Truth and Artificiality in WONDER WHEEL

Since Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen has ridden a different wave from any other working filmmaker, bridging the wide gap between Hollywood prestige and vulgar auteurism to fascinating effect. With some exceptions, his narratives sound like typical awards fare—a young romance set in 1930s Los Angeles, a professor’s budding friendship with an intelligent coed, a woman simultaneously going through a divorce and mental breakdown—but their friendliness to Oscar & Co. tends to be frustrated by exaggerated performances, rushed pacing in scenes that a Morten Tyldum type would linger in, skeptical takes on magical realism, and a metered but hefty use of his own brand of screwball logic. These seven films have typically explored the nature of fiction creation by paradoxically layering clear artificiality (a practical uncanny valley of performance and set design) with an emotional honesty that ranges from the casually plaintive to the violently desperate.

I hesitate to refer to Wonder Wheel as an amalgam of Allen’s prior several films, as that might detract from its own originality and the uniqueness of the ideas that it explores, but something from each of them can be found in the latest, ranging from the Ninotchka-esque cinematographic flourishes in Café Society to To Rome with Love’s brilliant use of a diegetic character as semi-omniscient narrator. Justin Timberlake’s Mickey Rubin, an aspiring playwright, introduces the film to the audience in the opening moments as a melodrama, warning us to expect exaggerated characters. Perhaps Allen’s idea of a wry inside joke, Mickey proves to be right once we meet the rest of the primary dramatis personae: Ginny Rannell (Kate Winslet), an aspiring human being stuck in a prison of a marriage; her husband Humpty (Jim Belushi), a blue-collar recovered alcoholic whose kindness is always far more sincere than it seems; her stepdaughter Carolina (Juno Temple), a moll on the run looking to get back on track with an ordinary course of life; and her son Richie (Jack Gore), a preteen whose compulsive pyromania is a major source of both comedy and anxiety throughout the film. That each of these characters is essentially a walking trope with only circumstantial details setting them apart from other mid-century, mid-Atlantic families in films ranging from West Side Story to Jersey Boys is all part of the Allenian course: Wonder Wheel is less concerned with the specifics of these characters’ lives and passions than with how a fictional feature film can earn emotional veracity in the first place. Much in the film feels familiar, allowing for the machinations to be more easily exposed.

To an extent, this is aided by Mickey’s frequent narrational interludes that link Wonder Wheel to an oral storytelling tradition. Once immersed in a narrative world, the viewer is reminded—explicitly almost as often as implicitly—to never lose sight of the fiction of the thing, and to treat the film’s characters and events as manufactured phenomena within a manufactured universe. Ginny and the others in her circle lose their humanity before they are even introduced. Where To Rome with Love let most of its various tales play out before reminding the viewer of their inherent fakeness through association with cautionary fables (some nearly Aesopian) or the introduction of fourth wall-breaking tools, Wonder Wheel ensures that we do not get caught up in any inferences regarding the onscreen images’ veracity.

This is not to say that the viewer is prohibited from being emotionally affected by Ginny’s story: one much-appreciated side effect of these exaggerated performances is that the characters’ emotional states are of prime importance. Their lack of naturalism might irritate some, but it is apparent that we are supposed to care about the film’s events insofar as they impact the characters and their psyches (Ginny especially, by virtue of her role as the protagonist, though Belushi, Temple, and Timberlake do great work with their characters as well—more on Gore’s Richie to come). Recall the pained, melodramatic expression and slow movement of Winslet’s hand hanging up the phone as she decides to not warn another character of impending doom. Where a more Pialat-Rohmerian performer might use subtler facial tics or casual glances to impart the same idea, Winslet’s hyperbolic gestures demonstrate that even if she is not a real person, she still has a real person’s thoughts, and our reading of the scene’s gravitas is intricately linked with our grasp of the internal conflict at hand. The artificiality lays bare the narrative’s morals and truths while reminding us just how these ideas are transmitted. Special mention may be given to Vittorio Storaro’s photography work on this point, the variation of lighting and color—ostensibly caused by the amusement park at which most of the film takes place—clearly timed to match the flow of some of the more important conversations. There is something inelegant and, frankly, awkward about the way that sudden changes from warm reds to cold blues are choreographed with changes in Winslet’s demeanor or a conversation’s turn, but as a means to demonstrate the cogs that provide the framework for filmmaking in general, the device further reveals Wonder Wheel’s dedication to imparting an understanding of how fiction (movie magic) can impart fact (the truths that the best movies reveal).

What then of Richie, whose relative emotionlessness and kinetic variability (he is usually introduced standing still before abruptly taking flight) mark him as separate from the other characters, and whose narrative course is almost a wholly segregated subplot? He might be Allen’s attempt at providing the film with another trope character, the harmless nuisance played for comic relief—think Nick in Kiss Me Deadly or Arthur in A Serious Man—but I prefer to think of him as a genuine cry, a manifestation of a fascination with disorder that leads to self-destructive tendencies. More importantly, Richie’s evident fear (he never seems to enjoy the fires that he creates) reveals his lack of understanding with why he feels the way that he does, as understandable an emotion among pubescent boys as any. If Wonder Wheel’s only true human, the only character whose expressions we take at face value rather than as they relate to his fictionality, is the confused arsonist, then see it as a clever cosmic joke.

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Entertainment and Dystopia: Sonic Devices in SPRING BREAKERS

Originally written for Visual and Environmental Studies 72 (Sound Cinema), taught by Professor Laura Frahm, at Harvard University, in May 2014.

Since antiquity, entertainment has been a staple of society. Richard Dyer argues in “Entertainment and Utopia” that one aspect of entertainment that may explain this trend is its ability to “[offer] the image of ‘something better’ to escape into.” He continues by saying that though it does not necessarily “present models of utopian worlds,” it captures the emotions associated with utopianism. It thus reveals to its audience a diegesis that, though perhaps imperfect, relates feelings that are associated with an ideal world (20). This theory claims that the purpose of entertainment is to make its audio-viewers temporarily forget the imperfections of reality. Harmony Korine’s film Spring Breakers (2012) plays with this notion of entertainment as utopian sensibility through its complex soundscape. Its use of various sound devices, including emanation speech, atonal music, and looping, creates the sense of a downward spiral and of the lack of a thematic anchor. This contributes to a rather interesting take on Dyer’s argument, suggesting that, through the formation of dystopian sensations, Spring Breakers critiques modern manifestations of entertainment while simultaneously relying on such ideas to express its argument.

One prominent feature of the soundtrack of Spring Breakers is its score. Composed by Cliff Martinez and notable dubstep artist Skrillex, the score is heavily dominated by electronic dance music (EDM). Taken literally, this seems to be of little interest: electronica is the de facto anthem of the masses of spring breakers that raid Florida’s beaches every year, and it naturally plays a conspicuous role in the film’s party scenes. This musical choice, however, has strong implications for the emotions the film conveys, and thus for its fundamental statement about entertainment. Some of the tracks most prominently featured in the film include Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” and “With You, Friends (Long Drive)” as well as his “Goin’ Down Mix” of Birdy Nam Nam’s “Goin’ In.” These songs represent what is commonly referred to as the “brostep” subgenre of dubstep, a genre that, though still considered dance music, tends to have a “‘dark’ feel generated with minor keys and dissonant harmonies” (Zimmer and Carson 193). This aspect of the score creates a juxtaposition between entertainment and bliss (associated with dancing) and a sense of discomfort and unease (associated with dissonance and the minor key). Steven Shaviro expands on this effect by writing, “EDM doesn’t abandon tonality, [sic] but no longer uses it as an organizing principle” (“Seeing into the Light”). The dubstep used in the first half of the film still seems to have a base and an underlying center, but it does not adhere to this anchor by rule and instead seems to take its own course. This relates closely to the idea that what the film shows is not entirely anarchist as a matter of course but is rather a perversion of that which could be normally structured. The elements required for entertainment—utopian emotions and qualities—are present, but discomfort results from a lack of fidelity to these elements and an exploration of a rebellion to traditional controls.

The second half of Spring Breakers features fewer “brostep” tracks but still captures the essential elements of this subgenre through different means. In one scene toward the film’s end, Alien sits at his piano alone and repeatedly strikes one key while singing about past and future events. This music, if it can even be called that, has no real rhythm or tonal center. It is a random series of notes that represents the complete devolution of music to its fundamental core. Alien’s song reveals the other devolution that has taken place by the film’s end: that of the supposed entertainment in the film. There is still nudity, there is still violence, and there is still laughter, but what was once titillating now seems cold and bare. We hear music stripped to its core, and we see what modern society typically deems “entertainment” stripped down as well, and neither is as utopian as we once believed. The stereotypical “teensploitation” tropes of sex, drugs, and violence are presented without the decoration and revealed to be meaningless. It is important to realize the stark differences between the beginning and the end of the film. The dubstep tracks are essentially lipsticked aversions to the traditional use of tonality and contribute to the numerous superficial party scenes in this part; though the sexuality and substance abuse artificially evoke utopian emotions within the audience, there is a quite fundamental abhorrence of a traditional grounding. Indeed, Minett writes that EDM “can provide a sense of pain as well as excitement…using the formal features of EDM to give sonic substance to thought” (199). This explains that the rebellious nature of the music captures the rebellious nature of the characters and that they are acting contrary to what they (consciously or subconsciously) consider normalcy. As this gives way to the wholly atonal and arrhythmic musical ramblings of Alien on the verge of his demise, the film exposes us to the heart of the issue and to its true nature. It provides an unflinching prediction of the effects of reliance on the previous experiences for entertainment. In the attack on Archie’s house, when Alien loses his life and Candy and Brit lose any semblance of innocence that remained, we are not surprised, for this seems to be the natural result of the earlier events.

This idea that the supposed sources of entertainment provided in Spring Breakers are not sustainable in the long run is augmented by the film’s use of audio loops. At various points in the film, characters repeat particular lines multiple times for no apparent reason. For example, when Alien is showing the girls his money, clothing, and weapons, he chants various forms of the mantra “Look at my shit” upward of six times. We are shown thousands of dollars worth of material goods while seemingly stuck in what Michael Koresky calls “an arrhythmic, circular song on repeat.” This verbal description of the images presented adds nothing to our understanding of the diegesis and does little to advance the plot. This appeals to the lack of what both Shaviro and Koresky refer to as “forward motion.” As the film progresses, we begin to hear fewer and fewer original sounds and sentences and instead fall into a pattern of hearing the same phrases uttered repeatedly. These catchphrases, which include the threatening “Get on your knees, bitch,” and Alien’s dreamlike intonation “Spring break forever, y’all,” act as examples of stereotypical lines heard in films whose mode of entertainment this film criticizes. The addiction to violence, sexuality, and “fun” are used to create feelings of utopia in many mainstream films released today, but Spring Breakers argues that, rather than utopian sentiments, these lines are more fundamentally dystopian, showing that a constant adherence to these ideas results in nothing more than a death spiral into monotony and anarchy.

David Noh’s analysis of the repetition in Spring Breakers provides a contrary view to the opinions expressed in the previous paragraph. Noh writes that this stylistic device is essentially “basic numbing repetitiveness” and that it helps in making the film “cadaverously thin, content-wise,” going so far as to say that it “should have been a lot more fun than it is.” Though these are quite negative criticisms of the film, this is exactly the effect that Spring Breakers intends to have on its audience. The constant repetition of key phrases is a mockery of a widespread form of entertainment used in modern cinema; Spring Breakers develops this statement by way of imitation. In repeating these same lines throughout (and especially in the second half), the film points out how “cadaverously thin” the oversaturation of the familiar themes of sex, alcohol, and violence can make it. Noh’s observation as to the discrepancy between the expected and actual entertainment values of the film is an interesting one and a very important one. We as an audience have been trained by the constant onslaught of raunchy comedies, “stoner” movies, and summer blockbusters to expect entertainment from the depiction of the themes mentioned earlier; upon viewing Spring Breakers, it is natural to assume the same. This film, however, shows the inherent unsustainability and pointlessness of derivations of entertainment from such subjects. By refraining from imparting utopian emotions, Spring Breakers lacks traditional entertainment value, arguing instead that entertainment derived from the subjects it discusses is false and misleading.

The presence of voiceover in Spring Breakers also contributes to its thesis. Perhaps the most apparent observation to make about this device is that it invariably uses dramatic irony by contrasting the words with the image. For example, when we hear Faith tell her grandmother, “I’m starting to think this is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been,” we see topless women dancing and Faith and her friends urinating in bushes. The initial shock of this juxtaposition is humorous, but a more careful analysis sheds light on two possible implications. The first assumes that Faith is lying to her grandmother. This act itself would be somewhat abhorrent, as at this point in the film, we know that Faith is a devout Christian and the “good girl” of the group, so this sudden transition to sinfulness may be shocking in itself. The second, and more likely, potential implication assumes that Faith is telling the truth. Korine himself once said on the matter, “I think they mean what they say in some weird way” (qtd. in “Seeing into the Light”). This suggests that the spring break destination has altered the girls’ perception and sensibilities; Faith actually believes she is undergoing a spiritual experience, as she has become prey to the idea that fun and friendship imply goodness. Later in the film, as the girls are being arrested, there is again dramatic irony involving voiceover. Faith’s voice whispers, “We were just having fun; we didn’t do anything wrong,” but the camera shows us Candy snorting cocaine from a girl’s chest. Such a blatant untruth could not be a lie. Faith truly believes that the behavior that she would have disdained at home is now somehow morally correct because it is carried out in the name of fun. Reynolds writes about this that the “point of carnival is that it’s temporary.” Entertainment of this sort convinces its audio-viewers that actions typically deemed “wrong” are justified by their ephemerality. Spring Breakers rejects this philosophy that everything is good in moderation in its condemnation of the supposedly innocent fun-seekers to jail. By showing images that directly contradict the words being spoken, it also paints this behavior in a bad light, associating it with lying and deception.

The final use of voiceover in the film comes in the last scene, as Candy and Brit attack Archie’s gang. We hear Candy tell her mom nearly the exact same words Faith told her grandmother at the beginning of the film: “I think we found ourselves here. We finally got to see some other parts of the world. We saw some beautiful things here, things we’ll never forget…. Everyone was so sweet here…. It feels as if the world is perfect, like it’s never gonna end.” By having a different character speak some of the same lines, the film shows that the characters have fallen into the trap of the cult of this entertainment. The girls are not developing independent thoughts but are rather being force-fed ideas through their desperate search for temporary entertainment. It is the last line of this final monologue that is the most disturbing, as it relates directly with the idea of utopia. Candy says that she feels the utopian sensibilities that are related with entertainment, but what we see (a shootout between two bikini-clad girls and an entire crime syndicate) imparts very dystopian ideas on the film’s audience. This discrepancy is vital in the development of the idea that the events depicted are not sustainable, that any entertainment provided by Spring Breakers is bound to lead to destruction.

Throughout the film, there are various instances of emanation speech, which Chion refers to as “a secretion of the characters, a facet of their being” (68). For example, a lot of what Alien says does nothing to drive the story but instead serves to define his character and fill the space of the film with his presence. When he shows Candy and Brit all of his guns and clothing, he gives a monologue of emanation speech, talking about everything that he has without providing any reason for why it is important. The mindless repetition of “Look at all my shit” serves to embody an aspect of Alien-ness but does not “drive the visuals or significantly affect the characters” (Kickasola 63). Similarly, many of Archie’s lines are quite literally unintelligible. During Archie’s sex scene, he spews a string of admirations to his sexual partner that serve no purpose other than to portray him as a cold and materialistic character. This speech does not progress the plot but rather characterizes Archie as another person who has bought into the hedonistic idea that temporary pleasure has inherent value. Both of these cases relate to the idea of a lack of forward motion. We as audience members seem to be trapped in these scenes, watching as the exposition of the ideology this film attacks is carried out in slow, painstaking detail. Alien and Archie, in these scenes and in others, are often not so much characters as concepts, manifestations of the philosophies they represent.

Noh criticizes the use of this device as “Korine’s futile attempt at the elegiac,” an argument that seems to agree with this interpretation of the emanation speech. It is unlikely that the speech was meant to be elegiac, as Alien’s intonations about spring break seem to be akin to extensions of his character rather than expressions of grief, but the fact that repetition of “Spring Break forever, y’all,” appears elegiac at all validates the hypothesis that the entertainment provided from this film and the actions in the film can only be temporary. The haunting nature of this phrase reveals that any attempt to make permanent the enjoyment provided by the images of sexuality, drugs, and violence will be unfruitful, and that a treatment of these sensations as having been noble in any way will fail in providing emotional stimulation.

Two recurring sound effects used throughout the film are the sound of a gun being cocked and that of a gun being fired. These are typically used as scene transitions but are occasionally heard in the middle of a scene. At the literal level, this oversaturation of gun-related noises creates the impression that violence is omnipresent in the diegesis. It complements the violent images on the screen, and even when it is heard over tranquil images, it reminds the audience that violence is not far away. This assists in the development of the quasi-dystopian diegesis created by this film. At a more emotional level, the gunfire instills the feeling of fear and apprehension in the audience and complicates the benignity of the images (when they are in fact benign). For example, when Alien is with Candy, Brit, and Cotty on a pier, he pretends to take a photo of them, but instead of hearing a camera sound, we hear the cocking of a gun. This lets the audience know that Alien might not be completely trustworthy and that by continuing their relationship with him, the girls could be putting themselves in danger. At a structural level, the gunshots contribute to what Shaviro refers to as a “liquid narrative.” As an example of post-continuity cinema, Shaviro writes, Spring Breakers does not follow a traditional linear narrative format, where each scene results from the scenes before it and lead to the scenes that follow (“Seeing into the Light”). In this film, each scene contributes to the tone and message of the film in its own way, especially in the second half of the film. The narrative could easily be understood without the scene where Alien shows off his guns or the one where he has a ménage à trois with Candy and Brit, but the film would be very different thematically, and we may not experience the same sense of dystopia. The gunshots separate these small scenes, showing that each one is very clearly severed from the rest of the film. At the same time, however, the fact that the same noise is present in many of them unites them in a way, which contributes to the sense that they are all episodes in the same diegesis that build toward a common message.

The soundscape of Spring Breakers contains many recurring devices that assist in the rejection of entertainment derived from such shallow sources of pleasure as violence, sexuality, and substance abuse. In contrast to the way Richard Dyer describes musicals’ effect on their audience in “Entertainment and Utopia,” Spring Breakers shares the sensation of a spiraling descent into dystopia as the film progresses. The use of “brostep” and EDM in the first half of the film hint toward a rejection of the adherence to a tonic anchor and thus of a fundamental base for the characters actions, and the transition to atonality near the film’s end represents the complete absence of any moral foundation. The constant presence of various dialogue loops throughout the film creates the sensation that no progress is being made and that the themes presented in the film are not sufficient to lead to finality or resolution, arguing instead that we are trapped in a state of anarchy. The dramatic irony presented with the various voiceovers in the film contribute to the disturbing truth that the sex, drugs, and violence are captivating, destructive, and impermanent in their nature and that they cannot be trusted to provide lasting entertainment. The emanation speech used by Alien and Archie add to the sense of stagnancy as well as an overall understanding that the events of the film are uncomfortable and toxic. The use of gun sounds has a number of effects on the audience’s perception of the diegesis, perhaps most notably an added sense of dystopian sensibilities. Though Spring Breakers at times resorts to becoming what it seeks to denounce, as its critics argue, it is through this imitation that it can reveal the folly of deriving entertainment from such themes, and it is the sound that shows what is wrong with the image.

References

Chion, Michel. “The Ascendancy of King Text (1935-1950).” Film, a Sound Art. Trans. Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. 67-83. Print.

Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia.” Only Entertainment. London: Routledge, 1992. 19-35. Print.

Kickasola, Joseph G. “Leading with the Ear: Upstream Color and the Cinema of Respiration.” Film Quarterly 66.4 (2013): 60-74. JSTOR. Web. 9 May 2014.

Koresky, Michael. “Re-enter the Void.” Reverse Shot 33 (2013): n. pag. Web. 9 May 2014.

Minett, Mark. “Beyond the badass: Electronic Dance Music meets film music practice.” New Review of Film and Television Studies 11.2 (2013): 191-210. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 9 May 2014.

Noh, David. “Film Review: Spring Breakers.” Film Journal International. Film Journal International, 15 Mar. 2013. Web. 9 May 2014.

Reynolds, Simon. “You only live once.” Sight & Sound May 2013: n. pag. EBSCOhost. Web. 9 May 2014.

Shaviro, Steven. “Seeing into the Light: Delirious Perception in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers.” Steven Shaviro’s Web Pages. International Colloquium on Phenomenology and Cinema. Lisbon, Portugal. 6 Dec. 2013. Lecture Notes. 8 May 2014.

—. “Spring Breakers.” The Pinocchio Theory. WordPress. 28 June 2013. Web. 9 May 2014.

Spring Breakers. Dir. Harmony Korine. A24, 2012. Film.

Zimmer, Benjamin and Charles E. Carson. “Among the New Words.” American Speech 87.2 (2012): 190-207. Duke Journals. Web. 8 May 2014.

The Wonderful Poverty of AS I WAS MOVING AHEAD

A personal film in perhaps the most extreme sense of the phrase, Jonas Mekas’s As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000) is entirely composed of home videos recorded at various points during the adult life of its director. As Mekas reminds us throughout, there is no narrative, and essentially nothing happens in the film. Rather than edit the videos together in chronological order, he groups them in loosely defined themes, though the extent to which each clip belongs in its section and no other is surely debatable. Because what As I Was Moving Ahead goes for, more than clear autobiographical representation, or even personal essay, is to ponder the way we watch a person’s life, and in doing so, how we watch life.

The images in the film are specific to Mekas’s life, of course: the birthday parties and walks in the park included in the film were experienced only by Mekas and those around him (and the point of view included is typically that of Mekas, as we are led to believe that he is usually the one holding the camera). That said, they are general in their type, as most viewers of As I Was Moving Ahead will have attended a birthday party or walked in a park. Where Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) used specific events in one character’s life to speak to the beauty of the quotidian regardless of one’s age, nationality, or gender, As I Was Moving Ahead asks whether these minutiae can even capture a single person’s life, let alone any general conception of existence. The shots in this film do not remind us of Mekas’s particular memories, as most viewers were not present during the events depicted, so it can be said that they are unique experiences to Mekas himself. At the same time, however, we feel as if we have learned almost nothing about Mekas’s life; attempting to construct a biographical or even psychological profile of Mekas from the images in this film alone would be a fool’s errand.

Life, then, might not be so easily captured by images on a screen. Mekas is in every frame of the film, as he says, because everything depicted means something to him and was included because of his personal relationship with it. Look, for example, at how the editing draws attention to particular objects or people. A few rapid shots might give way to a longer shot resting on Mekas’s wife’s face, the relative length of time spent here seemingly correlated with Mekas’s desire to commit this image to memory. We might see a rose from a couple different angles in quick succession, the shape and color of the object bursting off of the Super 8 film because of the attention given it. The personal motivation for the inclusion of these images surely gives us some idea of the iconography important to Mekas’s view of the world, but it gives us few clues regarding what to do with this knowledge. We might be able to tell that Mekas loves his wife, but any extrapolation to a supposedly “deeper” meaning would probably be faulty, or at the very least presumptuous. Similarly, it is not apparent how this knowledge could be applied to the viewer’s own life. This is not to say, however, that As I Was Moving Ahead should be read in an experiential way, like La libertad (Lisandro Alonso, 2001) might demand to be viewed. Instead, the film can be seen as some sort of warning against egregious assumption when watching a film, and the insights it does give regarding Mekas’s worldview should not be expanded unnecessarily.

This idea might be pushed further through the use of sound in the film, which threatens to draw artistic or spiritual readings in the everyday through the juxtaposition of classical music and images of ordinary events. At one point, for example, images of swans in a lake are matched with music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Whether this takes a Duchampian perspective on the question of whether the images are art or not (i.e., it is art, because Mekas says it is art) or a more ironic and perhaps defeatist point of view (i.e., it is not art, because it does not look like art compared to Tchaikovsky) is certainly up for debate, and the fact that the film asks a question so integral to art in so lucid a manner is evidence of the film’s brilliance. I would venture to argue in favor of the latter perspective: just as grandiose orchestrations of songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “O Christmas Tree” serve to elevate simple facets of everyday life to the level of “high art,” so does the elaborate music tend to leave the amateur footage in the dust at times.

But such an assertion is certainly problematic, as As I Was Moving Ahead, though composed of this found footage, is as moving an artwork as they come. At some point when watching the film—and it will surely hit different viewers at different points—one starts to see some sort of majestic sublimity to the everyday images that carousel around the screen. Mekas himself might protest this reading, but there is truly something beautiful, in perhaps an unexplainable and impulsive manner, to each individual shot. For they are remnants of Mekas’s past, as curated by Mekas; not only are they moments from the life of the director, but moments that he saw fit to preserve in the film as a way of personally remembering them and of committing them to the shared cultural memory. The death of the author is itself destroyed, with seams showing through for the film’s entire runtime that draw attention to the beautiful singularity of these images. We might learn very little about Jonas Mekas during the film, but we get to see small parts of the world through his eyes for a few hours, and if we take that for what it is, then what a powerful art form cinema can be.

The Comic Monster as a Manifestation of Human Anxieties

Originally written for Visual and Environmental Studies 190 (The Horror Film), taught by Professor Adam Hart, at Harvard University, in May 2016.

Broadly speaking, horror cinema can be seen as the artistic attempt to create physical manifestations of human anxieties. By usually seeking to scare audience members, these films bring underlying fears to the surface. The workings of the horror genre and the effect that horror films can have on viewers have been discussed at great length, but relatively little attention has been given to the similarities that horror’s approach and use have to those of comedy cinema, another popular filmic genre that can also be seen to concern itself with the representation of anxieties. The two genres have certainly been linked in the past—the very title of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Charles Barton, 1948) refers to icons of American horror and comedy cinema, and Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton starred in horror comedies as early as the 1920s—but much of the writing regarding both horror and comedy focuses on examples of unions between the two genres, ignoring the similarities between non-comedic horror films and unscary comedies. Similarly, papers like Noël Carroll’s “Horror and Humor” analyze how characters like Frankenstein’s monster can be used for two different purposes (horror and comedy), hardly addressing how horror monsters and comic characters can be used for similar purposes. This paper seeks to show how comedy, like horror, can speak to underlying human anxieties by capturing them in the form of what I will call the “comic monster.” Using Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Steve Carr, 2009) as a frame of reference, I will show how much of the writing on horror monsters can apply to comic monsters as well, and I will use these similarities in conception to explain how the comic monster and the horror monster are both used to address similar concerns.

It might be useful to define the “comic monster” before moving further. This paper will use the term to describe the character in a comedy film that acts as the brunt of the joke. That is to say, we laugh at the comic monster, not with the comic monster. Paul Blart is a comic monster, as much of the comedy of his film comes at his expense. Reaction to the comic monster is typically not mimetic; we laugh when Blart falls down, but he certainly does not laugh. It is not the case that we can never laugh with the comic monster, as laughing at a joke that Blart tells would not preclude him from also being directly laughed at for much of the rest of the film. Louis C.K., as a counter-example, is not a comic monster during his stand-up routines: we laugh at his jokes, but we do not laugh at him (unless his jokes have him as the target of laughter, as is true with self-deprecating humor, but this is a grey area that will remain beyond the scope of this paper). Note that not all comedies necessarily have a comic monster, in this sense of the term: it is not clear that we laugh at the expense of any character in Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971), for example. This definition of the comic monster is admittedly rough, but it will suffice for the purposes of this paper, which will focus on Paul Blart: Mall Cop and the subgenre of comedies of which it is a member.

Perhaps the most conspicuous difference between horror monsters and comic monsters (and the most difficult to reconcile, at face value) relates to the fear that horror monsters can instill in audience members. Except in horror comedies and select scenes in the occasional non-horror comedy, comic monsters are decisively unscary. In “The Nature of Horror,” Carroll writes that “monsters are dangerous” and that “threat is compounded by revulsion, nausea, and disgust” (53). Though comic monsters can certainly cause disgust—later paragraphs will address this claim in more detail—the threat of violence seems to create an important basis for differentiation with horror monsters. Violence has been present in comedies (and in comic monsters) since the silent era, however, with much of the humor in slapstick comedies by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton resulting from injury to the protagonist or even to other characters. Indeed, two moments in the first half of Paul Blart: Mall Cop are especially violent: (1) when an unaware Blart runs into and dents a parked car with his Segway and (2) when a drunk Blart throws a karaoke singer to the floor before falling out of a window himself. Importantly, none of these actions results in lasting physical damage to others. There is no need for characters to fear Blart, because there is never the threat that he will actually harm anyone. He manhandles the singer, but he does so without any malicious intent and without actually hurting him in any way (at least, we are made to believe that the singer is not hurt). In addition, much of the violence (especially the more violent comic violence) is inflicted upon Blart himself. When he dents the car, it is his own body at risk; when he falls out of the window, he has no one to blame but himself. “The Balloonatic” (Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton, 1923) would not be funny if Keaton’s body broke down every time it was pushed to its limits. The only points in the film during which there is the clear probability that Blart could hurt other characters come in the film’s second half, when he fights against the thieves; because these characters are villains, however, the viewer does not associate himself with the thieves and thus does not model his reaction to Blart on that of the thieves.

All this is to say that comic monsters can certainly be violent. Where horror monsters’ violence is meant to represent the threat they pose to others (and by extension, the threat that the ideas associated with them pose to the viewer), comic monsters’ violence represents the threat they pose to themselves. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), Leatherface’s otherness (associated with his social isolation) hurts the protagonists, so we are afraid of him; Paul Blart’s otherness (associated with his obesity) hurts himself, so we laugh at him. Each film sees its monster as an “other” in some way, a character outside the constraints of normality that most of the rest of the characters occupy. These qualities can originate in identical anxieties—in a general sense, rejection of the other—but manifest themselves with different targets, turning one into the object of comedy and the other into the object of horror.

One common method in which comic monsters and horror monsters are both made to be seen as “others” is through category transgression, in which a monster’s existence on the boundary between two categories pushes them out of either one. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen refers to horror monsters as “disgusting hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuration” (6). The example he cites is that of the title character in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), which is both humanoid and reptilian (among other seemingly contradictory adjectives). Carroll makes the stronger claim that horror monsters are “creatures . . . whose existence contemporary science challenges” (“Horror and Humor” 148). United, these two conceptions tell us that a monster in not simply the unfamiliar, but the unfamiliar composed of elements of the familiar. No scientist would refute the existence of a person like Paul Blart, but he still exists at the border between two seemingly contradictory boundaries. Blart is severely obese, making him unfit for strenuous physical activity, but his occupation as a security guard often requires him to exert himself physically. This combination (“obese” + “security guard”) is certainly not unfamiliar to most viewers of the film: we have all seen at least one overweight police officer or security guard in real life. Paul Blart: Mall Cop does not challenge our understanding of the universe in the way that Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922), whose monster is a bat-man hybrid, might. The film thus does not play with our conception of how the world is, but rather of how the world should be. Much of the humor in Paul Blart: Mall Cop comes from the assumption that it is wrong for a man whose occupation requires physical activity to be unable to perform physical activity. Note that Carroll rejects the claim that viewers are afraid of horror films due to a fear that the horror monster is literally a threat to them (“The Nature of Horror” 56). Both genres, then, can be said to expose the viewer’s disgust regarding the boundary cases in an ordered conception of the universe.

A frequent example of category transgression in the slasher film is what Carol J. Clover calls “gender distress” (77), the trait of questionable masculinity, which is not absent from comedy cinema. Perhaps beginning with Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), many slasher villains (which shall be seen as an example of the horror monster for the purposes of this paper) exhibit confused sexualities: Norman Bates’s body houses the psyches of both himself and his mother. Leatherface wears a woman’s face as a mask for the conclusion of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Though both of these characters are ostensibly biologically male, the underlying male concern with having unacceptable masculinity is a particular anxiety addressed in the horror of each film. Blart, like Bates and Leatherface, is ostensibly biologically male, but the inability he faces throughout much of the film to win any woman’s heart or to save the woman he loves relates to the same concerns that lead to the interesting characterizations of certain slasher villains. Where Bates’s confused sexuality is a source of unsettling horror, Blart’s is a source of comedy, his frequent awkward attempts to impress Amy ending in slapstick failure.

One glaring difference between films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and films like Paul Blart: Mall Cop relates to a point that Cohen makes in “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”: at the end of a horror film, “the monster itself turns immaterial and vanishes, to reappear somewhere else” (4). This is to say that horror films do not allow their monsters to be definitively destroyed. Though Bates is incarcerated at the end of Psycho, the final image of his face makes his threat and insanity more pronounced than ever. Sally is safe from Leatherface at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but Leatherface himself is also free, and he will presumably be able to repeat his violent acts on future visitors to the area. Blart, on the other hand, eventually wins Amy’s heart; though the closing credits show the couple riding Segways in a rather embarrassing manner, Blart’s laughter in these shots shows that he is in on the joke, marking him as having completed a transition out of the “comic monster” category. Similarly, Spy (Paul Feig, 2015) ends with Susan Cooper freed from her concerns about being an unfit secret agent and about being unable to be loved by a man, her confidence restored in the final scene. That comedies should end with a sort of redemption of the anxieties that plague their monsters throughout the film while horror films conclude before the anxieties are quelled does not change the fact that both genres are meant to deal with these anxieties in the first place. Horror and comedy both create monsters to manifest these anxieties; that the former depicts their permanence and the latter the ability one has to conquer them highlights the difference in attitude the two genres have toward the implications of the anxieties, not toward the existence of the anxieties at all.

Just as horror films pull from cultural taboos based in innate fears of disease and sickness, comedies can address human concerns with the grotesque. Mary Douglas discusses how ancient societies saw the splitting open of coconuts as an act of defilement that made the food impure, relating to the health risks associated with consuming it (33). This rejection of something as impure due to its potential for spreading disease might explain a number of phenomena in horror cinema: rats in Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979), flies in The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986), or mulched flesh in Dead Alive (Peter Jackson, 1992). It also relates to Paul Blart’s character, whose obesity is the cause for much of the film’s humor. There is nothing overtly funny about corpulence, but there is certainly a societal rejection of obesity that seems to be a large reason for the reason these jokes are made in the first place (the comic monster, like the horror monster, is “an embodiment of a certain cultural moment” [Cohen 4]). Horror takes its concerns with cultural taboo and scares us with them, while comedy causes us to laugh at them, keeping in line with the methods pointed out earlier in this paper. Even though the dangers of obesity on one’s health are almost never brought up (it would be difficult to imagine a sequel in which Blart dies of heart disease), Paul Blart: Mall Cop clearly comes from the internalization of a rejection of obesity, just as Nosferatu the Vampyre is evidence of a rejection of rats. The sources of anxiety in comedies and horror films are not necessarily explicitly linked with the reasons they became anxieties in the first place, but they still speak to a cultural consciousness that understands their existence.

The laugh and the scream might have more in common than the differing moods that provoke them might suggest. Even if comedies are designed to poke fun while horror films are meant to scare, both genres have the goal of highlighting human concerns and addressing them in some way. Not all anxieties are necessarily addressed by both horror films and comedies, and their methods of reproducing and manifesting anxieties are certainly different. There is enough overlap, however, to warrant close examination of the similar processes inherent in each genre as well as their places as products of a culture.

Works Cited

Carroll, Noël. “Horror and Humor.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57.2 (1999): 145-160. PDF file.

—. “The Nature of Horror.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 46.1 (1987): 51-59. PDF file.

Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. 2nd ed. Austin: U of Texas P, 2015. 68-115. PDF file.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. 3-25. PDF file.

Douglas, Mary. “Secular Defilement.” Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Ark Paperbacks, 1984. 29-40. PDF file.

Films Referenced

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Dir. Charles Barton. Universal-International, 1948. Film.

Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1979. Film.

“The Balloonatic.” Dir. Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton. Buster Keaton Productions, 1923. Film.

Dead Alive. Dir. Peter Jackson. WingNut Films, 1992. Film.

The Fly. Dir. David Cronenberg. Brooksfilms, 1986. Film.

Harold and Maude. Dir. Hal Ashby. Paramount Pictures, 1971. Film.

“The Haunted House.” Dir. Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton. Joseph M. Schenk Productions, 1921. Film.

“Haunted Spooks.” Dir. Alfred J. Goulding and Hal Roach. Perf. Harold Lloyd. Rolin Films, 1920. Film.

Nosferatu [Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens]. Dir. F.W. Murnau. Prana-Film GmbH, 1922. Film.

Nosferatu the Vampyre [Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht]. Dir. Werner Herzog. Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, 1979. Film.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Dir. Steve Carr. Columbia Pictures, 2009. Film.

Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount Pictures, 1960. Film.

Spy. Dir. Paul Feig. Twentieth Century Fox, 2015. Film.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Dir. Tobe Hooper. Bryanston Distributing, 1974. Film.

Cinema as a Tool for Capturing Ephemerality in ALAMAR

Originally written for Visual and Environmental Studies 196d (The Documentary in Latin America), taught by Professor Richard Peña, at Harvard University, in May 2016.

Alamar (Pedro González-Rubio, 2009) begins with a flashback sequence composed of photographs and home video that recounts the relationship between Jorge (a man of Mayan heritage) and Roberta (his Italian partner) from its beginning to its eventual end. We witness the couple embrace on the beach early in their relationship, celebrate the birth of their son Natan, and finally mourn the difference in their ways of living, which is the ostensible reason for their break-up. The union between the two people crumbles in less than four years in reality, and less than four minutes before our eyes. What was once thought to be strong and perhaps permanent ends up fading into memory. This theme of the fragility of the present is a major one throughout the film, the bulk of which follows Jorge and Natan in the last few days they have to spend with each other before Natan moves to Italy with his mother. The threat of the current state of existence giving way to a future that is less happy or wholesome constantly hangs over the film, whether it relates to the characters themselves or to the diegesis as a whole. Much as Natan is soon to lose his father, he is also nearing the end of his ability to enjoy these experiences. Similarly, environmental factors are changing man’s ability to live in community with nature in this way. Alamar evokes some sort of nostalgia for the present, even as it appears onscreen; what is captured within the frame will disappear very soon. Every object, character, and space in the film is ephemeral, and though its statements range from the political and sociological to the emotional and personal, Alamar primarily studies the phenomenon of losing what one once had.

One of the most explicit contexts in which this theme is brought up is an environmental one. As soon as the last shot of the film cuts to black, onscreen text explains that Banco Chinchorro, where Alamar takes place, is one of the largest coral reefs in the world, and that many have pushed for it to become a World Heritage Site. At first, these words are surprising; Jorge never mentions any fears he has about the future of the sea, and there are no clear signs of human intervention in the area. That the film would inform us about the possibility that the future of Banco Chinchorro could be in danger is thus unexpected, and it casts some measure of doubt on the rest of the film’s content. Nature is omnipresent within the frame for nearly the entirety of the film: even the man-made boats and aquatic structures look worn and weathered, as if humanity here is subservient to the environment, not the other way around. There is no evidence within the images that would suggest that protective measures to conserve the region would be necessary. The effect that these words have, then, is to shift our perception of the space. What felt permanent and stable now seems precarious, as if the natural health of Banco Chinchorro were in a state of decline. The footage, though clearly shot in the near-present, does not quite seem like a relic from the past, but one can imagine it soon turning into one.

That the titles that come at the end have the ability to cast doubt on the entire rest of the film is interesting. Despite the fact that nature feels untarnished throughout nearly the entirety of Alamar, the almost tacked-on environmental message puts the whole film in a different light. What this tells us is less about the fragility of nature and more about the fragility of art: our conception of the diegesis changes as soon as the credits begin to roll, due to typed words on a black screen. Many viewers are accustomed to taking whatever a film says as fact, especially if it is typed at the beginning of the credits. That these words should have a claim to truth over the image seems paradoxical, as an image (as manipulated as it may be) is ostensibly an actual record of some occurrence, especially in a work of cinematic nonfiction. There is thus an inversion of trust at the end of Alamar, one that results in our losing faith in our inferences from the image as we internalize the message from the closing title cards. (None of this is to say that the environmental message is in direct opposition to the arguments of the rest of the film, but rather that the film’s depiction of man’s relationship to nature in Banco Chinchorro is subverted, to an extent.) Of Great Events and Ordinary People (Raúl Ruiz, 1979) makes use of a similar questioning of the image in its depiction of French parliamentary elections. At one point, the image shows a bar in which people discuss politics; the narrator quickly informs the audience that a larger bar in which filming would have been more optimal banned the camera crew from working on the premises. The images included in the film, then, only tell part of the story. Alamar pushes this theme further by including a temporal axis. The images included in Alamar might tell much of the story for the present state of Banco Chinchorro, but there will come a time when they might become obsolete, the intertitles suggest. What is true now will not necessarily always be true.

Why then, if Alamar is so intent on expressing the ephemerality and vulnerability of nature, is the film sure to highlight the vibrancy and fullness of nature? At times, the images almost seem like something out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, with the sonic and visual immersion into Banco Chinchorro’s environment seeming to recall Sweetgrass (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2009) and predict Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012). Like those two films, Alamar is concerned with the establishment of its diegesis as a collection of sensory encounters with a firm cultural context (and like Sweetgrass, Alamar seems to follow a historical culture in its present manifestation). Sweetgrass and Leviathan, however, express little of the ephemerality that Alamar does, and there does not seem to be a statement about the endangerment of these ways of living nearly as much. At first glance, it might seem paradoxical that Alamar would identify Banco Chinchorro as such a vivid location if the goal were to emphasize its impermanence. What this sensory development does, however, is to make the viewer understand just what will be lost if preservative measures are not implemented. Just as a film can promote sympathy for a character by explaining his psyche and pointing out his qualities, Alamar promotes sympathy for its space; Banco Chinchorro’s beauty is highlighted through serene shots of the water, scenes depicting an almost uncanny affinity between the humans and certain animals, and the tranquil white noise that is omnipresent. This sensory depiction is clearly manipulated by the filmmakers, especially sonically: cuts in the image do not always match up with cuts in the soundtrack, for example, which implies that work in post-production has been done to separate the final product from raw footage of the location. Rather than serving as an obstacle for the viewer’s immersion in the space, however, this technique has the effect of providing additional sensory cohesion. The sounds we hear when watching a particular shot might not be the exact sounds that González-Rubio and his crew heard when they were filming the shot, but they are sounds that one could hear in Banco Chinchorro, and they act to bring the viewer into the space further. By allowing the viewer to experience the environment as fully as possible, the jolt that comes at the end when the viewer realizes just how fragile it could be is all the more powerful.

Another manifestation of this theme of ephemerality relates to the intersection of European and Latin American cultures. As the child of an Italian mother and a Mexican father, Natan finds himself bridging this divide. As we learn early in the film, Natan is to spend a few days with his father in Mexico before moving with his mother to Italy. Even if there were no danger to Jorge’s way of living in an absolute sense, life in Banco Chinchorro is necessarily made fleeting by the film because much of it is told through Natan’s eyes. As he learns about Jorge’s quotidian experiences, we do; as he forms emotional bonds with nature, we do; as he mourns the drawing near of his departure to Europe, we do. There is a sort of assumed vilification of European culture inherent in Alamar: Roberta and her continent are not exactly demonized, but their influence on Natan is one of pulling him away from an environment he clearly loves. The boy’s emotions toward Italy do not matter, as even if living in Rome were Natan’s dream, this dream would pull him away from Mexico, which is cause for melancholy and nostalgia for both him and the viewer. It might be too heavy-handed of a reading to refer to this theme as one of imperialism, but there are certainly hints of industrialization and colonialism in the dynamic between Jorge/Mexico and Roberta/Italy, with Natan receiving the effects of these changes. In the end of the film, when Natan moves to Italy, the relative monochromaticity of the image reveals the difference between Jorge’s life and that of a member of a modernized civilization. Nature in Alamar’s final moments is restrained and muted, and there is less aesthetic beauty to be found in this European environment. Mexico is but a memory for the child, as we knew it would be from the beginning of the film. There is no literal imperialism here, and no European is seen to appropriate any part of Banco Chinchorro from Mexico or any of its inhabitants. There might be a sort of imperialism within Natan’s life, however, as his Mexican experiences are immediately replaced with European ones. Even if there is no apparent threat to the lifestyle that Natan experiences in a general sense, its ephemerality for Natan is clear and vital to an understanding of the film’s meaning.

Latin American nonfiction cinema is no stranger to themes of the transience of current ways of living. The Brazilian film Twenty Years Later (Eduardo Coutinho, 1984) studies how something can be depicted after it is gone, with the chief subject of the film being the two-decade period between its initial filming and its eventual completion. There are clear differences between 1960s Brazil and 1980s Brazil, but with no photographed links between these two eras, the filmmakers use interviews (filmed in the 1980s) in which the subjects explain what has happened in the meantime and otherwise show signs of the passage of time. An entire score of years is portrayed in Twenty Years Later as a gap in recorded history; the only way to depict this gap is to study its remnants. Where Twenty Years Later looks back on an absence, Alamar looks forward at one. Coutinho’s film is aware that it cannot regain lost time, so its goal is not to detail what occurred between 1964 and 1984 but rather to emphasize the fact that no detailed explanation can exist at all. Piecing together the gap would be impossible, as one can only know for certain what can be observed. Alamar allows Natan’s time with his father, which might otherwise be little more than a memory (and perhaps a gap of its own) without the making of this film, to become part of recorded history. However, even if the events that occur in the film can be saved for posterity, they are destined to become memories. Where Twenty Years Later asks how one can piece together the past, Alamar concerns itself with a piecing together of the present, constantly reminding us that it will soon be the past. The camera can only record what it sees, and by giving the camera access to Natan’s final days in Mexico, one can be sure that this transient state of being is not forgotten.

Another Latin American film that explores a similarly tangled relationship between Latin America and the more developed world is Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968), a Cuban film that struggles with the question of how the poor and underdeveloped nations of Latin America could coexist with the United States and Europe. Development in Gutiérrez’s film is seen as a desirable quality that leads to prosperity and happiness; the protagonist, Sergio, constantly tries to reconcile his Europhilia and intellectualism with the fact that these interests hardly thrive in his native country. The film is more of a question mark than an exclamation point, as Gutiérrez, Sergio, and the film do not pretend to have an answer for how to transform Cuba into a developed nation. Alamar deals with this idea of development as well (albeit less explicitly), as the raw nature of Banco Chinchorro contrasts sharply with the Italian cityscape in which Roberta lives. The difference is that Alamar sees development as a cardinal sin: if Banco Chinchorro is a paradise vacation for Natan, then Italy is the home he sadly returns to. The end of the film expresses the wish that Banco Chinchorro could become a World Heritage Site and thus be preserved as a natural location free from the effects of human influence. Development, seen as something to aspire toward by Memories of Underdevelopment and films like it in the mid-20th century, is called into question here. The new way of living might be easier, more efficient, more productive, and more technologically advanced, but it would eradicate the old way of living, and that in itself is an important consideration. The ephemerality of the experiences depicted in Alamar could be caused by that very phenomenon so craved by Sergio four decades earlier. It would be pedestrian to argue that Alamar represents a return to one’s roots, as Jorge’s Mayan heritage is no secret, but it is possible for this representation of the survival of a historical lifestyle to be read in the context of films like Memories of Underdevelopment that called for modernization as a necessity for proper and fulfilling living. Even if there is nothing inherently wrong with life in Europe (Alamar never implies that there is), it is shown to inevitably be a substitute for the kind of life that Jorge lives, and that Natan experiences.

One important difference between Alamar and both Memories of Underdevelopment and Twenty Years Later is the fact that González-Rubio’s film is far more intimate and personal than the other two. Though Sergio is the only protagonist in Memories of Underdevelopment and essentially narrates the whole film, he is meant to speak for an entire country (or at least an entire country’s bourgeoisie); Twenty Years Later is character-driven as well and focuses on changes in individuals’ lives over the preceding decades, but there is something at stake beyond the lives of Teixeiras, and their experience is meant to be indicative of Brazil’s as a whole in some way. Alamar, on the other hand, is essentially told from the perspective of Natan, as it is he (and only he) who loses the experience of living in Banco Chinchorro when he moves to Europe. Even if the ideas and emotions associated with this transition in Natan’s life can relate to a more universal human experience, this extrapolation is never made explicit by the film. The processual shots that depict how one would live in Banco Chinchorro are Natan’s observations, as he is the only character present who is not used to this way of life. Thus, the viewer, who has probably not lived on the water in this manner either, aligns himself most naturally with Natan’s perspective. This alignment creates the possibility of some sort of mimetic reaction to Natan’s melancholy; because the viewer is immersed not simply into Banco Chinchorro, but into Natan’s Banco Chinchorro, the sadness Natan feels about his time with his father and the location coming to an end is echoed, to some extent, in the viewer’s reaction. The idea of ephemerality would probably not be as essential to the film if it were told from Jorge’s perspective, as Jorge will presumably continue to live in this way after his son moves to Italy.

While Natan is the narrative and thematic focus of Alamar, however, the film’s cinematographic techniques provide some distancing from the boy’s sensory and observational point of view. The characters are almost never seen to be aware of the presence of the camera or the film crew, even though several shots seem to have been taken from within inches of their faces. This contributes to the idea that we, as viewers, are intruding on something private and perhaps sacred. Were the cameraman to be addressed or made salient more often, the film might feel more candid, and the people onscreen less like characters crafted for the film. Watching the film, we might often feel as if the images are not for our eyes, as if Alamar gives the viewer access to a space and a narrative that would otherwise never have been committed to video. If the filmmakers had not made the film, the reasoning goes, these experiences (and perhaps even this entire diegesis) would have been lost: memories for Natan and Jorge, but not even that for the rest of the world. In a way, this idea evokes Lisandro Alonso’s film La libertad (2001), another piece of nonfiction cinema whose subject never visibly acknowledges the presence of the camera. At one point in Alamar, Natan is naming objects that he had seen on the trip, and he mentions the camera as one staple of the experience in a rather jarring moment of filmic self-awareness that augments the characters’ forced ignorance of the camera for the rest of the runtime; in La libertad, however, there is never any moment like this. Alonso’s languid film is almost a series of set pieces in a day in the life of Misael, an Argentine woodcutter, and though this is another personal experience that might otherwise never have been preserved in a film, there is never the same sort of immersion into Misael’s world as there is into Natan’s. Though clearly not a strictly observational film, La libertad occludes more than it reveals, and at times the context for Misael’s actions are left deliberately vague. We might be intruding on someone’s private affairs, but because little of the private information is ever shared, we feel more like rubberneckers than eavesdroppers. Because Alamar is more willing to contextualize the action and the characters, there is a greater sense of urgency; we are both more aware of the expiration date for Natan’s time with his father and more knowledgeable about the specific situation with which we are interfering.

To say that Alamar’s depiction of nature is a purely sensory or observational one would be to ignore the complex relationship that Banco Chinchorro’s fauna has with both the characters and the film itself. At one point, Jorge and Natan find a bird (quickly named Blanquita by Natan) with which they play for a couple minutes. Jorge’s natural abilities at feeding the bird and winning its trust contrast sharply from Natan’s awkward handling of the creature, but it soon becomes the closest thing to a friend that Natan has in the entire film. Perhaps because they are both young, fragile, and nervous animals, Natan is fixated on Blanquita for a few minutes. When the bird flies away, however, Natan hardly even mentions her. Blanquita, personified by the film enough that she becomes one of its few named characters, fades into memory almost as suddenly as she arrived. This is both an obvious metaphor for the relationship between Jorge and Natan and a testament to the impermanence associated with the experiences depicted in the film. That even the characters could fade out as soon as they arrive speaks to the property of time as a force that inevitably leads to the ephemerality of all things.

Cinema as a medium seems to be fundamentally linked with ephemerality. Every frame is a record of the past; the specific events depicted have occurred years ago. Even if the images themselves are destined to be identical for years to come (given proper storage and preservation), they are records of people and events that only exist in the past. When watching Alamar, there is the sense of time slipping away, but in reality, time has already slipped away. This is not to say that cinema is the only art form that can capture ephemerality, but its property of image and sound recording (in contrast to literature and drama) and its strict reliance on the passing of time (in contrast to still photography) might make it the most apt medium to depict experiences, people, and locations that would otherwise be destined to exist only in memory.

In the last shot of Alamar, Natan and Roberta are blowing soap bubbles. The camera follows a rather large bubble, and only a couple frames after the bubble bursts, the film cuts to black. This final poetic image, of something tangible disappearing without a trace, recalls the content of the film, which studies how Banco Chinchorro can be seen as ephemeral by Natan and by the public at large. The final cut to black also reflects on cinema’s property as a medium that depicts records of the past, which exist for the duration of their runtime before turning into little more than memories for the viewer. Banco Chinchorro’s future might be at risk in an absolute sense, Natan may never live there with his father again, and he has surely seen the last of Blanquita, but Alamar serves as a memorial for these times past and a marker for their passing.

References

Alamar. Dir. Pedro González-Rubio. Film Movement, 2009. Kanopy. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.

Leviathan. Dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel. The Cinema Guild, 2012. Film.

La libertad. Dir. Lisandro Alonso. Fortuna Films, 2001. Film.

Memories of Underdevelopment [Memorias del subdesarrollo]. Dir. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industrias Cinematográficos, 1968. Film.

Of Great Events and Ordinary People [De grands événements et des gens ordinaires]. Dir. Raúl Ruiz. Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, 1979. VHS.

Sweetgrass. Dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor. The Cinema Guild, 2009. Film.

Twenty Years Later [Cabra maracado para morrer]. Dir. Eduardo Coutinho. 1984. Bretz Filmes, 2014. DVD.