Category Archives: Analysis

The Final Showdown: Horror narratives and closure in ALIEN (1979) and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

“The structure of horror narratives are said to set out from a situation of order, [to] move through a period of disorder caused by the eruption of horrifying or monstrous forces, and finally reach a point of closure and completion in which disruptive, monstrous elements are contained or destroyed and the original order is re-established. The audience’s pleasure is supposed to be based upon the expectation that the narrative will reach this particular type of conclusion, and the eventual fulfilment of this expectation.” (Mark Jancovich in Horror: The Film Reader, 1992)

From Mark Jancovich’s quote, it would be natural to assume that the very nature of the horror film hinges on the reassuring quashing of the villain. This article will explore how two seminal horror films deal with this genre convention and endeavour to question just what or who can be identified as ‘monstrous’.

Made eleven years apart, much of the broader narrative in Alien and The Silence of the Lambs is similar: grisly murders occur in both films, each one revealing more tantalising information to the audience, both highlight a key villain or villains, both have a central female character and both contain a plot device in which the conclusion rests with the extermination of the main threat. Commercially both films were successful at the box office and have spawned subsequent films and numerous imitations. The ‘monstrous’ in Alien is immediately easy to identify: an aggressive alien life-form which terrorises a spacecraft crew. The ‘monstrous’ in The Silence of the Lambs takes on a number of guises, including the loose serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill and the incarcerated Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Alien wears its threat ‘on its sleeve’ by granting the ‘monstrous’ as the titular character, and yet emblazoned on the promotional posters is what seems to be the most natural object associated with the life-cycle: the egg. This implies that the “monstrous” could come from even the most ‘natural’ of beings- one that we may all recognise.The Silence of the Lambs on the other hand portrays a highly-intelligent psychiatrist with a penchant for cannibalism and a rampant and impulsive serial killer who skins his victims and ‘refashions’ their skin, hopefully people we are unlikely to encounter. Likewise, the “horrifying” is exactly what these antagonists set in motion over the course of film. For example, in Alien the foetus-like alien attacks Kane and “attaches itself with a deathly grip on his face” (Barbara Creed, Horror and the Archaic Mother: Alien, 1993), breaches the quarantine of the ship Nostromo and begins to kill each crew member with brutal skill. Buffalo Bill, who at the start of The Silence of the Lambs has already kidnapped, abused and killed a number of women, invites the spectator to witness his M.O. in the capture of a senator’s daughter, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter lives up to his name and ingeniously escapes from confinement in a series of “horrifying” set-ups.

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It is essential for the audience to understand and empathise with the correct characters in the story in order for these ‘monstrous’ beings and “horrifying” acts to be recognised.  And as Roger Ebert notes, The Silence of the Lambs also works as it succeeds in genuinely frightening the audience without just being a throwaway “thrill show” (The Chicago Sun Times, 2001). In Barbara Creed’s article Horror and the Archaic Mother: Alien, Creed refers to the alien as a “monstrous creature” and yet also implies that the alien is born to a “mother”, possibly emphasising the natural and organic nature of a being which harbours a monstrous potential.

In regards to The Silence of the Lambs in particular, the film is a result of an eternal fascination with the guise of the serial killer. This interest runs through into horror genre and in The Kingdom of the Unimaginable: The Construction of Social Space and the Fantasy of Privacy in Serial Killer Narratives (1998), Stephen Hantke believes: “Since we have radically divorced ourselves from him, his person and his space become radically fictitious. The more we fantasise about him without acknowledging that we are separated by nothing but genre conventions, the more we close the gap on between him and ourselves”. Hantke understands that since we are appalled and disgusted at the serial killers vicious acts, we are easily drawn into the story by our ability to recognise the film as a piece of fiction and at the same time separate ourselves in order to desire swift retribution for the character of the serial killer.

The interesting aspect of Jonathan Demme’s classic which may counter the Jancovich ideal about the containment of evil, is the new and unsettling realisation that Dr. Hannibal Lecter is in fact likable: “He may be a cannibal,” Roger Ebert quips, “but as a dinner party guest he would give value for money (if he didn’t eat you)” (The Chicago Sun Times, 2001). We also begin to see the blossoming of a ‘friendly’ relationship between the Clarice Starling and Lecter, one which ought to make the audience uncomfortable, but instead through Starling’s instinct makes the audience go along with her faith that he will not harm her (“I have no plans to call on you, Clarice, The world’s more interesting with you in it. So you take care now to extend me the same courtesy”). In interviews as transcribed by Laura Sydell’s article Hannibal Lecter: A Psycho with an Unlikely Soft Spot (2008), Jodie Foster explains the legacy of Lecter and his impact on an audience: “He’s not just a cardboard villain. You see his vulnerabilities; you see that he cares for her in the way that he can. That he has a kindness toward her … and yes, we’re seduced by that humanity, by his light touch with her…” Perhaps then this explains how as an audience we can feel satisfied with the final scene of The Silence of the Lambs which sees Dr. Hannibal Lecter walking free in an anonymous crowd to “have an old friend for dinner”. Perhaps because we have already witnessed the ‘silencing’ (for want of a better phrase) of Buffalo Bill, we can begin to accept the idea of an escaped Lecter who is neither “destroyed” nor “confined”.

In contrast to The Silence of the Lambs, Alien takes a good half an hour before Kane played by John Hurt is attacked by a being from one of the eggs. In Roz Kaveney’s case study of Alien in From Alien to The Matrix: Reading Science Film (2005), Kaveney explains: “we have been lulled by Scott’s leisurely pacing into a false sense of security and started to think of this as a film in which we get to observe the future in a realistic way and without much excitement.”. Therefore we can deduce that Scott deliberately paces the film to unleash the monster where it will make its most horrific effect on the audience. Once the famous ‘chest burster’ scene occurs after an apparently relieving and relaxed crew meal, there is no doubt that whatever Kane encountered outside the ship will continue to wreak fatal havoc inside too. The scene had its desired effect on audiences in the cinema on release. In an interview for Empire Magazine to celebrate the Blu-Ray release of the Alien Quadrilogy, Ron Shusett who wrote the original story with Dan O’Bannon claims, “After the chest burster it was just deafening, you couldn’t hear for several moments.” The associate producer Ivor Powell went on to embellish: “People jumped up, some actually ran, there was spewing in the loo!”. Moments of such prolonged gore are scarce in The Silence of the Lambs (a glimpse of the murdered security guard is momentarily revealed and Lecter’s attack on said security guard is shot at an angle so that we mainly see Anthony Hopkins’ blooded face). This could suggest that whereas we are directed to instinctively call for the alien’s termination after it’s savage murder of Kane, when Lecter escapes his cell and the police’s misdirection is revealed, we are left instead in shock and awe at the man’s genius as well as in disgust.

Other additions to the list of villains in these two films come in the form of Ash (played by Ian Holm) in Alien and Dr. Chilton (played by Anthony Heald) in The Silence of the Lambs. A perhaps coincidental parallel can be drawn between these two characters upon closer inspection. Ash, a calm yet stern and logical science officer/doctor at the beginning of the film is a person of suspicion to only Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). After an unsettling scene where he attempts to suffocate Ripley by ramming a pornographic magazine into her mouth, it is revealed that he is in fact an android, planted by the ‘Corporation’ whom the crew work for, to bring back the alien regardless of loss of life to the crew. A shocking revelation to the remaining crew (though perhaps not entirely for Ripley) and a twist in the plot for the viewer, Roz Kevaney in A Franchise Case Study: Alien (2005) proposes that in the end it is “no surprise”. Ash’s adherences to authority during several points in the film do reveal his allegiances and Kevaney does point out that it isn’t the first case of ‘robot gone bad’ in cinema, describing him as “counter-revisionist”. Dr. Frederick Chilton is introduced as a bureaucratic annoyance at the beginning of The Silence of the Lambs and his cringe-worthy attempts at flirting with Clarice Starling and her curt re-buff is the catalyst for the audience’s dislike of the character. We may also take offence at the unfeeling way Chilton shows Starling the photo of the injured nurse, moments before she is about to encounter Dr Hannibal Lecter herself. Even during the scenes in which Chilton and Lecter are in his cell, Chilton is still the more unlikeable character despite Lecter being the convicted killer who needs to be restrained. When Lecter spots Chilton’s pen (which he uses later to escape his handcuffs), Chilton’s idiocy is almost laughable as it is hazardous.

Both Ash and Dr. Chilton represent an authority which is unrealistic, restrictive and in some cases, dishonest. They provide an opportunity in the plot for the surrounding characters (including the protagonists, Starling and Ripley) to subvert the authority they uphold. In some ways, Ash and Chilton represent the “original order” that Mark Jancovich claims must be restored which is vital for a successful horror film. We could even label Ash and Chilton as the real ‘horrifying’ and ‘monstrous’ aspects of these films as they are protected by an establishment which is supposed to keep us away from harm. It is safe to say that most viewers probably experience relief when Ash is finally ‘killed’ via Parker and Lambert’s swift intervention, and there’s doubtfully many who do not feel a mischievous twinge of gratification at the sight of Hannibal Lecter appearing to ‘dish out’ his revenge on Chilton in the final scene of the film.

One cannot deny however, that for much of Alien is spent hunting down the alien and attempting to exterminate it or that the greatest relief is when Clarice Starling finally defeats Buffalo Bill in a nail-biting showdown in the basement filmed through the night-vision goggles in The Silence of the Lambs. Therefore to some extent, both films employ the classic horror trope of ‘The Final Girl’, meaning that the audience is directed to empathise and identify with a female character who usually survives at the end of the film (Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film, Carol J. Clover, 1993). Ellen Ripley is the last human survivor of Nostromo, single-handedly defeating the alien and living to tell the tale in the following sequels of the franchise and though Clarice Starling is not the only one to survive Buffalo Bill, Starling survives the ordeal after their encounter and ends his reign of terror. As an audience of a horror film which understands its genre traits, ‘The Final Girl’ is identifiable within Alien and The Silence of the Lambs. The “narrative closure” which Mark Jancovich speaks of is provided in the assurance of their survival. However, to reduce both Ripley and Starling to a film character convention would be doing a disservice. ‘The Final Girl’ suggests vulnerability, virginity and a helplessness that neither Ripley nor Starling overwhelmingly exude. In fact, Mark Jancovich’s own chapter in Horror: The Film Reader (1992), Genre and the Audience: Genre Classifications and Cultural Distinctions in the Mediation of The Silence of the Lambs denounces Starling’s vulnerability, stating that Jodie Foster’s performance as being a “commentary upon victimisation, rather than simply (as could be argued) an instance of victimisation”. In fact he even highlights the trap of comparing Ripley and Starling and explains that Foster’s performance was a conscious effort to separate itself from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. In the case of Ripley, Clover’s definition of ‘The Final Girl’ in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film (1993) also falls short :“The Final Girl is introduced at the beginning and is the only character to be developed in any psychological detail. We understand immediately from the attention paid it that hers is the main story line”whereas Ripley does not stand out as a main character for a good section of the film. In fact, Dallas the captain of the ship is the more suited character to ‘helm’ the story, but is killed early on in the film. Ripley however is “…watchful to the point of paranoia; small signs of danger that her friends ignore she takes in and turns over. Above all she is intelligent and resourceful in extreme situations” having voiced concerns about Kane’s return to the ship after contamination in the first forty-five minutes of the film and her cool reception of Ash from the start.

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Though both films offer a release of pleasure once the main antagonists are eradicated, neither offers complete narrative closure for their individual plotlines. In Alien Ellen Ripley’s final words are “The other members of the crew, Kane, Lambert, Parker, Brett, Ash and Captain Dallas are dead. Cargo and ship destroyed…This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off” but no concrete explanation of alien, its creation, its purpose of its aggression and whether danger has absolutely subsided is given. We aren’t even assured as an audience if Ripley will definitely live. We rely on the safety of the pod as we did in the opening scenes of the film, but our ideas about the safety of the ship/space environment have since changed due to the events of the film. For the finale of The Silence of the Lambs, evil still remains on the loose in the form of a free Dr. Hannibal Lecter. And though Clarice Starling qualifies as an FBI agent and celebrates with her peers, the phone call she receives from Lecter places her on edge once more at the mercy of their warped relationship. She may have ‘contained’ one criminal (Buffalo Bill) but the flight of Lecter leaves just enough unease in the viewer to feel duped out of a clear-cut ending and a pleasurable desire for more. We can conclude then, that though a level of “narrative closure” in a horror film can be achieved through the containment of some of their most “monstrous” and “horrifying” aspects, we can gather that the most successful of the horror genre leave some aspects of the film’s plot for the viewers to ponder over themselves. After all, the thrill of terror is in part its ability to embed itself in the conscience of those who experience it and in both Alien and The Silence of the Lambs, the terror is part of the pleasure.

Review: Holmfirth Film Festival 2014

Two weeks after the end of this year’s Holmfirth Film Festival, I found myself cycling through the serene valleys of the Pyreenes, just near the border to France and Andorra. Between staggered breathing and shaded-tree hoping, I thought back to just days before as I sat in a darkened Picturedrome, watching a cycling movie called Breaking Away (1979). Never did I expect these two disparate experiences to intertwine, but just as a jersey-clad, bare-legged mob of cyclists zoomed on ahead of me, I was reminded of the dynamic and exciting attractions I enjoyed in a small, rain-sodden village in West Yorkshire.

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Having finally arrived to Holmfirth (not the easiest of tasks for a Bradfordian resident who must rely on public transport), I made my way to the Holmfirth Picturedrome rightly assuming it was the place to start my cinematic journey across the Holme Valley. Reassured that I had not indeed missed the start of the next attraction, I settled down in a seat to enjoy a double bill of the classic French animation The Triplets of Belleville (2003) and the aforementioned Breaking Away (1979). The programme promised free entry to those who braved the beating rain to arrive on their bicycles and I was surprised to see that many actually did. The film itself is a feel-good, coming-of-age ride which tells the story of four high-school graduates leading working-class lives in a growing college town. One character in particular played by Dennis Christopher is obsessed with cycling and worships the Italian cycling team- so much so that he learns Italian by listening to operas and shaves his legs in his parent’s bathroom, much to the chagrin of his blue-collar father. What eventually follows is a bike race between the rich college-attending elite and this inexperienced, restless band of young friends who call themselves ‘The Cutters’ after the former stone-cutting workforce who dominated the region of Bloomington, Indiana. With fantastic sweeping shots of the area; the blissful open roads and the final race itself, Breaking Away is a simple story with a good heart which could turn any cycling un-enthusiast into a gear-changing fanatic by its end. A career-starting performance by Dennis Quaid as a troublesome, chain-smoking lamenting teen was also a joy to watch, especially considering the Hollywood heartthrob persona he went on to embody.

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A wonderful time was also to be had that very night in the Picturedrome for ‘A Night at the Movies…’ by the Holme Valley Orchestra. Many gathered to hear James Morgan conduct well-known and much-loved film scores and songs with dazzling film clips to distract you from staring too intently at the talented musicians who were seated at quite close proximity to an eager audience. Cinema screen by day, auditorium by night, the first weekend alone demonstrated just how versatile the Picturedrome can be, as well as highlighting the efforts of a dedicated team of volunteers and workers who helped to make the festival possible.

After securing a drink at the fabulous Gonzo bar and catching a few local musicians making good advantage of the festival guests in town in need of a quick refreshment (try anything by the Summer Wine brewery, good local tipple!), I travelled to the Southgate Theatre in Honley, a nearby village. Initially perturbed by the distance between locations (thankfully, on this particularly day, I was not dashing about on foot), the festival proved to be a wonderful opportunity to discover the local neighbourhoods not usually explored by those speeding through the valley to visit the famous village of Holmfirth. The Southgate Theatre is a delightful venue, home to many an amateur production and local meeting and quite clearly the heart of the Honley community. After being helpfully directed to the exits in case of a fire by a friendly lady, I enjoyed the Oscar-winning documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013). An addition to the programme which further highlighted the superb range of films offered during this week of cinema, this poignant account of the backup singers of some of the best singers and bands of the last fifty years was a joyous romp. Revealing everything from iconic musical clips to amazing on-stage performances as well as some shocking and heart-rending stories, the film gives a voice to those always just beyond the glare of the limelight.

Fast-forward a fortnight, and I have unwisely stopped cycling halfway up a hill in the Spanish mid-morning heat. A man pedals by in a Tour de France yellow t-shirt, and I quietly blame the Holmfirth Film Festival for whipping me up into Le Tour Yorkshire fever. I think next time I’ll just stock-up on popcorn instead of razors and bike pumps…

All photos taken by Evangeline Spachis.

The Best Contemporary (post-1970) Black and White Films

In an age when innovation is the gold-standard of the modern world, film encapsulates the changing trends and styles of an evolving cultural sphere. Long gone are the days when Technicolor was the very edge of cinema technology: these days it requires a pair of disposable glasses to see your favourite superheroes grace the big screen. However, like those who remain sceptical of the 3D movement, filmmakers have continued to return to the monochrome art form of their creative forefathers. Films of 2013 such as Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England and most recently, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska indicate an anachronistic yet nostalgic use of the medium which still appeals. One only has to point to the success of The Artist (2011) to see how these films are still significant enough to rake in the awards and box office success.
These unique films stand out against a backdrop the multi-colour of every day, often highlighting stories which glisten in emotive black and white…here’s just a few of the best:

1. Manhattan (1979, Dir: Woody Allen)

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2. Raging Bull (1980, Dir: Martin Scorsese)

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3. Schindler’s List (1993, Dir: Steven Spielberg)

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4. Ed Wood (1994, Dir: Tim Burton)

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5. Young Frankenstein (1974, Dir: Mel Brooks)

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6. Good Night and Good Luck (2005, Dir: George Clooney)

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7. The Artist (2011, Dir: Michel Hazanavicius)

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8. The Elephant Man (1980, Dir: David Lynch)

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9. The White Ribbon (2009, Dir: Michael Haneke)

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10. La Haine (1995, Dir: Mathieu Kassovitz)

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11. Pleasantville (1998, Dir: Gary Ross)
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12. Control (2007 Dir: Anton Corbijn)

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*Okay, I’ve slightly cheated with this one, as the premise of the film describes, it does actually begin in colour, but this film explores the advent of colour on the social conscious in such a charming way that you should definitely see it!

Other notable black and white movies: Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), Frankenweenie (2012), Somers Town (2008), The Good German (2006), Pi (1998), Stardust Memories (1980) and if you really want to…Clerks (1994).

We started the fire: The British films which defined the Thatcher era

Baroness Margaret Thatcher died today, leaving a controversial legacy which divided a nation during her time as the first female Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. The entire decade of the Eighties was under her umbrella of relentless leadership with an iron fist, making generational enemies who still feel the affects of her policies today.

British film in the Eighties could be depicted as being the second tide of the British New Wave which first gained prominence in the Sixties. Beginning with the optimism of Chariots of Fire (1981) which heralded a new recognition of British film on the world stage, it was twinned with the opening years of Thatcher’s premiership in office. By the time we come to The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), Peter Greenaway’s film can be read broadly as a lavish and unsettling satire of Thatcherism and the evils of the decade’s excesses.

Here are a list of just some of the films which attempt to capture the mood of the 1980s:

The Long Good Friday (1980) Dir: John Mackenzie

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Chariots of Fire (1981) Dir: Hugh Hudson

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Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) Dir: Alan Parker

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Local Hero (1983) Dir: Bill Forsyth

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Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) Dir: Terry Jones

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My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) Dir: Stephen Frears

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A Room with a View (1985) Dir: James Ivory

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Brazil (1985) Dir: Terry Gilliam

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Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987) Dir: Alan Clarke

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The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) Dir: Peter Greenaway

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“Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff!”: Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

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In Norman Kagan’s book ‘The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick’ (1997) Kagan compares the Kubrick’s seminal war film’s subject matter with Joseph Heller’s influential novel ‘Catch-22’ (1961) which in part is a critique of absurd bureaucracy and Cold War attitudes. Kagan explains how they “can be seen as products of the stifling anti-intellectualism, smugness and paranoia of the Eisenhower-McCarthy years. Both are full of brutalization, absurd and arbitrary power and smothering conformity.”.

Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963) is an unfolding satirical comedy about the dangers of accidental nuclear warfare. An unhinged US air general triggers an impending nuclear attack on Russian states (Soviet Union), and much of the film is set in the ‘War Room’ where the numerous absurd characters (three played by Peter Sellers) attempt to stop the bombers. Originally intended as a straight adaptation of the novel ‘Red Alert’ (1958) by Peter George, Kubrick instantly discovered the subject and plot suited a more satirical approach. In ‘Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze’ (2000) by Thomas Allen Nelson, he was said to be fascinated by “’people’s virtually listless acquiescence in the possibility- in fact, the increasing probability- of nuclear war.’”. Upon hiring comic writer Terry Southern, it is clear that the humorous results of Dr Strangelove are entirely intended. Cold War films released at a similar time, On the Beach (1959) and Fail Safe (1964) imply nuclear war is a serious problem for which we all should be accountable. However, Dr Strangelove takes a playfully accusatory tone and is not afraid to point the finger at an illogical world leadership. Nelson explains this further, saying:

[On the Beach and Fail Safe] would rather be on the ‘right’ side of a morally complex issue than transform or unsettle an audience’s perception by showing how such a problem, more often than not, originates from deep inside the structures of social mythology and the paradoxes of human nature.”

From the very beginning of the film, we can notice the preoccupation with dialogue and character which reinforce the presentation of pompously, out-of-touch politicians and army men playing havoc with the world’s safety. Therefore “because the film defines character satirically…Kubrick was free to play with the forms of his medium in ways that earlier scripts made impossible.” For example in Dr Strangelove, the setting is a vision, accurate in the filmmaker’s mind though not necessarily in tune with reality. The ‘War Room’ was based on speculation and the imagination of Kubrick which permeated the set designs of each of his films. For instance, the settings in A Clockwork Orange (1971) appear to be 1970s England but contains highly stylised and fantastical mise-en-scene which can be pinpointed as truly ‘Kubrickan’. Furthermore, in response to the film, many critics were opinionated about the warped form the film had taken. Robert Bernstein of The New York Review of Books succinctly summarises, “The consequence of the [comedy film] spectacle is…a temporary purgation; to witness the end of the world as a comic event is, indeed, to stop worrying and love the bomb.” (1970)

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Much like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) most of the action takes place either in the confines of hierarchy safety or in the immediate danger of battle and conflict. Designed by Ken Adam, the large conference room known as the ‘War Room’ is intimidating, angular and cold. High angle camera shots of the conference table suggest the room is in the bowels of government building and holds powers akin to a villain’s lair.  Other interior shots such as the B-52 bomber planes seem too small for the pilots who occupy them. The listing of the survival kit contents e.g., “One miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible;” (Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong) emphasise how efficiently compacted they are into confinement and the limitation of any escape from the decisions of leaders down below.

Made in England, Kubrick’s film was able to freely tackle issues which were affecting his homeland of the United States of America. In terms of the American war film genre, Dr Strangelove was a unique piece of film artistry. It challenged the popularity of American propaganda war films throughout the World War II period, and openly commented on issues such as the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War which haunted the American social psyche at the time. Noted journalist Paul Lashmar in the documentary film Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001) concluded that “People remember the film because it deals with one of the most dark things of the war period- the idea that hanging over us there’s nuclear oblivion. This is the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis…this piece of satire just hit it right on the button and it was frightening. Very, very frightening.”

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Drawing back the shower curtain: Voyeurism in Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960)

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“I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, “It’s none of my business.” They could pull down their blinds, but they never do; they stand there and look out.” (Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock, 1985)

At the time of making and releasing Psycho, the restrictive codes of Hollywood cinema were beginning to dissipate, and the move from an age of ‘cinema-goers’ to ‘television-viewers’ was starting to worry the establishment of ‘Old Hollywood’. In Raymond Durgnat’s book ‘A Long Hard Look at Psycho’ (2002) Durgnat describes how Psycho and its characters were intended to appeal to the evermore powerful teenage market and the more mature audience who were used to his previous successes:

“Norman…geared to the increasing interest in psychology. Though pushing 30, he’s an arrested teenager; still mother-bound and Anthony Perkins was popular with teenage girls. As for Marion and Sam, they are too socially unsettled, lonely, and to that extent psychologically ‘marginal’, and so have strong appeal for niche-market teenagers, but still interest without alienating mature spectators.”

This increased “interest in psychology” also gives much credence to the film’s critical psychoanalysis which has surrounded the film since its release. It’s almost as if the film intended to strike up debate as much as it intended to shock. Of course, the subject matter of the film itself was not entirely new to the American public. Adapted from Robert Bloch’s novel by Joseph Stefano, Psycho was inspired by the serial killer Ed Gein (1904-84) whose capture and discovery of his horrific crimes began a media frenzy. The story is recognisable and influenced such other films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  Bloch explained the creation of the killer Norman Bates in David Thomson’s book ‘The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder’ (2009) saying:

“…the character would be equivalent of a Rod Steiger type at the time, who lived alone- a recluse more or less, who didn’t have a lot of friends. How would he select his victims? I came up with his being a motel-keeper because of easy access to strangers.”

This decision to switch from the forty-something, ogre-like Bates to the obvious good looks of Anthony Perkins’ Bates appears to be a conscious effort to take into the account the viewer’s expectation (or lack of, as the case seems to be) of the characters deeper mental state by being portrayed with someone who can ‘appear’ likeable and trustworthy and unlikely to be a serial killer. By doing this, the film can explore how a killer can exist within the unlikeliest of people and how mental illness is a universal concern.

The film begins with the opening credits created by Saul Bass, a graphic designer who worked with Hitchcock on a number of films, such as Vertigo (1958) (another film which deals heavily with voyeurism). Combined with Bernard Hermann’s staccato violin score, the titles immediately place the viewer on edge and consist of moving lines which move along the screen to reveal names of cast and production members. This linear effect perhaps alludes to window blinds, rather fitting since immediately after, the camera zooms to a seedy hotel room window partially covered by a Venetian blind- a blind which hides from the outside world Marion Crane and her boyfriend Sam Loomis engaging in a lunchtime affair. Known for being a particularly difficult sequence to shoot, according to Durgnat in ‘A Long Hard Look at Psycho’ (2002) it would “bid for the longest continuous distance travelled by a camera” and was another example of Hitchcock striking out to challenge normal shooting practice, just as he did in Rope (1941) eleven years earlier.

Throughout the first half of the narrative, Marion Crane is the subject of a number of gazes, from the leering Mr Cassidy in the office, to the suspicious Police Officer and ultimately by Norman Bates. These gazes are represented both technically (camera angles, point of shot) and by the script and the representation of the characters. In the office scene, Mr Cassidy sits on Marion Crane’s desk placing the camera to view her from a slightly senior position of the client. Furthermore, the lifting of her head at his words “My sweet little girl” and his response: “Not you- my daughter!” also suggests that Marion is aware of male attention or is often flattered by clients with whom she encounters. Her understanding of her position in the male gaze is possibly what made her good at her job in the first place and appears to coolly deal with Mr Cassidy’s attentions. In contrast, upon encountering the Police Officer on the highway and again at the used car garage, Marion is viewed as a potential deviant from the law. Marion’s unease at being questioned shows how easily guilt has manifested itself in the way she relates to others. Perhaps the officer was showing natural concern and vigilance for a woman parked on a quiet freeway? But as a viewer who knows of Marion’s activities, we too feel he is being overly invasive and therefore implicates us in the crime also. The dark, opaque sunglasses the officer wears seem intrusive, aggressive and block the viewer (and Marion) a chance to interpret his character via his eyes.

The most significant character in terms of the male gaze towards Marion is of course Norman Bates. As a repressed, insular man with little interaction with the outside world and other people, the arrival of Marion at the Bates Motel is a significant moment in the film and also in Norman’s life. It is clear he desires her; he is nervous around her and noticeably excitable. The overheard conversation with Norman’s mother (“I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in for supper. By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds,”) is an example of Marion’s own temptation to listen in and look where she shouldn’t and is just one of the first instances where Marion appears to step over the line into Norman’s private affairs. The parlour room in which they have lunch is filled with Norman’s stuffed birds, many frozen in full flight indicating perhaps the action of capture and the bird’s all-seeing point of view on its prey. Norman’s declaration to Marion: “You, you eat like a bird” reinforces the interpretation that Norman has an ‘eagle-eye’ view of Marion. In the next scene, Norman spies on Marion through a peep-hole hidden behind a painting. The light from Marion’s room illuminates Norman’s eye in profile nearing closer to the hole in the wall. The camera shifts to Norman’s point of view and instantly implicates the viewer in the voyeurism. We are both shocked at his invasion of her privacy and yet cannot turn away. Spying on Marion getting undressed invites us to witness the cause of Norman’s arousal and the manifestation of his desire from behind a wall- forever kept apart from any possible sexual gratification. Moments later, the famous shower scene occurs.

In ‘The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory’ by Tania Modleski (1988), Modleski outlines how “In Film Studies, Hitchcock is often viewed as the archetypal misogynist, who invites his audience to indulge their most sadistic fantasies against the female.” In this way, the shower scene is perhaps an opportunity for the presumed male audience to see their deep-set sadistic desires played out on screen. This idea is emphasised in Laura Mulvey’s famous article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). If this scene was in reverse (as in, the camera viewpoint was from Marion’s perspective) the effectiveness of the scene would be lost, as Modleski (in ‘The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory’) concludes that though, “Psycho [is] a film which punishes audiences for their illicit voyeuristic desires…they ignore the fact that within the film not only are women objects of the male gaze, they are also recipients of most of the punishment.”

Many aspects in the shower scene hint at the theme of voyeurism and looking. When Marion enters the shower, she is visibly delighted in its baptismal qualities, relieved in her decision to return the money. The shower head could resemble an eye, looking down, offering her a chance for redemption. After her shocking murder, her blood is left to run down the plughole, the water still running. This then turns into a shot of Marion’s eye (an eye which saw her killer and faced up to her ‘punishment’) with a look of terror still on her face, and the water still running in the background. Hitchcock always drew storyboards before every scene he ever filmed, and so it is not entirely impertinent to presume that all of these allusions to the voyeuristic eye were purposely included. The book-ending of Marion’s lifeless eye and Norman’s peeping Tom eye, and the counter-clockwise flushing toilet (almost) ridding Marion of her sin with the water running counter-clockwise down the plughole, all highlight Hitchcock’s continued focus on the conduct and aspects of a voyeur.

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Furthermore in Laura Mulvey’s article, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, she argued  how the conditions of the cinema theatre practically invite people to objectify women in the anonymity of darkness. Hitchcock understood the workings of the cinema environment and even manipulated them by adopting a famous campaign to prevent cinema-goers from walking into Psycho mid-way through the film (a practice unheard of at this time). In his interviews with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock emphasised how much he worked to manipulate the viewer and see only what he allowed them to: “…the game with the audience is fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was manipulating them like an organ.” (Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Hitchcock, 269) For example, Hitchcock knew that many people would be expecting to see a star like Janet Leigh to be present for much of the film. He played on the enticing images of Leigh in a brassiere on the movie posters and punished the viewer by killing her character in the first 47 minutes of the movie.

As well as Psycho, films such as Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954) and Notorious (1946) all deal with the notion of looking, both in their plots and in the artistry of the film-making. Since so much of Hitchcock’s films are based in psychoanalysis, one cannot underplay the importance of the human psyche when judging what we can and cannot see in films such as these. So much of what we have since learned from Freud deal with the conscious eye and the subconscious reaction (Norman’s attraction to Marion (conscious) plus ‘mother’s’ violent reaction to his sexual desire (subconscious)).

In The Times article celebrating the 50th anniversary of Psycho, directors were asked to recall their experience and interpretation of the film. Wes Craven the director of Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream movies explained how Psycho was “almost pornographic in the way it impacted on people at the time.” This statement is still true today. More than any one scene in the picture, the film as a whole was an overwhelming visceral experience aimed at alerting the senses, especially sight. Whether you want to or not, you just can’t stop looking:  and as Thelma Ritter concludes in Rear Window (1954), “We’ve become a race of peeping Toms.”

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‘Hitchcock’ starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitch, Helen Mirren as Alma Reville and concerning the making of Psycho is in UK cinemas on 8th February 2013. Watch the trailer.

Into The Blue: An Analysis of Kieslowski’s ‘Three Colours: Blue’

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‘Three Colours: Blue’ is the first film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s celebrated ‘Three Colours Trilogy’ produced in 1993 and starring Juliette Binoche in the role of ‘Julie’. The collected: ‘Three Colours: Blue’, ‘Three Colours: White’ and ‘Three Colours: Red are all said to represent the three colours of the French flag and the ideals they represent: ‘liberty’ (blue), ‘equality’ (white), and ‘friendship’ (red). ‘Three Colours: Blue’ is perhaps the most well-known of the three films and both boosted the popularity of French New Wave cinema, the career of Juliette Binoche and the work of Krzysztof Kieslowski outside of Europe. This article will begin to analyse the film in greater detail, particularly focusing in on its successes.

The plot is set in Paris, and centres on Julie’s struggle to recover from a horrific accident she was involved in that resulted in the death of her husband and a beloved young daughter. After suffering such a terrible trauma, she begins to devote the rest of her life trying to completely erase her past from her memory: from moving to Paris, to selling all the furniture and belongings that inhabited her former life with her family. For instance at the time of his death, her husband, a famous and respected composer, was in the middle of a new musical composition written for a newly united Europe to celebrate the end of the Cold War. Consumed with grief she destroys the musical sheets on which he was working.

It is a film that is rich in textures, which is fairly typical of French cinema. It is atmospheric, multi-layered and more meaningful with every viewing. As expected from the title, the colour blue features predominantly- a significant use of mise-en-scene throughout the piece. The use of the colour blue in for example, a blue chandelier or a blue-lit swimming pool, allows the director to permeate the colour’s meaning in the film, blue being a colour that connotes great sadness as well as liberty. The title also prepares the viewer into looking out for the colour, which heightens its effect.

Julie’s struggle for freedom from her grief and former life is the main strand of plot. In one particular, seemingly stand-alone scene, Julie sits in a cafe and the camera shoots a tight close-up of a sugar cube absorbing coffee from her cup. It may seem insignificant, but Kieslowski’s decision to focus on this moment infers how Julie has begun to take notice of the mundane in exchange for the more pressing matters of her life such as her burgeoning grief for the loss of her family.  Kieslowski expanded on this in a master class saying,

“Quite simply, we are trying to show how the heroine perceives the world…We show a close-up of a sugar cube soaking up coffee to show she is not interested in anything outside…in other people, their business, in the man who loves her and has found her after a long search. She’s not interested in anything at all- just the sugar. She concentrates on it in order to be able to discard other things.”

At four key moments in the film, Kieslowski includes moments of a fade out and a fade in back to the scene. They appear to occur when Julie experiences a breakthrough in her recovery or at a significant turning point in the plot, for example when she meets her husband’s pregnant mistress and decides to give her family home to her. Here, Julie accepts her husband’s infidelity and chooses to do good in order to learn from her past. Another fade in occurs earlier on the film whilst Julie is still in hospital recovering after the accident. A journalist comes to speak to her, wishing to talk about her husband. She refuses, unwilling to face her past. This pivotal moments in Julie’s life are pinpointed in the editing of these scenes- the viewer is shown her emotional state explicitly in this way. The editor of ‘Three Colours: Blue’ Jacques Witta elaborated by saying:

“…punctuating the film with fades in order to gives the music more space and highlight the emotions… Traditionally the fade-to-black is not used for this; traditionally it is used to show time. With a cross fade we show a short time between two moments, for a longer time we use the fade-to-black….we used the fade-to-back in the middle of a scene, to quickly create a space, a suspense…to quickly create a pause with significance.”

Music also plays an important part in the plot, as well as in the director’s creative vision. At various parts of the film, Julie’s husband’s unfinished composition plays, and it appears that despite destroying much of it herself, the memorable tune still plays on her mind. There is a particular scene where Julie is in the blue-lit swimming pool (a returning example of mise-en-scene), and she goes under water presumably to drown out the music she continues to hear, but it is no use. Another example of this is in an early sequence when Julie is stood by a piano. She hears her husband’s composition, and yet no one is sat playing the piano. She slams the piano down and the music stops, which challenges the idea of diegetic and non-diegetic sound. The final composition, completed by Julie’s husband’s business partner (who also incidentally is in love with her) is played in full at the end of the film over a montage of all the different people Julie has encountered over the course of the film, despite her attempts to isolate herself from the rest of the world. It is a touching and fitting moment in the film. As Annette Insdorf in her book ‘Double Lives’ explains:

“Since the sequence begins and ends with Julie, it seems as if all these people are now part of her. There is genuine closure as the film ends: she has completed the concerto and fulfilled the mourning…Having tried to live in “liberty” – without memory, desire, work, or commitment – she is ironically returning to love.” (p.51).

Though it is often said that this film must be watched along with the other two films in the trilogy, ‘White’ and ‘Red’ (as one Amazon reviewer joked “why buy the trousers and not the whole suit?”), I believe that ‘Three Colours: Blue’ can stand alone in its own right. If viewed solely as an interesting tale of one woman and her coping with grief, then the film is entirely satisfying and is one that can be universally appreciated. By the end of the film as we see a hint of a smile on Juliette Binoche’s face and we believe as a viewer that her character has made a turning point in her development. ‘Blue’ is a visual and arousing cinematic experience, one that deserves repeated and in-depth viewings. It is a film that people return to again and again and continues to be celebrated and talked about nearly 18 years after it was first made.

  • Annette Insdorff, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski, New York: Miramax Books, 1999