In describing the process of film making, critics invariably draw upon images of violent altercations: the camera “shoots” like a gun and the director ends the “shot” with a “cut” like a knife. The camera plays the roll of the weapon in this simile, implying that it functions as a tool for controlling that which it captures with its lens. With these analogies in mind, it should come as no surprise that Natural Born Killers (1994), a film that satirizes the media’s role in perpetuating violence, makes these connections explicit in its form and content. Through cinematography and mise-en-scene, Natural Born Killers aligns the camera with weaponry and hence film making with violence.
The cinematography of Natural Born Killers uses framing to associate the camera with weaponry. The most obvious example of such framing occurs in the opening sequence in which protagonists Mallory (Juliet Lewis) and Mickey (Woody Harrelson) kill several workers and patrons at a roadside café. In one killing, the film uses mobile framing to follow the trajectory of a bullet toward a victim:
A similar following shot occurs when Mickey throws a knife at a bystander outside the café. Finally, several shots position the camera behind the gun itself. In all cases the camera trails the weapon, mimicking its movement. The film’s regular use of steadicam and hand-held cameras similarly plays on the idea of the camera as weaponry in that such mobile framing draws attention to the camera as attached to the body of the camera’s operator like a weapon wielded for battle.
This equation also occurs through the use of the camera in the mise-en-scene, particularly in the riot sequence in the final quarter of the film. These scenes depict a television personality Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.) documenting a prison uprising that enables the escape of Mickey and Mallory. In one instance, Mickey breaks into Mallory’s cell with Wayne Gale and crew in tow to face off against Detective John Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore). With each man pointing a gun at the other, Mickey describes the situation as a “Mexican standoff”; while a Mexican standoff can occur between two parties, the classic examples tend to have three participants, as is the case in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
In the case of Natural Born Killers, the camera represents the third weapon brandished in the standoff and even appears in the frame being pointed in a similar manner as the guns of Mickey and Scagnetti. Other shots during the scene position the camera right next to the gun with the gun barrel and the camera lens visually and thus metaphorically paralleled.
Lastly, Mickey literally replaces Gale’s gun for a camera as they try to escape, suggesting the two to be interchangeable. All combined, these moments suggest that the camera functions as a weapon during the riot.
These uses of the camera both through cinematography and the mise-en-scene reinforce Natural Born Killers’ indictment of mass media for perpetuating violence in contemporary society. Furthermore, these alignments raise ontological questions about the nature of the camera as an apparatus for capturing the moving image. One must ask, however, whether or not this message can be sustained through the very media it claims to critique and if any film can ever succeed in such aims.
According to IMDB, this project is supposedly in development, but who knows if it will actually come to fruition. For now, let’s enjoy it merely as the lost sibling of Black Christmas, My Bloody Valentine, April Fool’s Day, and Mother’s Day.
Theorists of postmodernism such as Slavoj Zizek and Jean Baudrillard explore the ways that post-Fordist capitalist societies present reality as a replication of that which has its origin in texts. Similarly, the film The Matrix presents a world in which human beings live in a computer-generated simulation designed to distract their minds while artificially intelligent machines use their bodies for energy. The film, then, literalizes the idea of a textual world; however, it does not merely convey this point through plot but also through cinematography and mise-en-scene since the world within the matrix resembles computer code in terms of color and downward vertical motion.
The opening shot of the film establishes the formal elements of the computer code. Green lettering runs downward in vertical lines, eventually revealing the film’s title. This shot signifies the concept of the matrix as text, using a specific color scheme (green on black), motion (vertical), and pattern (lined). Following this first instance, the film repeats this use of code throughout, raising it to the level of a motif.
The film reproduces the formal qualities of the computer code in scenes that take place in the matrix, emphasizing green tones during these segments of the film. The scene of Neo’s first interrogation by the agents demonstrates the use of green tones through cinematography and lighting.
Other scenes bring green tones out through costume and set design. The Oracle, for instance, wears a green patterned dress and her kitchen’s tile and counter tops also display the color. As a result, the mise-en-scene and cinematography align the color schemes of the world within the matrix with the motif of computer code.
On-screen motion and patterns during scenes within the matrix also mimic the vertical fall of the code. One scene in which Neo meets Trinity under a bridge brings the code to mind through heavy rain. Kristen Whissel makes this connection in her essay on contemporary cinema and verticality, stating, “Fragments of marble and concrete, spent bullet casings, shards of glass, and water from a sprinkler system create a constant stream of downward motion that mimics the descent of binary codes seen falling across the screens throughout the film” (850). Hence, the downward vertical motion within the world of the matrix replicates the motion of the computer code.
In essence, the film portrays the world of the matrix as a simulated text through these formal elements, literalizing the postmodern notion of a reality based on text. Still, The Matrix’s aspiration to allegorize the work of Baudrillard falters in a significant way: by so dramatically contrasting a simulated world with “the desert of the real,” The Matrix suggests that what Zizek would call a “real reality” exists beyond the simulation (19). For Baudrillard specifically, “the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials,” and only simulacra remain (2). In many ways, then, The Matrix offers a comforting narrative in which the simulated world can be identified as such, and cinematography and mise-en-scene help make that distinction.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press,1994.
Whissel, Kristen. “Tales of Upward Mobility: The New Verticality and Digital Special
Effects.” Film Theory and Criticism. 7th ed. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 834-852.
Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. New York: Verso, 2002.
Well folks, it’s come to this: I momentarily considered shutting this whole thing down for a temporary hiatus. Luckily for me, I’ve been auditing a course since September that requires me to write a two-page paper each week! Why I haven’t published any of these yet escapes me, but now that I’m caught up with applications, overtime, and the holidays, I’ve decided that the time is right for sharing the fruits of my labor.
So stay tuned…I’ll be posting the first installment of this exciting new series tonight.
This is a guest post by Alyx, aka Feminist Music Geek. Thanks Alyx!
When Caitlin started this section of her blog, Fantasia was the first movie that came to mind. But I was embarrassed to write anything about it. For one, I’m not a horror buff. While I can abide by much of the dark comedy Caitlin writes about (though Todd Solondz‘s filmography is as scary as any torture porn), I’m pretty lightweight when it comes to horror. Actually, it wasn’t until grad school that I even started watching horror movies because I had assumed they were misogynistic as well as scary and violent.
My subsequent cursory viewing habits are largely influenced by Caitlin and other horror fans from our co-hort in the media studies program at UT, many of whom identify as feminists, engage critically with the genre’s gender and sexual politics, and take defiant pleasure in looking at the screen rather than away from it. I try to look at the screen, but I usually cover my eyes.
For another, Fantasia is a cartoon. Obviously animation can tap into deep psychological fears surrounding child abuse, lost innocence, and parental death, especially evident in early Disney movies like Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. But does that measure up to the horror elicited from movies by Dario Argento, Sam Raimi, and others that Caitlin has discussed? Also, the lady who runs this blog eats Takashi Miike for breakfast. My childhood fear of a movie that features dancing flora and fauna seems like it would be the first sip of her, and her readership’s, decaf.
But the movie is scary. And its scariness begins with Chernabog, the satanic figure of Slavic mythology who perches atop a mountain to raise spirits from the dead and torture them for his amusement. He is the main character of the movie’s penultimate segment, Modest Mussorgsky’s “A Night On Bald Mountain,” and he will take your soul with a speed and force that rivals Aphex Twin and few others.
My first viewing of the movie was in 1990, when Disney released the movie in theaters and on VHS to commemorate its 60th anniversary. I was seven. My mom and stepfather took me to the local multiplex to see it. My mother was particularly enthusiastic about the screening, as it is one of her favorite movies. She first saw the movie when it was re-released in 1956. At ten, she was so enamored with the pairing of classical music with animation that she attended all three showings that day, alone and transfixed.
I had a slightly different reaction. While I loved the fairies from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” and the mythological creatures in Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” I was unable to sleep without a nightlight for fear that Chernabog would come into my room and turn me into one of his debased playthings.
It’s staggering that this segment was in a children’s movie, as it so effectively melds the terrifying might of its main character with the suspense built into the composition. The first time I saw the screen go black as Chernabog’s eyes lit up the screen and the theme reached its crescendo, I was too scared to scream. I have since run into those evil yellow eyes several times in my unconscious.
For a movie that scared me, I know a lot about Fantasia from subsequent viewings, documentaries, and books. I can tell you that it all but bankrupted the studio when it was originally released in 1940, as cinemas weren’t equipped for the movie’s pioneering use of stereophonic sound and audiences didn’t know what to make of its content. It wasn’t until 1969, after several theatrical runs and truncated versions, that the movie turned a profit, three years after studio co-founder Walt Disney’s death.
I can tell you how important it was to get conductor Leopold Stokowski and host Deems Taylor for the movie, as they were prominent figures who popularized classical music. I can also opine what a shame it is that Disney dubbed radio personality/music critic Taylor’s audio with someone else’s voice for the 2000 release, as his boarding school baritone was his trademark.
I can also tell you what numbers got cut from the final product, including the literal interpretations of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” the latter of which Walt vetoed so that the studio wouldn’t appear supportive of the Nazi Party.
Much of this encyclopedic knowledge is due to a time-old affliction perhaps familiar to horror fans and readers of this blog — I became obsessed with my own fear.
In addition to “Night on Bald Mountain,” there are two other segments to Fantasia that also creeped me out. The first was The Rite of Spring.
As a viewer, there are three things that always haunted me about this segment. One is its emptiness, tempered by jolting moments of frenzy. While this compliments the tone of the piece, it also gestures toward this slow-paced, largely dialogue-less movie’s foreignness. There are no traditional speaking protagonists that orient and engage the viewer. Despite being something of a musical, much of this movie takes place in a vacuum, far removed from any traditional notions of community. This segment, along with the abstract treatment of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue” illustrate the movie’s airless otherworldliness, slowly unfolding while at odd intervals sputtering into violent action.
Another part that always stayed with me was the fatal battle between the clearly outmatched Stegosaurus and the Tyrannosaurus Rex. While scientifically impossible, as the two species existed some 50 million years apart, the sequence is brutal.
Finally, the last section, which posits that the dinosaurs were wiped out by drought, shook me. I ached for the doomed dinosaurs, stumbling toward certain death. As an adult, I can’t help but draw analogies between the dinosaurs’ extinction and the present-day threat of global warming. And while the movie makes explicit a known demise, the final shot of the setting sun is, to me, as austere a meditation on mortality as the last scene in Two-Lane Blacktop.
While perhaps the most popular segment in the movie, and the catalyst for turning what was originally to be a short into a feature, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice always left an impression. The main image that stays with me is Mickey destroying the broom. While the broom later appears ominous when it becomes an army of faceless automatons that threaten to drown Mickey, the mouse and his violent actions scared me more.
According to animation historians, this segment marked a transformative moment for the mouse. For one, there was the evolution of his form. In a documentary made for the movie’s 2000 release, animation historian John Canemaker notes that in earlier shorts like “Steamboat Willie,” Mickey was composed as a set of rigid circles, limiting his movement vocabulary. He also had black ovals for eyes, which made him less capable of conveying complex emotions. Animators like Fred Ward were responsible for humanizing Mickey, making his actions and expressions more dynamic. These modifications made him a more alive, relatable character.
It also made him scarier because nice guys don’t commit violence. As the studio’s mascot, Mickey was originally characterized as fun-loving and carefree (note: some girlfriends say he was a jerk to Minnie, but I don’t remember any particular instances). Here, he’s careless, rash, and capable of murder. He trains a broom to fetch water using a spell stolen from his master, only to doze off while the broom mindlessly floods the room. When Mickey wakes up, he decides to solve the problem by wielding an ax and chopping the broom to bits.
Were that not scary enough, his actions are shown off-screen, his shadow projected against a wall. In earlier drafts, Mickey was shown smashing the broom but Walt found this image too frightening and requested that the act be implied rather than shown. As a result, the scene is even more unsettling, not unlike the shower scene in Psycho, leaving the actions ambiguous and open to fevered interpretations.
In the original version, there was a black servant character named Sunflower who appears in the middle of the segment, tending to the white centaurettes. Sunflower was black, prepubescent, half-donkey and characterized in a profoundly racist manner. She was removed from the movie in 1969 and has been taken out of all subsequent prints, VHS, and DVD editions.
It’s shocking that such an image, along with stereotypical images of Amazonian zebras in “The Pastoral” and Chinese mushrooms in “The Nutcracker Suite” were ever acceptable, even as late as 1940 (though more contemporary examples, like AMC’s Mad Men, suggest that blatantly regressive attitudes toward race were still alive and well later in the 20th century and continue to manifest in the present). While I’m heartened that an effort was made to remove such a horrible stereotype from the movie, and can now make sense of why certain images appeared too large for the frame or were given an awkward pan-and-scan treatment on video and DVD, the telling, overgrown absence create a different sense of unease.
For one, my memories of the “Pastoral” have now changed significantly. When I was a girl, my fantasy life was informed by this segment, along with the Nutcracker segment and other movies like The Little Mermaid and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. I would often run in my backyard or swim in my dad’s pool during summer vacation, pretending to be a centaurette or a mermaid or a fairy.
I also devoted entire murals to these magical creatures who only socialized with their female counterparts and were always topless. Thankfully, my mother never commented on their nudity and encouraged me to keep drawing. My father and stepfather were supportive too, if a little nervous in their suggestions that maybe one of them could use a seashell bra or a dress made of flowers.
I now wonder how my fantasy life was informed by this omission and how it could have changed things if it remained. I asked my mom if it impacted her. She remembered Sunflower from her initial viewing and was uneasy about her rendering, but unsure as to why. It wasn’t until a bit later, when her uncle made an absent-minded racist comment about a black girl they saw in passing that my mom began to process such thinking and what relationship it may have had to the movie’s racist imagery. I’m proud to say that the prepubescent girl who later became my mother reprimanded her uncle.
I also believe there’s cowardice in this omission. I certainly don’t think that Sunflower should be included in the final segment. However, I would appreciate a supplemental documentary that features a historian or archivist mentioning her presence in the movie’s original cut, filmic evidence of that presence, and an explanation of the executive decisions and editing process that ultimately led to the removal. Though Sunflower was configured in a stereotypical manner, she was also a part of the movie and its history and her presence needs to be acknowledged.
Upon review, I am now able to watch Fantasia with new eyes. Much of it is changed for me as an adult, whether for good or ill. But I still have to turn on a nightlight to keep Chernabog at bay.
***SPOILER ALERT – I DISCUSS HOW PARANORMAL ACTIVITY ENDS, SO DO NOT READ IF YOU WANT TO SEE THE MOVIE FRESH***
The recent ubersuccessful Paranormal Activity may call to mind The Blair Witch Project, a similar film in form and conceit, but Paranormal Activity also owes much to the supernatural films of the past: in Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and a slew of other films, women find their bodies inhabited by spirits, demons, and devil babies.
Paranormal Activity begins with Micah, a young day trader, introducing his live-in girlfriend, Katie, to a brand-new camera purchased for documenting the mysterious goings-on that she feels have plagued her since childhood but have recently worsened. Katie describes seeing a ghostly figure in her room at night and feeling an eerie presence next to her. These occurrences only increase in frequency as the film progresses, with Micah’s efforts to understand the spirit seemingly provoking it into more alarming actions (a Ouija board, for instance, spontaneously bursts into flames). As an audience member, the couple’s descent into the clutches of the demon feels inevitable and it comes as no surprise when the possessed Katie hurls a lifeless Micah into the camera and leans out of the frame to consume him. (See the very bootleggy version below)
Katie’s possession correlates with those of other unfortunate anti-heroines: Rosemary, Regan, and Linda of Witchboard, all find their bodies subsumed by otherworldly spirits. As this list suggests, “women in general are figured as more open to the supernatural,” according to Carol Clover. Regarding Rosemary’s Baby in particular, Clover writes that “possession comes about because, as a female, [Rosemary] is naturally enterable,” making her more vulnerable to the forces without to come within. It’s this openness to possession that enables the feminine transformation into abject monstrosity, Barbara Creed suggests in her own work. These dynamics clearly come into play in Paranormal Activity, reminding us that in spite of its postmodern aesthetics, it remains very much tied to generic constructions of gender that predate pseudodocumentary horror.
Still, Paranormal Activity is as much about the trappings of masculinity in post-9/11 pre-recession America as it is about feminine vulnerability. We learn through exposition that Katie’s haunting began as a child and only recently became a major problem after moving in with Micah. It seems that Micah’s insistence upon solving the problem himself only exacerbates the situation. Throughout the film, you get the sense that Micah derives a peculiar pleasure from the situation. He comments positively about the footage obtained and relishes the opportunity to confront the spirit when it rears its ugly head. Katie regularly reminds him that the situation is not to be made light of, yet she humors Micah and is complacent as a result.
While similar dynamics occur in Rosemary’s Baby, it seems that narratives such as these generally involve the lone or compromised woman being possessed. The Witchboard trailer below emphasizes the necessity of isolation with the narrator declaring “Don’t play it alone”:
Carnival of Souls, a b-horror film from the sixties, similarly plays upon the single, isolated woman as a target for haunting by ghosts, paralleled by the noisome presence of a single man pestering her for dates. Even Regan, the young girl haunted in The Exorcist, lacks a fatherly presence that must be corrected through the intervention of priests.
While all of these films are problematic in their emphasis on the feminine as vulnerable, I admire the approach of Paranormal Activity and Rosemary’s Baby. Both films suggest that the woman who relies too heavily upon her male partner may be more vulnerable than her single counterpart. As a result, both masculinity and ideals of romantic love and coupledom become sites for critique. The “possessed” woman, then, is not only haunted by the demons that antagonize her but by the man who enables the demon’s entry into her life.