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CASE STUDY: BULLET BOY (Saul Dibb, 2004)

Lawrence Napper

Discussing his ambitions for the Bullet Boy, Saul Dibb has suggested that he wanted the film to have a “really strong British flavour – I don’t want it to have a glossy feel to it. I don’t want it to be sentimental or glamorous.” In its rejection of gloss, sentiment and glamour, Bullet Boy might be understood as the antithesis of the kind of internationally exportable popular film exemplified by Love Actually. As Dibb’s comments imply, he is drawing on a long tradition of British cinema which, rather than competing with Hollywood, seeks to establish an alternative aesthetic of film-making, one which capitalises on the cultural specificities of life in Britain, attempting to tell stories drawn from everyday life in a realistic way. While the generic conventions of romantic comedy push Love Actually towards an optimistic and utopian vision of British society as a place of opportunity and goodwill, Bullet Boy is more concerned to highlight the specific inequalities and problems of the community which it represents. Many of its characters are trapped within situations which they work hard to resolve, but the odds are stacked against them. In this sense, the film could be seen as a political drama, although it contains no overt political speculation as to the causes of, or possible solutions to, the central dilemma. Instead it concentrates more on creating believable characters and situations, portraying those characters and their motivations as complex and contingent, rather than generically coded. Nevertheless, while the film eschews the generic address of rom-coms such as Love Actually, or the cartoon-like glamour of crime caper gangster films such as Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Richie, 1998), it still employs some generic narrative codes, balancing the demands of realism with those of entertainment. Furthermore, the casting of Ashley Walters in the lead role is a key strategy in marketing the film to young audiences who knew him primarily as Asher D, singer with the ‘So Solid Crew’, and his much publicized imprisonment for gun possession in 2002.

The film draws explicitly on the star persona of Walters who plays Ricky, a young man who at the opening of the story has similarly just emerged from prison having served a sentence for a gun-related crime. The story is told through the eyes of his younger brother, Curtis, who hero-worships Ricky but is also aware of his mistakes – “You may find it hard to obtain work with a criminal record” he taunts his brother, reading from a government leaflet. Nevertheless when the gun re-enters the house, Curtis is drawn to it as an object of fascination. Meanwhile Ricky, despite his best intentions, is drawn back into a cycle of violence between feuding gangs, sparked off by a characteristically trivial incident involving a broken wing mirror. Bullet Boy is careful to show Ricky as both trapped by a youth sub-culture but also integrated into a wider family structure and community network which is in opposition to that culture. He is torn between his street persona and his loyalty to his mother and brother, and the point at which those two worlds of street and family come together is the focus of the film’s most emotional scenes, when his younger brother Curtis accidentally shoots a schoolmate. It looks as though, despite his mother’s efforts, the cycle of gun violence might be passed from older to younger brother, as the schoolmate reminds Curtis that he has incurred a debt which may have to be repaid later in life, while admiring his gunshot wound as a battle-scar. Nevertheless, towards its conclusion, the film holds out a moment of optimism and generic catharsis for the audience – suggesting in a key sequence that Curtis might have the strength of mind to reject his brother’s legacy. He leaves his mother in church, inspired by the words of the preacher to finally get rid of gun – the music of the gospel service on the soundtrack creates an clear emotional cue at this moment of narrative resolution. The use of the music in this scene might be considered in contrast to the gruelingly realist use of sound in an earlier scene where Curtis and his mother visit his schoolmates’ parents and attempt to apologize for the shooting incident. The awkwardness of the visit is made viscerally apparent to the audience through the use of sound – and silence. 

All of the principle characters of Bullet Boy are black - a striking contrast to the cosy tokenism of portrayals of ethnicity in more mainstream British films such as Love Actually, and one which reverses the impression given by much casting in Hollywood films. While the black figure of avuncular state authority is a cliché Hollywood cinema, representatives of state power in Bullet Boy are in fact the only white characters in the film – teachers, probation officers, policemen etc. These characters remain peripheral to the story however, despite the raw power they wield over the lives of the main protagonists (particularly in the scenes of Ricky being released from prison, and with the probation officer). A scene of Curtis in his Hackney school, where the only white character is the teacher demonstrates the film’s commitment both to realism, and to the specificity of its story and location. Some critics have raised concerns about the appropriateness of a white director handling a story so firmly rooted within a black community, but the film is extremely confident both in its assumption that audiences will be able to identify with the principle characters regardless of race, and in the balance it strikes between telling a story which is specific to black urban experience, while nevertheless not producing that experience as an object for inspection ‘from outside’. This balance is worth considering in the light of other more celebrated films dealing with the experiences of British ethnic minorities, My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985), Young Soul Rebels (Isaac Julien, 1991) and East is East (Damien O’Donnell, 1999) provide obvious examples, although the focus of these films tends to be more heavily on the notion of ‘multiculturalism’ than is evident in Bullet Boy.

The reach towards a specific cultural ‘authenticity’ of course, is part of a long tradition of British film-making, which as we have seen, blends fiction narratives with documentary aesthetics and production practices. One might trace the impulse to put ‘real people’ on the screen right back to the early work of Mitchell and Kenyon, by way of the ‘New Wave’ cycle of the 1960s, the ‘Golden Age’ of wartime cinema and the celebrated documentary movement of the 1930s. Film-makers working in this tradition more recently have often been influenced by television experience. Dibb himself has worked extensively as a television documentary maker (although he is now also working in BBC drama) and Bullet Boy was primarily funded in a co-production partnership between BBC Films and the UK Film Council’s New Cinema Fund. The film has some clear stylistic similarities to the work of other celebrated British realist film-makers who began their careers in television, most notably Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. While works such as Loach’s Kes (1969), Ladybird, Ladybird (1994) and My Name is Joe (1998) were not world-wide mainstream box-office hits, they were critical successes which gained small scale specialist distribution both in Britain and in America, proving the viability of this kind of modestly budgeted national cinema in the market-place. Nevertheless, in a purely commercial environment, such specialist films would stand little chance of getting made and all to a greater or lesser extent rely some form of non-commercial funding. They are also notable for their political commitment to showing communities and identities which are under-represented in mainstream cinema, presenting life experiences in an apparently un-mediated way.

Such films are often discussed in terms of realism or authenticity, and it is clear by comparison with a film such as Love Actually that there are a set of very different film-making principles and generic conventions in play. Working within a tradition established by the films of Loach, Leigh and others, Bullet Boy uses professional actors sparingly. The majority of its characters are played by non-professionals, people who live and work in the community being represented, often in the roles they are playing onscreen. Dibb and his co-writer Catherine Johnson devised a narrative based on their research within the community, but they also allowed the actors to improvise much of the actual dialogue in order to achieve a more realistic tone. The film is shot primarily on location in Hackney, using lightweight cameras and in real interiors. The result is precisely the lack of that ‘gloss’ which Dibb wants to achieve, and yet the film is also highly lyrical in many sequences, making particular use of shots of the landscape from the high-rise viewpoint of Curtis’ home, and shots of wastelands and semi-rural locations in late sunlight. Much was made in the publicity for the film of the sense of ‘ownership’ over the story which members of the local community felt during its making and on its first release – a sense partly engendered by the production techniques of location shooting, use of non-professional actors, improvised dialogue and community research. Whether these techniques result in a heightened authenticity for other audiences, or whether they might be considered just another set of generic conventions signifying a film aimed at a different kind of film-going audience is a matter for debate. Bullet Boy’s distribution history certainly suggests that it has been able to cross generic boundaries and address a range of audiences – originally circulated through festivals as an art-house product, the distributors were able to draw on finding from the Film Council to help them capitalise on the appeal of Ashley Walters to get the film released not just in independent cinemas but also in more mainstream Multiplex venues, particularly around London and other urban areas. Nevertheless, the film did not secure a theatrical release in America.

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Chris Jones

Critical attitudes

Like Andrea Weiss, Richard Dyer sees Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts as an example of a feature film which breaks refreshingly free of dominant heterosexual ideology. The film concentrates closely on the psychological world of its two central female characters, and their love is seen to grow and realise itself in a natural progression. Black lesbian film-maker Michelle Parkerson, on the other hand, sees the film as part of what she calls the ‘easy heterosexist niches for homosexuality on the silver screen’ negotiated by Hollywood (Gever, M. 1993: 234). The relationship portrayed is easy in the sense of being an idealised one between two beautiful, socially well-placed white women, and the male characters are too good to be true (see also Mandy Merck’s views in Dessert Hearts, Gever, M. 1993: 377). On the level of the film's production history this comment seems less warranted, since Deitsch spent nearly ten years trying to persuade reluctant financial backers to support this film adaptation of Jane Rule's novel. It was eventually made independently on a very small budget by Hollywood standards.

Plot patterns

The opening scene is signalled with a caption, ‘Reno, Nevada, 1959’ and shows a woman, Vivian Bell, tentatively descending from a train, and welcomed by Frances, in whose house she is staying as a paying guest. Most American viewers know that people come to Reno to gain divorces and we subsequently see Vivian consulting her lawyer. Driving Vivian to the house, Frances talks of her ‘wild’ daughter who, she says, is just like her dead father. We see the wide-ranging desert scenery glide past.

Frances's daughter Cay zooms up in her car, Buddy Holly blasting on her radio. She recklessly drives on the wrong side of the road in order to converse with Frances, who introduces her to ‘Professor Bell’. After Cay zooms off Vivian reaches for a cigarette, and is portrayed as nervy, shy and tentative. She later starts to get to know Cay, who produces sculpture and works at one of the casinos. The two are soon discussing ambitions and plans.

In keeping with its genre pattern of romance, this film follows a simple plot whereby Vivian and Cay gradually come together, fall for each other and, towards the end, make passionate love. The generic plot complications consist of the very different personalities and backgrounds of the two women, and the neurotically possessive nature of Frances which is gradually revealed. She is not Cay's natural mother but lived for ten years with Cay's father and is the mother of Cay's half-brother Walter. We learn that Cay's father died young, that Frances still loves and adores him, and that she has a voracious need to keep Cay near her as a reminder of him. When she dances with Cay at the engagement party of Cay's friend Silver, Frances talks of how special the memory of Glen, her lover, is to her ‘because he reached in and put a string of lights around my heart’. She tells Vivian: ‘... I got what I wanted. I had a love of my own.’ Vivian's reply: ‘You had more than most people dare hope for’, sets up the main dramatic expectations of the plot as we gradually learn of Vivian's conformist marriage that she is escaping from. She tells her lawyer; ‘I want to be free of what I've been’.

Character patterns

The differences between Vivian and Cay are clearly signalled through dress and behaviour. Vivian wears a steel- grey, precisely cut 1950s skirt-suit with a matching cloche hat. Her blonde hair is up in a neat, business-like style which matches her stiff, formal movements. She is ten years older than Cay. She lectures in English Literature at Columbia University, and makes frequent references to what she calls her ‘circle’. In terms of representation in American films, this brings into play a whole set of stereotypes in the contrast between the more intellectual, snobbish Easterner and the more physical Westerner. Cay shows off her long brown legs in skimpy denim shorts and cowboy boots. Her medium-length black hair flows freely. A representational tradition of associating blonde hair with aloof coolness, and dark hair with a lively, passionate nature, is being brought into play.

Cay is open and positive about her love of women. The first time Vivian visits Cay in her cottage she is disconcerted to glimpse another woman, Gwen, in Cay's bed. Vivian accepts Cay's offer of a lift into town, but is evidently awkward sitting between Gwen and Cay. Cultural differences are underlined when Cay replaces the blaring pop music on the radio with another station playing Prokofiev, whereupon Vivian recognises the music and says she likes it.

Although undeveloped in her education, Cay is open to new ideas and cultural influences, and it is for this reason that Vivian later wants to take her to New York. Cay is strong-minded, and tells Frances firmly: ‘One of these days I'm gonna meet somebody that counts’. We see her resisting various social pressures to ‘settle down’ with Darrell, the male supervisor at the casino. She makes it clear to her friend Silver that she wants to be accepted for what she is, and Silver declares her continued friendship.

Cay tells Silver that she is very much in love with Vivian, but doesn't know whether anything will come of it. Darrell is shown protecting Cay from the unwanted advances of a client at the casino, and is polite and patient with her. His offer to ‘look the other way’ about Cay's affairs with women evokes her exasperation, and shows his complete misunderstanding of who Cay is.

It is Cay who makes most of the moves in bringing herself and Vivian together. At the motel, when Vivian, on the opposite side of the door, asks her to go away, Cay replies: ‘I can't, honest’. Once she has let Cay into the room, Vivian turns round to find Cay naked in her bed. Cay succeeds, once again, in relaxing Vivian by making her laugh.

Vivian slowly develops a more relaxed outlook. She adopts a looser hairstyle, wears jeans and visits the casino. As she watches a rodeo, we see a close-up of her slipping her wedding ring off her finger, symbolising a new life. When she finally gets her divorce, the lawyer remarks that Vivian has found a ‘pen-pal’ in Reno. Her reply: ‘I've found much more than that, Mr Warner’ is strong and confident.

Sex and the spectator

A key scene in advancing the couple's intimacy occurs when Cay is driving Vivian home after the party, where Silver's performance of her loving country song is accompanied by shots of the two looking at each other. Cay tells Vivian that she can only find real love with a woman. When Vivian, continuing to wrap her reactions in a cloak of academic tolerance, says: ‘Are you trying to shock me?’ Cay replies calmly: ‘No, I was only telling you the truth’. As Vivian flees to the car Cay makes her wind down the window, bends down and caresses Vivian's cheek with her lips. The romantic convention of the first kiss is made dramatic and memorable through the heavy shower that is drenching Cay, and the unusual positioning of the lovers.

The love-making scene at the motel raises the vexed question of erotic voyeurism. We have a woman directing a scene of woman-to-woman love-making which generally avoids angles or shots which could echo those traditionally associated with images directed at heterosexual males. Helen Shaver as Vivian conveys pleasurable sexual awakening and a nervousness that is carried into the next scene. In a restaurant, the two declare their love for each other but Vivian is uncomfortable and her lack of ‘points of reference’ leads to a quarrel and reconciliation with her lover.

Given the 1950s setting, remarkably little homophobia is encountered by the two lovers in this film. The prejudice of Lucille, another house guest, and the incomprehension of Darrell are balanced by the tolerant support of Silver and Walter. Frances's attitudes remain ambiguous and perhaps more credible given the era in which the film is set. When they return to find Frances has kicked Vivian out of her house and booked her into a motel, this act is equally aimed at hanging on to Cay, although she says ‘at least I'm normal’. The act backfires, and Cay moves out to stay with Silver. In her final conversation with Cay, Frances displays mystified antagonism: ‘I just don't understand it. Women together.’ Cay uses Frances's words to explain: ‘She just reached in .... put a string of lights around my heart’ and earns a reluctant blessing and a hug, an action marred by Frances's comment that people will be talking about her.

The fragility of this lesbian relationship across the class, regional and educational differences of 1950s America is echoed by the question posed narratively at the end as the train pulls away: will it be to the next station as she claims, or will Cay stay with Vivian on that train journey to New York?

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Chris Jones

Lesbian stardom

Guinevere Turner, a leading actor and co-writer of this film, has become a lesbian film star. Her on-screen charisma and the intertextual effects of publicity in lesbian and gay media contain the classic ingredients for the development of the first openly lesbian film-star persona. This is a trail already blazed in other media by figures such as k d lang (music and film) and Ellen Degeneres (television).

In the tradition of most lesbian productions, Go Fish is a small-budget film. The long list of helpers and contributors following the main credits attests to strong community support. Typical of such projects, many of those participating in the making of the film did several jobs; for example, V.S. Brodie is both main actor and co-producer. The film has excellent black and white cinematography by Ann T. Rossi, and an attractive, specially written score. It took two years to complete, a fact which makes the quality and consistency of Turner's performance all the more laudable.

The time was right for the success of this film. Co-producer John Pierson was aware that what he calls ‘the low-budget aesthetic’ was very much in vogue in 1994 and the success of Claire of the Moon, despite very bad reviews, had made him conscious of the vastly underserviced lesbian audience. The film was an immediate hit at the Sundance Film Festival that year, and Pierson used his considerable negotiating skills to persuade Goldwyn distributors to snap it up, the first such deal to be achieved. Nevertheless, its success with audiences, and its engaging charm, is mainly due to its lively script, direction and performances.

The script: speaking as lesbians

Go Fish has a simple main storyline. A young lesbian student, Max (Turner) is eager to find a girlfriend. Ely (Brodie) is very reserved, nervous of commitment, and sheltering behind her fading long-distance relationship with a lover who has been living far away in Seattle for over two years. Max and Ely get together with a lot of help from their friends, which include Kia, a black College lecturer in whose apartment Max rents a room, and Evy, Kia's Hispanic lover. Ely shares an apartment with Daria. These room-mates discuss the women's feelings, with each of them separately and between themselves as a group. Max is initially uninterested, but gradually changes her attitude. It emerges that Ely is very attracted to Max. Daria arranges a party in her apartment where all the friends are invited. At the party Max and Ely get to know each other better and, soon after, arrange a big date.

This outline indicates several features that make a refreshing difference in terms of lesbian film. In contrast with the all-too-frequent portrayal of lesbian relationships as relatively isolated and fragile, dependent on the goodwill of a limited number of (usually straight, usually liberal) friends, Max and Ely are surrounded by a supportive lesbian culture. Daria is constantly pressing Ely to make up her mind. Kia checks through Max's college paper for her, and discusses her well-being with Evy, Daria and other friends. These women work, eat, drink, make love, have sex, play cards and care for their cats. The script is a collaboration between Guinevere Turner and director Rose Troche. During one of their get-togethers the group of friends discuss various woman-positive words for ‘vagina’, just one notable example of the way the dialogue crackles with lively repartee about their lived experience as lesbians.

A further example of natural-sounding dialogue occurs during the phone conversation where Max and Ely arrange their date. Gently prompted by Max, Ely admits that she considers her relationship with the woman in Seattle to be over. On hearing this admission, Max prompts Ely to ask her out on a date. They agree to meet at Max's apartment. The scene leading up to their lovemaking is underpinned with gentle humour. Max is late in getting ready, then tells Ely that she's having a ‘fashion crisis’ in deciding what to wear, and remains in her robe. The act of cutting Ely's nails, very odd for a first date as the friends later comment, brings them into close physical intimacy.

The script celebrates lesbian culture but prevents the tone of the film from becoming cosily idealistic. We see Kia fielding insults shouted in the street and hear Ely talking of being called a ‘lezzie’ at school. There is a scene where Evy goes home and has a major argument with her mother, because her brother has informed the family that her saw her going into a local gay bar. Her mother utters a stream of homophobic insults in Spanish and English. Evy angrily declares that she is leaving home. She flees to Kia’s apartment where Max comforts her in her usual clumsy way, saying, ‘we can be your family’.

Direction: seeing queerly

The film has a distinct visual style based on frequent use of close-ups. The faces of Max and Ely are shot in extreme close-up, for instance, as the two of them talk on the phone, thus underlining their growing intimacy. Close-ups of hair, ear-rings, lips and hands make the viewer feel part of the group. This sense of intimacy through physical closeness echoes the style of other lesbian film-makers such as Sadie Benning.

There are scenes throughout the film of Kia, Evy, Daria and the latter's various girlfriends talking about their lives and discussing the progress of Max and Ely's relationship. The director presents these shots in a memorable way. We see only the women's heads in various patterns as they are lying, presumably on some kind of large bed, looking up at the ceiling, an amusing physical embodiment of them putting their heads together in order to formulate their plans.

The narrative is punctuated by shots and montage sequences which comment on the main action. Shots of a spinning top reflect the game of pairing and mating that is being played. The song on the soundtrack echoes the theme, with lyrics about love spinning round. Shots of lights being switched off and wringing hands visually embody the initial tensions of the Max/Ely relationship. A montage sequence uses shots of Max and other women looking uncomfortable in white wedding dresses while people congratulate them. Sometimes the women try to pull off the dresses. In parallel, Max's voiceover gives us her thoughts on how to live her lesbian identity, along with comment on the lures and pitfalls of conformity.

Director/script-writer Rose Troche uses light touches which bring the characters to life. One longer close-up of Ely's black boot being carefully laced by her, in readiness for her date with Max, embodies this character's care and nervousness. On her way home afterwards, we see Ely leaping in the air with delight and accepting a rose from a stranger. There is a comic sequence towards the end. Scenes of Ely being closely questioned by Daria about what went on during the date are cross-cut with Max giving her account to her room-mates, and these in turn are comically underpinned by contrasting scenes of the date as envisaged by Max, Ely and their friends.

New lesbian images?

The viewer is introduced to a varying array of lesbians, although there are no older women. Ages range from Kia, who is thirty, to Max, in her late teens. Kia's dress and demeanour contain overtones of the traditional butch stereotype. The fact that she is black provokes further debate about racial and sexual imaging.

The women portrayed have a refreshingly realistic, non-glamourised range of bodies and faces. Characters and attitudes also vary. Ely is firmly monogamous while Daria is happily promiscuous. Ely and Max disagree about the gay images in the film they see when they first go out together. After having sex with a male friend, Daria is waylaid by an angry group of lesbians. The ensuing discussion airs a range of views about personal freedom and sexual identity as Daria insists that she is ‘a lesbian who has had sex with a man’. A queer lesbian?

Awareness of age and image is foregrounded. Max initially dismisses Ely's looks as ‘seventies hippie’ and with typical youthful impetuosity calls her ‘ugly’, to Kia's annoyance. Max learns to be less rigid in her outlook. Ely undergoes a drastic change of image, having her long hair cut into a dramatically shaved style. On her next meeting with Max, she confides her worry that the new style may be ‘too butch’ and the two women talk of the constraints and expectations of body-image for lesbians.

The final sequence of the film, which accompanies the credits, contains an uplifting message. It shows various couples we have met during the film, making love. The imagery skilfully avoids hetero titillation and has a convincingly lesbian feel, recalling the photographic images of Della Grace. The voice-over advises viewers to keep an open mind because ‘The Girl Is Out There’.

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Chris Jones

A glimpse of Chinese diversity

In recent years, since the opening up of Chinese society, gays and lesbians inside China have become more visible, especially in traditional centres of gay life such as Shanghai. Nevertheless, it is no surprise that a film such as Happy Together should have been made in the more liberal enclave of Hong Kong, and with outside funding and locations in Argentina. Any reference to dialogue and speech in the following analysis is based on the subtitles provided for the Artificial Eye video edition, which translate the Cantonese, Mandarin and small amount of Spanish in which the film is acted.

Ho Po-Wing is an attractive but louche good-time boy. The other half of the couple at the centre of the narrative, Lai Yiu-Fai, is a hard-working, down-to-earth man who dotes on Ho. Both parts are played by well-known Hong Kong stars. The film is initially structured around the contrasts between these two characters, and their interaction. Later a young man named Chang becomes significant in Lai’s life and the narrative momentum shifts to the Lai/Chang relationship.

Voice-over viewpoints

The voice of Lai on the soundtrack puts this character firmly in control of viewpoint. Lai is the one who explains to the viewer the on/off nature of his relationship with Ho, that they came on holiday to Argentina and hit the road in order to try and sort things out. Lai’s voiceover explains, comments and vents emotions throughout the film.
He tells us that it was Ho’s purchase of a waterfall lamp that inspired them to visit the famous landmark waterfall at Iguazu. He expresses his most intimate emotions on the soundtrack at such points when, in a later flashback showing him caring for Ho’s injuries, he admits that he never told Ho that he didn’t want him to recover too fast because ‘these days were our happiest When he finally gets to see the Iguazu falls on his own, his voiceover confesses that he still feels sad, that he should be there with Ho. The visuals both complement and counteract Lai’s voice. A longshot of him as a lone figure next to the vastness of the falls makes us aware of his sense of isolation, a there is a close-up of his face splashed with tear-like water drops.

Chang enters the film about two-thirds of the way through. His viewpoint too is privileged through voiceover. His voice also comments and expresses emotions. Initially, we see his long, lean face in close-up while he is washing up in the restaurant kitchen, telling us how he loves listening to sounds. He has already noticed Lai and comments on how pleasant his voice sounds. He lets us know that he has noticed how much Lai talks on the phone and says ‘he must be talking to someone he likes’.

When Chang is about to leave Buenos Aires, having saved enough money to move on, he says a fond farewell to Lai. As the two men embrace we hear Chang’s voice asking himself uncertainly whether the two of them have become close. He tells us that he can hear his own heart beating, and wonders whether Lai’s heart is beating too. He goes to visit the lighthouse at Ushuaia, a famous landmark. He had tried to capture Lai’s voice on tape as a souvenir because he prefers sound to photos, and left Lai alone to speak into the machine, telling him to express his feelings. Lai had told him of a legend connected with the lighthouse which says that people with emotional troubles can dump them there. At the lighthouse, he plays his small, portable recorder and tells us that he is trying to help Lai, but that all he could hear on the tape is sobs. Sweeping panoramic aerial shots of Chang at the lighthouse give an airy sense of liberation and suggest that he might be successful in his chosen purpose

A good-time boy?

Ho is portrayed as mixed up, self-centred and immature, a character who commands little audience sympathy. He quickly decides they are to split up again and is soon parading his rich white boyfriend in front of Lai at the tango bar. Other themes in this film can be explored around relations between white and Chinese gay men. A shot of Ho lounging in his boyfriend’s luxury apartment contrasts tellingly with the scenes of Lai’s small, simple room and his hard work.

However, Ho does attempt to help Lai by stealing a watch, an act that misfires and results in him being beaten up and kicked out. He comes back to Lai for help. When Lai gives him a ticket and puts him on a bus he comes back again, this time with his wrists slit. During his long recovery, Lai loses his job at the bar because of an angry attack on the white boyfriend. He finds the job in the kitchen and supports Ho. Only when fully recovered through Lai’s care and support does Ho run off yet again. For Lai, this is clearly the last straw. In his final scene, as we see Ho clutching a blanket and weeping copiously, there is still the question of exactly what or who he is weeping for.

A troubled man?

Lai, initially in thrall to Ho, is obviously unhappy; the film is dotted with shots showing Lai alone, looking depressed, clutching his forehead with his hand, smoking or looking wistfully from windows. In one instance, his near-naked figure is slumped against a wall in the restricted space of a harshly lit bathroom, the tiles glinting mercilessly. There is a scene where he gazes out from a boat on the river, the whole screen bathed in blue to reflect his melancholy. Other expressionist techniques are used such as the jagged blurry shot with a jolting camera as Lai runs down the street after a quarrel.

Lai is also an angry man. There are several instances of him breaking beer bottles against hard surfaces. He angrily kicks Ho out when the latter taunts him about the number of boyfriends he’s had. At one point the viewer is given an outside shot of the tango bar as Lai watches the white boyfriend go in with yet another young conquest. The camera remains fixed, and all we see is Lai picking up a beer bottle, walking angrily into the bar, followed by a male scream on the soundtrack. A short while later, we learn he has lost his job for this.

As indicated earlier, Lai tries very hard to distance himself from Ho but perhaps he can’t help himself when faced with Ho’s childlike, dependent nature, which contrasts so strongly with his coping, caring and working which we continually view. The major instance of this inability to help himself occurs when Ho returns to his apartment with his wrists cut.

A significant shot follows immediately. After all Lai’s efforts to reject Ho and put him on a bus, the camera angle reverses to reveal the love and concern on Lai’s face. As Lai nurses Ho, and after he has confessed in voiceover to that time span being one of the happiest, there is surely a feeling here of unease. A relationship where one partner wants the other helpless and ill is not a healthy one and Lai seems to demonstrate this to a certain extent in his behaviour. He continues to insist on the two of them sleeping apart, one on the single bed, one on the sofa. He seems to be weaning himself off Ho.

At the same time, Lai’s behaviour tends towards the obsessive and possessive, and serves to increase the viewer’s sense of unease about the situation. Lai is finally strong enough to refuse to see Ho but his strong feelings for Ho continue to the end of the film. We see him gazing wistfully at the waterfall lamp just after Ho leaves and later, after Chang has left him alone with the tape recorder, we see him sobbing quietly into it as he hides his face behind it.

Finally, the script offers a possible psychological explanation for Lai’s troubled nature. A phone call he attempts to make, and a long letter he writes, are accompanied in voiceover by references to seeking his father’s forgiveness, not only for stealing some money from the tango bar (run by a friend of his father’s) but for other unspecified things. Later, when he meets Chang’s family in Taipei he envies Chang his happy, stable home background.

Happy together?

The relationship between Ho and Lai is clearly a troubled one. Both men seem dependent on each other for reasons which do them harm. Yet there is no doubting their sexual compatibility and attraction. Their mutual attraction on this level is established in the opening scene of the film where they almost seem to eat each other up as they make passionate love in a way that is remarkably explicit but perhaps too frantic to be stable.
Lai came to Argentina to try and work things out, but as the film progresses, he seems to change. The happiest period for him may have been when he nursed Ho, but after the initial passion all we see is Ho trying to provoke, tease, caress, lick and kiss in a one-way flow of sensuality. After the break-up, we see Lai out in the gay bars and haunts of Buenos Aires, cruising.

The waterfall lamp is a powerful visual symbol of the relationship between the two men. It is often foregrounded in shots of the apartment and, as indicated, used by both lovers as a focus for emotional contemplation. It ties in closely with the planned trip together to the falls, which hovers over the narrative like some kind of ideal view of how the relationship could turn out.

A sweet saviour?

After extended scenes of Ho’s selfish manipulations, it is with great relief that the sweet, sensible Chang enters the narrative with the facial close-up described earlier. Chang’s presence in the film puts an interesting emphasis on sound. When he and Lai are out drinking together as they get to know each other better, Lai finds that Chang is listening to a conversation far away at the other side of the bar. Chang explains that he had an eye problem as a child and learned to make hearing his main way of looking at the world. This is the motivation for his taping of Lai’s voice which leads to the symbolic release of Lai’s woes at the lighthouse. Chang’s gentle behaviour and plain style of dress combine with his dedication to listening to give him an almost mystical aura.

A similar aura of mystery remains around Chang’s sexuality. He seems to be a loner, working late in the kitchen because he has nothing else to do. He tells Lai that he left home to travel in order to ‘work some things out’. We see him refusing an attractive young female workmate’s invitation to go to the cinema, telling Lai that he doesn’t like her voice, that he prefers women whose voices are deep and low. At the same time he is eager to invite Lai out for a drink. His beating heart and tremulous musings about how much Lai likes him perhaps signal strongly that he is in love. When he returns from Buenos Aires after his trip to the lighthouse, he tries to find Lai, who has already left for home.

Although Lai doesn’t get to meet Chang in Taipei, his final voiceover remark is that he will always know where to contact Chang should he want to, offers a positive expectation for the audience. To what extent does the appearance of Chang give the film a Hollywood-style happy ending?

Filmic pleasures

The mise-en-scene tends to reflect emotional dysfuncionality in its emphasis on harsh surfaces, empty streets and enclosed spaces. Most scenes of the Ho/Lai relationship are also shot in black and white. Yet there are visual and aural pleasures on offer that offset the often dismal feeling of the affair. When the two men are driving towards the waterfall, and before their car breaks down, we are treated to a panoramic, mobile aerial shot of the falls, bathed in vivid blue light and accompanied on the soundtrack by a ballad in Spanish about love and suffering, sung by a mellifluous male voice. This scene suggests a fantasy desired by both the lovers. Argentine tango music and Frank Zappa’s jazz enliven the soundtrack.

There are other specific parts where the film bursts into colour photography, which is thrown into relief by the surrounding black and white: Lai’s period of happiness, the scenes with Chang in the bar. The lighthouse shots accompanying Chang’s ‘release’ of Lai’s troubles are positively exhilarating. The colour and movement of Buenos Aires is a kind of backdrop for the relationship between Ho and Lai, encapsulated in speeded-up shots of the downtown area with the vivid colours of traffic zooming by. The film ends with visuals of a similar urban background in Hong Kong, extended to include trains, people, high buildings and a throbbing sense of urban speed, accompanied on the soundtrack by Frank Zappa singing ‘Happy Together’.

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Case Study: Corporate Authorship – Industrial Light and Magic (ILM)

Paul Watson

The beauty of ILM is that it has done so many productions, and so many of them have been groundbreaking, that there is a technological culture there that is beyond the individuals who made those advancements.
(James Cameron, 1999)

Andrew Darley argues that the idea of the director-as-author working within a commercially driven film industry is becoming increasingly untenable to the extent that “quite simply it is no longer an issue” (2000: 141).  Moreover, he suggests that cultural production in an age of digital visual culture becomes “first and foremost a technical problem” in which “technique, technicians and technology itself take command” (2000: 141).  Within this context, it is significant that a set of company names such as ‘Industrial Light and Magic’ (ILM), ‘Disney’ and ‘PIXAR’ now operate as an index of artistic style alongside or in front of individual creative agency.  So while on the one hand such names do not necessarily displace the director (directors such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Ron Howard and Robert Zemeckis all regularly collaborate with ILM while retaining a distinct creative identity, and the name of PIXAR is virtually synonymous with John Lasseter), on the other hand they now tend to “vie with them as a way of accounting for or measuring creative worth within the popular aesthetic imagination” (Darley 2000: 137).

One implication of this situation is not only that authorial agency might usefully be located with creative personnel other than the director, but that it becomes possible, even desirable, to identify multiple authorial agencies within a film.  Moreover, it opens up the possibility not only of collective or collaborative authorship but also that of institutional or corporate authorship.  Indeed, if we think of recent Hollywood films such as, The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2 (1991), Forest Gump (1995), Titanic (1997), Men in Black (1997), Mercury Rising (1998), The Perfect Storm (2000), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), and Minority Report (2002),as well as the entire Star Wars and Jurassic Park series,then some of their most important visual and stylistic features which would, under the classic model of auteurism, be ascribed to their respective directors can be more plausibly traced to the work of other collaborators, and in particular ‘Industrial Light and Magic’.

Established by George Lucas to develop the visual effects for Star Wars (1977), ILM has since played a pioneering role in the creation of modern special effects techniques.  And while they continue to develop and utilise the full range of those techniques, it is nevertheless in the field of digital effects that ILM now stands as emblematic of the technological thrill of the contemporary blockbuster.  For not only is it now impossible to watch a mainstream film which does not employ a considerable array of invisible digital effects, but Hollywood’s chief commodity – the blockbuster – is significantly driven by the desire to make visible or showcase precisely the current capabilities of visual effects technology and techniques.  It is in this respect that ILM, as perhaps the most influential visual effects company, can be considered to be more important than any single individual in determining and advancing the visual and narrative parameters of contemporary cinema.  Moreover, these insights prompt analysis of ILM as a corporate author insofar as visual effects, and in particular digital imaging techniques are both ubiquitous (characteristic of Hollywood’s standard production and post-production processes and thus have a significant effect on contemporary film style) and unique (the technological or aesthetic specificity of particular effects sequences). 

Applied to A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) this involves on the one hand consideration of the function of visual effects in the narrative, and on the other, attention to the creative process and individual practices implicated in creating its spectacular imagery, and with it reconsideration of a range of elements that we have, up to now, willingly attributed to the director.  Thus, despite the considerable critical attention devoted to the working relationship between Steven Spielberg (the film’s director) and Stanley Kubrick (who bequeathed Spielberg the project) and how this is manifested in the in the film’s images and themes, the author of A.I. might credibly be considered to be ILM.  For while a number of Spielbergian themes are detectable – particularly  the notion of innocence played out though the ‘child in peril’ scenario – the film’s futuristic tale is rendered possible and plausible by the specialised technical resources and creative skills represented by the corporate brand name ILM.  Indeed, both the narrative and visual design of the entire second half of the film are predicated on the generation of believable synthetic characters and locations.  In this way, ILM can be seen as a credible authorial voice within A.I. just insofar as it operates both as a pre-condition to the film’s realisation in the first instance and as a corporate agency through which key enunciative and expressive techniques are executed and cohere.

These identifying characteristics of ILM’s authorship can be explored in relation to the section of A.I. which takes place in ‘Rouge City’.   Taking considerable influence from Chris Baker’s conceptual illustrations, the design and creation of Rouge City necessitated the collaboration of a wide range of ILM’s creative and technical staff from the film’s Senior Visual Effects Supervisor, Dennis Muren, to model makers, animators, art directors and so on.  Indeed, the images of Rouge City, like the aerial and underwater sequences of a half-submerged New York that follow it, are comprised from a mix of visual effects techniques including a huge set, scale models, miniatures, blue-screen, and CGI.  

In this respect, figure 4.3 is exemplary of both A.I.’s hybrid imagery and ILM’s central role within the film’s creative processes.   For although at the level of the film’s narrative it is visually symbolic of Spielberg’s preoccupation with ‘the imperilled child’, at a stylistic level it reveals ILM’s fundamental role in creating the technologically dense images that frame its narrative. 

For, this is a sophisticated composite image which blends live-action footage with a range of visual effects.  Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) and David (Haley Joel Osment), as well as the extras heading towards the ‘Tails’ building, are real actors shot on a sound stage comprised of the fountain behind Joe and David, the platform they are standing on, and the façades of the buildings in the background.  However, the figure dancing above the entrance to ‘Tails’ is entirely synthetic, generated by computer animators.  Moreover, the circular high-rise building behind ‘Tails’ as well as the neon signs advertising various products are computer generated and added to the scene in post-production.  Likewise, while much of the complex lighting set-up for this shot was done onset, the architectural detail of Rouge City was enhanced though post-production CGI lighting techniques.  As such, it is impossible not only to disentangle the thematic structure of the film from its stylistic composition, but to disentangle ILM from the technical and artistic processes which facilitated the creation of that composition.

It is in this sense, then, that ‘Industrial Light and Magic’ stands not merely as the name of a company which houses a set of material resources and employs certain individuals with specific technical and creative skills, but as marker of visual and stylistic imperatives in both individual films and across a series of films. As such, ILM can be seen as a corporate author precisely to the extent that its company name also acts as a sign which organises and executes highly specialised and distinctive forms of industrial aesthetic practice within cinema beyond the scope of any one of the individuals it employs.


Arrington, Carl Wayne, (1990), ‘Film’s Avant-Guardian’, Rolling Stone, 22nd March
Bogdanovich, Peter, (2002), ‘New Kid on the Block’, The Guardian, 22/02/2002
Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin, (1993), Film Art, fourth edition, London: McGraw-Hill
Caughie, John, (1988), ‘Preface’, in, John Caughie (ed.), Theories of Authorship, London: Routledge
Cohen, Scott, (1990), ‘Strangers in Paradise’, Spin, March, online at, http://www.sfgoth.com/~kali/onsite8.html, (26/09/2001)
Cox, Alex, (2001), ‘Is DVD worth it?’, The Guardian, Friday Review, 23/02/2001
Corrigan, Timothy, (1991),’The Commerce of Auteurism’, in, A Cinema Without Walls, London: Routledge
Dyer, Richard, (1998), ‘Introduction to Film Studies’, in, John Hill, and, Pamela Church Gibson, (eds.), The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Gaut, Berys, (1997), ‘Film Authorship and Collaboration’, in, Richard Allen, and Murray Smith, (eds.), Film Theory and Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997
Grant, Catherine, (2000), ‘www.auteur.com?’, Screen, vol. 41, no. 1
Holmes, Tim, (1986), ‘Too Cool for Words’, Rolling Stone, 6th November, online at, http://www.sfgoth.com/~kali/onsite3.htm
Keogh, Peter, (2001), ‘Home and Away’, in Jim Hillier (ed.), American Independent Movies, London: BFI
Levy, Shawn, (2001), ‘Postcards from Mars’, in Jim Hillier (ed.), American Independent Movies, London: BFI
Langdon, Matt, (2000), ‘The Way of the Indie God’, If Magazine, 13:2, http://ifmagazine.com/common/article.asp?articleID=570
Livingston, Paisley, (1997), ‘Cinematic Authorship’, in, Richard Allen, and Murray Smith, (eds.), Film Theory and Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Stam, Robert, (2000), Film Theory: An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, (2000), Dean Man, London: BFI
Routt, William D. (1990), ‘L’Evidence’, Continuum, vol. 5, no. 2, http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/5.2/Routt.html, (08/01/2002)
Shusterman, Richard, (2000), Pragmatist Aesthetics, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield

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CASE STUDY: SHREK - MAINSTREAMING THE MARGINAL (Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jensen, 2001)

Paul Wells

DreamWorks SKG’s Shrek (2001) became the first winner of the newly inaugurated Academy Award for Full-Length Feature Animation. In this, not merely did it defeat its main rival, Disney/PIXAR’s Monsters Inc. (2001), but was responsible for the mainstreaming of previous marginalised aspects of animated film. Directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, Shrek, the story of an alienated, grotesque, green ogre (voiced by Mike Myers), who with the help of his wise-cracking sidekick, Donkey (John Lithgow), works both as a modern fairytale and a post-modern satire of Disney’s story-telling techniques and ideological stances.

On the one hand, the new Academy Award can be viewed as a long overdue acknowledgement of the distinctiveness and quality of the animated feature in relation to its live-action counterpart; on the other it may be perceived as a ghetto-isation of the form, which once more refuses its achievement in regard to other Hollywood products. Shrek nevertheless represents a milestone in animated features because it brings together and legitimises both the subversive and the sentimental, drawing from some of the excesses of ‘The All Sick and Twisted Festival’, pioneered by Craig Decker and Mike Gribble, and the more radical work of Kricfalusi; and the archetypal and sentimental narratives created by the Disney Studio. The more taboo aspects – from ‘Cracking one off’ flatulence jokes to ‘Dead Broad off the Table’ lack-of-respect gags to the Snow White not being ‘easy’ despite the fact that she lives with seven men innuendo – all now familiar in the public imagination due to animated sit-coms, The Simpsons and South Park – are contained and reconciled by being played out by a green ogre. His swamp, the epitome of an organic environment and earthiness, embraces the vulgarity and carnivalesque aspects of fantasy creatures, while Lord Farquaad’s castle is minimalist in decoration and pristine in construction, the embodiment of control. Indeed, Farquaad (allegedly modelled on Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, and named with no small degree of ambiguity), presides over Duloc, a thinly veiled critique of the oppressiveness of Disney’s theme parks.

This underpinning satire on Disney’s representational strategies in fairytales – with hilarious gags on bluebirds, lying puppets, big-eared elephants and transforming beasts – is nevertheless reliant on Disney’s tried and trusted model of the ‘emotional journey’, and the use of established archetypes. Shrek, the hero, Farquaad, the villain, Fiona, the victim, and Donkey, the investigator/partner, who helps to resolve problems, all correspond to an anticipated typology in fairytale story-telling, which resolves itself in a message-laden happy ending, promoting ‘self-acceptance’, and cautioning about the relativity of ‘beauty’. While this is augmented by the contemporary spoofing of anything from The Matrix, Blind Date (The Dating Game in the USA), and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and what may prove to be anachronous pop songs which will eventually date the film, it is clear that sentiment – our sympathy for, and empathy with, Shrek – is at the heart of the story, and tempers its more subversive elements, which actually have their source in the more adult-oriented Warner Brothers cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s (see Wells 2002*).

This is especially important because it is clear that much of the enduring success of animated film within popular culture is in the way in which ‘character’ transcends the film and becomes part of a social discourse. From Mickey Mouse to Woody and Buzz, this has ensured that animation has historical presence. In the case of Shrek, as it may be with Sully and Mike from Monsters Inc., this may be as much about technical innovation as it is aesthetic and marketing acumen. Five years in the making, Shrek has some thirty-six detailed in-film locations; uses software which enhances the persuasiveness of facial movement and gesture; enhances and advances the materiality and volume of liquid substances; and crucially, creates physical forms through a layering process in the construction of figures which echoes the skeletal/muscular/skin formation of human bodies, and essentially provokes movement from the ‘inside out’, thus making the anatomical processes all the more realistic. Shrek, fantasy ogre though he is, ‘lives’, and takes his place alongside Cruise, Crowe and Clooney as a ‘film star’, simultaneously mainstreaming animation’s open and versatile vocabulary, story-telling engine and style.

* Wells, P. (2002) ‘Where the Mild Things Are’, Sight and Sound, Vol. 12, No. 2 (NS), February, pp. 27-8.

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CASE STUDY: THE Crying Game - a medium budget UK production (Neil Jordan, 1992)

Searle Kochberg

This film has been chosen as a case study because it is a high-profile example of the TV co-production feature which has dominated U.K. production in the recent past. The project was conceived, written and directed by Neil Jordan.

Key Book Reference: A. Finney, The Egos Have Landed, (Mandarin, London, 1997)

Key Book Reference: J. Giles, The Crying Game, (BFI Publishing, London, 1997)

Script development & pre-production: In 1982, Neil Jordan produced an outline and partial script for a project entitled The Soldier's Wife. The project was proposed to the then new terrestrial tv channel, Channel 4, but was turned down.

Nearly 10 years later, in 1991, the project was set in motion again: to be directed by Jordan and produced by Steven Woolley of Palace Productions. Despite many potential backers (including Miramax, ultimately the film's U.S. distributor) being put off by what were perceived as "difficult" themes - race, transgressive sexuality and Northern Ireland politics - a "pack-of-cards" finance package was arranged through the summer and autumn of 1991. The participants included British Screen, Eurotrustees (a pan-European distribution alliance, and one including Palace Pictures), Channel 4 and Nippon Development & Finance (a Japanese distribution company). Financing was very tight - a modest £ 2.7 million budget (1)- and hard won. Quoting Steven Woolley:

It was only after literally begging on my knees to Channel 4 and British Screen (which later became strong supporters of the film), and a handful of European distributors that we were able to finance the film at all, and then only because the entire cast and crew accepted substantial deferments.(2)

After script changes were made (at the behest of the backers), shooting commenced at the beginning of November.

Production and post-production: Despite the fact that the financing of the picture was not fully completed until November 10th, shooting of the picture commenced a week earlier, on location in Ireland (Finney 1997: 25-8). As the film went into production, Palace Pictures - of which Palace Productions was a part - was in serious financial trouble. The majority of its companies would be formally put into administration in May, 1992 (ibid: 262). Despite Palace's problems, however, the production proceeded.

After less than a week's shoot in Ireland, the production shifted to London. Location work occurred in central London (in, for instance, Eaton Square and Fournier Street, Spitalfields). The rest of the film was shot at Shepperton Studios. Shooting was completed just before Christmas 1991.

By the end of January 1992, a rough cut had been completed. Subsequently a new ending was shot at an extra cost of £ 45,000.00 (Giles 1997: 36-7). By April, 1992 the film was completed, and had a new title, The Crying Game.

Initial UK distribution and exhibition: The film opened in the UK at the end of October 1992, having failed to secure a Cannes premiere, but having been seen at the Venice Film Festival that autumn.

Films with low budgets and no stars tend to have extended exclusive cinema runs upon release, to give the film the chance to build an audience through word of mouth. Not so here, unfortunately. Mayfair, the UK distributors, decided to book the film into cinemas across the country after only a few weeks' "platform" exhibition in London (Finney 1997: 272-3).

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the unfortunate coincidence of the film's release with an IRA bombing campaign on the British mainland, on top of the poor marketing, severely hampered the film's chances. For, despite generally favourable reviews, the film's initial box office performance was weak (only around £ 680,000.00 gross by December 1992).(3)

US distribution and exhibition: In the spring of 1992, the partners in the film struck a US distribution deal with Miramax for $ 1.5 million. Miramax in the early 1990s was an independent distribution company (now owned by Disney) with a reputation for handling non-Hollywood product.

After screening the film at Telluride, Toronto and New York Film Festivals, the film was released in the US at the end of November, 1992. Miramax demonstrated its agility in non-blockbuster distribution with its careful marketing strategy. On its UK release, those marketing the film had requested that the press not reveal the film's "secret" in their reviews. Miramax picked up on that idea as a promotional tool, and enlisted not only the media, but the audience as well, in a conspiracy of silence. The film was ‘sold’ to the public as an action thriller/film noir with a secret (the gay & IRA themes were played down). An inspired ad line - "The movie everyone is talking about, but no one is giving away its secrets" - certainly helped to fire the imagination of the cinema-going public (Fleming and Klady 1993: 68). Meanwhile, Miramax also built a steady Oscar-nomination campaign for the film through late 1992/early 1993.

The promotional campaign was supported by a carefully orchestrated theatrical release pattern. The film debuted on only 6 screens in the US at the end of November (ibid: 68). By early February, 1993, Miramax had taken the film "wide" - it was on at 239 screens (ibid: 1) - and by the 17 February, when the Oscar nominations were announced, the film was booked into 500 screens (ibid: 69). The film received 6 nominations (best film, best director, best screenplay, best actor, best supporting actor, best editing), and, on the weekend following the announcement of the nominations, grossed $ 5.2 million at the box office: a "400% increase over the previous week" (ibid: 69). By the week preceding Academy Award night - the 29 March - the number of screens had been increased to saturation level: 1,093 in total (ibid: 1).

In the event, the film won only one academy award, for best screenplay. Nevertheless, Miramax's effective handling of the film assured it continued box office success. If US grosses for 1992 were a healthy $ 4.5 million,(4) grosses for 1993 were outstanding: at around $ 59.3 million.(5) In the end, the total US gross figure was estimated at around $ 68 million (Giles 1997: 50).

Miramax's handling of the film in the US proved to be a classic example of how to build an audience successfully for a relatively low budget, non US feature (see section on Film Audiences).

A footnote to UK distribution & exhibition: Although never outstanding, the UK box office did pick up again as a consequence of the film's US success. For the period December 1992 to December 1993, the UK gross was around £1.4 million. (6)

In summary, the UK distribution windows for The Crying Game were as follows:

1st Commercial Theatrical Distribution
30 October1992
Video release: April 1993
(Polygram's early release date - coming hot-on-the-heels of the Oscar frenzy - was probably timed to maximise profitability whilst interest in the film was still there.)

Terrestrial TV premiere, C4, 1 November1994.

1              Source: Screen International, no.840, 17/1/92.
2              See S. Woolley, " Last Palace Picture Show," in The Guardian, 30/10/92.
3              Source: Screen International, no. 888, December 18-25/92.
4              Source: Screen International, no.889, Jan 8-14, 1993.
5              Source: Screen International, no.940, Jan 14-20, 1994.
6              Source: Screen International, no.940, Jan 14-20, 1994.

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CASE STUDY: The French New Wave in the twenty-first century

Chris Darke

Surely the filmmakers associated with the French New Wave of the early 1960s are now figures of mainly historical interest, their principal cinematic achievements firmly in the past? Far from it. With the exception of Francois Truffaut, who died in 1984 at age 52, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer and Rivette from the original ‘Cahiers du cinéma’ gang, as well as Marker, Varda and Resnais from the so-called ‘Left Bank’ group, have all continued to make films. Now in their seventies and eighties, all have recently produced work that is as enduringly alive to the possibilities and challenges of cinema as the films of their youth. While Chabrol, Rivette and Rohmer have remained faithful to traditional forms of narrative cinema, Godard, Marker and Varda have continued to be open to new ways of working. To assess them collectively, as ‘twenty-first century filmmakers’, is to take stock of a set of remarkable achievements. It is also worth noting that a new generation of British and American critics have recently begun to work on these directors, as witnessed by publications such as Catherine Lupton’s study of Chris Marker (the first career-length survey in English), Emma Wilson’s recent work on Alain Resnais and Douglas Morrey’s book on Godard, the latter two published in the excellent ‘French Directors’ series published by Manchester University Press, as well as the extremely useful work that appears in the pages of the journal Studies in French Cinema.

Having made four films since 2000, Claude Chabrol (born 1930) has so refined his glacially controlled examinations of French bourgeois mores that he might be considered now as a kind of French Hitchcock, making work for a mainstream audience while using his favoured genre of the thriller to explore cinematic questions of point-of-view and working with first-rate actresses like Isabelle Huppert, as in Merci pour le chocolat (2000) and L’ivresse du pouvoir (2006). Jacques Rivette (born 1928), too, becomes more ‘Rivettian’ as the years pass, combining the ludic and the spooky in his recent films Va savoir (2001) and the Emmanuelle Béart-led ghost story L’histoire de Marie et Julien (2003). Having made two features and a short since the turn of the millennium, Eric Rohmer (born 1920) surprised many accustomed to his defiantly realist, low-budget style of filmmaking when, for his 2001 feature L’Anglaise et le duc, he opted to use CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) – with a twist, of course. Rather than employing such hi-tech means to render the eighteenth-century locations of the film’s French Revolution setting, Rohmer recreated the period styles of paintings and artworks within whose digitally animated tableaux his characters circulate.

How useful is it still to consider these filmmakers in terms of their New Wave heritage? I suggest that it remains useful for three reasons that have to do with issues of production, technology and film culture. One of the enduring characteristics of these filmmakers is that they have remained steadfastly independent both in terms of their commitment to personal styles of ‘auteur’ film-making but also as regards their approach to how their films are made. Whether it has been through a long-term affiliation with a production company, such as Rohmer’s with Les Films de Losange, or a more artisanal, ‘cottage industry’ mode of production such as Godard’s company Periphéria based in his Swiss hometown of Rolle, or Varda’s Ciné-Tamaris, based in her home on the rue Daguerre in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, they have remained defiantly independent. With such independence comes the liberty to experiment with new filmmaking technologies and new methods of exhibition and distribution. One of the most interesting aspects of recent work by Varda, Marker and Godard is its responsiveness to these aspects of what might be called ‘twenty-first century cinema’.

Since the multiple-award winning success of her digital video essay-cum-travelogue Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000), Agnès Varda (born 1928) has produced a follow-up film …deux ans après in which she caught up with some of the participants of the original film. Both films feature on the Ciné-Tamaris produced DVD, along with a host of what Varda calls ‘boni’ (the plural of ‘bonus’). Through her company, Varda has taken full advantage of the new medium of DVD, releasing restored versions of her own films, such as her New Wave classic Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961), and those of her former husband Jacques Demy, such as Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) and Peau d’Ane (1970). Among its lavish cornucopia of ‘boni’, the DVD of Cléo features rare and early works by Varda, including L’Opéra Mouffe (1958) and Daguerréotypes (1978). Varda has recently declared that she no longer intends to make feature films, opting instead to concentrate on making film-installation works for galleries and museums. Coming from a more traditional fine-art background than the other New Wave directors, she has adapted with ease to this new form, making three installations since 2003 – Patatutopia, Les Veuves de Noirmoutier and Le triptyque de Noirmoutier– and at the time of writing (April 2006), she has recently been commissioned to produce new work for the Fondation Cartier in Paris. Chris Marker (born 1921) perhaps best epitomises the spirit of multiple-media adventurousness characteristic of the most forward-looking New Wave directors and he, too, has been far from inactive in recent years, producing an essay film for French television (Chats Perchés [2004]), an installation work for the Museum of Modern Art in New York (Owls at Noon: The Hollow Men [2005]) which will form part of the much anticipated sequel to his 1999 CDROM Immemory, as well as releasing several DVD version of earlier works, including La Jetée (1962), Sans Soleil (1982), and Le Tombeau d’Alexandre (1993). One of the most valuable aspects of the DVD format is that it can provide real research and reference value. For example, the recent Arte DVD releases of classic films by Marker’s former colleague Alain Resnais (born 1922), Hiroshima, mon amour (1960) and Muriel, ou le temps d’un retour (1963), feature a host of rarely seen early works that would otherwise be inaccessible. The DVD of Hiroshima includes his magnificent collaborative essay-films made with Marker, Toute la mémoire du monde (1956) and Les statues meurent aussi (1953), while the DVD of Muriel contains four early short films by Resnais on artists (Gauguin [1950], Van Gogh [1948], Guernica [1950-51] and Le Chant de Styrène [1958]).

Last, but by no means least, there is the continuing case of Jean-Luc Godard (born 1930). As well as having recently made several shorts, his last two feature films, Eloge de l’amour (2001) and Notre musique (2004), were more warmly received by international audiences and critics than anything he has made for decades. And, to celebrate fifty years of his filmmaking, the Centre Pompidou in Paris hosted a complete retrospective of his work between April and August 2006, as well as a new exhibition created by Godard, entitled ‘Voyages in Utopia’, and screening two new films, Vrai faux passeport (2006) and Deux prières pour cinq refuzeniks (2006). It is perhaps fitting that Godard’s generation, which emerged from and was formed in Henri Langlois’s cinema museum in years after the Second World War, now appears to have gone full circle (with cinema itself) back to the museum. Clearly, it is still too soon to give a definitive account of the significance of this generation’s work for the simple reason that most of them are still working, but it is surely no exaggeration to say that they have been as revolutionary in terms of cinema in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as the Impressionists were for painting in the nineteenth century.

Austin, G., Claude Chabrol (University of Manchester Press, 1999)
Cowie, P., Revolution: The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties (Faber, London, 2005) Darke, C., Alphaville (Ciné-Files French Film Guides, I.B.Tauris, London, 2005) De Baecque, A. & Toubiana S., Truffaut: A Biography (University of California
Press, 2000) Esquenazi, J-P., Godard et la société francaise des années 1960 (Paris, 2004) ‘Film Comment’: Dossier: ‘Around the World with Chris Marker’ May-June & June-
July 2003 Frey, H., Louis Malle (University of Manchester Press, 2004) Lupton, C., Chris Marker: Memories of the Future (Reaktion Books, London, 2005) MacCabe, C., Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy (Bloomsbury, London,
Marie, M., The French New Wave: An Artistic School (translated by Richard Neupert) (Blackwell, London, 2002) Morrey, D., Jean-Luc Godard (University of Manchester Press, 2005) Neupert, R., A History of the French New Wave Cinema (University of Wisconsin,
2002) Smith, A., Agnès Varda (University of Manchester Press, 1998) Wilson, E., Alain Resnais (University of Manchester Press, 2006)

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Chris Jones

Contrasting styles blended

A family house and garden in Nova Scotia are the setting for the action, as well as the sources of memory for the main characters. The film is predominantly naturalistic in style but, in counterpoint, we see previous incarnations of William, as a young boy and in his mid-teens, tangibly haunting William, his father and other members of the family, images which represent William’s troubled childhood from which he has escaped to Toronto to build a new, confident self. There are other non-naturalistic elements. Humour is added in the critical facial expressions adopted by the ceramic figures of the Virgin Mary. Certain devices are used to indicate and comment on changes of time and scene, such as filling the screen with vivid colour or the use of time-lapse flower photography.
A montage of scenes reveals William’s difficult relationship with his father during childhood. Next we cut to William, aged fifteen, carefully watering a clump of Sweet Williams, seen in point of view shot to underline William’s fondness for the flowers, while he recites more plant names and seasons to himself. There is a major visual change in William, other than that of gaining in years; William, initially seen as a thin, wiry boy, is now very obese. The viewer is left to ponder what this may mean.

Family dramas

The remainder of the film is divided into three named sections. In the first, ‘The Lady with the Locket’, we see William’s sister Rosemary’s wedding ceremony in the garden. As we see William step out of his car, the director reveals his body and face to us only gradually to make us aware that the grown-up William is lean and handsome. Close-ups of his wary eyes as he looks round the house display his feelings about coming back home. His nervous asthma surfaces, and he reaches for his inhaler. Objects underline the change from his teenage self: the formal suit he puts on that is far too big for him, and the photo of his obese younger self is reflected in grandma’s display cabinet as he greets her. Most strikingly, he meets up with the teenage William in the garden as he is entering the front of the house, and eyes him uncomfortably. He picks up a sprig of Sweet William that is lying on the path.

William is the object of the gaze of Rosemary, his mother, his father and the groom, Fletcher. This play of looks establishes the reactions of the characters. Rosemary gives a contented smile, while Fletcher and his mother look surprised. His father looks disconcerted. Consequent interactions take place among Scottish jigs and fiddle music, underlining the Nova Scotian locale and William’s outsider status. We learn that he left for Toronto ten years previously, and has never been back since. William is introduced to a younger sibling he has never met before.

‘What’s his name?’ asks William.

‘Violet’, his mother replies. William and is sister are relaxed enough with each other for William to make a joke about her husband ‘coming on’ to him. Later, William has to drag his drunken father to bed in a strange reversal of the earlier scene of father-son interaction. There is an intriguing point of view shot as William gazes at his father’s naked body under the cold shower.

Throughout the film, William’s look is that of the outsider looking in on the family hang-ups and dramas, while at the same time the incarnations of his younger selves are central to these dramas. William explains to his mother how he became fat ‘because no-one could make me be skinny, it was the one thing you couldn’t make me be’, and goes on to say that because he was fat that meant ‘no fights, no sport ……….and no girlfriends.’ In the light of queer theory outlined later in this chapter, to what extent do these interactions queerify an otherwise conventional family setup?

In reply to mother’s question about whether he has a ‘friend’ in Toronto William talks of being in a happy relationship. To what extent does William become a figure of emotional normality in this film compared with those in his family milieu?

Finding yourself

It is at this point that a perennial theme of lesbian and gay films comes to the fore, that of being yourself, finding out your true nature and needs and acting on them. When William begins talking about having found himself and becoming happy the bitterness of his mother surfaces, the reactions of a person who feels herself a victim. As William goes upstairs, his boy self waves to him, and is left sitting at the table with his mother. Later, halfway through clearing up the rubbish from the wedding reception, the mother flings the contents of a rubbish bag across the garden, walks away and is never seen again in the film.

A time-lapse shot of a flower opening begins the next section, ‘Lad’s Love’. In the first scene, William and Fletcher as teenage boys are sitting in the sun on a jetty. Fletcher takes off his T-shirt to reveal an athletic torso, and lies back. The obese young William lies back with his head on Fletcher’s stomach. There is a distanced view of this scene with sunlight sparkling on the water surrounding the boys. The shot is held in a manner that traditionally connotes romance. Later, there is a long held shot as they eye each other up and slowly undress, and it is Fletcher who initiates a mutual sexual exploration, after taunting the shy, self-conscious William for not taking off his briefs.

A queer family?

With the help of his aunt, the teenage William’s mother arranges for him to lose his virginity to an older local woman in need of extra money. Here, a heterosexual act imposed on a reluctant minor takes on a queerness all of its own. William’s reaction next day suggests mild trauma, not least after Fletcher reveals his shallowness by refusing to meet and talk to William. In the circumstances, William’s emotional need to communicate becomes the norm.

The family situation becomes steadily more fantastic and deviant. This third section of the film is entitled ‘Mums’, perhaps ironically. The adult William goes out, sees his young self hanging from the tree, and caresses the pale, dead face. For the first time, William directly confronts his father over the handling of grandmother. Meanwhile, father seems unconcerned about his missing wife.

A subsequent private conversation in the garden between William and Rosie reveals a major twist in the plot; Violet is, in fact, William’s daughter, the product of his unhappy heterosexual initiation at the age of fifteen. His mother had fought for custody of her, and Rosie suggests that she wants William to take responsibility. William is initially resistant to the idea.

The adult Fletcher, alone with William, makes advances to him, starting to kiss and fondle him. This takes place on the very same jetty where they lay together as boys. In a variation of expected behaviour patterns, it is William again who shows great reluctance, not least because, as he points out, Fletcher is married to his sister. How ‘queer’ is the portrayal of the character Fletcher in his transgression of sexual boundaries?

A hanging symbol

Back in the garden, William sees his hanging former self again. This time, he is more forthright; ‘I’m getting to remember why you’re so fucked up’, he says to the body. He takes decisive action in smashing the statue of the Virgin Mary, thereby fighting back against the belief system of his childhood, in contrast to the way his teenage self merely shrank under the gaze of such statues.

Later, Rosie drags her brother out to watch father desperately hugging the hanging body of his obese teenage son, tears streaming down his face. She desperately makes clear to him that she has to watch this ‘every fucking day’. The whole family seems haunted by this image. Even Violet expressed surprise at William not being fat when she first met him.

Psychic resolution

William then takes his most decisive action. As Fletcher looks on, he chops violently with a spade at the rope holding up his dysfunctional teenage self. The body drops to the ground to William’s words; ‘You been hanging around here too long, buddy’. There is a quick cut to William reclining in the garden, looking at peace with himself, contemplating a Sweet William flower, the other, more positive symbol in this film. This time the wistful Gaelic voice on the soundtrack suggests a different journey into the self.

Plot resolution

Father, totally disconcerted, asks; ‘Where is he?’ and when William replies; ‘I buried him’. As father attempts to scrape the earth away from the burial mound, William stops him, restrains him and sits for a while with his arms around his father. ‘Why did you do this? I loved you so much’ moans father. What is it exactly that William has done? Is father stuck in some sort of dysfunctional past, resenting the changes in his son? Father is nowhere to be seen as William and Violet drive off. The final shot of the film takes us through the leafiness of the beloved garden to a view of him sitting on a boulder with William as a little boy playing around him. Is this a symbolic view of a man stuck in his own emotional past?

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Chris Jones

Genre and anarchy

Gregg Araki began his film-making career in 1987 producing quirky short films which directly challenged the conventions of classic narrative. The Living End, his first feature-length work, follows more conventional narrative patterns. However, the film uses traditional genre elements of the road movie, with comedy and romance, in unusual, offbeat and sometimes outrageous ways.

In the opening shot of the film we see Luke, a gorgeous young man in torn jeans, leather jacket and Ray Ban sunglasses, spraying ‘Fuck The World’ on a wall, an image which sets the anarchic tone of the film. We immediately cut to the othe main character, Jon, writing ‘the first day of the rest of my life’ in his diary, an entry explained for us with the mechanical-sounding voice-over of the doctor explaining to Jon that he is HIV+. The film's offbeat attitude to HIV and death is indicated when Jon says; ‘Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse - yeah right. Death is weird.’

Jon's friend Doris is seen hugging him, comforting him and offering help. Throughout the film she worries about him, even as she is breaking up with her boyfriend, but we see little indication of her state of mind other than her nervously playing with an executive toy. That, and the scene of her concentrated work on her painting, indicates the similarity of her world and Jon's. Her feelings for Jon are portrayed as warm and concerned, but she has a limited role within the film as foil and support for Jon.

Later, Jon picks Luke up in his car. Their conversation reveals Jon's conventional attitudes and Luke's anger. Jon invites Luke home to his apartment. Andy Warhol posters, a large blow-up dinosaur and the word processor indicate Jon’s playfully arty lifestyle. Jon starts clearing his things away and Luke points out that he is being paranoid. The differences in personality and outlook between the two young men are further underlined with Luke’s lack of interest in Derek Jarman and in the way he casually strips before an embarrassed Jon.

When Luke and Jon begin to make love, Luke shows himself to be sensitive to Jon's uptightness. Jon falteringly starts to explain: ‘...I just found out this afternoon that ...’ Luke's tone is firm and affectionate: ‘If you're trying to say what I think you are, don't worry about it.’ With a kiss, he says: ‘It's really no big deal.’ He switches off the light and says: ‘Welcome to the club, partner.’ Being HIV+ is seen as a continuing lifestyle.

Luke goes on to point out that there must be millions of people like them walking ‘with this thing inside them’, that he, Jon and people like them have nothing to lose, are totally free, and can do whatever they want, whereupon he produces a credit card which he says is his uncle’s.

Audience reactions

These scenes evoke conflicting audience reactions of outrage and laughter. Daisy chats Luke up in order to anger her girlfriend, calling him ‘a sexy slab of hunk beefcake’. Fern stops the car and threatens to blow Luke's face to smithereens. The script pushes the man-hating lesbian stereotype to comic extremes with Daisy's descriptions of the painful deaths she and Fern have inflicted on previous victims, right to the point where Fern says; ‘You got me so agitated with all this talk, I gotta pee’. She tells Daisy not to kill Luke until she gets back ‘and no more flirting’. Daisy's line, ‘I love it when she gets jealous’, caps their over-the-top comic dialogue. The two women are strong foils for each other, and Daisy cares enough for Fern to run to her aid when she calls. The ambiguities of queer theory come to the fore here. Tamsin Wilton (see Further Reading, p. 273, the textbook) points out the misogyny in this portrayal as Luke abandons the two women in the middle of the desert and symbolically appropriates the phallus in the form of their car and their gun.

The outrageous humour continues as we see the wife of the bisexual man bursting into the bedroom where he is sleeping with Luke. She informs her husband bitterly that ‘It's not the seventies any more when being married to a bisexual was fashionable’. We see a low-angle shot of her holding a large knife in both hands and producing a tarzanic scream, then cut to a splash of blood hitting Luke's face and a series of unexpected shots which culminates in Luke leaving the house, chased by the dog. The combination of skilful editing, Psycho-references and offbeat subject-matter make for unsettling comedy.

The scene where Luke shoots the three queer-bashers could well represent a form of wish-fulfilment. He is confronted with three baseball-wielding thugs: ‘Prepare to swallow your teeth, faggot, it’s cosmetic surgery time.’ He stops them in their tracks when he takes out a gun. First, he calmly shoots the one who tries to run away, then the other two. Luke becomes a liberating hero figure through expressing his anger, from spraying graffiti to bashing a skinhead who makes a gross AIDS joke, a kind of queer hero. Jon's life is transformed once he commits himself to Luke, but his commitment only comes gradually. He goes along with the mad credit card spending spree but throws Luke out after the skinhead-bashing incident, only to discover that he can't live without him.

Motivation and character

The motivation for the two lovers hitting the road is typical of the road movie genre; a crime from whose consequences they need to flee. In this case, Luke admits that he has killed a policeman and they set off for San Francisco. The contrasts between the two characters surface. As with much comic representation, traditional stereotypes lurk near the surface. Jon is the prissy queen and Luke the butch, street-wise hustler. Luke calls Jon a ‘princess’ because of his precise bathing habits. Jon declares he's fed up with Luke's ‘Clint Eastwood act with the gun’. Meanwhile, the familiar genre imagery of open spaces viewed from a speeding car embodies Jon's ever-growing distance from his old life. Doris, checking his apartment back home, finds an answer phone full of unanswered messages and a dead goldfish. Luke writes ‘Jon and Luke-Till Death Do Us Part’ on a phone box and Jon confides by phone to Doris; ‘I don't know how to describe it. Nothing is the same any more. Everything has changed.’

A romantic ending?

The final sequence presents us with images that are both disquieting and romantic. Luke cuts his wrist to examine his own blood, the source of his HIV anxiety. Jon, angry and exasperated, still binds Luke’s wound. The gun becomes a sexual toy as Luke caresses Jon with it and places it in his own mouth while rubbing himself between Jon’s legs.

The final long-shot is of the two together peacefully on the beach with just the sound of the sea, a shot which implies a peaceful but questionable final equilibrium. The playful waywardness of this film, its gleeful man-killers, unsafe shower sex, amoral attitudes and discomforting treatment of AIDs, make it a central text of the New Queer Cinema. To what extent do Araki's unusual methods of comic exaggeration make viewers aware of the tensions, anger and survival strategies associated with being young, gay and HIV+?

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Jill Nelmes

Jane Campion is one of the few women directors who could justifiably be called an auteur director. Her early films, in particular An Angel at My Table (1987) and Sweetie (1989), brought Campion’s unusual and darkly humorous films to the attention of an art-house audience. It was The Piano (1993) though, a complex, poetic film, which received international recognition, gaining a number of Oscar nominations and receiving the award for Best Script (Jane Campion), Best Actress (Holly Hunter) and Best Supporting Actor (Anna Paquin).

At times melodrama, at times art film in its expressionistic style, The Piano portrays the experiences of Ada, an elective-mute woman who emigrates to New Zealand from Scotland with her daughter Flora. Ada’s father has arranged her marriage to Stewart, a man she has never met. Ada brings her beloved piano to New Zealand which causes conflict with her new husband. This tension results in an employee of Stewart, Baines, showing sympathy for Ada’s predicament. Ada falls in love with him and they eventually have a passionate affair.

The conventions of melodrama are shown in the portrayal of the central relation­ships; Ada is wilful and stubborn, yet is desired by two men who try to control and contain her. The element of hysteria typical of melodrama is evident at the film’s climax when Stewart severs Ada’s finger, in a symbolic gesture that suggests castration. Music in melodrama is an important signifier in expressing emotion; in The Piano it is used as a motif for Ada’s feelings and emotions that she cannot express verbally. Yet Ada’s lack of voice makes it difficult to identify with her as a truly romantic heroine. The film also takes on many of the conventions of an art film in its heavy use of symbolism, its expressionistic style and a narrative which sees the piano as an extension of Ada, which in turn becomes a fetishised object of desire.

On one level the film recounts the tale of a woman at the mercy of a patriarchal society in which she has little power; Ada is forced into an arranged marriage by her father, treated as a commodity by Stewart, and is initially seen as little more than a prostitute by Baines; but it is Baines who is able to transfer the relationship from one of power to one of compassion and tenderness.

Many aspects of the film do however represent the female as strong willed and powerful. Ada is determined and obstinate, even though she loses a finger because of her insistence on continuing to see Baines. Flora is a replica of her mother, feisty and determined. The other female characters, even though having a two-dimensional, pantomime dame quality, are strong and vigorous. The interior scenes also infuse the film with a positive quality around the home, which is always a safe haven, whether as protection from the weather, the Maoris or sensual and sexual pleasure.

Gender roles in The Piano are strongly defined through clothing. Ada is shown in tight fitting tops and waist clinching dresses, not only emphasising how tiny and deli­cate she is but also her female sexuality. The whiteness of Ada’s skin is contrasted by the dark clothing she wears; her voluminous Victorian clothing is shown as impractical in the New Zealand climate, yet Ada often looks comfortable in her dress as opposed to Stewart, whose too-tight clothing makes him seem absurd and stiff (Campion purpose­fully made his clothes too tight to enhance this point). Baines, also a white European, has though, in contrast to Stewart, adapted to the New Zealand environment. His dress is loose and casual, reflecting a shifting of his values and an alignment with the native Maoris. The Maoris, although often seeming like comic caricatures, are shown dressed in a mix of male and female clothing, suggesting an ambivalence regarding their gender roles.

Ada’s underwear becomes an object of fascination for the audience and of fetishisa­tion for Baines. We frequently see Ada in petticoats and underwear, whilst playing with Flora but especially so in her relationship with Baines: in one scene Baines smells the top she has just taken off; in another sequence he becomes fascinated by a tiny hole in her stocking which reveals a glimpse of skin.

Campion undercuts conventional audience expectations of gender in the develop­ment of their relationship; it is Baines first removal of clothing which is so startling for both the audience and Ada, as until then it is Ada who has been placed in a vulnerable, feminine position. In this sequence there is a reversal of cinematic conventions: Ada removes the curtain (coded red for danger) which reveals Baines unclothed, but he also represents a threat; the game has moved on from being sensual to directly sexual. Ada is confronted by Baines’ naked body and, as we see this sequence from her point of view, we cut to a reaction shot in which she is at first startled but does not look away. In this case the gaze, the look, is not male but female.

Much of The Piano is seen from Ada’s point of view, emphasising our identification with her. Indeed Ada’s lack of voice can be seen as a symbol of her withdrawal from patriarchal society. We hear Ada’s voiceover at the beginning and end of the film, but all other communication is through the visuals and music. Although we frequently see shots of Ada’s face, it is generally expressionless, almost blank, making it difficult to identify with her as one would in a conventional narrative.

The act of looking, the gaze, takes on a complex relationship between the audi­ence, the spectator and the different characters in the film. A key sequence which exemplifies this is when the relationship between Ada and Baines changes to one of mutual attraction; firstly Flora spies on the couple and this changes her relationship with her mother, as an element of jealousy is brought in, but the scene also moves Flora to a new sphere, in which she is a voyeur made aware of her mother’s sexuality. In a later scene Stewart spies on Ada and Baines making love, and stays there watching, clearly aroused by what he sees, in an instance of what is called the scopophilic drive. Yet the audience does not stay with Stewart, the film cuts to an interior medium shot and the sequence is imbued with a golden hue, sensual rather than explicit or fetishising the female body, as is so usual in patriarchal cinema. There is no sense of the couple being aware of an audience, or Ada’s body being the subject of the ‘male gaze’. Neither looks at the camera, yet the camera contrasts Baines’ muscular, squat masculine body with Ada’s tiny feminine one. The sequence concludes with a shot of Stewart surveying the couple from underneath the floor­boards, when a button from Ada’s dress falls through a hole onto his face. Stewart is in the position of passive voyeur, but the scene also drives home his ineffectualness, his impotence, with a deep sense of irony.

A later sequence again reverses the traditional function of the look as instrument of the male gaze; when Ada is in bed with Stewart she explores his body by touching and stroking his back down to his buttocks, strangely sensual; rather than sexual. It is unusual in film for the male body to be explored and eroticised in this way. Stewart is bathed in a warm light and has a passive position enforced upon him by Ada; when he attempts to be active Ada rejects him.

Patriarchal cinema generally fetishes sex by emphasising voyeurism and frag­menting the female body or associating it with related objects or clothing such as underwear. Campion plays with this convention by showing Baines fetishise Ada’s clothing but extends this to include the piano; thus, although the piano functions as Ada’s voice the fetishisation takes on a surreal, almost absurd quality. In a perceptive article on the use of clothing in The Piano, Stella Bruzzi points out that the film is a

"…complex feminist displacement of the conventionalised objectification of the woman’s form domi­nated by scopophilia and fetishism." (Bruzzi 1995: 257)

By the final stage of the film Ada’s life has affected us deeply; the gradual building up of empathy with Ada has been subtly woven into the film, so that when the final confrontation between her and Stewart occurs we are almost as traumatised as Ada by what happens. Stewart’s retribution is terrible, acting as a symbol of phallic dismember­ment or cliterectomy. Stewart’s aim is to control Ada’s sexuality and spirit. In this sequence we continually have reaction shots of Ada and are placed to suffer with her. She visibly shrinks before us as she falls to the ground fully punished for her transgres­sion. Stewart has now taken on the role of evil persecutor and in the narrative of melodrama Ada has to leave or be destroyed. The axe can be seen as a symbol of phallic destruction associated with the Europeans: in the Bluebeard shadow play the axe is used to kill his wives, and an acting out of the play in an earlier sequence fore­shadows Stewart attacking Ada; Stewart is identified with the axe, seen carrying it, chopping wood and trees which directly associate him with patriarchal and colonial destruction.

The landscape not only acts as a metaphor for Ada’s state of mind but is also used to inform us about the people in the film and their characters. The boggy undergrowth in which Ada finds it so difficult to move suggests her inability to escape; she is trapped. This motif is constantly reinforced by the cinematography, where the forest is the limit of Ada’s horizons; she lives in a dense, almost knotted forest paralleling the wild woods of folktales which are suffused with erotic symbolic significance. Stewart’s immediate world is surrounded by grey, petrified, half-dead tree trunks. He is referred to as ‘old dry balls’ by the Maoris and the contrast in landscape between him and Baines emphasises Stewart’s impotence and inability to give love. Baines’ hut is lush and verdant, part of the forest, with which he is at ease.

Ada represents Western femininity in contrast with the Maori women who are presented as coarse and loud, making lewd suggestions to Baines. Yet Ada, by her association with Baines, is different; she is able to blend into the woods wearing garments which seem to take on the same hues of blue and green which predominate throughout the film. Campion uses stock stereotypes of the Maoris as noble natives, natural and easily able to express their sexuality, thus giving a rather superficial interpre­tation of the race who are seen in terms of civilised versus uncivilised.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of The Piano is the mother/daughter relationship, a theme which is often explored through melodrama. In the film Ada and Flora have a symbiotic relationship which is broken only by the intrusion of Stewart and Baines. Flora is literally Ada’s voice, acting as a mediator between Ada and the rest of the world. The two are often shown in tight, claustrophobic shots and there is a sense of almost Oedipal jealousy; for instance, Flora is in her mother’s bed whenever Stewart visits. When Flora eventually aligns with Stewart to stem Ada’s affair with Baines she precipitates his retribution on Ada; Flora chooses the path to Stewart rather than take the piano key, inscribed with words of love from Ada, to Baines. Flora has been intro­duced to the dangerous forces of sexuality and the film is to some extent a rite of passage for her. When these dark forces are unleashed Ada, in effect, uses her daughter as a go-between and their relationship is changed.

In the final stages of the film the piano has become a tie with the past and in a symbolic gesture, when Ada is on the boat with Baines and Flora, she insists the piano is thrown overboard. Ada is pulled in too and we think the film will end on this tragic note, but she releases herself and in voiceover tells us, ‘my will has chosen life’. Yet the life she has chosen, to live with Baines in Nelson as a piano teacher, does not seem convincing or a particularly satisfactory ending, at least not for a melodramatic heroine – she is now contained by Baines.

The Piano works on a visual, poetic level which is at times dark and disturbing, yet its central discourse is an exploration of sexuality, and especially female sexuality. Patriarchal filmic conventions are reversed in portraying a heroine who often has control of the look: the woman is subject rather than object and, at times, it is the male who is the object of the female gaze. But The Piano is much more than a reversal of patriarchal mainstream film conventions; it is one of the few films directed by a woman to achieve critical and financial success and yet still retain its art-house character.

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Case Study: Director-as-Author: The Sad and Beautiful World of Jim Jarmusch

Paul Watson

I do it my way or I don’t do it.  It helps me in negotiating to know that I will walk away if I don’t have control…  I decide how the film is cut, how long it is, what music is used, who is cast.  I make films by hand.
(Jim Jarmusch 1996)

The dominant view of authorship interprets film as the creative expression of a single individual, usually held to be the director.  And although film theory has struggled long and hard to debunk this proposition as a whimsical romantic myth, it survives as the key marker of film style, an index of the value of films, and a commercial strategy for marketing cinema.  Ironically, however, the grounds on which the idea of director-as-author is often attacked and the reason it lives on are both rooted in an analysis of the relationship between individual creative agency and the imperatives of a commercially driven film industry organised around the division of labour into multiple specialised roles.  As such, while on the one hand the attribution of singular authorship is refuted by claiming that what is seen and heard in a film is ipso facto the product of the activities of more than one person, on the other hand levelling-down those diverse activities to the same creative plane, or simply ignoring them altogether, neither accounts for the creative agency of individuals nor the ways in which the specificities of their labour relates to the significant artistic features of a film.   In other words, film theory has tended to turn the observation that individual creative aims are often frustrated, dissipated or simply thwarted by the commercial pressures of filmmaking into a theoretical principle of necessary contradiction between individual expression and collaboration.

Certainly, attributing authorship to any one individual in many mainstream films may be an empty exercise.  Yet if we grant that collective production will limit individual expression in some respects then we should also grant that it can extend it in others.  Which is to say, collaborative work and the particular dynamics of group work can facilitate individual creativity as well as prohibit it.  Thus, it is one thing to say that a director is usually merely one figure in a highly complex productive process of filmmaking, but quite another to then insist that  authorship can never be meaningfully attributed to the director.  For even granting that, on a standard case, films have multiple authors or no discernible author at all does not foreclose the possibility that in other cases a film or groups of films might usefully be analysed in terms of the creative agency of their director.

So while on a general theoretical level there may be a number of potential authors involved in the creative process of film production – screenwriters, cinematographers, actors, editors, visual effects supervisors, and so on – sometimes a director’s role within that process warrants the assertion that he or she can meaningfully be understood as the film’s author.  Such an assertion, however, need not imply that the director has authored each and every aspect of what we see and hear, nor that he or she is the only creative agency detectable within the film.  Rather it is to assert the more modest idea that investigation of the director-as-author in certain cases can yield critical rewards in the sense of enriching our understanding of those films and our experience of them.  In other words, the theoretical question of whether the notion of authorship in cinema is plausible per se is different from the piecemeal approach which asks how individual agency relates to film style.  In this latter, more paired-down conception, authorship emerges not as a theoretical principle, but as a matter of degree, established on a case-by-case basis on the evidence of practice.

Jim Jarmusch

It is just such a piecemeal approach to film authorship which allows us to explore Jim Jarmusch as a particularly persuasive case for the director-as-author. More specifically, the stylistic and expressive significance of his films can be usefully explained through an analysis which interrogates the interrelations between aesthetics and his individual agency.    Within this context, it is possible to trace Jarmusch’s authorship on three overlapping levels: working practice; thematic concerns; and stylistic concerns.

Working Practice

The favoured method for deciding whether or not a director is an auteur centres around an analysis of the evidence presented in the film text itself.  Often referred to as a ‘thematic analysis’, the critic looks for a set of consistent themes that run across a series of films.  However, this process tends to exclude from the analysis extra-textual and pre-textual practices which both prefigure and bear upon what is ultimately seen and heard in a film.  Indeed, consideration of the context of ‘working practice’ is especially important given the complex economic and contractual culture of the contemporary agent-led film industry in which ideas are pitched, scripts bid for and then rewritten many times, stars signed with script approval and final cut rights written into the deal, and films are reworked in light of its test screenings.  Indeed, it is precisely the elaborate commercial drama of contemporary film production that simultaneously makes the notion of director-as-author unlikely in most cases, but compelling in the case of Jarmusch.  For not only does Jarmusch write and direct all his feature films, work closely with his cinematographer and editor, play a central role in casting the principal characters, and choose the main locations, but he takes the lead in raising the money for his projects, usually from independent and European investors.  His first feature, Permanent Vacation (1982), cost $10 000, was shot in ten days and was financed from his scholarship fund, and while the budgets have since gotten progressively bigger with each of his  subsequent six features they are still financed entirely independent of the major studios. In this respect, Jarmusch believes that genuine creative independence is contingent on financial independence: “I object strongly to businessmen telling me how to make a film.  The business side is there to serve the film.  I don’t make films so that business can exist” (in Arrington 1990).  Moreover, Jarmusch is virtually unique amongst contemporary filmmakers in that he owns the negatives to all his films.

The notions of financial independence and ownership are significant precisely insofar as they prefigure any attempt to establish the authorial credentials of a director on the evidence of his or her films.  In other words, it is only possible to meaningfully demonstrate consistencies of theme or style across a range of textual instances after it is first established that the pre-textual working practices that frame production permit the director to exercise his or her creative agency.

Analysis of working practice, however, is not merely a question of finance.  It also points us towards the notion of creative process.  Again, consideration of Jarmusch’s working practice is revealing.  Most films begin as a story, a set of events that will happen during the course of a film, which can be pitched to studios for development.  Instead of this narrative centred process, however, Jarmusch’s creative process is character centred.   He says that his films develop organically in the sense that the process “starts from a basic perception, sometimes not even accurate, of a person, an actor, a quality of that personality, and I want to grow a character on it” (in Keogh 2001: 128).   Given this, Jarmusch writes characters for specific performers – both professional and non-professional actors.  For instance, the titular character of Ghost Dog as well as his best friend, Raymond, were specifically written for Forest Whitaker and Isaach De Bankolé respectively, while the parts played by Youki Kudoh, Joe Strummer and Sreamin’ Jay Hawkins in Mystery Train (1989) were developed explicitly around their particular personality traits.  Moreover, all of the principal roles in Down by Law (1986) and Night on Earth (1991) were written specifically for the actors who played them.  It is in this respect, then, that story is suggested by, emerges from, and is played out through character.

Of course, this character centred creative process not only necessitates but implies collaboration, not least in the form of strong character acting.  Yet it is significant that Jarmusch’s collaborations with other creative personnel have been remarkably consistent across his seven fiction features.  Tom DiCillo shot Jarmusch’s first two films, Permanent Vacation and Stranger than Paradise (1984), while Robby Muller has worked as cinematographer on Down By Law, Mystery Train, Dead Man (1995) and Ghost Dog; Melody London worked as editor on Stranger than Paradise and Down By Law with Jay Rabinowitz editing all Jarmusch’s subsequent films; and performers such as Tom Waits, John Lurie, Gary Farmer, Roberto Benigni and Isaach De Bankolé are regular contributors to either, sometimes both the cast and the musical score.  Specifically in terms of his collaboration with actors, Jarmusch sees improvisation and rehearsal as central to his own creative practice:

We do a lot of improvisation in the rehearsal process; in fact we rehearse a lot of scenes that are not in the film, but are the characters in character.  They are scenes I play around with and out of that I get a lot of new ideas…. To me, the essence of each scene is what is important, not the exact dialogue.  I like to find dialogue that I and the actors like, but there is an infinite number of ways of expressing something, so long as the idea remains the same (my italics, in Keogh, 2001: 127-8).

Collaboration, here, is not opposed to individual expression but implicated in it.  In other words, collaboration is not the unstoppable corporate force which tramples over individual agency, but rather a key part of the very procedural creative processes that mark Jarmusch’s authorship.

Thematic Concerns

As noted above, one of the preferred methods for discussing the authorial credentials of a director is to demonstrate consistencies of theme or a coherent ‘worldview’ across a significant body of his or her work.  A thematic analysis of the director-as-author, therefore, interprets film as the personal statement of its director inasmuch as his or her personality is inscribed into, and is recognisable through, consistent thematic and/or stylistic preoccupations across a range of films.  In other words, the idea that director is the controlling creative artist behind a film is indexed to the degree to which it can be established that he or she is successful in articulating a unified personal vision from one film to the next by imposing his or her signature on thematic and/or stylistic composition.

Applying such a thematic analysis to Jarmusch’s body of films reveals both a dominant and a recessive set of thematic concerns.

Dominant Jarmuschian Themes

The following set of thematic preoccupations are dominant in Jarmusch’s work in the sense that they variously surface in all of his seven narrative feature films, prevailing especially in the six films since Permanent Vacation.

  • Cultural disorientations: The idea that Jarmusch’s characters are culturally disorientated – either in their own culture, by their own culture or by/in an unfamiliar culture – is a constant theme of his work.  The motif of ‘a stranger travelling through an unfamiliar landscape’ is played out across a number of films, while Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law, Mystery Train, and Night on Earth literally transpose a foreign character into an American context.  Jarmusch’s most recent two films, Dead Man and Ghost Dog recast the theme of disorientation by explicitly positioning American characters as outsiders in their own land.  In  exploring both the similarities and differences between cultures through the seemingly incongruous identities of his characters, their interactions, as well as their relationship to unfamiliar physical environments, Jarmusch not only juxtaposes non-western with western ideas, modern thought with ancient thought, but also represents American culture as fundamentally heterogeneous and hybrid.
  • Immigrant-eye-view: Both literally and figuratively, Jarmusch’s films present immigrant visions of America.  Although this is most explicit in the films in which a foreigner travels to America – Willie’s Hungarian cousin, Eva, in Stranger than Paradise; Jack and Zak’s cell mate, Bob, in Down By Law; the Japanese tourists, Jun and Mitsuko, in Mystery Train; and the New York cabdriver, Helmut, in the American segment of Night on Earth (fig 4.1) –  both Dead Man and Ghost Dog implicitly construct their lead characters as immigrants in their own culture.  Moreover, an analysis of Jarmusch’s thematic preoccupations in terms of both ‘cultural disorientation’ and ‘immigrant perspectives’ is consistent with Jarmusch’s own conception of American culture.  He argues that “to make a film about America, it seems to me logical to have at least one perspective that’s transplanted here from some other culture, because ours is a collection of transplanted influences” (in Holmes, 1986).  And, of course, the focus on immigrant characters both complements and extends the more general theme of culture in the sense that it allows us to see America through non-western eyes as well as dramatising the more abstract theme identified by Rosenbaum of “looking at the same thing in different ways – or looking at different things the same way” (2000: 13)
  • Language and Communication: While on the one hand the notion of culture is often de-centred in Jarmusch’s films, particularly through presenting it from a range of ‘immigrant’ perspectives, on the other hand his characters often exhibit a humanist ability to communicate in spite of their cultural differences, often even in spite of being unable to understand each other’s  language.  Indeed, the idea that language is the primary medium of communication and understanding is often undermined as characters develop and sustain relationships on other levels, understanding each other without necessarily knowing that they do.  Dispossessed of a common language, and usually a common culture as well, Jarmusch’s characters communicate with, and understand one another by recognising their points of convergence and similarity, that is, precisely by discovering their shared humanity.   If this idea of non-linguistic communication is at its most comic in the exchanges between Ghost Dog and his best friend, Raymond, in which they often say the same thing without being aware that they have done so, then it finds its most profound and complex articulation is the beautiful misunderstandings between Blake (who is mistaken for William Blake the poet) and Nobody (who speaks four different languages during the film) in Dead Man (fig 4.2).  For although Blake at one point declares that he “has not understood one single word” that Nobody had spoken since he’d met him, the significance of their relationship resides not in their inability to communicate in language but rather in the spiritual connection forged between them.  Moreover, in not providing subtitles for the dialogue delivered in the native American languages Cree, Makah and Blackfoot as well as including a running joke about tobacco that is culturally specific to those native cultures, the audience is implicated in Jarmusch’s thematic exploration of the nature and limits of communication.

Recessive Jarmuschian Themes

In addition to the four dominant themes outlined above, we can also identify a range of secondary or recessive thematic consistencies in Jarmusch’s films which both accompany and complement many of those principal concerns.

  • Poetry of the ordinary and insignificant: Jarmusch has said that he is interested in the things that are normally taken out of movies, the ‘blank time’ between what is normally deemed to be the significant narrative events.  The way Jarmusch handles the jailbreak in Down by Law is exemplary of this anti-suspenseful approach to narrative.  The first mention of escape comes as Bob half-whispers the idea to his cell mates at the close of one scene.  The next scene begins by showing the three characters fleeing across open ground.  In this way, instead of suspense, action, and plotting Jarmusch’s films deal in the insignificant or mundane aspects of daily life played out through an attention to the minutiae of character.
  • Chance encounters: The reduced narratives of Jarmusch’s films are all driven by the coincidental or serendipitous encounter between his misfit characters (the transitory meetings of passengers and drivers in Night on Earth; the random encounter of inmates in Down by Law; the coincidental relationship between rescuer and rescued in Dean Man and Ghost Dog).  Moreover, it is in these moments of coincidence/fate that what on the surface appear to be life’s insignificances (a visit to an Aunt; staying in the same hotel; a taxi ride; a job interview; a trip to the local shop) turn out to have life altering consequences.
  • Urbanism: There is strong focus on the relationship between the physical urban environment, in particular the squalor and beauty of the American city, and identity.  Indeed, we are often given a tour through the American landscape in the form of extended tracking shots precisely in order that we can register its ‘personality’.  As such, the notion of urbanism is squarely entwined with the more primary theme of cultural disorientation.

Stylistic Concerns

There is a certain justice in appreciating Jarmusch’s films as a statement of his ambition “exist somewhere in between the American mainstream and the individualized European style” (in Cohen 1999).  For while his unconventional stories of social outsiders, happenstance, and cultural alienation often evoke conventional American narratives precisely as the mythical counterpoint for their own irony,  the visual style and narrative form in which those stories are presented is characteristic of certain European and Japanese traditions of filmmaking. 

Out of this general observation we can distinguish the following stylistic concerns prevalent in Jarmusch’s films.

  • Character driven narrative:  Plot is stripped away in Jarmusch’s films with events emerging from the distinctive personality traits of the characters and the nature of their interactions.  For instance, without the performances in Night on Earth all that remains is four uneventful taxi journeys, while in Dead Man, what is a principal convention of the western film – a shooting – is reduced to a mere pretext for Blake and Nobody’s spiritual journey.   Moreover, the idea that each character is the film’s story chimes with Jarmusch’s reduced visual style – long takes and minimal use of point-of-view shots or close-ups – in the sense that shot-duration and technique are put in the service of observing character behaviour within a specific physical environment.     In these respects, then, Jarmusch’s creative process of writing for specific characters becomes reflected at the level of film form.
  • Episodic structure: This character-centred approach to filmmaking also permeates the structure of Jarmusch’s films.  Instead of a coherent narrative strain, the films proceed thematically through either their own internal thematic logic (Stranger than Paradise, Dead Man); or by imposing a episodic structure (Down by Law, Ghost Dog); or by unifying the film’s story with its structure through the theme of synchronicity (Night on Earth, Mystery Train).  Either way, Jarmusch’s films resist narrative linearity in favour of a segmented structure.  In other words, his films tend to be organised around a series of interdependent short episodes linked thematically and/or by character.  This is most obvious in the films that explore synchronicity at a formal and thematic level (Mystery, Night on Earth), but is characteristic of all his films.  Indeed, Jarmusch often marks the transition between these segments by fading into and out of black.  While this technique is particularly evident in Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law, the black spaces that punctuate Dead Man’s scenes not only give the film its organic rhythm, but chime with Blake’s own sporadic drift in and out of consciousness.
  • Tracking-Shots In all of Jarmusch’s films the screen is given over to a tour of the physical environment which the characters pass through.  Indeed, the extended tracking-shot usually through the cityscape is, like his use fades, one of Jarmusch’s most consistent visual tics and activates the notion of environment not merely as a backdrop to the story but rather as a ‘character’ in its own right with its own distinctive personality and meanings.

The notion of the director-as-author remains, and will continue to remain a troubling paradox at the level of theory.  However, it is one thing to admit that individual authorship in cinema is problematic, but quite another to then leave consideration of individual creative agency out of our analyses.  Indeed, an understanding of creative agency is no less crucial to film analysis than to literary analysis.  So while we may wish to dismiss the idea that Jim Jarmusch is the sole author of his films, it nevertheless remains the case that describing his films as if he is their author through analysis of his working practice, thematic and stylistic concerns adds to both our understanding and pleasure of those films.


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Chris Jones

Genre, star and theme

Victim has a solidly-crafted script in the thriller/detective genre, with the reasons for the suicide of ‘Boy’ Barrett gradually coming to light through the investigations of barrister Melville Farr supported by his wife. The black and white cinematography recalls film noir in its depiction of urban bed-sitters, pubs and clubs, and the key investigator is not the police but a private individual. Tense music evokes mystery and urban spaces. In the tradition of the genre hero, Farr not only uncovers the reasons for the young man's suicide but makes a heroic stand against injustice.

As well as genre, the film utilised the British star system of the time with Dirk Bogarde, a male sex-symbol of the 1950s, playing the lead. The element which makes this film unusual for its time is not only its main theme of homosexuality, but the fact that some of its character portrayals are relatively sympathetic, given the era and social climate in which the film was made.

Victim was produced by the Rank studios at a key period of social change in British attitudes towards gay people, and was unique in being specifically seen, at the time of its release in 1961, as a liberal film campaigning against the legal oppression of male homosexuals. In 1957, a government report had recommended a limited reform of the laws that then existed against male homosexual relations. These changes became law in 1967, and the intervening period was one of widespread debate in the British media about homosexuality, a central theme of which was the vulnerability of homosexuals to blackmail, which forms a central theme of Victim. A very high proportion of gay men were blackmail victims.

The construction of images

American film noir, the genre which Victim echoes, often featured homosexual characters. The insinuatingly weak Cairo in The Maltese Falcon and the mean, manipulative Waldo Lydecker in Laura are two examples. A major generic element of film noir was its dealings with characters, themes and settings that were considered abnormal, corrupt or deviant in some way, and Victim makes use of this tradition in its creation of a secretive, oppressive homosexual underworld whose only solace seems to be the pub with its unsympathetic landlord.

As Farr uncovers more victims of blackmail, we see a succession of nervous, oppressed men paying money to the blackmailers in order to protect their jobs and social standing, which in that era would be destroyed by revelations of then-illegal homosexual relations. The film deliberately depicts a wide social cross-section of men, most leading successful lives. The film's most pathetic minor character is Eddie Henry, the barber. He is jumpy and defensive in conversation with Farr, where he reveals that he has been to prison four times as a result of his homosexuality. Apologetic for his own existence, he is subsequently attacked by the thuggish blackmailer, and dies of a heart attack. Throughout the film minor characters express various types of anti-gay prejudice and the words ‘Farr is queer’ are painted on the Farrs' garage door in large letters.

Liberal arguments

So far, the representations dealt with in this film have been predominantly negative in that they indicate secretiveness, oppression and misery. They tie in with an underlying social view at that time of homosexuality as some sort of unfortunate affliction. Critics have pointed out this negativity. In his essay ‘Victim: hegemonic project’ (in Dyer 1993a), Richard Dyer argues that the whole film promotes an attitude of pity for homosexuals as pathetic outsiders. At the same time the film arguably reflects the discrimination and distress experienced by many gay men in the late fifties and early sixties. By pointing out these conditions as unjust the film itself formed part of a wider discourse about the need for change.

A key figure in pointing out legal injustice is the sympathetic, worldly-wise Detective Inspector. The film is punctuated by office discussions which, although over-wordy at times, serve to make the audience aware of the main argument of the film. The Inspector says that it is unjustifiable for the police to interfere in private consensual behaviour between adults and concentrates his anger against blackmailers who make the lives of homosexuals a misery. As the film unfolds and the audience witness this misery, a classic build-up of narrative expectation is brought into play by the Inpector's heartfelt assertion that if only one blackmail victim had the courage to come forward, he could do something.

New attitudes

The film is an important precursor of newer attitudes towards homosexuals which were to culminate a decade later in the gay movement. The character of Melville Farr epitomises these changes. At the start he is secretive and ashamed, refusing to see Boy or even speak to him on the phone. He later admits; ‘I thought he was trying to blackmail me.’ It takes the knowledge of Boy's motivations to galvanise him into positive action. Boy has in fact been trying to shield him from blackmail by stealing money from his employers in a brave but futile attempt to pay off the blackmailer for the negative of a photograph of the two of them together. Boy's last action before being apprehended by the police was to attempt to destroy his collection of press cuttings about Farr, which Boy's friend has retrieved and brought to Farr.

Both Boy and his friend are attractive, ordinary-looking young men, a very important point for positive representation. The half-burnt pile of press-cuttings attests to Boy's continuing devotion to Farr. Boy's suicide when he thought Farr was rejecting him is yet more evidence of the depth of his feelings, as well as his courage in not betraying the ‘secret’.

Once Farr takes the decision to act positively, his character is seen to develop in courage and moral responsibility. Jolted by the injustice of Boy's death, Farr is clearly prepared to risk his career and marriage to expose the blackmailers' injustice. He enlists the help of Boy's friend, saying ‘fear is the oxygen of blackmail’ and asking the friend to ‘watch for signs of fear’ among his circle. The friend clearly points out to Farr that his actions will bring him down.

The emotional impact on Farr's wife, Laura, of seeing the newspaper headline about her husband's involvement with the suicide leads to a climactic confrontation where she draws her husband out into declaring his true feelings. The audience, significantly, never see the blackmail photograph so pivotal to the plot. Instead, we see various people's reactions to it, mainly Laura's. On seeing the photo she asks: ‘Why is he crying?’ and Farr replies; ‘Because I just told him I couldn't see him again.’

The ensuing conversation imbues Laura's character with strength and psychological credibility. She doesn't hesitate to point out the pain and emotion on both men's faces in the photo, and makes her husband come clean and declare: ‘I stopped seeing him because I wanted him.’ To which she replies: ‘You don't call that love?’ Her subsequent courageous declaration that she will stand by her husband gives Farr courage to continue his pursuit.

Melville Farr has other supporters in his quest for justice. The Inspector admires and supports him. Boy's friend advises him and makes enquiries on his behalf in London's homosexual community. It is this friend who notices that Eddie Henry is looking harassed and has decided to sell his business and move out, thus enabling Farr to home in on one of the blackmail suspects.

Ambiguous messages

Certain figures in the film are presented in such a way as to reverse conventional audience expectations, a recognised genre tactic in the thriller/detective tradition. The bowler-hatted man in the pub who seems to be trying to pick other men up turns out to be a plain-clothes police officer on the track of the blackmailers. When Doe's secretary and her thuggish accomplice are eventually tracked down, the case is thereby solved and genre expectations are clearly satisfied.

On the other hand, the ending of the film is ambiguous on the level of its homosexual theme, and has been much discussed. Perhaps this ambiguity is a suitable reflection of the era in which the film was made. Farr insists that Laura leave him for the duration of the difficult period ahead, when, as he points out, terrible things will be said about him and he couldn't bear to see her implicated and hurt. This is a brave act on his part, and Laura reluctantly agrees. The audience is left with several questions: Will Laura and Mel get back together again, and what kind of relationship might they have if they do? Should Laura pursue her own life? Melville Farr's final act is to tear up the photo of himself and Boy and throw it in the fire. What does this indicate about his attitude towards his own homosexuality, or his relationship with Jack Barrett? The film's final image is of Dirk Bogarde/Melville Farr leaning on the mantelpiece in a pose that conveys despair and dejection. What kind of feeling does this leave the audience with about Farr, and perhaps about homosexuals in general? Does the film as a whole portray homosexual men as sad cases or does a feeling of hope for the future emerge from the brave stand of Melville Farr and his friends?