I’d like to share a few essays that I wrote for a class I took several years ago about Film. I’ll share links at the end of where you can watch the films under discussion, if you’re so inclined. Hope you enjoy!
Visual Style as an Expression of Worldview: Cityscapes
The visual aesthetic of the various films in this course communicate certain feelings about the world at large. It is especially interesting to note these differences in world view when the film takes place in similar environments. Although several of the observed films have significant portions that take place in urban environments, for example, there are different feelings and messages being conveyed through each. Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, and Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love serve as interesting examples of the different ways that the urban backdrop can be framed by film directors depending on the messages they are trying to convey.
Chaplin’s City Lights, being a black and white silent film, communicates a great deal aesthetically. The film depicts the city as a place that is cold and anonymous, ignoring or deriding those who are deemed unworthy of regard. As the opening scene unfolds, with Chaplin as the tramp character asleep atop the “Peace and Prosperity” statue, he represents a “stain” on its bright white artifice, drawing outrage from the crowd. Throughout the film, the tramp is either ignored or harassed, as is the case with the newsboys’ teasing. In fact, the only ones who give him much regard are the blind girl and the drunk man, neither of which were in positions to judge him based on his appearance; arguably, they may not have regarded him at all under other circumstances. He is also in the position of cleaning up after horses, a low position devoid of status. Throughout, there are people bustling by, going about their lives in the big city; they prefer to ignore the dirtiness of poverty that the tramp represents. They would rather focus on the unveiling of the pure, white monument. In these ways, the depiction of the urban environment in this film communicates the coldness and anonymity of the city.
Hitchcock’s Rear Window also takes place in an urban environment. In this case, the city is depicted as a cramped place where, perhaps, the usual rules of privacy and personal space do not apply. Indeed, the central plot of the film involves the main character, Jeff, gazing out of his window and into the windows of his neighbors in the nearby apartment buildings. These windows are stacked atop one another, making them seem almost like television screens that can be flipped through like channels. Since there were so many windows per building (being an urban environment), it is as though the apartment dwellers forgot that someone could be watching them specifically out of all others, leaving their windows and curtains wide open. In this urban environment, strangers live in close quarters, suspending their privacy more so than someone living in a suburban or rural area might be comfortable with.
Woody Allen’s Annie Hall depicts the urban environment as a place of opportunity and diversity. The great city of New York is depicted in this film; it is known for its diversity of cultures, career opportunities in the arts, and as a hub not just for America, but for the world. The scenes taking place in the day look bright and optimistic, and the scenes in the evenings seem fun and even romantic (such as Annie singing in the bar, or she and Alvy saying that they love each other). There is a sense that this city is great and will always be great, creating a nostalgic tone complemented by Annie’s rendition of “Seems Like Old Times.”
Koyaanisqatsi depicts the urban environment as a place of both isolated human beings and majestic feats of human technological creations. As a contrast to the earlier points in the film that focused mainly on natural landforms, the latter portions take place largely in several urban environments including New York City and Los Angeles. When focusing on the people in the city, the viewer gets a sense of isolation; that the person being focused on is just a single ant in a giant ant farm with millions of ants in it. The fast-motion filming from an aerial view creates the same effect, with thousands of cars speeding by at all times like anonymous bugs. While this film may view the role of people in the city as that of bugs, it views the city itself as majestic and beautiful. There are many shots of buildings and cityscapes meant to highlight the amazing architecture, bringing significance back to the humans who created them. The viewer is presented with a conundrum in this way; that the city represents the greatness that humanity is capable of, but at the same time isolates them, rendering them insignificant on some level.
Livingston’s Paris is Burning is a documentary portraying real people in real places. In this way, she is simply showing the viewer what is. She does, however, frame it in a certain way through editing choices. She conveys the city as a place where the rich are entirely separated from the poor. The streets look rather dirty, with trash gathered up in the gutters. The area seems to be full of night clubs, bringing up connotations of “seediness” or debauchery. The area also seems populated with mostly people of color and very few white people, as if this area (namely, Harlem) is “meant” mainly for non-whites. In other parts of New York City, there might be lots of different races, tourists, types of businesses, museums, colleges, and historical sites to see. In the portion of the city depicted in this film, it seems as though these people, due to race, class, and/or sexual orientation, are relegated to spend their time there. At the very least, it appears that most white people of middle or upper class do not participate in life in the depicted neighborhood.
In the Mood for Love portrays the city as a place to hide. The film is about affairs and sneaking around, in addition to hiding from one’s own feelings. The urban setting of Hong Kong serves as a backdrop for this, providing many corners and buildings to stand behind at night. Several shots are partially obscured from behind the corners of buildings or down cramped corridors in the apartment building where the characters live. The viewer gets the sense that it would be easier to have an affair when living in a city. The people who might see you likely won’t know you or even notice you. Public transportation means that one could sneak around even more easily; they do not need to worry about hiding their vehicle, but only hiding themselves. When we see Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow going out to dinner in order to reenact the affair of their spouse, they need not be concerned about what people might think because they will likely not be noticed.
These movies are all quite different, yet they use cityscapes to express the tone of the story that is being conveyed. Some are similar in worldview; City Lights and Koyaanisqatsi visually convey a sense of coldness or isolation in the urban environment. Others are sending more unique messages, such as the forfeiture of privacy in Rear Window, or the race/class/sexual identity based segregation viewers see in Paris is Burning. The highlighting of an urban environment as a nostalgic and positive place in Annie Hall expresses yet another worldview. In all cases, the visual choices of directors in filming their respective city environments furthered the ideas that were being conveyed each film.
Symbolism and Mise-en-scène in Now, Voyager
Irving Rapper’s 1942 film Now, Voyager is the story of a young woman beset by feelings of inferiority and inadequacy due to harsh, overbearing treatment from her mother. The film’s protagonist, Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), learns to break away from her mother’s controlling grasp, taking control of her life and acquiring confidence. Viewers are made aware of Charlotte’s feelings of suffocation not only through verbal exposition, but through subtle aspects of mise-en-scène. In particular, significance is apparent in the appearance of large, wooden bedposts, in that they are emblematic of the bars of Charlotte’s own perceived imprisonment in her home.
Viewers are first presented with large wooden bedposts at 7 minutes and 50 seconds into the film. As Charlotte anxiously leads her prospective psychiatrist in a tour of her home, they pause to regard her mother’s bedroom. Much like the furnishings in the rest of the Vale household, the four-poster bed in this room is ornate, dark, and somewhat old-fashioned. Dark, embroidered fabric is draped atop the four bedposts, creating the look of an enclosed space on the bed. The posts themselves are carved in an ornamental fashion, bespeaking the affluence of the Vale family. They appear to be carved from dark, solid wood. As the angle of the camera allows viewers to peer into this bedroom, Charlotte explains to her psychiatrist that, “This is the room where I was born. My mother’s room.” Her tone is bleak as the camera closes up to the four-poster bed at the center of the shot, alerting viewers to the significance of what she is saying. Charlotte was born into a dark space enveloped by draperies and enclosed by heavy wooden posts, much like the bars of a prison.
Shortly after this scene (at 8 minutes and 50 seconds), Charlotte leads the psychiatrist to her own bedroom. Upon opening the door, viewers are greeted with another set of prominent wooden bedposts. The posts on Charlotte’s bed, though still decoratively carved, are somewhat less elaborate than that of her mother’s bed. They are much taller and wider, appearing even more imposing than the posts on her mother’s bed in terms of thickness and prominence in the scene. In fact, upon entering the bedroom, the psychiatrist pats one of the posts with his palm, remarking, “You know, stuff like this was built to last a lifetime. Solid.” Charlotte’s reply to his statement is revealing: “Enduring and Inescapable” Her comment further solidifies the idea that the posts symbolize her prison bars. Her grim remark reveals her hopelessness. She not only feels imprisoned in her own small world in the present- she cannot imagine a way to escape it.
The next appearance of wooden bedposts takes place at 1 hour and 55 seconds into the film. In this scene, Charlotte has recently returned home from her stay with the psychiatrist and subsequent travels, having undergone a transformation in both mind and body. Her mother responds negatively to the changes and Charlotte’s attitude and appearance, prompting Charlotte to exit the conversation. She steps into her old bedroom to find the large, wide posts sticking up in the left hand side of the shot. She then skulks further into the room, pausing to toss her things onto a chair. The camera is positioned in such a way that Charlotte falls directly in between the posts. The camera closes in further, with the post on the left taking up a large portion of what we see. It is as though Charlotte is back in prison after a brief respite, and is very disappointed to be there.
Following shortly after this scene at 1 hour and 2 minutes, more wooden bedposts appear. Like the others they are carved from dark, solid wood, but these are tall and spindly. In the beginning of the scene, the posts are in the background as Charlotte preens in the mirror. Her mother steps in, angrily asking her why she is staying in this room rather than the room she used to stay in. As a conversation about Charlotte’s desire for autonomy unfolds between the two of them, her mother takes a position in the background between the posts. This comes as Charlotte is attempting to assert herself and control the conversation. Her mother appears smaller in the background between the two posts, and it is as if at that moment, unlike in the past, it is she who feels powerless or imprisoned. Not for long, however, as she goes on to question Charlotte in earnest about the origins of the flowers she had received as a gift. As Charlotte attempts to explain her need for privacy and control of herself, we see a shot of her mother from behind, resting her hand on one of the bedposts. Her finger taps the post compulsively, giving viewers the sense that she is seething with anger and indignation that Charlotte would defy her orders. At exactly 1 hour, 3 minutes, and 51 seconds into the film, Charlotte implores her mother, “Please be fair and meet me halfway!” followed by a pause to look at her hand resting on the post. Charlotte’s mother represents the Warden of her prison, tapping menacingly on the bars when her prisoner will not obey.
Now, Voyager portrays a wealthy woman, presumably possessing many opportunities those with less wealth can only dream of. Even so, she undergoes an intense emotional and psychological struggle to break out of the “prison” her mother had built around her. The lavish furnishings and architecture surrounding Charlotte in her home did not serve as assurances of her position in life. Contrarily, she finds herself stifled to the point that she suffers an emotional breakdown. Only when she is able to escape the bars of her prison and the overbearing gaze of her mother is she able to fully realize the person she wants to be. The majestic, expensive wooden bedposts frequently noticed by the camera serve as a representation of the bars to that expensively decorated “prison.” Perhaps more relevant than the lack of tidy resolution to the romantic aspect of the film, viewers are satisfied with the knowledge that Charlotte does manage to escape her prison and realize her own personal potential.
Feminist Symbolism in Meshes of the Afternoon
Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s 1943 short film Meshes of the Afternoon is an early example of surrealist filmmaking. Through mise-en-scène, editing, and cinematography, Meshes of the Afternoon presents viewers with a dream-like, disorienting world full of symbolism. While numerous interpretations could be drawn from all facets of its cryptic, non-linear plot and imagery, feminist themes regarding women’s sexuality and relationships are prominently communicated. Among many noteworthy images and moments, viewers receive recurring images of a flower, a knife, and a mysterious shrouded figure, indicating their symbolic significance and worthiness of greater focus. The interaction of these symbols with each other throughout the film communicates themes of oppression of female sexuality; particularly, the stifling of women’s control over their own sexuality.
The first image of the film that viewers are greeted with is a slender, feminine hand and arm extending downward to place a flower on the center of a paved walkway. The silhouette of Maya Deren (portraying the film’s protagonist) then approaches and picks up the flower before entering a house, in which the camera closes up to a knife sticking upward out of a loaf of bread. Within seconds, the knife slips out and falls flat to the table. Both of these images will continue to figure prominently throughout the film, bespeaking their significance in what it is trying to convey.
Within several art forms, flowers are traditionally associated with femininity. Oftentimes they are likened to female sexual organs in visual art or writing. In more indirect comparisons, the idea of female fertility and youthful vitality can be symbolically connected to the fleeting beauty of blooming flowers. Flowers bloom, becoming colorful and beautiful to look at before dying. The process of pollination also associates flowers with reproduction and fertility.
In a particular scene of interest, Deren sits in a chair and places a flower in the center her lap, reminding viewers of its symbolic allusion to women’s sexual organs. As she smooths her hand over her stomach and breast, the camera quickly closes up to a shot of her closing her eyes. This leaves viewers with the impression that they may be witnessing a private sexual moment. She may simply be falling asleep, setting up for the confusing nightmare sequence that follows. Regardless of what may be happening, the body language that Deren uses shows comfort with and appreciation of her female body. At this particular moment, her sexuality belongs to her and she is in control of it.
Conversely, within the symbolism of this film, knives are portrayed as phallic representations of male power and dominance. Knives protrude and “enter” other objects when cutting or stabbing, mirroring the male act of sex. Being that this phallic object can be used as a weapon, there is an element of danger implied as well. The notion of “taking” a woman’s virginity can hold an undertone of violence. Not only have women been historically subjugated by men in terms of sexual choices; there is also the anatomical reality of pain and blood often associated with women “losing their virginity.” The knife as a phallic symbol prompts ideas of impaling, force, blood, pain, and scarring. Just as scars leave marks behind from old injuries, the “loss of virginity” is traditionally viewed as a form of permanent “defilement.” Once a woman has been “defiled” in this way, she is no longer pure; in this way she is “marked” or “scarred” as with a cut from a knife.
In another meaningful scene, the knife is presented facing downward, distortedly reflecting Deren’s face on its shiny surface. Continuing to consider the knife as a male, phallic object, the distortion of her reflection on its surface could be a symbolic representation of male demands regarding the female appearance and behavior. Indeed, it’s positioning in the bed “between the sheets” implies danger awaiting there; one could use it to harm, draw blood, and wield control. In the same way, a man could bring harm to a woman by asserting his masculinity over her.
It is in breaking away from the earlier mentioned private moment of Deren falling asleep in the chair that viewers are first presented with the shrouded figure covered in black fabric from head to toe. This figure, who reveals a mirror where the face should be, is carrying the flower. Deren suddenly finds herself back on the paved walkway, chasing the hooded figure who briskly walks away with her flower. This action continues in a looping fashion, as we later see Deren watching herself from a window. Viewers also later witness this figure placing the flower into a bed.
Although viewers cannot be completely sure of the figure’s gender, the garb is reminiscent of religious attire such as “burkas” worn by some Muslim women or “habits” worn by some Catholic nuns. In both examples, the attire is meant not only to cover and shield the female form from the eyes of men, but to serve as a symbol of piety and purity. The clothing covers nearly all exposed skin, falling loosely so as to hide the female figure. The black color of these garments is meant to express a lack of vanity; the plainness is a rejection of ornamentation meant to be noticed by others. By wearing this type of clothing, a woman is presenting to the world that she is not “available” as a sexual being. Rather, it is meant to communicate that she is chaste, selfless, and morally upright; things that are essential for women to be in numerous ideologies that influence society.
Since the elusive shrouded figure has a mirrored face, it stands to reason that she reflects the image of whoever beholds her. All who look into the face would visually become a version of themselves, shrouded under layers of fabric. Since any face could be inserted by looking into the mirrored face, the sexual repression encountered by all women is symbolized by the shrouded figure.
Deren’s pursuit of the figure in possession of the flower illustrates her desire to retrieve control of her own sexuality. Additionally, the figure later placing the flower onto the bed may symbolize the societal demand that women perform sexually in a way that satisfies the needs of men as their “wifely duty” rather than being primarily concerned with their own sexual needs and wants. Earlier, viewers saw a moment of contentment as Deren fell asleep in a chair. This dream she might be having, therefore, is largely concerned with her desire to retain control over her sexuality rather than allowing societal constraints to determine her sexual choices and behavior.
In one scene full of dreamlike confusion, viewers watch as Deren, with odd looking accoutrements covering her eyes, menaces over her own sleeping form as if to stab this “other self.” Suddenly, her sleeping self is startled awake to see the face of a man looming over her. Her facial expression at this point shows the relief of having awakened from a nightmare.
At this point the man is the one in possession of the flower, which he places onto a bed before seeming to beckon Deren to lie down in it. She stares into space as he lies down behind her, provocatively stroking his hand down her back and over her rear. As he leans in as if to embrace her, the flower lying beside her head disappears, being replaced by the knife. She proceeds to throw it toward the man’s face, but only shatters the reflection in a mirror. Following this, the man walks up the stairs outside of the house to find and pick up the flower lying outside the door. He steps inside to find Deren sitting among shattered glass, streaked with what appears to be blood, and lifeless.
This portion of the film is extremely significant symbolically. Being the only point at which a male figure is in the film, it is noteworthy that he has possession of the flower throughout most of his time on screen. The hostility with which Deren reacts to his advances corresponds to the flower transforming into the knife. Essentially it looks as though, symbolically, the feminine object is transformed into a phallic object. This could indicate that Deren has, at this point, usurped the position of male dominance and aggression. It represents a reversal in the sense that the one who fears being “impaled” is now the one doing the impaling.
The shattering glass relates back to the shrouded figure with a mirror for a face. Since the mirror is representative of seeing oneself as the figure, viewers relate it to a shattering of the image of oneself. As viewers also saw the flower transform into the knife, one might surmise that the shattering mirror represents the killing of one’s own identity. Recalling that the hooded figure with a mirror for a face was representative of traditional, repressed female sexuality, Deren’s knife attack bolsters this idea. Using the phallic symbol, she attacked both a male figure and a symbol of repressed female sexuality. As she lies dead, surrounded by glass, in the final shot, she is symbolically communicating that she killed an aspect of herself. She killed that part of herself that would submit to both society and men that would attempt to control her sexuality.
Throughout Meshes of the Afternoon, images of the flower, the knife, and the shrouded figure work together to communicate a symbolic message about female sexuality. The image of the flower is based in the classic representation of women as pretty, fragile, and fertile. The image of the knife alludes to stabbing/impaling, controlling, dominating, drawing blood, and perhaps harming. The image of the shrouded figure with a mirror for a face represents the societal norms and expectations where female sexuality is concerned. Deren symbolically communicates a forward thinking idea for the time in which the film was created; that women should reject social norms and expectations imposed upon them. She posits that women should focus on their own desires primarily, as opposed to altering them to fit the needs of others. As a trailblazer in the sense that she was one of the first prominent female directors, her progressive nature shines through even more through this film.