Movie Reviews Archive

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the 1970s American Cult Film

This past December (Fall 2014 semester), I took a film studies course entitled “Cultural Perspectives in Film” (FILM 2117). The concentration for the course this semester was American cinema of the 1970s, so we spent our weeks screening all kinds of films from the decade and discussing them in class. From Putney Swope (1969) and The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) to An Unmarried Woman (1978) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), our class watched films of all genres and analyzed them under the lens of the counterculture audience of the ’70s.

Aside from the in-class screenings, students had to choose one film from a group of four or five selected by Professor Paula Massood to screen at home and answer five questions. This assignment was given three separate times during the semester, and the final assignment had students answer the same questions, but allowed them to choose their own film. The only criteria was that utmost be an American-made film produced in the ’70s.

Since I had asked the professor if she wouldn’t mine me designating this course as an honors course in the beginning of the semester, she allowed me some leeway in choosing a film for my final assignment. After some discussion, I chose to screen and analyze The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) for my final writing piece. Professor Massood and I agreed that I would answer an extra question about the American cult film during the ’70s. Below is a selection of questions and answers from the paper. I hope you enjoy reading a “Rocky Horror virgin’s” first-time experience with the film and its rich cult history!

Questions 4 and 6 have been removed since they were pertinent to class discussions and readings. 

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1Q) Please identify the film and provide some production history.

1A) Few spectacles of cinema have gained as much cult popularity as the The Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS for short). A British musical comedy film released in 1975, RHPS was produced by 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. Made on a budget of $1.2 million, the film became the second highest grossing film on 1975, grossing nearly $140 million across theater rentals and box office sales (IMDb). Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was the film that beat it in the box office, but clever RHPS advertisers used this to the film’s advantage; posters and merchandise were branded with the RHPS mascot, a red set of lips, and a tagline which read, “A different set of jaws” (Wikipedia).

Despite its overseas origins as a 1973 musical stage show, the film adaptation is perhaps the greatest example of a film “made” in America. “Made” here meaning that it only started profiting and gaining notoriety and popularity in the states. After its initial box office flop at its London and Los Angeles releases, the film was put on the midnight screening circuit in major cities across the United States by Fox executive Tim Deegan (Wikipedia). The idea was to hop on the growing popularity of midnight screenings of strange, low-budget films such as Reefer Madness (1936) and Pink Flamingos (1972) in college towns. RHPS skyrocketed into pop culture stardom when audiences at New York City’s Waverly Theater turned it into what it is now: a cult film that relies almost entirely on a mixture of audience participation and stage play accompaniment.

2Q) Briefly summarize the film’s plot.

2A) RHPS notoriously follows a very strange narrative. The film is based on the 1973 stage production and book, both written by Richard O’Brien. O’Brien would go on to co-write the screenplay with director Jim Sharman, as well as star in the film adaptation as Riff Raff. A love letter to the golden age of science fiction films and B movies (mainly horror), RHPS pays tribute to the films, music and social mentality of the 1940s and 50s, as well as defining the counterculture generation of the 1960s and 70s.

The film follows the story of Janet and Brad, a newly engaged couple living in Denton, Ohio. As they travel through a storm to meet an ex-tutor and friend, Dr. Scott, they experience an auto-breakdown near the residence of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (played by Tim Curry). When they approach his gigantic castle in search of a phone, Riff Raff, a house servant, invites them inside. They meet Frank-N-Furter’s other servant, Magenta (Riff Raff’s sister and lover), and eventually the doctor himself. After Janet and Brad realize that they’ve stumbled upon the Annual Transylvanian Convention, Frank-N-Furter sings about how he’s a transsexual transvestite from Transylvania. This begins the couple’s nightlong journey through the castle and a sexual, emotional, and mental transformation.

Frank-N-Furter promises that he’ll help the couple, but first invites the two up to his lab to “see what’s on the slab.” It turns out that Frank-N-Furter has discovered the secret to life itself, and he creates a Greek god-like human being of physical perfection (a reference to Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and the monster that he creates). This creature, named Rocky Horror, is the newest one in Frank-N-Furter’s line of creations. The doctor says that other beings he brought to life never turned out as perfectly as he’d hoped for, but Rocky is different. One of his past creations/captives, a motorcycle-riding, saxophone-toting rock-and-roller, Eddie (played by Meat Loaf) accidentally escapes from the castle’s deep freezer and causes a ruckus at the convention. Frank-N-Furter silences him by murdering him with an ice axe, horrifying Rocky, Janet, Brad, and the rest of the convention visitors. Realizing his actions have startled the guests, Frank-N-Furter makes up for it by celebrating with his guests the fact that he’s going to “make Rocky a man.”

As he and Rocky retire to the master bedroom, the rest of his guests retire to their own quarters. Frank-N-Furter has his way with Rocky and then disguises himself as Brad and Janet, respectively. He sneaks into Janet and Brad’s bedrooms, one after the other, seducing them both into giving up their virginity. They know they made a commitment to the other to save themselves for after marriage, but Frank-N-Furter’s alien powers of seduction and sensual pleasure prove too much to handle. Rocky’s escape from the master bedroom is what eventually forces Frank-N-Futer to leave Janet and Brad alone. While Frank-N-Furter punishes Riff Raff for doing a poor job of supervising Rocky, Janet finds the “creature of the night” hiding in the lab where he was born. She and Rocky share an intimate moment during which Janet realizes that giving into her carnal desires and sensual pleasures is what she’s always wanted. Her experience with Frank-N-Furter is what made her realize she should be more open to exploring them.

Frank-N-Furter, his servants, Rocky, Janet and Brad all reunite back in the lab. They realize that the man Janet and Brad were going to visit in the beginning of the film, Dr. Scott, has come searching for Eddie, the ex-delivery boy who was being held captive in the deep freezer. Dr. Scott enters the castle and confronts Frank-N-Furter and his servants over dinner, calling them aliens. Frank-N-Furter reveals that dinner was actually meat from Eddie’s corpse, and that they are all transsexual aliens from the galaxy of Transylvania. He “Medusas” all of his guests (a process which freezes them into Greek statues) and transports them all to his final floorshow.

During the show, Frank-N-Furter sings about his ideology to be whatever you want and not just dream of being it. Still in a hypnotic, Medusa-induced state, the rest of his guests sing along with him. Riff Raff and Magenta break up the show, stating that they’re taking over because of Frank-N-Furter excessive decadence and uncontrollable lust on earth. They murder Frank-N-Furter and Rocky, transport the castle and all inside it back to their galaxy, and leave Janet, Brad and Dr. Scott permanently altered and scarred by the experiences of the night.

3Q) Does the film follow any genre conventions?

3A) RHPS follows many genre conventions while also creating an entirely new one. The main genres that the film pays homage to are movie musicals and science fiction, although there are also aspects of horror (through set design and gore), drama (during romantic encounters between leading ladies and male heroes), and comedy (in crisp, stinging dialogue and satirical views of marriage, chastity and concern over physical appearance). As far as movie musicals go, RHPS is fairly conventional. The characters express their feelings and ideas through song and dance, the plot is advanced with each song, and as Tim Curry says, “it’s very much a musical [because] a lot of the energy of the whole event is in the music” (RHPS BTS Featurette). Where the film breaks movie musical conventions is in the content of the song and dance, and how it’s all portrayed visually on-screen. Everything is highly sexualized and sensational, with bare-naked bodies, men in women’s clothing (corsets, fishnet stockings, heels), and sexual acts all shown throughout the film. These subjects were very taboo prior to the Counterculture Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. When American youth lost trust in their government during the Vietnam War and scandals of President Nixon, their generation formed a niche audience that yearned for any and everything that was against what their parents had raised them to believe. Sex, violence and rock-n-roll music are just a few of the things that make RHPS so appealing to this audience.

The science fiction side of the film also followed a lot of conventions while starting new ones. The way that Rocky Horror is born is almost identical to the creation of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster (from Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein film). The powers of giving life, aliens from another galaxy visiting earth, and the setting of a castle on a dark, stormy night have always been traditions of the sci-fi genre. The story of RHPS being narrated from the perspective of a knowledgeable narrator (in this case, a criminologist) is another genre tradition the film kept alive. Many of the sci-fi films from the 1940’s and 50s featured the bringing in of a professional, some detective or physic or specialist who could explain to the rest of the characters what was going on. What RHPS changes is the idea of the classic version of Dr. Frankenstein dressing in drag and having sexual relations with the townspeople rather than fleeing from them. The film takes a lot of pre-used plot points and characters and then sensualizes are fetishizes them.

Director Jim Sharman called his film a “1970s version of The Wizard of Oz” (RHPS BTS Featurette). Like The Wiz (1978), which truly was a ‘70s version of The Wizard of Oz (1939), RHPS took the idea of a group of characters exploring a fantastical, magical world led by an eccentric ringmaster and made it raunchy, gothic, and infectiously good fun for audiences to listen to. Meat Loaf being featured in the film is a clear sign the music was written specifically to please younger fans of rock and roll. Sharman also commented that he was excited for the piece because “for once there wasn’t something that was created by a very small group of people to be turned over to a [studio] to be pulped out, but in fact the people that originally created it and the actors had a lot to do with it.” The independent, low budget nature of RHPS shines through in obvious technical ways (i.e., boom microphone shadows and stunt wires in shots), but also in very meaningful musical and narrative ways. The story being unlike anything before it is of integral importance to its cult popularity.

5Q) Can you compare the film with any of the titles we’ve screened in class?

5A) In a 1975 interview with STOIC (Student Television Of Imperial College), Curry remarked “he was hesitant [to take the role] in that if it worked, it might be a difficult image to shake off” (STOIC Interview). Acting generally is a high-risk business, in that the actor is the thing that everyone working on a film crew or going to see a movie focuses on. The lighting, camera work, directing, makeup, art and costumes are all there, but it’s the performance that people immediately look at. Curry’s portrayal of Dr. Frank-N-Furter is certainly no exception: it was a high-energy role which required him to dress in drag, act as a bisexual alien, and strip down in front of the camera. This is immediately comparable to Duane Jones’ portrayal of Ben in Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Robert La Tourneaux’s portrayal of Cowboy Tex in The Boys in the Band (1970). Both roles required a great deal of commitment to jump into the unknown. Ben slapped a white woman and took charge of a fully white team of survivors in a time when racism and segregation were boiling in the United States. Cowboy Tex sold himself off as a male stripper and homosexual callboy in New York City, a place where the LGBT scene was often heavily discriminated against. Risqué roles are never easy for an actor to play, but the subsequent performances are usually worth their weight in gold (the emotions and feelings are often all the more real when actors have personal stakes involved).

Putney Swope (1969) is another film that can be juxtaposed with RHPS. Aside from the obvious difference that the former focuses on racial tension on the latter on sci-fi sexuality, both share one very big similarity: the main character, whom the film was named after, is completely dubbed over. In Putney Swope, the title character’s dialogue was dubbed by director Robert Downey Sr. He stated in an interview that it was because the actor couldn’t remember his lines, but it’s hard to believe that Downey’s interest in French New Wave films and his desire to play off of conventions in a white and black relationship didn’t influence the decision (Massood Lecture 1). In RHPS, Peter Hinwood played Rocky Horror, and was selected primarily for his physical features. “He was an underwear model with no acting experience; all of his speaking lines were cut, and his singing voice was dubbed by singer Trevor White” (Broadway). With each film, the director made a major decision during post-production to alter the main character of the film. The result in both films is a character that looks and sounds like a puppet. Swope is an African American man who restructures a predominantly white business into a black one, but he ends up running it into the ground. Did Swope really ever have control of the situation? Rocky starts out as a creation of Dr. Frank-N-Furter and is killed as a creation of the Transylvanian race. Did he ever have a say over his own fate, or was he doomed from birth?

Lastly, Days of Heaven (1978) also strikes a very familiar chord with RHPS. Terrence Malick crafted a storybook-style auteur film about a family trying to make it (Massood Lecture 2). The picture’s setting is the Texas panhandle during the 1910s, but it’s a timeless film in that it could really happen during any time at any place. The film isn’t necessarily set in the moment, and RHPS is very similar. The director did lock the film in the 70s by having a car radio play a news broadcast about President Nixon, but the idea of aliens from another planet visiting the earth to explore and spread their ideas is timeless. The science fiction genre is generally about questioning reality and our human understanding of the world we live in, so who knows: maybe there is a galaxy full of transsexuals somewhere in our universe. Days of Heaven may explore a different genre and its corresponding conventions, but the parable of The Farmer getting entrapped in a love triangle alongside Abby and Bill juxtaposes well with Dr. Frank-N-Furter getting involved with Rocky and a newly engaged couple.

Honors Question: What contributions did The Rocky Horror Picture Show make to the midnight movie? Are there any cult film genre conventions it paved the way for?

HQA) As a continuation from the previous question, the most important reason I’d replace Putney Swope with RHPS is because it kick started an American film genre: audience participation-based cult films. Beginning in NYC’s Waverly Theater (called by theatergoers a “mecca for midnight movies,” holding midnight screenings of films like Night of the Living Dead on a regular basis), a small group of audience members who went to see RHPS started dressing like the film’s characters, shouting back dialogue at the screen, and performing bits of the film on the stage in front of the projection screen. These traditions would spread to other theaters in NYC and catch on like wildfire, eventually becoming a nationwide phenomenon.

It should be noted that midnight movies “were far from being an exclusively American phenomenon,” with theater exhibitionists holding midnight screenings across the United States, Britain and France for years prior (Midnight Movies, 3). RHPS even pays homage to this fact in the opening song, “Science Fiction Double Feature,” which is about late night B science fiction films being screened for cheap, good times. Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s floorshow is another tribute to theater activities of the past, mixing live burlesque and carnival performance (dressing in costume, wearing makeup and masks, pretending to be someone one isn’t) with classic Hollywood movie musical ideas and themes (the RKO Pictures logo towers over the stage, harkening back to upbeat song and dance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals).

The moment that RHPS became the American phenomenon that it did was on Labor Day weekend of 1976, when “Louis Farese, a kindergarten teacher form Staten Island, felt compelled to speak to the [Waverly Theater] screen. He is credited as the first person to yell lines at the movie” (RHPS Official Fan Site) He coined the term “counterpoint dialogue,” using it to express his joy in having off-screen conversations with the onscreen characters. More theatergoers began reserving weekly seats in the Waverly Theater balconies, and joined Farese in shouting at the screen and dancing to the film’s soundtrack. Around Halloween of that same year, some came in dressed as their favorite leather and lace-toting characters. These traditions caught on and continued well past Halloween. Live performance was mixed into the RHPS experience when audience members got up for the “Time Warp” dance sequence. Others began to walk to the front of the theater to perform as the characters onscreen, and eventually a full floorshow version of the film would be performed live on the stage in front of the projection screen as RHPS played (RHPS Official Fan Site).

By 1977, “newspapers, magazines, you name it, had begun to pick up on what was going on at the Waverly” (RHPS Official Fan Site). Word spread across the country as NYC residents who had been part of the Waverly phenomenon moved out. Many of them carried their RHPS traditions over to new theaters around the country, and the film became what it is today: a cult film experience relying on audience participation. In a 1990 review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that RHPS “is not so much a movie as more of a long-running social phenomenon” (RogerEbert.com). Midnight audiences of the 1970s didn’t just want to sit back and watch another Hollywood film with clear heroes and villains. They clearly wanted to have their own unique experience, where they were really paying for their own show. They wouldn’t go into a theater to sit down, watch a film, and discuss it afterwards. They would dress up, act out, sing and dance, and reinterpret scenes from RHPS in their own unique way, creating their own special kind of blockbuster film.

Other films have carried on the audience participation cinema torch. For example, interest in The Sound of Music (1965, considered by many to be the last successful Hollywood movie musical) was rekindled after the success of RHPS. In 2005, the Hollywood Bowl amphitheater began hosting live sing-along screenings to the movie musical. Many audience members and critics have referred to the experience as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Prozac.” The greatest modern example of audience participation cinema is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003). This was another film that bombed upon its initial release, but was reinterpreted by college students on the midnight movie circuit. Actions like throwing spoons at the projection screen, playing football, dressing in tuxedos, and quoting lines from the film as they’re screened live have all become time-honored traditions of The Room experience.

O’Brien mentioned that “there was a surreal dreamlike quality to the movie that was never present in the stage show” (RHPS BTS Featurette). This surreal quality is the main convention for audience-participation cinema that RHPS was the first to capture. Contemporary audience participation cinema and cult films such as The Room, Eraserhead (1977), Re-Animator (1985), Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), Sharknado (2013), and many others all share in this same surreal feeling: you can’t really believe it’s happening as you watch it. Whether it’s because of poorly designed or decorated sets, terrible acting, strange and non-sensical stories, etc. Maybe Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s call to “[not] dream it, [but] be it” is what made RHPS the longest running theatrical release in history (it’s still screened nationwide today). Despite it being a British-born film, this is an American-made movie in every sense that forever changed the midnight movie culture and the audience participation cult film.

 

References:

The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Dir. Jim Sharman. Perf. Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick. 1975. 20th Century Fox, 2002. DVD.

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).” IMDb. Web. 11 December 2014.
< http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073629/?ref_=nv_sr_1 >

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Wikipedia. Web. 11 December 2014.
< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rocky_Horror_Picture_Show >

“Rocky Horror Picture Show – Behind The Scenes Featurette (Remastered).” YouTube. Web. 15 December 2014.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfL98tLN1t8 >

Frankenstein. Dir. James Whale. Perf. Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff. 1931. Universal Pictures, 2009. DVD.

The Wiz. Dir. Sidney Lumet. Perf. Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor. 1978. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 1999. DVD.

Wood, Robin. The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s. 1979. 25 – 32.

“STOIC Interview – Time Curry Talks About The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).” Student Television of Imperial College. 1975. YouTube. Web. 16 December 2014.
< https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5sTIGLo79g >

Night of the Living Dead. Dir, George Romero. Perf. Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea. 1968. American Pop Classics: The Archive Collection, 2012. DVD.

The Boys in the Band. Dir. William Friedkin. Perf. Kenneth Nelson, Peter White, Leonard Fray. Paramount, 2008. DVD.

Putney Swope. Dir. Robert Downey Sr. Perf. Arnold Johnson. 1969. Homevision, 2006. DVD.

Massood, Paula. Massood Lecture 1, “Putney Swope (Robert Downey Sr., 1969).” Film 2117, American Cinema of the 1970’s. W.E.B., CUNY Brooklyn College. 3 September 2014. Lecture.

Champion, Lindsay. “Happy Birthday, Dear Rocky! 38 Freaky Facts About The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” August 2013. Broadway. Web. 16 December 2014
http://www.broadway.com/buzz/171159/happy-birthday-dear-rocky-38-freaky-facts-about-the-rocky-horror-picture-show/ >

Days of Heaven. Dir. Terrence Malick. Perf. Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard. 1978. Criterion, 2007. DVD.

Massood, Paula. Massood Lecture 2, “Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978).” Film 2117, American Cinema of the 1970’s. W.E.B., CUNY Brooklyn College. 10 December 2014. Lecture.

Hoberman, J, and Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Midnight Movies. Boston: HarperCollins & DaCapo Press, 1983. Print.

Piro, Sal. “How it Began.” The Rocky Horror Picture Show Official Fan Site. Web. 16 December 2014.
http://www.rockyhorror.com/history/howapbegan.php >

Ebert, Roger. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show Movie Review (1975).” Roger Ebert Website 1975. Web. 15 December 2014.
< http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-rocky-horror-picture-show-1975 >

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Nostalgia Critic Jurassic Park 3 Review – A Tribute Turned Reality

In June 2013, my friend Eric Kramer, a Criminal Justice major over at St. Joseph’s College, and I got together to pay tribute to two things we greatly love. One was Jurassic Park, my favorite film of all time and a favorite of Eric’s. Last summer marked the 20th anniversary since the film’s release, and we decided to celebrate by not only going to see Jurassic Park 3D in theaters, but reviewing the third film in the JP trilogy.

The review is where the second thing comes in. Doug Walker, an internet comedian over at ThatGuyWithTheGlasses / Channel Awesome, had created a character called the Nostalgia Critic and had been doing reviews of old movies, TV shows and other nostalgic things since 2008. Last summer, Doug announced the end of the NC character and his reviews–he hoped to move onto bigger and better things. This was the other thing we wanted to pay tribute to: Doug, the NC, and all of Channel Awesome. Our video came out, and has since reached almost 19,000 views on YouTube (as of June 2014).

 

Since the video was made, JP has grown one year older and Walker announced the NC’s return, based on the outcry from fans. The NC has been back in the film/TV reviewing business since January 2013, and just this week he released his review of JP3.

 

My friend Eric and I were ecstatic to see how correctly we interpreted the NC! These two videos match in nearly 70% of all jokes, clips, and references used/made, and that makes us very proud oft our tribute to him and the JP Trilogy.

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TV Journalism In Its Prime, Filmmaking Not So Much – Good Night, And Good Luck Review

I’d like to make this clarification right off the bat: as a historically accurate representation of broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow’s quest to expose Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communism insanity, Good Night, And Good Luck is a fantastic movie. Life if the 1950s wasn’t easy–especially when you were someone known and seen by a very large part of the nation on a regular basis. Although I feel this aspect of the movie stands strong, I do believe that Good Night, And Good Luck is not as successful in the aspect of filmmaking.

In terms of story,  Good Night, And Good Luck focuses in one a small part of Murrow’s life–the time when he fought against the government (mainly Senator Joseph McCarthy) after hearing of the dismissal of Air Force Pilot Milo Radulovich. Senator McCarthy accused him of being a communist, which in turn led the Air Force and government to fire him without a fair trial or hearing. This gained the interest of Murrow and the rest of the CBS News team. In one of Murrow’s shows, See It Now, an air wave battle took place as both men traded blows on who was the real communist infiltrating our nation’s soil. In the end, Radulovich was reinstated and McCarthy defeated (in a sense, at least), but Murrow paid the price through his show being moved to a very bad time slot and the suppressing of his presence on the network.

Murrow and his friend and CBS co-worker, Fred Friendly.

Murrow and his friend and CBS co-worker, Fred Friendly.

 

As a film, there are very clear pros and cons. Regardless of what I have to say here, the film was nominated for six oscars and won 40 other miscellaneous awards when released in 2005, so it must have done something right. The first real noticable thing about it is that is’s presented in full black and white. This serves the story well considering it’s representing a time when television was on the rise and the world could really only see it in black and white. The world had color, but print and television journalism was colorless.

The other main thing the film does is constantly use real footage from the original Murrow broadcasts, television commercials, McCarthy announcements and trials/hearings of the time. This, I believe, has the opposite effect on the film in some cases. While the audience is trying to connect with the vast amount of characters that are being presented to them (another problem with the film–the fact that there’s so many characters and no real time given to form emotional connections with each and every one), they’re constantly given full-length original television clips to watch. Although this helps tell the story because, well, it IS the story, I didn’t like how frequently these clips were shown. If the film had focused only on the actors it was using to portray the real-life characters, audiences would have been able to connect to them more.

Another issue putting characters back to back with the real people brings about is that audiences will tend to start to look for similarities and differences among actors and who is supposed to be playing who. Now for the most part, this is a good thing–historical films should encourage viewers to focus on the real people behind the stories and compare them with the actors portraying them in the film, but since it happens so frequently here, I feel that it has an opposite effect. I found myself focusing more on the production design of the sets and the makeup and accuracy of the actors and their historically-accurate counterparts more than I did any of the stories presented throughout the film.

Besides focusing on the technical aspects of the film rather than focusing on its story and the messages and meanings behind the real-life events it was recounting, I also had a hard time waiting for the main conflicts to arise. When you get right down to it, this film is about a very really and potentially life-threatening battle between Murrow and McCarthy. There were other prominent sub-plots revolving around the extent of government and network censorship as well as dealing with the stress and emotionally-tasking nature of broadcast journalism during a time when there were very few faces traveling across the airwaves, but none of them were as focused on. Going back to what I was commenting on before, the large amount of characters played by prominent, well-known actors in this film didn’t help me to get inside the heads of the characters at all.

One of Murrow's trusted and faithful cohorts in the CBS News network, Don Hollenbeck.

One of Murrow’s trusted and faithful cohorts in the CBS News network, Don Hollenbeck.

 

This argument is especially clear in the sub-plot regarding one of Murrow’s fellow CBS newscasters, Don Hollenbeck. Without giving any major plot points away, Hollenbeck has a very hard time dealing with the aggressive comments and criticisms printed in the newspapers and recounted by other television reporters. This is an age old issue (being open to criticism, but drawing a fine line between what’s constructive and what’s insulting), something that truly began in Hollenbeck’s era, but is much more prominent today. In The Insider, a film that investigates choices made during on of the United States largest cases regarding tobacco companies and investigative journalism’s role in the assault on those companies, television newscasters have to constantly deal with whatever is said about them by whomever–whether or not it’s true.

A character like Lowell Bergman (the main protagonist of The Insider) has a full film almost exclusively to himself to investigate how he feels about what people around him do and say, and the audience forms a strong connection with him over the two hour movie. In Hollenbeck’s case, the story feels very rushed, and it’s not as clear why he feels so strongly about the criticisms thrown against him. Again, it’s important to understand that in the 1950s, any hint of opressive verbal violence or slander could lead someone to worry for countless hours that they would be marked as a communist, but Good Night, And Good Luck never really helps the audience to form that connection.

Just as stated in the beginning of this post, I feel that Good Night, And Good Luck has some serious pros as well as some serious cons. The production value and A-List actors who worked on this project add a lot of realism, believability and integrity to the recreation of one of the nation’s turning points (at least for the fields of television broadcasting and investigative journalism). At the same time, the amount of information and characters mixed with the lack of clarity for certain motives as well as the constant use of original source material makes the film a little hard to sit through. I have a strong feeling that with the same artistic and storytelling formula and less characters, this movie could work extremely well as a long short (around 50 minutes long or so). I give it a 3/5 rating.

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Ordinary People In Extraordinary Situations – The Insider Review

Imagine a well-written, fully-arced show like The Newsroom (the parts that focus on the conflict between legitimate investigative journalism and station bureaucracy, at least) with a focus placed on investigative journalism in corporate America, and you’ve got The Insider.

Released in 1999, The Insider “tells the true story of a man who decided to tell the world what the seven major tobacco companies knew (and concealed) about the dangers of their product.” (Rotten Tomatoes) The film was nominated for seven Oscars ranging from Best Director to Best Editing, and went on to win not only many more awards, but the praise of film critics from across the nation.

 

At the most basic level, the film’s story revolves around Jeffrey Wigand (played by Russell Crowe), a research scientist at Brown and Williamson who was fired in March 1993 due to the fact that he ‘did his job too well.’ (Anatomy Of A Decision Timeline) To retaliate against the tobacco industry and fight for what he believed was right in the terms of American public health, Wigand decided to blow the whistle with the help of Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino), a producer of CBS’ news show 60 Minutes. As threats against his family were made by Brown and Williamson (the film states that in the real life story, it was never discovered who sparked the harassment and mafe the threats), Wigand hoped that the threats would stop and he would gain safety, approval and support in the court of public appeal by whistle blowing.

Unfortunately for Wigand, things didn’t go as planned. As he pursued exposing companies like Brown and Williamson, the threats only became more serious, his wife left him due to the stress and constant fear of being “silenced,” and reporters began to dig further and further into his past. All of these things on top of one another created a very intense, dark and stressful situation for Wigand, and the feelings his character was experiencing spilled off onto the audience. Through the constant use of high-pitched musical scores, dark shots with heavy shadow compositions and close-ups on Wigand and Bergman’s faces, The Insider masterfully conveys the feeling of what it’s like to be an insider–someone with information that everyone wants to know, even though they don’t know that they want it.

Shot composition is one of the main things that stood out to me during the more macabre scenes like this one.

Shot composition is one of the main things that stood out to me during the more macabre scenes in the film, ones like this one (where Wigand calls Bergman in a fit of paranoia and fear).

 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the film also conveys what it’s like to be an investigative journalist in the midst of a real, savage, sometimes unfair world. The film’s opening scene is where this side of the storytelling really shines: the audience gets to experience a military humvee ride in the desert through the eyes of a prisoner with a cloth bag over his/her head. It’s revealed that Bergman is the man under the bag, and he’s being transported to the location of an terrorist/sheik who may or may not agree to do an interview with Mike Wallace (the main face behind 60 Minutes, a reporter who has worked on the show for over 50 years). After ironically telling the sheik that the interview would help to give him a face while his face as covered, Bergman is told that the interview will happen in two days.

After the interview with Wallace takes place in a following scene, the main story (involving Wigand and the big tobacco companies) really begins. After such a shift in story, I was really left wondering why such a scene would be placed right at the beginning of the movie. At that point, I though that the film was going to be more about terrorism and negotiations with Islamic fundamentalists than nicotine and corporate greed. So this clear clash between stories and worlds really draws attention to itself.

As I researched what other critics and reviewers had to say about this part of the film, the words of Andy Markowitz, a film critic for the Baltimore City Paper, stood out: “The opening scenes of The Insider are all about how brave, resourceful, and idealistic Lowell Bergman is.” Markowitz sees the entire film as a commentary on the status of investigative reporters in the context of the world of The Insider. I immediately found myself agree with him because as I worked my way further and further into the film’s stories, the lives of the characters and the desires of each and every party, I also drew the conclusion that this film is meant to focus more on the journalism aspect rather than the big business, tobacco aspect.

Bergman's job of reporting the news and uncovering the truth constantly clashed with his desire to keep Wigand and his family alive and safe.

Bergman’s job of reporting the news and uncovering the truth constantly clashed with his desire to keep Wigand and his family alive and safe.

 

Even after the opening scene where Bergman and Wallace drive right into the heart of evil and danger by interviewing terrorists on their soil, many scenes further their “no-bullcrap, we’re here to do our job and nothing less” policies. When Wigand begins to think that informing the public about what’s really going on behind their backs might not actually win them over or make them care, he questions Bergman’s loyalty. Bergman, in a very assertive manner, tells Wigand that he’s “been out in the world, giving [his] word and backing it up with action.”

Even Wallace questions whose side Bergman is on later in the film, which leads to the supressing of Wigand’s interview and the tobacco story by CBS News. In real life, Wallace and Don Hewitt (the executive producer of the show) sided with CBS News on the choice not to air the original Wigand interview due to potential legal issues/lawsuits that Brown and Williamson might have raised against them. In an interview with the real Lowell Bergman on PBS’ Frontline, it was addressed that Wallace and Hewitt both “called the film an inaccurate record of events and an unfair characterization of their respective positions on the decision not to air the Wigand interview.” (A Talk With Lowell Bergman) Because of statements like this coming from the real life people, it’s hard to tell which opinions and beliefs were real and which were dramatized for effect in The Insider.

Regardless of the true personal beliefs of each person involved in the decision, the interview was only aired after the news of CBS declaring not to air Wigand’s interview was leaked to The New York Times. The fact that it had to come to the court of public opinion for CBS to allow the interview to be aired is ironic to say the least. The people that fought so hard to provide information to the public so they could in turn fight against an organization who was denying that information to them in the first place were chained back by another organization denying the public that information. As Bergman said in the film, “the more truth [Wigand] tells, the worse it gets.”

Looking back at this film after having researched and analyzed it, I can understand why it was so highly praised and meant so much for investigative journalism. It accurately depicts the vigorous, powerful and moving hunt for the truth that true journalists must go through constantly, especially when it comes to stories that could fundamentally change the way some of the nation’s largest industries work.

Stepping even further back and viewing the film for Markowitz’s point of view, that it’s an exploration of the bravery, resourcefulness and idealism of investigative journalists in the rapidly expanding (approaching, at the time of the film’s release) 21st century, The Insider stands out as a film that inspects human nature in one of the greatest legal cases in our country’s history. It tries to analyze why some people believe what they do, how they change over time, how others betray them and for what reasons, and why journalism is such a necessary part of this modern society we all live in. The film takes occasional liberties in modifying the story and creating a few fictional emotional responses and decisions, but it explores each and every character, their motives, their fears, their idiosyncrasies, their level of power and their place in society masterfully.

When “ordinary people are under extraordinary pressure,” it’s never clear what’s going to happen next. I give The Insider a 10/10.

– – – – –

References:

Rotten Tomatoes, Film Review Aggregator

Anatomy Of A Decision Timeline, PBS Frontline

Baltimore City Paper The Insider Review, Andy Markowitz

 A Talk With Lowell Bergman, PBS Frontline

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“It’s Called ‘Shining'” – Room 237 Review

The Shining is one of my all-time favorite horror films. Ever since my parents cruelly had me watch it as a young child (maybe around the age of seven or so–and yes, they covered my eyes during scenes featuring nudity), I’ve been terrified by it. The desolate hotel setting, barren snowy landscape, echoing hallways and corridors, drab ’70s and ’80s art and furniture, and the fact that the main protagonist shared my age (at the time of my first viewing) and my name all make me shiver. Hearing Jack Nicholson running through the Overlook Hotel hallways while shouting “DANNY” over and over again startles me to this day.

After hearing about and going to see Room 237, a documentary film based on the theories and analyses of The Shining, I learned that what I originally thought to be a pure horror film may very well be something else entirely. Multiple film critics, professors and historians spend the entire length of the documentary pitching their theories on why The Shining is really about the British colonists slaughter of the Native Americans, Adolf Hitler and his rise to power alongside the Nazi army, mythological creatures and fantasy in reality, and my favorite, the faking of the moon landing in the 1970s.

Danny having fun in the Overlook.

Danny having fun in the Overlook.

 

The Shining was based off of the novel of the same name written by Stephen King, but the screenplay was re-written and directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1980. Since there already existed a laundry list of films directed by Kubrick like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove that really made people analyze and discuss the filmmaking process behind the movies, people began to analyze and discuss The Shining. The main problem with this was that there was no feasible way that anyone could verify or fact-check a lot of their theories due to the fact the movie was really only available to see in theaters. With the advent of the VHS tape and home video players around the time of the film’s release, people were finally able to re-watch and comb through every little bit of the film.

Over three decades later, Rodney Ascher began researching and consulting various film critics, theorists, college film professors, filmmakers and just about everyone else who theorized about The Shining at one point or another. After writing, producing, editing and releasing Room 237 in 2012, Ascher went on to win awards for Best Director and Best Editor, and the editing is where the film really shines.

Writer, director and editor Rodney Ascher did some serious research on The Shining and spoke to some serious followers of the film.

Writer, director and editor Rodney Ascher did some serious research on The Shining and spoke to some serious followers of the film.

 

When I went to see this at Lincoln Center, I was very surprised that the film didn’t make use of the traditional setup of a “talking heads” documentary. Instead, Ascher made it so that each interviewee has his or her own introduction, but their faces are never seen on-screen. Without those introductions, it would have been a little hard to put a face to the name. For the most part though, this style really works, and I found myself focused on The Shining and Stanley Kubrick, not the people who were talking about the two–and I think that was one of the main points of the film.

Another thing that struck me about the film’s editing was its constant use of other films and television shows. Whenever the interviewees would discuss how they came to watch and become a diehard fan of The Shining as well as discuss their theories on the film, various clips from other forms of media were played to further what they were saying. For example, when the first interviewee discusses how he first saw The Shining in a movie theater in France, clips of Tom Cruise walking down a street and passing a theater from Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, are played. Another example could be the multiple times during the film that WWII combat footage is used, as well as the infamous “fake moon landing footage.” Bringing this outside material into the film adds another level of storytelling and helps to keep viewers inside the documentary experience.

Sound also plays a large role in the documentary. On top of analyzing the sound that’s provided to viewers in Kubrick’s film, Room 237 uses sound bytes of scratching record players, Native American chants, Nazi armies and UFO sound effects to really sell the theories. While we’re in the Overlook Hotel listening to one person describe his/her theory, we’re also hearing sounds pertaining to that theory. Subconsciously, this really helps to sell the theory and make viewers believe that it’s what Kubrick originally intended. In an interview with The Verge media review website, Ascher says that “[the] idea was to try to present each of [the interviewees] ideas as persuasively as possible. And that’s an interesting challenge… trying to make the audience of 237 watch The Shining through the eyes of these other people.”

 

This effect was also achieved with the trailer, only in the opposite way. The trailer recreates the original trailer for The Shining in its entirety, only with a VHS player and a remote replacing the Overlook Hotel elevator doors and a lounge chair. In the background, Kubrick’s original music selection is heard, but this time we get a somewhat happier feeling (more lighthearted than horrified, since we know this is a documentary ABOUT the film and not the film itself). The trailer was also the first thing related to the film that made it clear to me how much immense attention to detail would be paid in this documentary.

 

A lot of film critics and websites have been giving this film low to medium ratings with the same common complaint that the people featured in the film (as well as their theories) are ridiculous, silly, self-enthralled and obnoxious. Although I do agree with this statement to a certain extent, I think that all of them are missing the point that the documentary is self aware. It and the people featured in it know that everything it documents is all silly conjecture. Obviously Stanley Kubrick is dead, so there’s no way to know what’s really right or wrong, what’s really intentional or unintentional. One of the interviewees even says that everything in the documentary could be completely false, but that doesn’t change the fact that everything they’re discussing is there.

Whether or not it was intentional, Danny really does wear an Apollo 11 sweater, the chair behind Jack really does disappear mysteriously, and there are an awful lot of Calumet baking soda cans placed about in the background of shots.

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“Discrimination Down to a Science” – Gattaca Review

In our Spring 2013 Mass Media class, we all watched the film Gattaca after taking our first exam. We were asked not to do any research about the film, but I will admit that the only thing I ‘Googled’ about it was its release date. The reason for that is because this film reminded me tremendously of other recent science fiction films that involve apocalyptic futures like Surrogates, i, Robot, Equilibrium and The Matrix. However, it turns out that Gattaca release in 1997, years before all of these other films.

Regardless of release date, the story of films like the ones mentioned above revolves around a future where some new type of being has been introduced into the world, and those beings are giving normal humans a serious run for their money. Whether it be the robots, machines or genetically superior bio-organisms, these beings pose one of two serious threats to average human beings: extinction or slavery.

Gattaca is no exception to this sic-fi formula. The film is set in a future where discrimination has been down packed to a science–quite literally. In this future, science has progressed extremely rapidly, bounding past problems like genetic cloning, disease control, etc. There have also been numerous technological progressions as well, such as human transportation/space flight to all of the planets in our galaxy and immediate identification through blood, urine, saliva and visual fluid scans. Unfortunately, with these advancements came new ways to hate people–meaning genetic racism (or “genilism,” as the film calls it) and new forms of segregation.

All of these things combined (technological, scientific and social pushes forward) have created a society that is divided into several rigid classes, with the best of the best (custom ordered and built humans) on the top and normal-birth humans on the bottom. Vincent Anton is one of those normal-birth humans, and the entire story of the film revolves around his life and dream of being one of the elite few granted permission to rocket off the planet and explore the universe.

Vincent Anton roaming through the discriminative hallways at Gattaca.

Vincent Anton roaming through the discriminative hallways at Gattaca.

 

Without going too far into detail, the part of Vincent’s life that the movie focuses on is his becoming a “borrowed ladder.” Borrowed ladders are members of society that assume the identity of another person through taking their blood, urine, eyes (through contact lenses) and even skin and hair particles to fake the rest of society into believing that they are the person they’re saying they are. Vincent assumes the persona of Jerome, a man who was built perfectly, but ended up in a wheelchair after a car accident. Because he’s in the wheelchair, he feels that society doesn’t want him, so he offers up his identity to someone who might be able to make something of himself.

After a murder takes place at the Gattaca building (the place where the upper echelon members of society prepare to fly to space), the majority of the film’s best moments involve extremely tense situations. The whole time watching, audience members like me didn’t want Vincent or Jerome to be discovered. We wanted them to succeed, to achieve their goals. (Even though Jerome wouldn’t really be physically doing anything, he’d be living through Vincent’s actions.) So when Vincent was asked to give blood through the vein or wasn’t home when his doppelganger, Jerome was visited by a police detective, everyone was on the edges of their seats. It was really exhilarating to be put in the life of an outcast turned celebrity, while at the same time a fugitive.

Another aspect of the film that I like revolves around the way everyone acts. Just like in i, Robot and the films mentioned before, it seems that people in the future all walk and talk like robots and machines. They all have clear purposes and goals, and not conforming to the rest of society makes them stand out tremendously. In Gattaca, everyone who isn’t a borrowed ladder is living a life where all they do is deceive themselves on how messed up and disorganized the segregated society really is.

There's always that one character that stands out from the rest. In the case of i, Robot, Detective Spooner is very different from the "human robot" counterparts of society.

There’s always that one character that stands out from the rest. In the case of i, Robot, Detective Spooner is very different from the “human robot” counterparts of society.

 

I also really enjoyed the fact that Vincent needs glasses to see (since he was born naturally, he couldn’t be altered to have no visual acuity problems). It’s very ironic that the character who needs glasses to see is actually the one who sees society and the people who make it up the best. That, and it gave the filmmakers the chance to experiment with some extremely disorienting and nerve-wracking footage during a scene where Vincent needs to cross a busy street to regroup with his love interest while he doesn’t have his contacts on (he had to shed them at a police checkpoint).

Before the movie ended, I knew that there were only three real ways to make it happen: One, Vincent somehow achieves his goal (happy ending), Two, Vincent is somehow not allowed to achieve his goal or determines that he never will make it “upstairs” (sad ending), and Three, what happens to Vincent after the film ends is left for the audience members to decide. It’s safe to say that I was correct in that assessment, seeing as one of those three general outlines is how the film actually ends.

The way that Gattaca ties together so many aspects of a future society is very intriguing, and really makes viewers think about the way society is moving. Who knows how things will be in 50 to 100 years? Will robots or machines have taken over and developed/advanced past the intellectuality of human beings (the Matrix, i,Robot or Surrogates paths), or will society have developed a new breed of super humans that begin segregating themselves to the point of one class having total control and authority over everyone and everything else (the Gattaca, EquilibriumAoen Flux or Ultraviolet paths)? I guess we’ll all have to wait and see how things play out in the future.

 

 

*** SEMI-SPOLIER BELOW ***

 

 

By the way, why does that incinerator have a start switch on the inside!? I mean seriously, the people who designed the device thought there was a time and place where that might be a good, safe idea?