Scene Sound Off: Masculin Feminin

While I am going to focus on the laundromat scene, I want to examine part of the six-minute tracking shot that precedes it. Paul records a poetical monologue in a record-making booth. The satisfaction of his purchase is signaled by an overlaying pop song beginning as he emerges from the booth. He walks into a room next door to play pinball where a man holding a switchblade confronts him. The jubilant song continues as he forces him out of the room and abruptly stops as they reach the exit.  This demonstrates New Wave’s use of mixing and harshly contrasting tones and emphasis on filmic manipulation. A West Side Story-esque showdown seems imminent as the man flashes his blade—then suddenly and incomprehensibly– he stabs himself! The playful pop song plays once again, once again mixing tone by harshly juxtaposing the sudden violence. The next scene places Paul in a laundromat, where Godard employs the use of disorienting jump cuts as he paces around telling a story. Paul is rapidly positioned throughout the laundromat with no logical path. Through this quick succession of disparate editing practices, Godard exposes film’s constructed nature.

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The next part of the scene places Paul in a laundromat, where Godard employs the use of disorienting jump cuts as he paces around telling a story. Paul is rapidly positioned throughout the laundromat with no logical path. Through this quick succession of disparate editing practices, Godard exposes film’s constructed nature.

After a series of hand-held location shots of the crowded cobblestone streets, Paul enters a laundromat and asks his friend to guess what just happened to him. If Masculin Feminin employed a logical Hollywood narrative, perhaps such a story would pertain to the previous bizarre stabbing. However, he merely relays an unrelated tale where he felt like someone was following him while walking down the street. This story has no larger implications on the narrative itself but is a playful and comic anecdote. Godard cuts to Paul sitting beside Robert. We hear whistling as Robert speaks. It is unclear at first as to whether this is a non-diegetic sound effect (which Godard has employed before in the film) or if it is coming from Paul. Robert then invites Paul and Madeline to come with him Saturday to hang up posters. Paul responds that he does want to bring her for he wishes to break up with her. However, he is going to be forced to live with her since he is being kicked out of his apartment. This youthful aversion and suspicion of romantic commitment is another characteristic of the French New Wave.

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Robert opens a newspaper and reads an article about Bob Dylan. “He is a Vietnik,” Robert says, as in a Vietnam protester and a beatnik. Youthful preoccupations with politics (the Vietnam War) and topical pop culture references encompass many French New Wave films. Bob Dylan is the quintessential icon for rebellious early 1960s youth doubling as political activists. The pair then sing a song about killing tyrannical political figures- Hitler, Stalin and Lyndon Johnson. The sequence ends with a physical gag of Paul stimulating sexual intercourse with his hands. Godard once again juxtaposes comedy and tragedy as Paul then immediately laments his unhappiness, “I don’t know why I’m laughing,” he says. Paul and Robert’s interactions have a loose, improvisational feel. Their final exchange signals Masculin Feminin’s interrogation of gender politics on the cusp of second wave feminism: “Ever notice there’s the word ‘mask’ in masculine? And also ‘ass’?” “And in feminine?” “Nothing.”  Overall, both scenes have an ethos of eccentric playfulness– Paul’s comedic story, the pinball confrontation and sex jokes.

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Scene Sound Off: Anomalisa

Anomalisa is a story that cinema has seen time and time again: a self-centered middle-aged man finds himself disillusioned with his existence and seeks salvation through a woman. But Charlie Kaufman’s uniquely uses stop-motion puppets and two metaphorical devices: a single voice actor voices every other character who all share the same face. Michael, a self-help expert who fosters productivity in businesses worldwide but not for himself, can find no joy or connection with anyone he meets, they are all the same to him and he is presumably doomed to live a loveless and lonely existence. Until he meets Lisa- the one character who has a different face and voice.

This subjective viewpoint of Michael’s world aligns the viewer with his discontent, and we are likewise relieved when Lisa finally enters the story, her soothing voice like music to our ears. Michael is smitten with Lisa, who soon becomes the object of his salvation.   There is one scene, however, that complicates Anamolisa’s subjective visions. Michael asks Lisa to come to his hotel room and after sharing drinks he asks her to sing. Lisa chooses Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” It is important to consider the implications in Kaufman’s choice of this song- what it means for the film as a whole and particularly for Lisa’s character to choose what was described as a “strong feminist statement” and an “anthem of female solidarity.”

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After Michael’s request, Lisa says that she will sing “just a little,” but she is so overcome by her connection to the song that she sings over half of it. Her rendition is slow and quiet, turning effervescent pop into a mournful dirge for the marginalized woman. This approach highlights the song’s subtext, its protestations against the dominant society that continually silences and oppresses women to remain in their “rightful” roles. The song’s narrator takes control of her own life by going out at night, as she reminds her mother that girls are “not the fortunate ones.” What begins as a close up of Lisa then pans out to include Michael’s shoulder as he watches her- signaling his interruption and the film’s continual focus on his experience. The reverse shot pictures Michael taking this all in.

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In the verse “Some boys take a beautiful girl/And hide her away from the rest of the world/I want to be the one to walk in the sun/Oh girls, they want to have fun” Lauper critiques the dominant ideologies of male saviors, the ideology that Michael adheres to. To Michael, Lisa is the ultimate victim and damsel in distress waiting to be rescued and be kept all to himself. This is exacerbated by Kaufman’s characterization of Lisa. She is an extremely shy and self-loathing woman. She has a scar on the side of her face, which she continually hides by downcasting her hair. Lisa has only had one previous romantic relationship, has not had sex in eight years, constantly talks down about her appearance and manner of speech.

Lisa confesses that she most identifies with the line,  “I want be the one to walk in the sun.” Michael believes that he is the one to give her sexual and personal self-confidence, to achieve that feeling. This line also foreshadows the final shot of Lisa- the sun shines on her face riding back home in a convertible, the wind blowing her hair to reveal her scar. In the car, she writes Michael a letter thanking him for the wonderful time- even though he leaves her quite coldly. While this sequence is seemingly out of Michael’s subjectivity, it could be read from his imagination. He imagines that he helped her achieve fulfillment and find her place in the sun.

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As Lisa finishes the first verse, Michael interrupts and says “That’s beautiful,” but she continues to sing. The female character in this film is fighting for her voice even though the male lead wants to situate himself back as the focus. When she finishes, Michael once again expresses how beautiful it was and begins crying. “It’s your voice, Lisa,” Michael reiterates. Lisa is extraordinary in Michael’s eyes only because she so harshly juxtaposes his dull, repetitive world, as exemplified by the film’s metaphorical visual and auditory devices. He is swept away with the beauty of her voice but not necessarily the power of her words themselves. Michael does not register the message or meaning Lauper’s song has for Lisa, but only how it works for him. Michael perpetuates everything the song is against- eliminating the female perspective and sublimating her as an object for his own self-actualization with little consideration into her personhood.

As Lisa’s mournfully repeats the lines, “That’s all they really want, some fun,” she is subtextually begging Michael to truly consider what she goes through. In this scene, the film almost side-steps into a rich perspective of Lisa’s female experiences. This is her one moment of truth, as she fights for proper representation. But Michael’s subjectivity ultimately interrupts and positions Lisa as his fulfillment object. This is further reiterated by the film’s parallel to the Japanese sex toy doll that Michael purchases for his son. The doll has a scar in the same place as Lisa’s. When Michael’s wife points out that the doll has semen on it, we can read Lisa as just another doll receptacle for Michael’s sexual frustrations- he slept with her and promptly tosses her when she no longer serves a self-fulfilment function. Anomalisa depicts her voice slowly being drowned by the singular voice that Michael hears from everyone else, as if she is a mechanical robot that has begun to break down.

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For Lauper, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” wanted to express that “girls want to have the same damn experience that any man could have,” or the same equality and recognition that men have in society. The character of Lisa mournfully expresses this in her slow rendition of the song. Within this scene, we have a female character trying to burst out of the male-centric narrative. While Anamolisa is intriguing and well-done, one wishes that the disillusioned middle-aged male  and woman as his savior narrative could take a rest. The compelling underwritten female characters, like Lisa, deserve to have their moment in the sun. Girls just want to have fun, but Anamolisa proves there is no room for them.

 

Scene Sound Off: Baby It’s You

John Sayles’ 1983 film Baby It’s You, the story of a class-cross teen romance in 1960s New Jersey, is unlike the other high school and nostalgia films of its release era. Instead of a romanticized vision of the “glory days” Sayles portrays a gritty and realistic past. The film becomes an antithesis to the nostalgia genre, mobilized by the use of anachronistic music. This takes the audience completely out of the film’s 1960s world, using Bruce Springsteen’s hits from the 1970s. The scene we will look at uses “She’s the One” from the groundbreaking 1975 album Born to Run.

Before this scene, Sheik got in a fight with a teacher, expelled from school and banned from prom. Jill has to go with a boy she could care less about while Sheik engages in a nocturnal crime spree with his friend Rat. The scene begins with a shot of Rat, wearing a cartoon rat mask as disguise, turning from front to profile. The camera follows his gaze to Sheik in a wolf’s mask, rummaging through the tuxedo shop cashier drawer with the piano softly tinkling underneath. Between Rat and Sheik is a male mannequin wearing a tuxedo with a corsage pin, above Sheik a sign reads “prom special.” These glaring reminders signify what Sheik has been denied, which the store owner has made a profit from. Sheik manages to usurp the school’s authority through this particular robbery.

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When the owner discovers them “She’s the One” gets louder, and by the time the camera follows the pair outside to the Ratmobile, it is in full blast. “With her soft French cream, standing in the doorway like a dream” Springsteen sings. We can read these as Sheik’s visions of what prom would have been–seeing his beautiful girlfriend in her dress for the first time. The song softens as we cut to Jill driving in her car, upset from the disappointing night, the voices of her friends loud in the background. It resumes with a thrumming Bo Diddley beat just as the Ratmobile and police cars round the corner, the song has pulled them into the frame and brought the car chase to explosive life. The cacophony of wailing sirens, joyful screams of Rat and Sheik, and squealing tires synthesized to the percussive song anchors us to the scene and the rush that Rat and Sheik feel on that chaotic night.

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It is important to note that the entire prom sequence as a whole is a dark sequence, unlike any of the idealism of prom scenes in the nostalgia genre. The film’s couple doesn’t even get to go together, Sheik is nearly arrested and Jill discovers her friend attempting suicide. The dark and grating visuals: the fog, halogen lights, blood and glass, chain-link fences, gritty Trenton neighborhood, all craft a dismal iconography fueled by the rough music.

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Sayles choice of Springsteen also creates an interesting intertextuality, for his music reflects 70s and 80s need to recapture the spirit of the 50s and 60s. The Born to Run cover features Springsteen in greaser attire, a leather jacket and Elvis pin. The album was set upon re-creating Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound and the vocals of Roy Orbison. It is also a  perfect choice, Springsteen being from New Jersey just as the characters are. Springsteen sings of the struggles of the lower and working-class, which Sheik is apart of.

1e6864b911e5aa5d232c8e5e25a20de8Baby It’s You is a somber portrayal of a high school couple’s romance and follows the couple past graduation to the real world. It shows the pain of growing apart from someone you were once so close to. Using anachronistic music in a film that so specifically recreates the period through costume and visuals is exciting and daring. Yet, the Springsteen songs manage to fit perfectly in the story. It is an overlooked film that got very little recognition, but worth noting for its unique spin on the nostalgia genre and high school teen movies.

Watch the scene below!

Scene Sound Off: To Kill a Mockingbird

Robert Duvall’s film debut was the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s famous book To Kill a Mockingbird. His role was the elusive Boo Radley- a character who remains a mystery for most of the story. Scout, Jem and Dill swap tales about their neighbor, the Radley son who is a monster-like man that never leaves the house and was once chained up in the court’s basement. They’ve never seen him, so the children regard him as a mythical creature that they can trade exaggerated fearsome stories about. Radley’s reveal is a tense build up, he ends up saving Jem and Scout by killing their attacker Bob Ewell in the story’s climax.

Duvall’s performance is a fantastic example of using silence and the power of the eyes in film acting to convey so much. Boo is described as a silent recluse that only leaves the house at night because the sun hurts his eyes. His condition is never implicitly stated and many debate that he suffers from Albinism, an extreme social disorder, depression, or is mentally challenged. Duvall portrays the physical ramifications of being shut-in day after day, he stayed out of the sun for six weeks before filming. His ethereal performance conveys mental problems that transcend any one definition.

The scene of Boo’s reveal takes place when Atticus and Heck question Scout as to what happened with her, Jem and Mr. Ewell. Scout is not sure who saved her and Jem. “Well, who was it?” Heck asks. Cut to Scout pondering, then noticing something off-screen. “Why, there he is Mr. Tate.” We cut to a wider shot of Atticus and Heck facing Scout, her back to the camera. A man is standing shrouded in the half open door’s shadow. In the book, Boo is described as hiding in plain sight. Indeed, it would have been hard not to notice him. (Though I will say the quick cut to him behind the door scared me the first time, not sure that’s the response the director was going for…) “He’ll tell you his name.” Scout continues.

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Heck opens the door wider, and immediately Boo shoves himself even further into the corner. The door, which acted as the anchorite’s protective shield, allowing him to go contentedly unnoticed, is gone.  A close-up of Scout shows her pondering the mysterious man’s identity. The camera cuts to Boo, gliding closer to him as if we are Scout trying to get a closer look and a grasp on who he is. We see him from a lower angle, again from Scout’s POV looking up at the enigmatic figure. Cut to Scout again, as she slowly smiles in realization. “Hey, Boo”. She says, finally piecing together who the silent hero is. Duvall’s controlled facial expressions as Boo maintain a gentle, loving but almost uncertain look in his eyes, which barely flutter as he blinks.

Another exchange of cuts between the two characters, uniting their newfound connection and mutual understanding. For Scout, she is starting to see Boo as a human instead of a feared figment of the imagination. Boo realizes that he has nothing to fear, Scout is regarding him with kindness and offering her friendship.

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As Atticus and Heck leave the room, Scout walks towards Boo, whose face is still covered in shadow. “Would you like to say good night to Jem, Mr. Arthur?” she asks, offering her hand.  Boo takes it, stepping out of the shadows and into the light, into society and the company of others that his desolate lifestyle denies him.  Scout leads him towards the bed and then, after getting permission from Scout, Boo gently brushes Jem’s head.

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In the film’s ending final scene, Scout leads Boo by the hand back to his dilapidated, boarded-up home. We hear the older Scout in voice over reflect, “One time Atticus said you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.” Meeting Boo allowed Scout to put a face to the character in the stories. The tales about Boo used to be a scintillating and exhilarating joke, a way to play tricks and dare friends. But seeing the man in the flesh shifted Scout’s perspective of Boo, transforming him from an evil and fabled spirit to a human being that should be cared for and empathized. You can see actress Mary Badham making these connections and her understanding of Boo growing throughout the scene. Scout begins to understand that the gruesome fictions they gleefully told had real-life ramifications on a living person, that the reality of Boo’s life is indeed a troubled one.

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Scout notes to Atticus that Boo is like the mockingbird they spoke of, an innocent creature that should be protected. Duvall is able to convey the mockingbird aspect of his character with no lines whatsoever. Through small gestures and the manipulation of his expressions, the sheltered character truly comes to life. It takes a great amount of technique to convey this, and the scene is a fine example of the close-up concentration of film acting.

Duvall’s powerful presence and naturalistic performance truly brings the furtive character to life. Mary Badham finely executes the transformation of Scout’s relationship with Boo. Also, the film’s beautiful score also tenderly portrays the emotions of the scene,  the childlike piano and harp conveying the wonder and simplicity of Scout’s world. The combination of these elements bring together a scene that is one of the finest examples of a book to film adaptation.

Watch the scene below!

Scene Sound Off: Mommy

Mommy was the winner of the Cannes Film Festival 2014 Palm D’Or. The film is another exemplary work from 26-year old visionary filmmaker Xavier Dolan, who already has other strong features under his belt such as I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways, and Heartbeats. Dolan’s films are noteworthy for their visual experimentation and fantastic use of song. They bring to light the visual spectacle that the art of cinema can be capable of.

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Mommy tells the story of a mother Diane who deals with her troubled son Steve, who is prone to bouts of intense anger, violence, and black moods. Making friends with their neighbor Kyla sparks the potential of hope in their lives. Mommy uses the visual medium of film to convey aspects of the story that simple dialogue and narrative could not do. Dolan chooses to film Mommy in 1:1 aspect ratio; think of an album cover (his direct inspiration) or Instagram. The small and confining aspect ratio does not leave for much in the frame. However, what it does allow is the audience to be trapped within the space as Diane is. It lets us live as Diane does with the turbulent and suffocating nature of their relationship, they are close to one another in both love and hate.

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There are two moments in the film in film where the square aspect ratio is broken. The juxtaposition of the small 1:1 aspect ratio to the widescreen that audiences are used to makes for a breathtaking and beautiful visual moment, one which also reveals much about the inner life of Diane’s character. The frame widens in a moment of joy or break from the typical reality that Diane, Kyla, and Steve find themselves imprisoned within.

The first scene is as Kyla, Steve, and Diane are becoming more comfortable with one another. Kyla is homeschooling Steve while Diane is able to make money cleaning. Steve skateboards down the street as Diane and Kyla ride their bikes behind him. Steve wears headphones as the Oasis song Wonderwall plays. With his hands he pushes the screen wide open. It’s a refreshing and invigorating moment. The world has opened up for these characters, their worries seem far behind them. When you have a good week or day, the whole world seems brighter, bigger, and ready for the taking. This emotion, and it’s relationship with the three characters, is gorgeously captured with this visual device, one that cannot be replicated with mere dialogue. “Because maybe, you’re gonna be the one that saves me.” The lead singer belts out. Kyla’s newfound friendship and mentorship with Steve could be what saves him.

As the trio is making dinner, the doorbell rings. Diane answers and finds that she is being sued for the damages Steve caused setting the cafeteria on fire at his previous mental institution. The world comes crashing in on her, the happiness Diane has felt is gone. Her smile fades as the screen shrinks back to the confining square. Diane is once again enclosed in the unhappy truth of her world.

The second scene is set to a gorgeous composition entitled Experience by Ludovico Einaudi. The song itself is what inspired Dolan to write this scene. The aspect ratio expands over the city landscape as Diane, Kyla, and Steve go on a road trip. Diane watches Steve and Kyla frolic by the sea. The film cuts to a slow-motion montage. Steve bringing home a girlfriend, graduating from school, receiving an acceptance letter to college, getting married, having a baby. We then see a blurry close-up of Diane in slow motion, as the screen slowly shrinks back to the 1:1 aspect ratio. Then the camera cuts to Diane and Steve back in the car. Sadly, we realize that it was all just a dream. In the next heart wrenching scene, Diane brings Steve back to the mental hospital. There was no fun road trip in the beginning, this is what they were heading towards all along.

This montage is tragic, especially in light of the ending. It is the life which could have been for Diane  Steve, and Kyla. Diane’s dreams of a happy life are expanded into widescreen, the hopes for a child that all parents dream of. These hopes for Steve will never come true. As the screen shrinks back, reality again is thrusted back to Diane. This montage is another moment for the audience to step into Diane’s shoes, to get swept up in the fantasy that this mother has for her child. The reality of her situation, that none of this is attainable for her son and is indeed only a dream, is truly devastating.

Both of these scenes are visual masterpieces that tell so much of the story without words. Film is a visual medium, and it is fascinating to see directors truly take advantage of the potentials that experimentation with it can bring. Dolan is a superior talent that should be watched out for. It is extraordinary that he is crafting such fine work at such a young age. The unique choice of a 1:1 aspect ratio for Mommy was a stunning one, effectively putting the audience in the minds and world of the characters.