Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Not So Pretty After All

Since its release in 1990, Pretty Woman has grossed $463,406,268 worldwidei and was the biggest hit for Disney at that time.ii The working title of the film was originally $3000iii, the amount of money that Edward Lewis (Richard Gere), who plays opposite Julia Roberts as the ruthless tycoon, pays for Vivian to be at his “beck and call”iv for a week’s time. I've watched Pretty Woman many times, and each time I seem to get caught up in its ability to entertain me. Yet, therein lies the very problem. It is not easy to recognize the destructive messages it contains. The success of Pretty Woman is representative of a morally irresponsible attitude that it’s okay to misrepresent social issues and foster destructive stereotypical myths in the name of entertainment.

One of the reasons the film was so successful is that the acting is superb. Julia Roberts is believable in an unbelievable role as Vivian, a street walking prostitute. As stated by Vincent Canby in his New York Times review on Jun 3, 1990, “It’s about a prostitute who really isn’t…she is instead a bright, funny, incredibly healthy young woman - who looks gorgeous, almost drop-dead chic when walking the Hollywood streets.”v  While this film is categorized in the film genre of a romantic comedy, the original screenplay by J.F. Lawton would have been categorized as a drama. The story was a dark satire about “a drug-addicted prostitute who gets tossed back into the streets when her romantic fling with a sophisticated gentleman ends”vi and culminated with her bound for Disneyland with a fellow prostitute.” The part of Vivian, which many well-known actresses turned down for the very reason that she was not a “nice girl,”vii ironically “turned Julia Roberts into the most beloved smiling sweetheart since Annette Funicello. The story was shot by director Garry Marshall three ways--sad, straight, and happy, and only until screened in the editing room did he decide to go with “happy.””viii As a result, Marshall, successful TV sitcom director, and a great cast smoothed the path for another Hollywood cinema happy ending: this time with the dream come true for a prostitute. Pretty Woman’s portrayal of fantasy that” is “this movie’s strength and its biggest selling point.”ix The film is a dream for sale. The cost: the price of a movie ticket, video rental or purchase, and the time it takes to watch it. The destructive messages it contains become hidden to the naked eye amidst the props of beauty and materialism. The cry is blatant, yet at the same time, sneaky, as it is yelled by the hustler on the street corner. “Welcome to Hollywood”, “What’s your dream?”x It suggests that anything’s possible here. So now I can imagine my readers saying, why is that so bad? My answer is twofold. Not only does the film misrepresent the serious social issue of prostitution, but its victim is used to promote a fairy tale myth. The knight in shining armor comes to rescue the princess in distress, except in this story the princess is a prostitute and prostitution is really “no laughing matter.”xi

This is a video clip of the film's fairy tale ending. 

Pretty Woman’s false portrayal of this serious socioeconomic issue abuses its most vulnerable population of its viewers: uneducated teenage girls and young troubled women. It is as if, this very population, the victims should be the ones to see to the survival of this self destructive occupation. Of the many strata of prostitutes which includes, but is not limited to the street-walker, escort service hostess, club employee, and high-end service self-employed, Vivian is portrayed as the street-walker. This is the very level of prostitute most likely inclined to drug abuse and victimization from the violence of having a pimp. The magic curtain upholds the narrative when it is revealed that Vivian is just a small town girl from Georgia without a high school diploma who landed in Hollywood because she is, what she says her mother called her, “a bum magnet.” That she tried to work in some fast food joints and as a valet parking cars, but that she couldn’t make the rent. Does this mean that all small town girls without a high school diploma and skills should take up streetwalking? I guess only if they get $3,000, a new expensive wardrobe, and a ring at the end of the week. American girls are being coerced and lured into prostitution due to poverty or manipulation by adults. Many of these girls are crime victims, exploited by individuals who use violence, death threats and drugs to control them.xii
It’s estimated that 40% to 85% of prostitutes were drug users only that among higher class prostitute women, prostitution tended to precede substance abuse, while in lower class prostitutes, the reverse tended to be true (Goldstein, 1979).xiii  
Just as implausible is Vivian’s sudden transformation from selling her body to make the rent into a girl who gets it all and deserves it. She would be more likely to continue the bratty behavior she exhibits in the beginning of the film. When she enters the hotel with Edward and he puts his raincoat over her. They are standing next to a mature conservative couple waiting for the elevator and Vivian pretends to have a rip in her stocking. She puts her long beautiful leg up and less than coyly states out loud,  Why, I don’t even have any pantyhose on.

In an interview with Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the celebrated writer/director spoke of the deep sorrow at the condition of film today. There are no values. Some of the films pretend to be moral. Bull. Maybe the good guys win in the end . . . get to go home to the wives in the last reel ... have destroyed the villain ... but there have been ten reels in which the bad guys have had a ball." They've killed people, they’ve humped people, they get all the money ... they get all of everything. That’s what the young person watching the film is going to remember . . . not the final fade ... the ‘morally’ happy ending.xiv Whatever happened to love stories? I can’t remember the last time I saw a love story. Even that Pretty Woman, I liked that film, but it was about a guy falling in love with a prostitute! It may have been picking up crumbs, but there was a human relationship there. 
I say the film Pretty Woman is picking up crumbsxv; there is no human relationship; it is pure fantasy and it conveys destructive messages about women. Two examples which sum up the distortion in this film are in lines from Vivian to her former hooker colleague – 
It’s easy to clean up when you have money.
Who does it really happen for, Kit? Tell me one person you know?
Kit’s response “Cinderfunkinrella!”

If we believe that viewers have an experience when they watch film, then filmmakers ought to work not just to entertain, but should consider ways to produce a more constructive meaning of experience to benefit the ills of this world. Instead there is a continuation of destructive, subjective messages that manipulate our laughter. The truth is covered up and bathed in a wash of commercial success without thought of its impact.xvi  The glossed over reality of a prostitute in the Pretty Woman narrative is melted down to a romantic and comedic Hollywood sentimentality which entertains moviegoers with another fairy tale myth. The reality of women who are prostitutes and men who purchase their services are closeted in Pretty Woman’s wardrobe, putting a blight upon a higher level development of messages this romantic comedy might send. The truth is, there is nothing funny at all about prostitution, and despite this film's commercial success, Pretty Woman is not so pretty [or funny] after all.

Thanks for reading. Peace out.

i    “Pretty Woman” summary page on Box Office Mojo,, Web. 29 Dec. 2009.
ii   Miner, Madonne. “No matter what they say, it’s all about money.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 20.1 (1992): 8. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 29 Dec. 2009.
iii  Brown, Scott. “Tale of Two Endings.” Entertainment Weekly 589 (2001): 72. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 1 Jan. 201 0.
iv   Caputi, J. “Sleeping With the Enemy as Pretty Woman, part II? (cover story).” Journal of Popular Film Television 19.1 (1991): 2. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 1 Jan. 2010.
v    Canby, Vincent. “What the Beauty And the Beasts Have in Common” New York Times (1857-Current file); Jun 3, 1990; ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times (1851-2006) w/ Index (1851 1993) pg. H13
vi  “The nineties.” Entertainment Weekly 504 (1999): 102. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 29 Dec. 2009.
vii “Trivia for Pretty Woman” on Web. 1 Jan. 2010.
viii Purtell, Tim. “Apples and origins.” Entertainment Weekly 267 (1995): 73. Film & Television; Literature Index with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 29 Dec. 2009.
ix   Cooks, Orbe and Bruess, “The Fairy Tale Theme in Popular Culture: A Semiotic Analysis of Pretty Woman” Women’s Studies in Communication Vol. 16, Issue 2 (1993)  86-104.
x    Marshall, Garry, et al. Pretty Woman [videorecording] I Touchstone Pictures in association with Silver Screen Partners IV; produced by Arnon Milchan and Steven Reuther; directed by Garry Marshall; written by J. F. Lawton. Touchstone Home Entertainment, (2005). BIR Entertainment. EBSCO. Web. 1 Jan. 2010.
xi   Killion, Erin. “Prostitution is no laughing matter.” Green Left Weekly 20 June 2001: Gender Studies Database. EBSCO. Web. 1 Jan. 2010.
xii  PRNewswire The hidden crisis: commercial sexual exploitation of girls. 2008. Gender Studies Database. EBSCO. Web. 26 Nov. 2009.
xiii Potterat, John J., et al. “Pathways to Prostitution: The Chronology of Sexual and Drug Abuse Milestones.” Journal of Sex Research 35.4 (1998): 333-340. Gender Studies Database. EBSCO.  Web. 26 Nov. 2009.
xiv Laffel, Jeff. “Joseph L. Mankiewicz.” Films in Review 42.7/8 (1991): 238. Film & Television  Literature  Index with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 1 Jan. 2010.
xv  Laffel, Jeff. “Joseph L. Mankiewicz.” Films in Review 42.7/8 (1991): 238. Film & Television  Literature  Index with Full Text. EBSCO. Web.1 Jan. 2010.
xvi Cooks, Orbe and Bruess, “The Fairy Tale Theme in Popular Culture: A Semiotic Analysis of Pretty Woman.” Women’s Studies in Communication Vol. 16, Issue 2 (1993)  86-104.

Interview with a Woman Who Survived the Holocaust - My Mother

This is an interview with my 89 year old mother, Ida Stern (maiden name Nissenbaum), and it also includes information from a video taped interview about family and their experience from the Holocaust. My mother resides in West Palm Beach, Florida and though she has Alzheimer's, due to the great care of my sister she remains in her own home with daily care and visits from her three children- Toby the eldest daughter from NY, Jack the middle son from Oregon, and me, the youngest daughter from NY. My mother is an artist, though it was not her profession, and though this story is filled with sorrow, I've interspersed it with my mother's beautiful watercolors and pastels.

Please tell me about your family, Mom:

My great grandparents were religious Polish-born Jews. Israel Nissenbaum was a shammus, a caretaker (custodian) in a synagogue, and studied the Talmud. Tauba Greenberg ran a service for customers that brought her chickens; she slaughtered, plucked and dressed the chickens for a fee. The two were married by a Matchmaker and had nine children with all but one born in Poland. The children named here from eldest to youngest are Chiel (pronounced “heel”), Sarah, Beryss (prounounced “berish”) and my father, Fanny, Phillip, Abraham (Abe), Anna, Gussie and Jacques. Sometime before 1912, the family lived in Odessa, Russia where Abe was born. They immigrated back to Poland and in 1912 they immigrated to Antwerp, Belgium, and this is where I was born in 1922.

How was the family affected by first World War:

In 1914 when the Germans entered Belgium for World War I, the family immigrated to London. There the children either attended public schools or worked odd jobs. In 1917, the third eldest child, my father was inducted into the British armed forces to fight the Germans with a contingent sent to the Russian front. This was the beginning of a painful life for him (Grandpa as you called him). In Russia, he witnessed grave atrocities committed by both the white and red Russians. Indiscriminate slaughter took place and amidst the chaos he fled back to Poland. While Beryss was in Russia, his sister Fanny died in 1918 from Influenza when the epidemic took hold in London.

What was your mother's name, where was she from? 

In Poland, Beryss met Chaja Perla Chiosnowka, a Polish-born Jew, and they were married. Meanwhile, the rest of the family immigrated back to Poland after the armistice in 1918.

What was your father's profession? Did your mother work?

Three of the sons including my grandfather worked in the diamond trade. Beryss, my father, was a versteller; the versteller positions and sets the diamond on the sutter for the polisher. Chaja was a university student; she was considered very intelligent and may have become a professional. Tragically, two years after my mother’s birth in 1922, Chaja hemorrhaged to death from a miscarriage. My grandfather and mother moved several times after Chaja’s death. The rest of the family had immigrated back to Belgium and eventually my grandfather and mother also moved back there.

What happened to your grandparents?

Sometime before the beginning of World War II, Israel, my great grandfather, died a fairly young man from Leukemia. My great grandmother, Tauba lived with her daughter, Sarah, who had married Salomon Mitulitsky (nickname Mon). He was also employed in the diamond trade.

When were you first aware of the dangers from the second World War?

I remember a time as very tense with the family discussing and rediscussing what to do in the wake of the Germans entering Belgium. There were not many options, but were trying to decide whether to remain in Belgium or to go to France and how this could be done. Tauba, Sarah, and Salomon decided to remain in Belgium. Jacques who was a bachelor and worked in electronics also chose not to leave.

Where there other things that you remember about being Jewish?

Both the siblings and children of my great grandparents, Chiel and Anna had married outside of the religion. Chiel married a German Christian woman named Thea (last name unknown). Even though none of the children were religiously inclined, he was resented by the other brothers and sisters because he revealed the nature of this marriage to the mother, Tauba. Anna married Charles Gruss, a French officer and citizen, which she kept a secret from her mother. Abe had married Ida Chariton, a Belgium born woman of Polish parents. Even though Ida was born in Belgium she had never applied for Belgium citizenship. Beryss remarried a Czechoslovakian born non-Jew, Elizabeth Helma who was a practicing nurse. She was not, however, entitled to practice nursing in Belgium because she was a foreigner. Thinking it would be safer, the two brothers, Abe and Beryss, decided to move us to the south of France.

What happened to the rest of the family?

Those of the family that remained in Belgium, with the exception of Chiel, were deported in 1942. These family members, Tauba my grandmother, Sarah, Fanny, and Jacques, were never heard from again. Anna immigrated with her husband to Paris where she remained until her death in 1991. The youngest daughter, Gussie, married a German born Jew named Itchak Weiner. They immigrated to Israel before the War in the 1930’s. Phillip like Gussie also left Europe before the war, immigrating alone to the United States in 1920 and reuniting later with Albina (last name unknown) whom he had met in Belgium. They were later married in the United States.

What happened to you and your parents?

Not long after we arrived in France, my father, stepmother and I were forced into a detention camp in the south of France. Conditions were very bad; there was little to nothing to eat, beds were bare bunks, and Elizabeth, my stepmother, was pregnant. I cared for the children in this camp which allowed me the privilege of leaving the camp on occasion by obtaining a pass. After Elizabeth gave birth to a son, Leon, he was taken away; all babies and children were separated from their parents. Two weeks later Leon died. There was again much discussion on what to do or on what could be done mostly involving the possibility of my escape. There was a scheduled bus trip taking the children out of the camp with a priest. My grandfather convinced me to go and not return, to go into hiding, which I did. For the next several years, both Abe, my father's brother, and Ida his wife, and I were separately in hiding in France trying to obtain false identity papers. We  lived several places where we were temporarily helped or hidden. I found out later that shortly after my escape from the camp, my father and Elizabeth were deported. Elizabeth was never heard from again, but my father miraculously survived internment in many work camps.

After you were reunited with your father, what happened?

My father and I were reunited in Paris with Abe and Ida too. We all eventually immigrated to the United States. First I went to live with Phillip and Albina in Washington Heights, then Abe and Ida came and settled in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn and lastly my father. We settled in Jamaica, Queens. Ida’s sister who had not survived the war had bore two children in Belgium, a boy named Leon and a girl named Elvira. They also immigrated to the States and were raised by Ida and Abe. My father wrote about his experience in the camps and his story is published and archived in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

Despite all of the hardships she's suffered, my mom still has a great sense of humor.

Thank you for sharing your story with me mom.  I love you !

It seems that were was no strong national identity afforded to my great grandparents and their children because of the anti-Semitic atmosphere of Europe and the severe effects of the wars and the Holocaust. Their frequent immigration suggests that no country could be legally and/or comfortably called home. None of the children remained religious, despite their stringent upbringing in the Jewish faith. The only exception was Gussie who immigrated to Israel. Out of the children that immigrated from Europe to both the U.S. and Israel the most children and grandchildren were produced who completed college educations and became professionals. The three brothers that immigrated to the U.S. all remained workers in the diamond industry and lived for the remainder of their lives in the New York metropolitan area and West Palm Beach, Florida. My Aunt Ida, who raised her sister's children is adult home in West Palm Beach too, and she has a boyfriend.

My personal note from this history is that I have a developed awareness of the ambiguities of organized religion and a strong passion against racism and crimes against humanity. How I consider my own identity culturally, ethnically, and religiously is mixed. Since I was not brought up within the Jewish faith and was raised in an almost all Protestant and Catholic suburban neighborhood on Long Island, I am not comfortable with the Jewish religion. I do feel a strong cultural affinity to those who are Jewish. To this day, when asked about my heritage, I unfailingly say that I’m Jewish. I grew up knowing more about Christianity than Judaism though. For a time when my children were young, I found a somewhat spiritual home within a Unitarian Universalism congregation. It represented the interfaith inclusiveness I desired and it was a way to find some family medium for me, my children and their father who is Catholic. Today, I find myself drawn to Buddhism. I unequivocally know that my beliefs have been formed in a powerful way from being the child of European Holocaust survivors and from growing up in New York Metropolitan United States among children and families whose Christian based traditions I was exposed.

I love Christmas and I appreciate the teachings of Christ, though nature is my higher power and I'm an American girl: it's only a real tree in my house for the holiday under which the presents are placed. But I am a Jew and I love the celebration of Passover, that of rejoicing the freedom of the slaves.

Thank you for reading. Peace out.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Zooming in on The Graduate

The Graduatei is a film I’ve watched more than a few of times. Directed by Mike Nichols, released in 1967, the original story is by Charles Webb. Mike Nichols won the Academy Award for Best Director though there were many major achievements in Hollywood cinema that yearii. In the Heat of the Night won best picture and one of its stars, Sidney L. Poitier, an African-American actor, also starred in two other major motion pictures, which was a breakthrough in itself. Other major films released that year include Barefoot in the Park, Bonnie and Clyde, Camelot, Casino Royale, Cool Hand Luke, Dr. Doolittle, The Dirty Dozen, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Planet of the Apes, Thoroughly Modern Millie, To Sir with Love (the 2nd film that starred Poitier), and Valley of the Dolls, to name a fewiii. It was a good year for the movies.


The atmosphere in the United States at the time the film was released was unique. It was the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco, tens of thousands of Vietnam War protesters marched in Washington, D.C., and interracial marriage was decriminalized by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Loving vs. Virginia caseiv. The setting of this time period is not insignificant to my analysis of this film. It was a time when old molds were being broken. It was an exciting time and for women especially, a “brave new world,” or seemingly so. Women in this film hold a particular importance in relationship to the main character, Benjamin Braddock, The Graduate. Also playing a strong part in the struggles of this young adult is the desire for change from current norms. A new generation was rebelling against continuing standards set by the previous generation. Braddock played by Dustin Hoffman is a 20 year old who has just graduated from college and is flying home to southern California. The narrative in The Graduate is structured around Ben’s three key relationships and his struggle for independence. The first is Ben’s relationship to his home and his parents, the second is his affair with Mrs. Robinson, and the third is his love for Elaine Robinson, Mrs. Robinson's daughter. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Mrs. Robinson is Ben’s father’s business partner’s wife, and Elaine’s mother. Out of the many editing techniques, Director Nichols employs, how the zoom technique is applied and used in combination with particular elements of the mis en scene reveal shifts in power and show critical moments in Ben’s personal development as he struggles to establish his independence and find his place in the world. Out of the myriad of these elements, I'd like to point to three aspects that are important to the advancement of the narrative and complement the expressive qualities of the zoom editing technique employed. These elements are water, species in captivity, and Ben’s athletic running ability: he was a track star in college.
From the beginning, Nichols uses the zoom out as a perfect lead in to Ben’s return home from college and thereby introducing his struggle. The opening shot is a close-up on Ben’s head, his face, large, takes up the entire screen, he looks worried, pensive. The zoom out then shows that he’s just one of many sitting on a plane, the voice over of a crew member with information about the flight, makes him seem insignificant, powerless. At first, with the close-up he is the center of attention, then with the zoom out he appears small in relation to the world, and the sameness in relation to the other passengers is revealed. He is one of many; a college graduate, who has returned home to live with his parents, and he has no real plan for his future.
The elements of the zoom technique, the fact that the zoom magnifies and recedes are a perfect parallel, to Ben’s struggle. In combination with the close-up the zoom heightens the sense of Ben’s inertia in the beginning scenes. He doesn’t move and neither does the camera. It is only the mechanics of the lens only that makes him appear larger and closer or smaller and farther away.

In his room with the fish tank and by the swimming pool of his parent’s suburban home, we see a microcosm of Ben’s experience in relationship to his parents and home. The fish tank in Ben’s bedroom and the swimming pool in the next scenes function in combination with the zoom. They compound the sense we have of Ben’s emotional turmoil and his sense of helplessness, both exemplified by the water and enclosures that give a sense of entrapment. A striking close up of Ben’s face straight on with a fish tank clearly visible behind his head, has us face Ben’s alienation head on suggesting that he is “a fish out of water.” He has no idea why he has returned home and wants to hide in his room while his parents have a party welcoming him home as “the college graduate.” 

At a birthday barbeque for Ben, his father makes a loud and boisterous announcement to his friends that Ben is going to show off a present for which his father has spent $200 – a diving suit. Ben is behind the glass doors in the house by the side of the pool while his father makes the introductory speech. He is chided by his parents to come out and demonstrate the costly scuba gear in their pool. We see his parent’s and their friends point of view shot (pov) shot of Ben standing still at the back of the room and then walking stiffly towards us. Then we cut to Ben’s pov through his goggles to his feet in the fins. He is hesitant putting his feet down slowly one in front of the other. Then at the edge of the pool holding one fin above the water, not dropping in immediately, a pause. Once in the pool, Ben swims back to the edge of the pool and tries to lift his head up, but his father and mother push him back down in the water. Ben then gives up trying to get out of the water and swims to the end of the pool where he stands submerged and shown in a long shot from which a most significant zoom out occurs. This zoom out in combination with the diving suit, the water, and his parent’s attempts to keep him down under as well as to show him off as if he were some kind of amphibian exhibition, points clearly to Ben’s insignificance in relation to his parents. He is for show only.

Ben needs some release. From his growing frustration with his dependence on his parents and alienation towards their ideas about his future, he is pushed into the arms of Mrs. Robinson. In the earlier scene at his graduation party, she manipulates him into giving her a ride home and then tries unsuccessfully to seduce him. Now he is calling her, and though awkward and tentative, meets with her at a hotel where he forms a sexual entanglement. At first the affair gives Ben some sense of power and control over his destiny. Ironically enough though, it’s his parent’s pressure on him once again (this time to take out the Robinson’s daughter Elaine) that prompt Ben’s motivation to move out of Mrs. Robinson’s arms and into a more self-possessed young man. The move won’t be without difficulty, as Mrs. Robinson has forbid Ben to take her daughter out.

When Ben arrives at the Robinson’s house to pick up Elaine, Ben’s pov shot is a slow zoom in on Mrs. Robinson, who clearly is very unhappy. The pull of her power over him is unmistakable. When Mr. Robinson goes upstairs to get his daughter, Ben sits down next to her. He tries to explain in a half whispering, part desperate voice that it wasn’t his idea and that he’s just going to take her to dinner and then bring her home. He tries to assure her that it won’t happen again. Ben is very concerned that his lover is so upset and at odds with his parents for forcing him to go on this date with her daughter. Once out on the date, Ben acts out terribly. Acting like a perfect boor, walking in front of his date, ordering her around, and taking her to a strip club. Elaine’s reaction of crying, unleashes a wealth of genuine emotion and feelings from Ben for her, as well as regret at his treating her so poorly. They kiss and we see that they are really attracted to each other. The next half of the date, we see that Ben and Elaine are peers and can relate to each other. Ben has finally found someone who he can talk with and who will understand what he is going through. He can open up to her about his uncertainty about his future, his desire to find his own path and to not necessarily walk in his parent’s footsteps and she can relate to him. When he drops Elaine off finally, there is a sense of a new healthy relationship having been formed with a young woman he desires both in body and mind and who unlike Mrs. Robinson does not hold power over or under Ben. He can be his true self. 

The union is disrupted though by Mrs. Robinson’s power over Ben when he comes to take Elaine out on a second date the next day. Water is symbolically used to portray the emotions in the next scene, where it’s pouring rain outside when Ben arrives to pick up Elaine. Mrs. Robinson gets in his car sopping wet and demands that he drive around the block. She threatens to make things difficult and tell everyone about the affair between them. Ben runs to the house to beat her to Elaine. His running is significant in that it prefaces Ben’s taking action on his own behalf. Unfortunately, when he sees Elaine and he tries to tell her about the affair, she spies her mother soaked outside her door, looks at Ben who is soaked too, and puts two and two together. She tells him to leave and as he goes, his pov is a zoom out of Mrs. Robinson, in a black rain coat drenched standing in the corner of the hallway, against the stark white walls behind her were she grows small and alien like, an adult in a childlike position. She says, “goodbye Benjamin.” The zoom and mis en scene function as a symbolic expression of Mrs. Robinson’s loss of importance and control over him. There is no more seduction. This leads the change in plot towards Ben’s personal development and independence.
Nichol’s takes us briefly to back to see the graduate in his room beside the fish tank. This time though, Ben’s desire to be with Elaine and make things moves him to action. He is no longer incapacitated with fear, he knows what he wants. The camera zooms out from him driving his car over the bridge to follow Elaine back to Berkeley where she is in school. He gets smaller until he and his car are indistinguishable, but he is moving. He has a renewed sense of purpose, the element of water (emotion) is there, but he’s not trapped by it, he is crossing over it.

The film’s location now moves to the environment surrounding the Berkeley campus, beginning with a long aerial shot of a fountain [of water] in front of the university, the flagpole standing as a reminder that Ben still has to deal with the establishment. The next shot we see him walk to fountain edge and, by no coincidence, sit down. A zoom out now makes him appear small and insignificant again; he is one of many, the hustle and bustle of the college students in front of the university surrounding him. His pov shot of Elaine walking out of the university doors showing. his longing for her, his emotions, are profound. In a subsequent pov shot, shallow focus on Elaine past the fountain, the blurred statues, suggest there are still obstacles that must be overcome. As if acknowledging this, Ben spurts away. The running star displays a burst of energy showing that he has the ability needed to win this race. His sense of purpose is renewed by the sight of his love, Elaine.

Before another turn in Ben’s development occurs in the story, Nichols takes us to the zoo, where Ben has followed Elaine as she goes there to meet Carl Smith, another suitor. After she quickly introduces Ben to Smith, they walk off and Ben is left to figure out his next step. The element of the monkeys behind the fence is a return to the motif of the species in captivity. Mammals are on display, and it is crucial this time that the species is the mammal, the closest one to our own species of homo sapiens. The shot from the small monkeys behind the fence then zooms in on Ben’s face, but surprises us by moving up over his shoulder to focus on a large lone Ape. This moment introduces a spiritual theme to the film. It evokes the question of the predestination for mankind that is mirrored at the climax of the film. The idea that human beings of all the mammals have free will and an awareness of ourselves, but that there is a greater power, god if one so chooses to call it, that puts us in our omniprescient place. We may not be animals in cages or behind fences, and we can choose actions that we think will help decide our fate, but we really have little control outside of our own actions and of our ultimate outcome. Ben, no longer a fish out of water, or a monkey dependent upon the other monkeys, can attempt to control of his destiny through his actions, despite his parent’s, the establishment, or society’s expectations for how he should lead his life. Despite Elaine’s father, and Mrs. Robinson’s attempts to keep Ben away from Elaine and have her married off to Carl Smith, Ben races against time to find her. A last zoom in on Mrs. Robinson as Ben sneaks into the house and enters her bedroom and demands to know what she has done with Elaine. Mrs. Robinson picks up the phone and calls the police as the camera zooms in on her and recognizes her momentary gain of one upmanship over Ben. He has a somewhat violent reaction, throwing the clothes she was packing from the bed to the floor, vowing that Mrs. Robinson can’t keep Elaine away from him before leaving to avoid the police.

Through his tenaciousness and smarts which were relatively dormant characteristics visible during the fist half of the film, Ben is able to find the church where Elaine is being married. His car is out of gas, but he isn’t, he runs the race of his life. The shot from him running toward to us turns with him and zooms in as he runs up to the large stark, white right-angled church and captures his struggle to get inside.
Once inside he stands behind the glass wall overlooking the rows of pews, opposite the altar. The shot now Ben’s pov of Elaine and Carl Smith, zooming in on them as kiss after the priest assumingly has announced them man & wife. He is overwhelmed and screams out with all his might “Elaine”, then begins pounding the glass that separates them. Elaine walks forward as if in a trance, then looks back at the mad, hissing looking faces of her father, her mother, and then Carl Smith, though no actual sound comes from their mouths. These faces of hatred wake her up to realize her mistake and her scream erupts back “Ben.” It’s a wild, natural call these mates scream out to each other. Ben and Elaine are reaching past what others expect of them and their behavior to the true urges at the core of their beings. There is a chaotic row in the usually stultifying, dogmatic environment of this church, an organized house of religion, involving physical violence by Elaine’s father against Ben and back and then by Elaine’s mother against her. A sardonic play is made when Ben swings a huge religious cross to keep their pursuers at bay and then trap them behind the church doors. He and Elaine run to the street and then climb aboard a local bus, she in her wedding gown, he in his ruffled, dirty street clothes. We see a pov shot from their perspective of the sedate crowd of passengers they pass by as the move to sit at the very back of the bus.
Ben and Elaine laugh and smile at first. They are proud of their accomplishments to do their own thing despite the obstacles put before them. However, they do not embrace. Rather, they sit together but separate and are shown in individual medium close ups that detail various their facial expressions as they contemplate what they’ve done. The camera cuts to see them from outside the back window of the bus. As it drives away, the camera seems to zoom out slightly and then stop, allowing the bus to continue its own movement. These last few shots reflecting back upon the theme of free will, and the question of whether destiny can be controlled. Even though Ben and Elaine have taken the future into their own hands, choosing to surmount the odds and be together, the rest is really quite uncertain.

I think that the older I get the funnier this film gets. The anxieties that college graduate age people are not the same as mine, I'm a middle aged single woman who has worked for 4 decades, brought up two sons, and am now living on my own. Though I still must be young at heart or in some areas the generation gap isn't as relevant because I did watch a film with a 21 year old that we both found hilarious: Horrible Bosses, but that's a discussion for another post.

Thanks for reading. Peace out.

[i] The Graduate. Metro Goldwyn Mayer ; Joseph E. Levine presents a Mike Nichols/Lawrence Turman
    production; directed by Mike Nichols; screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry; produced by
    Lawrence Turman. Beverly Hills, CA: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios : distributed by Embassy Pictures,
    1 Letterbox 2.351:1 DVD screen format (1 hour 46 minutes), color. 1967.
[ii] IMDB, The Internet Movie Database, The Graduate (1967),
[iii]Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, 1967 in film,
[iv]The People History. The Year 1967 From The People History,

Before Night Falls - A Voice for Freedom

A few semesters ago, I read Before Night Falls as part of a course Latin American Literature: Strange Dreams, Strange Desires. Of the pieces we read, it was one of the less creative in form, but it struck me more personally. It was more honest, more forthright. I have great respect for this author's ability not to hold anything back for the fear of being rejected by his readers. Reinaldo Arenas provides many realistic and strikingly honest images of his experience as a homosexual writer struggling for freedom in Cuba. He drives home one of the most powerful of human experiences, for men, that of ejaculation. It’s no coincidence that the result of this act can be procreation, creation itself, another life. Allegorically, the image carries a message that if one is not free, one cannot create. While I think it’s important to recognize the display of his strong sexual identity, it is not singular in its function as a metaphor for freedom. Arenas powerfully encapsulates many images of his struggle for freedom and free speech in Before Night Falls. A critical one is illustrated in the following passage.
None of this surprised me: I already knew that the capitalist system was also sordid and money-hungry. In one of my first statements after leaving Cuba I had declared that the difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream, And I came here to scream.
With this one simple paragraph, Arenas breaks through the societal, political and economical cohesion of stereotypes and exposes a fundamental truth. For it is only through the freedom of speech that we can surpass the trappings made by our moral costumes. The free communication of ideas and philosophies provides a path for humanity to walk upon.

Through my own personal experience I can really relate to Arenas and I adore the revelation he provides me with in Before Night Falls. I am the daughter of a holocaust survivor and a woman who is separated from her husband, but not legally divorced. I am sexually active and, at the same time, yearn for an all encompassing relationship with one person for physical, emotional and intellectual intimacy. Even in the United States, and living in the New York metropolitan area, there are external limitations that I feel are put  upon me by society for my behavior and the choices in how I live my life. I admit to being fearful about  exposing these facts about myself in a public forum. Still I believe that it's important for me to get past that, it pales in comparison to the personal knowledge of what my mother and her family went through along with 6 million other victims of the Holocaust. As a result, I find that I am particularly passionate about the voice of freedom, the scream for humanity.

I am aware of the irony, as I believe Arenas was, that "those great writers who had left Cuba in search of freedom" were not able to publish their work and voice that scream, when they escaped to live in freedom in the United States. Renaldo chose to look past this irony; he recognized that freedom is priceless:
When I saw this blind old lady signing her books under a Mango tree, I understood that she represented a greatness and a spirit of rebellion.

I think he knew, that the “greatness might no longer exist in any of our writers, either in Cuba  or in Exile,” if that same constriction did not exist, as it is often that same restriction which is the impetus for that voice – that scream – that greatness.  Resplendent in Arenas’s “appeal to the International Red Cross, the UN and UNESCO, and the countries still privileged to hear the truth” was the exact paradigm of his conviction: Arenas rewrote his book three or more times, because he had to flee before being arrested, because he was  imprisoned, or because it was stolen showing the drive he possessed toward achieving his freedom of speech. His passion “kept him warm and active during the most turbulent of times.”  Renaldo, was well aware of the darker side of life, the kicks in the pants we all receive in life, the stumbling blocks, pits in the road, and he had many. Even after he left Cuba he felt them, when his manuscripts were stolen, his work was not recognized or remunerated fairly, and when he wasn't able to earn a living. He also felt alienated by his homosexuality in a way that he hadn’t in Cuba though it was outlawed there, and the fact that though in New York and Miami he was not persecuted as a criminal for being a homosexual, it created a nullified voice – less a scream – more a sore throat.

Had it not been for the revolution in Cuba and Castro’s dictatorship, I think that Arenas would have written a very different story. This is the sad paradox which Arenas alludes to by saying that “none of this surprised” him is that the oppression of humanity is one of the greatest inducements to our growth and creativity. Where there is plenty, a kind of complacency and disintegration of values into a hegemonic force of collective greed is fed. Bluntly put, humans become “sordid and money-hungry.”  And where there is religious and political fanaticism the force becomes one of judgment and abuse of those who won’t follow the collective will. The attempt to quell that voice is what actually stimulates it to scream. Those who have had to exist in unbearable conditions such as filth, poverty, and physical and mental abuse bear out this case in point too.  “For three days,” he “walked around Guantanomo without any food.” Many others have survived much worse. The list of crimes against humanity goes on and on.

Arenas believed that his generation in Cuba was destroyed by the communist regime. Yet the regime in Cuba incited his scream, and others continue to scream after near and utter desolation, in Ireland after the potato famine, in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge, in Europe after the Holocaust, and today in Darfur.

Learn more about history of violence in Darfur  
The struggle for freedom and humanity live on in that sheer scream, in the stories of bloodshed, human lives loved, lost and survived that are communicated.

The actual 
limitation on this great writer’s ability to scream—on his freedom to create, to write, to have consensual sexual relations, was the stirring of his passion. Despite the freedom he held living in New York, after escaping another imprisonment and surviving the hardships he suffered in Cuba, and after the physical deterioration from AIDS that stopped him from writing, I believe what ultimately led Arenas to take his own life was the sorrow and grave depression he suffered from his exile and inability to live “and scream” as a free man in his own home land.

I found Before Night Falls, though sad, to be a memorable and inspirational autobiography. I have since seen the film of the same name that tells the story of this great writer's life and I will write about that in a future post.

Thanks for reading. Peace out.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Good Night, and Good Luck

The film, Good Night and Good Luck (2005) was written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and stars David Strathairn, George Clooney and Patricia Clarkson among others.

I love this film. I love it's message. It highlights the democratic ideals in the media and in the world. It's against corporations controlling what the public watches on TV and dumbing down our options. It's about putting the bully in his place and protecting the voice of dissent that should be so dearly protected in a democratic society. Sadly, I think that the state of Television and big Corporate behavior today would be Edward R. Murrow's worst nightmare.

The film's basis is Murrow's ending of silence of any journalistic critical commentary on the Senator Joseph McCarthy's behavior in what seemed like a witch hunt with his hearings in D.C. and the resulting atmosphere, but the film center is surrounded by a bigger message. It begins with Murrow speaking to us as he speaks to the audience at the Radio and Television News Directors Association (
RTDNA) Convention in 1958 and ends there too with his Box of Lights and Wires speech.

My question to you, my reader, is how many hours do you spend watching TV. My challenge to you is watch this film, read the speech, and/or for you to question exactly what it is you are on the receiving end of by doing so.

Thank you for reading my post. Peace out.

Edward R. Murrow actual broadcast

David Strathairn portrayal in Good Night and Good Luck

Above are clips from both the original broadcast and the reproduction in the film of Murrow's first commentary on the actions of McCarthy and what they represent. McCarthy's rebuttal is not included, nor is Murrow's reply to McCarthy's punitive comments. You can find those on the Internet if you would like to see them.

For further reading on the subject of Television and the business of broadcasing, I invite you to read two articles: "To Be Both Free and Enterprising" and "Our History Will be What We Make It."

Editing in Jean Luc-Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) - Unconventional, Revolutionary
or Reads Like a Book?

Perhaps both thoughtful and at the same time spontaneous, Jean-Luc Godard’s style assisted in him in creating of a new form for the narrative. He uses many unconventional direction and editing techniques to create his film Vivre sa vie. Viewing film as an art form, Godard certainly pioneered a break from the use of continuity editing to tell this story. Like with all works of art, the viewer will decide whether his innovative style enhances or detracts from the story in Vivre sa vie. Either way, as much as Godard innovated and used unusual techniques, there’s evidence that he still used many classical methods that maintained a sequential narrative. Like a book, the film Vivre sa vie has chapters, and each one begins with third person spoken words as if we are being told a bed-time story. This immediately sets up a consequential determination for the story of the main character, Nana. A young mother who leaves her family to become an actress, and who is destined for destruction. Throughout Vivre sa vie Godard breaks away from classical editing. Godard’s most obvious betrayal to the classical Hollywood style is in his violation of the 180 degree system. He has no loyalty to such a system. Using shot after shot, he dramatically distances himself from classical continuity: where each frame’s space is reflected from one side of an 180 degree arc, people within are seen where they are expected to be, and what they see is what we expect them to see. Chapter 11 will provide, for discussion here, many examples of this. Indeed, Godard juxtaposes the camera in no set fashion, and intentionally breaks the routine of maintaining temporal dignity within the setting. Beginning with an intentionally misaligned shot, reverse shot. where Nana has mouthed a kiss and we expect to see her eyeline match in the reverse shot, spectator expectations are frustrated. Instead what we see is not the person’s face with whom she‘s flirted, but a medium close up of a man passing by with his back to us. None of his face visible and therefore no expression for us to rely upon. Nana’s actions go unnoticed. It’s the technique that Godard does not use that progresses the character’s, Nana’s, motivation. The next shot and reverse shot are also misaligned with the inspector driving by in his new car, then a cut to Nana pointing and smiling, but he’s already passed. This is one of many illustrations of the disjointedness of Nana’s character in the world.

Another aspect of Godard’s innovation, in addition to the unusual manner he employs temporal and spatial conventions, is in his use of a daringly simplified Mise en Scene as compared with a classical Hollywood setting. We see Nana walk after a john who has indicated his intention to purchase her service, then cut to them walking down a hall together, a high angle shot through the stair banister, then to a shot of the interior
Shot 1
of the room in which they’ve arrived--but they are not there. We just see what we presume to be the hotel room with a closet door with a mirror and no reflection. The setting is mostly empty and there is no match on action. It’s in Godard’s ability to strip out, using temporal and spacial gaps and disruption, which causes the viewer the same alienation and emptiness that Nana might feel as a prostitute walking into the room where she’ll exchange sex for money. If that weren’t 
Shot 2
bad enough, after discussing payment, Nana asks “are you romantic?”, almost as if she were a teenager on a date, but the response is rebuffed. Godard shows the john’s mouthing words, but does not allow us to hear. Instead, we hear from Nana repeating his desire to have a 2nd girl. Nana needs to find another girl to satisfy the man. She’s not special enough.

Shot 3
In the next sequence of shots Nana leaves the room to find another girl. We watch her go in several directions opening and shutting doors in a close hallway. Each instance of the room’s occupants shows us how inconsequential Nana’s existence is to judged. Behind the first door Nana opens, the prostitute appears in total nudity from the side, sitting down straight-back looking straight ahead with the john’s back to us kneeling down his left arm situated on the over the girls thighs, both turn slightly towards Nana, but say nothing. Nana closes the door. Then we are viewing a door straight ahead which we think is to the right, but we don’t see Nana opening the door, instead we see the reflection of another door and the sound of the door that she is presumably opening and shutting, behind us. Nana opens and enters yet another door and disappears from our sight to the left this time. We see a girl standing in the nude with her back to us and a John passing behind her to where Nana presumably stands. He asks what is it? Nana exits the room, saying “nothing,” pulling the door closed.

Shot 4
Shot 5
She’s in a confused, trapped space where she’s looking for help, and her interaction with others is cold and nonchalant. It’s as if she’s in the record store, and returning a response to a client who’s asking if there is an album by a specific artist. No intonation in the voice, just a relay of 
Shot 6
facts. Nana doesn’t fit in, she’s going in the wrong direction, like running up a down escalator. Finally a girl comes out of a room, and Nana asks what she’s doing and if she can spare a moment. The girl asks how much and Nana responds “ask him.” Everyone else is concerned with themselves.

The john makes arrangements with the other girl and begins a sexual encounter with her, while Nana is still undressing. This 2nd girl is more desirable than Nana. Godard uses this alternative approach to classical editing techniques and shows Nana’s lack of self-worth in the world (and her life). She is easily replaced by another girl and does not even need to undress. She is not noticed, she is vapid. Life goes on without her. We see her before the window and balcony, but she’s nothing, no one. She’s worse than just an object to Men, her existence makes no difference.

Godard’s unusual screen direction provides us with striking images that both cater to and undermine our
understanding of the main character. His use of discrepancy serves as a visual interpretation of Nana. She doesn’t have a place in the world, there is no consistency in her life, outside of disruption. She lacks control and so we as viewers are subjected to Godard’s imagery to that effect.

Shot 7
In Godard's Vivre sa vie, we are forced to vicariously experience Nana’s journey from a mother, to wannabe actress, to unwanted prostitute as cataloged in each of chapter through Godard’s lens. And, we are forced to attend to her demise. With all the stokes of Godard’s brush, the end result is still a narrative driven piece of cinematography. As much as Godard innovated using unusual editing techniques, these served to flavor, but do not break the sequential story of Nana and her downfall from beginning, to middle, to the end.

Thanks for reading. Peace out.

Shot by Shot Breakdown 

Shot 1 (Medium shot) Straight-on angle. Nana and John
negotiating, after she says “If you
give me more, you can stay.”
370 frames

Shot 2

(Medium close-up)

Straight-on angle. Door in hallway.
Nana’s hand comes in from left to
push open door.

39 frames

Shot 3

(Medium long shot)

Straight on angle. Nana’s POV.
Door opens showing nude prostitute 
with john and door closes.

120 frames

Shot 4

(Medium close-up)

Straight-on angle. Door in hallway.

24 frames

Shot 5
(Medium close-up)
Straight-on angle. Door in hallway
with shadow of another door opening.

72 frames

Shot 6

(Medium close-up)

Straight-on angle. Door in hallway
with shadow of another door closing.

72 frames

Shot 7

(Close up)

Straight-on angle. Nana’s back from
the right side.

72 frames