The Camera in Film: Camera Angles

There are six basic angles in films: the bird’s eye, high, eye – level and low angle, worm’s eye and canted (or Dutch) angle. Each of them has a specific purpose and is interpreted differently according to the elements of mise-en-scène and is used to evoke a specific range of feelings to the audience that are defined by the themes and characters of the story.

The bird’s eye view is considered to be the most confusing and disorienting angle since it requires the shooting of a scene from directly overhead. Because of the fact that in real life people seldom view events from this perspective, the subject which is photographed in such shots might seem unrecognisable and the whole shot can be characterised as abstract. This angle is often used for establishing shots at the beginning of a scene and is really helpful to set the tone and mood of the location the story takes place. Furthermore, this can be used for practical reasons and in favour of the story like it was used in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960). Lastly, the shots that are photographed in this angle can acquire a symbolic meaning and serve a purpose according to the mise-en-scène elements and story of the film.

 

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“Blade Runner” (1982) directed by Ridley Scott. The establishing shots at the beginning of the scenes set set the environment where the story takes place. The orange and brown colours, and the chimneys that breath fire and the appearance of humidity  create a dirty and unhealthy environment and instantly transfer the viewer to a futuristic dystopian city.

 

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“Batman Begins” (2005) and “The Dark Knight” (2008), directed by Christopher Nolan. The use of establishing shots in “The Dark Knight” trilogy is quite extensive. The director by the use of establishing shots taken of different existing cities of USA (Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh) presents a modern Gotham City which is absolutely convincing to the audience. The faceless urban buildings and the use of a cool colour palette create a very cold, distant and miserable environment. A few establishing shots of skyscrapers, flickering lights and  wealthy modern buildings contradict shots taken of other parts of the city that show grey small dark buildings and factories which represent the accommodations of the lower class of the city. One of the themes of the films is the corruption of the wealthy and the police; this theme is masterfully underlined by the antithesis that exists between different parts of the city.

 

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“The Conversation” (1974) directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The film tells the story of a surveillance expert and the moral dilemma he is facing when his recordings reveal a potential murder. The opening shot of the film is a bird’s eye view shot of a square full of people. As the shot proceeds the camera gets closer and closer to the people revealing the main character of the film played by Gene Hackman. The opening shot conveys the feeling of surveillance and invasion of privacy.

 

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“Psycho” (1960) directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The use of the bird’s view view shot while Mrs. Bates kills Det. Arbogast prevents the audience from identifying her true identity. The viewers feel like they are passive observers of the murder making the character of Det. Arbogast even more helpless and weak.

 

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“Taxi Driver” (1976), directed by Martin Scorsese. After Travis (played by Robert De Niro) invades the prostitutes’ accommodation and kills everybody to save Iris (played by Jodie Foster) he sits on the sofa and remains there while Iris is sobbing at the corner and the police force enters the room. We observe the aftermath of the massacre from above. The high angle, the slow moving camera and the stillness of the police officers makes the moment more dramatic and allows the audience to feel the brutality and violence of this act. The cries of Iris that echo in the room while the rest of the environment is soundless and the non moving police officers create a very shocking sight. The time seems to stop in order for the audience to fully grasp the savagery of the act and look with a clear naked eye with no escape the human barbarity and ferocity.

 

In a high angle shot the camera is placed above the eye-level of the character, and results in a framing that has the audience looking down on a subject. High angle shots are used to emphasize the subject’s powerlessness and weakness. Since the camera is placed from above, it minimizes the subject making it look small and helpless. High angle shots can also be used to predict the murder or injury of a character underlining his/her vulnerability and making him/her more sympathetic to the audience. The high angle shots can also convey feelings of entrapment, suffocation, suppression and panic. In addition, this angle can be used for practical purposes, for example when an incident is happening outdoors and a character is viewing it from his/her window or balcony.

 

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The high angle shot of Det. Arbogast moments before his violent murder evoke his vulnerability and state of danger he is in. The shot “predicts” that something harmful will occur to the character.

 

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“Notorious” (1946), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The high angle shot of Alexander Sebastian (played by Claude Rains) while he informs his mother of his shocking discovery, that his newlywed wife Alicia (played by Ingrid Bergman), is a spy working against him, evokes panic and suffocation.

 

In eye-level shots the camera is placed at a height that matches the subject’s eyes. This angle is used in routine expository scenes that lack drama and intensity. This angle does not evoke any particular feelings to the audience but it somehow makes the character equal to the viewer. Traditionally, filmmakers avoid shooting in extreme angles since they can confuse the audience. The directors photograph the characters in eye level shots which are very comfortable to the viewer since this is the way an actual observer might view a scene. Visually, this is the clearest way to view an object because it lacks any embellishments and exaggerations. Of course there have been exceptions to these rules throughout film history.

 

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“The Thin Red Line” (1998), directed by Terence Malick. Eye-level shots are used during scenes that bear a lot of dialogue and exposition, like in this interrogation scene with Pvt. Witt (played by Jim Caviezel) and 1st Sgt. Welsh (played by Sean Penn).

 

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“Apocalypse Now” (1979) directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The story follows Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) travelling from South Vietnam to Cambodia to assassinate Colonel Kurtz after he was declared mentally unfit and his methods unsound by the US Army. Throughout the film Colonel Kurtz is characterised as insane by some and genius by others.  He lives in the jungles in a neutral area of Cambodia, commands his own troops and is treated as a demi-god.  The audience is introduced to Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando) in an eye level shot. His face is kept in the darkness for the most of the scene while he is monologing and occasionally, asking Captain Willard about his secret mission. At the end of the scene when he belittles Captain Willard’s mission his face is fully visible. The height of the camera, the hard lighting, and the brilliant acting of Brando create a very unsettling and disturbing mood. The height of the camera allows Brando’s eyes to pierce through Captain Willard’s soul and therefore, the audience’s. The character seems very intimidating and the hard lighting add to the drama and intensity of the scene.

 

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“Tokyo Story” (1953), directed by Yasujiro Ozu. The film tells the story of an old couple that visits their children and grand-children in Tokyo. Ozu always placed the camera just a few feet off the ground to photograph his actors while seated down in eye-level shots. He kept around the same height of the camera for most of his shots. He felt that by using this angle, the viewers would relate to the characters, sympathize with them and feel very close to them. The films feel very realistic and showcase the Japanese customs and culture.

 

In a low angle shot the filmmaker places the camera below eye level and lets the audience look up at a subject. Low angle shots convey the subject’s power, confidence and control; because of the low angle the size of the character is exaggerated and looks bigger than normal. Due to the dominance of the subject’s figure in the frame, the subject inspires fear, respect and awe. Usually the villains of films are shot in low angle shots to underline their overwhelming supremacy.

 

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“The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), directed by Christopher Nolan. Low angle shots are very common in superhero films. The villains, in this case the character Bane (played by Tom Hardy) is framed in a low angle shot which evokes fear, awe and emphasize the character’s strength and superiority.

 

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“2001 Space Odyssey” (1968), directed by Stanley Kubrick. The monolith is photographed in low angle shots that induce feelings of awe to the audience underling the monolith’s importance in humanity’s course of history and evolution.

 

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“Gravity” (2013), directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Astronaut Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) is framed in an extreme low angle shot at the end of the film where she finally returns to Earth after enduring a very traumatic experience in space. The low angle shot emphasizes the character’s strong will to survive evoking emotions of gratification and awe to the viewers.

 

In worm’s eye view shots the camera is placed on ground level and allows the audience to view a scene from a very low perspective. From this point of view the size of a subject is exaggerated and looks enormous to the audience evoking feelings of power and control. This angle allows the viewer to observe the setting the scene takes place.  This angle is not that common in films and is mainly used as a subjective shot of a character that lies on the ground.

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“Citizen Kane” (1941), directed by Orson Welles. “Citizen Kane” is very famous for the extensive use of low angle shots of the leading character Charles F. Kane (played by Orson Welles). The low angle convey the overwhelming power, confidence and superiority of Kane. This particular shot is an extreme low angle, below ground level shot which makes the tall figure of Kane enormous emphasizing his controlling and selfish nature.

 

Canted shots are composed with a camera tilted laterally with the horizon in a non-straight line and vertical lines run diagonally across the frame. These compositions create spatial imbalance and disorientation and convey confusion, insanity, psychological instability, drug induced psychosis and dramatic tension. Canted shots are used mainly to showcase a character’s abnormal state of mind, but they can also be used to represent the whole psychology of a group of people that are facing a stressful or unusual situation. Additionally, another use of the canted shot is to convey that an abnormal or unnatural situation is happening, without necessarily reflecting a character’s psychology. The bigger the degree to which the frame is canted (usually up to 45 degrees), the more abnormality and instability it reflects.

 

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“Twelve Monkeys” (1995), directed by Terry Gilliam. The extensive use of canted shots in the scenes in which the central character of the story James Cole (played by Bruce Willis) is in the mental institution create an unsettling and disturbing atmosphere emphasizing the insane and chaotic nature of such an environment. At the moment when Cole tries to escape he is framed in Dutch angles to showcase the disorientation he feels due to the drugs he was given by the doctors.

 

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“Do the Right Thing” (1989), directed by Spike Lee. The film takes place during the hottest day of the year in a neighbourhood in Brooklyn. The viewers observe the characters, trying to endure the heat which ignites an explosion of violence and aggression at the end of the film. Throughout the film the use of canted shots convey the instability and suppressed aggression of the characters. Towards the end of the film there is a broad use of canted shots that photograph the characters violent and aggressive behaviour leading to a full scale riot and the destruction of the local pizzeria. The frequent use of canted shots at the end of the film showcase the unnatural and chaotic nature of the characters’ acts.

 

 

Film Study: Rebel Without a Cause

Introduction

Rebel Without a Cause was directed by Nicholas Ray and was released in 1955, starring James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. The film is considered one of the best films ever released and is praised for the directing of Nicholas Ray and the acting of the main actors securing three Academy Award Nominations including Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Sal Mineo and best actress in a Supporting Role for Natalie Wood. However, the performance by James Dean was as extraordinary as the performances by Mineo and Wood since it was perfectly balanced, esoteric and subtle adding realism to the character.

This was the first film that dealt with the life of teenagers, expressed their agonies and emotions presenting the dilemmas and problems they were facing throughout their school years. After the release of this film, more and more films were released each year that presented the life of teenagers creating a new genre of films; the teen films, a few examples are American Graffiti (1973) directed by George Lucas and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) directed by  John Hughes.  It was also the first film to show the wild and aggressive side of teenagers stepping away from the conventional, suppressed and forged image of teenagers that was depicted in films hitherto the release of Rebel Without a Cause.

The popularity of the film increased greatly due to the premature death of James Dean just a few weeks before its release. The character of Jim Stark with his iconic red jacket became an immortal symbol of the rebellious nature of teenagers against their parents. Teenagers felt that their issues were finally addressed in a film and found a hero in the image of Jim Stark.

 

The teenagers of Rebel Without a Cause

Characters’ Analysis

 

Jim Stark

The film looks at a day of the life of Jim Stark, a teenager living in the United States in a middle class family; his parents and grandmother. Jimmy is masterfully played by James Dean as the child living in a family with a domineering mother, strict grandmother and a submissive father. From the first scene of the film where Jim is taken to a police station because he was arrested wandering the streets drunk shows his suppressed anger against the female figures of his family as well as, his disappointment due to the meek nature of his father.

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In the opening shot Jim Stark is lying down on a street drunk next to a toy monkey. He gently grabs the toy and starts playing with it (the scene was entirely improvised by the actor). The use of a close shot and eye level angle make the character likable to the audience. After a few moments he lies the monkey down and covers it with a wrapping paper, like a mother does when she puts her child to sleep. Then, he crawls closer to the toy and lies in fetal position. His facial reactions and motions and especially his posture at the end of the shot highlight his innocence and childlike behaviour. The film manages from its opening shot to make the audience relate and sympathize with the character
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In this scene Jim is in the police station and his parents are arguing while trying to understand what bothers their son. The tight framing and the position of his parents’ figures in the right and on the left of the frame emphasize the character’s feelings of suppression and suffocation caused by his parents.

The most famous scene in the film is when Jim Stark talks about his dilemma to his parents; whether he should go to the police to testify about an accident that occurred at his presence and caused the life of one of the school bullies. His parents advice him to conceal this fact and not testify to the police but Jim feels this action is not honourable. Jim asks his father to stand up with him against his mother and support his opinion but he is father is reluctant and hesitates to do so. Jim attacks his father in a desperate act of anger and disappointment. At the end of the scene he storms out of the house in tears feeling that once more he was not understood by his parents.

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While Jim is having an argument with his parents if he should go to the police to testify about the death of Buzz or not (even though he strongly believes that he should talk to the police instead of pretending that never happened) the camera tilts a bit, creating a very interesting composition. The shot is canted adding tension and anxiety; his mother is higher in the shot than the rest of the characters, implying that she is the dominant figure of the house. She has the power and control over her family. His father is at the lowest point, making him look small, underlying his weakness to stand up to his wife and support his son. Jim stands in the middle contradicting with both his parents.

The character of Jim Stark is probably the most relatable figure of the film. It is very easy for teenagers to relate and sympathize with this character since he is a reflection of them. Many teenagers during their adolescence realize that their parents are not the kind of people they thought they were. They perceive their parents’ weaknesses and faults and get very disappointed and wish to rebel to escape from their families because they fear that they might end up being like them when they grow up. In the case of Jim Stark he sees the weak nature of his father and considers it as pathetic and sad, and loses his respect towards him. He cannot stand his mother since he considers her responsible for emasculating his father and tries to somehow avenge him by rebelling against her. He feels that the autarchic nature of his mother is an obstacle in their attempts of communicating with each other and feels lost since he cannot talk to his parents for advice and guidance. Jim Stark feels angry, trapped, suppressed and lonely since he cannot communicate with his family and has no friends.

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The sets throughout the film were cleverly designed to evoke imprisonment, suppression and suffocation. They constant use of vertical lines and barriers like doors (a very interesting fact is the the line of Jim’s father to his son: do you always have to slam the door in my face?), staircase spindles and the wire mesh in the police station’s windows act as a metaphor of the dichotomization of the characters due to the generational gap and thus difference of opinion. In this particular shot the composition of the staircase spindles in front of Jim’s father emphasize his weak personality and imply a sense of entrapment; the use of the feminine apron as part of his costume humiliate the character completely.

 

Judy

Judy is the second teenager of the trio of the main characters of the film and was outstandingly performed by Natalie Wood.  The actress was able to create an angry character that feels rejected by her father.

 We first encounter the character of Judy in the same police station where Jim was taken at the beginning of the film. Judy explains to the police officer that her father was angry with her and tried violently to smear off her lipstick since he thought that it is inappropriate for her because of her young age. Judy complains that her father does not treat her like he used to, he became less affectionate and it seems that this is because of her growing up and entering into womanhood. Her father does not feel comfortable with his daughter’s sexuality and does not know how to treat her properly, resulting in having arguments with her.

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In this scene we see Judy for the first time; she is explaining to the police officer about her arguments with her father. The use of the red colour evoke the character’s anger, as well as, underlie her sexuality and femininity. The red hue is a very loud colour and is used in films as a symbol of anger, sexuality and passion. 

In one scene Judy asks from her father to be affectionate and treat her like he treats her much younger brother but the scene ends up in them having a loud quarrel and finally her father slapping her when she tried to kiss him. After this scene Judy leaves her home in tears. The rejection she gets by her father evolves into feelings of resentment and disappointment, resulting in her wanting to rebel against her family. A form of rebellion is her participating in bullying Jim at school and afterwards in a race with stolen cars.

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After the argument with her father she leaves her home in tears feeling rejected and disappointed.
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Another example of imprisonment; the frame’s composition which contains doors and vertical lines emphasize the lack of communication and understanding between Judy and her parents.

After the death of Buzz, who was the boyfriend of Judy and the leader of their gang of bullies, she becomes attached to Jim and sees a potential husband in him. Her sudden feelings of romance and affection towards Jim underline her desperate need of filling up the void inside her that was caused by her father’s behaviour with another male figure.

 

John “Plato” Crawford

The character of Plato, played by Sal Mineo is a very complex personality and an accurate representation of teenagers who come from broken homes and dysfunctional families. His father left his home years ago and supports him only financially but there is no apparent communication between them. As for his mother, according to his nanny “she is always away” and during the period of time the film takes place she is in Chicago on holidays. Therefore, his only guardian is his nanny who seems genuinely worried about him since she believes the state of his family sparks Plato’s violent behaviour. At the beginning of the film Plato and his nanny are waiting at the police station to talk to one of the officers since Plato shot a few puppies. The manners, behavior and reactions of Plato show how much trauma his parents had caused him and the fact that his mother refuses to send him to a psychologist exacerbates his situation.

Throughout the film it is shown how Plato’s unstable state of mind is deteriorating.  At the police station is presented as a heart broken, angry and rejected individual who feels neglected by his parents since they forgot his birthday. As the film proceeds, his personality becomes more complex. He meets Jim and feels dazzled by him, he even follows him at his home in order to see where he lives. His performance indicates that he is a homosexual (it is known that during filming James Dean told Sal Mineo to look at Jim in a way that someone would look at his lover) and feels attracted to Jim. However, when the film was made, homosexuality was not socially accepted, so, in the story, Plato’s attraction to Jim was justified as a son – father relationship.

When Judy asked Plato about his relationship to Jim, Plato lied and made up a fantastical relationship which comes off as a bit disturbed and unsettling. He tells lies throughout the film, especially about his family and in one scene he admits it as he forgot what lies he had already told.

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In this scene Plato is lying to Judy about his relationship with Jim. He seems very dazzled and enchanted by Jim.

After Buzz’s accidental death the bullies search for Jim to prevent him from going to the police to talk about it. The bullies harassed Plato to get his address book in order to find Jim’s address. After this incident Plato discovers a letter by his father. Feeling happy and excited opens the letter and realizes that is just a check for child support. The nonexistence of a letter fuels his anger and storms out of the house after he had taken his mother’s gun.

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Plato sees the handwriting of his father on the closed envelope and gets excited since he thinks that his father is attempting to communicate with him.
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He discovers that the envelope contains only a check.
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Since there was no other personal note or anything Plato throws the letter away. Upset and disappointed grabs his mother’s gun and leaves the house.

Plato, Jim and Judy meet coincidentally at the abandoned mansion Plato had shown Jim earlier in the film to avoid the bullies. There, Plato opens up to them, and talks about his family issues indicating that he wants Jim and Judy to become his new family. This notion is enhanced by Judy singing a lullaby to Plato and he falls asleep.  After Plato falls asleep Jim and Judy leave him to explore the rest of the mansion. Finally, the bullies find Plato alone sleeping and attack him. Plato escapes and becomes paranoid thinking that Jim and Judy leaving him alone. His past and abandonment issues fuels his paranoia and in a panic shoots at one of the bullies injuring him and fires at the policemen who arrive on the scene. As the film progresses it feels that Plato’s mind is very feeble and that he can have an emotional outburst at any time and react violently and aggressively.

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In this scene the teenagers get to know each other better and Plato tells them about his family issues.

 

 

Social and Political Commentary

The film has been praised for the performances of the actors but also the original material that it choose to focus on. Up until this point the modern American family has been portrayed in films as the model family that is accepted by social conventions. Such a family is characterised by stability, order and usually the family members are religious, a fact that enhances their sense of honesty and fairness. In Hollywood it was not desirable to show real family issues and conflicts but show a family that should be an example to real families. However, this model family is only a facade and immediately collapses revealing that its content is rotten and decayed.  The constant portray of this kind of embellished family creates a notion of suppression and control, since all the members of the family should succumb to this perfect image and become model family members suppressing their issues, conflicts and concerns. In the case of the Rebel Without A Cause it showed the stories of three teenagers that come from problematic families which each faces other issues destroying the idea of the model American Family.

 In the film there where a few subtle incidents that indicate suppression and control. Firstly, the scene with the flag in the yard of the school. All teenagers are chatting and seem cheerful and happy when suddenly a cannon fire is heard; then everybody stays quiet and still while the flag is hoisted up. It certainly shows that this is a sensible and respectable act but it does feel forced and obtrusive to the teenagers’ normal behaviour. The silence of their chatter seems very uncomfortable and unnatural.

Another incident is in same scene where students go through the school’s main entrance but they avoid stepping on the school insignia which is engraved on the ground. Jim steps on it by mistake being his first day in his new school and another student immediately reacts upon this and tells him that his act is disrespectful. Jim apologises and the other student understood his mistake for being so abrupt and helped him to find his classroom. This incident acts as a metaphor. The environment of the school is considered to be the “first” society a person comes across, and if he acts accordingly then it is supposed that not only he had accepted the social conventions but also that he is accepted by the society. Therefore in this case, this event acts as a metaphor of a person acting against the social rules. Furthermore, the incident does evoke a sense of control and suppression towards the students; not stepping on the school insignia seems like an easy rule but it can also be considered as an image of a person rejecting the social norm; and this is frown up and should be immediately dealt with, like the student did with Jim.

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The students avoid stepping on the school’s insignia since they see it as a disrespectful act.

Moreover, another point that is worth mentioning is the “atomic age”. In the scene in which Judy is having dinner with her family her little brother is playing with a toy gun and shouts “the atomic age”. It is well known that after the fall of the atomic bombs in 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki the whole world became horrified of the atomic technology and its destructive abilities. There were documentaries made and even the children at school were taught about nuclear power and drills were practised in case a nuclear bomb falls. The children that were born after the end of the Second World War were raised under the “shadow of the mushroom cloud”, they were raised in fear and uncertainty, and this definitely had some effect on them. This reference in the films adds a sense of instability, which is antithetic to the solidity of at the typical American family. Their fear might act as an extra motive for the teenagers to be angry and rebel against their parents, hence the society.

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Judy’s little brother is playing with his toy gun shouting “Atomic Age”.

 

The Two Sides of Rebel Without a Cause

I have watched the film more than one time. The first time I have watched it I was a teenager and the second time I was an adult finishing up my MA on film production. It is probably one of the only films I watched that felt a totally different film the second time I watched it. It seems to me that the film is not only addressing the problems of misunderstood teenagers but also the issues their parents are facing raising such children.

When I watched it as a teenager I completely related with the teenagers of the film and especially with the character of James Stark. The angry and the rebellious nature of the character illustrated not only me but all teenagers. The performance felt realistic and the conversations with his parents and specifically his father, bear all the appropriate attitudes and reactions of a real dysfunctional family. The insecurities and agonies, his feelings of entrapment and suppression make the character more human adding more realism to his performance and thus, making it very easy to relate with the character. Consequently, when a teenager watches the film he/she feels retaliated and satisfied that he/her was finally understood.

In my opinion, the strongest scene in the film is the scene in which Jim asks his father some advice on the issue of one’s honour. Jim was not sure if he should show up to the “chickie” run (two kids race in stolen cars towards the edge of a cliff, and whoever jumps first out of the car before it falls into the bottom of the cliff is a coward). In this scene Jim’s father tries to tell Jim that this matter might look important to him now but when he grows up and looks back at it he will realise that is a very weak problem. On the other hand, Jim tells him that he cannot understand him, and feeling completely lost and unguided asks him to give him answers immediately. His father tries to reason with him and decides to make a list of the pros and cons of the matter, but Jim impatient and disappointed storms out of the house because his father never gave him a clear answer.

This is a very interesting scene. The first time I watched the film I was totally on the side of Jim. I thought that his father was not strong enough to help and he could not give him answers because he did not understand the importance of the matter. But when I re -watched the film as an adult I was on the side of the father. It is amazing to see both perspectives of father and son to be portrayed so masterfully and to actually make the audience realise how a teenager can change and evolve into an adult which is what Jim is doing by the end of the film. After the traumatic experience he went through due to Plato’s death at the end of the film, it feels like he has grown up and entered adulthood.

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In the last sequences Jim’s father promises that he will be a much stronger and supportive father and comforts him.
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Jim gets close to Plato’s body and zips the jacket he gave him a few moments before he was shot and Judy puts on his shoe he dropped. Their actions are parent like; Plato is like their surrogate son and they wish to protect and look after him. They feel responsible for Plato, who was seeing them as his parents since he was neglected by his own family. 
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Plato’s death made Jim realises how difficult it is to raise a child. At that moment he is ready to enter the world of the adults since he accepts himself and his parents. He introduces Judy to his parents and they accept her with a warm smile. 
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It these shots the couples are equal and the similarities between them are strong. Both of them wear adult clothing and Judy’s hairstyle is the same as Jim’s mother.

The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar

Poslední trik pana Schwarcewalldea a pana Edgara (The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar) was written and directed by Jan Švankmajer and was released in 1964. The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar was the first film of Švankmajer and even though he was not a member of the Surrealists’ Group then the film does have some surreal values to it.

The film is characterised intensely by theatricality; Švankmajer was greatly influenced by Emil Radok’s work since he worked on his film Doktor Faust (Doctor Faust, 1958). Emil Radok was the co-creator of Laterna Magika, the first multimedia theatre of the world which is still operational. The creators of Laterna Magika focused on telling stories by combining live performance and multimedia projection, mixing film with theatre. The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar takes place on a theatre stage where two performers do their tricks while the audience which is never seen is clapping. The two actors are filmed from the same perspective throughout the film as the viewer of the film takes the place of the audience of the theatre.

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Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar standing on the theatre stage. Mr Schwarzwald is the character sitting on the left and Mr. Edgar is the character standing on the right.

Themes in The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar

In his first film The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar, the concept of the man as a mechanical system is greatly conveyed. This theme was greatly developed and used in Švankmajer’s later film Don Šajn (Don Juan, 1970) in which the actors were dressed as huge theatre puppets. In The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar the actors exist as puppets and mechanical beings; the imagery of cogs, gears and machinery enhance the idea of the mechanical man.

Since the beginning of the movement of Surrealism, Surrealists have been studying the theme of a man as a machine and treated mannequins and humanoids as surrealist objects. Many Surrealists experimented by constructing humanoid figures; they altered and transformed the human body into an assemblage of human flesh and objects. Even though, Švankmajer was not proclaimed a Surrealist until 1970 the use of this theme does show his inclination into Surrealism; perhaps his ideas derived from the work of painter Arcimboldo. Arcimboldo is often considered as the first Surrealist painter, although he created his artwork hundreds of years before the creation of the Surrealist movement.

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The Anthropomorphic Cabinet (1936), by Salvador Dali is a famous humanoid figure. The painting is homage to the theories of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. The figure represents the human mind and the drawers its secrets and thoughts that only psychoanalysts can open.
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Initiation (1946), by Kurt Seligmann is a painting that contains his famous draped complex humanoid “cyclonic forms”.
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Vortumnus (Vertumno) (1590-1) by Giuseppe Arcimboldo.  The portrait depicts Rudolf II , the Holy Roman Emperor. The portraits by Arcimboldo are compositions of fruit, vegetables, flowers, animals and books.

Throughout the film there are close up shots of a beetle crawling on the heads of the main characters, however at the end of the film the beetle is dead. The use of the beetle against the made up heads of the characters comes as an antithesis, enhancing the difference between life and machine. The use of the beetle removes any humanity from the characters emphasizing their mechanical nature. At the end of the film the beetle is shown dead underlining the fragility of life as well as, the destructive mania of the characters.

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The dead beetle is shown after the final “polite” hand shake of the characters; perhaps to show that their violent and inconsiderate acts resulted in the death of this fragile beetle. The death of the beetle can be considered as a collateral damage of the war between these two gentlemen.

Decay, self-destruction, and disintegration are very common themes in Švankmajer’s films; items, natural elements and characters in his films decompose spontaneously or destroy one another through acts of violence and aggression. These themes imply one of the basic characteristics of human nature, the tendency people have for self-destruction and the termination of others.

Throughout The last trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar the two characters antagonise each other competing who will perform the best trick. At the end of each trick they congratulate each other by shaking their hands like two polite gentlemen. Since the “puppets” lack facial expressions, all of their feelings are expressed through body language and hand gestures. As the film continues, their tension, ambition and jealousy grow. Their hatred and hostility is obvious through the intense shaking of their hands. Their tricks become more complex and impressive. By the end of the film their feelings evolve into violence. While they are shaking their hands at the end of the last trick of Mr. Edgar, Mr. Schwarzwald pulls Mr. Edgar’s arm so hard that it is torn off his body. Then they viciously attack each other, removing each other’s limbs. At the end of the film only their two arms remain solid; they shake their hands politely enhancing the sense of irony. The “polite” hand shake becomes very ironic and funny since it is so antithetic to their true nature and intention: to destroy one another. Their handshake becomes a diachronic symbol representing the actions of people everyday everywhere on this planet; people are acting differently than they are originally thinking and intending to do covering their true intentions and plans.

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Mr. Edgar and Mr. Schwarzwald congratulate each other.
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Mr. Schwarzwald is performing his trick.
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Mr. Edgar is performing his more complex and impressive trick reaching towards the end of the film.
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Mr. Schwarzwald while is congratulating Mr. Edgar torns off his arm.
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Mr. Edgar and Mr. Schwarzwald attack aggressively each other.
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At the end of the film they shake their hands again.

Breaking the rules in The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar

Jan Švankmajer as a Surrealist filmmaker does not follow the conventional rules of filmmaking. Like Luis Buñuel before him, narrative in Švankmajer’s film is indifferent and unique. As it is mentioned in the beginning of this article Švankmajer became familiar with Surrealism years after the creation of this film. However, The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar is a good example of how Švankmajer breaks the filmmaking rules.

During the title credits at the beginning of the film, Švankmajer reveals his two actors before they put on their costumes, breaking the fourth wall. Breaking the fourth wall is prohibited in filmmaking since it distracts the viewer and throws him out of the illusion of the film, making him return to his reality. However, in this film it works as an ironic twist since it becomes a paradox, showing the actors putting on their costumes and later they are revealed as puppets. By putting on their masks they become symbols representing every person. This action has a greater impact on the viewer that is watching the film. Instead of attaching the actors’ faces to the characters, by using costumes they are detached resulting in the characters becoming faceless symbols thus, the characters become immortal symbols.

He breaks the rules regarding the traditional structure of storytelling (three act structure) and creates his own way of presenting an idea; his films do not present stories but ideas and themes. In this case the film is divided into parts; each part is a trick by one of the characters. The film gradually evolves showing the stress and antagonism of the characters growing.

One of the most important tools Švankmajer is using to tell a story and express his ideas is editing. The editing in his films varies since in each film is used differently. The pace of the editing in The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar is used in such a way to express the characters’ feelings. The fast editing at the end of the film and the rapid juxtaposition of the violent imagery in which the characters attack each other, enhances their aggressive behaviour, creating feelings of anxiety and panic to the viewer. The intense close ups of textures of frayed clothes and the amputation of the limbs of the characters expose the cruelty, aggression and violence of the characters. The textures become symbols of jealousy and their mania of destroying each other that eventually lead to their self-destruction.

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Textures of destruction and aggressiveness.
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Textures of destruction and aggressiveness.

 

LIST OF REFERENCES

Arcimboldo, G. (1590 -1). Vortumnus (Vertumno). Oil painting.

Bertrand, S. and Leclerc, M. (2001). Les Chimeres des Švankmajer. [DVD]. France: 24 Images.

Dali, S. (1936). The Anthropomorphic Cabinet. Oil on wood.

Descharnes, R. and Neret, G. (2016). DALI: The Paintings. London: Taschen.

Griffiths, K., Quay, S. and Quay, T. (1984). The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer: Prague’s Alchemist of Film. [DVD] BFI.

Hames, P. (ed.) (2008). The cinema of Jan Švankmajer. 2nd edn. London: Wallflower press.

Seligmann, K. (1946). Initiation.

Svankmajer, J. (1964). The Last Trick Mr. Schwarzwald and Mr. Edgar. [DVD]. Czechoslovakia: Krátký Film (Prague)

Švankmajer, J. (2001). Interview by Ales Kisil. Czech TV Interview. Czech Television. [Television]

Jan Švankmajer

“Others confuse Surrealism with absurdity. […] Above all, Surrealism is not art. It is a certain spiritual path, […] is a journey into the depths of the soul, like alchemy and psychoanalysis. Unlike both of these, however, it is not an individual journey but a collective adventure.”

Jan Švankmajer

(Hames, 2008, p.102)

Short biography

Jan Švankmajer is a Czech filmmaker and artist whose films include mix clay and other stop motion techniques, pixilation, puppetry and live-action, and his artwork consists of installations, and collages. Švankmajer has been an advocate of Surrealism for decades, and his films are some of the best examples of surreal films in the history of cinema. Švankmajer’s work has greatly influenced famous filmmakers like the Brothers Quay, Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. His work has become famous worldwide during the 80’s, despite the fact that Švankmajer has been making films since the 60’s. The Communist Regime that existed at Czechoslovakia at that time censored his work and a few of his films were banned due to their political messages and notions against Stanilism.

Švankmajer was born in 1934, making him a witness to different political regimes that affected the course of Czechoslovakia’s history such as, pre- war and post-war democracy, Stalinism, Nazi occupation, the Prague Spring of 1968 and Soviet invasion, the post-1989 democracy and finally the division between the Republics of Czech and Slovakia in 1993. The constant changes of the political state in Czechoslovakia influenced Švankmajer’s work and are reflected mostly in his political films like Zahrada (The Garden, 1968),  Tichý týden v dome (A Quiet Week in the House, 1969) and Konec stalinismu v Cechách (The Death of Stanilism in Bohemia”, 1991).

Švankmajer studied at the College of Applied Arts in Prague and later he specialised in puppetry by moving to the Department of Puppetry at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts. He worked in Emil Radok’s film Doktor Faust (Doctor Faust, 1958), and Radok’s work was a great influence to him. Later he worked at Prague’s Semafor Theatre and he founded the Theatre of Masks. He then moved on to the Laterna Magika multimedia theatre, where he renewed his association with Radok who was Laterna Magika’s first artistic director. Theatricality is characteristic in Švankmajer’s work, and especially in his early work like Poslední trik pana Schwarcewalldea a pana Edgara (The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar, 1968).

Švankmajer’s early work was greatly influenced by mannerism however, he moved from mannerism to surrealism because of the work of theoretician Vratislav Effenberger. The influence of surrealism on his work is first observed in his film Zahrada (The Garden, 1968). In 1970 Švankmajer joined the Czechoslovakian Surrealist Group. The Surrealist Group was established in 1934 and contributed greatly to the growth of Surrealism in Europe, Paris and Prague were the centres of Surrealism. Artists from Prague and Paris would collaborate and arrange exhibitions in both cities until the suppression of the Czechoslovakian Surrealist Group by the Communist Regime after the end of the Second World War. Even though, the work of Surrealists was abolished by Stanilism, the Surrealists kept working and arranging secret meetings allowing Surrealism to endure the restricting, suffocating and controlling nature of Communism. In 1972 the Communist authorities banned Švankmajer from creating films for seven years and later his work was closely monitored and censored. Nevertheless, Švankmajer continued working in the film industry and on his own personal artwork, installations and collages focusing on his projects about tactilism.

By the end of the 80’s his reputation grew, especially in Europe, and after the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 and the return of the liberal democracy in Czechoslovakia, Švankmajer’s work was no longer censored and were no limitations to its thematologies. Since then, he worked on numerous short films and directed many feature films like Spiklenci slasti (Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996) and Otesánek (Little Otik, 2001) that contain live action and animation. He also arranged exhibitions of his work displaying installations, artworks, puppets and props from his films.

The Garden 1968
Zahrada (The Garden, 1968), directed by Jan Švankmajer.

 

List of references

Bertrand, S. and Leclerc, M. (2001). Les Chimeres des Švankmajer. [DVD]. France: 24 Images.

Hames, P. (ed.) (2008). The cinema of Jan Švankmajer. 2nd edn. London: Wallflower press.

Švankmajer, J. (2001). Interview by Ales Kisil. Czech TV Interview. Czech Television. [Television]

Griffiths, K., Quay, S. and Quay, T. (1984). The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer: Prague’s Alchemist of Film. [DVD] BFI.

Švankmajer, J. (1967). The Garden. [DVD]. Czechoslovakia: Krátký Film.