Category Archives: Film School

Film School: Loulou

Film School is a series of posts I write based on an evening film course I am taking. Every week we watch and then discuss a different film for around two hours. This week’s film is Loulou

Loulou.jpgThe premise is this: “A young woman decides to leave her bourgeois husband to have an affair with a sexier man.” It would not take a genius to figure out that this may possibly be a movie that takes place in France. It may also not come as much as of a surprise that it stars two of France’s most famous actors of the last thirty years: Isabelle Huppert and GĂ©rard Depardieu.

Huppert plays Nelly, a woman bored and frustrated by her marriage to Andre. She meets Loulou (Depardieu), someone much more able to meet all the desires her husband in unable to satisfy.

However, soon it becomes clear that trying to actually have a relationship with the unemployed, idle Loulou may not be as easy as she first imagined.

This leaves Nelly caught between two men. One who can satisfy her financial and intellectual needs, the other only capable of satisfying needs of a more physical nature.

Loulou may remind English-speaking audiences of the films of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. While it may not have precisely the same political messages as their films, it nevertheless goes to great lengths to convince you of the depth of its world.

Its script is semi-improvised. For a non-French speaker such as myself, this is obviously difficult in pick up in the dialogue. Nevertheless, the movements of the characters do have a realism to them that reflects this improvised nature. Two ‘fight’ sequences in particular which are poles apart from the carefully choreographed kicks and punches of most modern Hollywood thrillers.

Characters are also given little introduction. Close friends of characters appear and then disappear, with little indication of their fates. In a typical Hollywood romance, Nelly would have a best friend to give her advice about choosing between her two men.

Here, her apparent best friend appears in the opening scene of the movie, and then is never heard from again. The nature of the world allows for the possibility that Nelly is in constant contact with her best friend, however, the impression given is that the director purposefully withholds these exchanges from us.

Despite these well executed features, Loulou goes someway short of being a great film. First of all, none of the characters are that sympathetic. And their dilemmas I found pretty difficult to relate to. In that way, it reminded me of Woody Allen’s Vicky, Christina, Barcelona. Not only because of the predicaments the characters find themselves in, but also because of the animalistic charm of the male leads (Bardem and Depardieu).

I also felt there are films which make better use of the realistic methods used (Leigh’s and Loach’s being among them). As a disclaimer, I should say that given the importance of hearing dialogue in these British directors’ films, it may be that the movie is given an added dimension if one actually speaks French. I can only imagine the diluted experience of watching a film like The Social Network without actually hearing both the rhythm and meaning of the words together.

Loulou is a film I found difficult to love. While there are some good techniques used to tell its story, its main problem comes in telling a story I found it difficult to connect with.

Film School: Recent American Cinema

pulp_fiction.jpgBefore I begin, it might be helpful to define what is and what is not ‘recent’ in American Cinema. Pulp Fiction is probably the most influential film of the past twenty years. As such, it makes sense to refer to recency as anything coming after that film.

Before considering other American cinema, it’s important to understand why is Tarantino’s masterpiece is such an important film.

When it was released in 1994, Pulp Fiction’s audacity and style impressed both critics and cinema-goers alike. The techniques it used have since become hallmarks of much of recent American cinema.

Its use of a non-chronological narrative can be seen in films like Memento, Sin City or Mulholland Drive

It also chooses to move between different characters in each of its ‘chapters’ in a similar way to Magnolia, Crash or Babel.

Finally, the type of story it told: One of showmanship, larger-than-life characters and diegetic music can be seen in a lot of modern American cinema today. Films like The Life Aquatic, The Big Lebowkski and The Squid and the Whale.

Of course when looking at recent American cinema, it’s important to consider the cinema of old to see how it has changed.

The seventies and New Hollywood brought cinema a new type of film that presented the world in a very different way. As a result of Watergate and Vietnam, these films had with them an anger and urgency to them that seemed to force the medium forward. Think of Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter or All The President’s Men.

In terms of modern American cinema doing something new or different, one may think of Christopher Nolan’s complex, weaving stories in films like Inception and Memento. Something which Scorcese seems to have latched onto in his recent films, Shutter Island and The Departed.

One may also consider Charlie Kauffman’s films, which take a post-modern approach to film; creating worlds which are dreamlike and playful. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich play with reality. As well as forcing us to consider the state of our own mind’s perspective on things.

Finally, there are ‘network narrative’ films. That is, films which cut between lots of different characters all of whom seem to be unrelated intially. Examples include Magnolia, Crash, or even Love, Actually.

These ‘network narrative’ films seem to have been influenced a lot by television. It regularly expects its audience to keep up with the storylines of its four or five main characters over the course of each episode.

However, often it is the case that these film making techniques seem to there more for show than really driving home a point. It’s difficult to pinpoint a particular philosophy or agenda to recent American cinema.

It seems like the expectation on the audience to keep up with films like Inception or The Departed has risen. However, what these films are actually saying or doing does not seem to be that different to the previous generation of films.

Pulp Fiction is certainly a brilliant film on its own terms. Its use of every trick in the cinema handbook to create a stylish, enjoyable, original piece is to be applauded. However, in trying to mimic it, recent American filmmakers seem to be doing more at the expense of saying less.

Film School: Stardom

arnold-schwarzenegger33.jpgAside from directors, the thing that most often attracts us to movies is who stars in them. Often it is the case we know what the main character will be like before we see the film. We know Bruce Willis will be the tough guy, Jack Nicholson will be a little eccentric and Arnie will be… Arnie.

Perhaps there’s a certain comfort in that fact that attracts us to certain stars. We’ve enjoyed their performance in a previous film, and so believe we’re in safe hands when we see their name in the opening credits.

Nevertheless, stars playing the same types of character can lead to an air of predictability and fatigue. Just as certain stars can attract us to films, they can also do the opposite. Take the recent backlash against Michael Cera or Tom Cruise.

It takes a special kind of actor to make us forget their previous performance while watching their current film. This week sees the release of the seventh Harry Potter film. It would be an impressive feat for any of its three stars to have a career not overshadowed by this series of films.

Perhaps they should look at the examples of Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill to see how, and how not to, move on from the franchise that made your career.

The difference between Ford and Hamill is perhaps best summed up by the phrase “Star Quality”.

What is it about Harrison Ford we are so charmed by? What is that means no matter how irritating he is being as Han Solo or Indiana Jones, we still want him to succeed? Is it his looks? Is it his walk? His glances? His delivery of one-liners?

This month saw the twenty-fifth anniversary of Back to the Future. Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly is perhaps the best summation of everything that was cool about the eighties. His attitude, his spirit, his ability to ride a hoverboard.

What a lot of people may not realise is that the first movie had completed shooting with a completely different actor (Eric Stoltz) and Michael J. Fox almost never got the role.

The decision to replace Stoltz with Fox must have had something to do with that ‘Star Quality’ we so often look for from our leading actors and actresses. It’s strange to think that the film may have been nothing more than a blip on the radar had someone not made such a bold choice twenty-five years ago. A choice which could probably never happen today.

The principle of ‘Stardom’ has been around since the dawn of cinema. It’s interesting to note that before there were films, the most famous of people were always the rulers or writers of their day. Since then there have been few as famous as those who pretend for a living. The better their ability to con us into believing they are something else, the more we enjoy our movie-going experience.

Film School: Ideology

Think of a film that annoys you. Really annoys you. As in, you actually find it offensive to watch. The very thought of said film sends shivers down your spine, haunts you at night, makes you feel both figuratively and literally sick.

avatar-movie-poster.jpgNow consider what it is about said film that annoys you so much. Chances are it won’t be merely the badness of the movie. After all, plenty of other movies that annoy you less are just as terrible. It’s probably the fact that said movie is at odds with your own values or ideology. Perhaps it’s misogynistic, over-simplifies issues, or simply paints America as the saviour of the universe.

Ideology in movies is important to us because our values matter to us. What we find offensive, inspiring, or thought-provoking in film is often down to a movie’s ideology.

And all movies have an ideology.

Consider for example Avatar’s environmental message, Iron Man 2’s “privatising of world peace”, or The Incredibles’ depiction of the family unit.

In terms of ideology what is often more interesting to consider is the underlying morals of a film rather than its more overt message. Consider for example Danny Boyle’s two most famous films:

Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire

(Spoilers for those movies ahoy!)

Both those movies deal with fairly harrowing issues, yet end on a fairly upbeat note that gives us the opportunity to forget about the horrors we’ve just seen (Heroin addiction, AIDS, blinding of street kids, etc.)

However, when one considers the source of happiness for both protagonists in the film, it may be something that makes us feel a little uneasy. That source? Money.

What message is the movie really trying to tell us? If you’ve seen one of your best friends die, or if you’ve been abused as a child, it’ll much easier to forget if you suddenly get rich?

(End of Spoilers)

Messages like this permeate our screen. The values of a western society implying anyone can find success or work their way to the top if only they stick at it long enough. Or that the nerdy guy can get the girl if only he can get the car that transforms into a robot.

The more palatable we find these types of ideas, the more they are likely to be in line with our own values. Whether they annoy or inspire us, a movie’s ideology will always hold a mirror to our own beliefs. Being aware of such messages allows us to either accept or reject them, ignoring it can allow a movie’s ideals to seep into our own without us even realising.

Film School: Realism

moulin-rouge.jpg“I don’t like musicals” a friend of mine said.

“Why not?”

“Well, they’re not very realistic, are they?” they replied, in what they believe to be the definitive word on the subject.

Realism in cinema is important to people.

Or is it?

Coming out of a film like Avatar and complaining “It wasn’t very realistic, was it?” seems to be somehow missing the point.

When people complain about musicals “not being realistic”, what they really mean is that they can’t buy into a world where people sing and dance in unison at will.

It’s not so much that films need to be ‘realistic,’ it’s more that they need to be ‘believable’. By that I mean we believe in the world and the rules by which it abides.

The creation of such rules, and the way they are presented to the viewer, can be the difference between a Flux Capacitor and a Deus Ex Machina.

As well as the rules, differences in style can also allow us to really believe in a film’s world.

Think of films like Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, or Paranormal Activity. All these films use a home video/documentary style to make it much easier to believe in the entirely fantastical events the stories depict. Combining this realistic style with such an unrealistic tale can give the film an emotional depth such genre films rarely achieve otherwise.

It should also be pointed out that ‘realism’ in cinema means entirely different things to entirely different people.

For some it might be the relationships between characters that allows them to describe “Sex and the City” as realistic. For others, it might characters’ constant references to pop culture that allows “Clerks” to fit the bill. For others still it might be the depiction of poverty and suffering that allows us to describe “City of God” as a very realistic film.

Films are made up of many different elements, and the truth at the centre of them that ‘fits’ into our own lives and experiences is often the thing we describe as being the most realistic.

Realism is something we desire in theory. However, equally we often want to be taken to worlds and given experiences we could otherwise never have. The balance between the two is something film makers must carefully consider: often the best films are the ones that manage to reach a level of emotional truth despite being in entirely fabricated mythical universe.

Film School: Authorship

There’s a theory which goes: Movies are a director’s medium, and television a writer’s.

The extent to which this is true can be argued over at great length. Should directors get as much credit as they do for a film’s success? Is it not the person who came up the story, the writer, just as important as the one who had the technical expertise to put it up on the screen?

Of course, there are certain directors whose stamp is so firmly put on their films that they must be considered the ‘author’ of the piece. These directors are often referred to as auteurs.

Defining which directors should be considered as auteurs is not as easy to define as people may think. Certain directors like to work with the same cinematographer, so that shots we may consider hallmarks of a director’s film could in fact be the calling card of their long-time collaborator.

citizen_kanePoster.jpgOne of the most cited examples in favour of auteur theory is Citizen Kane. Welles co-wrote, directed and starred in the ground-breaking movie, and it’s easy to see his stamp all over the brash, bold story told.

Films by directors such as Scorsese, Tarantino, Leigh or Wes Anderson are very easy to identify. To the extent where people often complain that their latest film was too similar to their last. Perhaps this complaint is the very thing which proves that the movies they direct are very much their own.

However, what about those who manage to make very different films in a variety of genres, can these directors not be considered auteurs?

Let us consider the cases of Fincher, Boyle and Spielberg: all of whom have won oscar nominations for their directing, and are known for dabbling in a number of different genres.

David Fincher recently directed The Social Network. Can one reasonably call him the ‘author’ of the piece, when one can so clearly see the fingerprints of its writer, Aaron Sorkin, all over the screen? My answer would be ‘no’. While Fincher’s stylistic touches can be seen in some parts of the movies, I think it would be very unfair to describe him as the main creative mind behind the film.

Likewise with Danny Boyle. The differences between each of his films are such its difficult to consider him their author. The three writers he has worked with: John Hodge, Alex Garland and Simon Beaufoy; all seem to have had a marked impact on each film and how its story is told.

Finally, Spielberg has made movies as varied as Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List within the same year. These two films have few similarities between them in terms of story or themes. Is it the case that one most successful directors of the modern era is not an auteur?

Well, perhaps that’s overstating the case. There are themes that emerge in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Last Crusade, War of the Worlds and Hook: all of which deal with flawed fathers who need to rebuild their relationship with their kids.

However, films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Artificial Intelligence have seen him collaborate with other directors. These films cannot be seen as merely “A Film by Spielberg,” but rather “A Film by Spielberg/Lucas” or “A Film by Spielberg/Kubrick”.

Perhaps we could say that Spielberg is very much the ‘author’ of certain films, but is happy to put someone else’s vision on the screen when inspired to do so.

So, to conclude, sometimes directors can be consider the ‘author’ of a film and sometimes they can’t. The extent to which that’s true only the people who’ve actually worked on the film can truly know.

Film School: Editing

Editing to me, is the least sexy of the film disciplines. Writing, directing, acting or cinematography are all skills and jobs I can see the joy and creativity in. Editing, on the other hand, is essentially being locked in a room for months on end, going frame by frame through endless reels of footage as you move from close-up to wide shot back to close-up.

Of course certain films and directors are more well-known for their editing styles than others. Take for example, the terrifying scene from Requiem for a Dream, which must surely hold the record for most cuts per second, as we quickly move from horrifying scenario to horrifying scenario.

Scott-Pilgrim-vs-The-World-Movie-Poster.jpgTake also, the more recent example of Scott Pilgrim , where Edgar Wright, inspired by the tropes of comic books, cuts to reaction shots of characters during key scenes in the movie (normally accompanied by 80s video game sound effects). Actors from the movie have described how Wright would want precisely the right half-a-second shot, with their eyebrow raised ‘this much’ and eyes looking at precisely the right angle. In a film like this, it is the editing, not the actors who are doing the brunt of the work.

Largely, however, editing goes unnoticed by the viewer, too immersed in the story to consider why the director has used a close-up for that part of the scene, and a wide shot for another.

Jean Luc Godard, however, decided to draw attention to his own edits with what became known as ‘jump cuts’. That is, when the foreground of a scene changes only slightly, but in such a way that it is obvious a cut/edit has been made. It’s perhaps easier to see in this clip from Godard’s Breathless:

The first jump cut occurs after about 14 seconds, and there are plenty more after this.

One might ask the obvious question: what’s the point? Surely the idea of cinema is to immerse, and by drawing attention to its own techniques, does something like a ‘jump cut’ not do the opposite?

One can argue for a long time about the reasoning behind a film-maker like Godard, known for breaking the conventions of cinema as and when he pleased. One of the things he does do, however, is force us to question what we are being shown by more conventional film-makers. By drawing attention to the editing in his own film, it forces us to consider the apparently more subtle editing in other works. What purpose is it serving? How long are the shots? What is the camera really showing us? What are we having to imagine is going on around it?

An actor, not quite on their A-game, can be made to look better by only holding on their sad-face for so long, or by making a long stare into the distance look like regret/thoughtfulness/longing/satisfaction/resignation depending on what the previous and/or next shot shows us.

Editing, you see can cover a multitude of sins (as well as perhaps even causing a multitude of sins). The process of weaving together hours of footage is something quite unique to the filmed narratives of movies and television. However, the choices of what to show us, when and for how long can be just as important as story, characters or cinematography.