In Hollywood Aesthetic: Pleasure in American Cinema, film studies professor Todd Berliner explains how Hollywood delivers aesthetic pleasure to mass audiences. The following quiz is based on information found in chapter 11, “Bursting into Song in the ...

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How well do you know the Hollywood musical? [quiz]

In Hollywood Aesthetic: Pleasure in American Cinema, film studies professor Todd Berliner explains how Hollywood delivers aesthetic pleasure to mass audiences. The following quiz is based on information found in chapter 11, “Bursting into Song in the Hollywood Musical.” The chapter traces the history of the convention that characters in Hollywood musicals burst into song without realistic motivation. And it studies the ways in which Hollywood filmmakers developed novel conventions, in both musicals and non-musicals, that exploited the aesthetic possibilities of song in cinema.

How well do you know this popular Hollywood genre? Put your knowledge to the test with the quiz below.

Quiz image credit: Billie Burke and Judy Garland The Wizard of Oz. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 

Featured image credit: Hollywood sign. Photo by Thomas Wolf. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 


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12 Star Wars facts from a galaxy far, far away

On 25 May 1977, a small budget science fiction movie by a promising director premiered on less than 50 screens across the United States and immediately became a cultural phenomenon. Star Wars, George Lucas’ space opera depicting the galactic struggle between an evil Empire and a scrappy group of rebels, became the highest-grossing movie of the year and changed the course of movie history and American pop culture.

On a budget of $11 million, Star Wars garnered 10 Academy Award nominations (winning 6 plus a Special Achievement Oscar), changed how films were marketed and merchandized, revolutionized special effects, and spawned a franchise of movies – an original trilogy, a prequel trilogy, and a sequel trilogy/series of spinoff films currently in progress – that altogether have grossed over $7 billion. For many, Star Wars is the epitome of the science fiction genre, appealing to diehard fans and mainstream audiences alike, and its characters, music, and quotes have entered the collective pop cultural zeitgeist. To celebrate one of the most influential and beloved movies in history, we’ve assembled some fascinating Star Wars facts:

1. Star Wars was among the first 25 films to be inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1989.

2. Peter Cushing (who played the calculating Grand Moff Tarkin) wore carpet slippers in most of his scenes as his boots were too small, a fact that puts his dastardly act of ordering the destruction of Alderaan in a new light.

3. Star Wars’ most famous phrase, “May the Force be with you,” became a police recruiting slogan in 1970s’ England.

4. Ronald Reagan’s “Strategic Defense Initiative” was nicknamed Star Wars, as it was planned as a defense against a hypothetical Soviet missile attack from the vantage point of space. It was scrapped in 1993 due to the end of the Cold War, after costing the US government $30 million.

5. Leigh Brackett, famed screenwriter of the Howard Hawks noir film The Big Sleep, wrote an early draft of the first Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, which drew upon her science fiction novels such as The Sword of Rhiannon. She died in 1978 and never saw the completed, re-written film, which premiered in 1980.

Statue of Atlas (with a passing resemblence to George Lucas) holding the Death Star. Pazo de Bendaña, Toural, Santiago de Compostela. Photo by Toural Imperial, added by Amio Cajander, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

6. Record producer Meco Monardo reworked John Williams’ main theme as well as the Cantina Band music into a disco track that spent 2 weeks at the top of US music charts in 1977.

7. Acclaimed Academy Award-winner Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi) once made a small boy cry when he traded an autograph for a promise that the young fan would never see Star Wars again. Guinness was embarrassed that he was famous for what he believed to be a banal reason.

8. George Lucas drew on the Westerns of John Ford and the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa for the themes and aesthetics of his film, especially Kurosawa’s 1958 classic, The Hidden Fortress. The theories and works of mythologist Joseph Campbell also served as a major influence, which were later presented to the general public in a seminal 6-part television series with Bill Moyers titled The Power of Myth.

9. In 1970, only 5% of all films were science fiction, but by 1980, this figure reached 35%, in large part due to the success of Star Wars and contemporary films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

10. The hologram message of Princess Leia that R2D2 plays for Luke (”Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”) was the first-well known instance of using a 3-D projection for communication in a film. Most previous science fiction movies and television shows like Star Trek had used communication devices that resembled telephones or televisions. Forbidden Planet from 1956 was an early example that used holograms.

11. Fittingly, with Lucas’ affinity for myth and allegory, the names of many of the main Star Wars characters have symbolic meaning. Darth Vader evokes “death invader” but actually means “dark father,” whereas Luke Skywalker’s name comes from the Greek “leukos,” meaning light. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s name has Japanese influence, and rogue Han Solo’s name confirms that he is a loner.

12. The action figure was popularized by Star Wars in the late 1970s and the toy industry never looked back. The Star Wars franchise itself has grossed billions of dollars in themed merchandise since the first film’s premiere.

Featured Image credit: model of R2D2 at Star Wars Exhibitition Argentina, FAIL, July 2009. Roger Schultz, CC BY 2.0 via flickr.

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Analyzing genre in Star Wars

In Hollywood Aesthetic: Pleasure in American Cinema, film studies professor Todd Berliner explains how Hollywood delivers aesthetic pleasure to mass audiences. Along the way, Professor Berliner offers numerous aesthetic analyses of both routine Hollywood movies and exceptional ones. His analyses, one of which we excerpt here, illustrate how to study a film’s aesthetic properties. In honor of the 40th anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars (1977), we are posting the following excerpt from Chapter 10, “The Hollywood Genre System.”

Inaugurating the most financially successful franchise in the history of entertainment, the original Star Wars (1977) has become one of the most widely and intensely loved movies of all time. Film scholars, however, lambasted Star Wars for its simplicity. Peter Lev calls it one of the “simple, optimistic genre films in the late 1970s.” David Cook says it privileges “a juvenile mythos.” Jonathan Rosenbaum calls the movie mostly “fireworks and pinball machines,” a deliberately silly film that offers only “narcissistic pleasures.” In his book on Star Wars, Will Brooker summarizes the scorn that scholars show toward the film: “Cinema scholarship seems embarrassed by Star Wars — embarrassed that a movie series so popular, successful and influential is also, apparently, so childishly simple.”

How do we explain the discrepancy between scholars’ opinion of the film and its popular success? What pleasure do mass audiences get from Star Wars that scholars do not? What aesthetic weaknesses do scholars find in the film that mass audiences don’t? I hope to demonstrate that we can attribute much of the discrepancy between Star Wars’s popular and scholarly reception to the two audiences’ differing levels of genre expertise. Hollywood’s genre system makes routine filmgoers into experts, but filmgoers do not share the same level of genre expertise, and more expert filmgoers require greater novelty and complexity to feel an exhilarated aesthetic response.

For an average spectator, Star Wars exhibits more challenging and diverse genre properties than most scholars recognize…A simple list of genres that figure fairly prominently in the film would include fairy tales, adventure films, and swashbucklers (swinging on ropes, rescuing a princess, Leia’s wardrobe, light saber fights); the Western (a cantina scene, desert landscapes, shots of a burning homestead, bounty hunters); the 1930s science fiction serial Flash Gordon (ray guns and explosions, an episode format, an opening text that explains previous events); fantasy comics and novels, such as John Carter of Mars, Buck Rogers, and The Lord of the Rings (alien creatures, monsters, a hero on a quest, a world in peril, battles and adventures in far-off lands); samurai movies (obsolete warriors, light sabers); a comic duo, such as Abbot and Costello and Laurel and Hardy, that pairs a neurotic skinny straight-man with a fat clown (C3PO and R2D2); the philosophical fantasy film, such as Lost Horizon (1937) (the Force, spiritual training); horror (Darth Vader, Hammer horror-film actor Peter Cushing); gangster (Han’s debt to Jabba the Hutt); Nazi documentaries and World War II films (soldiers in formation, air battles, a prison escape, rebels planning an invasion in a war room, the uniforms of Grand Moff Tarkin and other officers in the Galactic Empire); the foreign film (subtitled dialogue); the historical epic, such as The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) (nation building, spectacular settings, a small band of rebels fighting a mighty empire); and, of course, science fiction film and television, such as Forbidden Planet (1956) and Lost in Space (robots, interstellar travel), Star Trek (photon torpedoes, light-speed space travel, tractor beams, outer space cultures), and Planet of the Apes (Chewbacca).

The film finds fortuitous linkages between diverse genre topoi. The figures of C3PO and R2D2 blend the tin man from The Wizard of Oz, the comic duo of Abbot and Costello, and the space robot of Forbidden Planet in a way that feels unified and inevitable. The figure of Han Solo makes the Western’s quick drawing gun-for-hire — decked out in a vest, boots, and a gun by his side — seem a lot like both the captain of a pirate ship in an Errol Flynn adventure and, when matched against Princess Leia, one half of a screwball comedy pair. The light saber makes something like a samurai’s sword a natural supplement to a Star Trek phaser. The imagery in an early scene with Princess Leia and Darth Vader (figures 10.1 and 10.2) combines a science fiction setting with elements from fairytale (Leia’s flowing white gown), horror (Vader’s bug-like metallic mask), and the WWII prison movie (handcuffed Leia led by Storm Troopers and the Nazi-like garb of a solider standing beside Vader). “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” is apropos because Lucas’s futuristic science fiction film feels like the past.

Figure 10.1. Still image from Star Wars (1977), pg 197 of Hollywood Aesthetic by Todd Berliner. Used with permission.
Figure 10.2. Still image from Star Wars (1977), pg 197 of Hollywood Aesthetic by Todd Berliner. Used with permission.

I propose that many film scholars find Star Wars simplistic and unoriginal because they have too much experience with the film’s multifarious genre conventions — conventions that viewers with extensive knowledge of film genres can identify too easily. True film experts have seen it all before, which explains why scholars often celebrate the more self-conscious genre films of the same period, such as The Long Goodbye and All that Jazz (1979). Ironic and disdainful of Hollywood formula, such films reflect an expert’s weariness with mainstream American cinema.

Star Wars reflects no such weariness, irony, or disdain. Although it relies heavily on conventions that film experts have seen many times, average spectators would not so easily identify its genre properties. Rosenbaum’s blistering review of the film is largely a complaint about cinematic poaching from Triumph of the Will (1935), Flash Gordon (1936), The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), This Island Earth (1955), The Searchers (1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Samurai movies, and other films so familiar to Rosenbaum that, to his mind, the plot could have been regurgitated by “any well-behaved computer fed with the right amount of pulp.” Robin Wood calls the pleasures of Star Wars “mindless and automatic.” … He says that spectators find reassurance in “the extreme familiarity of plot, characterization, situation, and character relations.”

Such conventions may be extremely familiar to Wood and Rosenbaum, but I suspect that their scorn for Star Wars results in part from the fact that they have chunked so much film knowledge that they can identify the film’s genre properties too easily. Wood thinks he is criticizing Star Wars fans for taking pleasure in an “undemanding,” “reassuring,” “childish” fantasy, but really he might only be condemning their limited cinema expertise. For spectators who have only moderate familiarity with Hollywood genre conventions, Star Wars requires cognitive work. Wood would no doubt describe most Hollywood movies as “mindless and automatic” because they are for him. However, Wood’s critique cannot explain the enduring and exhilarated passion that we see in generations of Star Wars fans, whose engagement with the film does not by any means look “mindless and automatic”; Star Wars fans are engrossed and elated. For an average viewer, the film finds the optimal area between unity and complexity, familiarity and novelty, easy recognition and cognitive challenge.

Featured image:Figure 10.1. Still image from Star Wars (1977), pg 197 of Hollywood Aesthetic by Todd Berliner. Used with permission. 

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Analyzing “Expressiveness” in Frankenstein (1931)

In Hollywood Aesthetic: Pleasure in American Cinema, film studies professor Todd Berliner explains how Hollywood delivers aesthetic pleasure to mass audiences. Along the way, Professor Berliner offers numerous aesthetic analyses of scenes, clips, and images from both routine Hollywood movies and exceptional ones. His analyses, one of which we excerpt here, illustrate how to study a film’s aesthetic properties.

In Hollywood cinema, style does more than deliver story information. It also increases the expressive power of a story by establishing mood, emphasizing the story’s meaning, enlivening characterization, enhancing the narrative’s emotional development, and intensifying the story’s cognitive and affective impact.

Take, for example, the scene in Frankenstein (1931) in which a father carries his daughter’s lifeless body through town. After the Monster kills the little girl, the father interrupts a festive outdoor celebration as other villagers carouse and dance. Story information alone emphasizes the intrusion of horror on the festivity, but the challenge for the filmmakers is to shoot the scene in a style that maximizes its expressiveness, both stressing the point of the scene and enhancing its emotional impact. The obvious solution would be to show the appearance of the father at the celebration and then cut to the villagers’ reactions, a stylistic choice that would clearly and immediately express the shock of the event. The film could sustain that moment for 5 or 10 seconds, cutting to various astonished villagers to fully express the transition from festivity to horror. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson and director James Whale, however, use an even more expressive stylistic solution, one that both communicates shock and extends the instant of transition for almost a minute of screen time.

The filmmakers stage the event so that villagers see the dead girl not all at the same time but rather one after another. In two long takes, lasting a total of 48 seconds, the camera tracks sideways and backward with the distraught father as he carries his daughter’s corpse through the celebration (video 5.2). The framing and deep focus of these shots enable spectators to witness again and again each moment when different villagers at the party first see the dead child, their expressions turning from merriment to gaping horror. Notice in figures 5.3 and 5.4, for instance, that all of the characters on the right side of the frame express shock on their faces, whereas the characters on the left side of the frame, who have not yet seen the father and the dead girl, are still celebrating; their faces, too, will soon turn to shock as the father and tracking camera pass them by.

Figure 5.2. Video clip from Frankenstein (1931). Featured on the companion website to Hollywood Aesthetic: Pleasure in American Cinema by Todd Berliner. Used with permission.

Figure 5.3. Still image from Frankenstein (1931). Pg. 93 of Hollywood Aesthetic: Pleasure in American Cinema by Todd Berliner. Used with permission.
Figure 5.4. Still image from Frankenstein (1931). Pg. 93 of Hollywood Aesthetic: Pleasure in American Cinema by Todd Berliner. Used with permission.

The filmmakers have selected a staging and cinematography style that intensifies the emotional expressiveness of the moment by sequentially portraying, for dozens of characters, the instant of shock. This stylistic choice also enables the film to depict festivity and shock at the same time, rather than replacing one with the other, since at each moment during these two shots we see in the frame some villagers celebrating and others suddenly in dismay. Throughout the sequence, moreover, we hear some voices expressing shock (“Look, Maria!”) and others whooping and cheering in celebration. Talented filmmakers, such as Edeson and Whale, find creative techniques that enhance a scene’s expressiveness while conforming to Hollywood’s general stylistic parameters.

Featured image: Frankenstein (1931) movie poster. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 

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The critical role of race in John Cassavetes’ first film

Shadows is the first film John Cassavetes directed and, regarding the version he released in 1959, it is the only film he created that distinctly explores themes of Blackness and Black identity in an American urban landscape. Too Late Blues, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Love Streams all depict identity and race in different and attention-worthy ways as well, but none of Cassavetes’ directorial work after 1959 engages with these topics to the same degree or with the same immediacy.

And yet, the director largely disavowed this viewpoint on Shadows, saying in interviews that the film is primarily a story about people and their lives, not one of race. Some critics have reinforced that disavowal, some have resisted it, but the film itself opposes even its director’s objections: Shadows inarguably focuses on exploring race and identity in the Black America of its time.

It is also a film to which we can turn in the present, putting our focus on same and similar themes. At the time of this writing, these are the first months of a post-Obama nation and these are the first months in nearly a decade that Americans can look at their president and not lookas Whitney Dow writesupon a non-White face. Americans in 2017 do not have to immediately consider a non-White identity in the context of the American president, and in the context of all the reactions and provocations that often came with Blackness in that role. This shift arrives at a time when writers such as Jeff Nesbit tell us that we also face a kind of threatthat the nation stands to lose touch with what focus on race and identity its first Black president helped prompt, further, and develop.

One response to Nesbit’s cautionary note is to turn to stories that address race and racial identity in other ways, to exercise the gift of the human brain, as Nesbit puts it, and share the worksthe documents of culturethat prompt discourses and examinations of race and identity in our own times. Shadows can be a powerful lens for that effort. Acknowledging and celebrating Shadows as a film deeply invested in stories about Blackness and Whiteness, at this moment in American history, is to reassert its place among the most crucial, nuanced, and humane stories about race and racial identity to which we can turn.

Shadows is largely the story of three Black charactersBennie, who runs with a gang of White friends; Lelia, his sister, a socialite in a largely White circle; and Hugh, their brother, a singer struggling with his career. From Manhattan diners to mid-town museums, to swank apartments, humble tenements, and downtown music clubs, the film follows this trio’s days and nights, the three characters’ relationships, frustrations, and hopes unfolding in a Beat-inflected, mid-century America, New York City on the edge of a crucible decade.

Photo of John Cassavetes as Johnny Staccato from the television program of the same name, NBC Television. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In numerous ways, the lives of these characters as Black Americans are steeped in states of apartness. To be Black in Shadows is at times to disappear into a crowd, to withdraw into corners, to resist even the most inviting moments of companionship. And to be Black in New York City, and in America, in the world of Shadows, is to strain against vanishing, to struggle for a spotlight, to strive for time and a voice and a chance to express and create without shackles or the near-certainty of short-shrift.

Taking this dynamic further, experiences of Blackness and identity in Shadows are also shaped by the relative lightness and darkness of one’s skin. It is crucial to each characters’ narrative.

Bennie, who is Black and passes for White, and who, for a time chooses a White identity in the filmas Cassavetes explains the dynamic at work, in a character sketchis characterized by anguish and spins away from the people and places around him. We find Bennie jamming himself into corners at jazz parties, climbing up and out of the throng or squashing himself into the far reaches of diner seats, masticating late-night lines until he finally says to a White woman who leans close: “I think I’m caught in this booth”. These tensions and anguishes take the form of close-ups during an apartment party, a striking scene in which all the details of the Black people Bennie sees are exaggerated in Cassavetes’ lens. Black mouths, Black teeth, Black lips; Bennie’s hyper-focus finally erupts. He lashes out, striking a Black woman. She has just said to him, “You really want to join in the party but maybe you don’t know how”. Later, Bennie stands outside a club, the sound of jazz coming through the door. He sings a nursery rhyme: “Mary had a little lamb / its fleece as white as snow / And everywhere that Mary went / the lamb was sure to go.” The refrain resonates with Bennie’s struggle to inhabit an identity, whether to lead his White friends into another alley dustup or instead, perhaps, to join that other party, the one waiting back at his own apartment.

Bennie’s sister, Lelia, is also on a journey in which she passes for White. Her days and nights at the start of Shadows revolve around intellectual parties and literary gatherings, apartments full of academics and drinkers and almost everyone in them is White. When Lelia makes love to a new friend, Tony, who is a White man from these parties, Cassavetes pointedly moves the camera from an African mask on the wall over his bed, panning down to the two of them in the sheets. Lelia is crestfallen, following this first sexual experience. She tells Tony that she thought making love would mean, “Two people would be as close as it’s possible to get. But instead we’re just two strangers.” Strangers to each other, in the moment, because of her words, and soon to be strangers in new ways because of Tony’s words as well. When he meets Lelia’s brother, Hugh, whose skin is dark, he realizes Lelia’s Blackness and his confusion and realization are plain for all to see. The consequences are irreversible. After Hugh sends him away, and after Lelia resists reconciliation, Cassavetes makes it clear that Tony will find no avenue back to that bed under the African mask, the world he briefly joined but in a critical moment rejected.

Hugh is locked into cycles of compromise, a dark-skinned Black singer in the business of White-run entertainment, struggling with the ways race and identity play into that business. And they are also about his convictionswhether he is to be a respected singer or a dressed-up buffoon telling jokes before the White show girls dance. When Hugh finally shouts out his frustration, arguing with his friend and manager in Grand Central Station as they prepare to leave on another string of falling-apart gigs, he tells us something crucial about how race and culture intertwine for him: “Let’s get the hell out of here, the States,” he cries. “We’ll go to Paris…France… Africa!” Hugh’s expressed optionslife as an expat or a full-on return to the land of descentcarry more weight than a struggle with artistic integrity alone.

Cassavetes provides no neat solutions to the challenges these three face, though they will in some ways, to some degree, rearrange the ties that bind. Hugh does not leave America; he boards a train for the next show, now pursuing a career and life he has not been able to control but doing so within the context of having stated what it is that ails him. Lelia dances in the arms of a Black man, a new friend with whom there are no guarantees, but no longer must she confront Tony and the apartness that came with that embrace. Bennie, bloodied after a new fight, finally tells his White friends that he’s giving up on the scene they’ve created. Standing alone in the darkening street, smoking, he becomes a silhouette joining others on the sidewalk, slipping from Cassavetes’ lens.

Cassavetes responded to questions about Shadows and its depictions of race by first striving to keep the film open to numerous interpretations, to preserve it as something anchored to matters of the heart.

Addressing Shadows as a film about race, however, does not diminish its other elements, or deny that it is also heavily invested in human experiences beyond those of race. Depictions of race and Blackness are simply among its most significant components. As Hugh puts it, in one scene, the conflict its characters experience stems from and revolves around “problems of the races”.

Shadows is a monumental work in this respect, a film that presents dimensions and details of Black identity in America that are complicated, compassionate, and provocativeCassavetes’ exploration, circa 1959, of a subject that envelops us still.

Featured image credit: Castle Gardens, Lisburn, November 2010 by Ardfern. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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