SECTION C AMERICAN CINEMA: EXAMINATION TIPS/CHECKLIST
For this section of the exam paper it is important to directly answer the question by referring to film sequences from ‘Rear Window’ & ‘Nightcrawler’. It is also essential that you use film language (mise-en-scene/camera etc) and make use of key issues such as narrative and genre conventions.
On the surface of every movie, there’s plot – a central line of action that determines structure. The plot is often so easily distinguishable by viewers that it is used to summarize movies in TV guides and reviews.
Under the surface, a movie has theme. Theme gives layers of complexity to an otherwise simple story, while also unifying many script elements such as plot, characters, and dialogue. Not always obvious, theme requires focused minds to regard its presence.
Theme as UnityAlfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) narrates the story of a handicap photographer (James Stewart) that suspects a murder has happened after noticing abnormal facts from his living room window. This is the forefront of the movie; its plot. Nobody gets out of the theater not knowing that. Even the preview establishes it.
The theme, however, is subtle. Most people that have watched Rear Window were not savvy enough to grasp what its theme is. Since themes are delicate and subjective, scholars and critics may occasionally debate. But in Rear Window, the prominent theme isrelationship. Even more so than romance, for romance implies good moments. But relationship also encompasses the nitty-gritty arguments, despair, and solitude.
In Rear Window, the apparently disjointed movie is kept together through this theme, which furnishes it with unity.
The romance between Jeff and Lisa (Grace Kelly) is too obvious an example, but even a superficial analysis of some of the neighbors is enough to elaborate the underlying relationship theme:
We all have ambition in our lives. Dreams and aspirations we want to see fulfilled before we eventually kick the bucket. These hopes and dreams can stem from our childhood or a recent revelation. Perhaps there’s a newfound talent that you’ve recently found a love for and without warning, something’s hit you and you’ve suddenly realised this is what you want to dedicate the rest of your life to. These things are what drive and motivate us. Some of you may want to be doctors, teachers, writers, actors or even own a business. These goals in our lives can shape us and more importantly how others perceive us. We commit our hearts, minds and our souls to them in hopes of achieving greatness but how far would you be willing to go to get it?
For Lou Bloom, it appears, there are no limits.
Nightcrawler follows the ambitious, intriguing, charming, mysterious and simply repulsive Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal), his complex journey into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles and the sordid world of freelance crime journalism. When we meet him it is immediately apparent that he’s driven, confident and charismatic, if a little odd. The very first words that are spoken in the film come from Lou himself as he declares ‘I’m lost’ to a suspicious patrol guard, who finds him breaking into private property. It isn’t merely a coincidence that these are the first words he utters, Lou is very lost. Lost in life. He doesn’t have a job or set goal. He simply wants to be a success and it’s also clear from the outset that this is a man who is entrepreneurial both in mind and spirit. This man is going to get exactly where he wants or die trying.
This film is a car crash. Not in the way Nicolas Cage’s career in recent years has been a car crash. No, I mean it as absolute high praise. When you’re stuck in traffic on the motorway and you slowly drive past a horrific car accident on the side of the road you have an unrelenting urge to look. Whether it’s a subconscious decision we make or not, we still turn our heads in shameful anticipation of seeing something shocking or any sign of injury. We covertly eye up the scene of the incident, looking for details and trying to piece together some kind of story in our heads. However, when we look there may come a time when we wish we hadn’t, in which we’ll see something we regret.Nightcrawler puts you in that uneasy position, as we see the overly enthusiastic Lou film these horrendous events on his camcorder, we can’t help but look, we want to see more. This film taps into our unspeakable, almost perverse desire to witness the bloody and gruesome. It examines that fine balance between not seeing enough and seeing far more than we ever wanted. However, I will never regret going to see Dan Gilroy’s enthralling new thriller.
Just like the main character himself, this film is gripping, captivating and pulls you right in. Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an absolute tour de force performance here, which will undoubtedly will see him racking up award nominations come early next year. He truly is spellbinding and clearly has lot of fun with the role. If his performance didn’t work and he stopped dazzling the audience for even a moment then the film would have torn at the seams and Gilroy would have lost us. I’ll never be able to look at his smile the same way again, regardless of where I see it. In this film it shouts a thousand words. It’s a smile that forces us to smile along with him, owing to his questionable charm; but it will also make you feel sick to the stomach. It’s one of the most layered performances I’ve seen this year, so much is happening and you’re constantly trying to deconstruct him, only for him to become more illusive.
Lou stumbles upon the nocturnal trade of filming accident and crime scenes, and realises he may have found his perfect profession. He has all the qualities needed, he’s confident, fearless and doesn’t have the moral barriers we all have. He doesn’t feel guilt for his actions, he doesn’t have filters for his emotions and he doesn’t need them. He sums up the morality of his chosen career in a memorable line: ‘if you’re seeing me then you’re probably having the worst day of your life’. We should hate Lou Bloom but frighteningly, we don’t. He brings out that little devil on our shoulder and makes the angel disappear. Even though we question and disapprove of nearly all of Lou’s actions and motivations, we have that sickening and horrific urge to go with him on every step of his journey. We reluctantly want to see what twisted and deranged act he’ll commit next. We want to know how far he’s willing to go. We need to know.
Lou is an epitome of the American dream even if by the end of the film he destroys it’s very values. He needs to achieve success and won’t let anybody stand in his way, especially the people closest to him. Lou lives by a simple motto: ‘If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy the ticket’. Things first begin to escalate when we see Lou arrive at scenes too late, surrounded by red and blue lights. The police are his competition and being beaten by them is unacceptable to him.
He begins to tamper with the scene of a recent crime in order to find that perfect shot but even that isn’t enough, resulting in him manipulating a situation in which he is able to film a murder taking place. Another unsettling moment comes when he strikes gold, arriving before the police, we see him visibly shaking with ecstasy and adrenaline. He gets off on it. Will there be a limit to his depravity? Where will it stop? Will this result in Lou finally holding the murder weapon? Is there a soul behind that perturbed smile and those piercing eyes? Was there even one to begin with?
There are drawbacks however, as through the course of this film I did begin to feel like these interesting and engrossing themes, were being beaten over my head. At times I felt like the script’s occasional forced messages and satirical views were being forced down my throat. This issue also emerged in the somewhat overrated 1976 film,Network, which also evaluates morality and integrity in news media. That film also descended, not only into heavy-handed and forced messages but also into over the top satirical cartoonish-ness. Nightcrawler never goes this far, it is far more restrained than Network and far stronger. Minor subtlety issues don’t fully detract from the entertaining thrill-ride you are on. The themes covered in this film may not be wholly original but Gilroy finds fresh and exciting ways to explore them.
Lou isn’t always alone on his nocturnal activities. He hires Rick, an anxious and hesitant young man as his intern who he puts on a measly salary, as they drive around throughout the night waiting for lighting to strike. I found myself yearning for more screen time for Riz Ahmed’s character. Not only did I want to see more of him because of Ahmed’s surprisingly strong performance but also because I felt Rick needed a bigger role in the overall story. He is in many ways the audience’s voice, questioning Lou and his behavior. I felt the film would have benefited a great deal spending more time developing this character and the pay off would have packed even more punch.
This films marks one of the strongest debuts from a director in recent memory. Dan Gilroy (writer of The Bourne Legacy & Real Steel) finds a unique voice with Nightcrawler, he turns what could have been a slow and indulgent film into an entertaining, adrenaline-fueled rush which holds our attention for its entire length. A scene that sees Lou and Rick tail a group of criminals to a diner shows an almost masterful control of suspense and build up that’s reminiscent of a Hitchcock film. The tagline to the film is ‘The City shines brightest at night’ and boy does it shine. Robert Elswit’s cinematography really makes this so-called city of ‘angels’ sparkle and the night time is a mirage of colourful Christmas lights that pop on screen. His control over lighting and contrast is visually reminiscent of 1950’s film noir. Even though it may seem beautiful externally, Elswit really exemplifies the sleaze and moroseness beneath.
This film will raise the hairs on your neck, your pupils will dilate and you’ll laugh. You will feel sick, uncomfortable and angry. Your heart will pound, your fingernails will fuse with your seat and beads of sweat will drip down your forehead. You’ll question your own ethics and morals and you will not forget this film anytime soon. It is an undeniable must see.
27NOVNIGHTCRAWLER: NEOLIBERALISM, PSYCHOPATHS AND BULLYING CULTUREWRITTEN BY KIM. POSTED IN NEWS
I’m looking for a job. In fact, I’ve made up my mind to find a career that I can learn and grow into. Who am I? I’m a hard worker. I set high goals and I’ve been told that I’m persistent. And I’m thinking, television news might just be something that I love as well as something I happen to be good at. Now I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. But I believe that good things come to those who work their asses off and that good people who reach the top of the mountain, didn’t just fall there. My motto is, ‘if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket’.
This pitch is made by Lou Bloom in a television studio in the latest Jake Gyllenhall filmNightcrawler. Lou does indeed find a career in television news – securing and selling hard-to-get footage of crime in Los Angeles to attract viewers to the network and stoke white suburban fear in Los Angeles. Lou and the media industry in which he works are amoral – money matters more than respect or dignity: captured by the explanation Lou is given by TV News boss Nina (played by Rene Russo) that ‘If it bleeds, it leads’. While most of the online discussion of the film has focused on its depiction of US TV news and media ethics, Kim and Heather became fascinated by the way the film uses Lou to link the taking on of neoliberal values – hard work, persistence and aiming high – to psychopathic and bullying behaviour. In this post they explore the film’s messages about contemporary work.
Lou Bloom: ‘Good things come to those who work their asses off’
One of the most striking aspects of the film is Lou Bloom’s embodiment of the meritocratic ethic that hard work, entrepreneurship and positive thinking can overcome all obstacles. Bloom speaks only and always in ‘corporate’ speak – as though he’s read every ‘Business 101′ self-help manual around and lives his life according to their rules. What comes out of Lou’s mouth is not dissimilar from the kinds of statements you hear the latest batch of The Apprentice candidates speak to camera as they promote themselves as the best and brightest of the bunch. However, the film also brilliantly speaks to the demands made on all young people and graduates by contemporary capitalism – where to get ahead (or in fact even just get a foot in the door) means working for free in internships which offer no guarantee of permanent or even paid employment. Lou is acutely aware that he is part of ageneration of young people hit hardest by the global recession and facing a very different job market from that experienced by earlier generations (as his speech above attests).
At the start of the film – before Lou finds his feet in journalism – we see him plead with a local scrapyard to offer him an unpaid internship to no avail, despite delivering a passionate speech about how much of a fast learner and hard worker he is. Hard work as an essential characteristic of potential employees is a constant theme in Lou’s various speeches (Lou doesn’t really have normal conversations with people – each interaction feels like a studied and pre-rehearsed performance).
Lou knows that his aspirations to get a job have to be accompanied by a commitment to and evidence of hard work. At least twice in the film Lou tells others about his motto in life (‘If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket‘). On one hand, Lou’s approach to work is perfectly in line with the cultural and political zeitgiest of ‘hard work’ we’ve discussed throughout this project as the key subject-making discourse of austerity. He is the ‘Striver’ of Cameron’s ‘hard working’ society. But on the other hand, he also offers a powerful critique of this, for we see that, in its extreme version, this neoliberalised self becomes psychopathic.
Lou sees the world through this corporate self-help business speak; every relationship is reduced to a matter of profit; every person and every encounter is a a potential opportunity to further accrue for his future success (another contact; another experience; another job; another death; another pay cheque). All done with a smile and an absolute lack of empathy and compassion. Lou embodies the self interested, ever-accruing, middle class subject of neoliberalism that Bev Skeggs and others have so powerfully analysed. But Lou Bloom is no poster boy for neoliberalism. He’s a murderer and a rapist. Indeed, Lou powerfully (and terrifyingly) represents the dehumanising power of neoliberal capitalism. And here perhaps there’s a message for those of us who work in universities…
Lou Bloom: ‘Why you pursue something is as important as what you pursue’
Lou Bloom bullies and manipulates all of those who come into his orbit – from his hapless employee Rick (played by Riz Ahmed) to TV news veteran Nina. We see Lou jump on Rick for every small mistake he makes, including a missed turning as he guides Lou’s high speed pursuit of a gory photo-opportunity from the passenger seat. Lou responds to such mistakes by suggesting that Rick needs to work on himself and up his performance in order to keep his job. Thus Lou is not just a hyper-critical micro-manager, he is someone who uses the constant threat of unemployment to bully his employee into accepting poor pay, anti-social hours and hazardous working conditions. When Rick tries to turn the tables on Lou, demanding respect and a pay rise, he is summarily eliminated.
This film vividly portrays the synergy between neoliberal business-speak and psychopathic bullying behaviour. This can perhaps help us understand why we’re seeing a rise of bullying in universities as they become increasingly corporate. As one senior manager recently put it, “a few years ago we joined a public sector organisation. We are now moving more and more to the private sector”.
As sociologists, we see a close relationship between individual behaviour and the wider social context and power relations in which it operates. As Sam Farley and Christine Sprigg show:
Bullying may be further facilitated by organisational cultures and structures that permit it. In certain organisational cultures, bullying is a means of achieving goals, and in cultures characterised by high internal competition, it may be the most effective way of improving reputation and climbing the ladder. Reward systems can sometimes provoke bullying as aggressive tactics could be thought the best way to rid supervisors of either underperforming or overperforming subordinates.
Individual bullying thrives in a culture marked by competition, individualism and aggression. This culture was recently very apparent in the behaviour of universities who attempted to bully their employees into not taking democratically-agreed industrial action by threatening to dock 100% of their pay.
In one of Lou’s most revelatory statements, he asks: ‘What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them?’ We are left wondering whether he offering us a terrifying vision of the dehumanised future of the corporatised university and of work more generally.
Key terms – but what do they actually mean?
While it is useful to have some definitions to begin interpreting what words such as ‘messages’ and ‘values’ mean, this is only the first step.
On a practical level, when analysing messages and values in films, there are four questions that a student needs to ask of a film.
1) What is the film trying to say? (Messages)
2) How is the film trying to say this? (Messages linking to use of film language)
3) What is of importance to the filmmakers? (Values)
4) How are things of importance signified? (Values linking to use of film language)
Internalising and asking these questions is the first step to understanding that messages does not equate to values.
Consider the last film you saw – try to answer these questions about that film.
Next – tell a colleague what film you’re thinking of and your answers to the questions.
Listen to their responses – do you agree with them? Is it clear where their ideas are coming from?
These are critical skills which need to be well developed for film exams and for coursework portfolios – if you can develop such skills in oral communication, this will help you in expressing yourself clearly in written communication.