Film Appreciation

project_image

Film analysis, seeing something deeper than surface-story in a movie, can be daunting to some who see it either as a natural talent or over-thinking that will ruin their enjoyment of the story. That talent is cultivated, though, and easy to begin. And the end result is a greater appreciation for the films you already love. An analysis starts with observations. Once you’ve made enough, look for connections that bring up recurring themes. Ask how those themes play into the events of the story, and you’re own your way to a deeper understanding of a film’s message and effect.

Consider Disney’s animated short, Paperman. The characters make for great surface observations. The paperman himself is far thinner than every other character, a mere toothpick of a man. The wind from a train blows him to the side in the opening scene, and a large mass of paper airplanes physically tosses him around in the end.

So wind is present both in the first and last scene. In fact, it’s blowing around paper all through the film. What does wind usually symbolize? We have sayings about it: winds of change, go wherever the wind takes you, etc. Wind is fate—destiny, and that makes sense for the story in Paperman, as our main character follows his own destiny throughout the film. More than any other character, he can be blown by the winds of fate because he is so thin. Other characters, especially his boss, appear as large trunks in their character design, planted and solid. They never even move all of their bodies at once. Of course the film isn’t suggesting that only thin people can find their destiny. But maybe being thin in this film is a metaphor for some other quality, like faith.

That brings us to the paperman’s eyes. They are wider than those of every other character except one. We also have a saying about big eyes: wide-eyed. Jaded people use it to mean naïve, but in fictional characters it can mean innocence and full of faith (see every Disney princess ever). Paper man doesn’t have the squinty eyes of other characters. His are open wide enough to see the young woman who walks into his life, to see her in the building across the street—to see his destiny calling. And what about the one character with bigger eyes than his, the girl? She only needs one paper airplane to lead her to their destiny in the end, while he requires many to forcibly maneuver him.

We’ve used the word paper over and over again. It’s even in the title. Paper comes from trees, and we’ve also used words like planted and toothpick that pertain to trees or wood. Isn’t the oppressive boss, the one who keeps pushing around paperman, chewing on a toothpick every time we see him? The symbolism begins to present itself. The film uses incarnations of wood as a metaphor for a young man who must choose whether or not he will remain a toothpick, chewed on by his boss and become hunched over and unmovable like his coworkers, unable to dream or see more to life around him. He chooses instead to become a paper airplane and sail on the winds of destiny to find true love. Even when he becomes discouraged, the destiny he’s had such faith in carries him there anyway.

Now that you know how, you could keep going (Look at the setting, for instance. The film begins and ends at a train station, a crossroads. How is that a significant contrast to the one way street between paperman’s building and the one in which he sees the young woman?) but you get the gist. By analyzing the decisions the filmmakers made to tell the story, the film transforms from just a charming and emotional tale of one man finding his destiny to a message that would help us find our own. In our daily lives, subject to their own necessities and authorities, we can be ruled and beaten down, or we can maintain or own unique faith in destiny, however we define it. We can see life between the lines and maintain hope. We can be ready for positive change when we come to a crossroads so those winds don’t pass us by.

Lone Believers

original

Suspension of disbelief is a lost art among today’s moviegoers. Even in fantasy and adventure films, modern audiences scrutinize each scene with a taste for verisimilitude (the appearance of being real). And, sadly, this is the extent of their critical engagement. Deeper themes and messages are lost in the confusion of taste for artistic merit. Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger fell prey to such an audience upon its release. The film is criticized for being too unbelievable when ironically its message is a warning against slavish adherence to realism.

Many complain about the film’s narrative structure. An aging Tonto tells the story of the Lone Ranger to a child in a 1933 San Francisco fairground. The young boy interrupts often, and young Tonto in the story breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge him. Realism audiences become nervous when unsure of what to believe. They want narrative authority. In the end Tonto’s story makes sense with the convergence of plot points, but details like the peanut bag (the boy gives it to old Tonto for young Tonto to later place in the grave of a ranger) emphasize that the main story truly is Tonto’s account and not an objective flashback of events.

And the theme of fantasy versus reality doesn’t stop there. Tonto, as a child, decides the white man who slaughtered his people is a wendigo, and he dedicates his life to finding justice. He is guided by visions and “the great father’s” plan, yet he is aware of his delusional state (he hopes the sound of the approaching scorpions is just another sound in his head). When he finally achieves his goal, he tells the murderer of his people “All these years I think you are wendigo, but no, you are just another white man.” The details of his belief weren’t important. The truth was in the strength of his faith and the destiny it gave him.

Likewise John Reid is guided, from convenience at first, by Tonto’s assertion that Reid is a spirit walker, one granted special powers for having been to the other side and back. After the disillusionment of his own faith in government to provide justice and correct its own corruption, he adopts Tonto’s outlandish perception in sincerity. “I am the spirit walker,” he affirms before attempting to shoot the gun from a villain’s hand on a faraway train. “I can’t miss.” And he doesn’t.

The story requires suspension of disbelief, perhaps most of all in the heroic and climactic battle on the trains. This requirement is nothing new for heroic adventure films, but The Lone Ranger’s audience complained that John Reid, who’d been away at law school in the east and hadn’t fired a gun in nine years was somehow still able to ride and use a whip and pistol effectively. Tonto’s heroics, too, appear effortless, as after stealing the train, he simply acts by providence, throwing silver that happens to lie next to him, using a ladder that miraculously lands him safely on a another train before shattering, and so on.

“How unbelievable! How unrealistic!” audiences cry. Tonto and The Lone Ranger become successful heroes merely from having faith in their destinies! They have certain skills, of course, but only when they acknowledge their individual responsibilities does fate propel them forward. Tonto sets out to atone for leading the white men to the silver near his tribe, and John Reid stops waiting for justice from a corrupt system and begins to enforce it himself. The film’s message isn’t that we should hunt wendigos or become masked vigilantes. The message is that how society sees us doesn’t matter, nor does how realistic it sees our chances or how useful our abilities. What is important is how we see ourselves. And when we couple that acknowledgment of individual talent and responsibility with a belief in something greater (be it justice, the Great Father’s plan, or whatever), our destinies will find a way.

The Lone Ranger isn’t a film for everyone, just as hero stories aren’t for everyone. They require faith in the universality of their metaphor. Our response to them is based on a willingness to see ourselves as heroes. They ask each of us how we see our place and purpose in the world. As though anticipating its own critique from an incurably realist society, The Lone Ranger ends with the young boy asking Tonto, “So, the wendigo, nature out of balance, the masked man, it’s just a story right? I mean, I know he’s not real, was he?”

Tonto looks down with a smile and replies, “Up to you.”

Comic Appeal

21110_smaller

In our image-centric society, graphic narratives are more popular than ever, but for all of their technical advancements the core of the medium remains unchanged, human-drawn stories about primary-colored heroes. The tradition even predates comics. Illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages featured brightly colored stories of saints in the margins for those who couldn’t read. In Ancient Greece, structures like the Parthenon featured stories of Greek heroes facing Amazons, centaurs, and giants in brightly painted metopes (sequential panels that ran along the top of the structure). Even in the prehistoric cave art of Lascaux and Altamira we find colorful depictions of humans overcoming physical obstacles of nature.

Beyond the story and the idea of a hero, the visual appeal is partly in the artificial nature of a drawn image. When we read about a person in words, we picture a real person. A false representation such as a drawing evokes the uncanny, a sense of familiarity beyond the familiar. The effect is increased over a series of linked panels that suggest movement without actually showing it. Readers are immersed in a new universe. They have an understanding of its occurrences but lack the moment to moment actualization of its time and place. The result is a subconscious sense of allure and probability just outside the reach of the logical mind.

The rest of the visual appeal comes from textual materiality, which is a scholarly phrase for the physical nature of the medium. Cave paintings were created on the uneven surface of rocks and painted in the brightest pigments available to show up in dancing, shadow-producing torchlight. The experience would have been different than looking at images on Google. Similar observations can be made for Greek sculpture and illuminated manuscripts. And comic books have their own distinct appeal through their unique materiality.

Bright primary colors were used when comics began for both ease of printing and to catch a reader’s eye. Consider the psychological effect of the colors seen on the first superhero, Superman. The blue suit causes a reader’s body to produce calming chemicals, inducing trust in the hero. The red cape, however, added to simulate movement, stimulates a faster heartbeat and breathing. And the effect of color doesn’t stop there. Virtually all color printing is done with yellow, cyan (blue), magenta (red) and black. All other colors are made up of dots of those four, the white of the paper, and a process in the brain that makes us see a merged color as the result. Visual scientists hypothesize that in printing such as comics this process in the brain also causes the illusion of movement. So in addition to the psychological effects of the uncanny artificial and mood inducing colors, readers experience the subconscious sense of movement on the page.

For the most part, these effects carry over to the latest innovation of digital comics. Whatever the pages may lose in the digital picture display, they gain in the reader’s ability to zoom in on panels and swipe back and forth. Our technology continues to focus on images because we are image driven beings. The appeal of visual storytelling has remained the same from cavemen scrawling on rocks to modern graphic novels. Whether you read a comic book today or enjoy or a virtual reality tomorrow, take notice of your physical and emotional responses to increase your appreciation of storytelling through a timeless medium.

Speaking Poetry

Z8bJMg6f_poepaint

Some people think poetry is a mystical art, that one either “gets it” or does not. As with any art form, though, poetry must be engaged on its own terms. A poem and a piece of prose may both be written in English (of French, or Russian, or whatever), but they are not written with the same language. Understanding a poem’s meaning is a matter of learning its distinct use of language, how its words operate beyond their meanings.

In prose, words are signifiers, often directly linked to an intended signified (the word cow, for instance, will refer to a bovine farm animal that gives milk). But in poetry, words can also serve as metaphors, small parts of a larger image, or to create rhythm and rhyme to deepen the greater theme and/or experience of the piece. They can even deepen the experience with their sounds more than their definitions.

Consider this short passage from The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe: “…the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain/ Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before…”

The poem’s famous sing-song rhythm leads many to rush through the stanzas to reach the next rhyme. By slowing down, however, we can see the language at work between rhymes. Notice how the first line evokes three of the five senses with the words, silken, rustling, and purple. We know the feel of the curtains, what they sound like, and what they look like. And the words even model the sound for us.

Poe uses consonance, the repetition of consonant sounds, here the “s,” to make the curtains audible. Read “silken sad uncertain,” slowly and aloud to hear the effect. It’s followed with the word “rustling” which is onomatopoeia, a word that imitates the sound it’s referring to. Read the whole line once more to hear the curtains moving through the very words that describe them.

The next line is a sharp change of mood. We jump from the gentle rustling of curtains to the terror they inspire in the speaker’s imagination. The quick rhyme of “Thrilled me—filled me” is trochaic (a stressed syllable, “Thrilled/filled” followed by an unstressed one, “me”). Pronouncing these words after the soft “s” sounds of the previous line gives the reader an abrupt up down, up down sensation. And it’s followed by the hard “t” consonance of “fantastical terrors…” This second line stands in stark contrast to the first. By reading the two together, the occurrences and their effects on the speaker are expressed through the same multitasking words.

This level of understanding in a poem doesn’t come from a first read, and until you gain practice, it won’t come from a second or third. Good poetry doesn’t give up all of its secret at once. That is the beauty of poetic language. But no one “just doesn’t get” poetry. Some just need the patience to encounter each piece of writing on its own terms. Look up The Raven, when you have time. Read it first for story if it helps, taking in the words at face value. Then read it again more slowly, unpacking each line to appreciate the effect the words create beyond their meaning.

Oedipus Kent

Superman_088Pyxurz

The Oedipal complex is an important aspect of the Superman mythos. Clark does not want to marry Martha or Lara—he doesn’t want to kill Jonathan or Jor-El. But by broadening the traditional Freudian analysis, we can discover the contrasting worlds and ideologies the character does encounter. We can better understand and draw meaning from what drives Earth’s adoptive last son of Krytpon. Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie presents this aspect beautifully, though not many, at least on a conscious level, realize it.

Long before he becomes Superman, Clark is raised in Smallville, a rural Kansas town, and lives as an only child on his adoptive parents’ farm. He learns middle American values. Donner shows the Kents providing him with confidence and a bright sense of destiny, and visually, the light is always warm in Smallville, the sky always clear, and the landscape as vast and sunny as Clark’s future (count how many times you see people staring into the horizon, usually into a sunrise or sunset). This safe, nurturing childhood is Superman’s metaphorical mother. Its values, comforts, and ideals become the standard he strives for as he wrestles with the metaphorical father.

That father is the world he came from, the reality of his history and the powers, differences, and responsibilities it gives him. Donner shows this world call to Clark through a Kryptonian crystal (call it a phallic symbol, if you will, but only in that it represents the patriarchal aspect of the metaphor). Clark follows the crystal’s call to the arctic where it penetrates the ice to create the Fortress of Solitude, in the manner of the Kryptonian architecture from the film’s opening (more subtly phallic crystals). This redesign of Krypton and the fortress was Donner’s unique addition to the mythos, and it works so well because of the stark visual contrast to Clark’s Smallville upbringing.

The Fortress is cold, closed in, and monochromatic. But it is white and still bright rather than dark and gloomy because it is a place of knowledge and yet another path to Clark’s destiny. Donner has him stay there with the recorded consciousness of Jor-El for years, learning about his heritage, powers, and responsibilities. When he leaves, he does not return to Smallville. He settles in Metropolis, a city also with grand architecture yet a color scheme closer to Kansas.

Clark honors what he learned from Jor-El in the fortress. Yet throughout the course of the film, he progresses into his own decisions. The first is to reveal himself to the world. Jor-El accepts the choice, but Clark is still forbidden to interfere with Earth’s history. Of course he does, though, in the climax of the film when he turns back time to save Lois as well as the other earth quake victims. He couldn’t stand by with the power to save and do nothing. His feelings for Lois are human from his human upbringing, not those of a superior being. In that moment, he chooses to make his own destiny. It’s not a full rebellion. He honors Jor-El, his Kryptonian heritage, and what he’s learned from both. It’s rather a subtle assertion of priorities. Above all else Clark as Superman will serve as a human for humans, fighting for the safe, comforting acceptance that comes through “truth, justice and the American way.”

Superman doesn’t want to kill his father or marry his mother. Instead, and more profoundly, he overcomes restrictions of his metaphorical father to remain true to the ideals of his metaphorical mother. Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie shows this aspect of the character better than any other film. It connects the character to an audience who has their own conflict between ideals and world realities and inspires us to fulfill our own bright destinies.