A Cinematic Alphabet

26 letters in the alphabet, 26 movies.

This meme has appeared on various blogs the past few days and I finally had the time to create mine. It was unbelievably challenging to think of movies for some letters (X, Q) and limit my choices for others (D, E, M). In the end, my list is very reflective my personal study of cinema — before, during and since college. My interests in classical Hollywood cinema, experimental cinema, Neorealism, and post 9/11 American independent cinema comes through.

Here it goes.

Continue reading “A Cinematic Alphabet”

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Hirokazu Koreeda: A Neorealist Approach to Filmmaking

I first watched Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows after it was released in the U.S. I remember this being an emotionally draining viewing experience. This cinematically simple yet absolutely gut-wrenching film about 12-year-old Akira who is left to care for his three younger siblings when their mother abandons them lingered in my mind. Even though I found Nobody Knows to be moving, the film did not launch any sort of study of Koreeda or Japanese cinema on my part.

I revisited Nobody Knows five years later when I was researching independent filmmaker So Yong Kim’s 2006 film, In Between Days.  Kim and her husband, filmmaker Bradley Rust Gray (The Exploding Girl) have a wonderful creative partnership that has produced some of the best American independent films of the last five years. They often hold various roles on each other’s projects. Ben Howe, a producer on their films, has explained, “It’s almost as if [Kim and Gray] think together. It’s definitely one or the other’s film, but every decision is made with the other one close in mind.” This only strengthens Gray and Kim’s commitment to making great films no matter the struggle to get them made. In Between Days was made over a two-week period on a limited budget. The result is an aesthetically beautiful and poetic portrait of a teenage Korean girl as she struggles to assimilate to American culture. It’s an overwhelmingly naturalistic representation of female  existence and teenage isolation.

Nobody Knows comes into focus when examining So Yong Kim’s second feature Treeless Mountain. Both films have strikingly similar themes. Like Nobody KnowsTreeless Mountain deals with children who have been abandoned. The film follows two sisters, ages 6 and 4, as they deal with their mother’s absence and are sent to live with various family members. The story is loosely based from Kim’s childhood experiences in South Korea.

When Kim began to work on this film, she sought out the advice of Koreeda about directing children and shooting in 16mm. With the help of a translator,Koreeda gave a long and detailed answer. At the end of the conversation, the translator turned to Kim and said, “Eda-san says 16mm very good!” Her question might not have been answered but there is no doubt the influence that Nobody Knows had on Kim and her approach to Treeless Mountain.

During the 2009 Tribeca Film Festbaival, Gray and Kim interviewed Koreeda about his 2009 film Still Walking. It’s a fascinating and revealing conversation between the three filmmakers about Koreeda’s background, influences, and techniques. One of So Yong Kim’s questions, I think, shows how Koreeda’s work has influenced her approach to filmmaking.

So Yong Kim: I think interviews are mostly for other filmmakers to learn from directors. Back when it came out, I read an interview about Nobody Knows, because I wanted to learn how you made the film and worked with your actors, and with the camera, etc. The question I have about Still Walking is about working with an ensemble of professional actors. How is that different than working with nonactors, like in Nobody Knows?

Hirokazu Koreeda: In the case of Still Walking, I wrote a very, very detailed, hammered-out screenplay, and then I read through it with the actors, and then based on that I revised the script. Then I did blocking on the set, and then I had the actors read, just to make sure they could read the lines in the time it took to walk across the set. I did all this before shooting to ensure that the atmosphere would look lived-in by the actors.

And with Nobody Knows, you know, it’s the same goal as with Still Walking. But because I had essentially nonactors, even though there was a script, I never gave it to actors at all. I never gave them dialogue until I was in the room, ready to roll the camera. And then I would say, “Why don’t you try saying something like this?”

So, I took the opposite approach with actors in opposite situations. With the veterans, I timed it within an inch of its life to make it look natural and lived-in, and with the nonactors, I did it 100% spontaneous to make it look lived-in and spontaneous.

So Yong Kim: Which way do you prefer to work?

Hirokazu Koreeda: I don’t really have a particular filmmaking style or method. The goal is finding how to make a particular character in a particular film or setting look as charming and appealing as possible. So whatever it takes.

Personally, I prefer the Nobody Knows method, but there is the guilt that I am stealing laughter and smiles from children for my movie. I have genuine guilt about that, and I had none of that for Still Walking, because I hadn’t stolen anything from anybody.

Even though Koreeda says that he doesn’t have a particular filmmaking style or method, here Koreeda is broadly discussing a neorealist approach to filmmaking. You can see how Koreeda’s style, however you may define it, has influenced Gray and Kim’s work. These three filmmakers aim to create the most realistically feeling films imaginable, as if life is unfolding on the screen as it naturally occurs. More importantly, from Koreeda’s work and even this interview, you can see how far reaching the director’s lens is when it comes to who his work and his filmmaking techniques influences stateside.

This post is part of the Japanese Cinema blogathon hosted by Cinema Fanatic and Japan Cinema. Please donate if you can.

Robert Bresson: The Patron-Saint of Cinema

Trying to think of a good topic for the Film+Faith Blog-a-thon that’s been happening over at Strange Culture these past two days has been hard. Like really hard. Just read any of the other entries and you can see why.

But then the topic in my film class this week was and I knew exactly what, rather who, I was going to write about:

Robert Bresson

As I’ve seen Robert Bresson films (which in all honesty has only been two, A Man Escaped and Pickpocket) the more I realize that Bresson is one of the greatest (arguably the greatest) filmmaker of all time.

Before I begin discussing Bresson, I need to mention a bit about European and Asian Art Cinema.

Art Cinema refers to the period in film history from the late 1940s to the early 1960s when European and Asian cinema began to change the face of world cinema. Art Cinema was the result of Italian Neo-realism and like neorealism is strongly connected to World War II and the Holocaust.

These films, directed by some of the greatest filmmakers of all time (Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Luchino Visconti, Jacques Tati, Jean-Luc Godard, and Robert Bresson) were the first feature films that were made as art.

Earlier film styles, German Expressionism, Surrealism and Impressionism as well as philosophical movements from the 19th century, phenomenology and existentialism (Sartre, Nietzsche, and Camus) heavily influenced these filmmakers. Art Cinema, thus, deals with the idea that there is a transcendent reality, a sense that there is more than just us, and that we should be engaging in the world.

Robert Bresson, along with French theorist Andre Bazin and maybe even Ingmar Bergman, were Christian existentialists, meaning that they believed in the existence in God BUT also the idea that we will never know this God.

Because of his incorporation of his Christian existentialist beliefs and Catholic themes in his films as well as his overall contribution to the art of film, Bresson has been called a patron-saint of cinema.

During World War II, Bresson had been a member of the French resistance and been imprisoned in a concentration camp. He began making films in the 1940s (Les Anges du péché and Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne). These two films have hints of later Bressonian techniques (the use of sound) and themes (redemption and salvation), but are for the most part, they are examples of classical filmmaking.

It is Bresson’s next eleven features that have come to define his career and style. They are all about a psychological escape and the freedom associated with the act of escaping. 1951’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest; top left) and 1956’s Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (literally A Condemned Man Escapes, but better known as A Man Escaped; right), explicitily feature Bresson’s style: the use of non-professional actors, little dialogue, sound that never overlaps with the image, and religious themes.

Three of his works, Les Anges du Peche, Diary of a Country Priest, and The Trial of Joan of Arc, take place within a Catholic context. In these films, Catholicism presents itself by the way characters simply surrender themselves to fare.

In fact, Bressonian characters often have no apparent reasons for acting they way they do. Pickpocket (bottom left) is a great example of this, when the narrator states his intentions but ends up doing the opposite. They act simple because that is the way their lives have been mapped out.

In this sense God, at least according to Bresson, is just the way things are.

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I really can’t go into much more detail than what I’ve written, but there is so much more that could be said about Robert Bresson. The fact that I even attempted to write something about him (in this very broad post) is either impressive, bad, or just means that I’ve lost my mind (most likely the best option).

Instead I’m going to direct you to several articles/books on Robert Bresson that will hopefully make up for my lack of knowledge/ability to provide more insight:

Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer

Joseph Cunneen, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film

Richard Hell, Consuming Passion: Bresson

Alan Pavelin, Robert Bresson

Paul Schrader, Transcedental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer

The Performance That Changed Your Life

Today I am participating in Emma from All About My Movies’ first ever blog-a-thon!

For someone who has been reading my blog from the very beginning (almost two years ago now), you’ve learned one simple fact about me. I LOVE Katharine Hepburn. So deciding that the performance that changed my life was one of Katharine Hepburn’s was easy. Picking which one it was, now that was the hard part.

At first, I wanted to write about Susan Vance and Bringing Up Baby. Afterall, this is my favorite movie and it is the movie that made me love cinema. Susan is absolutely nuts and is often providing a very good reason for mental institutions, but it is impossible not to be drawn to that character. At times, I find myself wishing I could be more like Susan Vance; carefree, happy, witty, sassy, and still able to get the guy at the end.

But for whatever reason, I’ve decided against writing more about Susan Vance. I’ve been flip flopping between Tracy Lord (The Philadelphia Story), Tess Harding (Woman of the Year), Amanda Bonner (Adam’s Rib), Eva Lovelace (Morning Glory), Alice Adams (Alice Adams) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (The Lion in Winter). I’ve decided against all of these performances as well. I think at some point during this process I briefly considered every movie Katharine Hepburn has ever been in.

But don’t worry (especially if my rambling is starting to bore you), I eventually settled on one performance. Katharine Hepburn as Rose Sayer in The African Queen.

I know that someone out there reading this is probably thinking: How can an 18-year-old college student relate to a character who is a prissy missionary spinster?

At a first glance, not a lot. But something has always drawn me to this performance.

I was 15 when I first saw The African Queen in a back-to-back screening with Bringing Up Baby. I had just experienced a completely different Katharine Hepburn as Susan Vance and I wasn’t even intending on sitting through another movie. But something came over me when Robert Osbourne appeared and began his introduction; I didn’t movefor the next hour and 45 minutes.

Rose Sayer is an interesting woman. She is a spinster and a minister’s sister. She is a seemingly proper Victorian-era woman, but she is also incredibly intelligent and strong-willed. She is the one who decides to launch an attack against the Germans and if she knew anything about boats, she definitely wouldn’t need Charlie Allnut’s help.

And of course, Katharine Hepburn’s performance in The African Queen would mean nothing without her brilliant interaction Humphrey Bogart. Rose Sayer is the exact opposite of Charlie Allnut, Bogart’s character. They come from different social classes, he’s a heavy drinker etc. You’re thinking through the entire movie that there is no way these two can ever be a romantic pairing. But it does happen and when it does, it is absolute perfection.
Most of all, I think what draws me to Katharine Hepburn’s performance in The African Queen is that moment after The African Queen successfully goes over the rapids. The look of pure joy and enthusiasm that appears on her face makes me wish I had moments like that occur every day in my life. Every time I see this film, I find myself believing no matter what, I can steer a boat over rapids, seek out even more dangerous situations, be condemned to death, get married and swim safely to shore all while having a damn good time.
For me, watching Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen is the greatest experience anyone could ever have. Actually, I’m going to change that. Watching Katharine Hepburn in any movie is the greatest experience someone can have. The African Queen is where I suggest you start. After all, this movie has, in some strange way, allowed me to see parts of myself that I never knew existed. Who knows what it can do for you.

America in 10 Films

I found this tag on Kung Fu Monkey. Thought it was an interesting challenge and decided to give it a whirl.

The challenge is to explain America to someone from somewhere else by giving them 10 movies to watch.

The idea is not to give them a history lesson, so you don’t have to start with The New World and end with Jarhead. What you’re trying to do is give them a sense of who we are — your take on our dreams, our attitudes, our idioms, what we think we are, what we are afraid we are, what we really might be.”

I’m not sure how well I did, but I tried. Here are my picks:

1) Field of Dreams (1989) – One word: baseball. Paired with a touch of magical realism, a game of catch between father and son, road trips with no destination, Burt Lancaster’s last role, dreaming big when no one else believes, and listening to voices no one else hears.

2) Almost Famous (2000) – A witty coming of age picture with great music. You could probably argue that this one doesn’t belong on the list, but I think it shows a fun and loving side to America.

3) Woman of the Year (1942) The first pairing of Hepburn and Tracy. It’s all about career, love, and the battle of the sexes. It all about the compromises to have a successful marriage and career.

4) The Searchers (1956)– To have a list of American movies without including a Western, is sacreligious. To have a Western but not a John Ford directed picture, is just crazy. But including a Western on any list and it NOT starring John Wayne would be like a day without sunshine. Westerns are America. Simple enough.

The Searchers (dir. John Ford, 1956)

5) To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)- A man who possesses great honesty, integrity, and wisdom, stands up against the injustice of a fellow man. Atticus Finch, the greatest hero in American film. We can learn a lot from him.

6. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – A naive man takes on the supremeacy and corruption of the US Senate. Politics in this country aren’t always pretty and this movie shows that.

7. The Breakfast Club (1985) – A brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. The stereotypes of an American high school. 20 years later and this film still resonates.

8. Manhattan (1979) – Most Woody Allen films are a testimate to New York City. From the black and white cinematography to the shots of the NY skyline, this film showcases how far the love of a city and of home stretches. This is my city…. I’ve been through a lot with her over the years.

9. Out of the Past (1947) – The first film noir ever. Romance, mystery, thriller. Every person has their skeletons and you may never know the truth.

10. The Graduate (1967) At some point in life, we all feel like Benjamin. We’re a little lost in the big world and in Benjamin’s case, being smart and wealthy isn’t much help. If only we had Mrs. Robinson to fill the void.

The Runners Up:

In the Heat of the Night
Singin’ in the Rain
Stand by Me
North by Norhtwest
The Maltese Falcon
Norma Rae
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Bonnie and Clyde
Erin Brokovich
The Best Years of Our Lives
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Rear Window
Blade Runner
Unforgiven
The Philadelphia Story
From Here to Eternity
Touch of Evil

What’s missing from my list?

Obviously, there is a lack of romantic comedies and not every great star is represented. Perhaps a documentary could have been included. But ten is a small number when it comes to selecting films. There are so many good movies that represent American ideals and culture, picking ten was enough work.

I tried. Now it’s your turn.