Monday, 24 December 2012

Treat 12: Anthologies

This year myself and Rhys Jones created and put together the weird anthology Twisted Showcase, it proved quite a success on the web, and it was always the plan to take this forward to TV. The anthology show used to be huge on TV, I won't list examples because a lot are named below, but they seemed to have disappeared from TV, which I find a shame.

What I love about them is the variety, each week a whole new story, and satisfying too as that story reaches it's end each week, there's no cliffhanger to entice you back in a sluttish manner. It's a format that champions ideas, imagination and story in abundance.

Before I'd even seen the show I knew what The Twilight Zone was, which is something we tried to achieve with the bold title of Twisted Showcase. When I finally saw The Twilight Zone i was blown away by the stories and the themes that seemed to run through them all of them chiming with the modern fears of the time, again something that Twisted tried to achieve.

I also love the Britishness of Tales of the Unexpected and how freaky it could be in a truly odd way. I've always hunted out anthology series, I even enjoyed Masters of Horror which i believe doesn't have that much of a good rep, and have recently purchased Mystery & Imagination and Thriller boxsets.

Anyway, enough of me, in honour of the anthology show some brilliant British writers who are linked to Twisted Showcase have let me know of their thoughts in regards to anthology shows.

Neil Jones ( Bedlam,Waterloo Road, Grange Hill, Hollyoaks)

I grew up on Hammer House of Horror and Tales of the Unexpected, and I've always said that something of both shows is hardwired into Bedlam, which you pointed out is an anthology show itself in many ways. But I was never really allowed to watch more than few episodes, especially of Hammer, no matter what I pretended in school! So it was the 80s American anthologies like Tales from the Darkside that really hit home. If I had to choose one episode from any series, it would be Final Escape from the remake of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (I've still never seen the originals, shamefully). It's about a woman sentenced to life for murder who formulates an escape plan with a Morgan Freeman-lite prison doctor. Of course it backfires horribly in a truly terrifying twist which left me reeling as a kid and has lived with me for years. The story is perfectly formed and pulls off the trick of having every scene point towards the twist, but still making you feel that it came out of left field. It does it by subtly dangling another possible ending that you think you've been clever enough to work out. I always remembered the heroine as being deliciously nasty and there is an element, as is often the case in these stories, of her getting what's coming to her at the end (she is told at the beginning that she's going to find out what justice really means), but in this one it's so horrible and final that you don't wish it even on her. The final shot before Hitch comes back on and makes his joke from beyond the grave is properly chilling.

I've just gone back and had a look at the episode for the first time in ages, and if what I've said above doesn't sell it to you, it's worth seeking out just for the killer's amazing 80s shoulderpads in the opening scene, which are even more frightening than the ending.

Stephen Gallagher (Chimera, Chiller, Crusoe, Doctor Who and many more)

The '60s was a bit of a golden age for anthology series and one of the
greatest was Tales of Mystery and Imagination, which adaptated classic
stories with a heavy emphasis on the macabre and supernatural. They were
mostly introduced by David Buck in Victorian character. There was no
such framing device on the BBC's Out of the Unknown but, playing to a
niche audience in the early days of BBC2, it remains unsurpassed in
British TV SF. Others that made a big impression were Conan Doyle's
Tales of Medical Life, and, again from the BBC, a series of ambitious
plays under the title Detective, a series of one-off dramatisations of
works of detective fiction produced by Verity Lambert. They were strong,
standalone dramas. These days the same material would get shunted in the
direction of series production, where the setup is more of a
consideration than the story, and would suffer for it.

Roland Moore (Land Girls, Doctors, Smack the Pony)

I think my favourite anthology shows are all pretty well known series. The original Twilight Zone is a show I could watch all day (and have to limit myself to a couple of eps at lunchtime otherwise the whole system would fall apart). I could watch them again and again. I love the structure - the introductory and closing narration; the atmosphere and the storytelling ability. The high quality makes it amazing to think how quickly the episodes were written and produced...

Other favourites include Tales of the Unexpected (the darkness and bleak endings of some of these stories is quite disturbing even now) and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (the theatre feel of some of these stories means the acting and writing have to go the extra mile - and the eps are always intriguing).

Rhys Jones (Twisted Showcase)

Tales of The Crypt was the bed rock of my friendship with a lad called Danny in school. As I remember it now we talked about it all the time. I don't really remember much about the show itself anymore other than the crypt keeper himself, who we absolutely loved and would endlessly try to imitate. We liked his bad puns.

Feel free to leave your anthology memories, favourites, etc in the comments. It saddens me that there is a generation that hasn't been afforded the opportunity to enjoy an anthology, and there seems to be so many who remember them fondly.

Who knows, maybe Twisted Showcase will become a TV anthology, but for now we're going to keep delivering you some Twisted weirdness.

Keep checking

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Treat Eleven: Monster London

Earlier this year I purchased a book which literally opened up a new world to me, that world was created by Jonathan Edwards and is called Monster London.

The book is 36 pages of profiles of monsters from an alternative London. I think it's an alternative London anyway because sometimes when reading a belly laugh emanates caused by recognising certain characteristics that may relate to certain people you may be aware of. 

I was startled at one point to notice a past relative of mine in there, Twigrin Bell.

The original exhibition of Monster London took place at Foyles, London over the summer. But now you can go back and read and then re read the wonderfully witty descriptions that go along with each stunning character.

The overall effect, for me, created a highly original and imaginative world populated by these characters and I was amazed by the amount of personality in both their bios and the images. I think they'd make a brilliant TV series there is so much detail in there, I'd like to see more and I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone with an imagination.

To buy this (and why wouldn't you it's only £4) head here.

Or check out more of Jonathan's work at

Treat Ten: Twisted Showcase stuff

You may have heard of Twisted Showcase? It's the anthology web series that I'm co creator of, and I'm immensely proud of it.
It was named Top 25 web TV show in the Guardian Guide, and has recently been the reason for a few meetings.
Last week, it even appeared in the Guardian again.

We're celebrating the year with a new cut of where it all began, our first film Peter & Paul  is now on the site. You can see it below or if you want to watch some of the other episodes go have a rummage at 

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Treat 9: Top Ten TV of 2012

Here's my favourite TV from 2012 in the form of a top ten list. Note i'm catching up with quite a lot of shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad on DVD, this is just stuff I'm up to date with or managed to series link fast enough.

10. Justified Season 3
9.Red Dwarf X
8.The thick of it
7. Alan Partridge Mid Morning Matters
6. Wolfblood
5. Sherlock
4. Doctor Who
3. Hit and Miss
2. Borgen
1. The Fear

Friday, 21 December 2012

Treat 8: Reality Trip

Drugs had ceased to exist. Instead, people were experimenting with microchips in the brain. New ‘experiences’ were always being programmed into these microchips, making hallucinations seem a natural part of daily life.

Jon Richardson was a high end user. This meant his whole life was spent inserting new experiences into his brain via microchip’s which interacted with his brain neurons. He opened the gateway in his skull, and inserted the new microchip. By the time the microchip was in place, it was too late for Jon to recognise the telephone chip in his brain which someone was calling. They would have to leave a message for him to pick up when he came back from his trip.

“Jon, don’t use that new microchip. It’s been contaminated, manipulated to create reality incarnations.”

Jon was sat on a beach, faced with a man in flowing black robes with a pale, scar filled face that conjured up a hundred nightmares.

“I am reality Jon, and you’ve been avoiding me for too long.”

With that reality exploded in anger, and hooks on meaty tentacles came bursting out of all the scar tissue on his face wrapping around Jon with a bone crushing force and carving and slicing his body into tiny pieces of flesh.

Reality returned to the sea leaving Jon with his body ripped open with a small pulse rippling through his exposed innards. One neuron continued firing against a microchip in Jon’s brain, repeating the image of death over and over again.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Treat Seven: Phobia

An article I wrote for Gorezone on the Thai portmanteau Phobia.


Asian horror gained prominence in the late nineties beginning in Japan with Ringu. This 1997 hit spawned a sequel, a prequel, a Korean remake, an American remake and a sequel to the American remake. It also spawned the rise of Asian horror on a global scale, with journalists coining the term J horror. This expanded to Asian horror when the Korean market kicked off, as it did in Hong Kong, and now Thailand. The most famous Thai horror, Shutter, has already suffered from a less impressive American remake, the American film industry pig headedly forgetting what makes these films so original and scary in the first place; using the countries deep rooted local folklore, traditions and history to tell their stories.

Since the current boom of Asian horror began the film-makers behind these films have been extremely clever to weave these traditional folkloric tales into something modern, from Ringu’s use of the evil spirit using the television and a cursed video to attack, to Takashi Miike’s One Missed Call (another victim of an appalling American remake) using mobile phones as the method of attack. Takashi Miike’s prolific work has jumped around the Asian countries, but has also encouraged innovation from directors in these countries as he was one of the first directors whose name broke out of the scene, followed by The Pang Brothers, Park Chan Wook and Bong Joon Ho.

Add to this list, Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom the co directors of Shutter, who are now part of new Thai horror sensation Phobia, or 4bia. The Thai horror portmanteau features four stories concentrating on phobias. See what they did with the title? Clever, eh? Well, no not really, it didn’t work with Se7en, and it doesn’t work now. Luckily the film does.

The idea came from Parkpoom Wongpoom who had a story that he knew wouldn’t stretch to feature length. This forms the last story of the portmanteau, and was the first idea to originate; aptly considering the story takes place onboard a plane, the idea was conceived on a flight, “On the plane, I got the idea of doing a scary movie about an air stewardess flying solo with a dead body.” says Parkpoom.

The director approached his Shutter co director first and then Thai production company GMM Tai Hub, the fully integrated Thai film company who brought the world Shutter and which has led to successful and daring projects like Phobia. They were a huge part in organising two more adventurous and innovative directors to complete the picture. These were Yongyoot Thongkongtoon and Paween Purijitpanya.

Everyone involved knew the risk of creating a horror portmanteau, made famous by the British horror studios Hammer and Amicus but very infrequently seen since. Stephen King and George Romero made the portmanteau’s Creep show 1 & 2 in the eighties and recently we’ve seen another Asian horror portmanteau with Three Extremes but it is never a style of horror film that has caught on in a major way. Like most countries Horror portmanteau’s had not done good box office business in Thailand in the past, but the other co director of shutter, Banjong Pisanthanakun, explained the reasoning behind doing this particular portmanteau.

"The horror craze is starting to see a decline, especially when there are so many horror movies now, some of which are good and some are not, (but) there will always be horror movie fans. As long as we have a good script and a good concept, the movie will definitely be successful." says Banjong. Discussing working on Phobia Banjong goes on to explain. “Such movies did not do well because the directors were all trying to outdo one another in terms of whose short film was scarier and the final product had no unifying theme. However, there is no competition among us. We ensured that the four short films were linked to one another in subtle ways, making the movie complete."

This was the great challenge of the film for Banjong and the other directors, he explains, “to make the four short films stand out from one another yet ensure that they are still linked. That's the hard part.”

It’s hard enough getting the tone right for one feature film, so imagine having to set the tone for four complete different stories and for that tone not to be too jarring so that the four films can be viewed as a whole as well as separate. It’s something Phobia struggles to manage in all honesty, but only because the ideas on offer here are so potent, fresh and different in style and tone, but it remains entertaining and is intriguing in its elements that link the story, the mysteriousness of which adds to the re-watch value.

After a stylish blood soaked credit sequence, the first film, Loneliness begins. It’s directed by Youngyut Tongkontund, who previously helmed the two Iron Ladies films, the first being one of the milestone Thai films in the late 1990s based on the actual story of a gay volleyball team, and the 2006 comedy with the same broad sensibilities, Metrosexual. Discussing his move from comedy into horror Youngyut jokes that ““I have multiple personalities, so I feel like doing different things.

“I believe that everything changes,” he adds. “As time changes, I change, my movies change, and the viewers change. If we understand this, we’ll understand how to make movies that respond to the present. And the viewers will understand us too.”

The plot focuses on a young girl who is confined to her high rise apartment. With exquisite and innovative camera shots we see her life, isolated and secluded from the busy world below, her only connection her mobile phone and internet. From the off we’re introduced to a different setting, and maybe that’s what has become so tired with American horror, we’ve seen every setting possible explored; be it suburbia, high school, spoilt upper class teens or the Deep South again and again. It’s all been done, and horror works best when it focuses on the unknown, unfortunately through cinema every aspect of America has become known, whilst everything about Loneliness feels new. The way open spaces are revealed from the girls balcony outlining her loneliness feels fresh, the way the camera glides out of her room over a closed door is innovative, but it really shouldn’t feel all that new. It begins as close companion to the Rear Window premise; someone stranded in a plaster cast watching the world she can’t interact with, then it’s given a modern spin by using the net and her phone as a portal to the outside world. A modern American counterpoint would be DJ Caruso’s Disturbia, itself a modern rehash of Rear Window, but Loneliness handles this modernisation with ease, using the ‘new’ elements of this story in a way which blends in with everything around it to create a coherent film world, and effortlessly upping the suspense of the plot through a text conversation on a mobile phone. This is the opposite of mainstream Hollywood horror whose first goal is to discard the mobile phone. How many times have characters not been able to get signal? Or had their battery run out on them at crucial times in the plot? The film ratchets the tension up so expertly I didn’t even notice it is completely without dialogue, to open a horror anthology with a twenty five minute silent horror film is a brave move, but one that pays off.

It works because of the way Loneliness makes you really feel and identify with the lead character, through long and slow tracking shots, measured close ups, and great use of music the audience can fully identify with the lead character’s position. When was the last time you identified with some spoilt American brat? Or were you like me and counted the seconds until their death, which you greeted with an almighty cheer?

Unlike its US counterparts Thai horror, in general, relies on fear and suspense rather than in your face gore, making it essential for you to care for the characters. An unnerving atmosphere offset against the release of a terrifying jolt, is something which Loneliness does to great effect. First with the line “Look again, I’m by your side” offering something as scary, weird and downright creepy as the white faced man from David Lynch’s Lost Highway claiming he’s at your house right now when he stands in front of you on the phone, in both cases when you see it you’ll understand. To give away the second jolt would be to spoil the surprise. It’s a must see, and a stunning move into horror from the multi personality of Youngyut Tongkontund.

As I mentioned before the film doesn’t flow with and the stylistic difference between these two films is the most jarring. Paween Purikitpanya, director of Body, jolts us into the second film, Deadly Charm, which relies heavily on his music video past. In stating his intentions for this film he said “I prefer my films to be like rides in an amusement park, instead of being objects in a museum, I always want my audience to enjoy themselves, to feel as if they’re part of the movie, and to be continually excited by what’s happening on the screen. Surprise is important to me, too. When I make a movie, I see myself knocking on the front door preparing to give flowers to the person who opens it. I want to see the look on his face. I want to see how my flowers surprise or startle or move or shock them.”

It begins with warm oranges and browns reminiscent of South American Cinema like City of God before descending into an editing and lighting frenzy, resulting in direction overkill, causing horrendous migraines. It feels so out of place and unnecessary and by the time you begin to get used to the style, it confounds you again by pulling another stylistic rabbit out of the hat. The style resembles Zack Snyder’s ADHD visuals, especially with the start/stop slo-mo. Someone needs to tell film makers that no one likes this computer game imagery and technique overkill, it ruins the story. In its defence the film does have some stunning imagery and ends on a cracking image for the gore hound in everyone. To be honest the director probably did fulfil his intentions, I just wish it didn’t cause me such a headache.

This highlights the strengths and weaknesses with portmanteaus. The weaknesses being the way in which each short film can be affected and the tone ruined by what has gone before, the strengths being the fact that you know that each film only lasts around twenty five minutes, so even if it’s not for you, another story packed full of different ideas will be along soon to pin you against the wall with an axe pick.

The next film to come along is the first by one of the two directors of Shutter. The Middle Man is a light hearted offering. Even Banjong Pisanthanakun, the director says that “though The Middle Man is fundamentally a ghost story, it has the wry humour and self-mocking elements that defy the genre codes. It’s something I would love to invite all my friends to see since I know they’ll have a good time.” The first half of this film is a bumbling buddy comedy with self referential dialogue, mocking ghosts in films and Banjong also mocks his own film Shutter, one character claiming that the Thai film copied the James Cameron blockbuster Titanic. The script is littered with references and in jokes and ambles along amiably, the main riffs being the fact that the characters keep divulging spoilers of other horror film endings such as The Sixth Sense and The Others. Why it does this is anyone’s guess, as is how anyone thought the lame debatable ‘twist’ ending was a good idea.

Luckily the fourth section Last Fright does not disappoint at all. Directed by Parkpoom Wongpoom who conceived the project in the first place, the final film delivers on its claustrophobic premise. It’s practically a two hander between a female flight attendant and a princess. Gothic horror conventions are introduced early on, especially the ‘all in black’ princess, with her mysterious ring.

A dark and tense atmosphere is created from the claustrophobic surroundings and tense dialogue. The final five minutes being one of the creepiest finales in horror this year with a final shot that perfectly concludes the story referring back to an earlier conversation between the characters to provide a satisfying denouement.

Thai critics seemed to love the idea, one of them stating the obvious on the appeal of the portmanteau “When you watch "4bia", you not only pay for the price for one horror movie but four put together! What a bargain! It's rather refreshing to see this kind of anthology played on the big screen.

However, "4bia" was definitely a unique blend of horror and comedy; and it does give a good scare-you-out-of-your-pants reaction that makes it worth the watch.” Wise Kwai a respected Thai film critic had this to say of the film, “four 25-minute horror segments work together to create a package that proves the gathered talent from GMM Tai Hub can actually make movie that doesn't have a nice, neat, tied-up-with-a-bow happy ending like all the GTH movies do. That was what I was hoping for with Phobia, and they gave it to me -- four times.”

Both these reviews outline why portmanteau’s are a great idea, the fact that they can appeal to a wide audience, which is something American mainstream horror seems intent to achieve, commissioning plenty of remakes to appeal to the older fans of the original and create a new teen fan base. It also converts itself into good box office as Thai horror seemed to be on the decline, until the release of Phobia which took just 24 days to shoot, was the top-grossing film in Thailand when it was released in April, beating Hollywood flicks such as Iron Man and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Its final box office was 85 million Baht, which is around one and a half million pounds, making it the 2nd highest box office earner released in 2008 in Thailand. It was such a huge success in Thailand that a sequel was instantly given the green light and is about to be released, which shows trust and ambition from GMM Tai Hub, the production company behind these films. They seem to have a very innovative, and in todays market a very different, franchise on their hands. We all know how American studios love a good franchise, will they be able to resist?

Although Hollywood has seen an increase in box office for its recent horror releases, Saw being a modern successful franchise akin to the eighties franchises of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, but like with those franchises it’s also seen a dearth of ideas. As most of American horror cinema has, relying on Asian horror for new ideas. Hopefully Phobia could be an indicator for how any horror industry could expand and thrive.

In these times of instant downloads and TV on demand where everyone wants everything right now, instead of having to provide jump scares every ten minutes, a anthology makes it so horror jumps can happen more frequently, and more organically to the plot, rather than feeling forced. It also allows for more ideas and more techniques to be explored within the genre, a virile breeding ground for new directors to perfect their style and even try new things.

After the remake of Shutter Hollywood discarded Thailand’s horror credentials believing it had taken all it could from them, and it seemed the Thai horror movement was slowing down, hopefully 4bia will have pricked the US industry’s ears, but hopefully they won’t bleed every sliver of innovation out of a film that was a brave decision to make in an era when horror portmanteaus weren’t being made. This and Three Extremes could be at the forefront of the beginning of a comeback. A modern spin on the Amicus and Hammer portmanteaus would be something I know I’d be interested in, and I’m sure many others would to. Even if the big studios are too dumb to do this, we’ve still got the brilliant Thai franchise which will hopefully grow and grow with its innovation and downright intense creepiness. Roll on 4bia 4.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Treat Six: Top 10 films of 2012

By no means a comprehensive lits, these are just my favourite 10 films of the year.

10. The Muppets
9.Iron Sky
7. The Dark Knight Rises
6. Cabin in the Woods
5. We Bought a Zoo
4. Chronicle
3. Sleep Tight
2. Berberian Sound Studio
1. The Descendants

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Treat Four: Dark Knight - Superman:The Movie Comparative Study

For Treat 4 it's another article I wrote for Splice. My first written in 2008 or 2009. Quite a while ago. hope you like.

‘Is it a bird? No, it’s a psychopath.’ The Dark Knight and the New Superhero Film

by Robin Bell

I’d like to introduce this analysis with two personal memories which relate to the subject. A huge part of any student’s analysis should come from their personal consumption and feelings towards film, as I believe it heightens any analysis. Every person’s viewpoint comes from a specific angle which will reflect how each film is seen and read.

The first story goes all the way back to my childhood and the moment I received a batch of comics including The Beano and Dandy and many containing superheroes such as Superman, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and Batman. I remember how happy I was sitting on my bedroom floor reading all of these. The Hulk and Batman were my favourite. I re-read these comics again and again, devouring them for a whole summer. They were tattered by the end of the school holidays because I had handled them so much and, even now, reminds me of childhood.

Jump forward twenty years to summer 2008. I found myself in New York the week that The Dark Knight, the biggest film of the year, was released. That week it proved extremely difficult to get tickets to any screening of the film anywhere in Manhattan. Every screening was fully booked. With much persistence we managed to get two spare seats to a midnight screening on a Thursday night. We took our seats in a completely packed IMAX cinema and the excitement began.

Two hours later the film had finished and as we walked through the streets of New York I felt utterly shell shocked. The intense atmosphere of the film had really gotten to me, and I couldn’t believe that what I had just watched was, in fact, a mainstream superhero summer blockbuster.

To think that these two experiences come from the same source – the superhero genre – shows how much development has occurred within this genre. From generic codes and conventions through to the production side, distribution and exhibition and even consumption The Dark Knight has broken barriers, something I want to explore here.

Superheroes, The Origin Story – From Page to Screen

Before there were comic books, there were comic strips, the first of these appearing in The New York Sunday World in 1895. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that the comic book as a distinct medium became popular and this was mainly because of the rise of the superhero.

Superheroes were mostly strong, muscular men, who had an alternative identity. There were usually two sides to the superhero; the everyday person with a regular job and life, and the strong superhero who only appeared when there was an emergency, or a life threatening situation. It was what America and the world needed during this time of upheaval, from the Depression through the Second World War. And the three top selling superhero comics were Superman, Captain America and Batman.

Superman and Captain America are self explanatory, both being patriotic, straight-laced forces for good (‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’). Batman was different. From the start, Batman’s stories were grim and gritty – in the first episode, seen in Detective Comics, the villain fell into a vat of acid, which killed him. Not showing any remorse for causing his death, Batman observed "A fitting end for his kind”. Not what you expect from a wholesome superhero that kids might look up to. So Batman had already separated himself from the usual superhero formula.

What attracted the audience to Batman was the fact he was perfectly pitched between the noir, detective heroes of the time and the superheroes. He might not have had super powers but he had a great mind, and cool gadgets (the bat suit was something kids have always admired).

The next rung of popularity for the comics came through television. The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves came to US TV in the 1950’s after a popular 15 part Columbia film serial. This series was hugely popular and paved the way for more superheroes on the television. One of the most popular was the Batman TV series from the sixties, featuring Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Burt Ward as his sidekick Robin and featuring a wide array of colourful villains. “They called it "Camp," ironic comic perfection. The key to Batman was in the lead actors playing outlandishly fantastic situations with a straight face, and the stunt-casting of hot TV personalities.” The success of this TV show contributed to the rise in sales of colour televisions, and also led to a feature length Batman film (1966).

The 1st Superhero film?

When looking at the origin of the superhero genre in film, there is some debate as to which film is seen to be the first, the one which established the conventions of the genre that we know today. Was it Batman, the movie?

Not many of the genre’s conventions are present in the film, especially compared to, for example, Superman: The Movie from 1978. Both films are brightly coloured, family friendly movies, featuring the titular superheroes in tightly fitting costumes. Both of them had simple good against evil storylines, and both of them had the hero saving ordinary civilians. The main difference is that Superman takes the material seriously whilst Batman parodies it.

The Superman producers – Alexander and Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler – bought the film rights for Superman from DC Comics. Tom Mankiewicz who was the film’s creative consultant gives the Salkind’s all the credit, stating “I guess they saw the future in making a film out of Superman... nobody thought this would make a very good picture. Everybody, I guess, had the memory of the Batman television series and they thought this is going to be campy, and you can’t have two and a half hours of camp.”

To get credibility for the film the producers had to get bankable names on board. They first enlisted Godfather writer Mario Puzo followed by star of that film and screen legend Marlon Brando in the role of Superman’s father Jor-El. Gene Hackman then joined as the villain Lex Luthor, despite initial reservations: “At first, I was afraid that my image as a serious actor would be tarnished. I had thought of it only as a cartoon character, and I recognised that I could make Lex Luthor into something that I could be proud of.” Through these people being involved the project gained legitimacy. The big names also gave the film makers freedom to cast an unknown in the lead role and still advertise the film using Brando and Hackman as the main focus. The focus was successfully moved away from Superman being a comic book, or a television show, to being a movie.

Even though the film lays down all the conventions of the superhero genre that are still adhered to nowadays, and became the first ever comic book superhero epic, it begins by using the conventions of science fiction.

The film opens with a prologue in which we see red curtains being pulled back to reveal an Action comics comic book, a neat juxtaposition of the two forms of media, which sets up that we are viewing a filmed version of the story of the comic book character. A caption reads June 1938 and a child reads from the comic book and introduces the Daily Planet. This is an important introduction to the main setting for the superhero and action elements of the film in its second half. After that the camera pans up into space for the title sequence, names whooshing towards the camera, before we arrive at the planet Krypton, where the opening twenty minutes of the film take place.

We are first introduced to Krypton by zooming through space and into the blue planet. Its surface is mostly ice and we keep travelling towards a glacier city which in the centre holds a white dome emanating with light. Pointedly, the first words spoken are “This is no fantasy, no careless product of wild imagination”.

These are science fiction conventions the audience would be used to, whilst also taking the material intensely seriously as outlined by the opening line of dialogue. By opening with familiar and respected actor Marlon Brando it perhaps assuages the fears of a sceptical audience that the film might be comic, childish, ridiculous and camp, it also provides the audience conventions they know and understand.

The first forty-five minutes track Superman, or as he’s named on Earth Clark Kent, through his upbringing, and how he deals with his powers during these years. Basically everything Smallville covers now. The main thrust of Superman: The Movie is the origin story, and this film can be considered the sine qua non of the genre. Every superhero has an origin story, telling how they gained their powers and decided to fight crime. It may be revealed in their first appearance, or not until an eventual flashback, but once established it sets ground rules for which tropes are applicable to that particular superhero. This itself has now become a narrative convention of the superhero genre.

The action then moves to Metropolis, and Clark’s adult life, for the first time. Metropolis serves as the film’s alternative representation of New York. The urban, capital city location is a hugely important aspect of the superhero genre. For one thing it represents America, the American way of life and the American Dream. Secondly it provides the film with the sense of scale required. Most importantly it gives the superhero the opportunity to save lives on a large scale, and it provides plenty of opportunities for action situations that a sparsely populated location wouldn’t.

The city portrayed through Metropolis in this film is very different to other cinematic portrayals of contemporary New York at the time. Sure, there is crime in the city as we see in Superman’s first hero montage; after saving Lois from her helicopter he goes to foil a comedic robber, what looks like a drug deal on a boat and then save a cat from a tree. But there’s no gang warfare or street violence in the clean, mostly friendly streets of Metropolis. When citizens meet Superman it’s always with a friendly smile, glance or witty one-liner. It’s a brightly coloured, vibrant place to live, and obviously a fantastical contrast to the New York that was being presented on the screen at the time. Compare this to Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece. Although only two years earlier Scorsese’s depiction of the city is far more squalid and depressing, showing a totally different side to the city. DoP on Taxi Driver Michael Chapman says that “Whatever else Taxi Driver is or isn’t it is a kind of documentary of what New York looked like. In the seventies New York was at its nadir. It was scummy and awful.”

A key scene to examine when looking at Superman the Movie is the confrontation between Superman and arch enemy, Lex Luthor. The scene begins with Superman burrowing down into Luthor’s underground lair. He bursts through an iron door and steps into Luthor’s office with commanding power. Luthor unveils his plan, to make money through real estate by blowing up the West Coast creating a coast line out of the apparently worthless desert land he owns. Superman’s reaction is restrained, never rising to all out violence. He calls the plan a ‘sick fantasy’, until realising that two rockets are already in flight. Lifting Luthor up by his collar is the only physical threat Superman offers. This is followed by Superman labelling Luthor a ‘diseased maniac’ and throwing him, non-threateningly onto a cushioned sofa. The film does not dwell on violence, and no physical harm comes to anyone. Also notice in this sequence there is no grey area – Superman is unconditionally ‘good’ and Lex Luthor is unambiguously ‘evil’ (if charming). Superman does nothing that a true hero wouldn’t do. When Luthor overcomes Superman with the aid of some cleverly hidden Kryptonite, he claims he is better than Superman by outsmarting him with “mind over muscle”; but Superman actually escapes through the compassion of Luthor’s maligned assistant Miss Teschmacher. This showing that humanity can be a force for good is another theme and convention of the superhero genre.

In being the first of the genre, Superman was a successful endeavour for all involved, not only in box office terms with a $300 million worldwide intake, but also in paving the way for the genre with a raft of new conventions. From the brightly coloured tightly fitting suit worn by a character with a dual personality who hides his superhero side by living his daily life as a well-meaning citizen, mirroring the humanity as a force for good message that prevails throughout the genre. The dual worlds are also explored through the mirroring of superhero and villain, which in their basest sense portray a battle between good and evil, but can represent much more.

They follow a simple pattern in terms of narrative, the audience realising that by the end the superhero will overcome the villain and equilibrium will be restored, the evil plan thwarted. Audiences would also become used to the origin story, that particular narrative device being used ad infinitum with regards to the superhero genre. These conventions jumped straight from the page of the comic book, as did the look of Superman; bright colours, comic book panel framing of scenes, events culminating in the unbelievable and the fantastical. For example, the climax of the film features the titular character flying around the Earth so fast it begins to spin backwards upon its axis to reverse time, so Superman can save Lois’s life.

Superman proved this fantastical quality need not lead to parody, a la the Batman TV series. Audiences began to embrace the fantastical elements, they wanted to believe a man could fly, and not laugh at the suggestion. They wanted superheroes and escapism. It was just the right time to capitalise upon it also, as the dawning age of the blockbuster had begun a few years earlier with the double whammy of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977). The rise of the blockbuster picture came after years of Hollywood having to turn to independent producers as they had become out of touch with their audience. This allowed directors more control, which was then taken away as through the above films Hollywood found a way to regain control through these ‘event movies’, thus leaving the landscape ripe for the release of a superhero film, and Superman was perfect to be the first of these.

Things are very different in the present. X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four have all graced the big screen in recent years. Marvel Comics have their own production company now, with Captain America and Thor films planned. Every summer the multiplexes are full to the rafters with superhero films. And in 2008, the biggest and highest-grossing (so far) of all was released.

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight was released 24 July 2008, the sequel to the critically and commercially successful Batman Begins (2005) again directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale in the dual role of Bruce Wayne and Batman. Expectation was high and a lot of the hype during pre release focused on the Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. This was heightened by the tragic death of the star months before release.

Being the blockbuster hit of the summer and also obtaining widespread critical praise, The Dark Knight took over $1 billion worldwide box office, only the third film ever to do so. Was it because it was good timing, being released at the peak of the superhero boom? Was it because it’s dark themes struck a nerve in these modern times? Or was it because of the audience’s morbid fascination with seeing a dead actor play a raving psychopath so convincingly? Whatever, it was it is obvious that The Dark Knight is a film that needs to be explored to see how it relates to the times we live in; how it has changed the superhero genre, and also how it adheres to its conventions also; and finally how it has changed the genre and maybe even modern mainstream cinema.

The first aspect to look at to see how far the superhero genre has come is the director. Christopher Nolan, was a strange name from leftfield to come in and make a superhero film in the first place. But also the first sign that this version of Batman was to be more complex.

You could argue that Batman has already had an auteur behind its reigns with Tim Burton directing the 1989 version of Batman and its sequel Batman Returns (1992). For me Burton is a more visual and stylistic director whereas Nolan is more technical, story-based and complex. So whilst Burton’s gothic Gotham looked great, arguably it lacked substance and corporeality. This is something which Nolan doesn’t lack. He also brings a clinical eye and a complex take on character and story to the superhero genre. All which add to how the genre is taking a different shape, and how it is moving away from the fantastical elements or blending them in more with the world and environment of the film.

Opening Sequence

There is no better place to start to examine all of these facets of The Dark Knight than from looking at its opening sequence. Within an opening sequence a lot of exposition needs to be done – it’s an introduction to main characters, the environment and world of the film and also the tone of the story.

The Dark Knight opens with ominous clouds, billowing out in explosion, and the faint outline of the bat symbol heading towards the camera through the blue flames, but only briefly. It’s a matter of seconds before we are plunged into events. The opening shot is of a pale white cityscape, we are surrounded by mirrored buildings and the aerial camera zooms us towards one building in particular, until we’re uncomfortably close. There’s an eerie calm on the soundtrack achieved by Hans Zimmer’s score which is an ascending violin note stretched out, whining and grating.

As we arrive at the window it is shot out from within, and a quick edit takes us to a side on mid shot of the gun-man who is wearing a grotesque clown mask. After firing a cable out of the window, we are quickly taken to a corner of a street somewhere in the city of Gotham.

The camera tracks slowly to the back of a figure waiting on the corner of the street. He is framed centre of the screen, with a holdall bag over one shoulder and a clown’s mask hanging loosely from his other hand. He stands inanimate and hunched. The camera zooms in upon the mask and its empty eye holes. Tyres screech, a van pulls up, and the figure we’ve been watching draws the mask up to his face and enters the van. The music picks up a pace as we are taken back to the two masked people who are travelling down the cable across to the other building. The martial-sounding music is what you might expect from a crime film, as is the muted colour scheme. The city is alabaster white almost the only colour comes from the hideous clown masks. Aerial shots follow their descent, with a very dramatic vertiginous viewpoint, constantly moving and then swiftly editing back to the van. The camera sits in medium shot in the back seat of the van, as if the viewer is part of events. Conversation in the van regards the plan, which we now discover is masterminded by someone called ‘the Joker’, and there follows some speculation as to why he is so named. But as the action is happening at a hurtling pace the dialogue doesn’t feel like exposition.

We’re whisked along into the action with loud gunfire and screaming as their target, a bank, is held up by the criminals. A man is violently thrown over the counter, before a close up of a woman who works at the bank as one of the clown criminals moves swiftly towards her. We cut to the roof again, with a close up of the clown silencing the alarm. Once he has done so, he is shot by his accomplice, and so it is unveiled that the Joker’s plan involves members of his gang killing each other after their specific function is completed. A harsh loud drumbeat kicks in propelling the action, people are given live grenades to hold and beaten with guns as the safe cracker begins his job. Resistance comes from the bank manager who fires a shotgun at the criminals. It doesn’t take long before he is shot in the leg. As the plan comes to its end we see the back of one the criminals stalk the bank, before we’re down to just two surviving clown criminals. One is tricked to stand in just the right place as a bus comes crashing through the wall to take him out.

At the end of the scene there is some key dialogue as the bank manager states that criminals in the town ‘used to believe’ in such things as honour and respect, suggesting that the bank had criminal ties. The Joker answers that everything that doesn’t kill you ‘makes you stranger’, before revealing his scarred and painted face. He drives away from the bank and blends in with the traffic in a school bus.

The degree of violence in this opening sequence is astonishing, especially when considering that generic conventions dictate this is a film most people would assume is aimed at a family audience. This sequence and quite a lot of the film have the look and feel of a stylish crime film, perhaps Michael Mann’s Heat. We are introduced to the world of film in a number of ways in this opening sequence. Firstly the camerawork highlights the epic nature of what lies ahead, constantly zooming into the city, drawing us into the action. This is heightened by this sequence being filmed on IMAX cameras specifically for the IMAX experience. Nolan states on documentary Shooting Outside of the box, that “opening with an IMAX sequence seemed a terrific way to make an impression upon the audience, and really throw them into the action.” [Robin – reference for this quote?] He also states that the IMAX cameras were intended as dramatic tools, with a higher resolution and more sound the IMAX sequences were reserved for big, important moments in the film.

We’re economically introduced to the Joker and the chaos that ensues around him. The violent nature of the film is heightened by the swift edits, and the fact that everyone is a victim – the helpless functionaries in the bank, the manager who tried to fight back and also the criminals who helped the Joker carry out the job. Many facets of the Joker are introduced also, from the snippet of dialogue that introduces how he looks to the fact that he leaves the death of one person to chance by waiting for a bus to crash through the wall and hit him, and also his sadistic nature in how he kills the bank manager. It is this exchange which is in fact most intriguing in the information it reveals about the setting, tone and characters within the film. Firstly with the bank manager revealing that criminals used to ‘believe in things’, he also reveals that he has worked with them, this bank probably held mainly criminal money. The assumed good of humanity that is a convention of the superhero genre is subverted here, bringing a grey area to proceedings; there is no division between good and evil people, life in the real world is not that simple. The Dark Knight thus takes a step away from the fantastical world of the superhero genre almost instantly. The line the Joker delivers back says a lot about his character, that he’s seen the dark side the world has to show, and survived it, but has been affected by it and continues to be. The only way he has managed to survive in this world is to slip into anarchic psychosis. Not really a family friendly theme for the film, then.

The last shot of the Joker getting away in a school bus is also a subversive image. The school bus is a symbol of innocence and hope for the future, in that our children are being taken to school to be educated. Does this symbolise the Joker’s regression to childish ways; or is the metaphor in this shot that in all good there is something dark creeping in? Is the Joker the thorn within the roses? Later in the film the Joker will pass himself off as that most trusted of public servants, a hospital nurse – before blowing up the hospital. By the film’s end, the viewer may believe that no area of society can escape being sullied by the darker shade of humanity.

Comparison sequence

To truly analyse how a genre has developed, it is necessary to compare specific aspects. The scene from The Dark Knight that would best illustrate this is the first confrontation scene that the Batman and the Joker share, this can be found one hour and twenty three minutes into the film during chapter 23. This is after the Joker has allowed himself to be captured (it transpires) and has been placed in a holding cell as the police try to extract information. This is the first time the opposing forces come face to face to share dialogue, much like the first time Superman meets Lex Luthor in his extravagant underground bunker/home that we discussed earlier, occurring during chapter 33, one hour and forty seven minutes into the film. The difference is quite extreme.

For a start the Superman scene is played in a brightly lit, spacious setting, with extravagant decor. The Dark Knight’s setting is the dull, drab concrete and glass of a container cell, plunged into darkness. The opening dialogue in The Dark Knight scene concerns the whereabouts of Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent. The Joker questions who Commissioner Jim Gordon, Batman’s main ally on the Gotham police force, can trust on his team. The theme of corruption immediately becomes the focus. Behind the Joker is only shadow, his painted face the only thing visible on screen. As Gordon leaves he switches the light on to reveal Batman standing behind the Joker, with the Joker unaware of the situation.

Batman doesn’t even allow the Joker to speak before smashing his head against the table – hardly the even-handed, measured approach the generic formula would have you expect of a superhero film, the sort on display in the Superman–Luthor confrontation. Later in the scene, the Joker tells Batman, “You complete me”, quoting a line from the American romantic comedy, Jerry Maguire (1996), a sly reference of subversion that exemplifies the twisted love story the Joker thinks he shares with Batman. The generic tradition is to suggest that hero and villain are mirror images of each other, similar but intrinsically different. But the power of The Dark Knight lies in the subtle undermining of this convention in that the differences between ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ are not binary, but matters of degree.

Can we describe as the Joker as ‘evil’? He’s certainly sadistic, an anarchist, probably psychotic ¬– but ‘evil’? Can he help what he does, or is he, as he repeatedly implies a product of a twisted society? Similarly, Batman’s behaviour, as the scene continues, is an erratic performance of violence, itself bordering on the psychotic – but this border is critical. He insists that he has ‘rules’ and the Joker knows there is one that he will not knowingly break. That is to kill, and he will always stop short of it. But the Joker doesn’t have any such boundaries and, it is implied, it is this distinction alone, the one between limits and chaos, which separates them.

While formally the action in this scene is quite similar to that in Superman, the execution (pardon the pun) here is more violent. Firstly Batman pulls the villain up by the collar, but instead of the hollow threat from Superman, the Joker is dragged along the table, before being slammed into a wall. In Superman, Luthor is tossed almost playfully on to a sofa, but in The Dark Knight the Joker is slammed onto a hard table then head first into the glass window (this brutally reinforced by the crunching sound design), which fractures under the force of the Jokers skull. Are these the actions of a modern hero? It should be noted that even though Batman has a ‘secret identity’, he has never been a conventional superhero. For one, he does not have any super powers. His power comes from money to pay for weaponry, his armoured suit, and innovative gadgetry. Batman is essentially a vigilante, therefore more identifiable to an audience, as he has no supernatural, alien powers that put him on a higher plateau. He is perceived as a superhero because of his comic book background and because of the presence of the convention of saving humanity. In this sequence we are not seeing conventional superhero behaviour but instead seeing a more human side to the character, resorting to criminal behaviour to try and bring the Joker’s reign of terror to an end.


In the scene discussed above there is dialogue that forms the centrepiece for the exploration of one of the key themes within The Dark Knight. The Joker says “The people need you right now, but when they don’t they’ll cast you out, like a leper. You see, their morals and their code, it’s a bad joke. You’ll be dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. They’ll show you, when the chips are down, these civilised people, they’ll eat each other.”

This speech yet again focuses on humanity. Is society bigger and stronger than base human urges? Are people inherently good, or evil? What effect does society have on affecting people’s choices? These are serious philosophical themes being explored by what was once routinely regarded as a children’s genre. But The Dark Knight has moved the goal posts on what a superhero film can achieve.

This theme is fully exemplified by the climax of the film. The Joker organises two boats to carry people away to safety from Gotham, now a city in crisis. One is full of prisoners, the other full of normal civilians, and each has a detonator for the other boat. The Joker believes that the panic of the citizens will result in a crumbling morality that will result in them blowing up the prisoners’ boat to save themselves. And on the other side are the criminals, who are supposedly not to be trusted and, knowing that the citizens will be thinking of killing them, will act first and blow up their ship.

The Joker’s experiment collapses when neither of the boats explodes. But this doesn’t prove his argument false. The character who is the spine of the whole film, and who personifies this theme is District Attorney Harvey Dent. Dent begins the film as the saviour of Gotham, even being referred to as the White Knight of Gotham. He is eventually, through the death of Rachel Dawes and the manipulation of the Joker, corrupted to do evil. Could Dent even be ‘the Dark Knight’ of the title? Dent’s story shows that, under the circumstances, even the person most committed to the law might be driven to lawlessness. Morality, in the modern world, is in constant flux. Dent says early on in the film ““You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” In his case he becomes the villain but with Gordon and Batman’s connivance, he is hoisted up as the hero whilst Batman knowingly submits to become the hunted. The ending echoes the Joker’s words from the interrogation scene.


The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) awarded The Dark Knight a ‘12A’ certificate, a decision that some found inappropriately permissive, considering the tone of the film. The BBFC has this to say about the decision “The key classification issues noted were violence and threat, though the examining team felt the violence was, in line with ‘12A’ guidelines, both impressionistic and bloodless. Examiners noted some scenes of strong threat when The Joker menaces other, sometimes innocent, characters. The strongest of these include sight of The Joker touching a gangster’s mouth with a knife before killing him (off screen) and a scene in which he presses his blade into Rachel's cheek. Examiners also discussed the film’s tone which included some dark and adult moments.” But still felt it was suitable for a 12A citing these as the reasons for why, “In the case of The Dark Knight several factors were noted which supported a ‘12A’ certificate. These included the film’s comic book style, the appeal of the work to 12 –15 year olds, the clear fantasy context and the lack of strong detail, blood or gore.” I would argue with a few of the BBFC’s conclusions here (without getting into a discussion on censorship per se). Citing the film’s ‘comic boom style’ and ‘clear fantasy context’ is to misunderstand the film. As we have discussed, it is actually a contrast to comic book style and a fantasy context of its predecessor, moving away into a more realistic and disturbing setting as outlined in the analysis above. The question is, why does it?

Firstly, comic books aren’t what they were when first launched. The original superhero films were based on comic books of the 1930s–50s (hence the prologue to Superman opening with the caption ‘June 1938’). In the 1980s the medium of the comic book changed with two important comic book publications. These two releases were Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. These releases broadened the range of what the comic book could do, and widened the audience of readers for ‘graphic novels’, as they came to be called. The characters in these were human, multi faceted and were not good or evil, black or white, they were characters who had killed in Vietnam, bombed campaigners on the streets of New York, incited violence, even raped women. The old conventions of the superhero comic book had been discarded. Aimed at children these most certainly were not. The film of Watchmen was faithful to the source in that it is set in the 1980s allowing it a sense of distance that The Dark Knight doesn’t permit. There have been a few superhero movies that have had 18 certificates, such as The Crow or the Blade films, but none that have truly presented the superhero world with such a realistic edge.

Why do film-makers want to use the superhero genre to make social comment? That is the main question to ask when looking at why The Dark Knight has begun to move the genre away from the fantastical to more reality-based representation. Could it be the delicate balance of political debate in America since the events of 11 September 2001? The first film to be affected by the disaster was, famously, a superhero film. Spider–Man (2002) originally had a trailer sequence that took place between the Twin Towers which had to be removed in respect of events. Since then, mainstream Hollywood film hasn’t exactly been prolific in its exploration of serious contemporary issues. Perhaps, then, a safe place to explore modern fears of terrorism is through the superhero genre, one step removed from reality so as to give the audience just enough distance to deal with the issues, themes and events presented. Hollywood pictures which have tried to deal with it have proved to be commercial failures, Lions for Lambs (2007) could be blamed on Tom Cruise’s poor image at the time of release but negative press and no appetite for films concerned with political issues are a more likely explanation as other films such as Rendition (2007), The Kingdom (2007) have performed well. This could also be the reason that recent Oliver Stone films such as World Trade Center (2006) and W (2008) have stayed away from the controversial aspects and been watered down, even neutered versions of what the audience is used to from Oliver Stone. Politicised fare is all over the television screens be it the news or intricate dramas like The West Wing, maybe audiences are voting with their feet in making the big screen the place for spectacle and escapism over political and social depth. Hollywood has answered by adding that depth to the spectacle, which is a tough balancing act but one that has certainly worked with The Dark Knight.

Maybe over time the wounds of that awful day and the international conflicts that followed will heal and the boom of the superhero genre will run its course. Or maybe, with such talented film-makers and such great source material that is coming from the comic book world, the films will delve ever deeper into the human psyche and society.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Treat 3: Film marathon before undertaking zombie horror script the Dumb

For one reason or another these were the 6 films I watched in a big marathon before embarking on zombie horror script the Dumb earlier this year.

The Road


The African Queen

28 Days later

Moulin rouge

The Truman Show

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Treat Two: Adaptation article

After an inspiring talk on top screenwriting tips from Henry Swindell at Liverpool JMU yesterday, which ended with a clip from Charlie Kaufman's BFI lecture  which I loved when I first saw the lecture but took on extra meaning for myself yesterday. I'm not going to tell you which clip was shown as you should really watch the whole thing for yourself.
Well, after that, i began thinking of an article I worked on a while back which ended up in SPLICE magazine, like my previous article on Hidden it's aimed at A level students and teachers but if you like the film you may find it interesting.

The most favoured line used by audiences in describing a film adaptation is usually dismissive, something like “It wasn’t as good as the book”. The reason for this? “Usually it’s a simple matter of lost intricacy, or bowing to the fears of those who place millions of dollars in a film makers hands.” There are a few exceptions to that rule, successful adaptations which comes down to personal taste, but then there is the film entitled Adaptation (2002), scripted by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Spike Jonze and based on the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean.
It is almost beyond definition, asking many questions from its audience even before you consider the question of film adaptations; their fidelity to the source, and what makes a successful adaptation. Adaptation stares at the process of adaptation long and hard, but is it an actual adaptation?
One thing is for sure Adaptation is a film which focuses on the screenplay, many times over in a self reflexive and intricate way, and for that reason it’s imperative that any exploration of Adaptation should start with Charlie Kaufman.
Before Adaptation, Kaufman was a TV writer, who had broke into movies. Adaptation was his fourth feature screenplay, the second of which to be directed by Spike Jonze, the first they worked on together was the one which broke Kaufman as a surreal screenwriting talent, Being John Malkovich (1999). Human Nature (2001) and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) followed, until Kaufman and Jonze were to work together again on Adaptation. Before the film was released there was a huge buzz about the pair working together again, especially when people realised that Nic Cage was to be playing a character called Charlie Kaufman, and another called Donald Kaufman.
But it wasn’t to be an original script like Being John Malkovich and his other screenplays, this was to be an adaptation of a book concerning flowers; Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. The book was released in 1998 and explores the arrest in 1994 of John Laroche for poaching rare orchids. Already the book was an adaptation of real events. Kaufman states when asked where he started with the project that the idea started with the book but “I like to be free. I don’t want to know too much when I start. I want to be free to go with it where it takes me.”
So is Adaptation an actual adaptation of the book? Charlie Kaufman didn’t feature in the book so how could he be a character in the adaptation? What is the film Adaptation about; the art of adaptation, Fantasy and perception, Surrealism, Flowers, Humanity, The inter-connectivity of all things, identity crisis, Mortality, Narrative structure, or, all of the above and probably more?
Adaptation is a tricky but often travelled road for Hollywood film studios. The website Meta Critic did some research into the numbers of films adapted from pre existing material after they commented that “It appears that no existing concept, however tenuous, can escape the reach of Hollywood studios, who will seemingly devote every resource they have to avoid developing an original idea.” Their findings show that in 2010 only 40% of films came from original ideas, and this figure is decreasing year upon year.
There are many ways to adapt material; stay faithful to the source in every aspect, choose a section of the story to focus upon and hone in on that making it the central narrative thrust, completely change it from top to bottom, or keep true to the essence of the material whilst weaving in your own artistic vision.
This aspect known as artistic vision is usually attributed to directors, who are given auteur status by marketing departments, yet in the sixties the auteur theory was more critic led coming from Francois Truffaut and highlighted in America by Andrew Sarris’ article in the Village Voice, yet in this case it is Charlie Kaufman and his writing which could be attributed auteur status, and whilst Spike Jonze brings this to life in a very creative fashion the focus of this article will be upon the screenplay, as is indeed apt for the film in question.
Kaufman’s ‘auteur status’ stems from the idiosyncrasies of his screenplays as well as the recurring themes throughout all his work, which make his scripts seem so original. Putting himself into the work is the first sign that Charlie Kaufman was doing something completely different with this adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, but it wasn’t something that occurred to him straight away. It wasn’t his reason to adapt it. That was because “It seemed not to be a movie, which intrigued me. I liked the book and it wasn’t the kind of thing that I was being sent – I was getting sent the weird stuff because I’m the weirdo. But this was a straightforward book, very well written. I was learning things; it was about flowers – there was very little drama in it. It seemed, “Well it’s an interesting book, why can’t it be an interesting movie?””
It’s this question which drives the narrative of the film. Instead of a straight adaptation of the book we get the story of Kaufman adapting the book, intertwined with his adaptation as he becomes part of the novel. The first line is from Charlie Kaufman himself, played by Nic Cage and it is “Do I have an original thought in my head?” Already taking us into the angst of the screenwriter, and preparing us for the journey of this individual and entirely original adaptation. These two words are a strange juxtaposition in Hollywood – an original adaptation – but that is what Kaufman has created.
Susan Orlean sums up how Kaufman’s adaptation of The Orchid Thief works stating that “strangely, marvellously, hilariously, his screenplay has ended up not being a literal adaptation of my book, but a spirutual one, something that has captured (and expanded on) the essential character of what the book, I hope, was about.” Also finding it very apt that a book on orchids was the one Kaufman chose to adapt in this way, calling it a “strange but perfectly fitting fate for the book. The book’s subject, nominally anyway, is orchids, which happen to be complex organisms that have taken on literally thousands of different forms; they are the most cleverly adaptable living things on earth.”
Meta fiction
What Kaufman created with Adaptation unfortunately comes with a horrible term to pigeon hole it. Whilst Adaptation is a wholly original film, critics would try to label it as meta fiction. The definition of  meta fiction is “a type of fiction that self consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. It is the literary term describing fictional writing that self consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self reflection.”
Meta fiction came into literature upon the wave of the post modernists and is now becoming more and more a part of film language. The most prominent mainstream example of meta fiction can be seen in the Scream (1996-2011) horror film franchise; known for deconstructing the horror genre and the characters being self aware of all the conventions and how to avoid said conventions to not get killed by an avenger carrying out their own horror film.
For a good example of the meta fiction in Adaptation, one of the opening scenes can be used. The scene after the introductory monologue with Kaufman laying out his insecurities against a black screen with the credits opens on the set of Being John Malkovich. The style of the camera is fuzzy and handheld, much like a behind the scenes documentary. A realistic depiction of an exaggerated world, the sound tinny like recorded for someone’s home video.  They are on the set of the ‘Malkovich, Malkovich’ scene, where in the film John Malkovich has entered his own brain portal and everyone has his face, or at least a mock up of that set. The lines of reality are blurred. This is highlighted by the sub headings that introduce members of the crew. Firstly, introducing the location, ‘On the set of “Being John Malkovich” Summer 1998’, then ‘John Malkovich, Actor’, sending up himself by demanding things on set. We then get a super imposed title for ‘Thomas Smith, First Assistant Director’, ‘Lance Acord, Cinematographer’ before the camera pans to Nic Cage and we get the title ‘Charlie Kaufman, Screenwriter’ and this is the first occasion that the reality is subverted, and we’re let in on the meta joke. The audience know that this is Nicolas Cage but now instead of the reality of the ‘real’ John Malkovich we’re being asked to invest in a movie character, drawing attention to the fact that this is a movie, and drawing attention to the fact that we as a member of the audience have to suspend our disbelief.
What is being adapted?
With Adaptation, the self awareness mainly comes during the writing process, so Kaufman is aware he is adapting material and he deconstructs the adaptation process in front of our eyes, showing the audience how he made the choices in the adaptation to adapt The Orchid Thief. To do this Kaufman has to bring to the audiences’ attention the world of the screenwriter, the world of three act structures, inciting incidents and character motivations. This makes it a good film to show students who are undertaking a screenwriting part of the course.
Most importantly, Adaptation introduces Robert McKee’s Story, through Donald and later Charlie visiting his Story seminar as well as through playful discussions on narrative structure. This becomes integral to the plot. Some could argue more so than The Orchid Thief, and I would like to put forward that Adaptation is more of an adaptation of Robert McKee’s Story than it is of The Orchid Thief.
The full title of McKee’s 500 page opus is ‘Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting’, and alongside this ‘screenwriters bible’ McKee runs hugely popular screenwriting seminars known as the Story Seminar. He is alongside Syd Field and Todorov as ‘experts’ on structure and story, and a controversial figure as derided as he is acclaimed in screenwriting circles. So, how is the film an adaptation of a book and seminar on the mechanics of screenwriting?
Key Scenes
There are some key scenes to look at to understand how an adaptation of the Orchid thie turned into adapting a 500 page book on the mechanics of screenwriting.
The use of McKee’s Story as source material for the Adaptation makes the film a great choice to use in the classroom to look at structure and some of McKee’s screenwriting principles. It also allows for discussion on originality in modern cinema versus the commerce of mainstream action blockbuster fare. And of course allows for a discussion on the process of Adaptation.
The last point made above is a theme repeated throughout the movie but never more eloquently than in an early scene which flashes back ‘Four Billion and Forty Years Earlier.’ After Kaufman asks “How am I here? How did I get here?” we’re treated to a montage of life evolving from scenes of lava and a big bang, through sea creatures, plants growing, dinosaurs being wiped out, time lapse photography of the polar ice caps ascending and descending, and land shifting before we see the rapid rise of mankind through buildings, cities, the whole landscape changing, followed by the birth of a baby. This scene highlights how life has adapted and changed through time to get to the point we are now. At once a comment on adaptation, and how life is constantly changing and evolving, everything is in flux, and also emphasising the point that things need to change to move forward, going against McKee’s principles that must be followed to create a film. These scenes are backed up with many references to Charles Darwin throughout the film. Kaufman even inserts a flashback of Darwin working, and Laroche listens to Darwin’s work on audio cassette in his truck.
In the very next scene Kaufman continues to outline the themes of the film as well as linking the film to McKee’s principles. The scene takes place over a lunch where Kaufman is pitching his adaptation of The Orchid Thief to a studio representative. The first line of dialogue that leaps out is when Kaufman says he wants to “Let the movie exist, rather than be artificially plot driven.” This functions on two levels; one, as a way of dismissing McKee’s methods which Charlie Kaufman does constantly throughout the movie to Donald, and secondly, as a put down to modern mainstream Hollywood and how instead of evolving and adapting they are becoming stagnant, and recycling ideas rather than adapting them and evolving them. This second point is hammered home by Kaufman’s next statement which says he doesn’t “want to cram in sex, guns or car chases.” This functions as another dig at mainstream Hollywood adaptations which exaggerate the material in a lazy attempt for a dramatic resolution, whilst also highlighting the insecurities of Kaufman in adapting an important book. A line which fuels Kaufman’s adaptation of The Orchid Thief, and that sets up the meta joke that underlines the resolution of the film.
Resolutions are alluded to throughout Adaptation. After Kaufman goes on a ‘date’ to the theatre Amelia, his ‘date’, replies that they didn’t enjoy the ending. Later, Donald Kaufman states he liked the film Dressed to Kill until the third act denouement, although he pronounces this wrong, much to his brothers frustration.
The resolution is the main act of the film where Kaufman uses McKee’s Story as his source material, but this is built up first, through the allusions mentioned above and some other choice scenes as well as through the entire structure of the film.
The key scene to build this up, and for the entire structure of the film concerns Kaufman, whilst struggling with his adaptation of the novel, going along to one of McKee’s seminars. Robert McKee is portrayed in Adaptation by Brian Cox. At the seminar he interrupts McKee’s flow with his self hating voice over concerning the failings of his script. McKee then stares at Kaufman continuing with his seminar and saying, “If you use voiceover in your work, my friends, God help you! It’s flaccid, sloppy writing! Any idiot can write voice over narration to explain the thoughts of the character.” This is followed by Kaufman being shot down by McKee in reply to a question he’d asked about his problems adapting The Orchid Thief, which then leads to Kaufman taking McKee aside to have a drink and a quiet word about the adaptation of this novel. McKee advises Kaufman to go back into it and put in the drama. “I’ll tell you a secret,” McKee says, “The last act makes the film. Wow them in the end and you got a hit.”
This scene is the catalyst for one of the film’s most elaborate meta jokes, worthy of another Kaufman, the late comedian Andy Kaufman who would construct elaborate jokes regarding his identity and play with the audience, as seen in the Milos Forman’s film Man on the Moon (1999). After McKee plants the seed in Kaufman’s mind that twin brothers wrote the screenplay to Casablanca, Charlie Kaufman returns home and passes the screenplay to his brother Donald to look at and figure out. The screenplay for Adaptation is attributed to Charlie and Donald Kaufman, but the cine-literate audience will know that Donald only exists within the world of the film. Maybe the two names represent the dual adaptation taking place, Charlie representing the adaptation of The Orchid Thief and Donald representing the adaptation of Story.
The film seems to suggest that Donald is responsible for the resolution of the film. The moment he becomes involved in the script writing process could be seen as Plot point 2, or the moment that propels the action into the resolution of the film.
The resolution involves every Hollywood cliché that Charlie Kaufman wanted to avoid in adapting The Orchid Thief. There is sex between Laroche and Susan Orlean, a car chase and guns, lots of gunfire shoot outs. The film ends with a nonsensical action sequence with all emotions heightened to an unbelievable, but inevitable pitch for your standard Hollywood film. What makes this resolution startling here is the self conscious change of tone from what’s gone previously, it’s like Kaufman has handed the writing over to the part of him that takes guidance from McKee rather than the writer that wanted the film to exist to be free from conventional shackles, or in the world of the film, he’s let Donald write the ending.
It has become apparent that the film has become an ironic adaptation of McKee’s Story. Using the narrative structure as the punch line to the actual film is the very essence of what the film is about on one level. The film itself that is an adaptation becomes about Adaptation, and actually adapts a screenwriting guide. You can’t really get more self referential than that. It heightens its meta fictional content to the point where the audience are fully aware that they are watching a construct, as they are being told every second by the script which intentionally challenges the viewer. But, for the majority of the running time the audience are misled to believe they are watching a constructed adaptation of The Orchid Thief, where really they are watching a deconstruction of Robert McKee’s screenwriting guide, Story.
McKee looks at it this way, “The Orchid Thief could not be adapted, it had to be re invented. Kaufman criss crosses a Disillusionment plot with an Education plot. A disillusionment plot opens with a protagonist at the positive, someone with an optimistic view of the world, then arcs him/her to a defeated, pessimistic end. An education plot is the opposite. It begins with the protagonist at the negative, clinging to a dark, pessimistic mind set. Experience then teaches this character to see life anew, arcing him/her to an upbeat, if not optimistic, sense of world and self. The former is Susan’s story, the latter’s Charlies.”
And through McKee’s interpretation of the film we reach the real resolution, that the process of adaptation is taking from someone else to appease yourself. In adapting Orlean’s book, Kaufman ruins everything that he held in regard about said book, but made peace with himself in doing so. Much like most art, adaptation becomes a cathartic exercise.
The question still remains whether this is an actual adaptation or not. Is it just an examination of the adaptation process. My viewpoint would be that in its structure it adapts McKee’s methods, satirising them at the resolution and therefore, since it’s a film about a writer writing a screenplay, and we are watching that process, I consider it an adaptation of Robert McKee’s story. Yet, Susan Orlean sees it as a spiritual adaptation of The Orchid Thief, McKee sees it as Kaufman fusing two established stories together in a  surrealistic manner. What this highlights is that the film is open to interpretation, and allows the viewer to place his own meaning onto it. In breaking down the barriers of the suspension of disbelief that we’re watching a movie Kaufman consistently challenges the viewer as to what the movie is about, and what type of viewer you are will impact upon the outcome of what you get out of the movie. A passive viewer will see an entirely different movie to an active viewer, a Kaufman fan will see a different movie to a viewer who expected an adaptation of The Orchid Thief.
Adaptation, as well as providing many areas of discussion is perhaps best used to look at spectatorship theories, especially when analysing pre conceived expectations, as most adaptations come with expectations of the pre existing material. Adaptation overcomes this by evolving and adapting into something new; a model which most Hollywood adaptations would benefit from.
Kaufman, Charlie & Donald, Adaptation: The Shooting Script, Newmarket Press, 2002
McKee, Robert, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting’, Metheun Press, 1999

Monday, 3 December 2012

Treat One: Hidden

My 12 treats of xmas are back. This year it's going to be a bit  film themed I think as I have a clear out of some of my film journalism. This was an article I wrote for Splice magazine on Michael Haneke's Hidden. It's aimed at teachers of A level Film Studies so hence the title and some of the address in the article.

If there’s only one film you use in the classroom, make it... Caché (Hidden)
by Robin Bell

Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005) is a versatile film to teach, having elements to it that fit into most parts of the WJEC A level Film Studies syllabus. When introducing the film to students I like to begin by showing them the following quote by Jason Solomons from the article ‘We love Hidden but what does it mean?’ in The Observer:
Hidden (Caché), directed by Michael Haneke, has become the topic of heated conversations around water coolers and over dinner tables across the country. It is on its way to becoming the defining film of a generation.’[1]
Most students when confronted by this are infected with a shocked expression and a ‘What? But I’ve never heard of it.’ It’s a real eye opener that the film culture they’re aware of and involved in is only a small portion of what is available, it shows that there exists a whole other film culture that they haven’t touched upon yet, and gives them something to work towards to understand about The Film Industry for Section A of the FM2 paper at As level.
(A word of warning if using Caché at any point of teaching Section A, please remember that the focus for this paper is the American and British film industry; only use Caché to introduce themes which can then be expanded upon and made relevant by examples from the British and American industry.)

Hidden in the industry
The quote from The Observer sparks off a substantial point of debate, that of the importance of critics. In the summer 2009 WJEC FM2 exam paper there was a quote from critic Mark Kermode as one of the stimulus statements from Section A pertaining to this area. His quote concerned Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ( 2008), of which he states, ‘I heard some bad reviews of the new Indiana Jones movie but it had one of the biggest opening weekends of all time’[2], thus bringing into question the role of the critic: why have critics for film if it still goes on to achieve massive box office takings after being critically panned? In the second part of the quote, Kermode states that the role of the critic is to bring the audiences attention to lesser known films; independent cinema, documentaries, classic re-releases and foreign language films. ‘A critic can draw your attention to a movie you might not have seen. Half of a critic’s job is praising movies. Critics getting behind obscure films can help them find a space in the market’[3] (ibid.). In conjunction with the Hidden article this Mark Kermode quote works perfectly, and shows that independent and foreign language films do have a specific and large audience that maybe the students would have previously overlooked.
The critical status of the film can be further explored by the its appearance in many national newspapers’ film of the decade lists, even topping The Times’ 100 best films of the decade list. This suggests that the film’s themes are the most relevant of the decade, and how ‘presciently the Austrian director Michael Haneke tapped into the uncertain mood of the Noughties’ [4].

In Caché, George and Anne, a middle class couple, begin to receive surveillance tapes of their house, followed by childlike violent drawings. They go to the police but receive no help. The film then becomes a mystery, conforming to a straightforward thriller genre, with George following clues to locate who is sending these packages, who is filming their house, who is silently terrorising the couple?
George follows the clues, a childish drawing of a chicken with its head cut off being the final piece of the puzzle. The puzzle which has gradually become more personal and associated with George’s past. He reconnects with his adopted brother and confronts the guilt of his past, this being the fact that when George was younger played a cruel trick on Majid to ensure that he was taken away from the house ensuring that the attention didn’t waver from himself. Unfortunately George  doesn’t disclose any of this to his wife, as their relationship and family life crumbles. The guilty secrets from the past have a habit of catching up with you, as George finds out in the most hideous of circumstances.
Michael Haneke
Caché is Michael Haneke’s eighth film (not including his made for TV films), and it picks up on many themes from his previous films. It is typically Haneke in style also. It feels like the culmination of Haneke’s themes to date. This makes it imperative to examine Haneke’s previous work to reap dividends in seeing where Caché has come from.
Haneke’s name is synonymous with intellectual, austere cinema; measured, cold and intelligent; films that have been said to target the head instead of the heart. His first film, The Seventh Continent (1989) is a drawn out, microscopic insight on the final day of a family’s life, as they decide to commit suicide en masse. Taken from a story in the national papers, Haneke unflinchingly recreates the final hours and the deed, as a formal, clinical occurrence. Causing a media controversy by burning a large stash of money, Haneke was amused by the outcry this caused when it was only a small part of a story of a family killing themselves.
Media plays a big role in all Haneke films, taking stories from the news as he did above in The Seventh Continent, a method he used again for 71 Fragments in a Chronology of Chance (1994) whilst the portrayal of violence in the media is confronted in Benny’s Video (1992) and Funny Games (1997). Haneke appears to be especially fascinated with the mediated image. In most of his films TV’s can be seen and heard in the (often middle-class) protagonists’ houses, with themes on the television that correlate or inform the action. In Benny’s Video the titular character’s relationship to the mediated image is his downfall.  The lead character is obsessed with a video of a pig being slaughtered, even though he was actually present when it occurred. For 14-year-old Benny, anything recorded on videotape is inherently ‘better’ and more ‘real’ than what he can see with his own eyes. His constant renting of Hollywood no brain horror films and repetitive watching of the pig slaughter, as well as filming his own life and editing it lead to a blur between reality and the mediated image for Benny – a blur that is fatal when he invites a girl around to his house and coolly murders her whilst the camera is rolling.
Violence is often linked to the media. The example from Benny’s Video above makes the media complicit in the violence; Funny Games assaults its audience by making the spectator complicit with the violence. At one point the perpetrator of violence within the film turns to the audience and winks, breaking the ‘fourth wall’ of the screen and involving them within his deeds.
An aspect of Haneke’s films which stands apart from most film-makers is the way he demands the audience engages with the film and place themselves within the text and consider their role in the problem within society that he is depicting.  No one is safe when watching a Michael Haneke film, especially not the audience.   His spare style creates a sense of paranoia in whatever the proceedings, and also creates a tightrope of non manipulative suspense which makes them feel singular and different to usual mainstream fare.

Caché reading
What is most fruitful for students when first confronted with learning the main distinctive micro elements is to view something far outside their usual experience, allowing them to analyse the micro elements from a new, fresher perspective.  Caché, especially, is good for teaching editing in comparison with a mainstream summer blockbuster.
To begin with, the opening sequence is a great start to bemuse the students, and to make them look harder at the film making process. Audiences are used to openings of films to introduce plot, characters, locations and foreshadow the narrative of the film. Screenwriting guru Syd Field states that the narrative structure of a film should adhere to the rule that the first 30 pages, or thereabouts, of a script (roughly 30 minutes of screen time) should be structured under the heading of Set Up, with the plot kicking into gear around the end of this with Plot Point One. Watchmen (2009) had a music video-like title montage that functioned as a prologue to set up its world and Star Wars (1977) has its world explained through a brief section of opening text, so that the action can commence.
Caché goes for something entirely different, and much more elliptical, but which ends up functioning in exactly the same way. The opening shot shows a street with cars and the focus on a house across the road. The surrounding shrubbery and peacefulness, with only bird song and the sounds of a front door shutting and a solitary cyclist passing, (you can even hear the breeze on the soundtrack it’s that peaceful), suggests a pleasant middle class suburb. The startling aspect of this opening sequence is that the shot holds its position, a fixed camera shot, the credits appear over the top of the image and fade, and the image continues to linger.
What is the point of this shot as an opening? Why has Haneke chosen this? And why does it linger so long? It’s over two minutes of this static camera shot, supposedly filming nothing, just a house in a middle class suburb. Yet, even though there’s nothing in the shot to suggest so, the fact it outstays its welcome creates an unnerving and uncomfortable atmosphere for the viewer, therefore placing the spectator in the position of the lead characters, George and Anne, as they watch back the footage that forms the opening sequence, and we realise that someone is secretly filing their house and then sending them the surveillance footage they have gathered. Somebody knows their every move. This wouldn’t seem so sinister if it wasn’t for the way the opening section is edited and paced, working together with the other micro elements.
Firstly, the mise-en-scène works to achieve setting, and set up the location to match the characters, when we see them after the long opening shot. The expensive, peaceful location shows us the relative comfort of their daily lives. The sound also contributes to the serene effect, turned up really high, enough to pick up distant bird song and quiet footsteps, emphasising the tranquility of the area and the luxury that the couple live in. In isolation these two micro elements create quite a different atmosphere from what becomes apparent when cinematography and editing are thrown into the mix.
The absence of editing is what startles at first. Choosing not to cut away and shoot from different angles showing different perspectives and intensifying the action, is still an editing choice. The decision not to do any of the above is a key decision to making meaning in the opening sequence of Caché.  The length of shot and its lack of movement is what create the discomfort.  The security provided by the mise-en-scène and sound is undercut by the creeping paranoia provided by the cinematography and editing creating a highly uncomfortable mix for viewer.
The lack of camera movement or editing is a trick used again later in Caché, which this time creates an even more unsettling effect in a moment the whole film builds to, an exceptional creation of shock, but a shock with lasting undercurrents that resonate throughout the rest of the film.
I use this scene in comparison to Reservoir Dogs’(1992) infamous ‘ear slicing’ scene to consider how films depict violence; it is also the most talked about scene from Caché. To deviate away from Cache for a moment to look at how Tarantino uses the camera in Reservoir Dogs. The camera is constantly positioned to tell the story, and to relate to the two opposing forces in the scene. When shooting from the policeman’s perspective the camera is stationary and behind him at a low angle, in the frame you can see the chair that the officer is strapped to, we’re close in to the back of his head, which is a vulnerable position for the character and we’re looking up at the predatory Mr. Blonde. When the camera identifies with Mr. Blonde we are at eye level and constantly moving, following him as he nonchalantly dances belittling the degrading situation the captured officer finds himself in. When the assault actually takes place the tension has been cranked to such a level that the audience are prepared for it, and it’s the fact that the audience are denied the guilty pleasure of witnessing the violence as the camera pans away that causes the discomfort in this sequence. What a spectator can create in their imagination is surely far worse that can be shown using prosthetics and effects. This scene is all about audience identification with the characters, hence the stylistic use of the camera to re enforce character positioning, and building tension to create the shock. You could also refer to the juxtaposition of emotions created by the use of the Steeler’s Wheel song ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’, a breezy MOR pop tune soundtracking brutal torture.
In comparison Haneke’s lack of musical score throughout the whole of Hidden adds to the intrigue, in the opposite way to Reservoir Dogs. In any type of thriller the audience is kept on track with the action and even given audio clues to what is happening by means of the soundtrack. This is a luxury taken away in Caché; with no non-diegetic sounds apparent the viewer is left to decipher the action themselves, leaving Caché a thriller that can create confusion and in the passive viewer.
This lack of soundtrack does help to create tension in the film’s standout scene, an hour and twenty four minutes into the film. By this point the plot has unraveled, we know about George’s adopted brother, Majid, and have been informed of George’s shameful deed in horrifying flashback, to understand their past. George suspects that it is revenge that has made Majid send the offending items and uncover the hidden secrets of the past to George’s family.
After walking purposefully up the corridor towards Majid’s flat, George greets Majid with a threatening ‘What’s going on?’. The tone is already sour, in what the audience feel will be the climax of the film containing the reveal.
George is invited in for a scene which offers much more. Once in the flat the camera is in a fixed position, viewing Majid’s sparsely furnished flat. There are two plastic chairs by a small table, grotty wallpaper, replaced in one patch by a piece of wood. The mise-enscène suggests something only slightly above squalor, the opposite of George’s luxurious abode.
Majid enters, already looking dejected, he holds the door for George who strides in and snaps, still with an aggressive tone ‘What’s this all about?’ Without a musical soundtrack the audience is left to decipher the body language of the characters for clues. George refuses Majid’s request for him to sit down and is impatient, whilst Majid hovers at the door. As the two characters stand facing each other conversing Majid reaches for something in his pocket, but because of the fixed camera position there is no cut away to a close up of it. Before we know it Majid lifts the object – a razor – up to his neck and slits his throat, a spray of blood erupts and shoots up the wall behind him and Majid slumps to the floor.
It’s a sudden moment of intense shock, and it’s over before the audience can register what has occurred. The camera stays fixed as George stares down at Majid’s body. George is rooted to the spot, he can’t move, much like the camera; in contrast to Reservoir Dogs, here a static camera is used to emphasise the shock, and unflinchingly show the after effects.
 Haneke challenges the Hollywood norm of focusing on the violence, to instead concentrate on the aftermath, and make you stare at the grief, the confusion and the hard hitting facts of death. In the scene from Caché George paces the room and begins to feel ill, gagging and the coughing as the realisation of what has happened begins to form, in George’s and the viewer’s mind.
The other reason to use a static camera in this scene is a narrative decision, relating back to the opening sequence, causing an active audience member to consider the way the footage is filmed as a clue that maybe we’re seeing  a recording of this happen, which will then be sent to George.  Whichever way you look at it, it’s the understated use of the micro elements which make this effective. Total Film magazine voted this scene the second most shocking in cinema in the past decade (behind Leonardo diCaprio’s death in The Departed (2006), which is maybe more of a shock because of the star status of diCaprio rather than the way it’s presented). It’s the realism of this sequence in Caché which makes it so effective.

Realism vs. Genre
Even though Michael Haneke’s Caché is closer to being a generic thriller than anything else in his oeuvre is to being generic in any sense, it is still regarded as having the aesthetic of realism. Thus posing the question – are genre and realism opposing forces? Many critics praise the realism of, for example, the Jason Bourne films, but this is a more aesthetic realism tied to the particular genre, Haneke’s realism and shooting style share links with Italian Neorealism.
‘The realism of Italian Neorealism manifested itself in a distinctive visual style. This was typified by a preference for location filming, the use of non professional actors, the avoidance of ornamental mise-en-scène, a preference for natural light, a freely moving documentary style of photography, a non interventionalist approach to film directing, and an avoidance of complex editing and other post production processes likely to focus attention on the contrivance of the film image.’[5]
Haneke doesn’t stringently stick to these principles, but you do find certain aspects of them creeping into his work. Especially, as mentioned previously, the lack of complex editing and a non interventionalist approach. By using these styles the films of Michael Haneke become labeled with words such as ‘formal’, ‘austere’, ‘measured’ and ‘cold’, whilst it is my belief that on most occasions he is just using some of the methods of Neorealism. Maybe the confusion is caused by Haneke’s decision of when to use neorealism, and then blurring this with conflicting stylistic, or maybe generic, choices.
In close comparison to Neo-realist classics such as The Bicycle Thieves (1948) there isn’t much difference, in style anyway; the long tracking shots are similar, as is the lack of editing, the understated performances and naturalistic look. The main difference is in setting, the Neorealist films having the backdrop of a poverty stricken war torn Italy that had lost all its main studios to bombings so were forced into location shoots in run down, bombed cities. Caché on the other hand is set in a luxurious, upper middle-class, peaceful setting. The setting for these stories also dictates the type of characters seen in these stories, so in that respect there is a difference, and also in the way Caché teases its audience with genre trappings.
Haneke himself says ‘It’s what I always try to do in my films, to grasp the contradictions of reality.’[6] Reality in the genre of thriller, which must resort to narrative structure and convention in some way, is a tricky prospect for any filmmaker, even Haneke who is well versed in the realism aesthetic, on the subject of which he says, ‘In a thriller, you have to work on rationality.’ Haneke goes on to explain that using the thriller genre framework for Caché was a type of manipulation on the audience, something to help a spectator through the film by ‘telling the story in little chunks which increases the tension’, and to keep their interest by following the structure of a thriller mystery.  Roland Barthes believes ‘that to create suspense in narrative, there must be unanswered questions which will compel the viewer to anticipate action with a resolution’[7], backing up Haneke’s manipulation.

Where Caché deviates away from the genre, other than the mentioned Neorealist aesthetic is in the narrative conclusion. In most thrillers the audience expect a closed ending, with every question resolved; another narrative convention of the thriller is the twist ending where a shock occurs that propels the film into the resolution stage. Caché, it could be said, doesn’t even offer a resolution, but
the ending does have a twist, revealing something previously hidden, something that also has larger social and political relevance. But, this is not made clear; in fact the film works just as well without noticing what is in the corner of the final wide shot. Even if you do notice the hidden clue in the final shot, it still leaves an ambiguous ending for the audience to come to their own conclusions over.
The final shot of Caché is, like the first, a static camera, wide shot, here focused on school steps packed with students. The credits appear over it slowly, so many audiences might not be paying attention at this moment. It is now that Haneke subverts the thriller by placing a twist at this precise moment.  For on the steps, in conversation, are George and Anne’s son, Pierrot, and Majid’s son, both of them symbolising the next generation. Are they, or have they been plotting all this together, or is Majid’s son confronting him with what has occurred, bringing the lies and what has been hidden to the fore?
To quote (and in part paraphrase for clarification) from an interview with Michael Haneke conducted by Serge Toubiana, on his reasoning for the ending of Caché, to help clarify the points outlined above:
‘The final shot is completely mysterious. It’s completely ambiguous. I always ask people, ‘What did you see in the last shot?’ There are those who say, ‘I’ve understood it’s about the next generation who are going to inherit this problem, and others who have seen them but wonder why they are meeting, but I won’t say what it is, the question must remain for the audience. Only half the audience recognise them, because it is quite a wide shot, the other half hasn’t noticed them, but they liked it for that. A doctor friend of mine who I showed the film to told me for ten minutes how great he thought the final shot was, then I realised he hadn’t noticed them. I think that’s a great success, because I wanted to find a position with people in front and behind who you might see or you might not see, and it works. It provokes discussion afterwards. You can imagine a lot of things. You could imagine that they are accomplices, or that Majid’s son comes along and tells Peirrot some lie to lead him off somewhere, and it’s up to the audience, not to choose between the possibilities but to understand that there are lots of possibilities to a story like this one.  The ending can be irritating, because if you are used to everything being resolved at the end of the film, you’re naturally [adopts shocked expression]. There’s still work to be done. It’s not the preference of a lot of people who go to the cinema. It can be a problem for people brought up with mainstream cinema, who want to know that they can come out at the end of the film and be able to forget what they have seen.’[8]

Caché works especially well if used in conjunction with The Battle of Algiers (1966), a film about the Algerian War of independence that covers the period between 1954 to 1957. One of Caché’s themes is how this conflict continues to resonate. Peter Bradshaw from the Guardian calls Caché ‘a parable for France's repressed memory of la nuit noire, the night of October 17 1961, when hundreds of Algerian demonstrators in Paris were beaten and killed by the police.’[9]  Caché uses this huge story of nations and boils it down into an individual’s story, making the audience relate to the guilt and feelings involved and using these characters to symbolise the bigger picture. The nation’s guilt is symbolised through George and all his secrets that he keeps as close to his chest as the nation’s secrets.  Haneke explains the theme of guilt in the film, by stating it is the main reason for making it: ‘The film is a moral tale. On the theme of how can I bear the fact of being guilty. Do I accept it? And if I don’t accept it, what do I do?’[10].
George’s guilt is represented through flashbacks which could be either memories or dreams, something Haneke also leaves up to the viewer’s own discretion stating that ‘You can interpret it as you like, but this nightmare is the impression that he has. It’s a dream, not a memory.’ The first of these violent visions has a child beheading a chicken and approaching another child with the axe while the chicken flails around the barn floor. The visions go on to show how George, when met with the prospect of having Majid, an Algerian orphan move in with their family, became jealous and exacted revenge by concocting a plan to get rid of him. Because of his fear of not getting all the attention and being as spoilt and loved by his parents, a rational feeling for a child, George ends up doing the irrational and destroying the threat’s life, meaning that Majid has to leave the house, after George orchestrates a situation in which Majid must take the blame.
George hides Majid’s story from his wife, his family, and refuses to talk about it until the videotape of Majid’s suicide is sent. The unspeakable treatment of Majid is something that tortures George, in the way events from the 1961 riots now embarrass a multicultural France. Although George, an upper middle-class white man who works in the media, is in power he still fears Majid, linking to the insecurities of pampered Westerners against anything different from them, but especially the Muslim world. This is the main focus of Caché, to put this large scale political struggle into a small individual context. As Haneke explains ‘Let’s say it broadens the personal problem onto a national problem.’[11] Caché goes on to show that without dialogue about the past, guilt will grow and what is hidden will destroy any chance of integration in society.
Incorporating Caché into your Film Studies syllabus
Students might not pick up on all the issues discussed here without some background knowledge beforehand, but they should identify Haneke’s use of film form to create an uneasy atmosphere of ominous dread throughout the film. There is no doubt that students should end up taking something away from the film. Below is outlined the myriad of ways in which Caché can be used in teaching Film Studies.
·         FM1- Exploring Film Form- An innovative approach to the micro elements an invaluable lesson in analysing a lack of editing to create an effect and also how micro elements work off each other to create different atmosphere’s and emotions in scenes.
·         FM2- British & American Film- Not to be used too heavily in this section as the main focus is British and American films but it can introduce learners to the culture of foreign language film, and to see how it is regarded critically.
·         FM3- Film Research and Creative Projects- Michael Haneke’s work can be explored in many different ways in this module, as an auteur, through themes in his work, or to pick apart some of the key social and political themes in Caché.
·         FM4- Varieties of Film Experience- Issue and Debate- If  choosing to focus on Italian Neorealism and Beyond for Section A of the FM4 exam in A level film Studies, when looking for what has become of Neorealism, and how it’s style of filmmaking is used in modern filmmaking. Caché could also be used in Section B of this module when looking at Emotional Response, in particular to focus upon the creation of shock in the scene where Majid commits suicide in front of George.

Finally to touch briefly upon an aspect of Haneke’s filmmaking I mentioned earlier, his position on violence, which is overt in most of his films. In Cache violence is used to demonstrate the extremities of what can occur when hiding guilt, and are shown as a heartbreaking consequence rather than something used for an action orientated and ‘cool’ aesthetic.  Violence is rarely shown in Haneke’s films but is very often the device used to bring out other issues. This film making device continues to be used by Haneke, surfacing again in his latest release, The White Ribbon (2009), which won the Palme D’or at last years Cannes film festival. In The White Ribbon the violence is again shown to be passed on from generation to generation, it’s something that Haneke sees as a problem that will endure through the generations, hence his stance on not glamorising it. The lack of violence may be one of the aspects of the film students may find the oddest, isn’t it strange that having a moral conscience may be found at odds with modern film making.

[5] Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City, Mark Shiel, Wallflower Press
[6] An Interview with Michael Haneke by Serge Toubiana, found on the UK DVD release of Caché
[8] An Interview with Michael Haneke by Serge Toubiana, found on the UK DVD release of Caché
[10] An Interview with Michael Haneke by Serge Toubiana, found on the UK DVD release of Caché
[11] An Interview with Michael Haneke by Serge Toubiana, found on the UK DVD release of Caché