The Film Experience, Chapter 10 Summary-Review

VIEWING CUE: Gilda and Rome Open City
The end of World War II marked a distinct change in world film history. In 1946, when Gilda (Charles Vidor) was released, movie attendance reached its highest level in the United States, with more than 90 million weekly admissions, only to drop off sharply with the coming of television and other challenges to the studio system. In Italy in 1945, the vast movie studio complex Cinecitta was occupied by refugees, and Roberto Rossellini filmed Rome Open City on location.
After watching these clips from Gilda and Rome Open City, consider the questions below.
1. Compare and contrast the depiction of gender in these two films, both in terms of the styling of the female star and in terms of the idea of gendered spaces.
 2. Gilda is an example of film noir, which introduced dark themes to studio-era Hollywood, and Rome, Open City is an example of neorealism, which would influence later filmmaking worldwide. Give examples of stylistic differences in the clips. Are there any similarities due to the films being made at the same time?

Film in Focus: Taxi Driver
In this scene from Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) practices pulling his gun in front of a mirror.
After watching these clips from Taxi Driver, consider the questions below..
1. How do elements of film form create a sense of malaise that then comes to seem characteristic of post-Vietnam War urban America?
2. What aspects of Robert De Niro’s performance bring the viewer too close for comfort to his unbalanced character?

Taxi Driver and New Hollywood

            Narrator: The brief opening sequence of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver sets the film’s style and themes and, without dialog or narrative exposition, hints at its place in both American and film history. The first image we see is of a taxi at night emerging from a cloud of smoke as if rising up from hell, and the film’s title appears in taxi cab yellow on the smoke followed by the opening credits. The film cuts to an extreme close-up of a man’s gaze lit alternately by red and white lights; this is the taxi driver of the title. We see a point of view shot of a rain-smeared windshield. Neon streaks of red, white and blue dissolve into jittery patterns abstracting the city streets. Another dissolve and then the director’s credit is superimposed on a shot of pedestrians crossing, turned to gaze at the driver and at us. When the film cuts back to the extreme close-up, the taxi driver’s straining eyes shift like windshield wipers. Travis Bickle, the alienated Vietnam vet who is the film’s protagonist, has not yet said a word. Later, in similar nighttime cruising sequences, Travis’s voiceover will share an apocalyptic vision of New York as a city of filth and sin awaiting redemption. But already in the opening sequence, the colors of the American flag bleed together and the taciturn protagonist evokes iconic American genre heroes. Scorsese’s film is perhaps the iconic text of New American Cinema of the 1970s; it pays tribute to studio filmmaking of Hollywood’s classical era while taking the violence of westerns and gangster films to unheard of extremes. In doing so, it perverts the western standard of heroism and produces a vision shaped in equal measure by the existential questioning and innovative style of the French New Wave and by the horrors of a televised war and political violence at home.

            Narrator: Bickle drives a cab because he can’t sleep nights. As his paranoia grows, he arms himself, gets in shape, and keeps a diary of his misguided ambitions to clean up the city. A famous and disturbing central sequence opens with a shot of Travis twirling a pistol gunslinger style as he faces himself in the mirror. A cut shows him shrugging on his Army jacket over his weaponry. We see him framed in the mirror. A rapid pan takes in his apartment and stops on Travis, now facing the mirror and facing us. He draws his gun. “Faster than you,” he mutters. As he continues to confront his reflection he appears to become more and more disassociated. The film doesn’t show us the reverse shot, Travis’s reflection, but we can imagine how provoking its gaze and words must be to the paranoid character onscreen, the reflection’s double. “You talkin’ to me?” he famously demands.

            Narrator: Time elapses, signaled by dissolves and accompanied by Travis’s asynchronous, expletive-laden voiceover. We are seeing repeated action now. The film uses overlapping editing—its own narration becomes jumpy like Travis’s. The film then cuts to an overhead shot of Travis stretched out on his bed. The text is inspired by the diaries of a would-be assassin, Arthur Bremer, and it speaks of Travis in the third person: “Here is a man who would not take it any longer.” The jump cuts show the revolutionary influence of European art cinema style on New Hollywood cinema. At the same time, the breakdown in classical continuity editing is motivated by the protagonist’s mental breakdown. Travis’s last comment “You’re dead,” is seemingly addressed to us. We’ve become completely disassociated from our forced identification with Bickle, whose point of view has been foisted on us from the first extreme close-up of his eyes. How can the rest of the film play out after this psychotic break?

            Narrator: The rupture of everyday reality figured in the film also refers to a historical break: the trauma of Vietnam, student protests, and assassinations meant that the heroics of Cold War genre films could no longer appear innocent.

            Narrator: At the film’s conclusion, Travis has transformed into a vigilante killer, shooting everyone in sight in an attempt to rescue the young prostitute played by Jodie Foster.

            Narrator: The ghastly image of Travis with his bloodied finger pointed at his temple at the end of this sequence resembles the mirror sequence in its disturbing confusion between self and other and subject and object of violence.

            Narrator: John Ford’s The Searchers is the model for this rescue of a young girl who doesn’t want to be saved, and Travis’s Mohawk and blood-spattered face bring out the savage violence of the classical western.

            Narrator: The camera retraces Travis’s path of entry into the building with a smooth backward sweep that takes in the carnage he’s left in his wake before showing the neighborhood commotion, paying homage to the virtuosic camera movements of a filmmaker like Orson Welles. The audience’s point of view, linked to Travis’s from the opening credits, has finally been severed from his perspective.

            Narrator: Blue police cars and white lights replace—but in some sense complete—the horrific tableau of red from the blood.

            Narrator: In a coda, we find that Travis has become a hero for his actions and so one of the most influential New Hollywood films ends with a cynical take on American media and its audiences.

FILM IN FOCUS: Within Our Gates

A dramatic flashback within Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920) shows the history of violence against African Americans in a powerful antidote to the distortions of D.W. Griffith’s much more famous The Birth of a Nation (1915). Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) has escaped from the lynch mob that has killed her uncle and aunt only to be threatened with sexual violence. Micheaux’s film uses melodrama as effectively as Griffith’s—Sylvia will be spared.
After watching the clips from Within Our Gates, consider the questions below.
1. What is your response to the unfamiliarity of this film’s images—its historical form and its subject matter? Why might the film have seemed dangerous? Do you think it would have made a difference in film history if the film had not been lost?
 2. How does cross-cutting, a mode of editing mastered by Griffith, contribute to the scene’s effect?

Chapter Summary

The study of film history not only entails identifying key facts, names, and events, but also requires an awareness of film historiography, the study of the methods and principles through which the past becomes organized according to certain perspectives and priorities.
Just as the movies create visions of history for us, certain formulas and models determine how we look at film history. One prominent, conventional way of organizing film history is periodization. With this method, film history is divided into historical segments that help identify movies’ shared thematic and stylistic concerns.

Early Cinema

The period known as early cinema, roughly from 1895 to 1913, was characterized by rapid development and experimentation in filmmaking before Hollywood settled into the defined patterns of the classical period. Stylistically, early cinema was characterized by: (1) the shift from single to multiple shots, and (2) the beginnings of continuity editing and variations in camera distance in the early elaboration of narrative form.

Cinema between the Wars

Classical Hollywood cinema is divided into the silent period and the sound period. The silent period stretches roughly from 1917 to 1927, and Hollywood came of age during this time with three major historical developments: the standardization of film production, the establishment of the feature film, and the cultural and economic expansion of movies throughout society. The most pronounced and important aesthetic changes during this period included (1) the development of narrative realism, and (2) the integration of the viewer’s perspective into the actions of editing and narration.
The second part of the classical cinema period was brought about by the introduction of synchronized sound in 1927 and lasted until the end of World War II in 1945. Major accomplishments during the second period include the introduction of sound in 1927, the founding of the Production Code Administration in 1934, the elaboration of movie dialogue, and the prominence of generic formulas (genres) in constructing film narratives.
German expressionist cinema (1918–1929) veered away from the movies’ realist drive, focusing instead on the dark fringes of human experience representing irrational forces through lighting, set, and costume design. Films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) used artificial, distorted set designs and dark shadows to reflect the twisted psychological state of the film’s characters.
From 1917 to 1931, Soviet silent films broke away from the entertainment history of the movies, distancing themselves from the assumptions and aims of the capitalist economics of Hollywood. This resulted in (1) an emphasis on documentary and historical subjects, and (2) a political concept of cinema centered on audience response. The social documentaries of Dziga Vertov and the montage aesthetic of Sergei Eisenstein were two major products of this period.
French cinema from 1920 through 1939 saw two influential movements: French impressionist cinema and poetic realism. French impressionist cinema aimed to destabilize familiar ways of seeing and revitalize human perception through experimentation with film form. Poetic realism incorporated poetic innovations into traditional realist narratives to unsettle perceptions in a socially conscious manner.

Postwar Cinemas

The atrocities of World War II—from the inhuman nightmare of the Nazi concentration camps to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945—overshadowed economic prosperity and surface optimism in the United States and reshaped geography and politics worldwide. Therefore, out of the postwar period, which extended roughly from 1946 to 1968, came several global film movements that reacted in various ways to the worldwide effects of the war.
Amid the social and political turmoil in postwar America, the film industry was made a high-profile target for its capacity for ideological influence. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) conducted an investigation into the film industry, interviewing “friendly” witnesses like Walt Disney, and “unfriendly” witnesses who refused to answer if they were members of the Communist Party. The writers and directors that refused to answer were known as the “Hollywood Ten.” HUAC’s investigation and intimidation tactics had a great influence on the industry and the movies of this time. The dissolution of the traditional power of the studios after the 1948 Paramount decision, the arrival and spread of television in the 1950s, the gradual relaxation of the Production Code, and the introduction of a ratings system also had enormous influence over Hollywood during this period. Movies from this time period tended to demonstrate a more self-conscious sense of image composition and narrative structure, and many explored more controversial themes.
One of the most profound influences on the emergence of an international postwar art cinema was Italian neorealism (1942–1952), whose relatively short history does not adequately illustrate its profound historical impact. At a critical juncture of world history, Italian cinema revitalized film culture by (1) depicting postwar social crises, and (2) using a stark, realistic style clearly different from the glossy entertainment formulas of Hollywood and other studio systems.
Influenced by Italian neorealism, a number of “new wave” movements appeared from the 1950s through the 1970s in such countries as Brazil, Czechoslovakia, England, France, Germany, and Japan, among others. Despite their exceptional variety, these different new wave movements shared two common postwar interests: (1) a break with past filmmaking institutions and genres, and (2) the use of film as an expression of personal vision.
The first and most influential new wave cinema was the French New Wave, which came to prominence between 1945 and 1960. Although the style and subject matter of these filmmakers varied, directors such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Alain Resnais each explored the struggle for personal expression and the investigation of film form as a communication system.
Japan is one of the world’s largest film-producing nations, with a long and varied tradition of using distinct perceptual and generic forms and drawing on a range of cultural and artistic traditions. After World War II and the subsequent Allied occupation of Japan, Japanese films increasingly incorporated Hollywood forms and styles, yet generally they (1) placed character rather than action at the center of a narrative, and (2) emphasized the contemplative aspect of images.
Inspired by the politicized atmosphere of Third World decolonization in the 1960s, Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino championed revolutionary films (dubbed “Third Cinema”) that opposed Hollywood and challenged the elite aesthetics of auteurist art cinema. Third cinema aimed to (1) reject technical perfection in opposition to commercial traditions, and (2) embrace film as the voice of the people.

Contemporary Film Cultures

Contemporary cinema is the most recent period in film history, beginning around 1965 and continuing up to the present. Global political events, racial and gender politics, multiculturalism, new nationalisms, the global economy, and new technologies all shape the form and content of contemporary cinema.
The Hollywood movie industry shifted noticeably in this period in response to the expansion of a youth audience; the increasing influence of European art films and the globalization of Hollywood; and the arrival of conglomerates, blockbusters, cable, home video, and Internet streaming. Two stylistic trends dominate the contemporary period: (1) the elevation of image spectacles and special effects, and (2) the fragmentation and reflexivity of narrative constructions.
A number of youth-driven new wave movements emerged in both Eastern and Western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. The spirit of these movements, and the formal innovations of the films, challenged entrenched state- and commercially dominated national film industries, but they were still largely identified with the concept of “the nation.”
New German cinema was launched in 1962, when a group of young filmmakers declared a new agenda for German film in a film festival document called the Oberhausen Manifesto. This diverse movement in cinema can be characterized by two major objectives: to confront Germany’s Nazi and postwar past, approached directly or through an examination of the current political and cultural climate, and to emphasize the distinctive, often maverick, visions of individual directors.
India’s movie producers are the most prolific in the world, and they have thrived since the first Indian film was premiered in 1913. The golden age of Indian cinema came after independence in 1948 with the ascendance of the Bombay-based industry (known as Bollywood) with its stars, songs, and spectacular successes. During the same time, Parallel Cinema, a mainly Calcutta-based alternative to India’s commercial cinema (exemplified by the films of renowned director Satyajit Ray) also achieved prominence.
African cinema encompasses an entire continent and, hence, many languages, cultures, and nations, each with varying levels of economic development and infrastructure. An initial distinction can be made between North Africa and sub-Saharan African cinema. Taking shape in the 1960s after decolonization, sub-Saharan African cinema encompasses the relatively well-financed francophone, or French-language, cinema of West Africa, and films in African languages such as Wolof and Swahili. Although it is difficult to generalize about this rapidly expanding film culture, some of its most influential features and shorts have been united by (1) a focus on social and political themes rather than commercial interests, and (2) an exploration of the conflicts between tradition and modernity.
Chinese cinema poses its own challenge to models of national cinema because it includes films from the “three Chinas”—the People’s Republic of China (or mainland China), Hong Kong, and Taiwan. In the 1980s the so-called Fifth Generation of mainland China, who were interested both in the formal potential of the medium and in critical social content, rose to challenge the previous propagandistic use of cinema. After the phenomenal international success of low-budget Hong Kong kung-fu films in the 1970s, the Hong Kong New Wave led by producer-director Tsui Hark and action film director John Woo introduced sophisticated style, lucrative production methods, and a canny use of Western elements to the genre.
Iranian cinema is notable for its many festival prizes and critical acclaim. The art films of this Islamic nation are characterized by (1) spare pictorial beauty, often of landscapes or scenes of everyday life on the margins, and (2) an elliptical storytelling mode that developed in part as a response to state regulation.

The Lost and Found of Film History

Writing film history is not a straightforward enterprise; it involves interpretation and careful selection. The process is made more difficult because important dimensions of the past remain hidden to the historian. One approach is to excavate the cinematic past for undervalued contributions and traditions and to discover the unacknowledged antecedents of some of today’s diverse film practices. Such an approach tries to (1) consider different questions about the past and its artifacts, and (2) uncover which version of the past has been accepted and supplement this version with missing perspectives.
The American movie industry today remains male dominated, with women directing only 7 percent of the 250 top-grossing films in the United States in 2010. While women worked as writers and editors during the classical Hollywood period, very few women directed feature films. The avant-garde, documentary, and independent movements have been more accessible to women filmmakers than feature filmmaking.
Women entered contemporary Hollywood production slowly, with some of the first inroads to the prestigious position of director made by actresses who already had industry clout. Women directors are rarely assigned to the highest budget films, and are most often seen directing in such genres as youth films and romantic and family comedies.
Dominant Hollywood cinema has afforded only a limited range of representation for African, Asian, Latino, and Native Americans. When not absent from the screen altogether, these groups have traditionally been present in a small repertoire of stereotyped roles. The role of people of color behind the screen has historically been even more restricted.
Early independent African American film culture developed in response to various phenomena – from the “race consciousness” of African American audiences cultivated by the burgeoning literature of the Harlem Renaissance and recordings by black musicians, to the realities of racism and segregation in the South. In the early to mid-1900s, race movies featuring African American casts were circulated to urban African American audiences in the North and shown in special segregated screenings in the South.
After the studio system waned in the 1960s, new audiences for specialized films were sought by Hollywood, and the genre known as blaxploitation emerged. Although the term cynically suggests the economic exploitation of black film audiences (particularly an urban market likely to attend films about streetwise African American protagonists), the genre was also made possible in part by the black power movement.
In the final two decades of the twentieth century, Spike Lee helped to revive independent African American cinema aesthetically and financially through a sophisticated use of cinematic language and engaging storytelling. Lee paved the way for other African American directors such as John Singleton.
Looking at Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender (LGBT) film history can not only tell us about changing representations of same-sex desire, but also about continuity and discontinuity in definitions of sexual identity and community and the social regulation of sexuality and its representations.
During the classical era of Hollywood, the Production Code prohibited any representation or inference of homosexuality. During the 1980s, mainstream heterosexual stars began to appear in films offering more complex images of gay men and sometimes lesbians, such as William Hurt’s award-winning performance in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985).
Much like the absence of LGBT representation onscreen, the contributions of LGBT filmmakers have often been erased or overlooked because of the stigma historically accorded homosexuality. Although sexual orientation does not necessarily impact a filmmaker’s work, knowing whether a filmmaker identifies him or herself as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, or whether there is significant biographical evidence of same-sex erotic attachments, can make a difference in two contexts: (1) when his or her sexual identity arguably affects the filmmaker’s subject matter or aesthetic approach, and (2) when withholding information about a filmmaker’s sexual identity erases a specific historical legacy.
The history of indigenous media is perhaps even more concerned with self-representation, but it also challenges the purposes of the film medium as primarily about entertainment or communication. One of the earliest uses of film was to document other cultures for exhibition in the West, which helped spawn the ethnographic documentary. However, with the introduction of consumer video technology to indigenous peoples, they have been able to use it in several empowering ways, including documenting traditional practices for future generations, video activism, and as a new form of visual expression.

Excavating Film History

Precisely because film and photography capture the fleeting moment, they have been regarded as ephemeral and of little long-term value. Film is also materially ephemeral – because the earliest nitrate-based film stock was extremely flammable, negatives and prints of countless titles are now destroyed. Orphan films are films that have been abandoned by their owners or otherwise neglected and can include everything from amateur films, training films, and documentaries to censored materials, commercials, and newsreels.
1. As a method of organizing film history, what does periodization refer to?

2. Describe the period of “early cinema” (1895–1913). What are the primary industrial, cultural, and stylistic aspects that define the films of this period?

3. What were the primary features and qualities of German expressionist cinema, which arose during the Weimar era?

4. In the aftermath of World War II, a number of international postwar cinema movements arose, such as the French New Wave. What were some of the historical, cultural, and stylistic features that connected these movements?

5. The most-popular Indian cinematic style, which is produced in Bombay and is often referred to as Bollywood, is characterized by what primary features?