Monday, 26 July 2010

On endings

One of the things I like with the Bourne-series is that it has a wholeness to it, it's a round circle, visually. It begins, in the first film The Bourne Identity (2002), with the body of Jason Bourne floating in water and it ends, in the third film The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), with the body of Jason Bourne floating in water. The first time it signals his appearance, the last time it signals his disappearance. (And the fact that it ends thus makes the idea whether or not to make a fourth film so wrong, at least artistically. But it seems now that neither Matt Damon nor Paul Greengrass want to continue.)

This is one way of ending a film, buy repeating the beginning, albeit with a difference. This is by the way often how Hasse Ekman ends his films.

The reason I'm writing about endings is that David Bordwell brought it up as a topic at the already mentioned SCSMI conference in Roanoke. The question was how do we know that a film is ending? He told about a young girl he was watching Snow White (1937) with, and in the last scene she shouted "More!", even before it was actually over and the words "The End" were seen. Bordwell's question was "How did she know the film was over?".

I'm not going to go deep in the cognitive science part of the question, but it's interesting to note that there are different ways to end a film, and I think that it would be possible to list a set number of endings, let's say 10, and that almost all films will have an ending that is related to one of these 10. And in order to answer the question, we need to look at these different types of endings and see if they all signal clearly that this is indeed "the end", as does Snow White. It would also be interesting to interpret the various types of endings and see what they tell us about the films and/or the filmmakers philosophical and ideological outlook.

I haven't done enough research on this so I'm not in a position to list all possible endings, but I can give some examples. We've established two ending patterns already in this blog post, the, let's call it, "circular ending", which links the first and the last scene, and the, let's call it the "classical ending" from Snow White. (If you haven't seen the following films and don't want to know how they end, then read carefully...)

A third pattern are the more "modernist" ending, where the films often doesn't really have an ending, but just fades out in a critical moment, or, as in the end of Antonioni's L'eclisse (1962), shows a series of shots of empty streets and buildings. The endings of many films by Howard Hawks also have these "modernist" endings. The Big Sleep (1946), arguably Hawks's most narratively daring film, ends with Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge (Bogart and Bacall) waiting together in a darkened room for the police to arrive, and neither they nor we know what's going to happen when the police does arrive.

A fourth ending is the sudden and abrupt one, which even when we've seen it might leave us dangling. "What? That's it?" Like The Candidate (1972), the brilliant political drama with Robert Redford as a candidate for the senate. He runs, not to win, because nobody expects him to, but for more let's say political reasons. But in the end he does win after all, and he leaves the celebration and goes in to his dressing room. An aide follows him, and the candidate turns to him and says "What do we do now?". "The End".

It's clear already that sometimes endings are easy to spot, sometimes they're not. I just watched the second film in the Lord of the Ring-series, The Two Towers (2002) and there were several times I thought the end was near, due to the use of music, dialogue and editing patterns, but it didn't come. It's importance here that what I was expecting wasn't a definitive ending, but just a fadeout, because I knew it was only the second instalment in a trilogy, and the end of a film which is to be followed by another film continuing the story, is usually done in yet another different way. A fadeout I eventually got, but only after a much longer time then I'd thought. It's difficult to explain in a few words what I mean by the special "the end is near"-feeling, but it's likely that you've already experienced the effect. See also the second (or fifth if you like) Star Wars-film The Empire Strikes Back (1980) for the same thing.

So, the research around endings will continue, but first a side note.

At Dave Kehr's blog there was a debate last week about "spoiler alerts" and whether or not it's OK to reveal the endings in comments and reviews. Jonathan Rosenbaum has also written on the subject. For some, the very idea that people don't want to know the ending before having seen the film was somehow almost offensive. Those that do not want to know the ending, it was said, are apparently not interested in style and atmosphere, but somehow shallow and should be ridiculed. But that's just arrogant if you ask me. Most people do after all enjoy watching the story unfold, and being surprised and amused by it, and there's of course nothing wrong with that. It doesn't mean that they're not interested in anything else. It's only common decency to warn (or ask permission) before revealing how a film ends.

One of the arguments was that there's to much emphasis on plot and story in film criticism and reviewing, and very little attention is paid to style. This is something I very much agree with, and something I find annoying. As I've said before, the story and the plot is only one part of the film, perhaps half of it, and not talking about the rest is just lazy. Cinematography, music, art direction, editing and so on needs to be given its dues as well.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Swedish films in South Africa

Should you happen to be in Durban the coming weeks, you'll have ample opportunity to watch five new Swedish films, as well as five of Bergman's most well-known films. It's the 31st Durban International Film Festival which has a special focus on Sweden, and the festival runs from 22 July to 1 August. Beware though that it's not a particularly cheerful selection. Doom and gloom seems to have been what the festival was looking for. But among the Bergman films they're showing Wild Strawberries (1957) is of course of exceptional beauty.

More information is to be found here:

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Harvey Pekar

One of my favourite scenes from modern cinema is from the film based on Harvey Pekar's comics American Splendor. The film came out in 2003, and Paul Giamatti plays Pekar. Now the real Harvey Pekar has passed away, only yesterday, age 70. He was one of the great names in American comics, and perhaps graphic novels. He was a good friend of Robert Crumb, and this is how Crumb described him to The Plain Dealer, a newspaper from Cleveland, Ohio, Pekar's hometown: "He's the soul of Cleveland. He's passionate and articulate. He's grim. He's Jewish. I appreciate the way he embraces all that darkness."

I wonder how he was during his last days. It doesn't really feel right to say rest in peace. Would he be happy, resting in peace?

Here's a more informed posting about him, including some clips from when he appeared at David Letterman.

Here's the scene from the film version of American Splendor.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Alfred Hitchcock and kangaroos

British Pathé has a web site where you can watch old newsreel footage, some as old as from 1896. I just registered today and one of the first things I found was this delightful piece. I did not know that Hitchcock was also a director of the Los Angeles Zoo.


Saturday, 10 July 2010

Woody Allen's six films

Ah, the modern age of blogging and social networks. A week ago in an interview with the Times (of London), Woody Allen talked about his life and his career. He also, apparently just in passing, named his six favourite films among his own:

Zelig (1984) 7,7
Husbands and Wives (1992) 7,4
Match Point (2005) 7,8

And a surprisingly large amount of people are getting worked up by these choices, because they are the "wrong" films. One example is the Guardian's film blog which says that Allen "misjudge" his films "spectacularly" and finds his "cluelessness" "weirdly endearing". Vanity Fair and New York Magazine are two other publications that are getting involved, as are of course bloggers (like myself).

But what is the problem with the list? Yes, neither Annie Hall (1977) nor Manhattan (1979) are among the chosen ones but for starters we have no clues as to what were Allen's reasons for choosing these particular films. He might have chosen them because they were the films which came as close to what he wanted to achieve as possible. Or because he had a particularly happy time when making them. Or because, today, these films are closest to Allen's view of life.

And there is nothing horrendous about those six films. I myself like all of them, they all got on average good reviews by the critics and they all got roughly the same ratings on imdb (that is the figure after the titles above). Why not compare imdb's list with Allen's:

Annie Hall 8.2
Manhattan 8.1
Match Point 7.8
Zelig 7.7

Purple Rose of Cairo comes in on 8th place, followed by Bullets Over Broadway and with Vicky Cristina Barcelona at 11th place, followed by Husbands and Wives.

It would appear then that Allen actually is a tune with the public mood, rather than being completely bonkers, as has been suggested by some commentators.

This is just a silly thing of course, and there is no need to waste a lot of time with it, but I think that the reactions reveal some things.

One is the way that people get emotional about it. This is a testament both to the power of films, and to the fact that it is personal. "I love these films and if you love those films, then that just proves that there is something wrong with you."

Another thing is that making lists is always a foolproof way of getting people aroused and upset. And it is probably partly due to the above mentioned reason.

Another thing is perhaps related to the phenomenon with people getting so attached to films (and books, comics, songs and so on) that they feel that they own it, that they have rights concerning those films. So when somebody, Allen in this case, is not giving due credit to these films, maybe people feel let down, betrayed even.

What is different with this list though, is that usually people complain because what are on the lists are conceived as being clichéd and ordinary. This time around the commentators are bending over backwards to be as conventional as possible.

If I had taken a guess as to what six films Allen would have chosen, I would have gone with the following:

Life and Death (1975) 7.6
Purple Rose of Cairo
Hannah and Her Sisters
Sweet and Lowdown (1999) 7.2

(I cannot link to the article in the Times since Murdoch prefers to hide behind pay walls. Here is a link to the Australian instead, which admittedly is also a Murdoch paper. For an example of fans making demands on the films they love and the filmmakers who made them, why not check out the documentary The People vs. George Lucas (2010))

Monday, 5 July 2010

Mohsen Makhmalbaf and family

The Makhmalbaf family definitely has cinema in their DNA. Father Mohsen has been a filmmaker since the 1980s, after he sat in prison for sometime for having tried to kill a policeman. His wife Marziyeh Meshkini has made three films, one of which is the extraordinaryThe Day I Became a Woman (Roozi ke zan shodam 2000), and their daughters Samira and Hani has also made several films, Samira's being the most well known, including her first The Apple(Sib 1998) and Blackboards (Takhté siah 2000).

Last week I had the opportunity to talk with Makhmalbaf and his wife (see my previous posting), who were visiting St Andrews. He was, and still is, active in his support for the Green Movement in Iran. Although very much disappointed about what was going on in his home country, and the reactions from the West, whose only concern is the nuclear issue, he still had hope for the future. But what was needed he felt was a cultural shift, a move away from the religious mindset of the present. In a sense you might say that what he wanted was for the country to do what he himself has done.

When I said that it seemed almost impossible that there could be so much filmmaking talent in one family, he said that it wasn't a question of talent. Talent is not important, what is important is passion and dedication, that you're serious about what you do. I'm not sure I agree with that, in the sense that if you don't know how to make a film, it doesn't really matter how dedicated you are, the audience will probably not understand, if they even bother to try.

Makhmalbaf has a poetic, perhaps naïve, belief in the importance of the purity of the film. He contrasted the "vulgar" Bollywood musicals with the early films of Satyajit Ray, films which, he said, captured the soul of India. I don't even know what that is, but arguably the Bollywood films of today will tell you more about India than Ray's films, even if I, like Makhmalbaf, much prefer Ray's work. (Ray is after all one of the greatest artists in cinema history.)

Now the Makhmalbafs live in Paris, and he travels around the world to fight for Iran's future. He was name dropping the likes of Bernard Kouchner and Barack Obama, and I think that he both enjoys it and finds it exasperating to have become a politician. Even though he was always political.

Among Makhmalbaf's most interesting films are Salaam Cinema (1995), A Moment of Innocence (Nun va goldoon 1996) and Kandahar (Safar e Gandehar 2001), so check them out if you haven't already done so.