Eye of the Story

The Evergreen State College

Category: Week 5 Viewing

Film Analysis — The Nine Muses (Logan Fenner)

A man stands alone in the snow. Something about his stance tells me that he belongs there among the drifts and swells of snowbank, something about how the bright shade of his coat blends into the carefully muted background in a way that, by the laws of color, it should not. A quiet male voice recites something I read in high school but I can’t understand him.

As the camera shifts from crisp Alaska landscapes to gritty shots of fire and boats to a rather brown view of man lounging in England, a narrative takes place in my head. I try to push it away, reminding myself that that is not the point of this.

The director has spun a story of immigration and displacement, insisting all the while that he is not telling a story but rather presenting us, the audience, with images that evoke certain themes and feelings. I do not believe he didn’t have an agenda in creating this piece.

He clearly appeals to our sense of the familiar with images like trains and families and the voiceover classic literature. But there is also the introduction of something totally alien, with shots of a dreadlocked man in sepia and haunting violins, the taking of symbolism that is so very prominent in our culture and turning it on its head, molding it into something that plays with our sense of traditions.

The result is a beautiful thing that feels like a thousand things I have seen before, but nothing specific.

My problem with films like this, however, is that I don’t know how to talk about them. I did not realize until after the film was over that all of my notes are the notes of a reviewer and don’t have anything to do with analysis, because when I write reviews I leave it up to the audience to create their own meaning.

I am not sure if the argument I’m making here is that the film is not accessible unless you’re a film person, or that the film is accessible to everyone but it is going to encounter people who don’t “get” it.

The entire time, I felt as though I was missing something, as if the intended audience for this film is in on a big complex joke that I am not privy to.

The thing that occurred to me while watching The Nine Muses was this: while experimental film is beautiful, it is not truly storytelling, it is designing the exposition of a theme. Experimental filmmakers invent a theme and follow it, finding or creating bits of footage that fit their end goal. The objective of experimental filmmaking is to evoke a feeling or a sense of something in the viewer that could not possibly be represented by a traditional story. The filmmaker is trying to access something deeply instinctual and visceral within us by appealing to our memories and associations of images and sounds with certain cultural motifs.

I do not feel that a film like this is analyzable, and that any attempt I make at trying to find meaning ends with me inventing a meaning instead of discovering one organically within the piece. It is far from having an easily distinguishable plotline.

To me, this film does not belong in a program designed to teach the complex art of storytelling. It is akin to reading postmodern blackout poems in a classic literature class. While the medium is the same, both the intent of the creator and the spirit of the creation are so wildly different that they are considered separate species.

Because of this, and because my primary medium rooted in the concrete inscription of ink on paper, I have neither the technical film knowledge nor the abstract mental structure required to study this piece in any depth. The only real impression I came away with was how visually striking it was.

Cydney Garbino – The Smell of Burning Ants

The film I have chosen to work with is Jay Rosenblatt’s The Smell of Burning Ants because of way that the narration, score, and images come together to paint a terrifying picture of boyhood in a hyper-masculine culture.  The initial viewing in class was a jarring experience but after watching the film again made it easier to pick apart because I knew what to expect.

Images – There’s something about the scene with the two boys, one pushing the other one down as he screams and cries which is inaudible to the audience. Then the boy takes him down to the ground. It’s all in slow motion, which both add to the dramatic effect of the interaction. I felt concerned and a little ache in my heart, the way a mother might.

Images & Score – The eerie music in the background as the screen flashes to a lineup of smiling school children makes them seem borderline menacing and, at the very least, that they’re up to no good. Rosemblatt slows the pace of the found footage throughout a lot of the film to intensify actions and make the audience really look at what’s going on. The music shrouds the film in a creepy, animalistic, Lord of the Flies-esque mood.

Narration – Rosenblatt’s narration throughout the film depicts the very real emotional struggle of what’s expected of young boys in a patriarchal, violence based society and being trapped in a binary gender construct. These particular quotes struck me the most:

“Boys become boys in large part by not being girls. The ones who don’t figure this out are the same ones who get beaten up. Later he will be with women and feel what he has been robbed of.” Referring to femininity, softness, emotions, domesticity…

“A boy is told not to cry.” Why is it that boys aren’t allowed to show their emotions or be vulnerable? Why are they punished for feeling?

“He is seven years old and is told to be a man.” …without even knowing what it means to be a man. What does it mean to be a man anyway?

And again, I’m hit with this maternal pain in my chest and my guts in knots…I’m left with issues and questions which no clear answers. I think that’s what makes this film brilliant is that it’s kind of scary and it makes you think and care. At least, that was my experience.

Tondichtung (The Nine Muses) – Max Melaas

Max Melaas

Caryn Cline & Sam Schrager

Eye of the Story

February 3, 2016

Tondichtung (The Nine Muses)

            I am in my mother’s room. Hushed whispers, quietly scuffling shoes on carpet, we settle into our seats. The orchestra has quietly run its scales to pitch perfection, and before it stands tonight’s composer and conductor, the esteemed John Akomfrah, dressed in his finest bright yellow coat. He taps the baton on the edge of the lectern, raises it, the recital hall holds its breath. A distant plucking of strings in a bewildering melody accompanies the first light dips of the conductor’s baton and, as an unseen woman joins with haunting vocals, we are poured from our seats into a still, quiet, cold landscape. As we try to get our bearings, the strings and vocals are joined (and promptly overpowered) by the lesser-known arm of the traditional orchestra: the heavy clanking machinery section, who are themselves slowly overtaken by a hollow, crystalline drone. Staring at the inhospitable landscape, we realize by the rushing whisper below us that we are moving across a body of water, and by the metal armature to our left that we are on the deck of a ship. The industrial din (it may well be the engine) reconvenes as the title of tonight’s concerto descends upon us in snow white letters adrift in a sea of blackness, and we know we are approaching a point from which we cannot return.

            Our first encounter with the image of a human being is an intense meeting. A man of a dark complexion works the machinery of a factory and stares unblinking at something outside the scope of our vision. We see a memory, a recollection, belonging to this very man: he is on the ship with us, yet alone, clad in a black coat, staring across a field of water at a cold, unwelcoming, and predominantly white shore. Back in the present, in the factory, we are closer to him now, having seen his past, which still overflows and spills into today, tomorrow, the next day. He is on a journey. Without looking away from the object of his attention, without moving his mouth, he speaks to us:

            Sometimes we think, ‘We shouldn’t blame the people,’ because it’s we that were come to your country. On the other hand we think, ‘If they, in the first place, had not come to our country and spread false propaganda, we would never have come to theirs. If we had not come, we would none be the wiser. We would still have the good image of England, thinking that they are what they are not, and the English would be ignorant of us. (The Nine Muses)

Again we look out across the landscape of England, as played by Alaska in a compelling, if a bit frigid, performance. The promise of opportunity brought us here, but this isn’t what we saw in the brochures.

            This opening sequence, this prelude, this overture, makes a powerful first impression in establishing the principal cast of this programme; travelers in the mass migrations to England from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia, as well as introducing the audience, via the construction of a restless soundscape, to the sobering sense of estrangement and turbulence that their first glimpses of Mother Britain without her makeup must have visited upon them. Colored coats; colored people, stranded in the land of the white; a blunt instrument as metaphors go, but it’s hard to deny its effectiveness, which may in fact only be enhanced by its stark, straightforward imagery.

            Subsequent chapters, of which there are nine, segment the story, and there is a story, albeit conveyed much more through the figurative than the literal. These weary travelers, drawn by the hearsay of paradise, disembark the boat in their finest suits to the handshakes and smiles of white policemen, but when the black curtain comes down, a sneering sting on the violins kindly informs us that we might have made a terrible mistake.

            Realizing that he is now in a strange land with no ties to much of anything, the dreadlocked bespectacled man lingers in burnt-out Liverpool. We talk, “I am in my mother’s room,” says he, introducing his haunting refrain. Mother England? Certainly, says I. “I don’t know how I got there.” I know the feeling. “Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later?” You mean as she existed in your mind when you boarded the Ambulance-sorry, ship? Maybe she hasn’t been born. Then the travelers, in need of some income just to stay alive, find themselves in rooms full of machinery, molten metal, harsh noise. Our acquaintance in Liverpool speaks again, barely audible over the racket; “I am in my mother’s room. I don’t know how I got there. I was helped, I’d never have got there alone. There’s this man who comes every week. Perhaps I got here thanks to him. He says not. He gives me money…” the rest of his sentence is scattered by a mandolin, but the situation is clear. The man who gives him money, in this factory, an employer, a plant owner. How convenient for him that he should receive boatfuls of cheap labor. Perhaps convenient enough for he or his superiors to have “suggested” this journey be taken in the first place; false propaganda.

            The grinding, rattling, shrieking of metal continues in its discordant accompaniment of the mandolin. The travelers feel their identities slipping, slowly becoming strangers to themselves. The tension continues to build as the first generation of these travelers are born in England into the slum neighborhoods, the “black unfolding town, fast and slow.” Communities, in some form at least, begin to arise between these castaways. The children grow into a strange niche, not quite African, Caribbean, South Asian, and not quite English. Two black men turn a corner and are dejected to confront “Keep Britain White” scrawled on a wall. The sea is choppy, but the spirit of these voyagers has not been fully dampened by the foul weather. Traditions of dance and music bring some splashes of color, like coats in the snow, to the gloom of their new home, and slowly come to assimilate elements of western music. This fusion’s legitimacy in expressing the travelers’ ideas and identities is not diminished by the “borrowed” elements but may, in fact, be reinforced by them. How similar that situation is to that of John Akomfrah, in his re-purposing of disparate samples from the western literary canon to compose a song of a marginalized people; of his excerpts from the Odyssey, for example, were the selected narrations not largely centered around difficult journeys to an island kingdom? As such, the ostensibly western instruments in this ensemble subtly takes on the timbres of the mbira or the sitar.

            It is by no means a literal timeline of the events of these mass immigrations to England, nor should it be assumed that it was intended to be, but stands instead as a diorama of the experiences of a hard-going journey to a place where one finds oneself unwelcome, unwanted, and tossed about on currents whose designs are unknowable. As such it becomes clear: the immigrants, the boats, England; they themselves are also actors cast in a play of allegory. For whom do they read their lines? Perhaps everyone, as their story, their struggle, their Odyssey resonates with an innate immigrant in us that, for whatever reason, has been othered and ostracized from whatever promised land in which it may have hoped to live and flourish. Though we may find ourselves at a standstill in the industrial ruin of Liverpool, the unforgiving white of Alaska, or before a brick wall bearing an unwelcoming message, and though we may feel we have nowhere to go, the journey is still so far from over.

 

 

Works Cited

The Nine Muses. Dir. John Akomfrah. Perf. Stuart Hall and Catherine Hall. Smoking Dogs Films, 2010. DVD.

close viewing – rachel hatfield – Gently Down the Stream by Su Friedrich

My primary motivation in choosing this film for a close viewing was my feeling, immediately after watching, that I didn’t “get” it. It would be presumptuous and frankly incorrect to say I “get” it now, but I feel considerably more familiar with it.

The title of Friedrich’s film Gently Down the Stream immediately evokes, at least in my mind, the last line in that song, “life is but a dream.” In class and on Friedrich’s website it’s plainly stated that the filmmaker drew extensively on her dreams to construct this piece. Because of that, my urge to find and braid any potential narrative threads together into some kind of linear “story” would be misguided, so I tried to resist.

The silence was an aspect of the film that initially unnerved me; I guess I rely on the score of a film to cue my emotional engagement more often than not. The silence meant that, after a few viewings and as I became more comfortable letting my mind wander away from the poetry on the screen, I became hyper aware of the sounds in my environment as I watched. Compared to the stillness of the film, I was a mess of human noise, and I remember feeling that same self-consciousness when we watched the film in class. I feel this contributed to the viewing experience.

I’m not overly confident in my role as analyst so I approached this film in part like a collection of poems; I really wanted to have the words in front of me while I watched the film again and while wrote this essay, but the way Friedrich presents her words visually is at least as important as their content. I feel like scratching the words into the emulsion by hand is already a dramatic and poetic presentation, but the words often alternate from vibrating animation to still frames, drawing the viewer’s attention to the contrast and to particular words or clauses. For example: around 4:30, the line “the woman on the bed shivers” is literally shivering, but freezes when Friedrich’s dreamer “wake(s) her” and “she is angry;” this little vignette ends with the word NO flashing and moving again, creating the illusion of depth and movement.

There are also two short contrasting parts of the film in negative (I think), with the contrast of the bright white background to the film’s mostly dark aesthetic again reengaging the viewer. Dreams are notoriously abstract and personal, and Friedrich would be aware that the viewer might not necessarily relate directly to the words or visual motifs, so the visual interest of the film itself is a way for her audience to interact with and react to her work.

Incidentally, I found myself relating strongly to some of the motifs repeated in this film. The flickering images of Mary and her clasped hands during the first vignette, during which the text is still while the images flash, leads into the next dream about a church, where the text begins shaking and the images steady. This is the first of a few references to sexuality, and the guilt and questions that can surround sexual identity, especially in relation to religion. In one dream, she raises the question of whether an animal, locked in a cage in the church, ripped its own arm off to attempt an escape. Is the animal a guilty Catholic lesbian and the cage the church itself? Another of these dreams finds the dreamer creating another vagina next to her “first one,” possibly creating another sexual identity for herself, but she forgets which is the “original,” the question “which one” flashing on the screen two times. Which of those constructs is her original self? A shift to negative after one image collage of women swimming and an idyllic seascape through a window screams “IT’S LIKE BEING IN LOVE WITH A STRAIGHT WOMAN” in tall, capital letters. Is this sentence related to the dream before it? Is it its own encapsulated dream memory? Does it relate to the next dream, the dreamer giving birth to “herself” but having one of her fetus-selves crumble in her hands?

Repetition features in both image and text. Rowing machines and the women using them figure in prominently, both in wide shots and in close ups of shoulders, the folds in clothing, feet being strapped into the stirrups. The rowing machines also fit in well with the water imagery and reference in the text to water and the woman in the wetsuit, and of course the whole Gently Down the Stream title tie-in. Multiple shots of women wading into and out of pools of water evoke the weird immersive aspect of an artist inviting an outsider into their dreams. Maybe this is also a reference to the fluidity of sexuality or, as one critic said, a nod to the film’s tendency to slip through the viewer’s fingers like water. The picture in picture technique is used throughout the film, as well—the text is often scratched in the bottom-left of the frame, with another frame in the upper right playing a collage of images or sometimes (like in the case of the woman in the wetsuit) a blank white rectangle. When Friedrich gives us text without accompanying, concurrent images, she’s asking that we fill in the blanks.

Concluding an essay is my kryptonite. I’ll finish by saying this piece, despite my being put off by its avant garde execution and my brain’s subsequent quest for that evasive linear narrative and neatly answered questions, resonated strongly with me. Sociocultural pressures shape us and our ways of seeing and reacting to the world, and it’s refreshing to see familiar struggles through another artist’s eyes.

Close Viewing, 2-3-16, Tommy Chisholm

Symbolism in Do the Right Thing’s Opening Scene

 

One of the most iconic scenes in Do the Right Thing is it’s opening credits. The three minute, forty-six second opening scene depicts the character Tina dancing aggressively as the credits roll. Her routine sets the stage for, as well as symbolizes many of the film’s themes. The dance is matched by the song “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy—a song written specifically for the film—and acts almost as an overture, nodding to the classic epics of old Hollywood.

The scene opens with a montage of Tina (Rosie Perez) silhouetted, posing and flexing, flashing all over the screen in front of a Brooklyn apartment building. The song kicks up and she begins to dance. We see she’s wearing a red and black dress and as she turns and faces the camera, her backdrop slowly fades to red, and we hear the first lyrics from the song: “1989! The number, another summer.” In the first twenty seconds of the film we know precisely where we’re at: Brooklyn, NY; summer 1989.

Color. More than anything this movie is about color, specifically the color of skin. The back drop Tina dances in front of and the color of her dress are both red. Red is often symbolic of blood, heat, anger, and frustration. In her next outfit we see Tina in a blue leotard and sporting a leather jacket. Blue is the cool color of serenity, it clashes with the red. Directly after, we meet Tina in her final ensemble and stage: black and white professional boxing attire and a pair of red gloves, with a backdrop of a street tagged up with graffiti and illuminated by white light.

When we see Tina in her boxing get-up—white trunks, black top, white robe, black sneakers, and finally, red gloves—she throws punch after punch. The black and the white outfit is symbolic of the two, ready to spar, dominate racial groups in the film and their rising tension. The gloves are representatives of blood. The blood that bonds each opposing force, the blood that gets shed when these groups clash, and the blood that they share, the blood that is the same between all human beings.

Watching the dance routine after having seen the film, the viewer can’t help but notice connections from the opening scene throughout the rest of the film. From the beginning to the end of the dance number Tina moves with vigor, with force, and every time the song proclaims “FIGHT THE POWER”, she throws a punch, walking the line between dance and shadowboxing. Her aggressive dancing is liberatory of the female body from a patriarchal society that demands those bodies be and act specific ways. This mirrors the film which pleads for the liberation of black folks from a culture of systemic racism.

Throughout Do the Right Thing boxing becomes more and more a predominant theme, to the point of allegory. And just like a real boxing match, we have a referee. Though he’s not featured in Tina’s dance, he is the first character we meet and contextualize in the film, directly following Tina’s moves. He is Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) the DJ for Love Radio (“The last on your dial”). In the movie, whenever the tension is rising high it is our acting referee, Love Daddy, who tries to keep things civil.

There’s a duality in the film between dancing: an art formally recognized as graceful, and punching: violent brute force meeting violence head on. The dancing vs. the punching is akin to Radio Raheem’s tale of “Love and Hate”, which he so proudly wears in the form of knuckledusters. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) laces his fingers together and says, “The story of life is this. Static. One hand is always fightin’ the other hand.” He intuits that life is the tension, the yin and yang of love and hate, as one rises and the other conquers. Tina’s dance steps rise up, she gets caught up in the joy of her own movement, her excitement becomes rage and she throws blows.

The photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X shaking hands appears throughout the film. One hand, one form of movement, are symbolic of the love MLK tries to radiate into the world and the other hand, also symbolic with the other hands movement, is the anger X refuses to repress. In the photo, both hands are static, in tension and together.

 

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