Old (Film) School: Androids: Death Watch, Blade Runner, & Alien: Resurrection

Originally written on April 26, 2001



The technology of modern sci-fi films incorporates the need in humans to become more perfect. Androids and robots represent the perfect strength and dexterity that humans wish to gain. The artifice of the android also reveals the fear in humans of making a technology that is better than we could ever be.  Modern sci-fi films illustrate through artifice the weakness of humans and the superiority of the machine.

In the film Death Watch(1980), Roddy is a man who is equipped with cameras in his eyes so he can film anything he watches. Roddy is not technically an android but does possess machine parts that make him more powerful. Roddy’s camera eyes give him the advantage over unenhanced artists because he simply looks and shoots. Roddy is not encumbered by bulky cameras or equipment and is therefore superior to other humans in this respect.

The downside of Roddy’s camera is that it makes him less human. Roddy cannot be in darkness or his camera eyes will fail. To make sure his eyes don’t fail, Roddy takes a lot of amphetamines and learns to sleep with his eyes open. The inability to sleep properly makes Roddy vulnerable. Consequently, Roddy’s camera eyes become a liability as they finally render him blind. Roddy finds that technology can make a better human, but only up to a point. He realizes that spectacular technology does not guarantee human betterment, but instead human misery.

The replicants in Blade Runner(1982) represent both the fear and hope that humans hold about technology. All of the Nexus 6 models encompass incredible strength and intelligence. Their only downfall is their “accelerated decrepitude”. Other than the short life span, the replicants are built better and function better than human beings. This fact causes humans to fear them unless they are in the service of humans.

Roy Baty is the Ubermensch of the group of replicants. He embodies all the wondrous qualities of the artificial. Roy is incredibly strong, he is witty and clever, and he has the capacity to feel real emotions. Of all the characters in Blade Runner, Roy is the most human while obviously not being human. Roy feels deeply about the plight of his replicant friends and wants to help them live longer. When he realizes that is not going to happen, he kills Tyrell in a fit of passionate rage. Tyrell is obstensively Roy’s father and realizing that one’s own father cannot help is a huge blow to Roy. Though Roy’s killing of Tyrell is brutal, this act shows that he understands the finality of his situation and those of his friends.

Roy also has the capacity for forgiveness, which is a very human virtue. When he battles Deckard in the hotel he is ruthless up to a point. Yet Roy finally saves Deckard by pulling him up to the roof. The act of saving Deckard gives Roy a humanity that is lacking in the humans around him. The humans want only to kill the replicants who escaped to Earth, yet Roy saves a human anyway. It is heartening to see that a replicant can be compassionate as well as vicious.

The replicants are actually just like humans, except for the fact that they are stronger, smarter and live for less time. This is what scares humans about replicants; that they have the capacity to become so much like us, yet not at all like us. The superiority of technology over biology is probably why humans don’t want replicants on Earth. The replicants are a constant reminder that technology created by humans can produce advanced forms of artificial life but cannot be applied to humans. Humans want all of the special attributes that replicants possess, but they do not want to be artificial. It seems as if humans created a superior breed and then started to resent it. Through the replicants humans finally understood the fragility of biological life and this upset them greatly.

The android Call from Alien: Resurrection(1997) is an interesting example of technology. Call is very unassuming and does not reveal her true self until very far into the film. Call is supposedly programmed to care about people and to help them defeat the dreaded aliens. Ripley is amused by this fact because it seems as if the only one who cares about preserving life on Earth is a robot. All of the other people just care about saving themselves and getting off the ship, with fairly little concern about the aliens invading Earth. Even Ripley, who knows how horrible the aliens are, is somewhat sympathetic towards them.

Call is crushed when her companions find out she is a robot. Many of them make disparaging comments about her; one even calls her a toaster. Even in the far progressed future, robots are a novelty to humans. They are seen as freaks and are treated as such. This is why Call hid her real identity; hoping to be judged by her own merits, not by the fact that she was a robot. Yet in the end, Call reluctantly gave into her nature and used her wiring to save everyone.

The human experience is one of possessing a natural body and living in an artificial world. The androids and robots in sci-fi films represent this idea. We live in a world bombarded with technology and media. There is no place to hide from the mechanization of life. The humans best efforts to combat technology and to return to nature are futile, as this world is one of artifice. There is a constant philosophical question in the human mind as to what is real and what is produced. Androids are a proxy to understanding this question.

Technology is a perplexing issue for humans in sci-fi as well as in real life. In the book Screening Space author Vivian Sobchack observes that, “Immersed in media experience, conscious of mediated experience, we no longer experience any realm of human existence as unmediated, immediate “natural”.” (Sobchack, 237). This idea is applied very well to sci-fi films. In Blade Runner it is incredibly hard to differentiate between the human and the artificial. The technology produced in replicants is so human-like that a precise machine must be used to tell a human from a replicant. This is the human fear of technology; that we no longer have the ability to determine what is natural because there is no longer anything natural left in the world.

Sci-fi films represent technology as both beneficial and detrimental. Androids are extraordinary because they were made from humans to be so perfect. Their strength and perfection is a credit to our knowledge of science and its application. Androids also frighten people because they are so perfect that humans know they cannot live up to that level of engineered perfection. In essence, humans are afraid of anything that is different from themselves, of the Other. Humans attack difference due to a mixture of jealousy and ignorance. The ingrained human instinct to destroy Otherness is why humans are fearful of androids and artificial life in its varying forms.

 Works Cited

Sobchack, Vivian. (1987). Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.



Old (Film) School: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Originally written on February 20, 2003


Author’s Note: This essay discusses in part Nicholas Ray’s film ‘Johnny Guitar’. I rarely caution against viewing films, yet unless you feel it is completely necessary, skip ‘Johnny Guitar’. Plainly, this is a poorly constructed and acted  film. If you want to watch an excellent Ray film, I implore you to make ‘In a Lonely Place’ a priority. That film is highly disturbing and in my estimation contains Humphrey Borgart’s greatest performance. 

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown(1988), directed by Pedro Almodovar, introduces a surprising and refreshing take on how women are represented filmically. The film uses the American melodrama Johnny Guitar (1954) as the genesis for the tale of heartbroken Pepa(Carmen Maura). From an American tale of heartbreak and loss emerges a story of female empowerment this is distinctively Almodovar.

Vienna(Joan Crawford) from Johnny Guitar is used to parallel the life of Pepa. Vienna is a strong woman who struggles to gain her financial independence without a man. Pepa used her own talents to further her career, but her lover was at her side for a portion of the time. The fact that Ivan(Fernando Guillen) and Pepa are dubbing Johnny Guitar at the time of their breakup is used to remind Pepa of her sadness and how life cannot always imitate the movies.

In Johnny Guitar, Vienna plays it sly with Johnny(Sterling Hayden), until she finally breaks down. She does not want him to think she was waiting for him, even though she was. Pepa, on the other hand, calls Ivan several times with the desperation of a dying woman. Even though Pepa is much better off(financially, socially, and in relation to gender roles) than Vienna, she acts much more impulsively and erratically due to her broken heart.

The contrast of these two female leads is stunning when viewed in the context of time and history. The character of Vienna exists in the outlaw West, yet owns her own business, is the boss of several men and wears pants. To pull back even further, this film was produced when women did not have many career aspirations, would not have been the boss of men and rarely wore pants. Pepa, conversely, is a successful woman living within the relatively open space of post-Fascist Spain. Pepa’s behavior seems like a throw-back to olden times, especially since she wears a series of dresses, tracks down her lover’s other woman and throws tantrums involving fire and beds.

The way that Vienna and Pepa ultimately deal with their men is divergent from what is expected. Vienna takes back Johnny, after some resistance, despite his unexplained absence. Pepa decides to forsake Ivan, even though she is pregnant with their baby. Conventional wisdom would dictate that since Pepa was so obsessed with Ivan, she would take him back. Yet Almodovar gives Pepa a modern spirit by allowing her the right to her own life.

Pepa’s declaration of independence from Ivan is meant to illustrate that women should not take back dishonest men, even if they love them. One can ponder that Vienna really wanted to be rid of Johnny the second time around, but since this was a film set in the 1840’s and produced in 1954, this was not a viable option. Almodovar allows Pepa the ability to express her violent emotions toward Ivan through such acts as spying, spiking gazpacho and throwing phones. Pepa realizes that reconciliation with Ivan would only jeopardize her happiness and that of the pending child.

One of the probable messages that Almodovar was trying to convey by departing from the Johnny Guitar model, was that women should not stay beholden to toxic men. The majority of  men in Women are less than stellar fellows. Ivan is a womanizer and his son Carlos(Antonio Banderas) appears to be a fledgling one. The Shiite terrorists, the police and even the mention of the “Crossroads Killer” shows that Madrid is not populated by savory men. The telephone repair man and the Mambo Taxi driver are the only benevolent males that are found along the way.

The female characters of Women are not saints by any means, but are made to look more sympathetic than the men. The women’s misery and dissatisfaction is shown as a by-product of their relationships with distrustful men. Pepa is crazed because of how Ivan treated her. Candela(Maria Barranco) is a wreck because of the terrorists and as she says, “Look how the Arab world treated me. I sure didn’t deserve that.” Lucia(Julieta Serrano) is particularly dejected, due to her psychosis, which was partially caused by Ivan. Even Marisa(Rossy de Palma) is more fulfilled sexually by her own mind, than by her stuttering fiance.

The tragedy of women’s lives is a topic that Almodovar embraces with warmth and understanding. Pedro knows that in our secret fantasy worlds we may want Johnny Logan to sweep us away, but this is not a healthy situation. Almodovar gives us what we need, which is a portrait of a woman who can overcome heartache and still prevail in the long run.

Old (Film) School: Hearts and Minds

Originally written on November 26, 2002


The documentary Hearts and Minds (1974) directed by Peter Davis is a scathing indictment of US involvement in the Vietnam War. The disjointed structure of the film leads the director to slowly reveal his ideas about the conflict. The aura surrounding the film is one of scolding the US government and also those associated with the war who still believed in its’ validity even after returning home. Hearts and Minds is a powerful documentary that skews the perception of the war in favor of the opposition.

To say the Vietnam War was a good idea is a fairly unwise statement; most people now would agree with this.  Yet during the early 1970’s the Cold War was still very real and Communism was a perceived threat to freedom. Those in the documentary who support the war, includind a POW who was captive for six years, were relegated to the role of fools. The idea that they could find the war important is mocked by the director. These men are held up as examples of the evil of the American government. Yet in the context of the time in which this film was made, the notion that the Vietnam War was a good idea was the prevailing and accepted idea. To hold these men up to ridicule because they were loyal to their country is unfair to them. They served their country as best they could and to deride their image for a personal, and at the time marginal belief, is just as bad as those who spit on Vietnam Vets or called them “baby killers” when they came home.

Another device the director uses to convey the wrongness of the Vietnam War is curiously high school football. This scene juxtaposes images of poor Vietnamese peasants being killed with scenes of a night at a high school football game. The young football players get riled up before the game and then play while concerned and peppy cheerleaders watch. The images from Vietnam during the montage show feeble adults and scared children being brutalized by American soldiers. One has to ask though, what is this montage supposed to be conveying? Is the director saying that high school football trains young Americans to be able to engage in atrocities during wartime? Most probably, this is what the director is trying to imply and this rings very false. The relationship between football and savagery are tenuous, at best. Davis could have just as well spliced in images from a rugby match, which is much more violent than football, being played with no padding or helmets. Therefore, his allusion that American youth culture breeds violence is unfair to those school children whose images were used in the film and who may or may not have turned into violent people because of football.

This documentary proves the fact that it is very difficult to produce an objective portrayal of truth, even in non-fiction films. Noel Carrol argues that documentaries may not project reality, but on the other hand, fiction can sometimes be considered close to reality(Carroll, 239). As in the case of Citizen Kane, which is loosely based on William Randolph Hearst’s life and which caused Hearst to ostensibly ruin Welle’s career for his honesty about the mogul. The whole issue of objectivity in documentaries brings out the fact that every person has a unique view of reality, which varies widely from other people’s view of reality. Therefore, the maker of Hearts and Minds was just introducing his view of the Vietnam conflict from his specific position of reality. Though the portrayal of veterans is often underhanded, this is apparently how Davis felt from his own reality. Hearts and Minds stands as an example of a documentary that exposes important information about the Vietnam conflict but also skewers those involved in it. Overall, the film is uneven in its sentiments but that is because everyone’s take on reality is different and therefore valid, no matter how upset it makes the audience.

Carroll, Noel. (1996) Theorizing the Moving Image. New York: Cambridge University Press

Old (Film) School: Chocolat by Claire Denis

Originally Written in 2003


The overlying essence of the film Chocolat is one of stagnation and entropy.  The character of France is the only person who seems to be comfortable with her surroundings and this is because she is a child.  Every other character possesses a volatile intensity that is a product of their position in Cameroonian society.

Stagnation is most evident when observing Aimée.  She is a vital young woman who is simply bursting to live a normal life. It is obvious that Aimée detests Cameroon, for she tries to keep her own traditions, while stubbornly  refusing to try new African ways. She also barely talks or relates with France; for she is too engrossed in her wistful dreaming of home. When she finally reaches out to Protée, she is rebuked for overstepping her boundaries.  It is as if Aimée is stuck in a narrow box in which she cannot be happy because she is not home and cannot make a home in such a rigidly defined locale.

The entropy of Chocolat is evident from observing the male characters. The white men are incredibly edgy because they know, deep down, that their occupation is unjust and will be short-lived.  Marc is fairly calm for he knows that the colony will not last.  The other white men express their uneasiness by acting superior to the black people and to women. Protée deals with the inevitable by acting stoically while being the consummate butler.  He knows the occupation will eventually end and he will then be able to live with the dignity which the white man had denied him.

Old (Film) School: Solaris

Originally written on March 22, 2001

criterionsolarisSolaris cover

In both the film and the novel Solaris, Kelvin is a man tortured by his need to find meaning. Kelvin struggles to find meaning in his purpose on Solaris, his life on Earth and his relationship with Rheya/Khari. The book echoes this feeling in the utter void of explanation for Kelvin’s visit to Solaris. The film portrays Kelvin’s problems as inherently linked with the ocean. The position that Kelvin inhabits at the end of both pieces is one of malaise, depression, and an inability to deal with the truth

In the novel, Kelvin is finished with the fact that science rules our lives. Kelvin states, ”We all know that we are material creatures, subject to laws of physiology and physics, and not even the power of all our feelings combined can defeat those laws. All we can do is detest them.” (Lem, 204). Kelvin seems to want a less tangible way of life. He wishes that Rheya was real. If he had not been governed by science he could have been with Rheya and not felt guilt about it. Unfortunately, Kelvin knew she was an apparition and therefore could never really have her. His belief and trust in science had ruined his second chance at love and redemption.

Kelvin also stops believing in love. He states, ”The age-old faith of lovers and poets in the power of love, stronger than death, that finis vitae sed non amoris is a lie, useless and not even funny. “(Lem, 204). Kelvin feels so strongly against love because Rheya left him for a second time. The first time Rheya left, he blamed himself for her suicide. The second time that Rheya appeared, Kelvin thought that he had been given a chance to make amends and love her the right way. He learned that love does not transcend death. Rheya could not love Kris with the same capacity or intensity that he loved her. Therefore Kris was resigned to believe that love is an illusion; a cruel joke that does nothing but bring heartache and torment. Love is no longer a duality of happiness/sadness for Kris. Love only represents pain and loss; this is why he decides to give up belief in love as something that can be beautiful.

Kelvin had attained very little by the end of the novel. He set out to make contact with the ocean for naught. His sole mission on Solaris was a great failure and this left him feeling empty. The only information Kelvin learned about Solaris was that nothing could be learned about Solaris. No scientist had ever cracked the mysteries of the ocean. By the end, Kelvin believed no one would ever get even close to the “why” of the ocean.

The lack of knowledge that Kelvin receives from his mission utterly devastates his life. His professional career is over because nothing important or relevant was accomplished during his tenure on Solaris. If anything, Kris’ time on Solaris introduced an infinite array of questions that he could not answer. How could Kris come to understand the ocean’s strange “gift” of Rheya? What did the ocean wish to accomplish by placing Rheya on Solaris with him? Why did the ocean resist all forms of contact with humans, but then gave them virtual loves? All of these questions plagued Kris and left him with no answer. Kris came to distrust and discount all he ever held to be true because of his time on Solaris.

In the film, Kris contends with his experiences on Solaris in a slightly different way. He is upset by the appearance of Khari. At first he sends her away in a rocket, but when she reappears he fully embraces her. He loves Khari so much that he wants to be with her forever. Khari realizes she is not the real Khari and this devastates her. She wants Kris to realize this but he refuses. He wants her and does not care if she is real or not. For this reason, Khari kills herself to set Kris free. She wants him to love someone who is real, not a copy or fantasy.

After Khari kills herself Kelvin completely detaches from reality. He wholly succumbs to the mystery of the ocean. The very last scene shows Kris at his home, but it is not really his home; it is a fabrication of the ocean. On this island home Kris can live life the way he wants to. He can finally make amends with his father and start over. He gives into a fantasy world because it is the only thing he wants.

The ocean was possibly trying to help Kris make amends with the people in his life who he hurt. That is why Khari appeared to him on the station. The dreams of Kris’ mother may have also been manifestations of his need for her love. The ocean may have recognized Kris’ deep need to reconcile his past failures with those he loved. This is why it offered him the island home to use as a way to make things right.

Kelvin’s transformation was into a person who does not care what truth is. After being able to have Khari around again he does not want reality. Kris wants to live in a world where all the things that once went wrong could be righted. Any person would want to be able to hug their father and forgive all the wrong that went on in the past. The ultimate wish of children is to be able to have the love and respect of their parents. This is what Kris gained by living on his island  home. He got to feel the pure love that a child needs from their father, since he could never get that love in a conventional or real way on Earth.

The beginning and end of the film are very similar yet radically different. At the beginning, Kris is surveying the lake and woods around his home. The shot of the flowing water and grass show the tranquility of his surroundings. It is evident that Kris loves this place very much and will miss it when he goes to Solaris. At the end of the film the same shot of the flowing water and grass is shown. On the island home the ocean has provided Kris with the beautiful surroundings he loves. Other than the surroundings though the island home is completely different.

At the beginning, Kris and his father argue before he leaves for Solaris. Kris’ father chastises him for his inability to interact nicely with other people. This angers Kris and they part on bad terms. On the mystical island home, Kris is fully embraced by his father. This was his innermost wish and he finally gets to realize it on Solaris. To Kris is does not matter that this situation is not real. Kris will except this facade because fake acceptance and love is better than none in his mind.

The novel and film Solaris raise nearly unanswerable questions about love and reality. The film asks if it is better to live a lie if you ultimately find love that way? Is this a dishonest way to live or is it justifiable? The novel contends that love is always an illusion and will cause pain in the end. These two ideas cast Kris in a surprisingly similar light. In the novel he has cast off all the trappings of reality for his own reality. Kris believes that all he knew was wrong, so why live that way anymore. Conversely, in the film, Kris also casts off reality for his own private world. He lives there to be fulfilled by the love he never received in the past. Both representations of Kris yield a man who wants to live in a world separate from the one he knew previously.

Works Cited:

Lem, Stanislaw (l961). Solaris. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Old (Film) School: Cinema of Michael Haneke

Originally written on October 3, 2002

Author’s Note: I had never watched a Haneke film previous to that Autumn. Try watching ‘The Piano Teacher’ 8 times in a week.  FUN! I still love Mr. Haneke today.  Hurts so good.  


Director Michael Haneke incites audiences to ponder deeply the motivation of his characters and their worldview. In Code Unknown seemingly disjointed scenarios bring forth a feeling of repression and loneliness. In The Piano Teacher, one is encountered with scenes of horrid brutality which are enacted with quiet calm. Haneke’s use of little to no backstory and unsettling camera movements lead the viewer to have to work for an answer.

Film theoretician Noel Carrol discusses how an audience views a text through narrative structure in Theorizing the Moving Image. He speaks of audience expectation when he says,

“….they expect answers to the questions that earlier events have made salient …. we not only want but expect answers to questions that have assertively been put before us … (Carroll, 89).”

With this in mind, the cinema of Haneke poses a sharp contrast to what is supposed to happen in the course of a film. Haneke does not make viewing easy; rather he makes it an arduous task for any tangible meaning.

The style of filming which Haneke employs is not in the usual mode encountered. Carroll’s view on visual devices is

” ….directing audience attention through the single shot or variable framing …. the devices of visual narration….help make those questions salient.(Carroll, 91)”

When Haneke uses the camera, he does not make the questions raised answerable. He uses the visuals to create an intense mood, rather than to coddle the audience.

Haneke strives to make his films worthy of the title of art. He states,

“I try to leave my films as open as possible. It’s up to
the spectator to grapple with what he sees and try to
build an explanation.(Jeffries, 2)”

He also explains why his films tend to be abrasive to viewers,

“There are a lot of people who need to escape …. But this
has nothing to do with an art form. An art form is
obliged to confront reality, to try to find a little
piece of the truth.(Foundas,7)”

From these statements, one can begin to understand why Haneke’s films are so thought-provoking and difficult for audiences. He strives to make the audience confused and bewildered. To more fully grasp his intent, exploration of several key scenes can shed light on his overall intent.

One impressive scene Haneke executed was the final scene of Code Unknown. This scene lasts approximately ten minutes, and is one continuous shot. All of the characters encountered in the film are joined in this scene. Yet none of them actually meet. The camera follows the characters moving along the street seeking out their intended aim. The immigrant woman seeks a place to beg, with little success. The dashing boyfriend is unable to gain entry into (his?) apartment. All of the characters diverge here, as the only non-diegetic music
of the film pulses in the background.

This scene is intense because it leaves the audience wanting more. It leaves all of the plot lines open, with no resolve. The scene builds and builds, but with no release. The build-up with no tangible explanation synthesizes Haneke’s need for truth. This scene is incredibly life-like; as in life we often do not know what happened to, say, the local beggar or how or why that guy’s car needed to be jumped. We just know that we observe these events on a daily basis, and Haneke makes us aware of them.

One particularly intense scene from Code Unknown involves a long shot on a subway. The camera is positioned so that one feels like they are looking down into the car. Anna is sitting quietly on the train trying to ignore two young “Arab” teens. They keep taunting her and eventually she moves her seat. Yet the camera still stays put. Finally a fellow passenger tries to help with no avail; and the scene leaves Anna frightened and crying.


This scene follows in Haneke’s quest to portray the truth. Most people have, at some point, encountered obnoxious youths trying to intimidate others on the subway. The set-up of a subway lends itself to a diverse mixing of people. Haneke wanted to illustrate that in Europe people are still racist and fearful of one another. The boys are angry because they perceive Anna’s presence as being unattainable, because she is an actress, and they therefore must punish her for this. Anna ignores them out of possible bigotry, but probably more because they are men who could cause her physical harm. The scene brings about much social commentary with very little dialogue or cuts. The persistence of the shot and the superb acting convey the message very clearly.

The Piano Teacher follows the character of Erika Kohut, played masterfully by Isabell Huppert. Huppert fills the screen with icy reserve and conversely a disarming need for humiliation and pain. Huppert describes Erika thusly,

“She has become a woman to all appearances, but in her domestic universe she has remained a little girl. (Jeffries,2)”

The control her elderly mother holds over her has caused her social and sexual life to divert into destructive and seamy manifestations.


A scene that perfectly illustrates her need for pain and also her mother’s unyielding presence takes place in the bathroom. Erika ritualistically mutilates her own vagina for an extreme release. This is ritualistic, not in a religious sense, but in the monotony of the experience. The camera observes this scene in clinical detail. Erika removes the razor from its wrapping in a bag. She then takes a mirror and positions it in one hand while cutting with the other. After the cutting, blood pours into the tub and her mother also calls her to come for dinner. With this she grabs a maxi pad and meticulously cleans up the room swiftly and with little observation of the strangeness that just occurred there. That is why this scene is so powerful. Not because she is mutilating her vagina, but because she is doing it so passionlessly, while mommy makes dinner. Erika’s loneliness and inability to even enjoy her own brutal pleasure are cunningly achieved through Huppert’s austere reserve.

The final scene of The Piano Teacher is the most shocking event of a film filled with shocking events. Right before the recital, after encountering her students, mother, and her rapist, Erika calmly plunges a knife into her heart. The expression on her face is not one would think of when pondering what a knife in the heart would feel like. Her eyes tear up a bit and the realization that she just mangled her
most important organ are evident, but that is all. Not a sound is uttered and she swiftly walks out the front of the conservatory and out of the frame.


With this final image, Haneke achieves his goal. He forces audiences to piece together what has happened and why. We have learned that Erika is utterly cut off from everyone and therefore her suicide appropriate. The overall aura that the film projects is of violence covered under a facade of Germanic reserve. Haneke’s employment of long shots, uncomfortable situations, and expert acting lend his films to an audience that must be prepared to work for their explanations.


Carroll, Noel. (1996). Theorizing the Moving Image. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Foundas, Scott. (2001). Michael Hankeke: The Bearded Prophet of “Code Unknown” and “The Piano Teacher. n IndieWire
[online] http://www.indiewire.com/film/interviews/int_Haneke_Michael_011204.html

Jeffries, Stuart. (2001). Just Don’t Ask Her to Play Cute. The Observer [online] http://www.film.guardian.co.uk/Print/0.3858.4286483.00.ht

Jeffries, Stuart. (2001). No Pain, No Gain. The Guardian [online] http://www.film.guardian.co.uk/Print/0.3858.4191785.00.ht

Old (Film) School: Musicals


Originally written on October 24, 2002

In recent years, there has been a slight resurgence in musical films. The musical genre has gone through many changes throughout film history. It initially started as a grand spectacle not tied to any narrative. Later on, the musical was relegated to specific sequences throughout a film that helped to advance the narrative. Recently, three films have used musical conventions to varying degrees of effectiveness. The overly ambitious Moulin Rouge! used contemporary popular music in a tradition musical narrative. In Dancer in the Dark musical conventions were used, but in a massive repudiation of all that was known of musicals. In Hedwig and the Angry Inch conventions of traditional musicals are blended with a shocking story. The latter two films will be discussed for their ambitious and inventive use and redirection of musical conventions.

Though there are general rules of the musical form, much has changed over time in these films. Early in cinematic history, musicals were not part of a narrative. The musical was just a grand spectacle with popular music of the day. In 1952, the release of Singin’ in the Rain became a landmark film musical. The superb singing and dancing of the stars upped the ante of musicals. This film also used the convention of spontaneous singing. Though people do not generally start singing about their emotions in real life, in a musical this is seen as normal. In the case of Singin’ in the Rain the film follows actors who are meant to sing. Therefore their singing is not seen as so weird(Berliner, 2).

In 1960’s brought forth two notable musicals that are now classics. In 1961, West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, presented a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet. This film used spontaneous singing and masterful choreography to tell the story of the doomed lovers. This musical is a repudiation because it is not a happy story and leaves audiences running for the Kleenex. In 1964, My Fair Lady arrived on the screen. This is a lighthearted retelling of Pygmalion, which starred Audrey Hepburn. This musical also used spontaneous song as a narrative device, but has a happy ending. In this way, My Fair Lady is a repetition of musical form.


In the 1970’s, musicals became more serious, more adult, so to speak, then previously. These musicals were not often appropriate for children, for they dealt with subject matter in a much more realistic manner. In 1972, Cabaret, starring Liza Minelli and Joel Grey, debuted. The film takes place in the Weimar Republic right before the Nazi takeover. This musical is an amplification because the musical sequences take place at the Kit Kat Club and are sometimes interspersed with scenes from “real” life. The singing only takes place because Sally Bowles is a singer at the club and the songs reflect her feelings and those of the Germans, in general. Another amplification is the character of the Master of Ceremonies, played by Joel Grey, who is an omniscient narrator who does not exist outside the club. He somehow knows the inner workings of Sally’s psyche and also embodies the distrust of all people towards the Nazis.


In 1973, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar was adapted for screen. This musical is a repudiation of both the musical genre and the subject matter. This film portrays Jesus as not only the messiah, but as a rock star. Judas is both annoyed with Jesus’ flagrant disregard for authority but also his seeming need for the adulation of his followers. The traditional musical sequences take place on location, in Israel. The dancers, though obviously trained, all look like ragged hippies. The final sequences of the film are not joyful, but disturbing. Jesus is crucified while a frightening montage of portraits of the crucifixion are shown on screen. Then Jesus (possibly) goes to heaven and is sung to by the reviled Judas. In the end, a somber melody is played while the cast rides off into the desert, without Jesus on the bus. This scene is chilling and shows the lengths that director Jewison went to repudiate the musical form.


In present cinema, the musical is fairly rare. That is why Dancer in the Dark is such an interesting example of a musical. One does not even know that this film is a musical until about forty minutes into the film. Up to this point in the film non-diegetic music does not exist. The only music comes from the rehearsals Selma participates in for a community production of The Sound of Music.

When the film turns into a musical, the audience is caught off guard. This shift is a massive repudiation on the part of the director, von Trier. The musical sequences are filmed in brilliant color and transport Selma into a fantasy world of the musical. This is her only escape from her awful life of drudgery and blindness.


The musical scenes themselves are repudiations. In these scenes, Selma’s change of reality is so drastic, that they seem fairly magical. Right after she brutally murders Bill, he is dancing with her and forgives her. So does his wife and her son Gene. In reality, these people would never have forgiven Selma, but her musical fantasies help her cope with the stress of her doomed existence.

The scene when Selma is in isolation at the jail is a repudiation of musical conventions. In this scene she does not sing her own original tune. She sings My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music to distract her from the silence of the jail. This scene is disturbing because the audience can see that the artifice of musical-as-coping-mechanism is not working any more. The use of music from another prominent musical is also a strong repudiation.

The final sequence of Dancer is most disturbing and uses the convention of spontaneous song, without launching into a fantasy world. Selma is being hanged for the murder of Bill, and is apoplectic over her demise. When Kathy informs her that Gene has gotten the operation and will see, Selma’s attitude changes drastically. A calm washes over her face and she sings a haunting song about this “Not being the last song.” This is a reference to her distaste of the end of musicals when you see the crane shot that goes out the roof and you know the film is over. Unfortunately, for Selma, she is hanged and we see the camera crane up in just the motion she described. With her death and this camera movement, we know the film is over, for the audience and also Selma.


The repudiations in this film are used to show the fallacy of musicals. Lars von Trier was aiming to show that musicals are quite fanciful and untrue. Selma came to America because of musicals and the hope that everything there would be as wonderful as in a musical. She unfortunately found that in America money and status mean more to people than hard work for the medical care of a child. This film is truly an indictment of American culture and the void it creates in people’s hearts.

Another recent musical that is a repudiation in content is Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This film follows the exploits of the transgendered rock singer Hedwig. Hedwig began life as a man and to escape Communist East Berlin, got a sex change operation to become a woman. While in America, Hedwig is left by her husband and then starts a musical career. This is when she meets with her muse, Tommy Gnosis, who breaks her heart and steals her songs.

The context in which musical sequences are used in this film are mainly performance. The songs that the band plays are of a narrative mode. We learn of Hedwig’s entire life through the songs. Wig in a Box is one of the performances that most closely mimics the style of traditional musicals (Seminara, 3). Hedwig has just been left by her husband and then her band enters her house as a grand sequence ensues. Her motor-home becomes a grand stage and the use of a sweeping crane shot in the end signals a throwback to old musicals.


The story told in Hedwig is not of a usual musical variety. Very few, if any, musicals have centered on a transgendered subject. The only film to come close to this was Victor/Victoria from 1982. This film dealt with gayness in a joking and gay (no pun intended) way. Though the subject was unusual for a musical, Victor/Victoria was mainstream because Julie Andrews played the lead role. In Hedwig, the subject, though amusing at times, is also consciously serious.

This film is important because it offers a transgendered character who is sympathetic. Though Hedwig is often hassled for being transgendered, it is heartening to see that she will not apologize for herself. Hedwig is reminiscent of old time women performers who were oh-so-cool. When speaking of her past attempts at singing in public (though really just in front of his mother) she says, “I had tried singing once and they threw tomatoes so after the show I had a nice salad.” Or when the young Tommy Speck asks her if she had accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior she replied, ” No, but I love his work.” These zany one-liners illustrate that Hedwig is a vibrant woman who can take anything that is thrown at her and make it entertaining and insightful.

The examination of the musical genre finds many discrepancies within the genre. The conventions of spontaneous singing and the use of song as a narrative advancing device are commonly present. The use of song as emotional expression is usual, especially in Dancer in the Dark. Yet these few modes do not seem to correlate to a common ground on what musicals are.

The stories of the musicals examined are incredibly diverse. They run the gamut from biblical drama to the suffering of poor, blind Selma. The main characteristic of musicals, then seems to be, not the repetitions, repudiations, or amplifications of the genre, but the strong characters presented in each. When speaking of melodrama, which can also be compared to musicals, Noel Carrol stated,

 “One important, recurring motif here is that the victim of melodramatic misfortune often accepts her suffering in order to benefit another, often at the expense of her own personal desires and interests. Sometimes, in fact the character’s misfortune is a result of the sacrifices she has made on behalf of others (Plantinga, 36).”

Most of the films examined follow this argument. Selma is no less dying for the sins of Bill, as Jesus is dying for the sins of the Israelites. Hedwig must endure constant identity crisis because of the choices that were made for her. This comparison can be made with most musicals, and shows the real link between them. Strong lead characters who must rise above diversity to meet their goals are the mainstay of musicals. The conventions of the musical lend themselves to telling stories about the most uncommon, yet interesting people whose stories would not be as vibrant without the musical mode.


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Arroyo, J. (2000) How do you solve a problem like von Trier? Sight & Sound, ns10 no 9 14-   16 S. Retrieved on October 17, 2002, from the Wilson Web database.

Berlinger, T. (2002) The Sounds of Silence: Songs on Hollywood Films since the 1960’s. Style, 36 no119-35. Retrieved on October 17, 2002, from the Wilson Web database.

Plantinga, C. and Smith, G.(Eds.) (1999). Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion.Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Seminara, 0.(2001) Music (Wo)Man. American Cinematographer, 82 no 7 20-7. Retrieved on October 17, 2002, from the Wilson Web database.