Blog Directory CineVerse

"You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't."

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Boasting an airtight knockout script, A-list actors, and whip smart direction from a European filmmaker who had a great nose for American film noir, "Chinatown" stands as one of the seminal motion pictures of the 1970s – or of any era, for that matter. Like a tightly wound onion, the film has layers of meaning and substance that can be peeled away and savored by those willing to delve into the labyrinth. Here are some of the major talking points we discussed at last evening's CineVerse meeting:

THEMES INHERENT IN THIS PICTURE:

  • The American dream usurped: there’s so much corruption in this setting that it undercuts the vision of the American dream that anyone can rise up from nothing and make their own barren land a fertile one of opportunity. Consider that Cross pilfers from these dreamers and steals their land and water. Noah Cross can be seen as a destructive variation on the story of America’s founding fathers.
  • The futility of good intentions and the common man against the forces of evil: the corruption and corrosion inherent in L.A., as exemplified by Cross and his cronies, prevents Jake and the police from affecting any change or protecting the innocent. Mulwray’s dam ends up killing people, the police end up killing Evelyn, Evelyn herself loses in the end and her daughter returns to her father/grandfather.
    • Gittes himself brings about the final catastrophe and his own fate.
  • Ignorance and illusion: Jake demonstrates how clueless he truly is, with his good intentions and lack of knowledge about the true corruption around him resulting in the inadvertent death of a girl he may love. 
    • Ponder how Jake misidentifies many clues and people, such as his not recognizing Detective Loach as the person who instructs him to visit Ida Sessions’ house, leading to Evelyn’s demise. 
    • He constructs explanations based on unreliable, limited information he has gathered, and consequently worsens situations when he trusts his distorted reality (i.e., in trying to help Evelyn, he leads her father directly to her).3 With this victory of corruption (Cross) and the vulnerability of the flawed protagonist as climaxing themes, we see an ideological updating of the noir thesis of fate.
    • By unraveling the mystery, Gittes has allowed evil to triumph: Evelyn is killed and Cross gets away with the murders as well as the custody of his daughter.
  • Duality, what William Galperin calls a “bifocal vision” of intermittent opposites: Evelyn is both a sister and a daughter to Kathryn. Lt. Escobar has a ‘summer cold.’ Water is abundant, yet there is a drought, and Cross’s justification for his manipulation of the water is explained to be “for the future”, which he won’t live to enjoy anyway. Gittes is an investigator, yet he is blind to the ‘real picture.’ Saltwater is both a life essence for fish but deadly to vegetation; “bad for the glass”: Cross’ water is both bad for the grass and bad for the glass, namely Gittes’ ability to see the truth.
  • A perversion of Biblical stories: The drought in Los Angeles is transformed into a spiritual thirst or dryness, with the malevolent Noah Cross seen as a biblical perversion of his first name. Not only has he drowned his son-in-law, but he has ‘repopulated the earth’ in a sense with the impregnation of his daughter, Evelyn, and in an ironic way, though he is secretly diverting water away from thirsty L.A., he is helping to nourish the valley so that a ‘new city’--a new Eden--will grow in the future. 
  • The dangers of voyeurism and invasion of privacy:
    • The film opens with a client looking at photographs of his wife in bed with another man taken by Gittes. He snaps photos of Hollis Mulwray with another woman together, which inadvertently get published and create a scandal. His telephoto lens and binoculars are used in other scenes, to spy on Evelyn or Hollis from afar.
    • Gittes’ spectatorship and curiosity leads him into deeper, more politically corruptive scandals, pulling him even further away from the urban setting (indicative of a usual noir backdrop) and further inward psychologically, toward the center of the real immorality and back to the ghosts in his mind.
    • His voyeurism and his misinterpretation of reality gets Gittes into trouble. His ignoring of “No Trespassing” signs get him a scar on his nose (his eyes are still free, but with a bandage on his nose he can’t ‘sniff out’ things anymore), and later a brutal thrashing from a group of farmers. As a result of his spying, a man’s unfaithful wife ends up with a black eye, and Hollis Mulwray’s widow winds up with no eye (it is literally blasted out of its socket in the final scene).
    • To accentuate the voyeuristic perspective of both Gittes and the viewer (seeing through his eyes), ponder how Polanski often frames Nicholson in profile, off to one side of the screen. This serves more of a function than simply to present a subjective viewpoint --it also depicts Gittes’ impotence (his being ‘boxed in’ a corner in the face of evil or greater numbers), as well as the innate, malignant evil lurking in the corners, just beyond our frame of vision.
    • In this sense, a deep psychological framing is achieved, and a sense of apprehension is evoked with a more menacing off-screen space. Finally, this type of framing, usually involving deep-focus three-shots, shifts power relationships away from the off-sides, ‘cornered’ Gittes to other characters (i.e., the police or the flanking stature of Cross), reaffirming his insinuated helplessness.
  • Guilt and a tortured backstory: think about how many of the personalities in this story have skeletons in their closets or dark secrets that come back to haunt them.
    • Chinatown itself exemplifies his guilt, in that he had years ago been told by a police friend to do as “little as possible” there, after managing to get another mysterious woman “hurt” there (we aren’t told who or how). 
    • Chinatown becomes a world in which the individual becomes helpless against the intriguing mysteries surrounding him, and where moral degeneration and evil abounds to defy the imagination. Fate comes full-circle when Gittes finds himself back in Chinatown, despite his efforts, to repeat his earlier mistake.
THE FILM OFTEN USES FORESHADOWING TO PREDICT WHAT’S LATER GOING TO HAPPEN. CAN YOU PROVIDE EXAMPLES?
  • Recurrent Chinese motifs (ethnic joke, Chinese workers at the Mulwray house, occasional oriental music, the breaking of an Oriental vase, etc.)
  • Earlier in the film, after making love to Evelyn, Gittes notices a flaw in the iris of Evelyn’s eye. Symbolically, the flaw conceals the ‘truth’--and therefore power and knowledge through discovery--from the detective, and serves to mirror his own ‘distorted perspective’ back to him.
  • Evelyn leaning on the steering wheel horn earlier; later, she lies died on the wheel, producing an unending horn.
  • The left lens of Jake’s sunglasses are broken after the orange grove skirmish; later, the left lens is missing from the glasses found in the pond by Jake.
MOTIFS (REPEATED PATTERNS) USED IN THE MOVIE:
  • Masks: The interiors of most rooms in “Chinatown” are graced with venetian blinds on the windows (and the shadows they produce), an evident visual referent to classic noir misc en scene. The blinds become a metaphor for the repetitive motif of masked concealment: Evelyn wears a widow’s veil, a chain link fence surrounds the reservoir, glass bricks separate Gittes from his secretary, even the bandage on his nose becomes a mask.
  • Water: The attempt to control it parallels man’s historical effort to control and regulate a wild, primitive force so that it does not destroy life or prevent it from existing. The detective’s role then is to uncover the ‘secret of the waters’, but the flawed Gittes as gumshoe can neither bring about reform nor curb the violence concerning water: Mulwray is drowned in it and loses a shoe, and he himself is engulfed by it in a culvert and also happens to lose a shoe.
  • Eyes, glasses and reflections: Evelyn’s flawed eye, the glasses found in the water, the eye of the dead fish staring up to Jake from his plate, the reflected image from Jake’s camera and car mirrors, etc.
OTHER FILMS THAT REMIND YOU OF CHINATOWN:
  • Its sequel, The Two Jakes
  • L.A. Confidential
  • The Big Sleep
  • The Conversation
OTHER MAJOR WORKS DIRECTED BY ROMAN POLANSKI
  • Knife in the Water
  • Repulsion
  • Rosemary’s Baby
  • Death and the Maiden
  • The Pianist

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Don't forget it, Jake...it's Chinatown

Sunday, September 17, 2017

On September 20, CineVerse will feature “Chinatown” (1974; 130 minutes), directed by Roman Polanski, chosen by Jim Doherty

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Cinderella and Pygmalion meet 1880s Britain

Thursday, September 14, 2017

David Lean is rightly known for his visionary, sprawling epics. But arguably it's his British films of the 1940s and early 1950s that bring out the best sensibilities in this talented filmmaker. "Hobson's Choice," Lean's underrated effort from 1954, blends the best elements of comedy, drama, and period piece into a highly entertaining tale about a clever daughter turning the tables on her outspoken and irascible father. Our film discussion group came away with many truths after digging deeper into this lesser-known gem, including the following observations:

WHAT’S DATED ABOUT THIS PICTURE AND WHAT’S STILL RELEVANT AND EVERGREEN?
  • There will always be conflicts between parents and their children, and expectations that parents have for their offspring.
  • Yet, the woman’s role in the house and the family have changed dramatically since the setting of this 1880s British story and since 1954, the year the film was made.
    • It’s laughable today to think that a woman unmarried by age 30 would be expected to die an old maid and/or be fated to indentured servitude to her aging parents.
    • Maggie’s character can be seen today as an inspirational feminist trapped back in a time when being so would wholly unacceptable to many in society.
  • The idiom “Hobson’s choice,” which means that there’s really only once choice to make with no alternative, has gone out of style; but the concept of having a lack of options or choosing the least of all evils will never go away.
  • Class struggles and trying to make a living in a challenging capitalist world are themes that resonate today. Yet, in world dominated today by large corporations, the family-owned business is quickly becoming an endangered species.
  • As foreign and passé as many of the character traits, vernaculars and idiosyncrasies exhibited by the film’s main characters may seem nowadays, these characters can still speak to us. Per Criterion Collection essayist Armond White, “As in so many Lean films, the eccentricities displayed by Henry, Maggie, and Will are observed, revealed, and discovered to be timeless human attributes, as in classic British literature. Their comic actions recall the histrionic undercurrents that propel the Dickens melodramas.”
WHAT THEMES ARE AT PLAY IN HOBSON’S CHOICE?
  • A clash of wills: as White wrote: “the father wrestles with his loss of authority, the daughter fights for her individuality, and the workman gains self-esteem and self-determination.”
  • Triangles: a twisted love triangle, represented by the father, the daughter, and the workman—each of which has something to gain and lose. Other triangles: the three sisters, the three grooms, and Willie, Maggie and his old girlfriend.
  • Pygmalion and Cinderella, only inverted: “In fairy tales, the lowly commoner invited to join the royalty is usually a deserving girl who happens to be beautiful as well as virtuous. The Cinderella character in Hobson's Choice is Willie Mossup. His beauty is a commercially viable talent,” wrote film reviewer Glenn Erickson.
  • Great things grow from small: this is a quote in the film from Willie, which summarizes a major message of the picture. Consider how Willie and Maggie start at the bottom of the ladder but by the end of the movie they’re on top and running the shop.
  • The benefits of being a practical fantasist: Blogger Normand Holland posited the following: “Lean’s heroes, like Maggie, are dreamers. Think of Laura Jessup in Brief Encounter, Pip (in Great Expectations), T. E. Lawrence (in Lawrence of Arabia), and Col. Nicholson (in Bridge on the River Kwai)…like Maggie, they may dream of great expectations, but they are pragmatic; they accomplish things; they adjust to realities. The lovers in Brief Encounter know from the outset that their love is impossible, and they accept that.”
  • Comeuppance: Hobson is overdue for a fall.
  • Boots: they symbolize ruggedness, utilitarianism and practicality; they also serve on the lowest level of the body.
  • Levels: the film depicts various levels of architecture, class distinction and rank. Hobson resides in the “upper level” (upstairs), Maggie works on the middle (street) level, and Willie exists on the lower level early in the film. Consider how Willie’s lower-class girlfriend lives on a lower level street; how Hobson falls to a lower level and literally and figuratively “hits bottom” when he falls through the hole, emerging only to be humbled and placed at Willie’s former level—seeing boots at eye level for the first time in the film.
OTHER FILMS BY DAVID LEAN:
  • 1945 Blithe Spirit
  • 1945 Brief Encounter
  • 1946 Great Expectations
  • 1948 Oliver Twist
  • 1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • 1962 Lawrence of Arabia
  • 1965    Doctor Zhivago
  • 1984 A Passage to India

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Gunslinger Eastwood's last stand

Monday, September 11, 2017

On September 14, Cineversary returns to the Oak Lawn Library from 6-8:45 p.m.. We'll be celebrating the 25th anniversary of “Unforgiven” (1992; 131 minutes), directed by Clint Eastwood.

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David Lean--before the epics

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Make plans to join CineVerse on September 13 for an excursion into World Cinema Wednesday and the United Kingdom with “Hobson’s Choice” (1954; 108 minutes), directed by David Lean, chosen by Dave Ries

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Suffering for your art

Thursday, September 7, 2017

You don't have to be a musician, teacher, student or jazz/music lover to appreciate the film "Whiplash" or its powerful message about drive, ambition, obsession and the teacher-pupil relationship. And you certainly don't have to take this film – or its plot – literally. You can simply examine it for the parable it is and the cautionary tale it tells. Our CineVerse group discussion yielded some interesting observations and insights that may help you better understand what's going on here and why this picture is important, including the following:


WHAT’S INTERESTING, DISTINCTIVE OR UNEXPECTED ABOUT THIS FILM THAT YOU FOUND NOTEWORTHY?
  • It’s shot and edited rhythmically like a jazz song.
    • The cuts are meant to convey feeling and emotion and to visually communicate without words. Consider the close-ups of hand motions brushing the girlfriend’s hair around her ear.
    • There’s a rhythmic variety of tracking shots, close-ups, pans and push-ins all used to suggest the growth of Andrew’s talents and desire. Think about how kinetic and fluid the film is from the start – the opening shot tracks down the hallway for us to see Andrew.
  • It’s also shot like a war movie more than a jazz/music movie. This picture is startling in its brutality, sudden violence, blood, profanity and overall tone. Alternatively, it feels more like a sports film, leading up to the big fight or the big game.
  • Consider the harsh extent to which Fletcher is willing to go as a teacher, using verbal and physical abuse and threats to push and punishes students. Fletcher’s character is so powerful and villainous that, on paper, he would seem to completely dominate and upstage anyone else on screen with him.
    • But Andrew’s character is written and played to go toe-to-toe with Fletcher and equally capture our attention. Andrew is not your typical protagonist who is entirely sympathetic and comprehensible. He could be an arrogant, insensitive jerk, and he has qualities that are not so admirable.
    • While the monstrous personality of Fletcher may seem implausible, the movie aims for accuracy by casting a young actor – Miles Teller – who can really drum, as well as real music students and musicians in the classroom and performance scenes.
  • There are multiple climaxes and dénouements to this movie:
    • the festival were Andrew survives the car accident
    • the tenuous reconciliation between former student and teacher in the bar, plus the scene before it where he learned that Fletcher has been fired and Andrew is expelled
    • the JVC Festival conclusion
  • Surprisingly, Andrew is given a love interest, but abandons her fairly early on and she does not return – unlike so many other films of this type.
WHAT MAKES FLETCHER TICK, WHAT MAKES ANDREW TICK, AND WHY DOES ANDREW PUT UP WITH FLETCHER’S ABUSE?
  • Fletcher doesn’t care about properly training and educating students: he wants to mold his own new jazz legend and perpetuate the tall tale about Charlie Parker becoming greater after having a symbol thrown at him. He’s all about upholding his ideals of jazz tradition.
    • He believes you need to suffer for your art and that greatness comes from pushing yourself to the limit.
    • He’s very much like a Marine drill sergeant and Captain Ahab rolled into one – searching for the elusive white whale (next jazz great) and eager to break the spirit and the body of his soldiers to try to shape them into perfect killers.
    • Consider how Fletcher usurps the truth about his student who commits suicide; he creates a myth about an untapped talent cut down too early: this indicates how truly dangerous, warped and evil this man is.
    • Fletcher believes his means to an end are justified – that his tactics and approach are necessary for jazz to survive.
  • Andrew believes he could be the next all-time great jazz drummer, so he subscribes to Fletcher’s philosophy and is willing to endure the punishing tactics.
    • By subscribing, he forms a symbiotic relationship with Fletcher that initiates a cycle of abuse; he becomes reliant on the abuser to follow his masochistic dream.
    • But Andrew is becoming a mini-Fletcher: he abandons his girlfriend; he becomes a jerk to his classmates; he tells his family at the dinner table that talent, fame and legend are more important than living a mediocre life, in a cynical manner like Fletcher; then, he upstages Fletcher at the end as Fletcher tries to do to him.
WHAT MAJOR THEMES ARE EXAMINED IN WHIPLASH?
  • To what extent are you willing to push, sacrifice and compromise yourself for the pursuit of art and excellence? Do the ends justify the means?
  • Obsession, drive and ambition: an obsession with the past and in creating or perpetuating myths and legends is dangerous and misguided. And an obsession with achieving perfection creates a very imperfect human being.
  • The quest for excellence can be lonely and unappreciated.
  • The duality of our nature.
  • Being torn between two father figures: Andrew’s real dad, who was a failed novelist turned English teacher and is a milder, more compassionate person than Fletcher; and Fletcher, a hard-driving, uncompassionate teacher who also apparently failed to make it as a full-time artist.
  • The Faustian gambit: making a pact with the devil.
WHAT OTHER MOVIES COME TO MIND AFTER WATCHING WHIPLASH?
  • The Red Shoes
  • Fame
  • Full Metal Jacket
  • Scorsese films like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver– where the main character pushes away his love interest and enjoys masochism and violence
  • The Piano Teacher
  • Rocky and The Fighter, two sports films depicting the struggles and sacrifices of an underdog athlete
  • Mr. Turner
  • Mr. Holland’s Opus

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Bang the drum quickly

Sunday, September 3, 2017

On September 6, CineVerse will present “Whiplash” (2014; 107 minutes), directed by Damien Chazelle, chosen by Linda Tague. 

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Fable of a benevolent alien

Thursday, August 31, 2017

"E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" still packs a strong emotional punch 35 years after its release. Director Steven Spielberg focus less on science fiction and more on fairytale fantasy to tell a very personal story from a child's point of view – and that child be any one of us, regardless of age. How do we as viewers love "E.T."? Let us count the ways...

WHAT IS MEMORABLE AND SPECIAL ABOUT E.T., PARTICULARLY AS A SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY FILM?

  • It strikes a chord with the inner child in all of us—the one who experienced loneliness, awkwardness, misunderstanding or alienation when we were young; it’s especially relevant to children of broken homes and divorce, middle children, and kids who grew up in the suburbs, which describes the character of Elliott. 
  • It’s an intimate, emotional movie that Steven Spielberg considered his most personal film. Steven Spielberg said in an interview: “"E.T. was about the divorce of my parents, how I felt after my parents broke up. [It was] the first movie I ever made for myself.”
    • It’s a very emotionally resonant film that requires you to be an actively engaged viewer—it involves your feelings and moves you; films that can evoke a strong emotional reaction in audiences are powerful pictures that tend to be remembered and revisited.
  • It’s a rare science fiction story about aliens that are benevolent; many sci-fi films feature extraterrestrials that are violent and destructive to humans. Here, the message is that strangers from different worlds can and should coexist in peace and find a way to communicate.
  • It features a brilliant, emotional score by composer John Williams that ranks #14 on the AFI’s list of 25 greatest film scores.
  • Some believe E.T. turned aliens into pop culture icons and gave a lovable, memorable face to an alien being that was safe for and acceptable to children.
  • It helped usher in the era of product placement (Reese’s Pieces and Coca-Cola) into the movies, for better or worse.
  • It firmly established Steven Spielberg as the world’s most popular and famous director—a man with the Midas touch after consecutively helming Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and now E.T.
  • This was also nearing the end of the era when audiences showed up in droves, creating extremely long wait times and lines that often stretched around the block. With the proliferation of multiplex theaters later in the 1980s, these ridiculously long lines would subside; but in 1982, chances are that you had to get in a long line and wedge into a packed theater to see E.T.
  • Despite old school special effects limitations of its era, compared to the dazzling computer wizardry of today, E.T.’s effects hold up, especially the animatronic and puppetry work involved in making the alien look realistic and act believably.Disconnection from home and family is not healthy. E.T. needs to go back to his kind and his own world; he is reborn because he has made reconnected with the ones that love him. This suggests that Elliott, too, must find a connection and treasure his life with his family in suburbia, even if he doesn’t always fit in so well and lacks a father. It also underscores how E.T. and Elliott are connected and similar; think about how “E” and “T” are the first and last letters of Elliott’s name.
WHAT IS MEMORABLE AND SPECIAL ABOUT E.T., PARTICULARLY AS A SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY FILM?
  • Seeing life through a child’s eyes. Consider that it adopts the literal as well as emotional viewpoint of a child: the camera is often placed at a child’s level, and the point of view is often Elliott’s or E.T.’s. Consider how the “bad” adults like the man with the keys are often only shown as faceless silhouettes and from the mid-torso down.
  • Christ-like rebirth. This an uplifting story about a helpless creature who’s been abandoned and left behind, is vulnerable, friendly and cuddly, and can work feats of magic; yet, the creature gets sick, dies and is reborn. 
  • The importance of maintaining a sense of wonder and imagination. This picture makes you feel young again and taps into the mysteries and energy of childhood—how cool it is to find something really precious that’s your unique secret, trying to find your place in a world where you don’t feel like you fit in, and being in awe of the marvels and mysteries of the universe.
    • It also speaks to the power that children have to possess a powerful sense of imagination and an awe and reverence for magic, to be resourceful and resilient, to be open and receptive to the idea that aliens, monsters or the supernatural can exist, and to connect and communicate with life and nature in a way that most adults have forgotten or can’t.
    • It references Peter Pan in the film, and often plays on the themes of Pan—that you can fly, have adventures, wish upon a star for a miracle, and defeat the pirates (or, in this case, the adults trying to take E.T. away). . Remember that the “Keys” adult character is like a grownup Elliott or former Peter Pan—he’s been “wishing for this since (he) was 10 years old.” He, too, wants to be a kid again.
  • The importance of tolerance, compassion and understanding. Film journalist John Kenneth Muir wrote: "E.T. purposefully asks audiences to accept that which is alternative or seem different, and judge it not by how it looks. On the contrary, E.T. and Elliott develop a symbiosis, and so come to understand the feelings of one another. No matter how different or alien someone may seem, they possess the same feelings that you do. That too is E.T.'s message."
OTHER FILMS THAT E.T. BRINGS TO MIND:
  • Super 8
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • Earth to Echo
  • Lilo and Stitch
  • Peter Pan
  • Snow White and the 7 Dwarves
  • Starman
OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY STEVEN SPIELBERG
  • Jaws
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Jurassic Park
  • Schindler’s List
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • A.I.-Artificial Intelligence
  • Lincoln

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Anniversary for your favorite alien

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Don't miss CineVerse on August 30, when we'll wish a happy 35th anniversary to "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982; 115 minutes), directed by Steven Spielberg, chosen by Bob Johnson.

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