In Luis Buñuel’s grotesque, “Land Without Bread”, we are introduced to a small town struck by extreme poverty and disease. The camera does not shy away from exposing viewers to some of the most disturbing imagery you can think of. We see plenty of rotten animals, a dead baby, the mourning mother, and sick children with swollen tongues dying on the sidewalk. We even learn of mentally disabled dwarfs who roam the hills of the town. We are told by the narrator that they are the result of incest, which is quite common in the town of La Hurdes. Yes, the imagery captured in this anthropological expedition is quite unsettling, but nothing is more disturbing than the truth behind the making of this film.
Shortly after watching this thirty-minute documentary, I learned that none of this was real. Buñuel simply staged the film to resemble a documentary to get a point across. Today, this type of film is referred to as a pseudo-documentary, a film that takes the form of documentary, but the events it portrays are not true. Unlike a mockumentary, this type of fake fiction is not intended to be taken as satire or humor. What I found truly inexcusable was the lengths Buñuel went to in order to attain these images.
A tremendous amount of animal cruelty went into the making of this film. In fact, Buñuel flat out tortured and slaughtered several animals to deliver his message. He ordered honey to be spread over a donkey and filmed the poor animal as it got stung to death by bees. In another sequence, a goat was pushed off a rocky mountain; and in an earlier scene, a chicken is strung up from its legs as a man pulls its head off with his bare hands. Naturally, the film was banned by the Spanish government for years after its initial release. The official reason was “defamation of the good name of the Spanish people.”
I couldn’t help but wonder, why one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers would go to such extremes to manipulate his audience into believing this was all true. I suppose the only way to make it look real was to actually film the real thing. But still, why? Was it to cause an uproar and start a dialogue about the dire need for progress? It could be a case of ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’, or perhaps he simply wanted to showcase how easy it is to manipulate the audience. If that was the case then he clearly succeeded, because he surely had me fooled. “Land Without Bread” clearly crossed the line of ethical filmmaking, yet one can’t deny that it brought an awareness to how easy it is for governments to manipulate its people. It also sparks debate about social issues and filmmaking itself to this day.
Yasujiro Ozu expressed grand philosophical ideas through little moments of everyday life. He is in my humble opinion, the most sensitive and disciplined director to ever hold a camera. Ozu disregarded how the rest of the world shot films and created his own cinematic language. He broke every rule there was and did it the most subtle way possible. Ozu’s films exercised the most discreet rebellion against cinematic norm.
Widely considered as the most Japanese of all film directors, his films feature no heroes or villains. We simply witness life in motion. When we arrive at a significant moment, Ozu would cut to “pillow shots” or perfectly composed shots of landscapes, street signs, or inanimate objects. The idea was to give viewers room to breathe, or provide them with the time to contemplate what they had just seen.
I think the awareness of how little of the world we’ll experience is what really drew me towards cinema. Films were like gateways to other worlds, and there’s no world I would rather visit than one directed by master Ozu. In a span of two hours, you experience a lifetime. You go through a stranger’s life journey with all its turbulences and unique epiphanies. And then it hits you, the realization that each and every one of us is living a life as vivid as complex as the other. The sublime cinema of Yasujiro Ozu transcends life on this planet.
“Film is incredibly democratic and accessible, it’s probably the best option if you actually want to change the world, not just re-decorate it.” Banksy
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the finest entries in the Planet of the Apes saga, for unlike the countless sequels of the original, it follows the allegorical apes’ formula of its exemplary predecessor and the quintessential original. What makes this film work today, much like the original worked back in 1968, is that it has subtext. On the surface, it’s a film about apes and humans battling it out, but if you read between the lines, you’ll recognise what is required of every great science fiction film: allegory.
Franklin Schaffner’s original came out at the peak of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in America. The film was very much perceived as a groundbreaking allegory for racial relations and slavery. Now, there is the ignorant misconception that the original Planet of the Apes is a racist film, but I honestly think that anyone who falls there simply did not understand its intentions and implications. In fact, if anything, it’s a product of that civil rights movement. The original Planet of the Apes placed the white man in the shoes of the black man during slavery. It is arguably the most humanitarian science-fiction film ever made.
Like the original, Matt Reeves latest installment in the series seeks to promote equality between races. However, this version reflects contemporary times, and while the original was more of a social commentary, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes works as a political commentary about what is happening in the Middle East today. But before we get into that, let’s take a closer look at what the first installment in the Planet of the Apes reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, stood for.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes put the viewer in the fur of mistreated animals. If you remember correctly, we watched Cesar being tested upon. Cesar was also mistreated in captivity when we saw him caged in like a zoo animal. The subtext here was animal abuse in general, be it in labs or zoos. Not many know this, but after Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out, PETA, the animal rights organisation, went bananas (pun intended) over his film.
Wyatt received the Proggy Award, an award usually given to animal-friendly companies and people, and the film received PETA’s official seal of approval. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was very much a product of the animal rights movement to end the use of animals in research and entertainment. Come to think of it, it was the first Apes film to rely solely on state-of-the-art CGI. Unlike all the previous Planet of the Apes films, no real apes where used during principal photography. The 1968 film was a cry for the basic human rights of African Americans in a post-slavery America; the 2011 reboot was a cry to end humanity’s narcissistic tendency to regard themselves as superior beings to non-humans.
“There is no reason why challenging themes and engaging stories have to be mutually exclusive – in fact, each can fuel the other. As a filmmaker, I want to entertain people first and foremost. If out of that comes a greater awareness and understanding of a time or a circumstance, then the hope is that change can happen.” Edward Zwick
When a Planet of the Apes follows what I like to call the Allegorical Apes Formula, it aims for something profound. There’s a pattern to be recognised when you look back at all of the Planet of the Apes films. The ones that failed to recognise the opportunity to tackle a fundamental world problem was generally perceived as cheap entertainment, while the ones that sought to marry entertainment with thought-provoking themes proved to be both commercial and critical successes.
Matt Reeves starts his Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a decade after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In the opening scene, Reeves quickly concludes the predecessor’s allegory. Most of the human race has been wiped out by the lab-originated Simian flu virus outbreak. A new chapter begins. The viewer is transported to a post-apocalyptic Earth. Deep in the jungle, we meet Cesar, the recognisable leader of his kind. He looks out into eternal greenery curious if any humans are still out there.
The Cesar we meet in this film is a lot wiser than the one we met in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In fact, he’s the wisest character in the film, human or ape. It’s clear what Cesar is trying to do. By observing the fall of mankind first hand, Cesar tries to learn from humanity’s mistakes. Cesar attempts to create a utopia of apes. “Ape not kill ape,” seems to be the village motto of an ape settlement governed by an ideology Caesar has created. The symbol of this ideology is a four-point star wrapped in a circle; the shape of Caesar’s attic window frame in his former human home.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a political commentary with very clear parallels to what is happening in the Middle East, not just during the recent Arab Spring, but what has been happening in the Middle East throughout the years. My theory is based on the actions of the film’s characters and how the story progresses. First, we learn that the human race has not gone extinct and that those immune to the virus settled in a small city nearby. The human race here represents the United States.
The human city has a strong military base, and much like the United States interest in the Middle East, the humans need to step on the ape village to acquire natural resources. The water pumped out of a dam located on ape domain can generate electricity for the human city. Since gas is running low within their city, the humans are willing to take any military action necessary to reach that dam. Indeed, the story is all too familiar, but Matt Reeves’ political commentary runs much deeper.
Caesar makes a very strong statement on behalf of the Arab world. First he shows his primitive “manpower,” and then he addresses the humans in a short but fairly simple peace treaty proposal, clearly stating the consequences that befall foreign interference. “Apes do not want war. Do not come back.” Malcolm, the leader of the human world, peacefully reaches out to Caesar, in an attempt to find common ground, or rather a peace treaty that shall benefit both camps.
Meanwhile, Koba, a former lab animal with scars he incurred under experimental human captivity, has ideas of his own. His hatred towards humans runs much deeper. [Spoiler Alert] Koba fueled with human hatred, breaks Caesar’s strict “Ape no kill ape” law by attempting to assassinate the leader. This behaviour is all too common in the Middle East nowadays, especially here in Egypt. The second-in-command overthrows the old leader in a violent coup. Koba’s first act as leader is the imprisonment of the previous regime’s loyalists. He puts Caesar’s followers behind bars much like the Egyptian military reacted towards the Mubarak regime loyalists and, later, the Muslim Brotherhood’s followers.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes allegorical apes formula is crystal clear. After witnessing the way of life of the apes, Malcolm comes to respect the apes. By the end of the film, he treats them as equals when he tries to help them out against the general human interest. Likewise, Caesar gradually learns that apes are not superior to humans, but very much alike. They both ultimately come to the realisation that both parties want the same thing; to live in peace and harmony.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film that calls for the political right of any country to live in peace. As Malcolm proved in the film, any problem can be overcome through dialogue not violence, because war is bad for both sides. The Planet of the Apes saga called for civil rights in the 60s, animal rights in the noughties, and basic political rights in the twenty-tens. Once again, a Planet of the Apes film attempts to change the world for the better.
There is no such thing as seeing New York through Martin Scorsese’s eyes, for Scorsese merely projects the light detected by the warped eyes of his lonely protagonists. His signature light-reflected visual approach used to showcase New York City is evident in most of his films, but varies in significance and meaning from one picture to the next. The camera functions as image converters sending the protagonists’ distorted signaled perspectives through virtual and real screen space into neural pathways connected to our brains. The viewer has no choice, we are forced to breathe the air, gaze through the pupils, experience and feel the city environment by slipping into the shoes of twisted protagonists – the shoe laces tightly tied by none other than a master of his craft, Scorsese.
This smooth and seductive approach is evident in Scorsese’s most prominent New York based works from the gritty realism in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, the exaggerated portrayal of the city in New York, New York and Gangs of New York to the hallucinatory bizarre perception of the city in After Hours, and Bringing Out the Dead. Even though most of Scorsese’s films are set in New York, each picture is unique in that each time we look at the city through a different window with a vivid subject standing in front of the window providing us with eye lining shots as guidance. In other words, we see the New York they see and we see them seeing it.
Taxi Driver is perhaps Scorsese’s most compelling piece of cinema exemplifying the concept of seeing-seeing. Both the audience and Travis Bickle can’t help but feel repelled by the filthy habitants lurking at every dark corner and alley in the streets of New York.
“All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn; I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”
This repulsive piece of voice-over narration is accompanied by windshield shots of the sampled population mentioned. We see close-ups of Bickle’s sharp eyes maintaining focus on the pedestrians while the yellow tomb glides through the murky clouds of steam, hissing from beneath sewers. Scorsese was lucky to film during a heat wave and in the midst of a garbage strike for the captured footage simply added desired substance to his underground vision of a nightmarish New York.
Scorsese uses slow motion to capture the effect of the city on our leading man. Travis Bickle’s hostile stares and slow motion sequences of the observed subjects show Bickle’s gradual descent into madness. In a menacing neon landscape, a lonely misfit witnesses the decay of an urban city. On the contrary with his preceding project Mean Streets, Scorsese used similar methods to expose viewers to a very different vision of the city. The New York City in Mean Streets is alive and vibrant with scenes full of energy and electricity. While once again the audience is more or less exposed to the crime world of New York City, we are seeing things from a different perspective and angle. Charlie is a calm small time street gangster surrounded by hyperactive people in an out-of-control world. Mean Streets opens a window to the indoor activities of gangsters. Scorsese uses pool halls, restaurants, bars, and clubs as the backdrop and as with most of his films, the external environment has an internal effect on our protagonist. In a memorable signature slow motion sequence, we see Charlie’s eyes fixed on the sight of Johnny Boy entering the bar with two girls under his arms. Johnny Boy laughs and casually greets others while Charlie simply watches him. In another scene, Scorsese puts us in the shoes of his drunken protagonist; the camera is fixed on Charlie in a dizzying fast-motion sequence that starts with drinks and ends with a black out. While watching Mean Streets, the viewer becomes part of a New York gang, we engage in bar fights, quarrels and discussions. Surprisingly,Mean Streets was mostly shot in Los Angeles, but since the film focuses on the selective exposure of a small time gangster in Little Italy, it relies mostly on indoor locations. It’s impossible to suspect otherwise. That’s how well Scorsese knows his city, he has the ability to convert another city into his own and convince us that it’s legit.
The other time Scorsese built New York from scratch was decades later with Gangs of New York,where he reconstructed a 19th century New York on the lot of Cinecitta studios in Rome. We see two New York cities, the old through the eyes of Bill the Butcher and the new emerging city through Amsterdam Vallon. A common trait between Bill the Butcher and Martin Scorsese is the nostalgic affection towards an old New York slowly fading into oblivion. The director once famously said, “If I continue to make films about New York, they will probably be set in the past. The “new” New York I don’t know much about. It’s not that I’m against contemporary film. I’m open to it in general, but I find the new colours of the city, the new Times Square, kind of shocking. I guess I’m stuck in a time warp.”
The coming of age tale explored in Who’s That Knocking at my Door? is in many ways his only semi-autobiographical film for like the characters in his first feature film; Scorsese grew up in Little Italy. At the age of twenty-two the legendary director graduated with a major in Film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. New York is in his blood, which is why the city has been so often associated with his name.
Los Angeles is an overpopulated city, yet it is depicted as a silent milieu of isolation. Mann provides us with a canvas of the great city, only one we’ve never laid eyes on before. A car driving through an empty highway, flickering city lights of a silent night, an empty apartment reflecting an endless ocean, airport runway lights fading to complete darkness; it’s all there to inject the viewer with a mood much similar to what the characters feel throughout this tragic journey.
Visually, Heat is treated like a film noir and so we wind up with a neo-noir. The conventions and elements of that genre are crystal clear from the hard-boiled detective to the urban setting, the interplay of lights and shadows in the final scene to the neon lights of the dark corners of an urban city. However, there’s certain uniqueness to the mood and feel of the film due to the icy-blue palette apparent in the atmospheric tone. Michael Mann used many paintings as inspirations to the look of the film, most notably with the shot of Neil facing the ocean in the background with a gun on a table in the foreground which is strikingly identical to Alex Colville’s 1967 painting Pacific.
“I love Los Angeles.Eighty per cent of it is unexplored. People who make films don’t go out into the city. They think they do but they don’t.You just drive down the right streets and you’ll see images of alienation. But they are beautiful images of alienation. They become paradoxical but they present themselves to you.” – Michael Mann
While Heat is Mann’s quintessential Los Angeles film, Collateral is his exploration of the city’s darker side. In many ways both films serve as extensions to the feel and atmosphere of an everyday city like Los Angeles. Like the former, the two main characters in Collateral are loners desperately trying to find their place in a city that has turned its back on its people. Mann uses similar wide night-shots of the flickering lights of an endless cityscape. Cars isolated from the rest of the world flow through the freeways in silence. One of the cars driving through Los Angeles at night time is a taxi containing the protagonist cab driver and antagonist hitman. Mann shot all of the exterior scenes using digital video because he believes DV reacts much better to low-light shots than film stock. The result is a look so unique and unfamiliar, there’s a sense of being there on location.
The mirroring parallels with Heat are both textual and visual. Textual in the sense that Vincent (Tom Cruise) acts like the efficient Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and when they talk about their history, it becomes clear that both share the same childhood. McCauley ends with “I got a brother somewhere.” Now in terms of visuals, they both journey through the streets of Los Angeles dedicated to what they do best. They also share the same cinematic fate at the end for they meet their demise at transportation stations, one at LAX and the other in a subway train.
That is not to say Mann had nothing new to express about Los Angeles. Through his alternative vision we see the real politics and sociological aspects of L.A. on screen. Instead of showcasing the hot summer beaches, we drive by the consistent black neighbourhoods, Korean nightclubs, and Latino shops of the city. Watching Heat or Collateral is as close as one could get to actually being there, because the viewer experiences the sad beauty of the city through Mann’s signature stylistic approach. The nature of both films is different, but the feel and look of the city matchesbecause Los Angeles has the same isolating effect onboth set of characters. One thing is for sure, film fans from all over the world will make a tourist spot out of the ‘Fever’ Jazz Club featured in Collateral as they did with the ‘Kate Mantilini’ restaurant from the famous dinner confrontation in Heat.
It’s quite easy for someone to enjoy film. Loving film is completely different. For those who see film enjoy them, yet only those who can read film truly love it and understand it as an art form. Hitchcock is probably the most well known director of all time. There is no absolute answer to what his crowning achievement is. A lot of critics prefer “Vertigo”. Taste varies from one film lover to the other. “North by Northwest”, “Notorious”, “Vertigo”, “Rear Window”, “The Birds”, “Shadow of a Doubt”, “Strangers on a Train”, “Rebecca”, “Suspicion”, “The 39 Steps” and “Psycho” are among his most loved. The truth is there is no such thing as one ultimate Hitchcock masterpiece, there are only favorites.
Every month or so, I tend to invite a close group of film professors, directors, editors, writers, and critics to my living room. We watch some of the greatest films together. The screenings always end with insightful conversations, debates and arguments. We cite critics like Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, and Robin Wood to back up our claims but to what end? Cinephiles tend to be stubborn. It’s almost impossible to convince a real lover of film that this scene is better than that one or this director is more talented than the other, etc. At the end, all you get is a fueled argument that does not lead to any absolute conclusion. I learn a great deal about film at these gatherings. During the past few weeks we watched about fifteen Hitchcock films. We studied them shot for shot. After the last screening, I asked the room full of film lovers about their favorite Alfred Hitchcock film. All of the above as well as others were mentioned and the room went into complete utter silence. “How strange” said a senior professor. “For the first time we’re not arguing with one another”.
Such is the case with the greatest of artists. We all have our favorite Shakespeare play or Mozart symphony. There is no need to argue for them and against the rest, for all are truly great in their own right. Hitchcock fans don’t dispute one another; they simply nod in respect, for unlike lesser directors, he doesn’t have one obvious masterpiece but an entire body of them. My favorite Hitchcock is “Psycho”. However, I respect almost all of his films equally. To me watching “Psycho” is like listening to the best of Mozart or Beethoven. The way Hitchcock uses the conventions of films is beyond words. Don’t expect to feel that way from one viewing. The first time I saw “Psycho”, all I could see was a horror film with a great twist and wonderful performances. I watched it a second time in my first film class, another time in a different film class, and several times after that. Today, I lost count of how many times I watched it, and how many times I studied it (there’s a difference). As my understanding of film grew, so did my appreciation for the brilliance of Hitchcock’s groundbreaking 1960 masterpiece, “Psycho”.
I mentioned at the beginning that it is one thing to see a film and another to have the ability to read a film. Many fans of film claim to love the movies but fail to understand this concept. One learns how to read film by learning about the medium and everything that constitutes the making of a great picture. It is only through the understanding of film that true love for movies sparks giving the ability to read films. Take for example, Mozart’s darkest opera “Don Giovanni”. It is one thing to listen to it and admire the flow of his music; it is another thing to listen to it knowing that his father died shortly before it was conducted. With that knowledge in combination with the music itself one can feel Mozart’s sorrow and grief. Through knowledge we open our hearts and emotions to the greatest works of literature, music, and film.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of “Psycho”. Therefore as a tribute, I’ll do my best to read this masterpiece and document it in written form. Hitchcock once said that he enjoys “playing the audience like a piano”. With “Psycho” he manipulates our expectations. Today about everyone knows what happens during the shower scene and the truth about Norman’s mother. (If you don’t stop reading and do yourself a favor, watch the film) Still, even with that knowledge, the joy is in observing how Hitchcock manipulates his audience. He often used diversions to misguide the audience. A simple example of this is placing a growling dog to block the stairway in “Strangers on a Train”. The dog is meant to distract the audience from guessing the surprise in the next scene. Hitchcock worked that way; he didn’t only control his cast and crew but his audience as well. With “Psycho”, the entire first act is a diversion.
I can only imagine the horror of sitting in a movie palace when “Psycho” first premiered. The audience must have felt excited having booked their tickets in advance and making it on time for the film. Hitchcock didn’t allow late entrances. So there they are sitting, excited about the next Hitchcock masterpiece. The lights dim, the black and white “A Paramount Release” logo appears on the big screen, and then total darkness as the logo fades to solid black. Suddenly, the first wave of Bernard Herrmann’s score fills the theater, the most horrifying music in film history. The black screen is split into stripes of grey during the opening credits. The audience doesn’t know it yet but this split bares significance.
There’s a dark side to every human being. We’re not 100% good. Occasionally we slip into that dark side. If you’re lucky and smart you can save yourself from letting the darkness overcome you. Here lies the true horror of “Psycho”, the dark side of the psyche. Our main character is Marion. She’s a young everyday working woman. Unfortunately she acts foolishly and tries to steal a lot of money from one of her customers. However, before meeting her fate –getting stabbed while cleaning off her sins in a shower – the guilt she feels deep down in her stomach pulls her out of the dark and back to normality. The film takes a turn there as we’re introduced to a much worse case of – the split. Norman plunged into madness and embraced darkness long before Hitchcock introduces us to him. Hitchcock’s choice to film in black and white was clearly not only to give the film a darker theme or to escape the sharp scissors of the censors; the black and white fits the theme of the picture.
“I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.”_Alfred Hitchcock
The movie starts one afternoon, as the camera moves from the outside of a city through a window into an apartment. Note Hitchcock opens the film by panning through a large city (Phoenix Arizona), the choice is random, so is the date (Friday, December the Eleventh), as well as the time (Two Forty-Three P.M.) The camera then moves through a random window of one of the many buildings. Hitchcock strikes the first note on his piano. Through these random choices, Hitchcock subliminally tells the audience that this tale can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
We get our first glimpse of the main character. Or is he? She’s a blond, which is a Hitchcock trademark, so she must be – at that moment so it seems. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is wearing a white bra and cuddles with her secret lover. Hitchcock picked that white bra at the beginning to signify her innocence. Later on, after she steals the money, we see Marion in a black bra, signifying her darker side. At one point, her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin) suddenly releases the arms so passionately holding on to the love of his life. This is the exchange of words that follows:
Sam: “I’m tired of sweating for people who aren’t there. I sweat to pay off my father’s debts, and he’s in his grave. I sweat to pay my ex-wife alimony, and she’s living on the other side of the world somewhere.”
Marion: “I pay, too. They also pay who meet in hotel rooms.”
Sam: “A couple of years and my debts will be paid off. If she remarries, the alimony stops.”
Marion: “I haven’t even been married once yet.”
Sam: “Yah, but when you do, you’ll swing.”
Marion: “Oh, Sam, let’s get married.”
Sam: “Yeah. And live with me in a storeroom behind a hardware store in Fairvale? We’ll have lots of laughs. I’ll tell you what. When I send my ex-wife her alimony, you can lick the stamps.”
Marion: “I’ll lick the stamps”
Through this dialogue we learn that they can’t get married for financial reason, but what Hitchcock is doing on a deeper level is somewhat justifying the heroine’s future actions. That way we don’t despise Marion for committing theft. Instead, we understand her troubles and feel for her. In other words, she has a reason for stealing the money. Another example of Hitchcock trying to justify her theft is evident in the next scene. We meet Mr. Cassidy, a man who sprays his money everywhere to “buy happiness”. We don’t regard Marion as a villain because the man she steals from is portrayed as a very rich disgusting beast who doesn’t know how to hold his tongue. He speaks his mind with no manners whatsoever flirting with Marion and embarrassing the boss (“where’s that bottle you said was in your desk?”). After the theft, no real harm is done, at least not enough to make Marion a villain. We simply see her dark side. Again, this is expressed visually when we see her staring at the open envelope wearing her black bra. The $40,000 in the envelope serves as the ‘MacGuffin’ of the film. The term ‘MacGuffin’ refers to an object that bares much importance to the characters but to the audience it’s only a vehicle to drive the plot to the next level. A ‘MacGuffin’ is dropped once it serves its purpose.
Between the first justification scene and the second one, there’s the famous shot of Hitchcock’s trademark cameo. He stands outside a sidewalk, when the camera leaves the frame following the entrance of our main character. This is simply a visual signature. Hitchcock was well known at the time, not just by the name stamped on the previous “North by Northwest” posters but by introducing the episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” on television. The same crew that worked for the TV series worked with him to deliver his small budget project to the big screen. Anyway, his appearance is a visual signature and a reminder that things will turn ugly. It’s Hitchcock.
“Psycho” revolutionized cinema, both technically and in terms of content. A perfect film to study various uses of editing, the rhythm in “Psycho” can be observed in how Hitchcock handles the passage of time very efficiently. When Marion leaves the room, we realize that it’s still that same day. She goes to work, collects some money she’s supposed to put into the bank and goes back home. All that happens in one particular afternoon, and the time frame doesn’t change. Janet Leigh’s performance shines in the next scenes. We return to her room. There is no need for dialogue; we know what she’s thinking when her desperate eyes land on the envelope. Like the greatest of silent performers, Leigh expresses more through facial reactions than words. Few actresses can pull this off, she does. After she decides to run away with the money, the editing becomes more and more interesting.
Hitchcock uses a medium shot of the main character, Marion Crane, as she drives away from her hometown. The shot shows her face, part of the steering wheel, and the background, which includes the sky. The shot then changes from that particular medium shot to what is regarded as an eye-line matching shot, in which we as the audience see the highway through her eyes. This is the second time Hitchcock uses this shot (the first being her staring at the envelope repeatedly). The minute she steps into her car, the narration starts.
The narration serves as the voice in her head. At first, we hear what she suspects Sam will react like upon seeing her with the money. Hitchcock just slipped us into her shoes. He doesn’t only establish her as the main character, he confirms it. We see what she sees (eye-line matching shots), we feel what she feels (the urge to steal the open envelope full of cash), and now Hitchcock makes her share her thoughts with us. She bites her finger in a traffic light stop. After that we get the eye-line matching shot. People cross the street in a hurry. Their hurry is nothing compared to that of Marion, especially when her eyes meet those of her employer’s. We get a close up shot of her smiling at him. Her boss smiles back, then stops realizing she’s supposed to be sick at home or on her way to a bank. He looks back at her, only this time more suspiciously. Enter Herrmann’s score, the plot thickens.
At first Marion’s expression suggests fear. Then we get a couple of night shots with bright lights striking our eyes. Her facial expression is more relaxed now. The following morning, Hitchcock is generous enough to provide a beautiful deep focus shot. On the lower left corner of the screen the trunk of Marion’s car, behind it, a police officer’s car, on the right, the long endless highway and in the background empty hills. It’s a feast to the eye. The officer walks up to the car, we see Marion sleeping in her. A few knocks on the window later, she wakes up in a hurry. We see the same look in her eyes as when she saw her employer crossing the street. The next shot serves as both an eye-line matching shot and a close-up of the expressionless police officer. By now, like Marion, the viewer suspects she’s been caught. It turns out, he’s just checking if something’s wrong. Marion acts “like something is wrong” and so he asks for her driver’s license. As soon as he leaves and Marion drives off, the horrifying orchestra starts again.
We get a few rear-view mirror shots as she tries to lose the officer till he takes a turn and leaves her alone. Shortly after, Marion trades her car for another one. Both the viewer and Marion see that the police officer is back. He studies her from across the street like a suspicious stalker. Hitchcock’s fear of cops tightens the tension. More importantly, we are introduced to the third suspicious character, the car salesman, the first being the boss, and the second, the police officer. Marion is doing a terrible job of getting away with crime. Afterall, she’s no professional, just an everyday woman.
We rarely get to see scenes like that in thrillers; scenes that serve little purpose to the story but are there to put us on the edge of our seats driving the plot forwards. These short scenes are a rarity and a treasure. Hitchcock is simply playing piano with the audiences’ nerves. By now the viewer is in the midst of a getaway thriller. Keep in mind that all these tiny scenes are a distraction of the bigger picture. After, the high-pressured car salesman scenes, we move forward to more medium shots of the steering wheel, Marion, and the fading city in the background. This time, she bites on her lower lip as we hear the narration or an imagination of a conversation between the suspicious police officer and the doubtful salesman. Hitchcock knew that people generally do most of their thinking when they’re alone. Like before we sleep or when we drive alone in an empty highway. These scenes are very psychological in that for the briefest of moments the viewer becomes Marion.
Gradually, her facial expression changes from scared to confident. Scared when imagining the discovery of her crime in a narrated conversation between her boss and her co-worker (played by the excellent Patricia Hitchcock) and confident when we hear Mr. Cassidy cursing her. A creepy smirk curves her lips. Marion still wants to go through it.
The viewer notices that the bright sky turn darker and darker, and eventually it starts to rain. Marion pulls over to sleep it off at some motel, the Bates motel. The first half of the movie takes place in two days, a continuous moment-to-moment spectrum of events. The pace and movement through time changes afterwards and is well defined through editing.
Marion pulls up in the rain to the Bates motel and sees the moving silhouette of an old woman in the upstairs window of the mansion. Hitchcock often features familiar landmarks in his films. In “Psycho”, he creates one with the Bates mansion. The gothic mansion stands on top of a haunting hill like “it’s hiding from the world”. The Bates mansion is now one of the most famous film sets around the world, the presence of the mansion is so powerful, it’s like a main character. Anyway, Marion honks the horn of her new car. Seconds later, Norman appears on the stairs in front of the haunting mansion up the hill. He then runs towards the motel to serve his only customer of the night. What follows are some of the most humorous Hitchcock moments of all time. (*Humorous only on repeated viewings of the film)
Norman Bates – cinema’s most famous villain. Anthony Perkins pulls it off right from the start. They check in and we are first introduced to Norman. Perkins plays the role in an oddly chilling loose and naturalistic manner. Marion signs as ‘Marie Samuels’. Again, the alias signature is pathetic as it’s proof of her not doing a good job of hiding her real identity. Marie is too close to her real name, Samuels is her boyfriend’s name. Norman asks her to write her home address as well. She looks at the newspaper that reads ‘Los Angeles Times’ and chooses that city rather than Arizona. “Los Angeles” she says. Meanwhile Norman chooses something else, a key to the room she’ll be spending the night in. Unlike the three suspicious men prior to that scene, Norman doesn’t suspect a thing. Why? – Because he’s hiding something himself. Norman picks room number one. “Cabin 1. It’s closer in case you want anything” Both character’s suspicious actions cancel each other out. A perfect scene as only the audience is aware of the humor in their interaction.
Consciously the first time viewer is not aware of it, but what Hitchcock is doing is something no filmmaker dared to pull off before. He’s slowly switching main characters through the only characteristic both Marion and Norman share. Hitchcock often referred to “Psycho” as pure film. The change of viewer’s attention and leading characters through the overlapping personality trait in a single scene is indeed an example of pure cinema. Of all my years as a film critic, I’ve never seen anything quite like this, except maybe in the scene that follows.
Norman shows Marion to her room. “Boy, it’s stuffy in here.”- A tongue-in-cheek remark. Norman goes on with a tour of the cabin. “Well, the mattress is soft and there’s hangers in the closet and stationery with Bates Motel printed on it in case you wanna make your friends back home feel envious. And the…” he switches the light of the bathroom on and struggles with the word. “Over there”. Marion helps him out: “The bathroom.” The awkward moment between them suggests that we should pay attention to any scene that’ll take place in the..over there.
Norman insists that they have dinner together. “nothing special, just sandwiches and milk. But I’d like it very much if you’d come up to the house” Another diversion by Hitchcock. Norman offers his hospitality. Contrary to what the viewer knows at the moment, Norman has a stuffed body up there. The last thing he’d want is for it to be discovered. The young man leaves, Marion wraps the money in newspaper. “NO I TELL YOU NO!”,an angry old woman shouts from the mansion. Marion stops her unpacking to eavesdrop.
Angry Old Woman: “I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in for supper! By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap, erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds!”
Norman: “Mother, please!”
We now know the angry old lady is his mother.
Mother: “And then what, after supper? Music? Whispers?”
Norman: “Mother, she’s just a stranger. She’s hungry and it’s raining out.”
Mother: “Mother, she’s just a stranger. As if men don’t desire strangers. As if….(shuddering) I refuse to speak of disgusting things, because they disgust me!”
What follows is a dim and haunting wide-shot of the house in complete obscurity with creepy tree branches on both sides and dark clouds lingering in the sky. Like a house on a haunted hill, the cinematography is simply breathtaking and needs to be seen to be believed. Only one light shines, the window of the room where the shadow of an old woman roamed earlier.
Mother: “You understand, boy? Go on. Go tell her she’ll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food or my son! Or do I have to tell her cause you don’t have the guts? Huh, boy? You have the guts, boy?”
A radio actress by the name of Virginia Gregg perfected that spine-chilling voice of mother. In fact, it is done so well, there’s no way the audience would suspect she’s just Norman fulfilling his disorder. Not only that but the fact that mother offers to go tell the visitor herself only personifies her leaving the viewer with no hints to guess the twisted reality.
A few seconds later, my all time favorite two-shot arises. Holding a tray with the milk and sandwich, Norman stands to the left in front of a window. Marion is on the right in front of the door. Both are standing outside in front of the cabin. “I’ve caused you some trouble”, Marion says implying that she heard their conversation. To which he replies: “No…mother…my mother…what is the phrase? She isn’t quite herself today.” Freeze the frame at that precise moment and observe the richness of the moment. Visually this shot speaks volumes of Hitchcock’s famous wit. In crisp clarity we see the reflection of Norman’s face on the outside window. Indeed “she isn’t quite herself today”, the answer is there visually. This may either be a coincidence or a stroke of genius. I like to think it’s the latter, for the blinds are half drawn providing the possibility of the reflection. It had to be intentional.
They move to the parlor because “eating in an office is just too officious”. Marion’s eyes study the furniture of the room. Stuffed birds make up most of the furniture. Hitchcock often used birds as symbols. Most famously in “The Birds” where at the beginning of the picture we witness birds trapped in their cages. By the end of the film it’s the other way around with humans trapped in a house and the birds outside. The purpose of stuffed birds in “Psycho” has been interpreted several times. Norman explains that stuffing birds is his hobby; we later learn that he stuffed his own mother. One of the birds is an owl waving her wings symbolizing the furious side of his split personality (or his mother side); the calm crow is his calmer side (Norman side), or maybe they’re just there to disturb the viewer and place them in an uncomfortable surrounding.
After learning more about Norman’s taxidermy hobby, the conversation takes us deeper into his personality. Taxidermy is supposed to “pass the time not fill it” I can imagine the work, stuffing birds, and his own mother over and over using expensive chemicals. Poor Norman. One of the most disturbing lines follows expressing the oddness of this disturbed character: “Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother.” Moments later, Norman asks Marion where she’s heading. “I didn’t mean to pry”, he utters apologetically. Another humorous line, for Norman does pry in the scene that follows, not verbally though; he does it physically through a peephole.
During the course of this scene, the viewer is exposed to Psycho’s finest moment, a priceless exchange of dialogue. Through their connection we slowly remove our feet from Marion’s shoes and step into Norman’s shoes. The focus now is on Norman and his mother. After, Norman expressing the courses of his daily life with no friends and him putting up with his mother, Marion suggests he send her to a madhouse. A medium shot of Norman changes to a close up, not through a cut but by him moving forward to face the lens. He snaps at her. “We all go a little mad sometimes.”
At the end of the scene we learn that Marion changes her mind and decides to return the money the next morning. In other words, the getaway plot is no longer. The scene ends. Hitchcock just brought an end to his story; in the next scene he brings an end to his protagonist.
Norman takes a peak through the peephole and watches Marion undress. He then walks out of his office, up the stairs to the mansion. Once inside, he takes a step up the stairs and suddenly changes his mind and goes to the kitchen. As the audience, we know that Mrs. Bates is upstairs. It’s a simple scene the purpose of which is to distract the viewer from outguessing the master.
Meanwhile Marion calculates how much cash she’ll have to return out of her own pockets. ($700) After tearing the note to pieces she looks around and can’t find a bin and so she flushes it down the toilette. This was the first time the flushing of a toilette was seen on screen. The audience must have felt shocked at the sight. Yet it’s only a warm up to the major shock that follows. Hitchcock once said that the toilet shot is a “vital component to the plot”. My guess is it foreshadows the shower scene. After the brutal murder, we get a close-up of Marion’s blood flushing down the bathtub hole.
In probably the most famous, and well edited scene in all of cinema, also known as the shower scene, Hitchcock uses editing and sound as cinematic manipulation to create a carefully thought out horrific murder scene. Perfection is the result. In less than one minute, we witness a combination of 78 shots, in relation to the sound of a knife slashing against skin. We never actually see the knife enter the woman’s flesh, yet we’re convince we do through the sight of stabbing (hand motion), sound effects, the musical score (horrible animalistic screeching), and of course the careful editing. Celluloid cuts replace flesh cuts. When Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut that “Psycho” belongs to filmmakers, he wasn’t joking.
By exposing the audience to forty-five seconds of nonstop violence without actually showing any, Hitchcock leaves it up to our imagination. (Truffaut) Imagination has no limits which is why the scene is timeless and just as shocking half a century later. The shock is not only the sudden bombardment of cuts but the fact that he killed off his leading lady. We looked through her eyes, listened to her thoughts and witnessed her actions only to see her naked body slashed to an ugly death. With more than an hour to go, anything is possible. The viewer waits for the sound of Hitchcock’s next note on his piano.
Norman hurries in to clean up his “mother’s” mess. So not only do we witness the death of the leading lady, we watch Norman wipe the blood off the walls, the floor, the bathtub, and the sink after washing his bloody hands. After that, he wraps Marion’s dead body in the torn curtain. This mirrors the scene of Marion wrapping the newspaper around the $39,300 in cash. He then gathers her stuff puts it in the trunk of her car, along with the wrapped body and the wrapped “MacGuffin”.
The car slowly sinks into the darkness of the swamp. For a moment it stops. Here’s Hitchcock playing with his audience again. Even though we just witnessed our hero chopped and wrapped like a piece of meat, we somehow want the car to fully sink. It does. Fade to black.
Fade into the inside of a hardware store, Sam’s working place. One of the customers studies a can of poison “Let’s say see what they say about this one. They tell you what its ingredients are and how it’s guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world, but they do not tell you whether or not it’s painless. And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless.” The viewer agrees. Afterall, the customer is always right. Enter Lila, Marion’s sister.
She’s worried and asks about the whereabouts of her sister. Sam is clueless. He tells his eavesdropping co-worker to go have his lunch. The co-worker leaves. Yet, the scene remains a three-shot with the entrance of a private investigator, Arbogast. All three ask questions, and eventually they’re all up to date. They realize that they’re all on the same side. Arbogast wants to find the missing money, Lila wants her sister, and Sam wants his girlfriend back. A new story unfolds.
As the story takes a different turn, so does the editing. The first half of the picture was edited to look like the events took place within two days. After, watching the story of the first half end, George Tomasini, the editor of the movie, speeds up the pace. In the scene that follows, Arbogast starts checking different hotels for any information on a missing Marion. The scene is a montage of a sequence of shots showing Arbogast in different hotels, which suggests the passage of time. Finally, Arbogast reaches the Bates motel.
Arbogast investigates right away. He makes the purpose of his visit clear and shows Norman a picture of Marion. Naturally, Norman is scared and tries to end their conversation as soon as humanly possible. “Well, no one’s stopped here for a couple of weeks.” Arbogast insists he take a look at the picture before “committing” himself. This is acting at its best. At first, Norman is relaxed offering his candy. Gradually as the pressure build up, Perkins’s performance intensifies. Arbogast catches a lie when Norman mentions a couple visiting “last week” and asks to take a look at the register. Perkins chews faster and harder on the candy (the candy was his idea). Norman takes another look at the picture and admits she was here but he didn’t recognize the picture at first because her hair was all wet. The showering of questions heightens the pressure and Perkins drives his performance into iconic status. We get it all complete with facial tics and stuttering words.
Being the great private detective that he is, Arbogast gets a more complete story by cornering Norman with questions. Moments later he spots the shadowy old woman in the upstairs mansion window. More of Norman’s lies are fished out and Arbogast takes another direction. He pressures Norman with the “let’s assume” method. To which, Norman mistakenly slips the words “Let’s put it this way. She may have fooled me but she didn’t fool my mother.” Now, Arbogast wants to meet the mother. To Norman that’s crossing the line, and so he asks him to leave.
A phone call later, the private-eye returns to the motel to fulfill his satisfaction. The sequence leading up to his murder mirrors that of Marion since both enter Norman’s patrol prior to their deaths. We also get the stuffed birds shots, only for some reason Hitchcock reverses them with the crow shot first and the owl afterwards. Nevertheless, the viewer is put in the same uncomfortable mood.
Arbogast goes up to the mansion, and step by step climbs the stairway. Hitchcock manages to pull off another shocking scene with a sudden jump-out-of-your seat appearance of mother stabbing the detective once he reaches the top. Blood splatters on his face, and we follow the fall with the camera fixed on Arbogast’s face. The same use of screeching noise is set by Herrmann. Once he lands, Mrs. Bates continues the stabbing, the detective screams in horror and the scene fades to black.
The Arbogast scene is the second and last onscreen kill. Today, Hitchcock is often credited with creating the slasher sub-genre. Unfortunately, this triggered a chain of terrible motion pictures with the exception of the original “Halloween”. Most of the slasher pictures of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s overdo it with frequent kills every other scene instead of building up the murder scenes with character development. Therefore, we end up with a bunch of characters we don’t much care for getting chopped to pieces. In “Psycho” it was never about the violence, it was always about the tension leading up to the violence.
Fade in, Sam and Lila sit worried in a smoky room “Sam he said an hour or less”. Sam: “Yeah, It’s been three.” As I said before the pace is much faster in the second half. Hitchcock directs this half like it’s a sequel requiring different editing methods. Likewise, time passes faster at Norman’s place. A medium shot of Norman standing in front of the clear black swamp. He’s already done cleaning the mess. Sam arrives and looks for “Arbogast”. He calls his name a few times with no luck. The medium shot becomes a close up, again not through a cut but by Sam walking up to the lens. He curves his hands around his mouth and gives it his all. The call for Arbogast echoes into the next and same shot of Norman in front of the swamp. We move closer to him. As his head turn to the right facing the camera, the camera pans to the left towards him. A very well executed shot is the result as we end with a close up on a chilling expression on Norman’s shadowy face. He’s looking at his motel.
A transition directs us to a deep shot of the storeroom. Lila is sitting at the center all the way in a lighted room in the back. The store itself is dark. She hears a car approaching stands up and runs through the dark store. We end up with a silhouette of her head in a close up. Without moving the camera, and with careful lighting, a simple scene becomes a memorable one. The movement is inside the frame as Lila breaks the depth of field of the shot. Previously Hitchcock created a close-up out of a medium shot, this time the task is difficult and much more impressive as he turns a deep focus shot into a close-up, without any cuts.
In a two-shot, the dark figures of Sam and Lila decide to see the deputy sheriff, Al Chambers. A transition leads to the deputy walking down the stairs. The camera slightly pans to the left and the camera is fixed on a four-shot (Sam, Lila, Mrs. Chambers, and Mr. Chamber). As Sam updates the sheriff with the story, we switch to a three-shot. Only this time they aren’t standing next to each other. The side of Al Chambers face is in the foreground and his wife, on the left, is in the background. When Sam mentions Norman’s mother the facial expression of Mrs. Chambers transforms to a look of panic and wonder. This shot is used to show the emotional reaction between the sheriff and his wife. After that we switch to a three-shot of Sam in the foreground, Lila in the middle-ground, and Mrs. Chambers in the background. Finally after constant switching from the two-shot to the three shot and gradually to one-shots, we end up with a low-angle shot of the sheriff and the spine-chilling line: “Well, if the woman up there is Mrs. Bates, who’s that woman buried out in Green Lawn Cemetery?” Hitchcock is involving the audience, moving us closer, building to more intimacy between the viewer and the characters. I like to call it the 4,3,2,1 scene.
The last line makes one question the existence of mother. Hitchcock is misguiding the audience. I bet a lot of the viewers were predicting a ghost story. The haunted mansion would fit that storyline, or maybe mother and Norman killed someone and made it look like mother died. The audience is in the dark.
Norman delicately walks up the stairway. He walks to mother’s room, and the camera slowly pans up closer to the door and eventually the long shot ends with an overhead view of Norman carrying his mother to the fruit cellar. This beautifully photographed shot meant to hide the face of Norman’s mother is an example of how Hitchcock uses cinematography to guide our eyes in whichever direction he pleases supporting the story.
Next, Sam and Lila decide to search every inch of the motel. To do so, they split up. Sam is to distract and keep Norman occupied while Lila goes up the mansion to get to the old woman. Two things happening at once builds the tension as the relation between both incidents eventually merge into the famous Norman in his wig scene.
Inside the office, Sam shoots accusations at Norman. He’s not as smooth as Arbogast which leads to trouble. They say an animal is most dangerous when cornered. The second time Norman is put in that situation, he breaks loose by striking Sam’s head with a souvenir. Meanwhile Lila after touring the house looks through a window and sees Norman running towards her from the Bates Motel. Space is all that was needed to keep us on the edge of our seats.
Moments later, Lila is hiding in the cellar room. She sees mother facing the wall in her rocking chair. A tap in the back later, the truth surfaces- mother is a corpse. Lila screams and hits a hanging light-bulb. Shadows dance. Enter Norman smiling like a creep with a kitchen knife high up in the air. More importantly the screeching noise makes another visit; the two previous times the audience listened to that horrible noise they witnessed murder scenes. Subconsciously the audience thinks it’ll happen again, only Sam comes to the rescue. The wig falls off Norman’s head.
The final scene is the famous psychiatry explanation. Like Roger Ebert, this scene always bothered me, for like the opening narration in “Dark City”, the full explanation underestimates the intelligence of the viewer. In his Great Movie essay, Roger provides a perfect cut: “If I were bold enough to reedit Hitchcock’s film, I would include only the doctor’s first explanation of Norman’s dual personality: ‘Norman Bates no longer exists. He only half existed to begin with. And now, the other half has taken over, probably for all time.’ Then I would cut out everything else the psychiatrist says, and cut to the shots of Norman wrapped in the blanket while his mother’s voice speaks (‘It’s sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son…’). Those edits, I submit, would have made ‘Psycho’ very nearly perfect.” (Ebert)
Even though the scene is not necessary, it’s not that much of a burden and doesn’t ruin the entire picture like the spoiler filled opening of “Dark City”. In the first half, we became so intimate with Marion, Hitchcock let us into her thoughts. In the final scene Norman, now the main character, shares his thoughts with the audience. Only his thoughts are those of his mother confirming the schizophrenic split personality disorder. “They’re probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I’m not even gonna swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know, and they’ll say, ‘Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly.’” A disturbing smile curves his face and a hint of mother’s skeleton appears as the transition escorts us the Marion’s car getting pulled out of the swamp. A perfect bloodcurdling last shot. The End.
To read my article regarding genres, actors and their choices. Go to the excellent ‘Touching From a Distance’ website where I wrote a blog post as a guest. Link to the article: http://www.touchingfromadistance.co.uk/2010/02/would-you-ask-a-heart-surgeon-to-operate-on-your-teeth/
When it comes to movies, one would find that there are numerous ways for the director to tell his story and just as much ways for him display it on screen. The narrative style of a movie depends mostly on the screenplay of the movie and unlike most people think, movies don’t necessarily have to start at the beginning of the story and end up at the end of it. A plot of a movie can start at any point within the story, and usually the choices the directors or screenwriters make are for the best. However, the plot isn’t the only thing that the director takes under consideration, for movies can be displayed through picture and sound or mise-en-scene in various ways as well. Here one can see the relation between the narrative style and mise-en-scene of a movie. After deciding how to tell a story, the filmmakers usually decide how to display it, and this is where mise-en-scene and the narrative story merge to form a motion picture. The degree of how well these two elements merge often is crucial to how the movie will be received by the audience
Narrative styles in fiction movies have two basic categories, the plot and the story of the movie. The story is everything we as the audience know about the characters and the “tale” of the film, while plot is a segment of the story displayed to the audience through the combination of picture and sound. Everything we see and hear on screen from the symbols to music to credits falls under the plot category. The story is basically made up of everything we as the audience can presume or assume from the characters and story of the film. A great example of the clear difference between story and plot can be seen in the 1998 Tom Tykwer movie, Run Lola Run. The story of the movie is very broad for it’s basically the story of a woman who isn’t very well connected with her family and tries to help out her boyfriend with the trouble he’s in. We as the audience know these facts even though they are not displayed to us on screen. We know that Lola isn’t close with her family through several scenes. One is the scene where Lola’s father tells her that he’s leaving them for he is fed up with Lola and her mother; another is a scene that is displayed three times to the audience, it’s the scene where Lola rushes in a hurry downstairs past her mother who is on the phone. The mother doesn’t even bother to panic or react to the situation. During the entire movie, we witness three different ways where Lola tries to help out her boyfriend who lost valuable money, and in on of those alternatives, Lola’s boyfriend tells her that “this time it’s different”, and that it would be impossible for her to help him. The fact that he said “this time”, and the simple fact that he called her during the time of crises makes us assume that Manni (Lola’s boyfriend) has no one else to turn to, and that she has in fact helped him various times before with success. The plot of the movie consists of this one segment of the story displayed to the audience three times, each time with an entirely different outcome. This tells us that the director or screenwriter (in this case both are Tykwer) tried to focus on was Lola’s desperate attempt to help Manni and how the choices she made during that particular time of crises affected the overall outcome of the situation. Through the plot, not the story, Tykwer managed to produce a very simple yet scary theory in life, that the simplest choice, decision, or interactions you choose to make can change you’re entire life, sometimes it’s for the best, while at other times it’s for the worst
Just like the narrative style, the mise-en-scene of the movie can greatly affect the outcome of the movie. In film, mise-en-scene has a very broad meaning, for it refers to almost everything that goes into the composition of a movie, this includes sound, costume design, set decoration, editing, and cinematography. An example of mise-en-scene used almost perfectly in film would be Zhang Yimou’s 2002 epic, Hero. The movie basically tells the story of a nameless warrior who manages to kill three deadly assassins that posed a threat to the Dynasty’s emperor. The king or emperor notices some flaws in the warriors’ story as he tells it, and so the story of the nameless warrior is retold differently. The same thing happens again, and we as the audience end up with three versions of how the nameless warrior managed to be where he is at this moment having killed three of China’s most threatening assassins. The movie is a combination of great visuals, cinematography, costume designs, set decoration, and fight sequences making the movie a feast to the eye. This merge of filmmaking factors ends up working so well together producing sequences that feel more visual dreams rather than reality. The movie was intended to be displayed as visual poetry, and the fact that the movie remained beautifully shot after shot with strong vibrant colors standing out in almost every scene makes it feel almost unrealistic. However, the fact that Zhang Yimou managed to maintain those beautiful visuals for the entire duration of the movie where colors serve as symbols, made those impossible visuals very believable, creating a perfect example of mise-en-scene used magnificently in film. Another aspect that served the mise-en-scene during the entire movie are the very well executed fight scenes, for they were choreographed in a way to make the fights seem as if they were dances instead of acts of violence. Somehow the viewer accepts the beauty of the locations and visuals of the movie as realistic. To be more specific, there’s one scene that describes the beauty of the mise-en-scene and that is the scene in which two females face each other wearing red wardrobes and surrounded by yellow and brown leaves. Everything seems to be perfect in that scene, from the visuals, to the choreography to the epic score to the editing and cinematography, they all worked together to display a visual work of art which is what the filmmakers intended the movie to look and feel like
Comparing these two movies with one another, one can see the very obvious connection between the narrative style and mise-en-scene of a movie. The plot of both movies concern with three different versions of an event, and as the plot of a movie includes the on screen music, and non-diegetic symbolic inputs, one can see where plot and mise-en-scene overlap. The plot is the way the story is going to be told, which in both of those movies’ cases was in three different versions, while the mise-en-scene is the way it is displayed to the viewer through picture and sound. Picture includes the editing, cinematography, symbolic insert, and so forth; the symbolic inserts in the case of Hero were the strong and vibrant colors. Hero and Run Lola Run have almost identical narrative styles in that they have the same basic aspect of three versions of a story, yet they feel so different. The reason for that being is because of the entirely different mise-en-scene in both movies. In the case of Hero, the mise-en-scene was used to display a visual masterpiece and a work of art that was very fitting with the themes of the plot. In Run Lola Run, however, the mise-en-scene was used to produce a different effect on its viewers, the feeling of a rush and adrenalin. This was done through the combinations of clearly over a thousand edits and transitions in its very short runtime, and the combination with techno like music used as the score made the movie feel like a rollercoaster, which was the basic idea and purpose of the entire movie. Through the mise-en-scene we as the audience felt the rush Lola felt after she hung up the phone with her boyfriend. So while the narrative style and mise-en-scene have entirely different meanings, they are both very important in terms of filmmaking, for they determine the way a story is to be told, and the intended effect it should have on the viewer. However, in order for them to work well, as the director is working on one (narrative style or mise-en-scene), the other has to be taken into consideration
When most people think about movies, they usually judge them in terms of acting and directing, rarely does a person judge its editing or sound mixing. The reason for that being is because most editors and sound editors do all they can to make their editing as smooth as possible for the audience. When editing and sound mixing is used correctly there’s a certain flow that’s required in a good movie, the movie seems to fit better, and the truth is without editing and sound mixing most great movies wouldn’t be nearly as good as they are regarded. The 1974 Francis Ford Coppola thriller The Conversation and the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock horror movie Psycho are perfect examples of movies largely depending on the process and technique of editing and sound mixing. Each of those movies can be seen as perfect examples where the editing and sound mixing were used to perfection.
In terms of editing a movie, there’s mostly the basic idea of joining shots to give the sense of continuity in terms of time, space, graphics, and rhythm. In terms of sound mixing, there’s the basic idea of fidelity, the extraction of sound such as off screen sound, and of course the addition of sound to a particular scene. However, there’s also the connection between those two aspects or techniques. With precise editing, there’s always a fascinating interplay of sound and image. Editing is so much more than just the joining of shots; it requires instinct, accuracy, and precise use of shots in terms of their relation to one another. After Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho, the editing was probably revolutionized because of the use of various forms of editing in that particular movie. In terms of rhythm, the movie uses the movement in time very efficiently. For example, it is clear that the movie starts one afternoon, as we are transformed from outside the window of an apartment into the apartment using smart editing. However, when Leigh leaves the room, we realize that it’s still that same day. She goes to work, collects some money that she’s supposed to put into the bank and goes back home. All that happens in one particular afternoon, and when she decides to run away with the money, the editing in terms of rhythm becomes more and more interesting. Hitchcock uses a close up of the main character, Marion Crane, as she drives away from her hometown. The shot shows her face, part of the steering wheel, and the background, which includes the sky. The shots of course changes from that particular close up shot to what might be regarded as an eye-line matching shot, in which we as the audience see the highway in front of the character. The audience begins to notice that the bright sky turn darker and darker, and eventually it starts to rain and Marion pulls over to sleep it off. The first quarter of the movie takes place in one day, which gives the movie a very interesting flow, and movement of time. The following shot involves Marion waking up the next morning after spending the night sleeping in her car. Again, the viewer knows that it’s the next day, and for the next twenty minutes or so, we stay within that time frame (she goes changes her car, and by night pulls over to the Bates Motel). George Tomasini, the editor of the movie also uses editing in terms of time very precisely. For example, the scene in which the private detective, Arbigast starts checking different hotels for any information on a missing Marion. The scene shows Arbigast in different hotels in various shots, which gives us the sense that time has passed, and that he checked those hotels in a period of time.
Tomasini also uses the relation between shots quite creepily in terms of graphics. By showing shots of stuffed birds, he puts the viewer in an uncomfortable mood. The last type of relation between shots can be seen as Tomasini uses space. When Marion’s sister, looks outside of the Bates house and sees Norman running towards her from the Bates Motel. Space is all that was needed to keep us on the edge of our seats. Psycho is a landmark in terms of editing for the very reason that it uses a large variety of editing in less than 120 minutes.
Another element that most viewers aren’t aware of is the process of sound mixing. Most people think there’s nothing to sound that requires talent, accuracy, and time, yet the truth is without proper sound editing and mixing, movies wouldn’t be at the place they are today. Elements such as overlapping dialogue, manipulating volume, using silence, extracting and adding sounds, and off screen sounds are just a few of the procedures and aspects that the sound editor has to have in mind. In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, the subject of sound is the main focus of the plot. The idea of having the ability to record any conversation between two individuals without them notice it is terrifying, yet very interesting. There’s one particular scene in the movie that was and still is very fascinating to watch. It’s when Harry Caul played by Gene Hackman tries to record a conversation between two characters in the middle of a crowd. In order to find out what they are saying, he extracts overlapping conversations, on-location sound, and abstract noise; at the end Harry Caul ends up with the line “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” That particular scene has got to be one of the most revolutionary scenes in film history in terms of sound mixing. The way the main character plays with all kinds of overlapping sounds, makes the viewer wonder if this is the same case when it comes to filming a movie. The sound editor probably uses very similar equipment and methods as those of Harry Caul, which is why the main characters voices are often heard more clearly than that of a train, equipment, or any extras acting on set. There’s also a very interesting connection between editing and sound.
In order to edit certain scenes properly one has to have the element of sound in mind. In probably one of the most famous, and well edited scenes in all of cinema, also known as the shower scene in Psycho, the use of both editing and sound to create a realistic and horrific scene is very detailed, carefully thought out, and perfect. In less than one minute, we witness a combination of at least 50 shots, in relation to the sound of a knife slashing against skin. However, what’s even more interesting is the fact that we never actually see the knife enter the woman’s flesh, yet we’re convince we do through the sight of stabbing (hand motion), sound effects, the musical score, and of course the careful editing. While most people think that the director and the actors do most of the work, one has to know that the editor, sound mixer, and composer have a lot to do with why the movie turned out the way it did. Therefore they deserve a lot more acknowledgment and credit for their work. The job of the editor is to take scenes and fit them together, and just like a puzzle, they have to fit together perfectly. In addition to that the sound effects, off screen sounds, overlapping dialogue, and every other aspect relating to sound is taken care of by the sound editor to assure a realistic and smooth feel to the movie. On top of all that we have the musical score of the movie which most probably serves as the flow of the movie. In order to turn out with a great movie, one has to make all three of those techniques work well together without the audience noticing. Both The Conversation and Psycho have done so, which is probably why both of those films are studied worldwide by film students and professors.