Blue Valentine

This film is a clean example of when a creator takes a leap of faith and entrusts his collaborative partners with bringing his dream to life. Director Derek Cianfrance spent almost a third of his life attempting to get Blue Valentine (2010), a deeply personal project, onto the silver screen. After 12 years, 66 drafts, nearly 1500 storyboards, and countless roadblocks, Cianfrance finally secured financiers to back his film. Considering how close the director/co-writer was to the material and how long he fought for it to be made, it’s astonishing how selfless and open he was in the production process. Derek Cianfrance entrusted his crew and two lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams (whom he credits as co-writers), to breathe life into the characters on the page. One would think that a director who has envisioned his film countless times in his head for over a decade would be rigid, uncompromising, and deeply protective of his brainchild—but not Cianfrance. In fact, he was kindly inviting to new ideas, repeatedly asserting to his leads that he would be “bored” if the performances were a direct regurgitation of the script. The director had the clarity and foresight to realize the need to distance himself from what he held so close for so long. Self-described as having an allergy to “fakeness,” Cianfrance insisted that the concept remained fluid throughout all stages of the creative process. He maintained a rough outline of story points and simply allowed the actors to “fill in the dots” with improvisation.

The director refers to Blue Valentine as a duet in every sense of the word; thematically, aesthetically, and structurally. Much like a relationship, the film is a sum of its parts. Told in a series of vignettes, the film juxtaposes the present-day maladies of the now-married Dean (Gosling) and Cindy’s (Williams) relationship with flashbacks of the couple’s courtship six years prior. Cianfrance offers the blossoming of their love and the wilting of their marriage, intentionally omitting the goings-on that fill the gap. Here the director poses Valentine’s most glaring question, “How does love erode over time?”

Dean and Cindy’s personal struggles are both distinctively personal and undeniably universal. Viewers will be hard pressed to disassociate themselves from the all-too-familiar quarrels that strain the couple’s marriage. Dean struggles with Cindy’s growing indifference towards him, as well as his own ideas of masculinity. Cindy’s obvious discontentment and sense of entrapment slowly suffocates the relationship. Dean’s lack of professional ambition irritates her, as she believes he is not living up to his potential. Each cold expression and passive-aggressive remark signals her impatience with Dean, and the sense that her window of opportunity to reinvent a new life for herself is closing. Neither Dean nor Cindy lives up to each other’s expectations. They do not become what each had promised the other during their courtship. The sole thinning thread that still binds Cindy to her marriage to Dean is their six-year-old daughter.

Derek Cianfrance modeled the form of his debut feature film, Brother Tied (1998), in direct response to his contempt for the mid-90’s independent wave. The budding filmmaker felt this group of films lacked filmic ingenuity, so he emphasized the use of cinematic techniques in nearly every shot of his first go-around in the director’s chair. As a result, his heavy reliance on these tools overweighed the content of Brother Tied. Cautious of repeating this mistake with Blue Valentine, Cianfrance carefully strategized how to create a form that supported the story and its players. What evolved was a manifesto he had written detailing how both parts of the film would be shot. The flashback sequences of Dean and Cindy would be shot handheld on Super-16mm film with a 25mm lens. In juxtaposition, the present-day sequences would be recorded on two RED One digital cameras mounted on tripods with long lenses. This choice is largely responsible for the unique aesthetic look of Blue Valentine.

The visual design of the film is breathtaking and Cianfrance’s implementation of his stylistic manifesto bolsters the dichotomous nature of the story. In the flashbacks the handheld camera moves with the characters, giving a visceral feeling to the shots. The normal angle 25mm lens expresses a sense of opportunity and spontaneity within the frames. Filmed mostly in master shots, either Dean or Cindy initially occupies the composition, and then the other enters to symbolically fill the frame. These perceptive cinematographic choices elegantly evoke the freedom that the characters’ young love promised. The Super-16mm film brilliantly brings out the lush saturated colors and deep spaces, lending a magically romantic quality to the print.

In contrast to their honeymoon phase, Cianfrance observes the dissolution of the marriage with two mounted RED cameras. Using digital video, the director was able to shoot extended takes of the characters through their struggle. The REDs were positioned as far away as the sets permitted, often tucked in corners of the rooms, and were strapped with telephoto lenses. This choice allowed the actors to move freely within the limited space. Cianfrance directed one camera to relentlessly follow Gosling and the other Williams. The telephoto lenses keep the characters in separate close-ups at all times, so the two rarely share the frame. The tight compositions lend a claustrophobic quality to the shots, emphasizing the emotional distance between the forsaken lovers. Another aesthetic benefit of the digital medium is the ability to provide extremely sharp focus with a narrow depth of field, which also underlines the suffocating, stagnant atmosphere of the sequences. The cameras in these scenes skillfully watch the two characters like surveillance technology. Similar to Robert Altman, Cianfrance sits back and observes his characters in their space, as if he’s a member of the audience. As a result, what transpires onscreen doesn’t feel forced or manipulated, but realistic. The director’s documentarian background informs his filmmaking process. Like a wild cat, he patiently watches, allowing his instinct and intuition to alert him to pounce and capture the perfect moments as they present themselves.

Derek Cianfrance’s deft cinematographic decisions pay dividends in the final cut, brilliantly contrasting the characters’ subjective emotional states. His intentions to make the couple appear like “fish in the ocean” in the flashbacks and “fish in a bucket” in present-day sequences are successfully realized. The director strategically fills his compositions with symbolism to support the story arc. The theme of time, specifically how time deteriorates love, is a constant presence throughout the film. Dean and Cindy’s wristwatches are noticeably visible in almost every scene, along with several wall clocks. Time as a theme manifests itself in other forms as well. Take, for instance, the nursing home where Dean and Cindy first meet. Cindy cares for her frail grandmother across the hall as Dean moves an elderly man into his new living space. When Dean returns a few days later in an attempt to locate Cindy, he finds out the elderly man has since passed away. Both Cindy’s grandmother and the elderly man die alone, without their spouses. Similarly, the film opens with Dean burying the family dog, who was hit by a car after Cindy forgot to lock the gate. In a last-ditch attempt to rekindle their romance, Dean convinces Cindy to spend a night with him at an adult-themed motel. Ironically, the room he reserves is “The Future Room,” which interestingly has no windows. Their troubled overnight stay at the motel serves as a catalyst for their apparent break up.

There are also other reappearing motifs, such as American iconography. Blue Valentine’s color palette revolves around hues of red, white, and blue. In the idealistic courtship phase of their relationship, deep, saturated reds dominate the frames. As their marriage disintegrates, the once sensuous colors lose their punch. The reds turn to pink, the whites become milkier, and the blues recede their power as well. This may serve as metaphor for the American institution of marriage. Just as these pastels are watered down forms of their original hue, increasing divorce rates have watered down our nation’s family values. Other patriotic symbols decorate Cianfrance’s compositions as well. The elderly man’s military service uniform, Dean’s bald eagle sweatshirt, the courthouse where Dean and Cindy marry, and several U.S. flags appear in the film. Interestingly, when the director asked Ryan Gosling how he envisioned his character, the actor described him as a flag. Gosling imagined Dean as a tattered flag whose colors have become muted over time. In the past, Dean was a luminous, flapping flag, but the wind slowly frayed its edges. In yet another symbolic gesture, Cianfrance’s final shot of the film shows a heartbroken Dean walking away from Cindy’s parent’s house, with his crying daughter chasing after him, as the neighborhood block residents shoot off fireworks in celebration of Independence Day.

It may be hard to convince others to view the film due to its bleak themes, but those willing to shoulder the blow will come to appreciate its tell-it-like-it-is attitude. Blue Valentine has been inaccurately described as a “tragic love story,” but it is quite the opposite. Romeo & Juliet would fall better under that category, and this film is the antithesis of Shakespeare’s melodrama. No star-crossed lovers will have the cosmos assisting their fortune to die in each other’s arms. Director Derek Cianfrance purposely stripped this narrative of any fantasy, and instead opted to present an honest, realistic, at times raw, and thoroughly engaging account of a flawed relationship. Blue Valentine dares to explore what so few modern films do– exposing real human beings in all their terrible beauty and ugly love.

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Subverting the Femme Fatale in L.A. Confidential

 

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            The film noir tradition employs several recognizable thematic and stylistic traits; elaborate low-key lighting arrangements, on-location urban settings, hardboiled detectives, and threads of corruption, betrayal, sexual obsession, and deceit, ominous shadows, moral ambiguity, flawed protagonists, and the seductive femme fatale.  Noir storylines often expose the dark side of human nature; they reveal characters’ latent desires, and uncover crooked complexions of seemingly admirable social institutions.  

            Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997) easily situates itself in the noir realm, but also creates subtle aversions to its distinguished tropes. Hanson’s most interesting variation lies within his portrayal of the character Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger). Bracken is the film’s femme fatale, and she fits several of the distinctive traits associated with the archetype. However, the director resists applying the usual cut-and-dry characterizations of the femme fatale. Instead, Hanson creates an atypically complex role for Bracken.

            In film noir, the femme fatale is an exceptionally attractive, independent woman who often uses her brazen sexuality to seduce, manipulate, and ultimately compromise the protagonist. By using her wit and charm, she lures the male protagonist into her web, and eventually exposes his inherent weaknesses. To many critics, the portrayal of femme fatales is seen as ostensibly misogynist – a sexually enticing female whose shady intentions, loose morals, and scheming nature lead to the male’s demise. Throughout most of L.A. Confidential, Lynn Bracken fits this predetermined mold, but in the end, her character does not turn out to be the protagonist’s arch nemesis.

            The labyrinthine plot of L.A. Confidential revolves around the investigation of a mass murder at a small diner in 1950s Los Angeles. Three policemen with divergent methods, morals, and motivations serve as the protagonists. Ed Exley (Guy Pierce) is a straightedge cop whose unwavering moral uptightness alienates him from the rest of the force. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a man of brute force with a personal vendetta against men who batter women. In clear contrast to Exley, White has no problem with planting false evidence on criminals to ensure justice is served. The third detective is Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a confident man who is more concerned with being in the limelight than the routine duties of a lawman. He spends the bulk of his time serving as a technical advisor for a fictional law enforcement television show and taking backdoor deals with shady tabloid journalists to set up celebrity busts. Combining the differing traits of the three protagonists creates the fully formed noir hero. Through the investigation of the mass murder, a high-end prostitution ring is exposed. The underground business named Fleur-de-Lis employs call girls who are physically altered via plastic surgery to look like movie stars. Lynn Bracken is one of these hookers. She is designed to resemble Veronica Lake, although she has not undergone plastic surgery (only her hair has been dyed blonde).

            Throughout the film, Miss Bracken is subject to the familiar male gaze that is created by the positioning of the camera. No doubt she is a highly sexualized character, as her scandalous profession, flirtatious demeanor, and revealing costumes underline. As the film progresses, though, the script allows her character to become more fully formed, and thus more humanized. Her interactions with Bud White serve to disassociate her role as a Veronica Lake look-alike and in turn reveal her true self. In a similar fashion, her relationship with White also helps allow him to let his guard down.

            Viewers familiar with noir conventions will first be apprehensive of the temptress, knowing full well that generically she is a hollow trap that the protagonist will ill advisedly trust and succumb to. The audience’s expectations will be thwarted, though, as it turns out. Lynn Bracken actually gives both Exley and White the vote of confidence each man needs to unravel the case. Bud White divulges his traumatic childhood experiences to her, and confesses that he does not think he’s smart enough to solve the case. He concedes to her, “I’m just the guy they bring in to scare the other guys shitless.” Lynn restores his confidence, which enables him to go forward in his exploration of the murders. Bracken also boosts Exley’s self-esteem, giving him the strength to be proactive in his search for answers. Lynn Bracken’s keen intuition and subsequent faith in these men’s abilities is what enables the conflicting officers to overcome their differences, join forces, and ultimately solve the case. 

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Urban eXperiment

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Thirty years ago, a group of six teenagers infiltrated Paris’ ministry of telecommunications through the city’s web of underground passageways. The teens avoided the guards that were on duty and managed to access copies of the ministry’s maps of Paris’ underground tunnels.  The success of this covert operation prompted the formation of UX, or “Urban eXperiment.”  This underground group has since dedicated itself to restoring and preserving artwork that French authorities have neglected to maintain.

 UX has several different divisions within its structure– its members volunteer their unique expertise in areas ranging from masonry, tunneling, cartography, and infiltration to cultural programming, archiving, and communications. The group’s successful track record is in largely due to its expansive knowledge of the city’s underground passages, many of which connect to the basements of Paris’ historic buildings. In an effort to raise awareness to the city’s ineffective security systems, an UX member left a detailed memo on the desk of a major museum’s security director’s desk, highlighting the imperfection’s in the museum’s security. Rather than being grateful for the notification, the security director unsuccessfully attempted to prosecute the infiltrators. UX maintains that no changes have since been made to the museum’s security.

Urban eXperiment claims to have completed 15 covert cultural preservation missions since its startup. Its members have held several underground film festivals and art shows, often setting up their events in culturally relevant off-limits locations, such as beneath the Palais de Chaillot (the former home of Paris’ historic Cinematheque Francais). UX’s most recent clandestine operation took place in 2006, when a team of eight members spent months attempting to breach the Pantheon, where many famous French citizens’ remains are held. Under the guidance of UX cofounder and professional horologist Jean-Baptiste Viot, the group snuck into the Pantheon and built an undercover workshop in an unused part of the building. The members managed to haul drills, tables, and chairs into the room where they aimed to repair a broken 19th-century clock located in the Pantheon. After examining the object, Viot concluded that the worker in charge of winding the clock had intentionally sabotaged one of its mechanisms to lighten his workload. Viot knew this wondrous engineering artifact needed prompt attention, as it was rapidly deteriorating and oxidation threatened to render the clock irreparable. After spending thousands of dollars out of their own pockets and laboring away for months, the group successfully restored the clock to working condition.

Upon the project’s completion, UX notified the Pantheon’s director of their operation. Much to the activists’ chagrin, the director refused to believe their story (even after UX revealed their workshop), and then proceeded to take the group to court.  Again, the French authorities sided with UX, citing that there was no law prohibiting the improvement of clocks.  Astonishingly, the contentious director at the Pantheon went so far as to hire a clock worker to re-sabotage the clock back to its previous non-functioning state. Readers aggravated by the absurdity of this action will be pleased to know that revenge has since been exacted. Urban eXperiment members regained access to the Pantheon and retrieved the damaged mechanism in the clock, vowing to hold the part for safekeeping until a more responsible administration takes over at the Pantheon.

While some officials attempt to label UX as a group of thieves, criminals, or even terrorists, they are sorely mistaken. UX should be applauded for its tireless dedication to the preservation of important pieces of French history. UX volunteers its time and money to give neglected artifacts the attention they deserve. Without selfless activist groups like UX, countless remnants of French culture would continue to be ignored by the government’s cultural institutions, and it would only be a matter of time until the artwork would be lost forever.

 

           

 

            

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The Killer Inside Me

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           Michael Winterbottom’s 2010 independent film The Killer Inside Me is a dark, in your face rendering of Jim Thompson’s classic 1952 pulp novel of the same name. The story revolves around the affable and mannerly small-town sheriff in 1950s West Texas, Lou Ford (Casey Affleck). It is quickly revealed that behind this lawman’s badge lies a cold, depraved heart. Winterbottom’s film brings Thompson’s journey inside the mind of a psychopath to life on the big screen in an equally brutal fashion. 

            In the eyes of the townspeople of Central City, Lou Ford is a perfect ambassador for their friendly way of life. He explains the benevolent culture of Central City, “ Out here you say yes ma’am and no ma’am to anything with skirts on. Out here, if you catch a man with his pants down, you apologize… even if you have to arrest him afterwards. Out here you’re a man, a man and a gentleman, or you aren’t anything. And God help you if you’re not” (6). The unassuming Ford has lived behind this façade and established neighborly rapport with the citizens of the Texas town. His quiet intelligence and methodical nature has calculated the perfect misplaced sense of trust within the community, which has created the perfect arena for him to commit a slew of murders.

            After being asked to run a prostitute, Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), out of town, Ford develops a sadomasochistic relationship with her. Soon, he construes a murderous double-cross to settle some old scores, as well as to satisfy his “sickness”– a violent urge to kill that’s been buried within him since a series of traumatic childhood events. The plot thickens as Ford must commit additional murders to cover his tracks. Ford’s mask of sanity slowly starts to unravel, as increasing evidence stacks up against him.

            While many reviewers will criticize director Michael Winterbottom’s film due to its graphic depiction of violence, particularly the scenes of violence inflicted upon women, Winterbottom’s faithful adaptation to Thompson’s novel successfully realizes a portrait of a madman. While the director’s unrelenting vision can be hard to stomach at some moments, it imprints a uniquely powerful sense of dread within the viewer. The final product benefits from Winterbottom’s controversial, unapologetic attitude and fidelity to the source material.

            The backstory of the film, containing a web of blackmail, double crosses, corruption, and personal grievances, can be hard to follow at times. Winterbottom lightly glazes over the rich history and backhand deals that has led to the present political climate in Central City, whereas author Jim Thompson sheds in full detail in the book. Audiences looking for an answer to detail in the film will be disappointed, and to be honest, they are missing the point of Winterbottom’s film. The film does not provide a full-fledged psychological background report on Lou Ford’s character. The Killer Inside Me doesn’t waste its time hypothesizing what made Ford the way he is, it doesn’t lazily supply a clear Freudian explanation for his aberrant behavior. Instead, Winterbottom, with the aid of voiceover narration, situates the viewer inside the deranged mind of his lead character. The result is a fascinating character study, a haunting exploration into the mind of a deranged killer which Stanley Kubrick once called, “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.”

            

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Drive vs. The Artist

This year’s awards circuit features two films that can be categorized as silent: the Oscar-friendly tribute to Hollywood’s silent era, The Artist (2011), and the polarizing art-house action film, Drive (2011). While The Artist appears to be the odds-on favorite to capture several of the Academy Awards’ top honors, Drive was snubbed in most categories. This is a disappointing considering the inventiveness, creativity, and masterful execution of Drive.

While French director Michel Hazanavicius’ silent black and white film The Artist is a welcome homage to a bygone era in cinematic history, it lacks innovation. The film revolves around its main character, George Valentin  (Jean Dujardin), a silent film star who fears falling into obscurity with the advent of the talkies. Trapped in a stagnant marriage, Valentin falls for the up-and-coming star of the talkies, actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo).

Although it’s hard not to appreciate the difficulties that go into producing a successful silent film, especially in this day and age, The Artist fails to be more than a routine exercise in silent filmmaking. With the universal critical acclaim that Hazanavicius’ has garnered, the viewer should expect to be wowed, or at least slightly moved by the film. Unfortunately, The Artist brings nothing new to the table. It is chock- full of the melodramatic clichés one would associate with silent storytelling. Dujardin’s and Bejo’s performances are carried by wide-eyed comical expressions, and hammy, over-the-top expressions in body language. The director fails to create pathos for Valentin, who provides little impetus as to why he lacks all interest in his wife. Similarly, no one questions why the playful Peppy retains feelings for the bitter and proud Valentin. The most charming bits of the film are thanks in large part to Valentin’s loyal terrier. Instead of weaving the plot through creative visual storytelling techniques, Hazanavicius lazily employs newspaper headlines and other can’t-miss mechanisms to drive the narrative. While The Artist has its moments, it is ultimately a dull pastiche of expected silent film tropes.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is largely a silent film, utilizing minimal dialogue to maximum effect. The narrative follows the nameless Driver (Ryan Gosling), a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. Driver is, by nature, a loner (reminiscent of Eastwood’s Man With No Name) with a strict code of honor. After an innocent dalliance with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), Driver becomes committed to aid her and her young son. When Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, he is in-deep with criminals who threaten his family’s well-being, unless he agrees to participate in a heist. Driver decides to assist Standard in the job, but they are double-crossed, and Standard is murdered. Following the botched assignment, Driver stops at nothing to protect Irene and her young son from the criminals who are out to kill them.

While The Artist gives exactly what one would expect from a silent film, Drive is brilliantly stylized under the feverish direction of Nicolas Winding Refn. Opposed to the hokey acting of Dujardin and Bejo, Drive is bolstered by the perfectly nuanced performances of Gosling, Mulligan, and Isaac. With many generic references to ‘70s noir films, Drive sucks the viewer in from opening car chase scene. Refn’s methodical camera movements, wide-angle lenses, and expressionistic lighting give way for a top-notch, suspenseful thrill ride. Here, the director is patient with his pacing, which works so effectively. Refn allows the cinematography to tell the story. He creatively lets the subtext reveal character motivation and emotion. The scarce dialogue is of little importance in comparison to the subtle glances that are exchanged between Gosling and Mulligan. Drive has a daring, bare-bones structure to its story, and the film’s effectiveness can be directly attributed to the meticulous hand of its director. Refn’s assured style gives a lyrical quality to the film. The operatic, oneiric pacing of its sequences hypnotizes the viewer. Long, silent takes with a static camera are juxtaposed with lightning quick moments of hyper-violence. The rollercoaster ride Drive takes the viewer on is intoxicating. Nicolas Winding Refn’s attention-to-detail and unforgiving style makes Drive an enthralling piece of work—a pure cinematic experience unlike any other film in recent history.

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The Battle Over Citizen Kane

 

In 1996, PBS’ American Experience series aired the Oscar-nominated documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane. This film is a must-see for all film fans, or history buffs, for that matter. In their film, co-directors Michael Epstein and Thomas Lennon chronicle one of the most fascinating feuds in show business. It was a power struggle between two media magnates; the child prodigy, Orson Welles, who took Broadway and radio by storm, and the publishing powerhouse, William Randolph Hearst.

Orson Welles’ first film Citizen Kane (1941), which he directed at the age of 24, has since become revered as one of the greatest films of all time. It is only fair that this revolutionary film has an equally rich backstory. The ambitious boy genius challenged one of the most powerful men in the country by loosely basing his titular character after Hearst. The power struggle that ensued to produce and distribute the film is epic in scale.

While the title assumes the documentary is focused on the war between these two egoistic men, the film devotes most of its running time to chronicling each man’s rise to power in his respective industry. The lens through which the directors view the story, while somewhat misleading, proves to be even more fascinating than the struggle over the release of Citizen Kane itself. The documentary hypothesizes that Welles and Hearst were uniquely similar in nature, and that Welles fused his own personality into the creation of the lead character, Charles Foster Kane. The Battle Over Citizen Kane utilizes interviews with Welles and Hearst historians, as well as several persons that worked closely with the men. These subjects provide titillating insights into the goings-on of Tinseltown during the infamous battle. These personal anecdotes furnish an absorbing portrait of the politics of nation and how Welles and Hearst came to prominence.

The filmmakers highlight Welles myth-like childhood and rise to power in the entertainment industry. In his early twenties, with no professional experience, Welles was hired to direct a Harlem rendering of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Employing mostly amateur actors as a part of a Depression-era jobs program, the intrepid director exploited the underlying fear that overwhelmed the nation’s consciousness in his play. Welles’ dark interpretation of the classic became hailed by some as the best American Shakespeare production ever produced on stage. Riding off the success of Voodoo Macbeth, Welles worked furiously on several more stage productions while supplementing his income by acting for radio broadcasts at CBS. The multi-talented young man would voice hundreds of characters for the radio stories, but he only used this money to make his current plays even larger in scale.

Orson Welles’ next landmark production would shock the nation. Again, the showman tapped into the anxiety of the American people with wildly successful results. Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds stirred nation-wide panic. The director interrupted a regular broadcast with false news of a Martian invasion, which sent the listeners into frenzy. While claiming he did not mean to mislead the public, he was well aware of his actions and the effect it would have. This infamous broadcast made Orson Welles the most wanted man in showbusiness. What followed was an unprecedented contract to direct films for RKO. Welles was given complete artistic control, which was unheard of in Hollywood. Aiming to stir the pot again with controversial subject matter, the ambitious young man chose to base his first film off of the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst, a decision that would affect the rest of his career.

The filmmakers outline how Hearst achieved wide-reaching success in a similarly theatrical and questionable manner. Nothing would stop this man from getting his results; he would produce false news stories to shock readers, bad-mouth his competitors, and buy out any business or worker to get to the top. He even called for the assassination of President McKinley in his papers, and two days later the act was carried out. After getting his hands on the script, Hearst demanded the production come to a halt. The film would shine a dark light on his reputation, and the less-than-flattering portrayal of his mistress, Marion Davies, made him irate. He attempted to buy the rights to the film so it could be burned. Then, he made Welles out to be a Communist, blacklisted Citizen Kane from theaters, and refused to publish any mention of the film. After threatening to expose and badmouth the sociopolitical makeup of Hollywood, he finally was able to tarnish Welles’ reputation and film. The boy genius was unable to cash in on any of the nominations he was up for at the year’s Academy Awards. However, over time Citizen Kane became regarded as one of the all-time greats. Welles, on the other hand, was never able to top his first directorial effort. The documentary suggests Hearst effectively blemished Welles’ character, and that Welles lived out the second half of his life as a shell of his former self, much akin to how Hearst went out.

The Battle Over Citizen Kane is an important documentary, and should be required viewing for those interested in film history. While the film is dryly fashioned in the PBS, made-for-TV, Ken Burns style, the story itself is so intriguing that archival footage, Citizen Kane clips, straightforward interviews, and voiceover narration doesn’t bog it down. Directors Michael Epstein and Thomas Lennon do a brilliant job of highlighting the backstory and politics that paved the way for this battle of free speech between two American heavyweights.

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Mel Chin’s S.P.A.W.N.

Mel Chin is an environmental activist/artist who has created projects that have served simultaneously as an art and science project. In Mel Chin’s SPAWN project, he sought to change the association of worthlessness with abandoned houses. The idea arose from the imagery of burning houses in East Detroit from Devil’s Night that was stuck in Chin’s head. During a PBS interview, Chin explained his intentions for the project, “The project is about transformation on many different levels.” The night before Halloween came to be known as “Devil’s Night” because of the vast amounts of vandalism that occurred. What began as petty acts of vandalism such as TP-ing, and egging turned into more dangerous acts such as arson. This trend grew when landowners started burning houses to collect insurance money because they could not sell the properties amidst the tough housing market. The property owners would use the Devil’s Night as a cover for their arson. During the mid-to-late 80s, hundreds of fires were set on Devil’s Night, especially affecting Detroit’s inner-city neighborhoods.  These haunting images of burning houses were engrained in Mel Chin’s head, and he created the SPAWN project to help change the negative connotations connected to the abandoned houses.

As an artist, Mel went into the abandoned homes to see what he could contribute. His intentions were to take something that would be considered of no value (remnants of a burned abandoned home), and to remove it from shame and restore value to it. Through the idea of conceptual art, Mel Chin would return life to some of these homes. His idea was S.P.A.W.N. (Special Projects Agriculture Worms Neighborhoods); he would take one of the houses and put it on a pivot. Chin turned the basement into something that would raise earthworms or nightcrawlers that could be sold to the many fishermen of the Great Lakes. To the naked eye, the structure would still appear to be an abandoned, useless house. However, in actuality, the house could be moved to the side on its pivot and the basement geared to raise worms would be revealed. Chin explained his output in the PBS interview, “My contribution is two-fold; to create something that will be living after I am gone so that it can be returned to the neighborhood, and, at the same time reclaim an icon from what it has been depicted now as.” He took what he called the ‘internal organs’ of a place and used it in a whole new way, rather than simply reconstructing it.

Mel Chin may be hard to categorize as an artist because his work is so multi-disciplinary. His work is not necessarily aesthetically pleasing, but it can help economies, environments, and dying cultures. Chin describes his artistic process in Marilyn Stokstad’s book Art History (3rd ed.), “Rather than making a metaphorical work to express a problem, a work can tackle a problem head-on. As an art form it extends the notion of art beyond a familiar object-commodity status into the realm of process and public service” (1186). Chin believes that art isn’t about one particular method, “The diversity of medium and techniques is minor, but the diversity of ideas and how they survive and the methods they are transmitted is what’s most important.” Mel Chin defies what the naked eye assumes. He finds inspiration in dying neighborhoods, symbols, and lands and breathes new life into them.

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An Artist with a POV

Martin Scorsese’s extensive body of work as a filmmaker spans several decades and is generically diverse, but all of his films contain similar themes that reveal the artist’s distinct point-of-view. Nearly all of the director’s films deal with themes of alienation and religiosity. These common threads stem from Scorsese’s upbringing in Manhattan’s Little Italy.

It is well known that faith has played a large role in Martin Scorsese’s personal and professional life. For some time, Scorsese planned to become a Catholic priest. He went as far to enroll in a seminary school, but was forced to leave after a year due to poor grades. As a youngster, Martin was ostracized from most social circles because of his terrible asthma. Consequently, he spent most of his time in two places: the church and the movie theater. From an early age Scorsese was fascinated with the theatricality of the church. A connection can be made between the secular plays the nuns put on for the pupils, the Catholic rituals and ceremonies, and the pictures on the big screen at the cinema. All of these images and modes of storytelling provided a direct influence on the formative imagination of the budding artist. Since he was unable to run around and play sports with other neighborhood kids, Marty would conjure up elaborate storyboards for films.

Almost all of Scorsese’s films include values and symbols relating to the Catholic religion. Some religious references are more obvious than others, but they are always there to be found. Scorsese always places his characters in busy worlds as they search for some kind of personal redemption. God is always present in the world of Scorsese’s films, whether or not the characters notice it and accept or reject the divine presence.

The characters presented in the director’s work are usually struggling to fit into certain forms of communities. The tight-knit, strict structures of the Italian Catholic Church and community of the director’s neighborhood seems to play a large role in these thematic reoccurrences. In Scorsese’s Little Italy there were fine lines between what was right and wrong, and if you crossed the line or didn’t belong, you’d have hell to pay. In Taxi Driver, Travis doesn’t fit into society at large after being discharged from the army. He fails to fit in with his fellow cabbies, and similarly fails to create a connection with the woman he longs for. In Who’s That Knocking? the main character tries to romance a young girl and still fit in with his buddies from his neck of the woods. In Goodfellas, Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro try to be a part of a mob family, but they can never be fully accepted because they are not full-blooded Italians. Also, in The Departed, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon each try to maintain their double existences on both the side of law enforcement and the Irish mafia. In The Aviator, the main character struggles with a worsening bout of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which disables him from maintaining an active participation in society.

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Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist

Sylvain Chomet’s acclaimed animated feature The Illusionist (2010) follows the travels of an aging magician whose performances become increasingly underappreciated. Set in 1950s era Scotland, the film is a wistful look at one man’s coming to terms with his dying art form.

The magician moves between gigs where he plays second fiddle to up-and-coming acts, such as a charismatic teen heartthrob rock band. His plight continues until he gains the affection of a young girl, Alice, who becomes entranced with his performance at a small-town pub. The newfound admirer follows the Illusionist and the two develop a father-daughter relationship. The man commits to maintaining his illusory magic towards his lone fan. As Alice sets her eyes on progressively lavish attire showcased in storefront windows, the Illusionist takes on more odd jobs to be able to afford the gifts, where he goes to elaborate lengths to make them magically appear for her.

Chomet’s calculated direction and informed cinematography fuse the story and its themes wonderfully. The caricatured animation style lends itself to the changing of the times and its impacts on the characters’ lives. Even the magician’s movements relay his losing battle with Mother Time. His unsure mannerisms and gawky walking style reflect how misplaced he is in the evolving world around him. The Illusionist is largely a silent film, and its effectiveness showcases the director’s aptitude for visual storytelling. The chiaroscuro application of light in the frames actualizes the film’s bleak themes. The old man is often enclosed in the shadows cast by large city buildings, the flickering lights of theater marquees, or the attractions highlighted in storefront displays.  The hole-in-the-wall rooms the surrogate family takes up in, painted in a drab gray, blue-green, and brown palette, are juxtaposed with the glamorous, romanticized reds and pinks of which the modern artists are bathed in. Sylvain Chomet often utilizes frame-within-a-frame compositions in the film to echo the old man’s dilemma. The magician is carefully positioned through doorways, windows, and storefront displays-always enclosed on the outside, looking in.

The Illusionist is a fine example of how to evoke emotion with movement, light, and color. Expertly stylized and skillfully crafted, the film effectively conveys an aging man’s nostalgic trip as his specialized skill-set falls out of favor over time. Although the film has a deeply somber tone, its self-reflexive awareness and assured style is refreshing. The Illusionist is a nice throwback to traditional 2-D animation and strong visual storytelling.

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