Film Response #3 – Rear Window (1954)

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Week 3’s discussion was of Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. I am falling in love with these films more and more each week! I chose a brief one-minute “pan” to analyze in the paper below. This brief transition appears right before the end of Jeff and Lisa’s second night together in his apartment.

Left: Lisa (Grace Kelly). Right: L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) – Rear Window (directed by A. Hitchcock, 1954)

In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), James Stewart plays an injured renowned photographer named L. B. (“Jeff”) Jeffries, who, at the tail end of a seven-week recovery for a broken leg has been limited to people-watching through his apartment windows during the peak of summer. Hitchcock quickly conditions the viewer to believe that every time the various neighbors and their apartments are shown, they are seeing shots in Jeff’s point-of-view. Additionally, the camera pauses at various medium shots of the various apartment dwellers, then the camera cuts to a close up of Jeff’s reaction to these images or micro-scenes. At the beginning of the second night of the main narrative, however, Hitchcock departs from that conditioning and simultaneously satisfies the addicting quality of voyeurism that has arrested the entire narrative. Laura Mulvey discusses the “pleasures” that cinema offers, and it seems clear that Hitchcock explores this effectiveness of scopophilia in at least one key turning point in the film.

In the opening phone conversation with his editor and through the initial dialogue with his nurse, Stella, Jeff establishes his disconcerting views of marriage. During the first evening, Lisa enters Jeff’s apartment jovially, advertises the coming seven days to be a week Jeff will never forget, and their contrasting views toward the trajectory of their relationship are earmarked to become the core conflict of the narrative until after her departure when Jeff, immobile and alone again, watches the peculiar activity of the salesman, Mr. Thorwald, across the courtyard. From Jeff’s POV, we see Thorwald leave and return twice; then, in what becomes a departure from the established point of view, we see Thorwald and a woman leave the apartment before the camera pans to a sleeping and oblivious Jeff. This momentary POV shift is crucial to the entire narrative, and it is the first key detail that makes viewers just as much voyeurs as Jeff has become. Through dramatic irony, we are now even more helpless to communicate concerns and theories to Jeff as he is to Stella or Lisa. 

The second departure from Jeff’s POV recycles a shot on the thermometer, suggesting that both Jeff and the activity within his vantage-point have cooled a bit. The camera pans left and slightly up and down throughout what seems to be his POV which exhibit a series of symbolic nods to Jeff’s stated concerns of his future. The first image is that of the shirtless (vulnerable) pianist, who mops around the piano and is apparently cleaning up a past discretion–likely the drunken one he had had while alone the previous night. He pauses his work momentarily during an obvious flash of inspiration, keys a few chords, but unsuccessfully capitalizes on that flash and angrily returns to his obligatory duty. Symbolically, this parallels Jeff’s own artistic drive as a photographer and how his physically disabled state has stunted his growth as an artist. Notably, though, the pan pauses here, capturing an unsavory moment of self-loathing and frustration. Secondly, in a brief high-angle shot during the right-to-left pan, we see a father assisting a child with pajamas on the balcony. This wholesome scene is clear but never stops (as it had with the pianist), and it is also the most distant in space from Jeff’s point of view. This glimpse is a probable microcosm of the images Jeff has seen over the past six weeks on this balcony. He may envision himself as a father, but because these characters are so minimally featured, it becomes clear that Jeff does not anticipate positioning himself into domesticity and parenthood anytime soon. 

The camera pans down and left and blazes past the salesman’s empty, but lit, room as we hear the whistling from the dog owners above. The flowing pan finds the whistler, then cuts downward to find the dog running toward its retrieval basket. By now, the camera pan has mirrored the natural instinct to spot movement and immediately discern whether the movement is either arbitrary or threatening. Lastly, In a continuous stream, we see brief glimpses of the harmless women near Thorwald’s apartment opposite Jeff: “Miss Lonelyhearts” (sewing), “Miss Torso” (grooming), and the spinster artist below Miss Torso (sculpting). These three women also represent various aspects of Jeff’s life and desires: repairing/healing (sewing); independence and self presentation (grooming); and returning to his artistic craft (sculpting). The flowing pan continues left and withdraws back into Jeff’s apartment to reveal that these images were not observed by Jeff at all, but rather by the audience alone. Lisa sits on his lap, obstructing his view as they engage in amorous activity, but she is also obstructing his concentration on the Thorwald narrative he’s been constructing since the previous night. This second “departure” from Jeff’s POV further deepens the viewers’ investment in this neighborhood. Interestingly, the scene unfolds as Lisa attempts again to engage in romantic exchanges, yet Jeff struggles to reciprocate fully because he has become so immersed in the mystery across the courtyard. As the scene develops, we watch a frustrated artist wrestle with his desire for Lisa and his moral obligation to protect a stranger. Hitchcock uses this scene to demonstrate that at least some men are not driven solely by conquering sexual desires. This exchange challenges a stereotype and complicates the relationship he has with Lisa, but moments later, she finally sees what he has been seeing and becomes just as enamored as Jeff has become. 

Film Response #2 – Citizen Kane

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For our second response paper, we were asked to view Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and analyze a scene and/or cinematic technique. Here’s what I submitted. I do really like the film, but there are some glaring plot holes that disturb me to my non-critical core.

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Within its non-linearal structure, one significant two-minute flashback in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) that takes place during the interview of Mr. Leland (Joseph Cotton) at the hospital includes six brief scenes demonstrating the breakfast time exchanges between Kane (Orson Welles) and his first wife Emily Norton (Ruth Warrick), and these scenes feature clear and subtle clues to the sour trajectory of Kane’s first marriage. As the camera dissolves from Leland in the foreground to the early days of Kane’s marriage to Emily in what critic James Naremore identifies as the “celebrated breakfast table montage,” Leland states in a matter-of-fact fashion that, after the first few months, their marriage was “like any other marriage.” Through these six brief scenes, we learn that Leland’s observation of their relationship implies that most marriages begin with passion and dwindle into silent despair and contempt.

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941)

The first scene within this two-minute flashback opens with Emily sitting daintily at the breakfast table and pours herself tea. Her bright formal gown, we realize, has been worn since the previous evening, and Kane enters jovially with a cloth napkin and food for each of them. His tuxedo and demeanor are clearly aligned with his adoration of his young wife. Throughout this exchange, Kane appears to be so enamored by her beauty that he rather rudely interrupts her speech as he repeats a compliment. The shots cut back and forth on each character during this first scene, but the indication is clear that they maintain intense eye contact. Kane’s boyish body language exhibits his helplessness against her pronounced beauty. The sexually suggestive conclusion of this first sequence implies Kane’s willingness to sacrifice time from work in order to stay with his wife. Yet, this brief moment of mental and physical attraction is never superseded in the following five scenes within this flashback, during which the contents of the breakfast table and each character’s body language serve as two key unstated changes that support Leland’s claim of the marriage’s typical downward spiral of passion. 

During the subsequent five scenes, all of the food and drink are already on the table, which suggests that Kane’s cordiality has floundered. There is no physical contact, and each character experiences an increase in stress, though Kane attempts to insert self-serving wit to wash away the building discontent. Flowers appear between them in the foreground during the opening three portions, but they are absent remaining scenes, serving as a clear metaphor for their relationship. Though we are naturally drawn to each character’s face during each interaction, the removal of the flowers creates a void between them and seems to broaden and lengthen the physical space between husband and wife. This subtle space-generator signals the growing distance among two former lovers.

Consistently, each scene opens with a medium shot of Emily always facing Kane directly; however, Kane’s position across the table moves slightly to his right over the next two medium shots on him. This “turning away” indicates a departure from the giddiness we see in the opening scene. In the fourth scene, Kane is formally dressed for his day and faces her squarely, but this repositioning is overshadowed by his business-like demeanor. Emily questions Mr. Bernstein’s presence in the nursery, but Kane coldly rejects this concern. In the penultimate exchange, each character’s facial expression has drastically shifted to concern and defense. Emily’s hopefulness to discuss matters of concern has been replaced with a clear indication of her growing frustration. Kane’s squinted eyes demonstrate his equal amount of angst. The final wordless exchange, though, serves as a powerful microcosm of their marriage’s demise. Emily’s intentional choice of her husband’s rival newspaper implies her eventual departure, and Kane’s sneer over his copy of the Inquirer echoes his selfishness. 

Naremore identifies Citizen Kane as “a series of reminiscences by witnesses to Kane’s life,” and suggests that viewers are being presented the truth through these interviews. Though Mr. Thompson’s interview with Mr. Leland creates an opportunity for this flashback, the scenes potentially misrepresent the “truth” they attempt to exhibit because they are, notably, conjecture from someone who was not in the room during these alleged exchanges. If we assume these six brief moments were constructed in Leland’s mind through a variety of Kane’s comments, we must then understand that these scenes are subjective and not objective. Thus, the subtle strategy of this flashback further emphasizes Kane’s tireless protection of his ego and appearance to the world.  Naremore also centers on the ironies of the five distinguishable extended flashbacks. The six short scenes in the singular montage between Kane and Emily include examples of irony as well. Kane and Emily appear in either contrasting colors or clothing choices. Furthermore, viewers experience dramatic irony in this flashback since neither Kane nor Emily know that their marriage will dissolve before its tragic and sudden end in her death. 

Bicycle Thieves (1948) – Response Paper 1

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*I am beginning a new graduate course today at Ball State – ENG 654 – Film Studies. We were tasked to view the film Bicycle Thieves and write a brief 500-700 word response prior to our first class session tonight.

The film is available for rent or purchase through streaming services, but there is also a site/app called Kanopy where it can be viewed for free by subscribers. My response begins under the photo below.

L: Enzo Staiola (“Bruno”); R: Lamberto Maggiorani (“Antonio”) in Bicycle Thieves (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica.

The 1948 Italian film Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) from director Vittorio de Sica features the quest of Antonio Ricci, a newly employed layman, who searches for his stolen bicycle. Antonio’s dependence on the bicycle is not only established quickly, but the bicycle also proves to represent various tangible and intangible elements of humanity. The bulk of the narrative exhibits Antonio modeling strong, respectable citizenship while in the company of his young son Bruno, yet Antonio reaches a moral threshold that clearly demonstrates a central struggle through an example of the circumstances that would lead anyone to contradict one’s own ethical code. 

The choice of the bicycle for this purpose is apt due to its multifaceted symbolic power. The universality and familiarity with bicycles contributes to the power of the film’s general thesis which exhibits the challenges one man faces with his own moral code while under extreme duress. Bicycles are often associated with youth as the first mode of transportation that truly separates the owner/rider from his or her home and outside the realm of visible adult supervision, which conjures the notion of one gaining independence. The independence Antonio desires is not one of isolation from others but rather one that would remove him out from under the weight and struggle of poverty. As Antonio’s story develops, the bicycle further serves as a symbolic generational bond between Antonio and his son, and the clarity of the father-son relationship blurs at the same pace as the whereabouts of the stolen bicycle. 

The opening sequence of the film cleverly establishes the immediate, yet undefined, significance that owning a bicycle has for Antonio, and this leads to the first of many conflicts the protagonist faces. Viewers are immediately immersed in the struggle all of the unemployed workers experience, and their frustration with the lack of opportunity quickly becomes a microcosm for the oppressed individuals. Because Antonio has pawned his bicycle, his wife Maria decides that selling their bedsheets, objects she clearly treasures, is worth the sacrifice so Antonio can not only reach the desired position but eventually earn enough to take them out of their dire financial state. Thus, the specific bicycle he re-claims serves as a physical representation of his past debt and current cash crisis. 

What is so striking about this scene is how quickly Maria’s sharp and selfless idea to pawn the sheets comes to her when compared to the visibly painful and helplessness Antonio displayed after accepting the job bid. In this scene, De Sica could be promoting the maternal instinct to think of the entire family’s needs before her own, but this altruistic action is never later discussed among the couple. However, upon buying back his bicycle, viewers watch through Antonio’s vantagepoint as the sheets they’d just sold are stored into an immense and seemingly endless collection. It is clear De Sica felt an obligation to contrast these two through tangible goods for this scene to garner as much as time as it does. 

Once the bicycle is stolen, the narrative’s tone returns to the struggle the unemployment line conjured in the opening scene. Antonio helplessly chases after the thief, earns little or no respect from law enforcement, and becomes visibly fraught with the notion of returning home to his wife and newborn to explain the loss. Interestingly, De Sica opts to allow the viewer to watch the seedy heist the three-man team of thieves initiate come to fruition, which makes the audience experience the struggle and helplessness right alongside Antonio. Because the lone thief who rode off initially was shown briefly and only in profile, the audience cannot be any more sure than Antonio himself when he believes he’s found him the following afternoon. De Sica thus forces Antonio and the viewer to consider one’s willingness to reach closure, even if it means putting others into a poorer condition.