Archive for February, 2011

Sexual Awareness

Throughout the three films we have viewed in class is the reoccurring theme of sexual awareness and sexual awakening.  In the first film, sex is perceived as a natural aspect of life.  Everyone is aware it is happening and is encouraged by both the matriarchal grandmother and aunt.  In the second film, sex is kept quiet.  The act is often horrific and almost always violent.  Yet in Hallstrom’s 1985 film My Life as a Dog, sex is portrayed in an innocent nature clouded with uncertainly.  To the characters within the film, sex is about description, exploration and wonder.  Each of these aspects seeps into the life of Ingemar, to which the audience gains an innocent perspective of adolescence.

The first time in the film sex is brought up is between Ingemar and his girl friend who lives near his mother.  He is slicing his finger, as if to become a “blood brother” with her, but instead asks her to suck on his finger.  In doing so, Ingemar tells her that they are now married.  The scene is a long shot of the two characters.  They are both outside near the railroad tracks, playing at what appears to be their secret hangout.  Similarly, the second appearance at the railroad hangout, Ingemar mimics the traditional ideological representation of a “father” or “husband.”  He is sitting on a rock reading her a story about someone who was poisoned, while she lay on her back inside the small dyke under the train tracks.  For the first time in the film, she eludes to the act of sex.  “Come and lie down […] I’ve undressed.”  The shot is a medium-long shot of Ingmar, and the audience can see her bare legs and feet but she is still dressed.  Oblivious to her statement, Ingmar continues to read the paper out loud to her, an act that reminds me of when Peg would try to lure Al into sex on the late 1980s TV series Married with Children. Yet when the train arrives, she tells Ingmar to quickly get into the small cubby space under the tracks.  He jumps on top of her only to have her dad appear on the other side of the tracks.  He cannot make out what the children are doing in the small space, as the shot is filmed from one opening of the cubbyhole and backlit by the opening. Everything is dark. Only a shadowed outline is apparent.   The symbolic notion that her father cannot tell what the children are doing is reflective of the children not knowing what sex is about.  As the audience quickly learns, she has only removed her tights but feels as if she is complying to the things her mother does with her father.  She knows they are supposed to lay together, naked, but nothing more.  Likewise, her father sees a distorted image of a boy on top of his daughter but cannot see what is really happening.    

As Ingemar moves to live with his uncle, sex becomes more mysterious.  The older men in his life thrive on his youthful descriptions of innocence.  They want to hear a child describe seeing breasts for the first time in an attempt to relive what it was like to be a curious boy.  The young girls in Ingemar’s life also want to explore the ideas of sexual awakening.  The audience watches as two young maturating girls’ catfight over which one will have Ingemar, to which he barks at them like a dog.  The audience witnesses that Ingemar’s maturity level and unstable moment in life causes him to lose control over how to process the situation and he digresses into a childlike state of mimicking his dog rather than that of a father or husband.  The audience is left to realize that children are given glimpses into adult habits and activities but like the shot of the cubby hole, blackened by shadows, so too are children’s understanding of sex.  Children wonder about sex and it is natural for them to explore themselves.  By not addressing the topic, children will go to their friends and find the answers.  Hallstrom points out that the men in the film were educating Ingemar about sex, but it was the girls who were acting on it.



The chapters on mise-en-scene ends with the statement, “one does not light the set and then set about deciding where the camera is going to be placed. Rather, a set is lit with the framing and movement of the camera absolutely in mind,” (Course reader pg 45).  Though Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film The Celebration is aesthetically plain to the untrained eye, but the specific positioning of natural lighting, camera angles, blocking of characters and use of props pulls the viewer into the world of the film.  The constant use of canted, or tilted, angles throughout the film carries the connotation of imbalance, transition and instability, a theme that is echoed in the dialogue on the screen.  Vinterberg also uses low angles, which carries the connotation of powerlessness.  Because dialogue is not an aspect of mise-en-scene, the use of these frames heightens the audience’s connection to the characters within the film.  As Vinterberg is a member of the Dogme 95 movement, which believed that “the movie is not illusion!” and “the ‘supreme’ task for the decadent film-maker is to fool the audience.”   In The Celebration Vinterberg purposely lit his set with the framing and movement of the camera absolutely in mind as to fool his audience into the reality of the film.

The scene where Helge and the small boy go to get the guests for dinner begins with Helge and the boy running in the yard.  The scene is blurry; the audience cannot distinguish who is in the scene.  The blurriness of the shot represents the actualization of a memory. The stored information from a specific time or place is never as the moment actually was.  Humans distort and perceive everything as they are, as they know the world to be.  Events that are hard to process will become blocked from memory or appear blurry, like the scene.  The scene then cuts to a clear close-up, canted angle shot of the child’s face.  He is very happy.  His face dominates the frame as he enters into the hallway.  Yet the audience is drawn to notice Helge’s hand on the doorknob hovering in the background of the shot.  The shot then pans upward, becoming a low angle shot of Helge’s face.  There is nothing but whiteness behind him.  As already established, the connotation of canted and low angles create the feelings of imbalance, transition, instability, and powerlessness; themes felt throughout the childhood of Christian and his dead sister about their father.  With the use of these angles in association with Helge and the small child cues the audience to notice that something is not right.  At this point in the film, it has not been announced that Helge has harmed his children.  The shots make the audience feel an imbalance though they do not know why, similar to the feelings of young Christian when being abused.  For the first time in the film, Vinterberg sparks an emotional response in the audience that the film is not an illusion, that the feelings held by the characters within the film are real.  He has begun to fool the audience.

The low angle, canted shots are transferred from this point in the film to Christian.  As he deals with the events of his memory, the emotional response from the audience to the framing of the characters through the juxtaposition of canted, unstable, and low, powerless, angles forces the audience to feel Christian’s mental state. The mise-en-scene reinforces the lack of power Christian and his dead sister have compared to their father.

Since the creation of cinema in the late 1890s, the camera has a fascination with capturing “nature caught in the act,” while also pushing at the humanistic conception of reality by “ignor[ing] the workings of nature out of the artist’s delight in sheer fantasy,” (Kracauer pg 31-32). These two distinct cinematic styles were defined by the ordinary, everyday moments caught on film by the Lumiere Brothers and the extraordinary, childlike tales of Melies.  Within these two styles, the camera also has a fascination with distorting the ordinary.  Kracauer explains cinematic themes that express the establishment of physical existence through movement, such as movement vs. inanimate objects and the small vs. the big.  Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 film Fanny and Alexander, samples all of these components to portray the coming of age tale of a boy who loses his father.

After the passing of Alexander’s father Oscar, his mother Emily remarries.  Throughout her courtship and into the marriage, Alexander sees the ghost of his father during important transitional moments.  The first time we see the ghost of Oscar is immediately after his wake.  The moment begins with a close-up of Fanny and Alexander both dressed in dark blue.  The scene then cuts to a long-shot of Oscar dressed in white, in a white room and playing a white piano. The scene then follows with the reverse of a close-up shot Fanny and Alexander, and then back to a mid-shot of Oscar.  The scene ends with a close-up of Alexander and then his point-of-view shot of a close-up of Oscar.

Deconstructing this series of shots reflects the cinematic styles of both the Lumiere Brothers and Melies.  Bergman is highlighting the reality of life and the fantasy of ghosts, a theme reflective of Hamlet.  The scene is a symbolic representation of how the children perceive the death of their father.  The image of Oscar dressed in white and the white room, signals the dominant ideology sounding the color, which are traditionally associated with the concept of goodness, cleanliness, virginity and for the children ghosts. For the children, the apparition of Oscar is symbolic of his continued presence in their lives.  For the audience, Bergman fuses the reality of Oscar’s death with the children’s perceived fantasy of Oscar’s ghost by juxtaposing the close-up shot of the children with the long shot of Oscar.  He is far away from them, yet the audience can see the intimate reaction each child has in seeing the ghost of their father through the close-up shot of their face’s, more specifically their eyes and stern hardening of their mouths.  The shot is jarred by the second shot of Oscar.  The medium shot of Oscar makes him appear physically closer to the children in both the actual space of the room and on the screen.  The move from the long-shot to the medium-shot embodies Kracauer’s concept of thematic motifs to express the establishment of physical existence through movement.  The audience does not see Oscar actually move.  He is mimicking an inanimate object, yet through the juxtaposition of shots he has moved and is beginning to dominate the frame.  The editing technique creates the feeling of a ghost, which echoes a fantasy thematic style.

The scene I have analyzed is only one instance where Bergman moulds the two cinematic styles with the themes that express the establishment of physical existence through movement.  As the film progresses Bergman pulls at the audiences perception of reality and fantasy through the eyes of the children until they are no longer able to distinguish whether the images shown are a reality of the film or a dream of the characters within the story.  The confusion felt by the audience is echoed in the final lines of the film, an excerpt from August Strindberg’s A Dream Play.

So I’ve been taking a Scandinavian Cinema course this term and thus have been watching an insane amount of foreign films.  Just thought I’d give a bit of context.  I do watch Hollywood films too.