Film Studies

Archive for February 2011

Once Upon a Time in the West

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Once Upon a Time in the West is a film created by Sergio Leone and is considered one of the best films of the western genre.  It is a story that begins with a hazy story and never really declares outright whom the villain is and who the hero is until its climatic shootout near the conclusion of the film.  Although the film is nearly three hours in length and is known for its slow pace like similar Sergio Leone films, Once Upon a Time in the West is a suspenseful film that incorporates excellent sound and cinematic techniques and differs from other westerns by challenging the dominant ideology.

Because they are both westerns, I thought Once Upon a Time in the West was going to have a similar feel to our previous film lab where we viewed The Searchers.  This was clearly not the case because Once Upon a Time in the West has numerous differences to The Searchers.  The differences I noticed was the pace of the film.  The Searches seemed to move relatively fast (covering 5 years in just under 2 hours), while each scene in Once Upon a Time in the West seems to drag on forever.  Another difference I noticed was the music each film used in creating the film.  The Searchers used happy, patriotic music when John Wayne and the gang were on screen.  Once Upon a Time in the West used only eerie music adding to the suspense of the film.  The last major difference I noticed between The Searchers and Once Upon a Time in the West is the use of the established shot and the close-up shot.  It seemed The Searches emphasized the western landscape and generally used wide, open shots.  Although Once Upon a Time in the West emphasizes the western landscape as well, I noticed more shots focusing on the character’s faces, allowing the viewer to see their emotion clearly.

The differences in Once Upon a Time in the West compared to the ‘normal’ western film is one of the ways this film challenges the dominant ideology.  Before watching this film I determined the dominant ideology of western films is a simple story, which generally consists of a good, moral person (usually an American cowboy) fighting against the ‘bad guys’ (usually bandits or Native American tribes).  Once Upon a Time in the West challenges this ideology by having a storyline where there is no clear hero and clear villain until the film develops.  According to Roger Ebert, “we’re given a plot complex enough for Antonioni, involving killers, land rights, railroads, long-delayed revenge, mistaken identity, love triangles, double-crosses and shoot-outs. We’re well into the second hour of the movie before the plot becomes quite clear.”  Additionally, the actors are casted into roles they previously never had.  Robert Ebert states that Sergio Leone “produces some interesting performances by casting against type. Henry Fonda is the bad guy for once in his career; Charles Bronson is impressively inscrutable as the mysterious good guy; and Jason Robards is a tough guy, believe it or not”  By having a complex storyline and different casting roles, Sergio Leone challenges the belief that the west was a simple, good vs. evil fight, but rather a place where there is corruption and mystery.

Once Upon a Time in the West also displays excellent sound and camera techniques.  Roger Ebert states Once Upon a Time in the West is similar to other Sergio Leone’s films.  He states “there’s the same eerie music; the same sweaty, ugly faces; the same rhythm of waiting and violence.”  I noticed the excellent use of sound while watching Once Upon a Time in the West.  The opening scene is a perfect example of this, where it seems every little noise is emphasized.  No one is talking and all the viewer can hear is water dripping, some sort of squeaking noise, and a fly buzzing.  Not only does the focus on sound create suspense for the viewer, it also creates certain smoothness to the story.  In a couple scenes, the sound from the end of one scene turns into the sound of the next scene.  For example, when Frank’s gun fires when he is about to kill the little boy, the gunshot echo transitions into a train moving.  This type of transition emphasizes smoothness in certain scenes.

Once Upon a Time in the West is an extremely suspenseful film.  One of the ways Sergio Leone captures this suspense is through the point of view shot.  In numerous occasions throughout the film the audience sees an actor look in a direction off screen with a surprise look.  This causes suspense because the viewer does not know what the character is looking at.  This cinematic technique used with the sound techniques previously mentioned, helps Once Upon a Time in the West become a very suspenseful film that challenges the dominant ideology.

Written by matthewpickle

February 23, 2011 at 11:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Uncovering the Real Picture

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The film The Panama Deception takes a critical view on the United State’s invasion of Panama.  Its purpose was to document what exactly happened in Panama during the 1989 invasion.  In addition to uncovering the real reasons for the invasion, The Panama Deception also takes a look at how the media portrayed the war and their bias towards favoring United States interests.  According to our textbook, Engaging Cinema, an effective documentary sets out to establish credibility, provide convincing arguments, and create a compelling experience.  The Panama Deception achieves this through cinematic techniques, eloquent narration, and engaging storyline.

The first principle in an effective documentary is credibility.  The Panama Deception tries to achieve credibility by taking a participatory approach to the issue.  Like Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, The Panama Deception consists of interviewees discussing the invasion while the narrator simply connects the stories together.  The interviewees consist of former members of the leadership of Panama and the United States as well as scholars.  In addition to displaying their official title on the screen, the narrator also speaks about the credibility of the interviewees.  This narrative technique provides even more credibility to the viewer because the narrator essentially tells them how experienced the interviewees are on the issue.  Although this narrative technique provides credibility, there are instances where it seems the credibility is lacking.  Most of the interviews in The Panama Deception are with individuals who oppose the invasion of Panama, with a limited number of interviews with those associated with the United States government.  Although it may have been difficult in finding credible sources from the government, the filmmakers lose a sense of objectivity by favoring one side of the controversy.  Nonetheless, utilizing a number of interviewees and narrating their credentials is an excellent way to achieve credibility.

A documentary must have convincing arguments for a viewer to continue watching the film. The Panama Deception does this in a variety of ways.   First, the narrator provides background information to the viewer through narration and pictures from the Panama Canal history.  Another way The Panama Deception provides convincing arguments is the way the story is told.  The filmmakers begin by showing a statement by the United States government and then prove the statement wrong by interviewing first-hand accounts and providing photographic evidence.  An example of this occurs when we see a Pentagon official state there were no mass graves created during the invasion.  Once we hear this, we instantly see video clips of mass graves as well as interviews from those who have seen these graves.  This editing technique creates convincing arguments to the viewer.  The last technique used to create convincing arguments is the fade-in and fade-out technique.  These are used to tell the viewer the end of one argument and the beginning of the other one.  Using this organization technique allows the film to be clear and allows the viewers to easily understand what is going on.

Lastly, a compelling storyline keeps the viewer interested in a documentary.  The Panama Deception does this primarily through juxtaposition.  The film begins with an interview of one of the victims where she is discussing the emotional implication of the invasion, and then swiftly cuts to an interview with an army official talking about the strategy and tactical approach to the invasion.  Juxtaposition is used throughout the film and the rapid change from one side to the other keeps the viewer attentive to the issue.  The following trailer of The Panama Deception provides examples of juxtaposition.  Another way the filmmakers of The Panama Deception create a compelling story is displaying photographs and videos of the destruction and death in Panama.  This once again creates a compelling form of presentation.

The creation and release of The Panama Deception created a lot of controversy.  Although many people agreed or disagreed with the content of the film, many critics praised the film techniques used in The Panama Deception.  In this review of The Panama Deception by the New York Times, Vincent Canby believes the films “images are moving in themselves and beautifully edited. It really doesn’t need a lot of Elizabeth Montgomery’s instructive narration, which constantly tells the audience what it’s supposed to think.”  This limited use of narration creates flow throughout the movie, which helps make it a convincing and compelling film.  Additionally, Vincent Canby also notices the juxtaposition usage in The Panama Deception by stating the director uses irony “by juxtaposing a Panamanian politician’s statements about peace and democracy with shots dramatizing the fearful toll war takes on civilians, most of them poor. It’s easily done but still effective.”  Overall, The Panama Deception incorporates numerous cinematic techniques to create an effective documentary.

Written by matthewpickle

February 9, 2011 at 11:39 pm

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Cheer Up Charlie…

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"I think it would be fun to run a newspaper"


Citizen Kane is a major film that revolutionized the film industry during the 1940s.  The film’s techniques and cinematography pioneered new advances in filmmaking still present in many of today’s films.  The film Citizen Kane follows the life of Charles Foster Kane, played by Orson Welles, as he faces both personal and professional challenges over the course of his life in his pursuit of lifelong happiness.  In addition to playing the role of Charles Kane, Welles also directed the film, where he implemented many key technical cinematic ideas including extra-dietetic sound, elegant use of lighting, and the deep focus camera technique.

As I began viewing Citizen Kane this evening I noticed the frequent use of extra-diegetic sound.  Many key scenes of Citizen Kane have accompanying background music to connect the viewer to the story emotionally.  In the scene where Charlie Kane leaves his family and is sent to Chicago under Mr. Thatcher’s supervision, the background music has a soft, sad tone.  When we see Charles Kane taking over The New York Inquirer, the background music is both loud and fast-paced, emphasizing happiness.  Lastly, near the end of the movie when the viewer is close to understanding the meaning behind “Rosebud,” the music is very suspenseful.  All of these examples illustrate the importance of extra-diegetic sound to the storyline.  The background music shapes the emotion the viewer should experience in each scene as he/she watches the film.  In some instances, the music begins before the scene occurs and is foreshadowing the subsequent event and preparing the viewer for the type of emotion to expect.

The lighting in Citizen Kane is another concept important to the Charles Kane storyline.  Orson Welles elegantly uses lighting in each scene by incorporating low-key lighting.  During the scenes where the newspaper associate, Mr. Thompson, is interviewing Kane’s colleagues, the lighting is focused primarily on the interviewee and not Mr. Thompson.  In fact, rarely do we see Mr. Thompson’s face clearly lit in the entire film.  I believe Orson Welles does this to emphasize the importance of the story the interviewees are telling and keep the viewers less focused on Mr. Thompson.  Orson Welles also using lighting to stress the theme of each scene.  The happy and cheerful scenes, such as Kane and Susan’s marriage, are brightly lit, while the scene where Kane is angry after writing a bad review of Susan is dimly lit.

One of the most important camera technique highlighted in Citizen Kane is the deep focus shot.  The scene where Charles Kane knocks on Susan’s bedroom door while she is sleeping is an example of a deep focus shot.  Another example is when Mr. Thompson interviews Mr. Bernstein.  We see Mr. Bernstein walk toward the background while the camera still focuses on the desk and Mr. Thompson sitting in the foreground.  The use of the deep focus technique and utilizing both the background and foreground of a scene creates a large, open frame setting.  This allows the viewer to feel like they are a part of the scene and keeps he/she engaged in the plot.  Orson Welles also uses tracking shots in scenes where he wants to create smoothness.  In the scene where Charles Kane’s parents are discussing his departure, the camera tracks the mother’s movement.  This is not only used to create smoothness, but also keep the viewer focused on the mother.

Nearly all review sites rank Citizen Kane as one of the greatest films of all time.  Although it is a dated film and feels somewhat slow in the middle of the story, I would agree with many of the review sites in saying Citizen Kane revolutionized the film industry.  According to a review in Time Magazine, “Citizen Kane is the most sensational product of the U. S. movie industry. It has found important new techniques in picture-making and storytelling.”  I agree with this statement and believe the way the Citizen Kane story was presented kept me engaged in the film.  Although the viewer knows Charles Kane dies, the mystery behind the “rosebud” keeps the suspense up.  The Time Magazine review also wrote: “So sharply does Citizen Kane veer from cinema cliché, it hardly seems like a movie.”  The cinematography and the various use of lighting, sound, and deep focus shots create a feeling that the viewer is actually in each scene sitting in a dark corner watching, making Citizen Kane an excellent film experience.

Written by matthewpickle

February 2, 2011 at 3:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized