of Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, as well as the meeting scene between Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook). Jaap focused on “Deep Throat”‘s advice to Woodward—telling him to not follow the media in his pursuit of Nixon in the Watergate scandal, because they blew everything of proportion—as a poignant statement of the relationship of media vs. conspiracy, summing up the recitation.

Paranoia and Nostalgia in Goodfellas

In Scorcese’s Goodfellas, the audience is thrown into the Lucchese crime family between the 60’s and the 80’s. We immediately meet the protagonist, Ray Lamotta, who, as a teenager, always wanted to be a gangster. He drops out of school and decides to join this organized crime family. While the film is about the crimes they pull, it is surrounded by the family unit. The Lucchese family was real and was very close, and the film expresses the tight knit community this family has formed. After many trials and tribulations with Ray’s immediate family and crime family, we get to where the scene is now. Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert Deniro) convinces the gang to pull the Lufthansa heist, a real crime which made the Lucchese family in 1978. An estimated $5 million in cash and $875,000 in jewels were stolen, (around $20 million if calculated in 2011 inflation of US dollars) making it the largest cash robbery ever committed on American soil.

Jimmy warns everyone to spend the money gradually and to not spend it on flashy, expensive items because that would tip off the cops and the IRS. They, however, do not listen and Jimmy becomes angry. He becomes increasingly paranoid that the cops will find the gang and that will lead straight to him. He decides to murder everyone except for Ray. This is where the scene begins.

It is interesting how Scorsese weaves together the sense of family and nostalgia with the dark, mysterious murders. He starts with with children playing ball in the New York. It is cloudy and dreary, to add to the dark, paranoid effect to the entire scene. They immediately see the expensive, flashy, pink Cadillac that Jimmy warned them not to buy. Scorsese made an interesting choice with the children seeing them, to show that crime and family are, for this family, never not connected. The car, new back then, gives off a sense of nostalgia. This was bought by them to commemorate and celebrate the good times ahead. A happy piano song is played in the background, also giving the feeling of nostalgia and better times. Then all the bodies are found by normal, working citizens. Ray is narrating in the background, like old film noir movies, which usually express cynical and paranoid attitudes. Then the scene goes into the diner, again, a family restaurant, right after showing one of the lifeless bodies frozen on a hook like a rack of meat. We see Jimmy, happier than ever. Scorsese puts the scene in a diner, the prime symbol for nostalgia in all of film. He is released from all his paranoia about being caught, has more money now than he did before, and Tommy, his good friend, is being “made.” Tommy is picked up in a car, after being sent off by his mother, showing the loving undertones of this film, and is driven to the house where he is to be made. He asks an older man “How many years ago was yous made?” to which he responds, “I don’t know, 30 years ago.”  “Must be a lot of memories” says Tommy. Scorsese addresses nostalgia and family ties right here, explicitly. This is a process that you remember for a long time, and the old give to the younger generations. The happy music stops without the audience realizing, and Tommy is immediately shot and killed.

The politics of this scene shows that maybe Jimmy’s paranoia was needed to be placed elsewhere. The family is family, and they had a score to settle with Tommy. Jimmy was so caught up in his paranoia to not get caught, that he did not foresee the murder of Tommy. This is like The Conversation in that their paranoia about their professions ultimately leads to both the protagonists’ downfall. Scorsese masterfully makes the audience happy to dash all their hopes away by giving a nostalgic, optimistic setting of the 80’s, with the music, the diner, the phone booth, the Cadillac, etc.

Goodfellas and The Godfather are very similar films. In “The Man Who Would Be King,” Biskind says The Godfather “establishes the premise that the American dream has failed, the melting pot is an illusion, and the ethnic poor are trapped at the bottom of an uniust system.The Mafia provides what the government does not: simple justice and a version of welfare for the underclass.” Goodfellas  very much does the same thing. Ray, a poor teenager, looks to the crime family for a community, a tight knit family, security, and the potential to make it rich. The American dream has died, let’s do it another way. Jimmy uses his crime family ways to exact his view of justice. So does the family in killing Tommy. He also writes, “The Godfather looked forward to the conservative family values of the Reagan era,” a value much displayed in Goodfellas  as well. To be made was to become one of the family, someone who they respected and called a “Good Fella,” the utmost honor. The heavily placed sentimental value of the family is deeply tied in the crime ways of the Lucchese and is what makes this movie so special. It has the paranoia, murder elements that every crime movie should have, but it also reveals the other side, the family aspect to it, the good in it.     

JAAP -Take Shelter’s Patriarchal Paranoia

Take Shelter is like a modern time Old Testament Biblical story. Noah received the prophecy and built a gigantic ship. All of his friends were laughing at him. He and his family finally overcame the obstacles and built a ship that was capable to carry all the animals on Earth. The storm came, and the next thing we know the old world was gone. In the New Testaments Jesus also compared Noah’s Arc to the signs of the end times. He also included the elimination of the city of Sodom and Gomorrah into the conversation. Jesus described the end time as the arrival of a thief, which no one will be ready and all of a sudden a new world order will hit the ground hard.

In Take Shelter, Curtis is going through the same experience, but he receives these messages in a more personal way: dreams. The dream starts where his family dog bites his arm, and it gets much crazier. All of his actions are reactions to his dreams. However, these dreams are highly personal and Curtis can’t even be completely honest to his psychiatrist. The theme of the film eventually breaks down to the trust of the family and the ending is pending on more explanation.

Director Jeff Nichols points out that this anxiety is “part economic.” Meaning the things Curtis is going through reflect directly to the status quo of American like a shining mirror. From the story of Noah and Sodom we learned that God is the active one who punished the world for its sin. In Take Shelter however, is lacking a valid explanation on Curtis’ dreams and behaviors. We can only interpret that the force behind these dreams is either not important or impossible to change or to be recognized.  America is going through a series of crisis right now and no one seems to have the faintest idea of how to fix any of the problems we are facing. The patriarchal paranoia is something we feel instead of something we see. We feel the world is tearing apart and the value of the country is collapsing, but we can do nothing about it. The conclusion of the film however, offers us a way to react in a positive way. Curtis reaches his wife’s hand and sees the great storm coming from afar. It is important for people to understand that our most important and intimate shelter is our family. The idea of home is somehow complete by this film; we can now see the future with less fear and more trust, not to the country but to the people we love.