Tommy Wiseau, Authorship, and Mise-en-Scene in The Room (2003)

Posted in cinema NOW! on January 5, 2010 by Derek Long

Hiya folks,

Yes, it’s really me. I might update you on my life in a subsequent post, but for now, a short piece on a favorite film.

Get Out! Get Out! Get OUT of my LIFE!

Get Out! Get Out! Get OUT of my LIFE!

One of the fleeting pleasures of living in Atlanta is the monthly screening of Tommy Wiseau’s trashy opus The Room at the Plaza Theater on Ponce de Leon Avenue. If you’re unfamiliar with the film or its cult status, I highly recommend that you check out Clark Collis’s article at Entertainment Weekly or Scott Tobias’s more recent account at The Onion before reading further (or see the film yourself if it’s available at your local indie exhibitor). In any case, rest assured that mere words cannot adequately describe the sheer giddiness that The Room elicits from me. I see Wiseau’s film as many things at once: a pleasure that (I’m somewhat ashamed to say) exceeds that of many of my favorites from classical Hollywood; a stunning, if unintentional, corollary to auteur theory; and an equally stunning affirmation of the notion of authorship itself.

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Shameless Plug

Posted in Uncategorized on August 5, 2009 by Derek Long

Hi all,

Just a suggestion to head on over to Escape Pod X and listen to “The Man Who Stole a Planet,” a re-imagined episode of the old radio series Quiet, Please. It stars my old Midd pals Stefan Claypool and Jessie Gurd, as well as yours truly in some minor parts.

Or, even better, subscribe to the podcast: http://feeds.feedburner.com/EscapePodX

This is something I’ll be periodically involved in, so if you absolutely, positively must hear my voice instead of reading boring old posts about boring old movies, check it out.

I’m working on a post about Tommy Wiseau and The Room, his so-bad-its-good melodrama. I actually “finished” it before this post, but I’m not entirely happy with it so you get this plug instead. Quality over quantity, that’s my motto! <nervous laugh>

Oh, and for the fall I’ll be doing thesis research (the rise and fall of independent production in the 1930s), an authorship seminar on the great Billy Wilder, and a course on the role of gender in genre (with healthy doses of Douglas Sirk and Nick Ray!).

"You are TEARING me APART, Lisa!"

"You are TEARING me APART, Lisa!"

A “Cinephiliac Anecdote”

Posted in Uncategorized on June 24, 2009 by Derek Long

Hi everyone,

Another one of my writings, this time from my Contemporary Film Theory course. For the class, we read (Middlebury’s very own) Chris Keathley’s Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees, which offers a fascinating model for historical writing about film: the cinephiliac anecdote. The model’s power lies in its ability to move beyond the deep, metaphorical “meaning” of film texts in favor of ephemeral surface details – cinephiliac moments – that reveal unexpected insights that conventional historical discourses about film tend to dismiss. These insights often take the form of metonymic connections between separate film texts, and I attempted to use a kind of metonymic technique in writing my anecdote.

I should note that I first noticed the moment in question while taking Professor Keathley’s senior seminar in film, and that it was the subject of some discussion – the juiciest bits of which may have subconsciously influenced my writing, so I apologize to anyone who took The Surfaces of Cinema in 2007 whose comments or ideas I am unable to credit. While I am still trying to refine this particular mode of critical writing (with more of an emphasis on the critical), I have found that it can be incredibly liberating in illuminating what it is many people love about the cinema, and why they engage with it the way they do. As a theoretical approach, I am also attracted to the fact that writing a cinephiliac anecdote is a spectator-centered activity whereas many of the approaches of “Grand Theory” essentialize and totalize our viewing of films. Anyway, here’s the beef:

DanaAndrews

In Otto Preminger’s 1944 film Laura, Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), suspects the titular character (Gene Tierney) of murder and brings her down to the station for a taste of the third degree. Preminger’s mise-en-scene here is striking; Gene Tierney looks as if she’s being lit by an arc lamp from the silent era. My favorite moment in the film, however, comes as McPherson begins to move to the other side of the table where Laura is seated and awkwardly runs into a wooden chair before quickly moving it out of his way. The moment strikes me like an arrow—Dana Andrews seems genuinely surprised at the chair’s presence, as if he had not anticipated it when blocking out the scene. In many ways it’s a moment, however ephemeral, of pure realism—the kind of moment Bazin would have reveled in and that cinephilia seeks out, but made more perfect by its double significance. Dana Andrews is playing McPherson, who is in turn playing the “bad cop” in this scene within a scene, and the chair in question temporarily impedes both of them. My own pleasure here is also two-fold: first, in anticipating the chair, and second, in seeing Andrews and McPherson deal with it.

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“Narratage” and the Classical Flashback in The Sin of Nora Moran (Majestic, 1933)

Posted in Writings! on June 8, 2009 by Derek Long

Hi everyone. I promised content, and here it is! Hooray!

I wrote this paper for my Contemporary Film Theory course…it was partly inspired by David Bordwell’s blog post on flashback structure, in which he explores the surprisingly early origins of the flashback as a narrative device and devotes a few paragraphs to The Sin of Nora Moran (the post is well worth a read, as is Maureen Turim’s book on the subject). As usual, footnote formatting is sort of troublesome. In this case, [brackets] indicate a reference to a footnote, while (parentheses) refer to the syuzhet segments listed in appendix 1. Enjoy.

NoraMoranPic

For many years, received histories of the flashback in classical Hollywood cinema pointed to Citizen Kane (RKO, 1941) as a watershed film in the use of flashback-structured narration, a film that set off a cycle of flashback-obsessed noirs and melodramas during the 1940s and 1950s. More recent accounts, however, have shown that flashbacks are nearly as old as the cinema itself, and that convoluted flashback-structured narratives predate Citizen Kane by several years [1].  An oft-cited film in this regard is The Power and the Glory (Fox, 1933), a Jesse Lasky-produced melodrama written by Preston Sturges [2].  The film’s innovative narrative structure was a key selling point for the studio; Fox executives coined the term “narratage” (a portmanteau of “narrative” and “montage”) to publicize it. Specifically, the term referred to the use of voice-over narration to anchor a flashback sequence in time (usually “the past”) and to remind the viewer of the presence of a diegetic narrator “in the present.” A Maureen Turim has shown, the anchoring function of voice-over in The Power and the Glory helps to stabilize an otherwise chaotic narration that jumps continually forward and backward among three separate periods in the life of its deceased protagonist, Thomas Gardner (Spencer Tracy), while the flashback structure as a whole serves to ironically condemn his actions [3].  Citizen Kane’s similarities to The Power and the Glory are unmistakable, although Welles’s film has a more intricate narrative structure and a richer mise-en-scene. Clearly, the notion of a non-chronologically structured syuzhet (to use the Formalist term) was not at all foreign to Hollywood by 1941; Kane was simply a more baroque example of a long-standing formal tradition. Continue reading

1 Year Down

Posted in Uncategorized on May 6, 2009 by Derek Long

Hiya folks. Just a quick update to let you all know that I’ve finished the first year of my program at Emory. I’ve learned a lot this year, narrowed my research interests (more on that soon), and seen some absolutely great movies. I’ll be taking a much-needed break for a few days (definitely going to see J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek on Thursday), but after that it’s back to more frequent updates (not saying much, I know).

Also, it has come to my attention that my mom now reads my blog on occasion. Hi, mom. I’ll try not to embarass you in front of the ether-cloud. Happy early Mother’s Day.

Status report!

Posted in Uncategorized on March 15, 2009 by Derek Long

Hi everyone. You may have noticed my disturbing lack of recent content. I apologize for said lack (disturbing psychoanalysis flashback!). Suffice it to say I am working on research and planning for the future. I should hopefully be back to a regular update schedule by mid-May. My plan for the summer is more reviews and short pieces, coupled with the occasional Pit of Eternal Torment.

In the meantime, I urge everyone to check out Battlestar‘s final episode, which promises to be epic, as well as Joss Whedon’s new show Dollhouse, which is shaping up to be quite a series (in my humble opinion). I can’t help but wonder if one day the ’00s will be known as the Golden (Silver?) Age of Television.

Fun!

The Master of Suspense Returns!

Posted in first views on February 1, 2009 by Derek Long

After a relaxing holiday and an edifying and nostalgic walk down College Street, I’m back in Atlanta for semester #2 at Emory. My apologies for the month-long hiatus; the beginning of the semester tends to create conditions adverse to updates (as in the watching of SeaQuest DSV, East of Eden, and other online Netflix goodies). My classes this term: Contemporary Film Theory, the sequel to last semester’s Classical course; Gender and the Monstrous Body, a seminar in horror through various theoretical lenses (including feminism, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology); and Pre-Code Cinema, a course in historiography sampling that most wonderful of cinematic vintages, 1932. Some absolutely fantastic screenings so far, such that I have chosen yet again to cursorily describe the films (rather than reviewing any in depth) in the hope that someone out there will spread the good word. Some (namely, I) accuse me of privileging quantity over quality and indulging in esoteric interest. I guess all I can say (to myself) is welcome to the rightmost tip of the Long Tail! (I smell a Long Take subtitle…)

First up, my screenings so far from my Contemporary Theory class:


blowup

Blowup [Michaelangelo Antonioni, 1966]

Just as good the third time around, but not much to say that hasn’t already been said. Antonioni’s opus is famous for killing the already anemic Production Code, and is still one of the best films ever made about subjectivity and the act of spectatorship. I mean…nothing. It’s not about anything. Sorry. Actually, it is. But not really.

Seriously though, take a good look at the famous frame above. At first glance, the diagonal arrangement of the fashion models, combined with the lines of the room’s walls, floor, and ceiling, give the shot a strong sense of depth. However, Antonioni’s real project here is to expose the artifice of this depth as an act of “framing.” An extended look reveals the forced perspective of the space, and the glass panes separating the models expose our sense of depth as a simply a discontinuous series of flat planes. Furthermore, while the shot as a whole is obviously framed extradiegetically (even art films like Blowup tend to be projected in standardized rectangular aspect ratios), inside the story world, the act of framing here is a two-fold phenomenon. David Hemmings, the figure in the foreground who plays the film’s protagonist (Thomas, a fashion photographer), is framing a shot of the models using the viewfinder in his camera. Mentally erase his figure from the shot for a moment, and it is almost as if we are looking through his viewfinder at the intended shot. We thus retain a sense of both the objective scene and Thomas’s subjective point of view (as mediated by a camera), and Antonioni exposes an ambivalence about the act of spectatorship itself.

In any case, Blowup is one of those films worth a frame-by-frame analysis – and such an analysis would only begin to scratch the surface.

adams

The Thin Blue Line [Errol Morris, 1988]

A superb documentary (although Morris apparently prefers the term “nonfiction film”) about the murder of a policeman and the wrongful conviction of the accused killer, Randall Dale Adams. Adams was eventually exonerated as a result of this film (and then sued Errol Morris for “stealing” his life story, but that’s a tale for another day). Visually stunning and morally exasperating.

As I’ve said, I’m normally going to try to avoid overt politics in this blog, but I know of few people who could watch this film and sill believe afterward that capital punishment is ever defensible, not to mention in a modern, democratic society.

There you go…short pieces on some of my other screenings to follow. Also, I am working on a theory project for my Horror class on highway safety films of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s (Signal 30, Mechanized Death, Wheels of Tragedy, Death on the Highway, The Last Prom). I have already viewed Bret Woods’s excellent documentary on the subject, Hell’s Highway, but if anyone knows of any pertinent academic work, particularly on the relationship between safety or educational films and the horror genre, please do let me know.

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