Monday, December 13, 2010

The Journals of Knud Rasmussen

File:The Journals of Knud rasmussen.jpg
Poster of The Journals of Knud Rasmussen
             The viewer of this film should not be lulled by the sense of extreme cold, or by the long silences that occur, into thinking that there is very little going on in The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, 2006, Canada).  Just the opposite is the case. The film is a rich and layered exploration of one of the key ideological thematics of the biopic: the shape and production of collective memory. For The Journals captures a shifting moment when two cultures clash, one of them making adjustments to ensure its survival.
            The first question to answer is whose biopic is this anyway?  The title of the film, in giving us the name of Knud Rasmussen, might suggest that he is the subject of the film.   Professionally, Knud Rasmussen (Jens Jorn Spottag) was an actor, an opera singer and finally an ethnographer, writing several books and lecturing about the Arctic as well as traversing it from coast to coast over six times. Significantly, he was himself the product of two cultures: his father was Danish and his mother, half Inuit:
Rasmussen spent his early years in Greenland among the Inuit where he learned from an early age to speak the language, ... hunt, drive dog sleds and live in harsh Arctic conditions. ‘My playmates were native Greenlanders; from the earliest boyhood I played and worked with hunters. Hardships of the most strenuous sledge-trips became pleasant routine for me.’ (Knud Rasmussen, Wikipedia).

            While one might expect the film to foreground Rasmussen himself, those expectations go unfulfilled.  The focus is more obviously on various Inuit characters Rasmussen encountered in his journeys. A significant amount of screen time is devoted rather to the stories of three other great lives: the Inuit Shaman Aua (Pakak Innuksuk), his spirit-seeing daughter Apak (Leah Angutimarik) and his wife Orulu (Neeve Irngaut). And indeed, in its opening sequence, the film offers a title of the film that is (significantly) different from the one on the box. Rather than saying The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, it says, A Series of Extracts from the Journals of Knud Rasmussen. It is this series of extracts that is off-putting to some reviewers who feel this movie is more about the Inuit and less about Rasmussen.
            And yet, while the film certainly is built around these extracts, they are extracts that do come from Rasmussen’s journals.  It is thus his mind that remembers which of the details of the story will be written, his point of view that colours the words which were captured in writing. Though the extracts are reproduced as though told from the Inuit side of the accounts, they are also the accounts that had been captured and transcribed through the voice of the Danish/Inuit explorer, albeit in fragmentary form.
            The film is bookend with still photographs of the Inuit.  The film opens in 1912 with a group of Inuit characters gathering for a picture – as they hold still for the pose, the movement gradually freezes and the colour bleeds into the sepia tones of an old photograph.  The closing sequence of the film is also composed of a series of photographs, shots of the actors and shots of the real people whose stories we have heard.
            Rasmussen is recording the details and nuances of a way of life he is already familiar with.  In that way, he is deeply embedded in the film, even where he is not always visible. He will eat with the people, dance with them, enjoy their stories and be warmed by one of their women’s beds (Apak has more than two of his sewing thimbles).
He records their stories in a first hand way.  They directly face the camera, and tell about their lives, as Orulu does when she describes “the life of an old woman, bitter and sweet”—her biopic.  The shaman, Aua, also looks directly into the camera, his eyes looking through the lens, and gazing at someone I feel is just over my right shoulder. I am tempted to turn my head and see if it is Rasmussen behind me.  What I am hearing is a biopic inside of a biopic. 
In an early scene in the film, Rasmussen tells Aua that he has come to hear their songs, and learn of their stories and beliefs. Aua replies by telling him, “We believe happy people should not worry about hidden things. Our spirits are offended if we think too much.” Rasmussen says, “Yes, I understand”, and the group go on to share songs.  But as the film continues, and the people share food, play, and work, the shaman does indeed speak to Rasmussen of his beliefs.  He tells about the myths, the taboos, and the tribal customs that surrounded his own birth: if your wife is pregnant do not kill cut open a female walrus who is carrying her young;  the fur on a baby’s clothing must run sideways; only males can eat the harpooned catch of a young man’s first kill.  He introduces us to his shark spirit as well as other spirits, who have come from the land and the sea, spirits who are integral to how his tale will wind down.  Aua is one of the gravitational points in this film.
            Does that means I feel as though this is not Rasmussen’s story?  No.  It is his pen that writes, his mind that decides which of the details will be written, his point of view that colours the words that are spoken.  His journals suggest to us the risks of the ethnographer’s gaze, and yet attempt to share understanding between groups.  It is his voice that suggest the paths towards understanding.  He speaks Inuit, has grown up with the Inuit, and has hunted with the Inuit.  And in the film, both he and I are about to bear witness to one of his greatest moments: capturing the stories of a culture in transition.  The cost of that transition is seen powerfully in the lives of Aua, Apak and Orulo, but we know of that cost only through the extracts in Rasmussen’s journals, extracts written in his voice.
            Leslie Felperin says in that "[the] pic lacks the rich, human drama that distinguished ‘Atanarjuat,’ prehoned and culled as it was from Inuit folklore.” I do not agree with her .  In this film, I see rich, human drama in the ordinary lives of women.  I am mesmerized by Apak’s story, a female shaman with spirits of her own.  She has sex with her dead husband at nights.  She is warned to be “warmer to [her] second husband who was a gift to her because of the murder of her first husband. Her marriage represents a peaceful solution to a murder, but it is not a solution that works sexually for her.  When she asks if her husband has complained to her father the retort is, “No, everyone sees,” as everyone does when many people sleep in one igloo.  When confronted with sexuality gone wrong, she articulates her displeasure: “I [have] to do all the work with you myself.”  Others say about her, “That one is too beautiful for any man.”
            While the camera often remains lovingly on the face of the beautiful Apak, and while it certainly attends to women’s sexuality, that is not the only way in which women are visible in this film.  The film gives us snapshots of many women:  sewing, cooking, feeding babies who are packed on their backs with bits of food, parenting the children and being shamed into thinking that kind of work is not adult work.  I rest my case.  For me, this is a story rich in human drama, drama in a site that is usually seen as one that needs containment.  Women’s work and lives are woven into the fabric of this film, into the fabric of this collective memory.
            A film’s closure should frame the film’s biographical subject and it does so in a touching way.  To begin the closing sequence, Aua, the last shaman, walks toward us.  He then gazes past us but with downcast eyes and speaks to the three spirits who are standing in front of him.  He says, “I am grateful for all the help you have given me in my life.  But now I have to send my spirits away.  Now I need to follow the road of Jesus and you have to leave me.” Aua’s small community is starving to death.  One by one, they have left to accept food from the Jesus-believers.  But the Jesus-believers will not feed the people without their conversion to Christianity.  We have already learned of the taboos, and know that eating certain organ meats from prohibited animals will disassociate the shama Aua from his spirits. But in joining the Jesus believers to get nourishment, he will be required to eat the body of Christ (which will take the form not of bread and wine, but of those prohibited organ meats) and thus break that taboo.  So, of his own accord, Aua sends his spirits away, rather than join them in the spirit world (through starvation and death).
            Aua again tells them to leave.  But it is only at this moment in the film, in seeing the three characters before him, that we realize we have been blind.  The three characters have been visible to us the entire time, but we have not understood them to be spirits, presuming them simply to be other members of the community without speaking roles.  Even when they were described to us by Aua, we did not understand what we were seeing.  But now, we can see.
We can also see that they do not immediately leave.  He must send them away.  He tells them again, “So now, go away”.   They begin to turn from him to walk away.  They also begin to wail with sorrow.  There is over one minute of the wailing of the grief stricken spirits as they walk away from him, them looking back, him remaining firm, saying more loudly and angrily, “So now, go away.”  He is resigned to what must be done. The ground is undulating with wisps of drifting of snow between them and the three figures disappear toward a hill in the distance.  Finally they are only a speck of black, and the credits roll, alongside pictures of the Inuit, past and present.
            The last shot, a long shot showing a dog sled traveling over the snow has the voice over of the film’s ethnographer, Knud, singing a European operatic melody again as he did to them in the middle of an early party, one of Caruso’s famous love airas. The shot pulls back to an long shot and the camera tilts down with an extreme long shot, giving us a view from the heavens.  The sled is travelling toward home, to a people who have lost their former shamanic practice. Rasmussen’s operatic voice is heard crooning his last message:
[The Inuit] appeared to me, purest of love,
I discovered with my eyes this vision of delight.
Lovely [were they], that my hungry heart, in a snap, to [them] did fly.
I was hurt, I was charmed by that beauty from above.
Love is etched in my heart, and cannot now be erased.

Rasmussen’s biopic will continue to be mined for its attention to collective Inuit memory of the days when the Inuit practised shamanism.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Journal Entry #8: Who is Rembrandt

Who is Rembrandt according to the director and the actor?

If I were to look at who Rembrandt is by looking at the actor’s acting style, I would see a complicated individual, one of desire, flamboyance, passion, politics and commitment. The acting style communicated Rembrandt’s desire for his way of viewing the world, especially in the scene where he unveils the commissioned painting and people find they are in the shadows or their faces are not seen at all. Though the a theatrical soliloquy in a movie is now outdated, there was a passion, either about religion or love when we listened to long clips of dialogue. Just a look from the actor, a twitch of the face, a fish hanging by its tail, ready to enter his mouth was enough to flesh out the richness of the painter’s persona. This is also true of the repartee between Rembrandt and the beggar, when Rembrandt is looking for someone to sit for a painting of an Old Testament King. The spirit with which it was delivered fleshed out a Rembrandt who was living for us as a man, apart from his paintings.

Who is Rembrandt and how do we know that? In the twenty-first century we know Rembrandt was a painter of masterpieces that have endured for four centuries. But the mise-en-scene gave us an idea of who Rembrandt was as he painted. We saw the arch shaped bridges that go over the canals, and the tall thin houses that lined them. I am one of the people in the class who is lucky enough to have visited the Rembrandt house and museum in Amsterdam. Should you be lucky enough to go into that house, the guide will probably point to the walls in the entry and says something to the effect of, “Rembrandt had his painting hanging all over this wall, a gallery of his own, where he displayed pictures he had for sale. His shop was always open for commerce.” The film showed us similar walls in Rembrandt’s house, and people coming to buy from him. We know a small piece of who Rembrandt is, just by looking at his surroundings, how he lived in them, and how he painted them.

Assignment I: Opening Sequence - Jackie and Hilary

Key metaphoric, stylistic and technical devices are evident in the opening sequence of Arnand Tucker’s film, Hilary and Jackie (1998), a narrative about the Du Prė sisters, Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) and Jackie (Emily Watson). Bingham reminds us that biographical films need subjects with extraordinary lives. Jackie is famous for her musical talent; Hilary, for her keen writer’s eye. The movie is a critical investigation, a feminist appropriation of the classical biographical genre.

The key metaphoric device of the opening sequence is the conch shell, an image about women’s sexuality. A submerged shell is drawn out of a pool of water by a small hand. Then camera swoops away from two girls beside a small pool and circles with dizzying speed to a high-angled extreme long shot to image the girls as the two vulva folds on either side of the pool of water. Then we see the young Jackie using the conch shell as a telephone, taking a message which she whispers to her sister, making visible us to the the second metaphor of the opening sequence: the whisper.

The sequence initially begins with a whisper of sound: the whisper of waves, then the whisper of an orchestra tuning up, then the whisper of a single ascending melodic line played on the cello. Later, Jackie whispers a message she received from a mysterious silhouetted woman at the edge of the sand. Also, the sequence is framed as a mysterious whisper as the girls run over the sand dunes speaking W.J. Turner’s poem, “Romance”. Hilary has Jackie’s hand and they are about to enter the “golden land” (of sound for them) that Turner refers to in his poem.

A key stylistic device in this movie is the use of classical music: Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Jackie’s signature piece. As well, original music by Barrington Pheloung mixes the flute and the cello, bring to the foreground the instrument that each of them plays when the focus is on their story.

A key stylistic device is Tucker’s use of the swooping camera. In the opening sequence the girls run through the golden wet sand, slide down sand dunes on their knees, run through high golden grasses, move toward the horizon, run away from the viewer, and finally hug each other in a long, tight embrace. At this moment Tucker makes use again of an “excessively mobile camera ... to dramatise visually static material” a device he will also use again during the body of the film (Bruzzi 32). But for now Hilary and Jackie stand still, clinging to each other, the camera spinning the horizon around the girls at a dizzying pace.

A second of Tucker’s technical devices is the long dissolve, a technique he uses to bind the women together. In shot 4, Hilary and Jackie leave the pool of water to run toward the edge of the ocean. At the same time, there is a 7-second shot of the two girls with their own arms cross at the wrist and clasping each other’s hands. They are spinning in a circle. The two shots are mixed for 3 seconds, an overlay of both images underscoring their separateness and their inseparability.

I go to see biography because I am interested in the knowability of the subjects. The deep love the young sisters have for each other is dramatized in the opening sequence, the nature of their love revealed through the metaphors of a conch shell, a whisper and a golden land.

Works Cited

Bruzzi, Stella. “Butterfly on the Wall: Is the New Jacqueline De Prė Biopic Typical of British Documentary Fiction, Asks Stella Bruzzi”. Sight and Sound 9:1 (January 1999) 23-34.

Is "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen" a bio pic or not?

Rebecca Johnson says...
Here is my question. Is The Journals of Knud Rasmussen a bio pic or not? If it IS, then what kind of biopic IS it? The open scene gives the film a slightly different title from the one on the box. Rather than saying "The Journal of Knud Rasmussen", it says, "A series of extracts from the Journals of Knud Rasmussen". Does that make a difference?
The thing that is fascinating to me is that it is indigenous... and though the title suggests the film is about Knud, all the encounters, even the ones involving him, are presented from the viewpoint of the Inuit people rather than from the view point Knud. maybe this is obserational realism, but it has a very distinctive feel, and I am not sure what to call it.
Leslie Felperin says in the article quoted below,  "[The] pic lacks the rich, human drama that distinguished "Atanarjuat," prehoned and culled as it was from Inuit folklore. By contrast, Rasmussen feels more like a conventional anthropological pic with a docudrama veneer."
Film Reviews: Toronto: "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen"
Variety 404:8 (9 October 2006-15 October 2006), p. 73
I am not saying that you couldn't make an argument for this being a biopic, especially given the title, but Rasmussen disappears quickly from the film.  Usually, we watch biopic protagonists become the heroic figure in the film and this doesn't happen here. 

Even the fact that Rasmussen is of mixed heritage, and so the stories he chronicles are the stories of his own people, wouldn't be enough, I think, to make this a biopic.

The term observational realism is something that happens between the viewer and what is happening on screen.  So I don't think this term would apply in this context.


Journal Entry #5: The Classical Biopic Used Against Itself in Malcolm X

Can the classical biopic be used against itself? Can it mythologize radical, revolutionary, marginal figures?

Bingham tells us to look for the hero as an “the Idol of Production (or Consumption), ... the man who made things great for society...[the] visionaries who made the world better.” (Bingham, 6) But in Malcolm X, I see so many shades of a complex human being: a small boy wanting an education, a teen-ager performing in his zoot suits, a criminal, a figure promoting radical change, a pacifist. Even his name changes: Malcolm Little, Malcolm X, Malik Al-Shabazz? In any of these cases, he is not the classical biopic hero.

I have never really thought of the conventions of the biopic as prescribed by white Hollywood’s standard of who is a major figure and who is not. Nor have I paid close attention to Bingham’s title, Whose Lives Are They Anyway? and why or why not or they filmed. In the case of the usually mythologized hero I look for someone who made things great for society. In this film, I am uncomfortable, for the film jars me again and again with its 400 years of memories of racial discrimination. What is always in the viewers face is who has made life miserable for people transported against their will to America.

This is Spike Lee’s most conventional film. He uses it to document the way black people have been taught to hate themselves.

Malcolm X, is at the very least, an inversion of the goal of a classical biopic in the sense that the life of its hero could have been written into only the margins of history books.

Some pieces in the film stood out for me: the stylization of Malcolm’s mother, finally institutionalized, hiding in the corner of a snow white room; the parody of Malcolm and his friend walking down the streets, decked out, their arms swinging together in rhythm; the spiritual nature of the love interest with Betty Shabazz, the image of Shorty at the door / the faces of policemen behind him / and the phrase “the jigs up”.

Journal Entry #4: Ed Wood, a post modern biopic

How is Ed Wood a post modern biopic?

First of all, what is it that post-modern biopics do? What do they give us? Their goal is to make the viewer rethink conventions.

Post modern biopics parody the genre, are playful, full of pastiche and self-reflexivity. There is deconstruction going on, attention to performativity, subjectivity, stylization and intertexuality (ie the appearance of Vampira in the case of this film).

Specifically, in Ed Wood, the post modern biopic takes up the subject of the genre, that hero, that idol of consumption (or production) that we love to watch.

But Ed Wood has no talent. He is kind and good but always struggling. The last scene in the film where he gets an award is probably a dream-like revision of his life. Did he make a great film and then go out in the rain and propose to his wife? Probably not. For the film ends with a quote, multiple quotes, playfully tacked on to the movie to let us know how everyone ended up: Wood, specifically, in a descent into alcoholism.

How does Burton’s film mise-en scene parody the genre?

Parody, strictly speaking, is a mocking imitation of the genre and parody focuses on exposing tropes, ideologies, codes and conventions of the genre.
One of the ways the mise-en-scene parodies the genre is in scenes where Ed Wood is shooting his films. The sets are stylized, the whole set is exposed, and the place outside of the set where the rain is being created and that falls on the characters before they enter the door is also shown. In another scene one of the heavier characters falls into the wall and the whole set reverberates. As well, in the grave yard scene, one of the granite headstones falls over, apparently made of cardboard and not granite. When I was looking at the above parodies I was having to remind myself that there is another director outside of Ed Wood whose name is Tim Burton. I cannot see him. It is he who is making all of this hilarity for the viewer.

Another of the wonderful parodies on directing is Ed Wood telling people that the first cut is great and he presses on to the next scene. We have seen everything go wrong in creating the shoot, but those details seem unimportant as he claims to have a larger, over-reaching vision at work.

Journal Entry #3: Historical Reality of Biopic Subjects

Question: What is the central difference between the historical reality of Randolph Hurst’s life and the fiction of the life of Citizen Kane?

To answer this question is to first gather questions about Hurst, to discover the facts of his life: how he grew up, how he made his money, what kind of family life he had with his wife and children, what kind of social and political power he wielded. The curious should consider his social power. The elite came to dine at his table and waltz on his dance floor. The inquisitive would consider his political power. He was an elected official who did not tend his meetings. He controlled how news was written and what was considered news. The reality is that his power to control the media made him a force over which there were few other controls.

Powers ascribed to Kane are only those powers that can be ascribed to a piece of celluloid running past some white light. Kane was only an fleeting image on a screen. Light and darkness that was there and then gone. But the fear of that image being burned into the minds of theatre going Americans arrested Hurst in his tracks. The fiction and facts were interwoven, sometimes around Hurst’s mistress, and even Orson Welles agreed that the portrayal of Marion was unfair.

So there is the interesting paradox, the difference between the historical reality of Hurst and the fictional life of Kane. Hurst fought against the unfairness of the portrayal of Marion by using the media tools which he had used unfairly on others. And that essentially had been used by a director creating a fiction about Hurst.

Journal Entry #2: Citizen Kane

Journal Question: Choose one symbol from the film (for example, puzzle, newsreel/print, snow globe, Rosebud ) and critically assess how Wells uses it to deconstruct the biopic. Pinpoint 1 to 2 key series / sequences in your analysis.

In a 1960 interview, Orson Welles said, "I'm ashamed of Rosebud. I think it's a rather tawdry device. It's the thing I like least in Kane. It's kind of a dollar-book Freudian gag, you know. It doesn't stand up very well."

I am not sure he was right. There is an argument that the symbol still stands and stand up well.

The sled (with the Rosebud emblazoned on it) is a trope for a lost childhood. And this was a sled that seems to be on a slippery slope. Kane never had 2 loving parents. The father was abusive, and who knows if the coldness of the mother was due to that family abuse against her as well, or not. She had packed the child’s clothes a week earlier, knowing he must leave. Her face is motionless. Her mind is made up. She is now in charge – she has the money, but it is the child who has to leave and not the husband.

Perhaps the Rosebud is deconstructed the trope of an innocent child going out into the world in this way: he turned the trope on its head, and the child will never flower, never blossom, and the rose will never be able to cup the child in its fragrance.

Is Wells deconstructing a biopic trope where a child who has nothing goes on to a magnificent future. Is Orson Wells turning that trope on its head, and showing that the child can grow up and begin a descent into madness because he is suffering a loss he will never recover from.

We see the burning of the sled (with it’s Rosebud trademark).

We see the sled being thrown into Mr. Thatcher’s stomach, so here we have the sled as a weapon.
Kane drops the globe from his hand and calls out “Rosebud”. The globe is a time-capsule for the snowy childhood dream of innocence. But what does it represent?

The child outside of the family house.

The child in the snow.

The child throwing snowballs at the patriarchal window of his home.

So when we see the globe cracking and the hear the word Rosebud, we are alive to the fact that the dream of a warm family unit that Hurst held, is smashed in death, in the same fashion that it was never allowed to blossom in life.

If I am to understand that a trope is a shift in the meaning of a word, then the word rosebud has shifted from a meaning of that which is about to flower, to that of a flower frozen in time and never to mature. Not only is the globe smashed, but the sled that has the name Rosebud is either stored, unused, or burned.

A trope is a figure that shifts its meaning by adding meaning to its original idea. In fact, in Citizen Kane, the meaning of rosebud is frozen on the sled and later the rosebud is seen burning on the sled. There is no growth (for the child or the rose), but only stasis for 70 years and then the idea of flowering is either smashed or burned.

I have been thinking about deductions we could draw about the sled and the mother. She sent her child away, but kept the sled as one of her cherished possessions. If she had been cold and heartless (as her face could have been read in the film), why would the sled have ended up as something she kept until she died. She was a rich woman. Instead did she sacrifice by sending Kane to what she thought would be a better place for him, away from his abusive father and a place where she hoped her money would bring him upward mobility?

The movie’s voice-over tells us that “to boarding housekeeper Mary Kane, by a defaulting boarder, in 1868 was left the supposedly worthless deed to an abandoned mine shaft”.

Would it be logical to suppose that this was a kind and good, though poor woman who kept a boarder alive who couldn’t pay her ... and when he died, he left her all he had, a deed to an abandoned mine shaft.

This seems like a woman with more heart than the man she was married to. While she was taking care of penniless boarders, the father says about his own child, “What that kid needs is a good thrashing.”

His mother retorts, That's why he's going to be brought up where you can't get at him.

I think we can read that in the 1940’s, even if a woman had all of the money in the world, she couldn’t stop her partner from abusing the child they have if that child was living with them.

Perhaps the Rosebud is the small child that she sent away, hoping he would have a chance to one day flower.

Journal Entry #1: Rembrandt and Raging Bull Closing Sequences

Journal Entry: Rembrandt and Raging Bull Closing Sequences
Compare and contrast the closing sequences of Rembrandt and Raging Bull.  How do they differently?
Rembrandt is seen walking down the stairs, receiving money and then he moves to the store where he will be buying equipment, a body alone, hurrying to get his equipment, and then a thoughtful look on his face as he examines his own face in the mirror and puts the pigment on the canvas.  Rembrandt is now the longer, alone with his destiny which is to paint.  He is not painting for others.  Here we have no idol of consumption, but purely he acts an idol of production, producing only for himself.  The great life has been lived.  The legacy of the art work will live on.  That does not seem to concern Rembrandt.  His life is full when he is alone with light, canvas and paint.
Jake LaMotta is seen in a mirror as well, reflecting to himself, having a conversation about what went wrong in his life and who is to blame for it as he readies himself for another performance.  He is well attired, a nice suit and shirt, and well coiffed.  But he lacks the calm, peaceful countenance of the old man.  Instead he is still on exhibition, an idol of consumption.  The movement of his body is in the form of shadow boxing, getting ready for the next bout, preparing for the next “performance”, hoping again to be on performance and declared a winner.
There is an interesting comparison between the movement of Rembrandt in the paint shop.  The folds of his long shirt move as he hurries in the paint shop, looking for just the right pigment.  But what we are seeing is a happy walk, a bouncing step between items he wants to choose, as though his feet cannot work fast enough to collect the precious materials with which he is to work.  Jake LaMotta also has a fluidity, an aggressive bouce, his arms shooting out and then the quick boxer movement to bring them back to protect his own body.  Even in those final positions that we view the two in, we are aware that Rembrandt is about production and LaMotta is getting his body ready as a product for the entertainment consumption of others.

Journal Entry #7: My Top Five Biopics

1.Kinsey (Bill Condon, USA 2004)
Alfred Kinsey is the subject of this neoclassical scientific biopic. His research interest in human sexuality upended Victorian sexual attitudes, and set the stage for the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.

2.The Notorious Bettie Page (Mary Harron, USA, 2005)
On the one hand, the subject of this film is Bettie Page, a sex trade worker in the bondage film industry of the 1950’s. On the other hand, the subject of this film is how a woman can both make a living as a sex trade worker and also be true to her private inner self. This film in a good companion piece to the picture of national sexual mores portrayed in the Kinsey biopic.

3.An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, Australia, 1990)
Janet Frame’s life challenges all of the classical biopic conventions; it is the story of her life from birth to literary success and beyond. The themes of a woman’s self, family, class and madness are riveting.

4.Erin Brokovich (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2000)
Erin Brokovich is a neoclassical biopic subject, and the story of an attractive woman whose economic problems catapulted her into successfully confronting both the legal system and corporate greed.

5.Jeanne d’Arc (Carl Theodor Dryer, Denmark, 1928)
Devotees of silent film will love the close-ups in this classical biography of a rebellious French woman accused of religious heresy.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

My Family's Favorite Biopics


Here's my son Doral's picture. 
He says his favorite Biopic is Hoffa (Danny DeVito, 1992).  He loves the scenes in the restaurant with Hoffa, waiting to meet with the mob. 

My neice, Lurene Bates, says she has two favorites:
1. Temple Grandin (Mick Jackson, 2010) A biopic of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who has become one of the top scientists in the humane livestock handling industry.
2. And All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)-- a story based loosely on the life of Bob Fosse.
Kelvin Johnson Sr adds:
I like Ghandi (Richard Attenborough, 1982) especially the scene where Ghandi is so committed to his purpose that he is willing to toss his wife out of the house and then reconsiders for it is against what he really believes in.
Catherine Jarvis’s picks:
I really enjoyed the movie The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009). It is the true and inspiring story of a young black man adopted by a southern white family.

A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001), a story of the mental illness of a brilliant mathematician, John Nash, was also very interesting.
Steve Carter says:
I have a French pick: 37.5 in the morning (Jean-Jacques Beineix, France,1986.) which is called Betty Blue in English. The protagonist may not have been a real person but the pizza place that was featured in the film was real and I went there.
Mary Johnson can’t stop at one movie:
I have seen Amadeus (1984), The Last Emperor (1987), A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Malcolm X .While I liked them all, I must admit that in retrospect they are all about men. I don’t think I have seen any about women. Well, except Erin Brokovitch, but I didn’t love that movie because I don’t like Julia Roberts much.

Here’s a list I found on-line of biopic about women.
Janet Pilling writes:
Schindlers List – Liam Neeson plays Oscar Schindler -all about humanity and hope – this was one of Laynies first movies that meant something to her – I think Grade 9
Our family favourite has to be Braveheart – I think all of my children own it. William Wallace. When we all went to Scotland it was specifically for a visit to his monument in Sterling. Love and Freedom
Books are better but some movies do them justice like the two above.
Rebecca Johnson adds:
What about Iron Jawed Angels. It is an HBO movie, though.....does that count? It might have been a TV one, but it is such a great counterpoint to the images of suffragettes that we get in Mary Poppins (see the link to the sing-along version of Sister Suffragette on youtube)

It totally captures the violence and passion for justice of those women from the 1900s. If the biopic is a myth to inspire, then this one does that....
Wyona Bates writes from London:
I can’t give you true biopics, but one of the shows I remember so well is Manufacturing Consent...Chomsky. I watched it with Charise because she needed to watch it for a course she was taking.
Another favourite theatre show is Billy Elliot about a person, even if mythogical. The show is full of dancing, happiness, tears, love, endurance, anger, despair and hope. It represents the London West End Theatre and a little of Scottish History.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Watching Biopics

Today Deidre Martin wrote the following phrase on the chalkboard: Biopics are the social myths that inspire the everyman. I signed up for this course, being able to name only one biopic off the top of my head: Gypsy.

Over the past few months I have been watching biographies in class, reading Dennis Bingham's, Whose Lives are They Anyway? and looking at movies that fit into this category. I am developing a list of biopics that I have seen in the past and adding to those, the ones that we see in class.

Happy to say, I can now list a number of biographies I have watched:
Al Capone (1959)
Amadeus (1984)
Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, Australia, 1990) [Janet Frame, poet]
Becket (1964)
Citizen Kane (Orson Wells, USA, 1941)
Ed Wood (Tim Burton, USA, 1994)
Erin Brockovich (Stephen Soderbergh, USA, 2000)
Ghandi (UK, 1982)
Glen Miller Story (1954)
Gypsy (Mervyn Leroy, 1962)
Hilary and Jackie (Arnand Tucker, 1998)
Hunger (Steve McQueen, Ireland, 2008)
I Shot Andy Warhold (Mary Harron, 1996) [Valerie Solanos]
Jolson Story (1946)
Karen Carpenter Story (Tod Haynes, 1987)
Kinsey (Bill Condon, 2004)
Kundun (1997) [Dali Lama]
Lawrence of Arabia (Spike Lee, 1992)
Milk (Gus Van Sant, USA, 2008)
Nasser 56 (Mohamed Fadel, Egypt, 1996)
Nixon (Oliver Stone, USA, 1995)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dryer 1928)
Rembrandt (Alexander Corda, 1936)
The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertalucci, 1987)
The Miracle Worker (1962)
The Notorious Bettie Page (Mary Harron, USA, 2005)
Thirty-Two Short Films about Glen Gould (Francois Gerard, Canada, 1993)

Film Critique Assignment - Kinsey

"Let's talk about sex"
(Slogan from the movie Kinsey)

The code for the early scientific biopic is that its hero should be “the Idol of Production, ... the man who made things great for society...[the] visionaries who made the world better.... This figure came back ... as part of the neoclassical biopic revival of the 2000s, but with a warts-and-all or Citizen Kane-like investigatory tinge.” (Bingham 6) A warts-and-all hero is what we have in the movie, Kinsey (2004), a neoclassical scientific biopic. The early classical biographical subjects represented reform that was beyond debate: Louis Pasteur’s development of a vaccine, and Florence Nightingale’s social compassion. In contrast, Alfred Kinsey’s (Liam Neesom) scientific investigation represents reform that was debated on every level. The reason for the debate is that the subject of his work was human sexuality and society’s right to know and explore it.

The film begins in media res, an interview in black and white format. What is odd is that when the interviewee (whom we later know is Kinsey) begins to talk about his childhood, the presentation of that sequence of film switches to colour. The question could be asked, why is the present being filmed in black and white and the past in colour? The answer to that question comes, when we see that the opening sequence of the film starts in the middle of one of the scenes of Kinsey’s adult life, and that opening sequence sends us backward in time to look at his childhood. We shall return again to colour when we move forward in his life.

The opening coloured sequence shows how, as a child, Kinsey learns to study nature sitting on a log under a tree, observing a squirrel, then sketching the squirrel, then studying his notes. Two more shots of the squirrel in different positions flash by the screen and then an extreme close-up of the boy’s eyes, observing.

This is also the shape of three more segments: Kinsey observing and collecting data in a book; Kinsey watching and then sketching a female bird feeding her young; Kinsey watching and sketching a woodpecker. What makes this sequence illuminating is that the voice-over is Kinsey telling his interviewer that he was a sickly child, but that when he could get out of bed he escaped to nature, “My place of worship. My cathedral.”

In the aseptic black and white interview of Kinsey as an adult, we learn he was a sickly child (pneumonia, diphtheria) so it is easy to take the image of the childhood bed as a sick bed. But the childhood sickness also alludes to family sexual myths – the zipper that is a tool of the devil, and the telephone that allows a boy to hear the voice of a girl as he lays on his pillow. And in the childhood segment we have heard child Kinsey talk about the sickness that comes over him at night, and ask his scout master, how he can prevent nocturnal emissions which he believes will eventually cause him loss of blood and death. The opening scene sets up two important ideas about our protagonist: a child steeped in data collection and focused on questions of sexuality.

Director Bill Condon gets right to the heart of this provocative subject in the first frame of the opening sequence of Kinsey. The screen is black, a metaphor for the darkness that surrounds the subject of sexuality when Kinsey began to study it. Early twentieth century America was trapped in a repressed Victorian sensibility and there was no way that the darkness was to be lifted, that is until Kinsey took out his pen and paper and began to gather scientific information for a scientific treatise on the subject. The seemingly dry treatise turned into a best seller. Public forces seemed to gathered to ignore the book. Even the New York Times did not review it. That is, until it hit its 6th printing and people could see it was going to be a run-away hot commodity. At the time of its printing, I was a nine year old Alberta born prairie girl and only vaguely aware of its existence.

I am going to examine the opening segment that backgrounds the titles for the movie being presented. “One Man’s History” is the title the DVD gives this segment. But the title could as easily have been Everyman’s History, because according to Kinsey, there is infinite variety in the sexual practises of human beings: looking at one male variation is like looking at all.
When we begin, the voice-over on the black screen is coaching the interviewer as to how to collect scientific data about sexuality. “Don’t sit so far away ... creat[ing] a distance should be avoided.” Immediately, the audience is learning that we are going to get close to the subject at hand, really taking a look at it.

The interviewer begins practising his interviewing techniques again, holding a clipboard to show a grid of 287 squares to his to client, Alfred Kinsey, and explaining that data is coded so that privacy will be maintained.

In the Special Features section of the DVD, Bill Condon, the director, explains that he uses the multiple squares of the graph-paper grid of the interview sheet for a visual motif in the movie. Squares will reappear in room dividers, lamps, drawers of specimen cabinets, and in headstones in a graveyard. The squares stand in for the multiple boxes into which Kinsey can capture information about human sexuality. Sexuality, represented in the first shot, as a black screen about which we know nothing, now becomes a grid into which data can be collected and studied – at least 287 squares per person. This square motif is useful until the collection of data gets to such an overwhelming magnitude that Kinsey begins to lose control of his whole project, the loss of which is shown in a governmental hearing, a circle on the floor, Kinsey standing in the middle, straight lines shooting out from him into infinity, and he collapsing into its vortex.

I want to talk specifically about the square motif in another way. Let us examine the segment called “Dirty Stuff”. The movie opens with practise interview sessions, new interviewers learning their technique by practising on Kinsey. But in “Dirty Stuff” Kinsey is the interviewer, interviewing one of his most complicated subjects: Mr Brown, a man who has had relationships with multiple members of his extended family and with many children. Nonjudgemental. That was one of the key criteria Kinsey demanded of people doing the interviewing. Kinsey wanted scientific collection of data, interviews not coloured by the skittish reaction of interviewers when they heard something out of the norm. However, Kinsey’s close associate walks out, when what he is hearing is too much for him. Kinsey as well, cannot be neutral, for when he is baited by Mr. Brown he reiterates his own position that sexual acts between people have to be by mutual consent – a criteria that cannot be set, if Kinsey is truly only gathering data. “I didn’t think you were so square,” replies the interviewee which criticism is valid in the context of collecting data to which no moral judgements have been attached. Here is a box in the 287 square motif that is problematic.

Hollywood biopics pit the biographical subject against rigid bureaucracies, greedy self-interests, warped value systems and unimaginatively opposed families. (Bingham 6) This is true in the case of this neoclassical biopic, and we get to see the warts-and-all approach added. One of the rigid bureaucracies Kinsey fights is the university administration who do not want to change their method of teaching sexuality: holding classes for married students, only. Kinsey breaks some of the rules, and hectors the administration as he advocates for more freedom of sexual information for students. Later in the film, the university administration is characterized as one of the greedy self-interests, Kinsey must fight. When they are asked to provide more research funding for Kinsey, (money that has been brought to the university through his research), they deny him the funds. Third, the warped value system against which Kinsey must fight is made visible when he publishes his second book, this time about women’s sexuality. The furor created contains society’s masked fear that if women know about their own sexuality, the whole family systems will collapse.

Fighting against an unimaginative family is the fourth obstacle he must overcome and that quarrel is a life-time one. It begins in Kinsey’s youth when he comes of age, and breaks away from his father’s influence to study what is interesting to him. But the warts-and-all side of Kinsey seen when his own son asks Kinsey to be more discreet in his conversation, since his own friends are no longer allowed to visit the Kinsey home. Kinsey cannot turn the tables and imaginatively think of a way to create a space for his own son’s happiness in this regard.

Unimaginative family relationships are a problem that cuts two ways. The interview of Kinsey’s father which finally occurs at the end of the old man’s life seems to fail to make connections when yet another conflict arises between them. But it is the father who softens, agreeing to tell all; and it is the son from whose eyes the veil must fall this time. “I’m so sorry,” is all Kinsey can say ... and perhaps all that can be said.

The Kinsey biopic uses an interviewing technique that is Citizen Kanesque in origin: knowing the subject by interviewing those who knew him, thus gathering multiple sets of data and points of view. This technique appears with a variation in Kinsey. For example, while multiple points of view were gathered about one person, in Citizen Kane, in Kinsey, we have the protagonist, himself, gathering multiple points of view, about American sexuality. While we see Kinsey training his interviewers at the beginning of the film, it is not until later that we observe him doing the interviewing. First there is a fascinating montage where hundreds of talking heads are gathered and placed on a map that criss-crosses the nation, roads seemingly connecting the interviewees, the montage representing the hundreds and thousands of “interviews” Kinsey and his team collected.

Kinsey’s data collection is problematic. His critics say, too many homosexuals, too many prostitutes, too many middle class whites, too many of his personal friends. And when I read the list of those who offered to be interviewed, I had my own questions. Why does the list only contain famous males coming forward, offering to be interviewed. Wasn’t Kinsey alerted somehow to the bias that was being exposed, just in that all-male list?
Neutrality is a tough call. In the Chicago sequence when Kinsey and Clyde Martin (Peter Sargaard) first begin interviewing gays, Condon has not investigated what was one of Kinsey’s forays into an area where data on sexuality had not been categorized before. The fact is, Kinsey became interested in collecting data on public sex, homosexual behaviour in the parks and bathrooms of Chicago. A good reason for drawing attention to this part of his investigation is that for the first time, the private becomes public, by virtue of the space where it is acted out. . I can only speculate about the film not making this visible. There are always hard choices to make, and some of them are about the film director’s guess as to what public reaction will be.

As far as creating a family image, Kinsey courted respectability. His public persona was that of a family man: a charming wife, three lovely children, a professorial appointment and funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. Everything was clean and clinical. Condon’s directorial expertise shows us there was another side to Kinsey who experimented sexually with his colleagues, encouraged his wife and staff to do experiment, and mutilated his own body in the name of investigation. It was his interest in images of sex, both in collecting sexual paraphernalia, and in filming sexual arousal that got him in trouble with the Customs Office and with his funding benefactors.
One of the characteristics of the neoclassical biopic is that the protagonist remakes himself. In this film, after Kinsey comes of age, he is constantly remaking himself. He studies biology and becomes a biology professor. Then he remakes himself into an expert, collecting and publishing information on human sexuality. He wages “a lifelong war against society’s prohibition against premarital sex”. (Grundman 8) He takes on the role of social advocate. Every decade or so, Kinsey remakes himself.

Would Kinsey think he had the mystical quality of destiny that God bestows on certain people that makes them famous. (Bingham 37) I think he would be horrified with such an unscientific assumption. He called himself a scientist, interested in the variations of the gall fly. That interest taught him that “if everything differs from everything else, diversity becomes life’s one irreducible fact. Only variations are real.” Kinsey was an anomaly, his own man, willing to scientifically look at American sexual practices and attitudes, a worthy topic for a twenty-first century neo-classical biopic. Sixty-one years after I first hear about Kinsey’s book, I am glad to have reviewed a movie about his life.

Assignment II: Thematic Analysis

Feminist Revisions on Madness

The theme of madness is represented differently in Steven Soderbergh’s, Erin Brockovich (USA, 2000) than it is in Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (Australia, 1990). Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) is fighting corporate madness; Janet Frame (Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh and Karen Fergusson) is at war with systemic madness. The one minute sequence where she travels from the ward of her local psychiatric hospital to the infirmary at Seacliff demonstrates Janet Frame’s systemic horror: the terror of her childhood is captured by the large barred window at one end of the room. The nurse who puts her arm around her says, “A holiday at home, you will be as good as new.” But Janet cannot go back to the brutality of her childhood nor to the humiliation of her adolescence. She leaps back under the covers shouting at her mother, “Go away. Go away.”

“She used to be such a happy thing,” her mother says as she leaves. Janet is transported to a worse place than her childhood home. The next shot is an extreme long-shot, a small car travelling down a tree-lined road, and we watch the car move right across the screen. Aurally we are aware of the ominous rocking rhythm of the music, the melody repeating three notes over and over, foretelling the repetitive sounds and rocking motions she will be surrounded by at Seacliff.

As well, Janet is pinned in the car between two other women who are exchanging a mindless call-and-response to each other, perhaps from their Grade I reader: “I had a little dog and his name was Spot.” One of them looks ahead vacantly. The other twists her hair around and her finger. There are no connections, no social conversation in the car, nor will there be in her life for the next 8 years. A sign, Seacliff flashes by the side window. The outside world retreats behind Janet in the oval back window. She is silent, stationary, framed by two bodies, trapped inside a car and soon buried deep in an opprresive mental health system.

The next shot frames Janet’s face outside of the mental asylum day room, looking in. She has escaped her oppressive upbringing only to become imprisoned in madness for most of the next eight years.

Brockovich, on the other hand, is a free spirit fighting corporate madness, as is demonstrated in the sequence when Erin and Mr. Masry (Albert Finney) first meet David Foil (T.J. Thyne), an underling in the employ of PG & E. David’s last name tips us off. His job will be to obscure and confuse a trail so as to evade pursuers. He is in the waiting room, no more than a mail clerk wearing a new suit and tie, slouched so low that his head is barely above the back of the chair he sits on. His hands rest on the brief case that rests on his knees.. With PG & E’s billions of dollars they barely need more than a mail clerk to deliver the corporation’s message to Brockovich and Masry. The madness is the corporation’s offer to the Jensens: not enough money to take care of the family’s medical bills. There is further corporate madness in Mr Foil’s blaming those who are sick. “Poor diet”, he claims; but we have seen a 2-second shot of healthy sandwiches, fruit drinks and fresh cherries at the Jensen home. “Irresponsible lifestyle”, he intones; but beside the healthy food we saw the pile of papers that Brockovich has collected about the toxicity of the Jensen’s environment. Erin’s eye glasses rested on top of her research papers, a clue for us to see what is in them. Through the window we see the Jensen children playing in the contaminated pool water. “Bad genes, ... and bad luck,” he says, but the health problems they experience (cysts, uterine cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, immune deficiencies, asthma, and chronic nosebleeds) are reactions to hexavalent chromium.

Mr. Foil is authorized to offer the Jensens $250,000, highlighting the madness of a corporation that poisons the environment, dictates the amount of money they will offer to their victims and feels so secure that they only send a “mail clerk” to make the settlement offer. David Foil gives us clear body language: his hand touches first his tie, and then his mouth, the tie reminding us that the victims are about to be strangled, and the touch on the mouth, a signal that no truthful words will be spoken by him.

While reminding Mr. Masry of the corporate power he represents, Mr. Foil stands in front of abstract art: circles and squares that overlap each other in the upper quadrant of the picture, a reminder of the levels of power of the corporation and the impossibility of attacking it from the outside.. At the bottom right hand corner of the picture is an amorphous appearing receptacle, sack-like out of which have fallen a few stones, the pittance that is being offered to the Jensens in damages.

Female biopics sometimes paint women as mad. In these two instances, both women use pen and paper to fight madness that is outside of a woman’s body. In the case of Erin Brockovich, the madness is cloaked in corporate respectability. In the case of Janet Frame, systemic madness is the villain. It is touching to hear Janet say, “It is little wonder that I value writing as a way of life when it actually saved my life.” If Erin Brockovich were to speak those words she might say, “I value my research. It saved many lives.”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Journal Entry #6: Genre Revision - Malcolm X and Erin Brokovich

1. Identify, compare and contrast key elements of genre revisionism in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) and Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brokovich (2000).

What is similar in both films is that they deal with historically marginalized figures whose names might disappear from the public consciousness without these films having been made about them. Malcolm X’s murder does not have the same historical importance as say, the murder of J.F. Kennedy. And giving identity to “black as beautiful” has been a long, slow and arduous struggle as many political activists, poets and writers can attest. The name of Erin Brokovich would not be a household word, without having this film made about her. Historically, biopics were made about people who were already famous. In the case of these two figures, their achievements became points of national and international discussion and have been embedded into national consciousness because films were made about them
2. How do the films measure up when it comes to striking a balance between Hollywood assimilation and genre appropriation?

The balance struck between Hollywood assimilation and genre appropriation is striking in the case of Brokovich. He old Hollywood has a female stock character who wears stiletto heels, who has a potty mouth and whose breasts tumble out of her dress: the whore. We get that figure in Brokovich and expect to see the story line of a rise and fall, or at least of a rise, fall and rehabilitation into the arms of a strong man. The appropriation of this whore figure into a Madonna/social activist who gets justice for 600 people who have been drinking poison water. But the genre has been appropriated. Her figure has no fall, and while her love interest comes back into the picture, he does not get the credit for her activism, but is only a figure who looks on to see his part in her investment of energy.

Malcolm X is similarily assimilated into the Hollywood script: the activist who is martyred. The genre appropriation in this instance because the figure is a lesser known one, and because he is an activist railing against the mainstream beliefs and codes that Hollywood has used for 80 years of film making.

3. Which is the more ‘subversive’ biopic of a marginalized historical subject? Why?

Malcolm X is about the politics of race and calls for American blacks to remember that their people have lived with 400 years of racism. Malcolm X is a call to identify that racism and to turn it around. This is done overtly in Malcolm X: the call to be a Muslim that he hears in prison; the preaching he does to convert others to the cause; the greater calling after his Hadjj experience; the voice over of Martin Luther King, extolling his life. All of these segments are overtly political, challenging the audience to hear and act on the same message that changed Malcolm X’s outlook.

The Erin Brokovich subversion is about the politics of gender and more subtle than the overt proselytizing heard in Malcolm X. The historical subject that has been marginalized is women and Brokovich stands as an alternative path available for women to take as opposed to their more traditional role (in her case of being a single mom with three kids, no job and massive debit), but her case is only a marker of one woman who refused to “take it anymore”. There is no overt message that other women en masse should follow her example.

And the message about raising children is somewhat confused in this instance. When Erin loses her baby sisters and George begins to tend the children, he stands in for her “place”. Now he is seen as having no job (she taunts him about that); he is waiting for compliments on taking care of the kids (the earrings as a thank-you from him, never get given to her); he has the joy of hearing a child’s first words (she feels some sadness at having missed this, but the chance is make social change about poisoned water takes precedence for her).

Erin is a message for more people – one half of the world. But I think the Malcolm X film is more effective. Erin Brokovich leaves one with a sweet, warm feeling. Malcolm X leaves the audience thinking, there is something wrong here, and I might be part of it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

With Corrigan as My Guide

Why Write About the Movies? Timothy J. Corrigan asks in his first chapter of A Short Guide to Writing About Film.

Then he sets up possible categories of film writing:
1. The Screening Report
2. The Movie Review
3. The Theoretical Essay
4. The Critical Essay
5. Opinion and Evaluation

Imbedded in these categories is the challenge of trying to "think about, explain and writing about" our experiences with the movies.(3)

Already Corrigan has raised the following questions that I might think about when I see my next movie:
1. What does the title have to do with the film?
2. Is there an unusual structure to the film?