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Enter Benoît Blanc: KNIVES OUT as murder mystery

Thursday | August 4, 2022

Knives Out (2019).

DB here:

Now that a sequel, Glass Onion, has been announced for the Toronto International Film Festival, it seems a good time to look back at Rian Johnson’s first whodunit Knives Out. The effort has a special appeal for me because it chimes well with arguments I make in Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder.

I don’t analyze Knives Out in the book, but it would have fitted in nicely. The movie  exemplifies one of the major traditions I study, the classic Golden Age puzzle, and it shows how the conventions of that can be shrewdly adapted to film and to the tastes of modern viewers. In addition, Johnson’s film supports my point that the narrative strategies of “Complex Storytelling” have become widely available to viewers, especially when those strategies are adjusted to the demands of popular genres. Historically, such strategies became user-friendly, I maintain, partly because of the ingenuity demanded by mystery plotting.

Needless to say, spoilers loom ahead.

 

Revisiting and revising

The prototypical puzzle mysteries are associated with Anglo-American novels of the 1920s-1940s, the “Golden Age” ruled by talents such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley Cox, John Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh, Ellery Queen, and many others–supremely by Dame Agatha Christie. Similar books are still written today, often under the guise of “cozies” because they supposedly offer the comforting warmth of familiarity. Golden Age plotting flourishes in television too, in all those (largely British) shows about murder in supposedly humdrum villages.

Knives Out relies on Golden Age conventions from top to bottom. A rich, odious family is overseen by a domineering patriarch, mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey. When he’s found dead in his mansion, apparently of suicide, his family members become nervous because each has a guilty secret. The conflicts are brought into focus when it’s revealed that Harlan changed his will so as to disinherit all his offspring. He leaves his fortune and his house to Marta Cabrera, the nurse who administered his medications and became his friend and confidant. Is there foul play? Investigating the case are are two policemen and the private investigator Benoît Blanc. They must decide whether Harlan’s apparent suicide is actually murder and if so, who’s the culprit.

Johnson organizes his plot around many classic techniques. In the Golden Age, writers tended to fill the action out to book length by adding more crimes, such as blackmail schemes or a series of murders. Both of these devices are exploited in Knives Out. Marta is apparently the target of an extortioner, and the family housekeeper Fran is the victim of a poisoner. The film also employs the least-likely-suspect convention (a favorite of Christie’s) and a false solution (another way to fill out a book). Johnson supplies traditional set-pieces as well: the discovery of the body, a string of interrogations of the suspects, the assembling of suspects to hear the will read, and a denouement in which the master sleuth announces the solution by recapitulating how the crime was committed.

The conventions are updated in ways both familiar and fresh. The sprightly music and the flamboyant bric-à-brac of Harlan’s mansion deliberately recall Sleuth (1972), another reflexive, slightly campy revisiting of murder conventions. Johnson wanted to evoke the all-star, well-upholstered adaptations of Christie novels like Murder on the Orient Express (1974, 2017) and Death on the Nile (1978, 2022). But he has courted younger audiences with citations (the title is borrowed from Radiohead) and social commentary, such as references to Trump, neo-Nazis, and illegal immigration. The Thrombey clan’s inability to remember what country Marta came from reminds us of something not usually acknowledged about Golden Age classics: they often provided satire and social critique of inequities in contemporary society. (In the book I discuss Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise as an example.)

Like earlier Christie adaptations, Johnson’s film has recourse to flashbacks illustrating how the crime was actually committed. In Benoît Blanc’s reconstruction of the murder scheme, rapidly cut shots illustrate how the family black sheep Ransom sought to kill Harlan by switching the contents of his medicine vials, which would make Marta the old man’s murderer. But her expertise as a nurse unconsciously led her to switch the vials again, so she didn’t administer a fatal dose. This forced Ransom to continually revise his scheme, chiefly by destroying evidence of Marta’s innocence and trying to murder Fran, who suspected what he had done.

All of this is carried by the now-familiar tactic of crosscutting Blanc’s solution with shots of Ransom’s efforts, guided by Blanc’s voice-over. At some moments, the alternation of past and present is very percussive, with echoing dialogue (“You’re not gonna give up that,” “You’ve come this far”). For modern audiences, this swift audio-visual revelation of the “hidden story” is far more dynamic than a purely verbal recitation like that on the printed page.

Johnson tries for a more virtuoso revision of a classic convention in treating the standard interrogation of the suspects. Lieutenant Elliott’s questioning, followed by  questions posed by Blanc, consumes an astonishing sixteen minutes of screen time. Such a lump of exposition could have been dull. But the accounts provided by Harlan’s daughter Linda, her husband Richard, Harlan’s son Walt, his daughter-in-law Joni, and Joni’s daughter Meg are brought to life by flashbacks to the day of Harlan’s death. Aided by voice-over, we get a sharp sense of each character’s personality while the mechanics of who-was-where-when during the birthday party are spelled out. Some flashbacks are replayed in order to alert us to disparities in the stories, which stir curiosity and set up further lines of inquiry. The technique isn’t utterly new, though; in the book I show that such shifts across viewpoints emerged in mystery films from the 1910s onward.

The pace picks up when, instead of sticking to one-by-one witness accounts, Johnson starts to intercut them, showing varied responses to the same questions.

     

     

The editing creates a conversation among the witnesses, as one disputes the testimony of another. This freedom of narration, mixing different accounts in a fluid montage, plays to modern viewers’ abilities to follow fast, time-shifting narratives.

The use of voice-over to steer us through the flashbacks takes on new force when Elliott and Blanc question Marta. Her account of the fatal night is given not as testimony but as her memory. She recalls tending to Harlan after the party, starting a game of Go with him, and then discovering that apparently she gave him a lethal dose of morphine. She’s distraught, but he consoles her and instructs her in how to cover up her mistake. His scheme, which involves an elaborate disguise and a secret return to his bedroom, is designed to give Marta an alibi by showing her apparently leaving before he dies.

In her memory Harlan’s voice-over narrates her flashback as she executes his plan. But she doesn’t confess to Elliott and Blanc. Following Harlan’s instructions, Marta lies to exonerate herself. Her propensity to vomit when she tells a lie drives her to the commode, but the police don’t notice. She has apparently fooled Blanc, who considers that her account “sounds about right.”

In such ways Johnson retools scenes of the police interrogation for contemporary viewers. But he goes further in revising Golden Age tradition. Well aware of the tendency of the puzzle plot to indulge in plodding clue-tracing, he provides a deeper emotional appeal.

 

Immigrants get the job done

The Golden Age plot relies on an investigation, the scrutiny of the circumstances leading up to and following a mysterious crime, usually murder. Plotting came to be considered a purely logical game, a matter of appraising motives, checking timetables, pondering clues, testing alibis, and eventually arriving at the only possible solution. These conventions were canonized in books like Carolyn Wells’ Technique of the Mystery Story (1913) and in many writings by authors. But some writers recognized that the emphasis on a puzzle tended to eliminate emotion and promote a boring linearity in which the detective poked around a crime scene and questioned suspects one by one.

Authors sought ways to humanize the investigation plot. Sayers filled it out with romance, social commentary, and regional color. Hardboiled novelists like Hammett and Chandler, who relied on many Golden Age conventions, turned the investigation into an urban adventure, with the threat of danger looming over the private detective. Others tried to blend in elements of the psychological suspense novel, as Nicholas Blake does in This Man Must Die (1938), which traces how a bereaved father searches for the hit-and-run driver who killed his son.

Rian Johnson tries something similar in Knives Out. Into the investigation of Blanc and the police, he inserts a woman-in-peril plot. Although we’re introduced to Marta early in the film, she’s pushed aside for about half an hour as the inquiry takes over in the interrogation sequences I’ve mentioned. Then Blanc takes a kindly interest in her and probes her knowledge of Harlan’s attitude toward his family. And then, after Lieutenant Elliott becomes convinced that it’s a suicide, Marta is questioned. At this point, she comes to the center of the film and becomes its sympathetic protagonist and central viewpoint character.

Her memory episodes reveal that she believes she accidentally killed Harlan. But out of self-preservation and obedience to his orders, she doesn’t confess. She tries to ease away from Blanc, but he asks her to be his “Watson.” The rest of the plot forces her to accompany the investigation. Panicked that her scheme will be revealed, she often tries to suppress evidence: futzing up surveillance footage, traipsing over the muddy footprints she left, trying to throw away a piece of siding that she dislodged that night. Marta’s situation recalls that in The Woman in the Window (1944) and The Accused (1949), and in the TV series Columbo, in which guilty protagonists must watch as their trail is exposed.

Marta’s only ally appears to be Ransom, Harlan’s ne’er-do-well grandson. He justifies his concern as partly selfish: If she gets away with it, she can share Harlan’s legacy with him. As in many domestic thrillers, this handsome helper is also a little sinister, but Marta accepts his advice for how to respond to an anonymous threat of blackmail. When Marta discovers that someone has nearly killed the housekeeper Fran, she vows to confess. By then, however, Blanc has solved the mystery and absolved her of guilt.

Johnson deliberately made Marta a center of sympathy as a way of humanizing the investigation.

Very early on in the game I wanted to relieve the audience of the burden of “Can we figure this out?”. . . . I don’t think that’s a very strong narrative engine to drive things. I think that’s very intellectual and that clue-gathering–after a while you recognize “No, I’m not gonna figure this out,” so you kind of sit back on your hands and wait for the detective to figure it out. . . . 

So the notion of tipping the hand early and giving this false but very convincing picture from Marta’s perspective of “I’ve done this and I’m in a lot of trouble.” . . . Could we do that so you’re genuinely on the side of the killer?. . . Once you’ve done that it’s very interesting because of the mechanics of the murder mystery, the fact that you know the detective always catches the killer. . . . The looming threat is that we know how mysteries work and we know that the detective catches [the killer] at the end. And we’re worried for Marta. We’re worried, “How is she possibly going to get out of this situation?”

Johnson uses several other tactics to put us on Marta’s side. While the performances of the actors playing the Thrombeys leans toward grotesquerie,  Ana de Armas plays Marta more naturalistically. In time-honored Hollywood fashion, Johnson also makes Marta ill-treated. She’s dominated by the family who pretends to love her, and as an immigrant she’s in danger of seeing her mother deported. When she is named Harlan’s heir, the family descends on her like predators. In the end, as in many psychological thrillers, the woman in peril turns into a resourceful combatant. She bluffs Ransom into confessing his scheme, and only when she vomits on him does he realize she’s fooled him with a lie. We can enjoy the innocent trapping the guilty.

 

The game’s afoot. Which one?

The Golden Age story is more than a puzzle. It’s posited as a game. Of course the murderer is at odds with the detective, with each trying to outwit the other. At another level, the game is a battle of wits between author and reader. John Dickson Carr sums it up.

It is a hoodwinking contest, a duel between author and reader. “I dare you,” says the reader, “to produce a solution which I can’t anticipate.” “Right!” says the author, chuckling over the consciousness of some new and legitimate dirty trick concealed up his sleeve. And then they are at it—pull-devil, pull-murderer—with the reader alert for every dropped clue, every betraying speech, every contradiction that may mean guilt.

Golden Age authors realized that the core mystery could be enhanced by techniques that both mislead the reader and drop hints about what’s really going on. The cultivated reader became alert not just for characters who might lie but for narration that was engineered to be misunderstood. Golden Age authors weaponized, we might say, every literary device to steer the reader away from the solution. The trick was to do this without cheating.

If this genre is a game, then, following sturdy British tradition, “fair play” becomes the watchword. Earlier detective writers, notably Conan Doyle, did not feel obliged to share all relevant information with the reader. The master sleuth was likely to discover a clue or a piece of background knowledge that he or she kept quiet, the better to flourish it in triumph at the denouement. Instead, Golden Age authors made a show of telling everything.

The concept of fair play was made explicit in Ellery Queen’s novels, which included a climactic “challenge to the reader” explaining that at this point all the information necessary to the solution was now available. (This device was replicated in the EQ TV series.) Even without this pause in the narration, Golden Age writers were careful to supply everything before the big reveal.

Knives Out is very much in the game tradition. It knowingly follows self-conscious “meta”-mystery films like SleuthThe Last of Sheila (1973), and Deathtrap (1982), all of which flamboyantly exploit classic conventions (often with crime writers at the center of the plot). Accordingly, Johnson is aware of the need to play fair.

A straightforward example occurs in the interrogation sequence. Members of the Thrombey family tell Blanc and the police that Harlan’s last day with the family was a happy occasion. But the flashbacks reveal to us that they’re lying. We see Harlan fire Walt as his publisher, confront Richard with his infidelity, and cut off Joni’s funding for Meg’s tuition. Soon enough Blanc will intuit their deceptions and ask Marta for confirmation, but the flashbacks make sure we grasp their possible motives for killing Harlan.

But telling everything required telling some of it in deceptive ways. Otherwise, there’d be no puzzle. The craft of Golden Age fiction demanded skillfully planting crucial information that can be (a) recalled at propitious moments by the detective but (b) neglected by the reader (“I should have noticed that!”). Perplexing Plots traces various stratagems for achieving how authors muffled crucial information through ellipsis, distraction, and other tactics.

Consider Fran’s dying message. As Marta bends over her, Fran gasps, “You did this.” Since we’ve been led to believe that Fran is blackmailing Marta, it seems to confirm that she’s got proof of Marta’s guilt in the toxicology report. But the dying message turns out to be equivocal. Fran is actually saying, “Hugh did this”–identifying her would-be killer. Huh?

Early in the film when Ransom comes to the mansion, the police greet him as “Hugh Drysdale,” to which he replies, “Call me Ransom. Ransom is my middle name. Only the help calls me Hugh.” Fair play, but given to us in a distracting way.  The line is played down: Ransom delivers it quickly as he’s turned from the camera and strides into the house, and the policemen’s reactions are more prominent in the shot.

To play fair, Johnson reiterates the name just before the revelation, when Blanc addresses him as “Mr. Hugh Ransom Drysdale.” Since in Fran’s scene we can’t tell the difference between “You” and “Hugh,” file this under Carr’s category of “legitimate dirty trick.”

As a result, anything can become a clue for interpretation/misinterpretation. But for Golden Age creators, authorial craft isn’t only a matter of producing clues. Clues are available to the investigators and are crucial to the solution. But at the same time the author can supply hints in the narration, addressed to us behind the backs of the characters. An instance in Knives Out is the title of one of Harlan’s books, glimpsed in a montage of his bookshelves. In a film reliant on syringes, The Needle Game would seem to be a tip-off.

Or a hint can become a clue eventually. After Marta’s wild night covering up her “crime,” she rushes home and takes refuge in front of the TV. As she nervously taps her foot, a close-up reveals a single bloodstain on her sneaker.

She’s unaware of it, but the stain opens the possibility that it could incriminate her later. The film lets us forget it until the very end, when Blanc says he knew she was involved in Harlan’s death from the start, when he spotted the bloodstain. The hint for us became a clue for him.

Golden Age plotting invites attention to minutiae of presentation. Although Agatha Christie is sometimes condemned as a clumsy writer, Perplexing Plots tries to show that she often mobilizes a flat style to mislead us. Similarly, the attentive viewer will notice little felicities in Knives Out. For instance, when we first see Marta return to the mansion through the forest path, a shot shows her leaving the tracks she’ll later try to smear over. But in Blanc’s reconstruction, we see Ransom returning to the mansion by balancing on the wall lining the path, so as to leave no traces in the mud.

     

Had Ransom walked on the path, Johnson would have been besieged by Twitter complaints.

All this is a matter of self-conscious artifice. As Johnson notes, few readers take seriously the task of solving the mystery themselves. One member of the Ellery Queen collaboration admitted: “We are fair to the reader only if he is a genius.” The fair-play convention is at once a pretext for the display of authorial ingenuity and a source of artistic power–proof that a plot can harbor a hidden intricacy unsuspected by the reader. One dimension of connoisseurship in the classic mystery is the reader’s admiration of artifice, a taste for elaborate construction. If it’s all in the game, then we’re no longer committed to mundane realism. A portrait can whimsically change from scene to scene.

     

Henry James argued for a through-composed form of the novel, where every detail was carefully judged for its effect and its balance with others. An unexpected legacy of Jamesian formalism, I think, was the Golden Age authors’ ambition to make each story a tour de force, a test of readers’ skills and a revelation of unexpected resources in storytelling technique. Mystery stories are ingenious, as Ben Hecht noted, because they have to be.

 

The film’s rapid pace, time-shifting, and looping replays exemplify current tastes for what’s been called Complex Storytelling. But one task of my book is to suggest that popular storytelling has been complex for quite a while. The techniques have become refined and revised, and their appeal has been sharpened by emerging audiences (e.g., in the 1990s) and new technologies (e.g., video that allows replays).

We were sensitized to these techniques by mystery fiction throughout the century. The play with incompatible viewpoints, reruns of action bearing new significance, the strategic use of ellipsis–all are there in the Golden Age tradition. Likewise, the notion of fair play persists in all those “twist” films that flash back to show us actions that take on a new significance. Golden Age strategies, and mystery plotting more generally, have prepared audiences to expect pleasurable but “fair” deception in all genres. Knives Out, among other accomplishments, helps us understand how today’s sidewinding stories have roots in a genre that’s too often dismissed as mere diversion.


The quotations from Rian Johnson come from the Blu-ray supplement to Knives Out, “Planning the Perfect Murder,” between 2:21 and 4:20. The supplementary material on the disc is exceptionally detailed and reveals Johnson’s keen knowledge of the history of mystery fiction and film.

For another good example of Golden Age misdirection appropriated in cinema, see this entry on Mildred Pierce.

Perplexing Plots is available for pre-order here and here. This is a good place to thank Sarah Weinman and Yuri Tsivian for their favorable comments on the book, which are available on these sites.

P.S. 9 August: I now realize I neglected to mention that Joni’s daughter Meg isn’t as harshly characterized as the rest of the Thrombey clan. She’s a friend to Marta and Fran and seems genuinely to care about Marta’s fate. However, she’s still a pothead who walks out of her benefactor’s birthday party and who colludes with the family to call Marta to get information. In plot terms, she’s one more threat  to Marta.

Although we didn’t discuss this point, I thank John Toner of Renew Theaters for amiable correspondence about Knives Out.

Knives Out (2019).

Figuring out MEN

Thursday | July 21, 2022

Men (2022).

In an earlier entry I considered films identified as “prestige horror”  and traced how the idea developed among critics and journalists in the mid-2010s. That entry was written just after I saw The Northman, Robert Eggers’ next film after The Lighthouse; it was also the first of four films being released this year and early next year, each directed by one of the four directors generally identified with the trend.

Now Alex Garland’s Men has quietly come and gone, at least in theaters. I write this a few days after distributor A24 showed a double feature of Men and Ex Machina, available for one day only, on their occasional “Screening Room” streaming series, which was launched om response to the pandemic with Minari on February 12, 2021.

Seeing Men a second time made it possible for me to take notes and get a better grasp on the complex and oblique narrative of the film. That narrative has apparently perplexed most critics and audiences, resulting in considerable annoyance. I could follow it reasonably well, and I understood what happened at the end on first viewing–a particularly annoying section for the perplexed. This second viewing confirmed that I had been right about the ending, though I find that it was set up even more carefully than I had noticed.

At first I thought I should wait until Men arrived in a more conventional continuous streaming fashion. In preparing this entry, though, I learned that the DVD and Blu-ray release date has been announced as August 9. No subscription streaming date has been announced, although one can now buy the film from several providers for $19.99. Kudos to A24 for committing (so far) to bringing out all its films on physical media as well as streaming.

So my timing may not be too premature, but I realize that many will not have had a chance to see the film yet. I should emphasize that there are major spoilers  ahead. I am going to reveal what happens at the end in some detail, as well as analyzing the imagery in the film and making a stab at what it’s all about.

 

Challenging films

Before I launch in, I would like to say something about highly unconventional films that defy our expectations. Increasingly I read adverse reviews of such films. They seem to have upset the writer by not turning out to be what he or she expected upon entering the theater. I first noticed this response in watching László Nemes’s Sunset (2018) for the first time. Within ten minutes I was baffled but excited at the prospect of what was obviously a masterpiece. Despite my puzzlement, I think I got the gist of it and certainly sensed what Nemes was doing stylistically. I was startled to read the professional reviewers’ mostly negative notices, seemingly based on annoyance at being puzzled. Having the chance to see Sunset a second time on a screener, I understood it better and wrote up an analysis of it.

I’ve seen this sort of thing happen occasionally since, notably with Leos Carax’s Annette last year. I don’t think it’s Carax’s best film or as challenging as Sunset or even Men, but it deserved better than it got from a lot of reviewers.

I would assume that the duty of anyone writing about a film for publication, particularly one who gets paid to do so, is not to judge a film by whether it conforms to the expectations he or she brought into theater. If a film is challenging in the way these examples are, the obvious strategy is to try and figure out what the film is trying to do. How and why is it puzzling or unconventional? I remember that one professional critic who shall remain nameless wrote that she wanted to like Annette but wasn’t able to. I would say that the critic’s duty is not to like or dislike a film. That’s the realm of buffs reviewing on Facebook or Google or wherever. The critic’s duty is to understand it, to figure it out, or at least to make the attempt. I realize that such films really need to be watched a second time to get a better grasp on their strangeness, but even on a first viewing one can usually discern that a second viewing is worthwhile, and why.

Of course, trying to figure a film out may lead one to conclude that it really is bad. Maybe it’s not experimenting in original ways or it’s using flashy style gratuitously. But if the viewer does figure it out and it’s good, even a masterpiece, he or she has discovered something–a process that I find rewarding and pleasurable, whether or not I ultimately don’t much like the film.

I’m not claiming that Men is an undying masterpiece, though I do admire it more than many do. The point is that a significant number of adverse reviews reflect the same sort of unwillingness to engage with the film’s unconventionality.

This unwillingness makes me wonder what happened to the sort of openness to originality and even occasional experimentation that existed from the late 1940s, for several decades, when such films as Voyage to Italy, Hiroshima mon amour, 8 1/2, Pickpocket, Persona, Death by Hanging, and other unconventional films of the golden age of art houses. Would such challenging films be hailed and become long-treasured classics? I hope so, but …

 

The final and only girl

Again, I’m not going to point to particular reviewers, but many have gone for the obvious and describe the film solely in terms of the misogynistic males. Are all men misogynistic?

I do think that the title was a big mistake, inevitably egging critics on to batten onto the toxic masculinity displayed by all the male characters as the the obvious, straightforward point of the film. In that case it would be pretty simple and overly obvious. I think the form and style of the film make it more complex than that. I suspect that critics thought of the film as a sort of social commentary first and a horror film second. This may be one of the disadvantages of prestige horror. To some extent the films can be seen as art cinema rather than regular horror pictures, and therefore ripe for interpretation rather than analysis as horror films. In fact they seem to be a combination of art and genre types.

But however arty, Men is a horror film. The villains of horror and especially slasher films tend to be grotesque, often wearing masks and wielding chainsaws and the like. It’s a well-established convention. From at least Psycho on, these villains are seen as madmen, deviants, not representatives of the traits of an entire gender. They are basically monsters, some endowed with supernatural traits, as are the male characters in Men.

In struggling to figure what Garland was up to in Men, about halfway through it dawned on me that he had neatly reversed the “final girl” plot. This common structure in the slasher sub-genre of horror films was formulated by Carol Clover in her Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992). Her insights have become common currency in the field, with “final girl” having its own Wikipedia entry. A crazed killer picks off a group of victims, often a bunch of male and female teenagers, in a shooting-gallery narrative. Clover points out that typically only one, usually a girl or woman, manages to survive and kill the group’s nemesis.

Men does exactly the opposite. There is a set of male villains, mostly characterized as simply obnoxious at first and becoming increasingly dangerous until they are revealed as murderous, supernatural monsters. (Samuel’s incongruous blonde female mask may be a reference to those worn by such villains.) There is no group of victims, no final girl, just the only girl, who manages to wipe them all out.

Harper is, to be sure, initially seen as a victim, pursued by the Naked Man early on and ultimately by Geoffrey, who tries to run her down in her own car before crashing it. (None of the village men apart from Geoffrey and the little boy, Samuel, is given a name. “Naked Man” seems to be what people use for him.) She is terrified in many scenes and forced to retreat to her rented house, which proves inadequate to keep these guys out. Occasional shots of her in the house are seen through the large windows, as if from a lurking villain’s point of view–a common convention of slasher films.

   

At one point she is nearly defeated, declaring to her friend Riley that she will give up her vacation and leave, though she seems more angry than frightened. Riley urges her to stay, however, and Harper fights back–ultimately successfully.

I’m not sure Garland is the only filmmaker to create such a reversal of this widespread convention. David and I happened to watch Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho (2021) recently, and one might say that something vaguely similar is going on. Again one woman wreaks her revenge on a series of monstrous males. There may be other such films, but I think Men is a particularly original and clever example.

 

They don’t call it Mother Nature for nothing

I obviously haven’t been able to read all the reviews, professional and amateur, of Men. I’ve read quite few, though, and I have yet to find one that deals with the motif of nature in the film, though some refer to the Green Man motif. The gender politics are obvious, however one interprets them, but they are bound up with the treatment of the natural world in the film. It’s a combination that both make the film more complex and give some depth and originality to the treatment of the dreadful men.

The early parts of the film stress the beauty of the English countryside, a major factor in Harper’s search for a place to recover from the grief and guilt she feels in the wake of her husband’s suicide. She rents a luxurious country house for two weeks. Upon arriving, she plucks and eats an apple from a tree in the front yard. Geoffrey, the landlord, takes the occasion to pretend that there is a rule against “stealing” the apples, and after Harper confusedly apologizes, he reveals it was a joke–albeit a mildly cruel one that suggests he isn’t entirely the jovial if awkward fellow he seems at first.

In the morning she seems not to know what to do in the house, and in a long sequence she takes a walk that gradually undermines the sense of the bucolic, restful countryside.

Harper enters a forest, the beauty of which is emphasized by the lush cinematography. The exteriors in this part of the film are dominated by bright spring greens and occasional flowers.

At one point she pauses, staring down into a valley at a tree. There seems to be nothing remarkable about it, apart from perhaps the fact that some of its branches are entirely green because of a thick coating of moss–something that appears on other trees as well. Her pause should cue us to pay attention to the forest as a possibly significant motif. This imagery of moss-covered trees appears in a cutaway outside the house in a later scene.

  

As Harper walks along a path, a gentle rain begins, and she stands delightedly listening to distant thunder and the patter of the rain. The moment is a sample of how this contact with nature delights this city dweller and could have a calming effect on her. The freedom to commune with nature in safety, however, is soon to be taken from her.

Harper approaches a tunnel that is the setting for the most widely praised scene of the film, one that will change the direction of the action radically. Again it takes place amid bright green foliage, which creates a sharp contrast with the darkness of the tunnel. As she calls out and moves into the tunnels, singing to hear the repeated echoes (which she does not notice do not always match her voice exactly), a cut takes us deep into the tunnel, with the darkness swallowing up the green forest, almost like an iris-out.

  

Another reverse shows an even smaller spot of green as Harper sees the silhouette of a man at the other stand up and run toward her. As she flees through the forest, there is a mysterious shot of the pursuing man, unidentifiable in the unfocused depth, while a single fluffy white seed drifts past in focus in the foreground (see image at the top of “Challenging Films.”) This sort of seed will itself become a minor, and mysterious, motif.

Hurrying out of the forest, Harper pauses to photograph a deserted house and spots a naked man. He apparently is not the man who pursued her; from the glimpses we get of him, he appears to be clothed.

Harper returns home, and this scene puts an end to her hopes to take walks in the countryside, something she does not do again. The bright greens become far less prominent, and later scenes tend to take place at night.

The next morning the Naked Man walks around outside the house and tries to break in. The Constable and his partner (the only local woman in the film) arrest him. The scene makes the intruder both threatening and pathetic, with his grubby skin and open sores.

The Naked Man will become linked to a motif introduced in the next scene. Harper goes to visit the nearby village, planning to see the church and try the local pub. In the church there is a carving on the front of a marble font (top image): the Green Man, an ancient, widespread medieval pagan figure associated with rebirth. It faces Harper as she walks forward along the central aisle.

We then see what she does not. On the opposite side of the font, invisible from the pews, is a female figure, a Sheela na gig, a sort of traditional pagan counterpart to the Green Man. She is invariably a seated women with spread legs pulling open her exaggeratedly large vagina. Despite both being of pagan origin, these two mythical characters have been part of the decoration of many churches in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Europe, and quite a few still survive.

The Sheela na gig figure is framed in the foreground as Harper sits weeping at the memory of her husband’s suicide and the local Vicar appears dimly in the background.

There follows a scene in which the Vicar pretends to comfort Harper, initially seeming sympathetic but then suggesting that her refusal to forgive her husband when he struck her drove him suicide. She leaves indignantly, while he sits stroking the bench where she had been sitting.

There follows an enigmatic scene in the forest with none of the characters present. In extreme close-up, a fuzzy seed drifts into the hollow eye-socket of a decaying deer. A cut that seems to follow it into darkness leads to a shot of the Sheela na gig relief. In the light of what happens later, we should keep in mind that this relief is on the surface facing away from the congregation and into the space occupied by the Vicar for all the time he has worked in this church.

  

The next shot shows the Green Man face, made, as such figures are, of foliage. A brief series of shots of the Naked Man in a strange sort of den or cell, culminating in a close-up in which he peels some skin from his forehead and sticks a leave into his raw flesh. The camera then rises slowly from the carcass of the deer.

  

This interlude has not been any character’s subjective vision or dream. It is part of the motivic commentary on the action of the film and will come to make sense later on.

Immediately after this scene comes Harper’s visit to the pub where she learns from the Constable that the Naked Man has been released. At that point she calls Riley, saying she is leaving. But her friend urges her to stay and says she will drive to join her in defying the aggressive village men (and boy).

 

That ending

The ending seems to baffle most viewers.

All of the male characters show up at the house. Most threatening is the Vicar, who corners Harper in the large bathroom and declares his lust for her. He describes her in lewd terms that are based on the Sheela na gig figure–open legs, cave-like vagina, and an open mouth.

After this series of threats and attacks by the main male characters, Harper tries to flee in her car. She fails when she hits Geoffrey, who steals the car and tries to run her down. She takes refuge, if one can put it that way, in the garden in front of the house as Geoffrey crashes her car into wall outside, cutting off that method of escape.

At that point the Naked Man, now fully transformed into a semblance of the Green Man, enters. Now finally covered with leaves and twigs, he resembles the figure carved in the church. He is not a genuine Green Man, however, not being made of vegetation but having  pressed all these leaves and twigs into his body.

Launching an impressively intense foray into body horror, the Naked Man lies down and gives birth to Samuel, who kneels before Harper, his belly swelling (above) until he gives birth to the Vicar, who crawls feebly into the hallway as Harper turns away in contempt (frame atop the “Only Girl” section). He then gives birth to Geoffrey, who gives birth (or vomits?) Harper’s husband James through his mouth.

Unlike the others, James is not covered in blood and does not continue the male-birthing chain.  He sits down and blames Harper for the injuries incurred during his suicide, which he still bears despite his “rebirth.” Nevertheless, he demands her love. She turns away, wearily sighing, “Yeah.” Cut to a large red title against black: MEN.

An epilogue follows immediately, with Riley arriving to find the door standing open and signs of bloody objects being dragged (see bottom). Ironically, she is revealed as pregnant, and the flowers return as she approaches the house (see bottom). She spots Harper sitting calmly on a stone stairway in the garden and joins her. The two women reunite happily.

That’s quite an ellipsis. What happened “during” the scene elided by the MEN title? It seemed obvious to me on first viewing that Harper killed James and any of the others who might still be living, though my impression is that each died after giving birth. What happened to the corpses? No idea. Maybe they magically disappeared, as they had magically arrived. After all, earlier we had see two characters, the Constable and Geoffrey, instantly disappear into thin air. If that happened, why the bloodstains remain is a mystery. Still, one thing I was sure of: James and the others are all dead and gone.

How do we know this? The signals are clear, but one needs to watch carefully. Chekhov famously wrote several times in different variants that “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” The principal is known as “Chekhov’s gun.”

Garland follows this guideline and prepares for the final elided murder.

First, during the morning scene when Harper is working remotely and fails at first to notice the Naked Man outside, she goes to the kitchen and a close-up emphasizes her hand plucking one of three knives from a holder to cut an orange. Immediately afterward we see the Naked Man again as she resumes work, the orange beside her–reminding us that she does have a means of defense. He tries to come in, but she successfully locks the door and simply calls the police.

  

After Harper learns at the pub that the police have just given the Naked Man a bath and clothes and released him, she calls her friend Riley to report the various nasty encounters with the Vicar, Samuel, and the Constable. Riley offers to join her at the vacation house, adding, “If that fucking weirdo comes back, I’m gonna take that axe and chop his dick off, and he can fucking choke on it.”

Harper asks, “What axe?” and Riley says it’s behind her. As indeed it is. (The fireplace beside which it sits has been seen and mentioned already. Not that it’s ever lit, but it’s where the axe is.)

Now we’ve had two potentially deadly blades called to our attention. Knowing Chekhov’s rule, from this point on I was assuming Harper would use that axe in a climactic fight.

But since we don’t actually see the axe used with deadly force, Garland needs to show that she would kill someone with it if necessary. Hence the return of the knife.

At about sixty minutes in, the attacks on Harper in her house begin. The mysterious Constable who had released the Naked Man appears on the lawn and then vanishes instantly. Immediately one of the thugs from the pub tries to get into the house. Harper grabs the same knife and hides in the kitchen, where Samuel enters. She refuses to use it on a child, and when Geoffrey appears,  who shows up, she still trusts him. He pretends to search the garden before suddenly disappearing, as the Constable had done.

At that point the Naked Man returns and blows a handful of fluffy seeds into Harper’s face, seen from her POV. He has visibly made some progress toward turning himself into a Green Man.

The seeds seem to send Harper into a trance. She falls backward in slow motion and has a vision of herself possibly drowning. A quick montage of earlier scenes follows, but she recovers and manages again to slam and lock the door to keep him out.

   

At this point the Grand Guignol aspects of the ramp up as the Naked Man sticks his arm through the mail slot and grabs Harper’s wrist. In a dramatic shot from below, she stabs his arm.

As Harper watches the Green Man withdraw his arm through the slot, its edges pull the knife through his forearm and hand, splitting them in two down the middle. (This horrendous wound is transferred to the other men who have harassed or endangered Harper.) Shortly thereafter, when the Vicar arrives (with the split arm), he accuses her of trying to control him with her carnal powers and nearly rapes her. She uses the knife again, this time to kill him.

By this point we should be thoroughly convinced that she would be equally capable of wielding an axe. Indeed, part of the suspense during the “rebirth” scene is when she will finally go and pick it up. She does so as Geoffrey “gives birth” to James. Garland emphasizes it with a low framing of it and the door through which James enters.

  

James collapses on the sofa, and Harper crosses to sit beside him. She doesn’t put down the axe, as we might expect her to do if she is considering admitting that she still loves him. It should be noted that he still has his broken leg (which is also shared with all the other males in the rebirth scene) and his other wounds from his suicide. He is not her real husband James but some simulacrum of a human, like the bloody monsters we have seen emerge during the rebirths. That has to be understood if we are to accept what is implied to happen next. In the last shot of the scene, Harper does not tell James she loves him or that she is sorry for having contributed to his suicide. She just sits fingering the blade of the axe. Cut to the title.

   

I think there’s no doubt that, unseen by us, that axe gets used. Chekhov was right. Clearly Garland, although he made us cheer on Harper as a strong woman, doesn’t want us to see her chopping up her husband, dead though he may actually be already, and we don’t want that either.

How hard is this to grasp when watching the film? Hard, maybe, but not impossible. Christen Warrington-Broxton posted a piece on Google’s page for amateur film reviews. She offers a cogent analysis of the film, including a response to those who claim that the final scene of the climax does not resolve the action. She points out that “our heroine is clearly calculating how she will dismantle that mess with the axe.” During the rebirth segment of the scene, “the modern woman walks away from the inevitable and pathetic rebirth of toxic masculinity that comes for her: the ex. She goes to wait to prepare herself emotionally, and physically with the weapon her female friend pointed out to her. She must destroy this presence in her life.” (Ms Warrington-Broxton also identifies the Sheela na gig, a figure I had not been aware of.)

Oddly enough, though, the Vanity Fair review presents a pretty cogent summary of the action and does not even speculate about what happened between James and Harper after that cut to the title. No mention of the axe or the possibility that violence occurred. Particularly odd for a piece entitled “Men: Let’s Unpack that Disturbing, Disgusting Ending.”

Finally, why bring in the Green Man and Sheela na gig imagery? What is the point of having all the males apart from James played by the same actor? Why make all the village males bear the same horrific wounds, even though only each wound was inflicted on only one man? And why do those wounds echo those of James as he hands impaled on an iron fence and with a grotesquely broken leg after his suicide jump? (Geoffrey suffers a similar leg wound when hit by Harper’s car.)

To be brief, Garland reverses the usual associations of the two mythical figures, who are generally regarded as positive forces–the Green Man as a emblem of rebirth and the Sheela na gig as a protector against evil and, not surprisingly, a fecundity symbol. The film presents them as grotesque and threatening or lewd. The males in the film are linked to them as if to the archaic beliefs, especially about women, of a long-gone time.

The similarities among the male villagers might simply be seen as a blanket condemnation of all men simply as misogynists. Since this is a horror film, however, the point is to make them all monstrous and grotesque in a similar way, sharing the atavistic instinct that drives their behavior toward Harper. The casting of Rory Kinnear as all of these men emphasizes this shared instinct. It also sets them apart from James, who is a classic domineering, guilt-tripping husband but not a literal monster until he joins in the chain of rebirth at the end.

 

Prestige horror going forward

The two films released since I wrote my first piece have not done well. As of July 18, Box Office Mojo listed Men as having earned $10,304,884, about three-quarters of which came from the North American market. The budget isn’t known, but it’s hard to imagine one so low that Men could come close to making a profit, even given that various forms of home-video are yet to come.

The Northman has been streaming for some time now, but again, with a budget estimated at $80-90 million, it does not look like a hit.

One thing is interesting to note, though. I pointed out in my first entry that the “prestige horror” films by the four directors discussed have all scored higher on Rotten Tomatoes among critics than among audiences. By contrast, more conventional horror films nearly always had higher marks from audiences than from critics. Men did worse on Rotten Tomatoes than any of the earlier prestige films listed in the previous entry had, with a 69% positive critical response and a 40% audience one. It’s quite a come-down, but the critics’ score fits the pattern by remaining higher. Last Night in Soho upheld my claim that more conventional horror films did better with audiences; it scored 76% with critics and 90% with viewers.

Whatever the outcome of Men‘s streaming life for A24’s bottom line, Garland apparently wants to quit directing and go back to writing. He has been saying this in interview after interview (too many to link–just Google “‘Alex Garland’ quitting directing,” and you’ll find pages of results). The first time was in an interview with the New York Times (behind a pay wall) on May 16, four days before the American release of Men. Thus the financial failure of the film was not the direct cause of this decision, but one cannot help but suspect he knew what was coming:

It’s the sort of movie that will leave people arguing about its intent, and about what it’s trying to say. You once told me that with “Ex Machina,” you wanted at least 50 percent of the film to be subject to the viewer’s interpretation.

Over the years, I have been consciously putting more and more into the hands of the viewer. There’s probably another element to it, too, if I’m honest, which is that it’s making the viewer complicit. This is another reason to pull back, because there’s a part of me which is really subversive and aggressive and is kind of [messing] with people. At times, I felt with “Men” that I’ve gone so far that it’s borderline delinquent.

The caption for the portrait of Garland atop the interview says that That could be discouraging, though if one makes a deliberately “subversive and aggressive film,” one shouldn’t be surprised.

In the wake of The Northman‘s release and financial disappointment, Eggers told interviewers that he was going to back off from epics on that scale and return to smaller films. In one conversation, he said, “I need to restrategize in terms of what I’m pitching to a studio. Like, how do I be me and survive in this environment? Because while they wouldn’t have me anyway, I wouldn’t want to direct a Marvel movie, and I’m also not going to try to get the rights to Spawn or something either.” This follows from what I wrote in my previous entry, that one interesting thing about these four directors is that none has followed the common pattern of using low-budget horror films as springboards to working in big franchises. Apparently this still holds. So far.

Today the third “prestige horror” director’s film of the year, Jordan Peele’s Nope, goes into wide release. Box Office Mojo is predicting that “In all likelihood, Nope will become the top domestic grossing original film since the start of the pandemic.” That, added to the financial successes of Peele’s previous films, plus his links with Universal and Imax suggest that he may go in a different direction from the other three auteurs in this small group.

[July 24, 2022] I haven’t seen Nope yet, but Justin Chang’s positive review in the Los Angeles Times suggests that Peele remains true, at least for now, to prestige horror: “an unusually well-made and imaginative thriller that’s sometimes tripped up by its own high-mindedness.”

Ali Aster’s Disappointment Blvd., rumored to be a comic horror film in the region of four hours long, was announced as a 2022 release. Recently, however, that was put off until 2023, with possible hopes for a Cannes debut. We shall have to wait a while to see if the old gang is breaking up.


Film websites focusing on horror, fantasy, and/or sci fi tended to give Men far more positive notices. See, for example, Meagan Navarro’s piece on Bloody Disgusting, which catches the fertility imagery and the Grand Guignol quality of the ending, though she doesn’t mention the implication of what happens after the last shot of the climax.

A short time after my piece on Sunset was posted, a friend of ours in Hungary, who teaches and has many contacts in the film industry, told me that Nemes had asked him who this Kristin Thompson was. I assume our friend gave me a good report. I like to think that, among the many negative reviews, mine gave him some indication that he had accomplished what he intended in the film.

Rather to my surprise, Sunset is available for streaming on virtually every service that exists, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, etc. I hate to recommend seeing this beautiful widescreen film on a TV screen, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

Men (2022).

Movies by the numbers

Thursday | July 14, 2022

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022). Publicity still.

DB here:

Cinema, Truffaut pointed out, shows us beautiful people who always find the perfect parking space. Mainstream movies cater to us through their stories and subjects, protagonists and plots. But they have also been engineered for smooth pickup. Their use of film technique is calculated to guide us through the action and shape our emotional response to it.

How this engineering works has fascinated film psychologists for decades. Over a century ago, Hugo Münsterberg proposed that the emerging techniques of the 1915 feature film made manifest the workings of the human mind. In ordinary life, we make sense of our surroundings by voluntarily shifting our attention, often in scattershot ways. But the filmmaker, through movement, editing, and close framings, creates a concentrated flow of information designed precisely for our pickup. Even memory and imagination, Münsterberg argued, find their cinematic correlatives in flashbacks and dream sequences. In cinema, the outer world has lost its weight and “has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness.”

Over the decades, many psychologists have considered how the film medium has fitted itself to our perceptual and cognitive capacities. Julian Hochberg studied how the flow of shots creates expectations that guide our understanding of cinematic space. Under the influence of J. J. Gibson’s ecological theory of perception, Joseph Anderson reviewed the research that supported the idea that films feed on both strengths and shortcomings of the sensory systems we’ve evolved to act in the environment. In more recent years, Jeff Zacks, Joe Magliano, and other visual researchers, have gone on to show how particular techniques exploit perceptual shortcuts (as in Dan Levin’s work on change blindness and continuity editing errors https://vimeo.com/81039224). Outside the psychologists’ community, writers on film aesthetics have fielded similar arguments. An influential example is Noël Carroll’s essay “The Power of Movies.”

James Cutting’s Movies on Our Minds: The Evolution of Cinematic Engagement, itself the fruit of many years of intensive studies, builds on these achievements while taking wholly original perspectives as well. Comprehensive and detailed, it is simply the most complete and challenging psychological account of film art yet offered. I can’t do justice to its range and nuance here. Consider what follows as an invitation to you to read this bold book.

 

Laws of large numbers

The Martian (2015). Publicity still.

Cutting’s initial question is “Why are popular movies so engaging?” He characterizes this engagement—a more gripping sort than we experience with encountering plays or novels—as involving four conditions: sustained attention, narrative understanding, emotional commitment, and “presence,” a sense that we are on the scene in the story’s realm. Different areas of psychology can offer descriptions and explanations of what’s going on in each of these dimensions of engagement.

His prototype of popular cinema is the Hollywood feature film—a reasonable choice, given its massive success around the world. The period he considers runs chiefly from 1920 to 2020. He has run experimental studies with viewers, but the bulk of his work consists of scrutinizing a large body of films. Depending on the question he’s posing, he employs samples of various sizes, the largest including up to 295 movies, the smallest about two dozen. Although he insists he’s not concerned with artistic value, most are films that achieved some recognition as worthwhile. He and his research team have coded the films in their sample according to the categories he’s constructed, and sometimes that process has entailed coding every frame of a movie.

Like most researchers in this tradition, Cutting picks out devices of style and narrative and seeks to show how each one works in relation to our mind. His list is far broader than that offered by most of his predecessors; he considers virtually every film technique noted by critics. (I think he pins down most of those we survey in Film Art.) In some cases he has refined standard categories, such as suggesting varieties of reaction shot.

Starting with properties of the image (tonality, lens adjustments, mise-en-scene, framing, and scale of projection), he moves to editing strategies, the soundtrack, and then to matters of narrative construction. For each one he marshals statistical evidence of the dominant usage we find in popular films. For example, contemporary films average about 1.3 people onscreen at all times, while in the 1940s and 1950s, that average was about 2.5. Across his entire sample, almost two-thirds of all shots show conversations—the backbone of cinematic narrative. (So much for critics who complain that modern movies are overbusy with physical action.) And people are central: 90% of all shots show the head of one or more character.

Some of these findings might appear to be simply confirming what we know intuitively. But Big Data reveal patterns that neither filmmakers nor audiences have acknowledged. Granted, we’ve all assumed that reaction shots are important in cueing the audience how to respond. Cutting argues that despite their comparative rarity (about 15% of a film’s total) they are central to our overall experience: they are “popular movies’ most important narrational device.” They invite the audience to engage with the character’s emotions, and they encourage us to predict what will happen next.

This last role emerges in what Cutting calls the “cryptic reaction shot,” in which the response is ambivalent. Such shots show a moment when a character doesn’t speak in a conversation (for example, Jim’s reactions in my Mission: Impossible sequence). Filmmakers seem to have learned that

these shots are an excellent way to hook the viewer into guessing what the character is thinking—what the character might have said and didn’t. They also serve as fodder for predicting what the character will do next (174-175).

Cryptic reactions gather special power at the scene’s end. Whereas films from the 1940s and 1950s ended their scenes with such shots about 20% of the time, today’s films tend to end conversations with them almost two-thirds of the time. Since reading Cutting’s book I’ve noticed how common this scene-ending reaction shot is in movies (TV shows too). It’s a storytelling tactic that nobody, as far as I know, had previously spotted.

Similarly, Cutting tests Kristin’s model of feature films’ prototypical four-part structure. He finds it mostly valid, both in terms of data clustering (movement, shot lengths, etc.) and viewers’ intuitions about segmentation. But who would have expected what he found about what screenwriters call the “darkest moment”? Using measures of luminance, he finds that “this point literally is, on average, the darkest part of a movie segment” (285).

Cutting has found resourceful ways to turn factors we might think of as purely qualitative into parameters that can be counted and compared. To gauge narrative complexity, he enumerates the number of flashbacks, the amount of embedding (stories within stories), and particularly the number of “narrational shifts” in films. Again, there is a change across history.

Movies jump around among locations, characters, and time frames considerably more often than they used to. . . . Scenes and subscenes have gotten shorter. In 1940, they averaged about a minute and a half in duration, but by 2010 they were only about 30 seconds long (271-272).

His illustrative example is the climax of The Martian, where in four minutes and 35 shifts, the narration cuts together seven locations, all with different characters. Something similar goes on in the motorcycle chase of Mission: Impossible II and the final seventy minutes of Inception.

These examples show that Cutting is going far beyond simply tagging regularities in an atomistic fashion. Throughout, he is proposing that these patterns perform functions. For the filmmakers, they are efforts to achieve immediate and particular story effects, highlighting this or that piece of information. Showing few people in a shot help us concentrate on the most important ones. Conversations are the most efficient way to present goals, conflicts, and character relationships. Editing among several lines of action at a climax builds suspense. He suggests that because viewer mood is correlated with luminance, the darkest moment is triggering stronger emotional commitment.

But Cutting sees broader functions at work underneath filmmakers’ local intentions. Movies’ preferred techniques, the most common items on the menu, smoothly fit our predispositions—our tendencies to look at certain things and not others, to respond empathically to human action, to fit plots together coherently. Filmmakers have intuitively converged on powerful ways to make mainstream movies fit humans’ “ecological niche.”

And those movies have, across a century, found ways to snuggle into that niche ever more firmly. As we have learned the skills of following movie stories, filmmakers have pressed us to go further, stretching our sensory capacities, demanding faster and subtler pickup of information. Cutting’s numbers lead us to a conception of film history, the “evolution of cinematic engagement” promised in his subtitle.

 

Film history without names

Suspense (Weber and Smalley, 1913).

Central to Cutting’s psychological tradition is the idea that engagement depends minimally on controlling and sustaining attention. The techniques itemized almost invariably function to guide the viewer to see (or hear) the most important information. Filmmakers discovered that you can intensify attention by cooperation among the cues. Given that humans, especially faces, carry high information in a scene, you can use lighting, centered position, frontal views, close framings, figure movement, and other features of a shot to reinforce the central role of the humans that propel the narrative. When the key information doesn’t involve faces or gestures, you can give objects the same starring role.

Movies on Our Minds is very thorough in showing through statistical evidence that all these techniques and more combine to facilitate our attention. As an effort of will you can focus your attention on a lampshade, but it won’t yield much. The line of least resistance is to go with what all the cues are driving you to. But the statistical evidence also points to changes across history. What’s going on here?

Most basically, speedup. Cutting asked undergraduate students to go through films twice, once for basic enjoyment and then frame by frame, recording the frame number at the beginning and ending of each shot. He found that by and large the students enjoyed the older films, but some complained that these older movies were slower than what they ordinarily watched.

This impression accords with both folk wisdom and film research. Most viewers today note that movies feel very fast-moving, compared with older films. There’s also a considerable body of research indicating that cutting rates have accelerated since at least the 1960s. More loosely, I think most people think that story information is given more swiftly in modern movies; our films feel less redundant than older ones. Exposition can be very clipped. Abrupt changes from scene to scene are accentuated by the absence of “lingering” punctuation by fade-outs or dissolves. Indeed, one scene is scarcely over before we hear dialogue or sound effects from the next one. Characters’ motives aren’t always spelled out in dialogue but are evoked by enigmatic images or evocative sound. The Bourne Identity attracted notice not just for its fragmentary editing but also for its blink-and-you’ll-miss-them “threats on the horizon”—virtually glimpses of what earlier films would have dwelled on more. From this angle, Everything Everywhere All at Once represents a kind of cinema that grandpa, and maybe dad, would find hard to follow. (Actually, I’m told that some audiences today have trouble too.)

In The Way Hollywood Tells It, I suggested some causal factors shaping speedup, including various effects of television. Cutting grants that these may be in play, but just as he looks for an underlying pattern of functional factors in his ecology of the spectator, he posits a broad process of cinematic evolution similar to that in biology.

Look at film history simply as  succession of movies. From a welter of competing alternatives, some techniques are selected and prove robust. They are replicated, modified in relation to the changing milieu. Others fail. For instance, the split-screen telephone shot of early cinema, as in the above frame from Suspense, became “a failed mutation” when shot/ reverse-shot editing for phone calls became dominant. As the main line of descent has strengthened, variation has come down to “selected tweaks” like eyelights and Steadicam movement.

Within this framework, filmmakers and audiences participate in a give-and-take.Through trial and error, early filmmakers collectively found ways to make films mesh with our perceptual proclivities. As viewers became more skilled in following a movie’s lead, there was pressure on filmmakers to go further and make more demands. If attention could be maintained, then shots could be shorter, scenes could move faster, redundancy could be cut back, complexity could be increased.

Viewers responded positively, embracing the new challenges of quicker pickup. As viewers became more adept, filmmakers could push ahead boldly, toward films like Memento and Primer. The most successful films, often  financially rewarding ones like The Martian and Inception, suggest that filmmakers have continued to fit their boundary-pushing impulses to popular abilities.

Which means that audiences have adapted to these demands. But this isn’t adaptation in the strong Darwinian sense. With respect to his students’ reactions, Cutting writes:

I think . . .  that the eye of a 20-year-old in the 2010s was faster at picking up visual information than the eye of a 20-year-old in the 1940s. This is not biological evolution. This is cultural education, however incidental it might be.

This process of cultural education, he suggests can be understood using Michael Baxandall’s concept of the “period eye.” Baxandall studied Italian fifteenth-century painting and posited that an adult in that era saw (in some sense) differently than we do today. Granted, people have a common set of perceptual mechanisms, but cultural differences intervene. Baxandall traced some socially-grounded skills that spectators could apply to paintings. In parallel fashion, given the rapidity of cultural change in the twentieth century, young people now may have gained an informal visual education, a training of the modern eye in the conventions of media.

Cutting insists that he isn’t suggesting that our attention spans have recently decreased, as many maintain. Instead, the idea of a period eye centers on

the growth and improvement of visual strategies as shaped by culture. If this idea is correct, then contemporary undergraduates have reason to complain about movies from the 1940s and 1950s that I asked them to watch.

By this account, film teachers have to recognize that their students, for whom any film before 2000 is an old movie, are possessed of a constantly changing “period eye.”

 

Failed mutations, or revision and revival?

City of Sadness (Hou, 1989).

I do have some minor reservations, which I’ll introduce briefly.

First, I don’t think that Baxandall’s idea of a period eye is a good fit for the dynamic that Cutting has identified. Baxandall’s concern is with a narrow sector of the fifteenth-century public: “the cultivated beholder” whom “the painter catered for.”

One is talking not about all fifteenth-century people, but about those whose response to works of art was important to the artist—the patronizing class, one might say. In effect this means a rather small proportion of the population: mercantile and professional men, members of confraternities or as individuals, princes and their courtiers, the senior members of religious houses. The peasants and the urban poor play a very small part in the Renaissance culture that most interests us now. 

Ordinary viewers could recognize Jesus and Mary, the Annunciation or the Crucifixion, but for Baxandall the “period eye” involved a specific skill set. This was derived from such domains as business, surveying, ready reckoning, and a widespread artistic concepts like “foreshortening” or “stylistic ease.” The study of geometry prepared the perceiver to appreciate the virtuosity of perspective or proportion, but the untutored viewer could only marvel at the naturalness of the illusion.

It seems to me that Cutting’s 20-year-olds are not prepared perceivers in Baxandall’s sense. True, they may be alert to faulty CGI or a lame joke, but the whole point of focusing on mass-entertainment movies is that they engage multitudes, not coteries. The techniques Cutting explores are immediately grasped by nearly everybody, and no esoteric skills are necessary to feel their impact. Baxandall’s viewer is able to appreciate a painter’s rendition of bulk because he’s used to estimating a barrel’s capacity, but all Cutting’s viewer needs to get everything is just to pay attention.

Because the skills of following modern movies are so widespread, I wonder if Cutting’s case better fits the explorations of Heinrich Wöfflin, who flirted with the idea that “seeing as such has its own history, and uncovering these ‘optical strata’ has to be considered the most elementary task of art history.” Throughout his late career Wöfflin struggled to make the “history of vision” thesis intelligible. At times he implied that everyone in a given era “saw” in a way different from people in other eras. At other times he proposed that of course everyone sees the same thing but “imagination” or “the spirit” of the period and place shape how we understand what we see. This is murky water, and you can sense my skepticism about it. I don’t see how we could give the “period eye” for cinema much oomph on this front, but I think we might salvage Cutting’s central point. See below.

Secondly, by concentrating on mass-market cinema, “the movies,” and suggesting they fit our evolved capacities, we can easily overlook the alternatives. Obvious examples are the earliest cinema, which did involve some precise perceptual appeals (centering, frontality, selective lighting, emphasis through foreground/background relations) but not all the ones associated with editing. Given that tableau cinema had a longish ride (1895-1920 or so), it’s not inconceivable that, had circumstances been different, we would still have a cinema of distant framings and static long takes.

Cutting is aware of this. Rewind the tape of history, he says, and eliminate factors like World War I, and things could have turned out differently. But where would a long-running tableau cinema leave the story of cinema’s dynamic of natural selection? Would we have simply a steady state, without the acceleration of the last sixty years? Or would we look within the long history of tableau cinema for mutations and failed adaptations?

We have contemporary examples, in what has come to be called “slow cinema.” Hou Hsiao-hsien, Theo Angelopoulos, and other modern filmmakers have exploited the static long take for particular aesthetic effects. In another universe, they are the “movies” that hordes flock to see. Tableau cinema seems to me not a failed mutation, replaced by a style that more tightly meshed with spectators’ proclivities; it was an aesthetic resource that could be revived for new purposes. On a smaller scale, something like this happened with split-screen phone calls (as in Down with Love and The Shallows).

As the other arts show us, the past is available for re-use in fresh ways. Maybe nothing really goes away.

Which brings me to my last point. Baxandall’s emphasis on skills reminds us that we can acquire a new “eye” for appreciating films outside the mainstream. Cutting’s 20-somethings can learn to appreciate and even enjoy films that might strike them as slow. We call this the education of taste.

My inclination is to see the contemporary embrace of speedup as based in filmmakers’ and viewers’ more or less unthinking choices about taste. Indeed, Baxandall suggests that the period eye is a matter of “cognitive style,” a set of skills one person may have and another may lack.

There is a distinction to be made between the general run of visual skills and a preferred class of skills specially relevant to the perception of works of art. The skills we are most aware of are not the ones we have absorbed like everyone else in infancy, but those we have learned formally, with conscious effort: those which we have been taught.

Once the skills have been taught, we can exercise them for pleasure.

If a painting gives us opportunity for exercising a valued skill and rewards our virtuosity with a sense of worthwhile insight about that painting’s organization, we tend to enjoy it: it is to our taste.

I’d suggest that we have “overlearned” the skills solicited by mainstream movies and made them the automatic default for our taste. But we can also learn the skills for appreciating 1910s tableau cinema or City of Sadness. As we do so, we find we have cultivated a new dimension of our tastes. From this standpoint, the sensitive appreciators of slow cinema are far more like Baxandall’s educated Renaissance beholders than are the Hollywood mass audience. Perhaps to enjoy Feuillade or Hou today is to possess a genuine “period eye.”

None of this undercuts Cutting’s findings. But given the variety of options available, I’d argue that what the history of cinema reveals, among many other things, is a history of styles—some of which are facile to pick up, for reasons Cutting and his tradition indicate, and others which require effort and training and an open mind. Not clear-cut evolution, then, but just the blooming plurality we find in all the arts, with some styles becoming dominant and normative and others becoming rarefied . . . until artists start to make them mainstream. And the whole ensemble can be mixed and remixed in unpredictable ways.

 

There’s far too much in Movies on Our Minds to summarize here. It’s a feast of ideas and information, presented in lively prose. (The studies that the book rests upon are far more dependent upon statistics and graphs.) I should disclose that I read the book in manuscript and wrote a blurb for it. Consider this entry, then, as born of a strong admiration for James’s project.


Cutting’s book rests on years of intensive studies. Go to his website for a complete list. Most recently, he has traced a rich array of phone-call regularities across a hundred years. He has been a recurring player on this blog, notably here and here. James and I spent a lively week watching 1910s films at the Library of Congress, with results recorded here and here. The last link also provides more examples of revived “defunct” devices.

The tradition of film-psychological research I rehearse includes Hugo Münsterberg, The Film: A Psychological Study in Hugo Munsterberg on Film: The Photoplay: A Psychological Study and Other Writings, ed. Allan Langdale (Routledge, 2001; orig. 1916); In the Mind’s Eye: Julian Hochberg on the Perception of Pictures, Films, and the World, ed. Mary A. Peterson, Barbara Gillam, H. A. Sedgwick (New York: Oxford, 2007); Joseph D. Anderson, The Reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory (Southern Illinois University Press, 1996); Jeffrey Zacks, Flicker: Your Brain on Movies (Oxford, 2014). Noël Carroll’s essay “The Power of Movies” is included in his collection Theorizing the Moving Image (Cambridge, 1996).

Michael Baxandall’s most celebrated work is Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Oxford, 1972); citations come from pages 29-29. My mention of Wölfflin relies on Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Early Development of Style in Early Modern Art, trans. Jonathan Blower (Getty Research Institute, 2015). My citation comes from p. 93.

One reference point for Cutting’s work is a book Kristin and I wrote with Janet Staiger, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, discussed here. See also Kristin’s Storytelling in the New Hollywood, which elaborates the argument for the four-part model, and my books On the History of Film Style and The Way Hollywood Tells It, along with the web video “How Motion Pictures Became the Movies.”

Bye Bye Birdie (1963).

Lie to me: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE

Thursday | June 30, 2022

Mission: Impossible (1996).

DB here:

Filmmakers rightly consider themselves problem-solvers. They deal with budget limits, scheduling constraints, temperamental staff and casts, and balky equipment. Some problems come with financial demands; others are self-imposed, such as: “Tell a story confined to a single room.” The artistic problems often demand solutions that guide viewers toward clarity, comprehension, and emotional impact.

Suppose your story situation is this. Character A is telling a story, but it’s a lie. Character B realizes it’s a lie, but doesn’t signal that recognition. This is really two problems in one: How do you tell the audience A is lying? And how do you convey that B knows but doesn’t reveal that knowledge?

These are at the crux of in an intriguing sequence in Mission: Impossible. The solutions found by screenwriter David Koepp and director Brian DePalma show how even a straightforward “entertainment movie” can pose interesting questions about cinematic expression.

Spoilers ahead. But I bet you’ve seen this movie.

 

The problem(s)

The Impossible Mission team has been sent to Prague, purportedly to retrieve a digital disc listing all CIA agents in Europe. They don’t know that this assignment is a pretext for finding a mole, a rogue agent who is selling secrets to foreign interests. While infiltrating a state gala, most of the team is killed. Only Ethan Hunt, point man in the mission, and Claire Phelps, the wife of the team leader Jim Phelps, survive. The IMF chief Kittridge accuses Ethan of being the mole so Ethan, along with Claire, needs to flee. But out of devotion to duty he insists on finding the mole. He learns that the mole under the alias of Job has offered to sell the NOC list to Max, a dealer in covert information. The bulk of the plot revolves around Ethan’s efforts to induce Max to reveal Job, which Ethan can do only by offering Max the NOC list—while at the same time making sure that it doesn’t really fall into Max’s hands.

After a prologue, which I discussed in an earlier entry, the film’s first stretch revolves around the team’s invasion of the embassy party. As the scheme collapses, we see the deaths of the team members. Through cross-cutting and a moving-spotlight narration, the film shows us the technician Jack killed in an elevator shaft, Jim Phelps shot on a bridge and tumbling into the river, Sarah stabbed at a gate, and Hannah killed by a car bomb. The effects of these killings are registered largely through Ethan’s response. He hears Jack lose contact, watches video transmission of Jim’s bloody hands, finds Sarah impaled by a knife, and sees Hannah’s car explode. Later he, and we, will learn that Claire escaped.

At the start of the film’s climax, Ethan discovers that Jim Phelps is still alive. In a café, Jim explains that he survived the shooting and that he saw the killer: Kittridge. Kittridge is the mole, he claims. Jack brings Jim into his plan to meet Max on the Eurostar train and apparently give her the NOC list he’s stolen from Langley.

The twist is that Jim–Ethan’s mentor, friend, and surrogate father–is lying. He is Job the mole, and he has eliminated his own team, faking the attack on himself. Thanks to crosscutting, the first version of the attacks concealed from us the actions Jim takes to kill his colleagues. The narrative problems are: How and when to tell us of Jim’s treachery? And how to represent Ethan’s state of awareness? Is he misled by Jim’s account, or does he doubt it? And what is Claire’s role in all this?

 

Three solutions

Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Every creative choice eliminates alternatives, and I’ve compared classical filmmaking to selecting from a menu of more or less favored options. That menu can offer filmmakers ways of solving narrative problems. One choice for the M:I revelation is simply to present Jim telling Ethan his lies in the café. Ethan then can react in horror, leaving us to assume that he doesn’t doubt him.

This option was actually tried out in an early script draft. Jim explains and Ethan, despite some hesitation (“Hold on, it’s taking me a minute to adjust here“), seems to accept his story. Only in their final confrontation on the Eurostar does Ethan reveal that he had long before figured out that Jim had betrayed the team. We had no inkling that in the café Ethan was merely pretending to accept Jim’s account. His awareness of Jim’s scheme was held back as a surprise.

Another narrative option appears in a later script draft. This time Jim’s explanation is accompanied by flashbacks illustrating his lies. He claims to have swum to shore, patched up his gunshot wound, and followed Ethan’s trail. He then tells Ethan it was Kittridge who shot him and killed Sarah, and these moments are illustrated with quick flashback imagery. These are lying flashbacks. As a neat fillip, two of these shots replay Ethan finding Sarah’s body nearby, as if to certify Jim’s story. “Ethan just stares at Phelps, his eyes wide with surprise.” Again, we’re led to think that Ethan trusts Jim’s tale, making the train confrontation a revelation of Ethan’s outplaying Jim.

We should remember that the Hollywood menu provides the lying flashback as an option, albeit rare. In Singin’ in the Rain, for instance, Don Lockwood’s voice-over interview portrays his early career as one of refined show-business accomplishment. “Dignity—always dignity.” But the images undercut this by showing him performing slapstick routines in burlesque. Since this is a comedy, we can understand that the film’s flashbacks are debunking his pretension. As for the second problem, that of conveying a listener’s skepticism, the present-time scenes reinforce the impression of Don’s puffery by showing his pal Cosmo’s eye-rolling reaction. Still, the interviewer and presumably the radio audience are taken in.

This second M:I script variant doesn’t include such hints that Ethan doubts Jim, so the problem of the conveying the listener’s true reaction is bypassed. But the final film supplies yet another solution.

After I drafted what you’ve just read, I heard from screenwriter David Koepp. I had written him to ask about the alterations, and he talked with De Palma about them.

Brian reminded me that the intention of the scene was built around an idea — can we show Jim lying, and simultaneously see Ethan figuring out those lies in his own mind?  Without telling Jim that he knows it’s a lie, Ethan is picturing for us what the truth must (or might) have been.  It’s a cool idea, and, typical of DePalma, highly visual.  Actually seeing on screen versions of events that may or MAY NOT have happened is something we started playing around with in M:I, and then did to a greater degree in Snake Eyes, which we wrote right after that.  

Neither one of us can remember in useful detail about why we might have tried several other versions first, but my guess is that the one with Jim simply verbalizing the lie was jettisoned in favor of images for obvious (and again, DePalma-esque) reasons, i.e., it’s better to see something than to hear it.  The flashback showing Kittridge as the perpetrator was likely because we wanted to keep going for as long as possible with the character I’ve come to call the Principled Antagonist — POSSIBLY a villain, turns out not to be, but always diametrically opposed to the hero and his goals.

It was good to have my hunch confirmed, and to watch filmmakers sampling the menu of options from draft to draft. The final shooting script presents the new variant. Ethan, not Jim, spells out the scheme in dialogue. This leads Jim to assume that Ethan accepts Kittridge as the culprit. But the image track shows Jim committing the crimes. As the script puts it:

A reprise of PHELPS’s narrative only now ETHAN’S telling it and camera is showing the events as ETHAN sees they actually happened.

There’s still a potential obstacle, though. What if the viewer takes the flashbacks to show what really happened but doesn’t grasp that they’re Ethan’s imaginings? They might be only “the film telling us what really happened,” as in Singin’ in the Rain. How to establish that we’re following Ethan’s train of thought while he lies during his dialogue with Jim?

 

How to lie to a liar

Here’s the sequence as it appears in the film.

On the first problem, the sequence makes clear that Jim’s accusation of Kittridge is false. We’re introduced to Jim’s treachery with several shots showing Jim engineering Jack’s death in the elevator. Several more shots, stressed through slow-motion, illustrate how Jim faked his own death. And the knifing of Golitsyn and Sarah is attributed to Krieger. You can also argue that wily viewers will take Jim’s sidelong glance at Ethan as a tip-off to his treachery–a classic shot lingering on the Guilty One (as we’ve seen elsewhere).

Still, how can we be sure that Ethan sees “events as they actually happened”–especially since his shock and puzzlement at hearing Jim’s tale seem so genuine?

The sequence solves the second problem with two passages that strongly imply that the flow of images reflects what’s in Ethan’s mind.

First, among phases of the stabbings at the gate, there’s the interpolated shot of Ethan pinning Krieger’s wrist to the wall during the Langley heist.

               

The two-shot of Ethan and Krieger, a flashback not part of Jim’s story, indicates Ethan’s realization that the knife he found in Sarah’s side was one of Krieger’s. Interestingly, this shot isn’t in the shooting script.

A stronger cue that we’re in Ethan’s mind comes with the “revised and corrected” version of Hannah’s death. Did “backup” take her out? The answer comes with a shot of Claire triggering the explosion and turning to look at the camera.

Claire’s look defies plausibility. It’s as if she is turning to glare, almost defiantly, at the Ethan who’s imagining this. Because he’s attracted to Claire, he wants to give her the benefit of the doubt. His imagination immediately proposes an alternative in which Jim sets off the bomb.

In the train at the climax, Jim will confirm Ethan’s hesitation: he was reluctant to suspect Claire. In the later stretch of the café scene, not included in my extract, the question of her loyalty is evoked as Jim urges Ethan to keep quiet about the scheme. When Ethan returns to Claire at the safe house, there remains the issue of whether her seduction of him is sincere or a further act of betrayal.

More immediately, the two problems are solved. Not only do we have the exposure of Jim’s lie, but we also get glimpses of how Ethan reconstructs what really happened. What makes this all particularly clever is that Ethan’s dialogue seems to confirm Jim’s tale. Ethan’s verbal duplicity is consistent with his talent for bluffing (as with Krieger and the fake NOC disc) and the earlier twinge of suspicion he had about Jim’s Palmer House Bible. When image and sound contradict one another here, we’re obliged to trust the image.

All of which charges Ethan’s final question–“Why, Jim? Why?”–with a double significance. Apparently asking about Kittridge’s motive, Ethan is pressing his mentor, almost desperately. Jim’s answer, about a refusal to accept the end of the Cold War, applies as much to him as to a CIA bureaucrat. We may not fully recognize it at the moment, but Ethan’s question marks the end of their friendship.

 

Someone might ask if every audience member will realize that the sequence solves both problems. Presumably even a ninny understands that Jim is lying; but maybe some viewers don’t get that Ethan is aware of the lie. My own inclination is to see the cues of Krieger’s knife and the revised version of Hannah’s death as pretty solid hints. Still, we might be in the realm, not unknown to Hollywood cinema, of a film that includes subtleties that not every viewer catches. I’m reminded of a screenwriter’s remark: “It’s not necessary that every viewer understand everything, only that everything can be understood.”  This is presumably one reason we return to films and find more in them.

It’s also one reason it’s fun to analyze them.


Thanks to David Koepp and Brian De Palma for responding to my questions. David’s script archive is here.

The remark about understandable stories comes from Ted Elliott, as quoted in Jeff Goldsmith, “The Craft of Writing the Tentpole Movie,” Creative Screenwriting 11, no. 3 (May/ June 2004):, 53.

Mission: Impossible (1996).

 

David Bordwell
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