Saturday | December 10, 2016
Moses and Aaron (1974).
When the stack of books by friends threatens to topple off my filing cabinet, I know it’s time to flag them for you. I can’t claim to have read every word in them, but (a) we know the authors are trustworthy and scintillating; (b) what I’ve read, I like; (c) the subjects hold immense interest. Then there’s (d): Many are suitable seasonal gifts for the cinephiles in your life (which can include you).
Happy birthday, SMPTE
Starting off in 1916 as the Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, this peerless record of American moving-image technology has gone through many changes of name and format. It’s now The SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal. Its back issues have been a treasure house for scholars studying the history of movie technology, and it has outdone itself for its 100th Anniversary Issue, published in August.
It includes survey articles on the history of film formats, cameras and lenses, recording and storage, workflows, displays, archiving, multichannel sound, and television and video. There’s even an overview of closed-captioning. The issue costs $125 for non-SMPTE members, and it’s worth it. Many libraries subscribe to the journal as well.
A highlight is John Belton’s magisterial “The Last 100 Years of Motion Imaging,” which includes twenty-two pages of dense timelines of innovations in film, TV, and video. They stretch back beyond 1916, to 1904 and the transmission of images by telegraph. John’s article is provocative, suggesting that we might think of digital cinema as returning to film’s origins in handmade images for optical toys.
Lucas predicted that digital postproduction brought film closer to painting, and for more and more filmmakers that prediction is coming true. I was startled to learn that 80% of Gone Girl was digitally enhanced after shooting.
Yes, sir, that’s our BB
Die 3 Groschen-Oper (1931, G. W. Pabst).
During the 1970s, Bertolt Brecht’s name was everywhere in film studies. He epitomized what an alternative, oppositional, or subversive cinema ought to be. Cinema, even more powerfully than theatre, was a machine for producing illusions. So in his name critics objected to happy endings, plots that tidied up reality, characters with whom we ought to identify, messages that masked the real nature of bourgeois society. Films made all these things seem part of the natural order of things.
The Brechtian antidote was, as people used to say, to “remind people they were watching a film.” This was done by rejecting what he called the Aristotelian model and replacing it with the “alienation effect”: a panoply of distancing devices like intertitles, characters addressing the camera, actors confessing they were actors, and a display of the means of cinematic production (including shots of the camera shooting the scene).
The promise was that once viewers were banished from the imaginary world of the film they would exercise their intellects and coolly appraise not only the fiction machine but its ideological underpinnings. Godard was the chief cinematic surrogate for Brecht, and La Chinoise (1967) became the big prototype of Brechtian cinema—unless you preferred the more austere version incarnated in Straub/Huillet’s Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1967) and their adaptation of Othon (1969). The ideas spread fast, helped by the user-friendly Brechtianism of Tout va bien (1972).
Brecht became part of Theory. In French literary and theatrical culture of the 1950s, his ideas on staging and performance had claimed the attention of Roland Barthes and other Parisian intellectuals. Godard was alert to the trend early, it seems; he had fun in Contempt (Le mépris, 1963) citing the two BB’s (the other was Brigitte Bardot, bébé), and letting Lang quote a poem by his old collaborator and antagonist. By the time Anglo-American film theorists were ready for semiotics, Brecht was offering support. Didn’t his anti-illusionism chime well with the belief that all sign systems were arbitrary and culturally relative?
My summary is too simple, but then so were many borrowings. Soon enough any highly artificial cinematic presentation might be called “Brechtian,” though usually minus the politics. In the academic realm, Murray Smith’s book Engaging Characters (1995) pointed out crucial weaknesses in the anti-illusionist, anti-empathy account. By then, the certified techniques were becoming part of mainstream cinema. Thereafter, we had Tarantino’s section titles and plenty of movies breaking the fourth wall. Brecht might have enjoyed the irony of using the to-camera confessions of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) bent to support cynical swindling. Isn’t The Big Short (2015) a sort of Hollywoodized lehrstück (“learning play”)?
Brecht’s writings should be read and studied by every humanist and certainly everybody interested in film. They’re clear, blunt, and often sarcastic.
This beloved “human interest” of theirs, this How (usually dignified by the word “eternal,” like some indelible dye) applied to the Othellos (my wife belongs to me!), the Hamlets (better sleep on it!), the Macbeths (I’m destined for higher things!), etc.
Now Marc Silberman, our colleague here at Madison, has completed a trio of books that make the master’s work available. Bertolt Brecht on Film and Radio includes essays, scripts, and the Threepenny Opera lawsuit brief. There’s also Brecht on Performance and a complete revision of that trusty black-and-yellow volume dear to many grad students: Brecht on Theatre. The latter two collections Marc worked on with collaborators. All are indispensible to a cinephile’s education. As Brecht imagined a bold political version of music he called misuc; can we imagine a cenima?
From BB to S/H
Speaking of Straub and Huillet, every decade or so somebody comes out with a book about them. This time we have to thank the admirable Ted Fendt, in the twenty-sixth volume in the series sponsored by the Austrian Film Museum (as well as the Goethe Institute and Synema). Like the Hou Hsiao-hsien volume (reviewed here), Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet is fat and full of ideas and information.
There are interviews, tributes from filmmakers (Gianvito, Farocki, Gorin), and Fendt’s account of distribution and reception of their films in the Anglophone world. This last includes charming facsimile correspondence, with one Huillet letter pockmarked by faulty typewritten o’s. As you’d expect, she is objecting to making a 16mm print of Moses and Aaron (1974) from the 35. (“No, definitively.”)
Starting things off is a lively and comprehensive survey of the duo’s careers by Claudia Pummer, with welcome emphasis on production circumstances and directorial strategies. The book wraps with a detailed thirty-page filmography and a substantial bibliography.
My thoughts about S/H are tied up with their earliest work, when I first learned of them. So I loved, and still love, Not Reconciled (1965) and The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. I also have a fondness for Moses and Aaron, Class Relations (1983), From Today until Tomorrow (1996), and Sicilia! (1998). I find others out of my reach, and several others I haven’t yet seen. People I respect find all their work stimulating, so I suspect it’s really a matter of gaps in my taste.
Whether you like them or not, they’re of tremendous historical importance. Without them, Jim Jarmusch and Béla Tarr, and of course Pedro Costa and Lav Diaz, would not have accomplished what they have. And especially in December 2016, we ought to find their unyielding ferocity inspiring. Remember them on Dreyer: “Any society that would not let him make his Jesus film is not worth a frog’s fart.” Brecht would have approved.
To the minimalism of Straub and Huillet we can counterpoint the maximalism of Oliver Stone, the most aggressive tabloid American director since Samuel Fuller (although Rococo-period Tony Scott gives him some competition). After two books on Wes Anderson, Matt Zoller Seitz has brought us a booklike slab as impossible as the man’s films. Can you pick it up? Just barely. Can you read it? Well, probably not on your lap; better have a table nearby. Does its design mirror the maniacal scattershot energy of films like JFK (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), and U-Turn (1997)? Watch the title propel itself off the cover.
The Oliver Stone Experience is basically a long interview, sandwiched in among luxurious photos, script extracts, correspondence, and the sort of insider memorabilia that Matt has a genius for finding. We get not only pictures of Stone with family and friends, on the set, and relaxing; there are bubblegum cards from the 40s, collages of posters and filming notes, maps, footnotes, and shards of texts slicing in from every which way. Newspapers, ads, and production documents are scissored into the format, including a Bob Dole letter fundraising on the basis of the naughtiness of Natural Born Killers. Beautiful frame enlargements pay homage to the split-diopter framings of Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and the shadow of the 9/11 plane sliding up a facade in World Trade Center (2006). When Stone had second thoughts about things he’d said, Matt had the good idea of redacting the interview like a CIA file scoured with thick black lines.
The whole thing comes at you in a headlong rush. Amid the pictorial churn and several essays by other deft hands, we plunge into and out of that stellar interview, mixing biography and filmmaking nuts-and-bolts. Matt gets deep into technical matters, such as Stone’s penchant for rough-hewn editing, as well as raising some big ideas about myth and autobiography. There are occasional quarrels between interviewer and interviewee. Out of the blue we get remarks like “Alexander was not only bisexual, he was trisexual,” which was not redacted.
The book’s very excess helps make the case for Stone’s idiosyncratic vision. Matt’s connecting essays, along with the vast visual archive he’s scavenged and mashed up, made me want to rethink my attitude toward this overweening, sometimes crass, sometimes inspired filmmaker. He now seems a quintessential 80s-90s figure, as much a part of the era as Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. Stone emerges as a resourceful defender of The Oliver Stone Experience, articulating a radical political critique with gonzo verve.
Rhapsody in white
If lifting the Book of Stone doesn’t suffice for exercise, try another weighty and sumptuous item, King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue, by James Layton and David Pierce. Last spring the Museum of Modern Art premiered one of the most ravishing restorations I’ve ever seen, a digital version of King of Jazz (1930).
This period piece is in its own way as wild as an Oliver Stone movie. From its opening cartoon of Paul himself as a Great White Hunter bagging a lion, it’s a virtually self-parodying account of how a black musical tradition got netted, trussed up, and caged for the swaying delectation of white audiences. (No need to mention the irony of the name of our King.)
Along the way we have some straight-up songs (including some by Bing Crosby) spread among extravagant dance numbers. The Universal crane gets a workout as well. The music is infectious, the performers sweating to please, and the restoration–coming, I hope, to your screen soon–finally shows what two-color Technicolor could do. This is the definitive version of a film too often known in cut versions with shabby visuals and sound.
The book is an in-depth contextualization of the film, the studio, and the tradition of musical revues, both on stage and in film. It records the production and reception, with rich documentation throughout. The story of assembling the restoration is there too, and it’s a saga in itself. David is one of the moving spirits behind the online Media History Digital Library and its gateway Lantern. James is Manager of the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center at the Museum of Modern Art. Their collaboration has given us both a lush picture book and a serious, always enjoyable piece of scholarship. Their book proves the value of crowdsourcing: funded by online subscription, it was self-published. In this and much else, it can be a model for film historians pursuing questions that commercial and university presses might find too specialized. The result is a model of ambitious research, writing, and publishing.
Visiting Radio Ranch
Gene Autry in The Phantom Empire (1935).
For about thirty years I’ve been arguing that one fruitful research program in film studies involves what I call a poetics of cinema: the study of how, under particular historical conditions, films are made to achieve certain effects. This program coaxes the researcher to analyze form and style, study changing norms of production and reception, and consider how filmmakers work in their institutions and creative communities, with special focus on craft routines, work methods, and tacit theories about the ways to make a movie.
A sturdy example of this approach has appeared from Scott Higgins. His Matinee Melodrama fulfills the promise of its subtitle: Playing with Formula in the Sound Serial. Scott has closely examined this widely despised genre, plunging into the 200 “chapterplays” produced in America between 1930 and 1956. They offer bald and bold display of the rudiments of action-based storytelling: “If Hitchcock built cathedrals of suspense from fine brickwork of intersecting subjectivities and formal manipulations, sound serials used Tinkertoys.”
Scott traces production practices and conventions, focusing in particular on two dimensions. First, to a surprising degree, serials rely on the conventions of classic stage melodrama, such as coincidence and more or less gratuitous spectacle. Second, the serials are playful, even knowing. Like video games, they invite viewers to imagine preposterous narrative possibilities, not only in the imagination but also on the playground, where kids could mimic what they saw Flash Gordon or Gene Autry do.
Matinee Melodrama investigates the implications of these dimensions for narrative architecture, visual style, and the film and television of our day. Scott closes with analysis of the James Bond series, the self-conscious mimicking of serial conventions in the Indiana Jones blockbusters, and the Bourne saga, and he shows how they amp up the older conventions. “Like the contemporary action film generally, the Bourne movies participate in a cinematic practice vigorously constituted by studio-era serials. That is, they blend melodrama with forceful articulations of physical procedure in scenes of pursuit, entrapment and confrontation.”
Poetics, frank or stealthy
The Red Detachment of Women (1971).
Scott’s book acknowledges the poetics research program, and so, even more explicitly, does a new collection edited by Gary Bettinson and James Udden. The Poetics of Chinese Cinema gathers several essays that usefully test and stretch that frame of reference.
One standard challenge to the poetics approach is: How do you handle social, cultural, and political factors that impinge on film? I think the best way to answer this is to treat these factors as causal influences on a film’s production and reception. More specifically, in the production process, what we now call memes function as materials—subjects, themes, stereotypes, and common ideas circulating in the culture or the filmmaking institution. In the reception process, they provide conceptual structures that viewers can use in making their own sense of the films that they’re given. And such materials will necessarily include other art forms; films are constantly adapting and borrowing from literature, drama, and other media.
Both of these possibilities are vigorously explored in several essays in The Poetics of Chinese Cinema. For instance, Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh traces how Taiwanese and Japanese cultural materials are reworked by Hou Hsiao-hsien in his Ozu homage Café Lumière (2003). Peter Rist, a long-time student of Chinese painting, shows how Chen Kaige deploys cinematic means to revise landscape traditions to create a “Contemplative Modernism.” Victor Fan shows how the Hong Kong classic In the Face of Demolition (1960) adapts and revises a mode of narration already established in Cantonese theatre. In a clever piece called “Can Poetics Break Bricks?” Song Hwee Lim considers how digital technology feeds into a poetics of spectacle, specifically around slow-motion techniques that were emerging in pre-digital filmmaking.
Tradition is a key concept in poetics, and the editors explore important ones in their own contributions. Gary Bettinson studies the emergence of Hong Kong puzzle films in works like Mad Detective (2007) and Wu Xia (2011). Are they simple imitation of Hollywood, or are they doing something different? Gary shows them to have complicated ties to local traditions of storytelling. Jim Udden focuses more on stylistics in his account of Fei Mu’s 1948 classic Spring in a Small Town, remade by Tian Zhuangzhuang in 2002. By examining staging, cutting, and voice-over, Jim shows that the earlier film is in many ways more “modern” than it’s usually thought and is somewhat more experimental than the remake.
It might seem that the “model” operas and plays of the Cultural Revolution, epitomized in The Red Detachment of Women (1971) would resist an aesthetic analysis; they’re determined, top-down fashion, by strict canons of political messaging. But Chris Berry’s contribution shows that they’re amenable to close analysis too. Like Soviet Socialist Realism, they may be programmatic in meaning, but not in every choice about framing, performance, cutting, and music. Indeed, the fact that people both inside and outside China (me included) still find them pleasurable probably owes something to their “Red Poetics.” And in true Hong Kong fashion, many filmmakers in that territory plundered those soundtracks with shameless, drop-the-needle panache.
I should probably add that I have an essay in this collection too. It’s called “Five Lessons from Stealth Poetics,” and it surveys things I’ve learned from studying cinema of the “three Chinas”: Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Mainland. What attracted me were the films themselves, but in exploring them I was obliged to nuance and stretch the poetics approach. Readers of this blog know the trick: in talking about particular movies, I also try to show the virtues of the approach I favor. In other words, stealth poetics.
This is a good moment to pay tribute to Alexander Horwath, moving into his final nine or so months of directing the Austrian Film Museum. He has been a major figure in European film culture, through his inspired programming and leadership in publishing the books and DVDs issued by the Museum. We’re very grateful for all he has done for us and for film historians around the world.
P.S. 11 December 2016: Thanks to Mike Grost for a title correction and John Belton for a name correction!
King of Jazz (1930).
Tuesday | December 6, 2016
The Film Style Mafia, Studio Babelsberg, November 2012.
Malte Hagener, professor at the University of Marburg, was my host four years ago when I visited the dynamic research group Filmstil (aka The Film Style Mafia) at the Konrad Wolf Film University. I had a very enjoyable and informative time; the papers and discussions were excellent. Here’s my account of my visit, along with side trips to the Filmmuseum Potsdam and Studio Babelsberg.
A few days ago, Malte published an interview he conducted with me on email. It’s in NECSUS, the English-language journal of European Film Studies. Regular readers of this blog might be interested in its take on my academic work in film history and analysis. It discusses some things that we haven’t broached hereabouts, as far as I remember. At least it has a provocative title!
Many thanks to Malte and his colleagues for their efforts.
Konrad Wolf Film University, November 2012.
Wednesday | November 30, 2016
DB here: Here’s another guest contribution from colleague, Film Art collaborator, and pal Jeff Smith. He inaugurates a series of entries tied to our monthly Observations on Film Art videos on FilmStruck.
About a month ago, a new streaming service for film lovers debuted. Its name is FilmStruck and it’s a joint venture of Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection.
As regular readers of the blog already know, David, Kristin, and I have launched a series for FilmStruck. Every month, we’ll be featured in short videos that offer appreciations of particular films and filmmakers. In baseball lingo, I got the leadoff spot. As the first up, I offered an overview of the principal musical motifs in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. Below is a supplement to the video that goes into a little more depth regarding the way Alfred Newman’s score for Foreign Correspondent fits into the film’s larger narrative strategies.
Fair warning: there are some spoilers in what follows. Some of you who are FilmStruck subscribers or owners of the Criterion disc may want to watch this Hitchcock classic before proceeding.
Founding a Hollywood dynasty
If you were looking for someone whose work epitomized the qualities of the classical Hollywood score, Alfred Newman would be a pretty good candidate for the job.
Newman’s career in Hollywood began when Tin Pan Alley stalwart, Irving Berlin, recommended him for the 1930 musical, Reaching for the Moon. Having worked for years as a music director on Broadway, Newman planned to stay for only three months. But the lure of the Silver Screen was too strong. Newman spent the next forty years working in Hollywood.
In 1931, Newman became the musical director at United Artists, working mostly for producer Samuel Goldwyn. He also established himself as one of the industry’s leading composers, contributing to nearly ninety films over the course of the 1930s and earning nine Oscar nominations in the process. Newman’s most memorable early scores included such titles as The Prisoner of Zenda, The Hurricane, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Wuthering Heights. Eventually, he would leave Goldwyn to take over the music department at 20th Century-Fox, a position he held for more than twenty years.
Alfred, however, would be just one of several Newmans who would make the name synonymous with the Hollywood sound. Alfred would establish a film composing dynasty that would come to include his brothers Lionel and Emil; his sons, Thomas and David; and his nephew, Randy.
Overture, hit the lights….
If you asked most film music aficionados for their favorite Alfred Newman scores, I suspect Foreign Correspondent would be pretty low on the list. Most fans of the composer’s work would likely opt for one of the later Fox classics he scored, such as How Green Was My Valley (1941), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), The Captain from Castile (1947), or The Robe (1953). Yet, if you want to get a handle on the basic features of the classical paradigm, Foreign Correspondent’s typicality makes it more useful as an exemplar. Newman’s music neatly illustrates several of the traits commonly associated with the classical Hollywood score’s dramatic functions.
One of these characteristic traits is Newman’s use of leitmotif as an organizational principle. Foreign Correspondent’s score is organized around five in all. The first is a theme for the film’s protagonist, Johnny Jones. The second is a theme for Carol, Johnny’s love interest in the film. As is typical of studio-era scores, both themes are introduced in the film’s Main Title.
Like an overture, the Main Title previews the two most important musical themes in the film. The A theme is upbeat, sprightly, and lightly comic. It captures some of Johnny’s ebullience and masculine charm, and it helps establish the tone of the early scenes, which draw upon the conventions of the newspaper film. The B theme is slower and more lyrical. It features the kind of lush orchestrations for strings that became a hallmark of Newman’s style.
Each theme roughly correlates with the dual plot structure common to classical Hollywood narratives. The A theme previews the main plotline focused on Johnny’s efforts as an investigative reporter. The B theme previews the story’s secondary plotline: the budding romance between Johnny and Carol.
Both themes recur throughout the remainder of the movie. In fact, Johnny’s theme returns even before the opening credits have ended, appearing underneath a title card valorizing the power of the press. In contrast to the lively, spunky version heard earlier, Newman gives it a maestoso treatment, slowing the tempo and orchestrating it for brass. In this instance, Newman’s arrangement of Johnny’s theme is attuned less to the brashness of his character and more to the social role that newspaper reporters play as a source of information to the world.
Up until this point, the music simply primes us for what is to come. Johnny’s theme returns about two minutes later when he is first introduced.
The reprise of his theme makes explicit the Main Title’s tacit association between music and character. Here, though, it plays in a jazz arrangement as a slow foxtrot. Newman’s arrangement nicely captures the tone of these early scenes, which display the lightness and pacing of other newspaper comedies.
It returns 22 more times in the film. In all, Johnny’s theme accounts for more than a quarter of the film’s 94 music cues. Usually, the theme functions to underline Johnny’s heroism and resourcefulness as in the scene where he gives chase to Van Meer’s assassin. At one point, Johnny even whistles his theme. This occurs in the scene where he eludes a pair of suspicious men posing as police by pretending to draw a bath and crawling out the window.
In contrast, Carol’s theme is used less frequently, appearing in about thirteen cues in all. After its introduction in the main title, it returns when Johnny and Carol first meet at the luncheon sponsored by the Universal Peace Party. Johnny unknowingly insults Carol, first by mistaking her for a publicist, and then by expressing skepticism about the organization’s mission, griping about well-meaning amateurs interfering in international affairs. Newman’s theme hints at Carol’s attraction to Johnny despite his obvious boorishness. The music says what the characters can’t or won’t say. As Johnny and Carol trade insults, Carol’s theme captures the romantic spark that lurks beneath their badinage.
The theme’s other uses often work along similar lines, providing an emotional resonance to the couple’s expression of feelings for one another. A good example is found in the scene where Carol and Johnny huddle together on the deck of a steamship. Here, as a pair of refugees, each member of the couple declare their love for one another and their desire to marry.
Music for the hope of the world
In addition to these two principal themes, the score also utilizes three other themes and motifs to represent important secondary characters. A theme for Professor Van Meer is introduced when Johnny spots him getting into a taxicab.
It returns nine more times in the film in scenes that feature the character or make reference to him.
The theme itself is simple, slow, stately, and quite frankly, a little bit boring. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the multiple references to a “Van Meer Theme” on the cue sheet for Foreign Correspondent, the music would simply blend into the other material that surrounds it.
The orchestration of the theme for solo wind instruments, usually an oboe, gives it a kind of pastoral feeling. The image of peaceful shepherds is likely an appropriate one for Van Meer, who functions as a stand-in for a global desire to avoid armed conflict. Yet, both the character and Newman’s musical theme for him seem nondescript, making Van Meer seem like little more than the walking embodiment of an abstract ideal of world harmony.
Truth be told, Van Meer mostly operates in Foreign Correspondent as the classic Hitchcock MacGuffin–that is, the thing the characters all want, but with which the audience need not concern itself. When Van Meer appears to be assassinated, it sets in motion a chain of events that uncovers a conspiracy organized through Steven Fisher’s World Peace Party. Van Meer is the object that all the characters want to find, and the search for him drives the narrative forward. Yet the character himself has about as much personality as the microfilm in North by Northwest. Newman’s nondescript melody seems to fit the “blank slate” quality of Van Meer himself.
Like the classic MacGuffin, Van Meer’s function as something of an empty vessel allows his theme to be used several times late in the film in scenes where the character isn’t physically present. Although the norm is to use characters’ themes or leitmotifs when they are onscreen, Newman’s treatment of Van Meer shows they can evoke absent characters. This occurs, for example, in a scene where Scott ffolliot explains to Stephen Fisher that he’s arranged for the kidnapping of Carol. Fisher asks ffolliot why he would do such a thing, and ffolliot replies that he wants to know where Stephen has stashed Van Meer.
As we’ll see, Fisher has a theme of his own that itself appears several times in this same scene. But the use of Van Meer’s theme in this context becomes a way of signifying both the character and the peaceful values that he represents – that is, values that Fisher seeks to destroy.
And though Van Meer’s music is a bit dull, the theme proves a bit more interesting when one considers the way it works within Hitchcock’s larger strategies of narration. At a key point, Hitchcock and Newman use the Van Meer theme to mislead the audience about what has just transpired onscreen. I’m referring here to the moment when Van Meer appears on the steps just as the Peace conference in Amsterdam is about to commence.
The theme is cued by Johnny’s glance offscreen after briefly chatting with Fisher, his publicist, and a diplomat. Hitchcock cuts to a shot from Johnny’s optical POV that shows Van Meer climbing up the staircase. We return to Johnny, who smiles and walks out of the frame. Johnny and Van Meer meet in a two-shot where the former offers a warm greeting. A cut to Van Meer’s reaction, though, reveals a blank stare, even as Johnny tries to remind the elderly professor of their previous encounter in the taxi.
The moment is an important one, but before the viewer can even grasp its significance, the two men are interrupted by a request for a photograph. Hitchcock then tracks in on the newsman, who surreptitiously sneaks a gun next to the camera he is holding. He pulls the trigger, and Hitchcock cuts to a brief insert of Van Meer, who has been shot in the face.
As I noted earlier, the assassination we witness is a key turning point in the story, and Hitchcock handles the scene with considerable finesse. Almost unnoticed, though, is the fact that Hitchcock and Newman cleverly use Van Meer’s musical theme as a form of narrative deceit. At first blush, the musical theme helps to reinforce Van Meer’s identity, serving the kind of signposting function that some film music critics believed was a hackneyed device. As we later learn, though, the murder victim is not Van Meer, but rather a double killed in his place to foment international tensions. This information ultimately recasts the old man’s seeming failure to recognize Johnny. As Van Meer’s double, these two men have never actually met.
Has Hitchcock played fair in using Van Meer’s theme for a character that is not Van Meer but only looks like him? Perhaps, but the creation of this red herring is justified if one considers the fact that composers frequently write cues meant to reflect or convey a character’s point of view. Every composer must make a choice about whether to write a cue from the particular perspective of the character or the more global perspective of the film’s narration. Newman might have opted for conventional musical devices that connote suspense (ostinato figures, string tremolos, low sustained minor chords), and these would have signaled to the viewer that Van Meer is in peril, thereby creating a heightened anticipation of the violence that erupts in the scene. Instead, though, following the visual cues provided by Hitchcock’s cinematography and editing of the scene, Newman plays Johnny’s perspective and his recognition of Van Meer as he approaches the building’s entrance. By combining two common tactics–leitmotif and character perspective – Newman and Hitchcock briefly mislead the audience in order to create two surprises: the first when it appears that Van Meer is killed and the second when Van Meer is discovered inside the windmill and proves to be very much alive.
Menace (without the Dennis)
There is also a brief six-note motif used to signify the conspirators as a group. Labeled the “menace” motif, it is introduced just after Van Meer’s apparent assassination. In the chase that follows, Newman alternates between the “menace” motif and Johnny’s theme in order to sharpen the conflict and to capture the ebbs and flows of our hero’s dogged pursuit of the bad guys.
The motif returns, though, at just about any point where one of the group’s henchmen gets up to no good. In the scene inside the windmill, the menace motif appears several times to underscore the kidnappers’ nefarious scheme. Johnny sneaks inside the windmill, and after locating Van Meer, he tries to rescue him only to find out that the elderly professor has been drugged. As Johnny tries to figure out his next move, muted trumpets play the “menace” motif, signaling the kidnappers’ approach and thereby heightening the scene’s suspenseful tone.
Here again, Newman’s thematic organization reinforces a larger narrative tactic in Hitchcock’s film. Herbert Marshall serves as the typical suave villain commonly found in the Master’s oeuvre and Edmund Gwenn steals the show as Johnny’s would-be assassin, Rowley. But the rest of the conspirators are a largely undistinguished lot, and the use of a single motif for the group in toto reflects their relative impersonality. Unlike North by Northwest, where Martin Landau makes a vivid impression as Van Damm’s reptilian assistant Leonard, this spy ring seems to be filled out by thugs from Central Casting.
Father, leader, traitor, spy
Besides motifs for Johnny, Carol, Van Meer and the conspirators, there is also a short motif for Carol’s father, Stephen Fisher. It is harmonically and melodically ambiguous, structured around the rapid, downward movement of a chromatic figure.
In classical Hollywood practice, a leitmotif is usually introduced when the character first appears onscreen. But in an unusual gesture, Newman and Hitchcock resist this convention. The motif does not appear until more than eighty minutes into the film in the aforementioned scene just before ffolliot tries to blackmail Fisher into divulging Van Meer’s location.
By withholding Fisher’s motif, Hitchcock and Newman avoid tipping their hand too early. Since Fisher is later revealed to be the leader of the spy ring, the score circumspectly avoids comment on him in order to preserve the plot twist.
Several cues featuring Fisher’s motif return in the scene where Johnny, Carol, ffolliot, and the other survivors of the plane crash cling to wreckage waiting to be rescued. Carol spots the plane’s pilot stranded on its tail.
He swims over to the group and clambers about the wing. The pilot’s added weight threatens to upend the wing, thereby endangering everyone sitting atop it.
Recognizing this, the pilot asks the others to let him go so that he can simply “slip away.” Fisher overhears this exchange and decides to remove his life jacket and dive into the waters himself, leaving room on the plane’s wing for the rest of crash’s survivors.
The harmonic and melodic ambiguity of Fisher’s motif is most pronounced here, a moment where the character’s duality is also most clearly revealed. Is this a heroic act of self-sacrifice, an act of atonement for the damage Fisher has done to both his daughter’s reputation and his organization’s peaceful cause? Or has Fisher taken the coward’s way out, committing suicide in order to avoid facing the consequences of his actions?
Newman’s rather opaque musical motif doesn’t seem to take sides on this question, leaving Fisher’s motivation more or less uncertain. But this, too, is in keeping with the basic split between the character’s public and private personae. Introduced earlier as Carol’s father, Fisher appears to be cultured and debonair. Yet, when he seeks to extract information from a reluctant captive, Stephen resorts to the physical torments used by two-bit gangsters to make mugs talk. Like those gangsters in the 1930s, Fisher refuses to be taken alive and is swallowed up in briny sea. Still, his action does help to save other lives, and in this way, Fisher enables Carol to find a small measure of grace in the final memory she will have of him.
Putting earworms inside actual ears
As the principal composer of music for Foreign Correspondent, Newman had a major impact on the film’s ultimate success. Yet Newman was not responsible for the music that has engendered the most attention in critical work on the film. I’m referring here to two source cues written by Fox staff arranger, Gene Rose, that are featured in the scene where Van Meer is psychologically tortured. His captors use sleep deprivation techniques to elicit van Meer’s cooperation, including bright lights and the repeated playing of a jazz record. The two cues received rather cheeky descriptions on the cue sheet for Foreign Correspondent: “More Torture in C” and “Torture in A Flat.”
The use of jazz for these cues is likely a little bit of wicked humor on Hitchcock’s part. Despite its popularity as dance music in the 1930s, some listeners undoubtedly believed that jazz was little more than noise with a swinging rhythm. From a modern perspective, though, the scene eerily anticipates the “enhanced interrogation” techniques that would become notorious at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. As The Guardian reported in 2008, US military played Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” at ear-splitting volume for hours on end, both at Guantanamo and at a detention center located on the Iraqi-Syrian border. At the other end of the musical spectrum, one of the other pieces played repeatedly was “I Love You” sung by Barney the purple dinosaur. Presumably the first was selected because of its aggressiveness, the latter because of its insipidness. But the Barney song has the distinction of being characterized by military officials as “futility” music – that is, its use is designed to convince the prisoner of the futility of their resistance.
Although, in 1940, Hitchcock could not have envisioned the use of heavy metal and kidvid music as elements of enhanced interrogation, the scene from Foreign Correspondent is eerily prescient. Viewed today, the scene also carries with it a strong element of political critique insofar as it associates such psychological torture techniques with a bunch of “fifth columnists” who are willing to commit murder and even engineer a plane crash in order to achieve their political ends. Touches like these make Foreign Correspondent seem timely today, more than seventy-five years after its initial release.
Alfred Newman the Elder
After Foreign Correspondent, Alfred Newman would go on to score more than a hundred and thirty feature films, and earn several dozen more Academy Award nominations. His nine Oscar wins remain an achievement unmatched by any other film composer. Newman died in Hollywood in 1970 at the age of 69, just before the release of his last picture, the seminal disaster movie, Airport. His work on Airport received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score, the 43rd such nomination of his long and distinguished career.
For some film music scholars, Newman’s death marked the end of an era, as his career was more or less contemporaneous with the history of recorded synchronized sound cinema in Hollywood. As fellow composer Fred Steiner wrote in his pioneering dissertation on the development of Newman’s style:
As things are, we can be grateful for the dozen or so acknowledged monuments of this twentieth-century form of musical art— absolute models of their kind— that Newman did bestow on the world of cinema. Fashions in movies and in movie music may come and go, but scores such as The Prisoner of Zenda, Wuthering Heights, The Song of Bernadette, Captain From Castile, and The Robe are musical treasures for all time, and as long as people continue to be drawn to the magic of the silver screen, Alfred Newman*s music will continue to move their emotions, just as he always wished.
Because of its typicality, Foreign Correspondent may well seem like a speed bump on Newman’s road to Hollywood immortality. Yet it remains a useful introduction to the composer himself, who along with Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, is part of a triumvirate that would come to define the sound of American film music.
For more on music in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, see Jack Sullivan’s encyclopedic Hitchcock’s Music. For more on the production of Foreign Correspondent, see Matthew Bernstein’s Walter Wanger: Hollywood Independent. Readers interested in learning about Alfred Newman’s career should consult Fred Steiner’s 1981 doctoral dissertation, “The Making of an American Film Composer: A Study of Alfred Newman’s Music in the First Decade of the Sound Era,” and Christopher Palmer’s The Composer in Hollywood.
Tony Thomas’s Film Score: The Art & Craft of Movie Music includes Newman’s own account of his work for the Broadway stage before coming to Hollywood. Readers interested in an overview of the classical Hollywood score’s development should consult James Wierzbicki’s excellent Film Music: A History.
Alfred Newman conducts his most famous film theme, Street Scene, in the prologue to How to Marry a Millionaire (1953).
Wednesday | November 23, 2016
A lot of today’s movie storytelling is nonlinear. Filmmakers rely on flashbacks, replays, and voice-overs in order to shape our experience, sometimes in fairly daring ways. In Hollywood these strategies got consolidated in the 1940s. Or so I argue in my Reinventing Hollywood, now in copy-editing (or as the University of Chicago Press calls it, copy editing).
The question today is the same as back then: How do ambitious filmmakers handle these conventions? I think the ambitious writer or director faces at least three tasks.
How do I innovate—that is, how do I treat time shifts in a fresh way?
How do I motivate the shifts—that is, justify the scrambling of chronology?
How do I make the new version clear enough for audiences to follow?
Novelty, motivation, and clarity seem to me essential considerations for a filmmaker who wants to play with time and the viewpoint shifts that often come with it.
I’m not alone in thinking that Arrival succeeds in creating its particular engagement with the audience by tackling my three tasks. Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer innovate in handling time, and they in turn carefully motivate the device and find ways to make it clear to the audience. Today I want to consider how this all works. I have to assume you’ve seen the film, so of course there are spoilers.
Back to what future?
Cinema didn’t invent broken timelines; they’ve been used in literature for centuries. The Odyssey has blocks of flashbacks. Literature benefits from the fact that language has simple and direct ways to signal jumps in time.
For example, the writer working in English can make flashbacks clear though time tags and verb tense. Take this passage from John Le Carré’s novel Our Kind of Traitor. We’re told that on Sunday morning an anxious Perry Makepiece is climbing into a chauffeur-driven Mercedes. Then:
Last night, returning to the Deux Anges from their supper party, Perry had caught Madame Mère’s boot-button eyes peering at him from her den behind the reception desk.
“Last night” tells us we’re in an earlier period, and that information is reinforced by the past perfect tense of “had caught.” Page layout helps too: the entire flashback to the previous night is blocked out within extra spaces separated by a centered ★.
After recounting what happened when Perry returned to his hotel last night, Le Carré returns to the present time, the narrative Now, with a turn to the simple past tense:
The Mercedes stank of foul tobacco smoke.
Apart from the change of tense, the Mercedes mention reminds us of Perry’s morning trip. In addition, the shift back to the present opens a new section marked by ★.
On my three dimensions: There’s nothing innovative about this instance, though Le Carré will try some unusual things elsewhere in the book. The flashback is motivated by Perry’s remembering last night, and it’s made clear to the reader through repetition of several cues.
But what do we do with this passage?
I remember the scenario of your origin you’ll suggest when you’re twelve.
The tenses are out of whack, thanks to that “you’ll.” Then there’s the very meaning of the word “remember.” (Replacing the phrase with “I imagine.”) How can you remember something that has yet to happen? This isn’t just a casual slip. The speaker goes on to report an entire conversation that uses the future tense: “you’ll say bitterly,” “I’ll say,” “That will be in the house on Belmont Street,” and so on.
This passage comes near the start of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” the source of Arrival. The story is what literary scholars call an apostrophe, a discourse addressed to an absent person. Louise Banks explains how her daughter came into existence. The story begins with Louise’s husband asking one evening, “”Do you want to make a baby?” It’s this point in time that’s marked as the present (and is rendered in present tense), but the bulk of the story shuttles between the past and the future. From the benchmark moment we get, in other words, flashbacks alternating with flashforwards.
On my three-dimensional scale, Chiang gets credit for innovation. Stories told in the future tense are pretty rare, especially when the events are presented as memories. And he makes the narrational premise clear. After a few pages, it’s established that Louise purports to know things yet to happen. The tenses cooperate: Present for the baby-making moment, past tense for the past events, future for the future ones.
We’re used to characters who know their past, but how can one know her future? For the story-maker that reduces to: How to motivate Louise’s knowing the future?
The answer is aliens. In the past, Louise met her husband when floating seven-legged creatures came to earth. As a linguist, she was assigned to learn the Heptapods’ language. Gradually she discovered that they had a mentality that refused causality and sequence in favor of a holistic view of time. Their language, to put it crudely, gave them access to past, present, and future.
By learning their language Louise absorbed, to some extent, their world-view. (Yes, the untenable Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is invoked.) Her precognition allows her to know, moments before she and her husband conceive the girl, what her daughter will do from her childhood right up to her early death. Louise also knows that she and her husband will divorce and find new partners. For us, these episodes are rendered as flashforwards from the Now, even though for Louise they are, paradoxically, memories (of things yet to happen).
Chiang’s story explores the emotional effects of knowing the future and deciding not to try to change it. For all I know, this may be another innovation in the realm of speculative fiction. Most time-travelers seek to alter the past or the future, but Louise is aware of the paradoxes of time travel. If you know the future, you can freely decide to alter it by choosing differently at crucial junctures. Marry somebody else, and you’ll change what happens afterward, so you didn’t really know the future. But Louise comes to believe that free will is a part of linear, causal thinking, the sort that the Heptapods have given up.
The existence of free will meant that we couldn’t know the future. And we knew free will still existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness.
Or was it? What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?
The Heptapods know that they will need help from Earth in 3000 years, and they presumably know that they’ll get it, but to fulfill that future they need to ask. The story’s analogy is to the daughter’s wanting to re-hear a story she knows by heart. As a story reader replays a known tale, the aliens perform the incidents that make things inevitable.
So Louise accepts her role in playing out whatever future is predetermined. For this reason she can address her (future) daughter with foreknowledge of the pains and delights that are coming, accepting them as part of a seamless whole.
Image + sound + time
Lacking a tense system like language, cinema has devised other time signals. In the classic flashback we get a combination of them. We’re presented with a speaking or remembering character, a track-in to her, perhaps some music, a hint in the dialogue that we’re going into the past, a dissolve, perhaps a voice-over indication, and then a scene obviously situated in an earlier period. Filmmakers have discovered ways of altering some cues (cuts replace dissolves, tight close-ups replace track-ins) and deleting others (music and voice-over seem fairly optional now). Other cues are added for clarity, such as a different color palette for scenes in the past, or perhaps slow-motion imagery, or sound from the past that leaks in over imagery in the present.
Of course films use written and spoken language too, and so they can deploy tenses and time tags. Sometimes that can help us understand the time status of the scenes we’re seeing.
Voice-over is very helpful here. Take another Le Carré example, this time from Fred Schepisi and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of The Russia House. Play the clip below and you’ll see what I mean.
Katya’s delivery of the covert manuscript, given on the image track, seems at first to be in the present. But the voice-over office conversation, only gradually shown through intercutting, is later than the Moscow incidents we see. So the present, the opening Now, is established on the soundtrack, while the image is in the past. As in fiction, the twin cues of verbal tense (“she visited”) and a time tag (“a week ago”) confirm the status of the Bookfair scene. The innovation comes when Stoppard and Schepisi don’t frame the Moscow scene by offering us the present-time office conversation before we see Katya–in effect, establishing the Now before showing us the Then. It’s an economical tactic of exposition, an elliptical revision of the phone conversations about the police investigations in M.
A voice-over can be in same time period as the images, of course, if it’s an inner monologue, a report on what a character is thinking at the moment. But voice-over commentary is often positioned as in the present with the images assumed to be in the past.
The voice-over present can be specified, usually through a lead-in scene showing the speaker recounting or recalling things at a particular time. Or the voice can be in a vague present, a zone we take as simply “after the events of the story.” It’s this no-man’s-land Now that leads us astray in Laura and other tricky films from the 1940s onward. Uncertainty about who’s speaking from when can be a source of interest in its own right. In Road Warrior, the revelation of the source of the opening voice-over provides the final surprise of the film.
So Heisserer and Villeneuve had an opportunity to follow Chiang in using the future tense in the voice-over for Arrival. It would surely have been an innovative move for a film. But they don’t do it. Why?
From premise to twist
Flashbacks are temperamental little buggers. Hard to know when and how to use them.
Eric Heisserer, 150 Screenwriting Challenges
Heisserer was a keen fan of Chiang’s story and spent years trying to get backing for a film version. He recounts various difficulties in online interviews (here and here, for example), but I want to focus on a couple of other problems he faced.
In a general way, the film respects the thrust of the story. At the close, you realize that Louise has gained the ability to anticipate the future, thanks to learning Heptapod. But on a fine-grained basis, the film doesn’t spell out her ability as frankly or as early as the story does.
The first image, a view out onto the patio and the lake, shows no people, just a table with a wine bottle and a couple of glasses. Louise’s voice-over does address someone absent: “I used to think this was the beginning of your story.” But the point in time and the person addressed are far less specific than in the literary version. Then we get a quick burst of images of a baby, then a little girl playing with Louise, and soon a young woman lying dead in a hospital bed. This cascade of impressions ends with a shot of Louise walking mournfully down a hospital corridor, followed by a fade-out. Fade up on her striding into a campus building and attending her lecture. Over this we hear her voice-over.
But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are things that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived.
And then we’re confronted by the Heptapods, as broadcast on worldwide TV, and Louise’s getting the assignment to talk with them.
The first shot, of the patio, is enigmatic, but fairly soon we get the sense that Louise is addressing her dead daughter. We seem to have a classic prologue. (Compare the opening death of Starlord’s mother in Guardians of the Galaxy.) Across three minutes, we see a mother loving and losing her daughter. Our default assumption is that after the daughter’s death, she has become solitary and emotionally numb. She doesn’t interact with people on her way to her classroom, and when she goes home alone she watches TV reports with a kind of blank anxiety.
The film sets up a schema: The grieving mother needs to get out of herself, and the assignment to communicate with the aliens would seem to do that. Eventually she finds love with the physicist Ian Donnelly as well. This redemption schema is probably reinforced for some viewers by memories of Gravity (2013), another movie about a withdrawn mother who channels her sorrow into heroic action.
As the alien encounters unfold, the film’s narration starts to sprinkle in more images of the lost daughter at different ages. But the images show up rather late. At about 48 minutes, there’s a brief, out-of-focus image of a baby; at about 51:00, a glimpse of the little girl wading. Not until about halfway through the film (57:00) is there a fairly sustained scene between mother and child, when the girl shows Louise a picture of her imaginary TV show. That’s when we learn that the father isn’t with them any more. Later shots of the daughter are salted through the scenes of the increasingly tense confrontation with the Heptapods.
Just as we’re encouraged to take the daughter’s birth, childhood, and death as a prologue that precedes the alien investigation, we’re inclined to take these interruptive shots of the girl as flashbacks. Louise seems to be remembering her daughter.
At about 82 minutes something happens that challenges our basic assumption. In another household scene, the daughter asks about the “science-y” term for a win/win situation, and Louise is stumped. The narration shifts us back to the tent at the site, Ian mentions the term “non-zero-sum game.” Then we’re whisked back to the scene with the daughter, and Louise repeats that.
I felt a bump there. If the scene with Ian’s use of the term comes after the death of the daughter, during the alien encounter, how can Louise “remember” it to relay it to the daughter? For many viewers (probably not all), this opens the possibility that the “prologue” tracing the daughter’s childhood takes place after the alien adventure, not before. The reinforcement for this, visible to me only on second viewing, is that the earlier glimpses of the girl’s growing up are always triggered by scenes showing Louise learning the Heptapod’s language.
The filmic narration creates a sort of duck/rabbit Gestalt switch. Things we thought were past are future, things we thought were present are past. If the patio shot is the benchmark Now, the growth and death of the girl are the future and the Heptapods’ visit becomes a sustained flashback.
Now we see why Louise’s introductory voice-over lacks the future-tense sentences that are so startling in the novella. Including those would have been too strong a hint about the status of the mother-daughter shots. Instead, the opening voice-over uses only the past tense (“I used to think”) and the present (“But now I’m not so sure”). Another moment in the voice-over tilts us toward thinking of the image bursts later as flashbacks: we hear Louise murmur over the dead girl. “Come back to me.” Her yearning to reconnect to her daughter inclines us even more to consider the visions of the girl later as flashbacks.
Redundancy is your friend
Okay, pretty innovative—and an interesting departure from Chiang’s story. Instead of telling us at the outset that Louise has precognition, the film holds that as a surprise, and makes us think that her anticipations are actually memories. And we have motivation: as in the story, it’s the alien encounter that endows Louise with precognition. But what about my third consideration, clarity?
I said that not everybody will probably catch the echo of Ian’s “non-zero-sum game.” The last half-hour of the film devotes itself partly to reiterating the news that Louise can discern the future.
Her impulsive visit to the Heptapods late in the film explains why they dropped by. They know they’ll need humans’ help in the future, so they come to make that future happen. At the ninety-minute mark, one speaks, and we get a big old subtitle: “Louise sees future.” If you doubt the Heptapod’s insight, another flashforward soon shows Louise explaining to her daughter why her dad left. Louise “made a mistake” by telling him about a rare disease—presumably the one that would kill their daughter. We’re left to understand that after she told him that she knew their child was fated to die young, he couldn’t take it. The delayed exposition, judiciously repeated, lets the pieces fall into place. We may even start to surmise that Ian is to be that husband, earlier identified as a scientist.
Like the aliens’ sentences, the film is circular. Heisserer told Vox:
When I completed the first draft and the bookends of the first three pages and the final three pages, it felt like I was drawing a narrative circle and I just closed the loop. That felt right.
The narration buckles the film shut by returning to the view of the patio, which is intercut with Louise and Ian embracing. Ian proposes that tonight they make a baby. The fact that Heisserer’s script displaces to the very end what was the opening of Chiang’s story is a fair index of the transformation he has wrought. What was a premise of the novella becomes a reveal in the film.
But the motivation is the same. Flashforwards aren’t exactly parallel to flashbacks, as far as viewer psychology is concerned. Flashbacks are assumed to be veridical unless there’s reason to doubt them (as in trial and investigation films, where people give differing versions of events). The default is that flashbacks really happened, unless there are contrary indications.
Flashforwards, on the other hand, can be of two types. They might proceed from the film’s external narration. In Easy Rider, Petulia, and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? we get glimpses of future events that no character can know. In such cases, the images are usually enigmatic enough that we can’t be sure about the import of what we’re seeing. Flaming motorcycles, the protagonist tossing a bouquet into the water, a brief cutaway to a man in a police wagon (below, from They Shoot Horses): these are teases, not fully informative scenes, and they interrupt the main present-time action.
Alternatively, more identifiable flashforwards are usually motivated as a character’s precognition. They aren’t necessarily reliable. Flashbacks normally represent “actual” pasts, but flashforwards coming from mediums, psychics, or possessed children are only possible futures. Indeed, one task in such films is to prevent the apparent future from coming to pass, as in Minority Report and It Happened Tomorrow. The past is closed, but in subjective flashforwards, the future is usually open.
How, then, do we motivate trustworthy flashforwards? Here. by having infallible aliens certify them. Like “Story of Your Life,” Arrival assures us that Louise’s premonitions are accurate. It’s just that Chiang’s story proposes that early on and then shows how she achieved them. The film is trickier. It misleads us into thinking she has memories of the past when she is actually learning to see the future. She learns more quickly than we do, though eventually we catch up with her.
We’ve also learned that flashforwards can masquerade as flashbacks—if they’re deployed carefully enough.
Adding the ride
Explaining, very clearly, that Louise is knowing her future is only one task of the last stretch of the film. Another task is preventing a military attack on the aliens.
In Chiang’s story, the creatures simply leave. But Heisserer has explained that he felt the plot needed more conflict, so he added the prospect of brass hats eager to confront the visitors. The Heptapods, Louise suggests, have landed at various places around the world to induce nations to forget their differences in a common purpose. The Americans are suspicious, and General Shang of China breaks away from the alliance and takes steps to attack the ship near Shanghai.
Of the civil turmoil and military threat that fill out the plot, Heisserer noted in the same Vox interview:
The story doesn’t really have any conflict of that nature. It doesn’t need to. It’s a lovely literary conceit in its own right and works without that drama.
However, our early attempts a building this narrative without that conflict added felt very flat, and felt like there were no stakes. There was no ride. The more we played with it, the more Denis and I both realized that if aliens did land on earth and the public didn’t get immediate answers as to what their purpose was, the more everybody would freak out.
In building this climax, the film varies crucially from Chiang’s premise. Now Louise seems to alter the future. She apparently summons the will to induce General Shang, at a future celebration of the successful mission, to give her his private cellphone number and tell her his wife’s dying words. Back in the past, Louise uses this new knowledge to induce the General to hold his fire. All this is presented in a classical ticking-clock drama of suspense and pursuit.
The device is a bit awkward; instead of visiting an actual future, Louise seems present at one where the General, against all plausibility, tells her things she supposedly already knows. And how she induces him to spill all this is unclear, at least to me. The climax also breaks with the original story’s idea that Louise doesn’t exercise free will but accepts her role in the course of time.
More often than one might expect, classically constructed films break some of their self-imposed rules in the rush to a climax. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is one of my favorite examples, in which the climax violates the story’s method of pod-cloning. Sometimes an exciting denouement or a shocking twist tends to make us forget not only plausibility but also the premises that have operated over the previous ninety minutes.
An unsympathetic critic could object to the injection of a chase, a deadline, and a last-minute salvation of the mission, as well as the one-world moral of the movie. But to enjoy Hollywood, as with enjoying friends and other aspects of life, you have to accept, and even come to enjoy, the flaws too. The center of the film remains our transmutation of sympathy for a grieving mother into sympathy for a woman who knows she will be grieving for a child yet unborn, and yet embraces her destiny. The formal strategies serve to vividly convey this reversal of feeling, in the process ennobling a character reconciled to the transient joys of life.
Kenneth Burke once characterized literary form as “the psychology of the audience.” Filmmakers, like all artists, have recognized this from almost the beginning, but it may seem that today’s creative community is more self-conscious than ever before. If “form is the new content,” as I’ve suggested before, it’s a welcome development. Filmmakers are exploring lots of possibilities for engaging our minds and emotions, while still striving to keep their stories understandable to a large audience. Arrival could not have been made in my sacred 1940s, but its deft innovations build upon a foundation that was laid then.
Thanks to conversations with Jeff Smith and Kristin about Arrival. Thanks also to Merijoy Endrizzi-Ray and Jacob Rust at Madison’s Sundance Theater.
Jeff Goldsmith has an enlightening interview with Eric Hisserer at Screencraft. Ted Chiang’s novella is in the collection Stories of Your Life and Others. Burke’s discussion is in the essay, “Psychology and Form.”
The first quarter of Le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor consists of an “intercut” sequence between past events and present interrogation that, in its free use of tenses, time tags, and other devices, seems to aim at a literary equivalent of the Russia House film opening. A pity that the recent film of Our Kind of Traitor didn’t try for a cinematic equivalent.
For more on modern treatments of narration and plot structure, try here. For further discussions of 1940s treatments of time-juggling, here are some blog entries.
P.S. 3 December 2016: The original entry didn’t use Minority Report or It Happened Tomorrow as examples of averting the future. They’re corrections to my original mention of Don’t Look Now, which was not an accurate example. David Cairns wrote to remind me of that, and to point out that the glimpse of the future we get in that film is in an interesting way akin to what we get in Arrival, and I hadn’t noticed that. For those who haven’t seen Don’t Look Now, I won’t add to an already spoiler-heavy entry. I’ll simply thank David, whose exemplary blogsite Shadowplay (currently hosting a blogathon under the rubric of The Late Show) is a must for every film lover. His new film, The Northleach Horror, is nearing completion; details here.