Journals of Hollywood Films

McCabe & Ms. Miller (1971)

The Duet of the Poet: Robert Altman and Leonard Cohen

The film starts with The Stranger Song by Cohen. Along with the sad tune, a spanning shot slowly marches over the forests. In the scattered shades of bushes and branches, a man, who is embedded in the fur, rides along the path. This is the very opening scene of McCabe & Ms. Miller; or rather, the duet of two gifted poets, prosing the sense of loneliness and destiny of the man in the frame. Soon he reaches the destination, a shabby village where people have nothing to do but wandering. He pulls off the fur, pulls out his hat, and murmurs, perhaps execrates to himself, “I think I’m stupid.” This sequence as a turning point from a “tramp” to a “gentleman”, accompanies the guitar gently weeping in the background, as if it is listening and echoing with his feelings. In the last part of the song, while Cohen puts the lyrics we see the hero passing through the bridge which is with deep implication of his fatal destiny, but he walks with dignity. [The lyrics goes: “And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind/You find he did not leave you very much not even laughter/Like any dealer he was watching for the card/That is so high and wild/He'll never need to deal another/He was just some Joseph looking for a manger/He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.” ]

The duet of the two genius introduces the keynote of the film: depression and fatality. However, it was not in a desperate sense, instead, in a calm sense, which I considered as one of the most distinguish traits that divided the 60s and the 70s films. The 60s generation found the dead end of the American dream and violently screamed out the dissatisfaction, while the 70s stayed pessimistic themselves and lived in the quiet desperation. It is a different attitude of resistance. Just like Altman implicates by ceasing every majuscule in the cast roll, everybody is nobody, and we are all negligible to some extent.

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Who is the Man on the Dancefloor?

Recently, I found myself get into the films with both obvious shortcomings and outstanding advantages, and Saturday Night Fever is just one of the cases. As far as I observed, the late-1970s youth film has its sparkle shined just much as its protagonist does, especially in creating the whole “disco era” sensation, all of the groovy phenomenon, and also in its acute criticism on the “lost generation” as well as involving the binary social standards as it constantly offering subvert conversation of the priest and the rebellious. However, as I mentioned, the film is to some extent incomplete, problematic and kind of jumping to the persuasions. The most problematic trait of all, I reckon, is in establishing the character, mostly, the protagonist. Who is the Man on the dancefloor? Why is he so righteous that would not accept the trophy? What does he finally grow into? I could not see his face clearly because I don’t know what he believes in - it seems he builds up his image only on the basis of others’ inability. The people around Tony are apparently categorized into certain columns: the ignorable anxious boy who got his girlfriend pregnant, the girl who tried to be attractive by turning herself into a whore, the lost and “incapable” priest, and the sophisticated upper-class woman who needs true love and so on so forth. By setting Tony into perplex relationships with all these “ordinary” people, the filmmaker outlines the curves of the “extraordinary” Tony. But Tony himself, is like an onion, even though he does choose differently from his friends, and takes some efforts into practicing, and behaves independently for most of the times, I cannot see the inner drive of this character, the core is empty. On the other way around, what I reckon as a failure might just serve the intention of the director. It might be a big parody: The masculine boy who supposed to be the potential savior of all, is fake and plastic as an empty figure. As Hollywood produced many films proclaiming the massive inner power of men, for example in boxing games, trying to get out of the passive tone in the war; this film, ambiguously on the verge of positive and negative, is for sure a special one.

Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars V.S. Ultraman:
A Brief Comparison between Western and Eastern’s
70’s space Sci-Fis

The 1970s witnessed a coincidence that on the two ends of the world – generally known as the western and the eastern – there both emerged some sci-fi motion pictures in theatres or on the Television. Among them Ultraman series and Star Wars films are considered as most influential and representative, moreover, they both set on the idea of the human being meeting the challenges of the invasions from outer space.

Ultraman is a Japanese science fiction television series created by Eiji Tsuburaya in 1966, until the late 1970s, there had been 8 seasons broadcasted. The setting of each episode was alike: The Earth was attacked by monsters from outer space, and the Special Squad could not resist it, so the ultraman would come and take care of it. Aside from the routine storyline, the setting seems to reflect the post-war concerns of Japanese people. For example, the monsters were mutated creatures suffered from nuclear pollution or derived from the dark feelings; and human needed to be “rescued” by an outsider ; and even if the squad made their efforts to resist, it seemed useless because the monster was out of their league. It is a pattern that is similar to the postwar situation of Japanese because they needed to be saved, redempted, protested by American. Conversely, The Star Wars series demonstrate human as the most brave, intelligent, united creatures in the universe. As a good example of an optimistic film, the New Hope emphasized not only the unfathomable potential of human, in the form of “the Force,” but also the spirit of perseverance and union. Altogether, it implies the protagonist, which in a sense relates to the identity of the American, serves as a dominant role in the world, while the men in ultraman series are obviously minor, passive and insecure. Furthermore, the opposite attitudes towards the challenge echo with the Eastern and Western philosophies generally: the cyclical raises of challenges and the instant, temporal solution suggested in Ultraman corresponds to the Buddhism in that it underlines the notion of karma, and accepts the limitation of men as a living creature; while the Star Wars cherished the rationalism.

Blow Out (1981)

Masculinity on Question: Political Conspiracy Over Men’s Gaze

  The synchronization of the film and its current background is of much obviosity: it is a stylish work of auteur’s portfolio, for the frequent use of overlapping and split-screen; the professionality of the protagonist is underlined and implements as a narrative device; the serial conflicts leads to the examination of the institution; and the white male role stays in the controlled conspiracy. As a resonance of social issue and an innovation of film noir, the film declared the coming of a new era of genre films.

However, there is still something that worth deeper investigation. It is obvious that the film was much as a remake of Antonioni’s 1966 masterpiece blow up, through the title and the plots we might notice. Interestingly, in the process of remaking, the director transited the pivot subject from the “men’s gaze to women” to “men’s being gazed by authority”. There are two main alternations. One is the setting of male protagonist. Our hero, Jack, wasn’t pretty a hero, even if he saved the girl’s life – he was not praised, given no reward, no one cared if he was hurt, the only thing he got was a warn of getting involved. Besides, in contrast to the charming, dominant hero in blow up, Jack worked in a small independent company, doing something marginal and had a trauma from a fatal failure. When he finally got a chance to gaze at woman and enjoyed the dominance, the woman turned out to be controlled over by other power and died. He was a white man who lost his masculinity to the authority, as he got trapped in the conspiracy. The other alternation is the sound. In blow up, the driving technique behind whole story is the voyeurism, which deprived from sight, the dominant sense of human body. However, blow out focuses on the sound, in secondary to the sense of light. The peeping sound is even more passive, and easier to lose control of. As an evidence, the sound is too weak to support his ratiocination. As a device, the recording machine is way more cumbersome than the camera. And as a clue to save the girl, it is always delayed. In all, the transition from sight to sound limited the masculinity in terms of its essential inferiority of dominance and enhanced the vulnerability of individual in confrontation of an institution.

Back to the Future (1985)

Time travels in “time travel” tricks

The old saying “Time heals all wounds” seems to lose its power in the film Back to Future. Originally, “time heals all wounds” indicates a possibility that in time there will be encounters aiding people to change their attitude and cure their grief towards the past bad events. This saying shows people’s dependence and hope in the future, that is, the unknown hope lies in the future as future is a temporality that you could strike to change while the past is fixed.

In Back to Future, the incident that turns Marty’s “present”(1985) life better lies in the past. In the film, Marty’s father has been subordinate to a man called Biff, and how he changes his fate is through changing the important conjunction in the past. Such idea, emphasizing the “cause” instead of “result” which coincides with the principle of karma in Buddhism, that any thoughts, words and actions lead to certain effects in the lives of individuals. What time travel complicates is the order “cause” and “effect”, that is, the reason why the character decides to go back to the past and change the “cause” is always because of an unfavorable “present”. Therefore, it is “present”, a temporality that ahead of the “past”, that leads to changes to the past. In this respect, the “cause” in the past becomes a “result” of present and the past becomes unknown future (because when one stay in present, he/she knows nothing of the up-coming time travel). It is “present” that brings changes to the past and brings another present.

In the Men in Black , time travel is considered "illegal throughout the universe,”  because instead of awaiting the unknown future, it seems to be a much more “convenient” and active to change the known past and thus brings a different present. And maybe it’s the reason why most of the time travel film features the journey of going back to the past instead of future, e.g Source Code(2011), The Butterfly Effect(2004), X-men: Days of Future Past(2014), etc; it creates an most ideal sanctuary in which people will no longer face any risk of regrets and freed from responsibility, namely any unfavorable “result”, as the “cause” is ready to be mastered and manipulated by yourself.

The Matrix (1999)

The Millennial Rhapsody

In the 1990s, digital films gradually took over the conventional way of making films, in fact, the digital technique was taking over simply everything in the manufacturing world. We welcomed the digital era, made films with it, made films of it, and tried to exploit it to its fullest – the digital is a friend who never betrays us. At the very end of the last century, two maniac brothers subverted this unconditional trust. The Matrix was a game-like film, but in the essence it explores the notion of game in comparison to the reality, which is true? Are we really mastering the techniques? Red pill or blue pill? The only truth is we live in the endlessly unfalsifiable relativity. What intrigues me more was its interpretation of oriental philosophy. In The Matrix we realized the distinction between body and mind, and also the East and the West. There is a talented visual analogy in the film when western revolutionaries learn Martial arts and Judo moves by inserting certain chips into the mind, it is worth looking into because for one thing the oriental is valued for its highly spiritualized potential which can’t be taught through words; for another the chip is a commodify, a weapon to armed with, in other words, you have choices to have it or not. Paradoxical as it showed in this film, it reflected the western underlying concerns for the multiculturalization. The Matrix is not a unique instance, but has its counterpart in Kill Bill, both films take the eastern mystery as something great to use, to combat and to win. Naturally, another question emerged, so how did oriental films portray the multiculturalization? How would they take western philosophy? Although I’ve always intended to believe the globalization has diminished the traits of certain cultures and this cultural convergence trend is unstoppable, untraceable and spontaneous, there are still noticeable distinguishes in the films sphere. For instance, the 90s Japanese films and cultural products that touched upon the western ideology, such as Swallowtail Butterfly(1996) and Cowboy Bebop(1998), showed strong intention for “fusion”-- the western and eastern characters had their different roles but they lived under the same circumstances and it is the fusion of their ideologies leading them to the victory.

Adaptation (2002)

The Myth of Twins

The film started with voice-over of a man, no images but black. The man is not speaking - he is having a conversation with himself: one talking about the details of the lousy life and the other trying to find a way to make a change. It seems as a monologue of our protagonist Charlie because his twin brother apparently does not suffer from the depressing moods, but I would say the opening voiceover already implicates the binary tension of Charlie himself, to put another way, if the film ends with a revelation of “Donald is a phantom or from imagination,” I would not be surprised because in my preoccupation, the whole twin story is only the visualization of one fighting a self-war. Besides, the film is structuralism, not only in the surface plots which speaks to the cycling romantic myth as side effects of “adaptation”, but also in this film’s script itself, if we make some essential connection to the twin’s myth. The first half of film is depressing, with seldom plots and scattered dialogues, even as “poetic” I would describe. It is typically a work from Charlie. However, the second half of film is plot-driven, full of car-chasing, gunfights, crimes, suspensions, thrills and main characters dying (for rather absurd reasons). It just like a script of Donald’s. The film ends with a new lovable Charlie with forever memory of Donald – finally, the twin script writers converge as one, so the tension that embedded from the first shot has finally gone. In this sense, the film is so exquisitely arranged because the structure and the content are usually hard to cope with simultaneously. The only problem, if must say, I think would be the ending. The newborn Charlie speaks to the audience in a very mild, calm, and reassuring way – it seems he has solved every problem in his life. I can not identify with this new Charlie because his turning is too fast, too sharp and much too “good.” I do not believe in such an ironic, self-discovering film ending with a fake good protagonist and I really want to find the message if there’s one, but then I realized maybe the detachment is the filmmaker’s way of farewell – as if to say: “now the identification process is done, goodbye ‘Charlies’.”

Up in the Air (2009)

A Persuasion for the Americans

I rated this film five stars when I first watched it in 2013, but after the recent reviewing I lower the rates to three stars --I think maybe it is much less challenging for me now, as an “active” spectator, and I expect even more from this film. The following are three main observations to share from the recent screening:

1)   This film goes with the decade’s trend of “lifestyle introduction” with many bird-eye landscaping shots, the daily usual dialogues and the “pseudo-documentary” way of filming. What’s the life up in the air? With the austere curiosity, audience is surely delighted to devote their viewership to this film, not to mention to the enjoyment of an unchallenging digestible storyline (a typical three-act play).

2)   On the social issue of mass unemployment, this film expressed their concerns in the format of a parallel narration. On one hand, Ryan’s job is to persuade those layoffs to leave their positions with ease, in which sequence us audience might find identifications from the captured panorama of people’s heartbreaking moments; on the other hand, Ryan himself faced the problem of changing his lifestyle, his working style as well as facing the risk of losing the legitimacy and the “honor” of his job. I guess the spectators might find the best empathy in Ryan’s desperate performance after the meeting, because that is people’s authentic reaction to the abrupt changes in the life.

3)   Interestingly, just as Ryan did in the film, the film itself served to persuade the Americans to walk out from the shadow of the financial crisis. How can we get through the storm? This film tells us the solution is in your home -- the love from your family eases all the pain, who doesn’t have a family is the one truly sad. Honestly speaking, I cherish the love from my families, but I don’t think returning to family is the ultimate solution to the social problem; I actually expect more penetrated, critical investigations. Anyhow, it suited to comfort, maybe that is enough.

The Lego Movie (2014)

Sophie's World: The Connection between movie and human world

Beginning like most of the superhero films, The Lego Movie sets up a worldview and gives the viewers a sense of empathy of the Lego structure builder. As it goes further, it gives hints about the connections between the Lego world and the human world. Especially at the ending part, the movie breaks its original framework as a parallel universe to a world related to the human world and push the viewers back to the reality. Here are three main observations to this film:
1.     The double-layer structure enriches the contents of the movie. In the first layer, the viewers concern about the Justice and evil also representing order versus chaos and obeying versus creativity. In the second layer, it focusses on the relationship between father and son. Another advantage of the structure is that the reversing is usually beyond imagination. Because there is a transition of the sense of empathy from the Lego structure builder to the human boy among viewers.
2.     These two worlds have the connection, but the Lego world is not an exact reflection of the human world. In Sophie's World, Sophie considers herself existing independently, however, every step of her life is changing with the author’s pen.
3.     Additionally, it reminds me of the question: Whose identification we are inserting into? Are we the lego heroes or are we the human beings to build the lego?  I am sure the subversive change of viewpoints draws the audience out of the film for a second. Not only did I get to think about which level of hierarchy are we located at (the controller or the worker?) also it made me realize I was staring at a world inside the screen. The ending of the film offered an exit for the film, or to say, the world of cinema. I made me feel like Sophie myself, who accidentally fell into a world of apparatus and started to live my own life out of the two-dimension mind controlling world. In this sense I love this film because it really served the audience or all the cinephilies to take a look back at the reality of cinema.