Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: Review of Viy (1967) 

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Viy (1967), directed by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov, is considered by many as the first and only USSR horror film. It was based on the horror novella “The Viy,” written by Nicholai Gogol in 1836. Gogol, the renowned Russian writer of Ukrainian origin, is most famous for the short stories The Overcoat (1842) and The Nose (1835-36) and the novel he called a “novel in verse” entitled Dead Souls (1842). Interestingly, Gogol is known as one of the first authors to use grotesque and surrealist imagery in his works. With this, the filmmakers of the 1967 film adaptation, produced by Mosfilm, really made sure that the surreal and grotesque were emphasized throughout. In Viy, these moments are some of the most memorable. They are intricately woven into the ordinary through the way we follow Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov), who is often referred to as “Philosopher,” in his initially joyous vacation to the countryside. Although some critics argue that the special effects of Viy are outdated, there is something unique about the uncanny effects. The special effects of Viy are far from perfect, with the technological limits, budget, and other constraints as possible factors working against the filmmakers; however, there seems to be an instilling of  horror through the imperfect practical effects that create an inner turmoil and unsettling atmosphere in Viy.

Despite the surreal mode of filmmaking, Leonid Juravlyov has a realistic acting style. His portrayal of Khoma Brutus is disheveled and egotistical. The repeated chant or mantra he chooses, “A Cossack is never afraid of anything,” seems to be a coping mechanism and a phrase to show off his machismo publicly. The obvious contradiction is that Khoma Brutus the seminarian is a murderer. In addition to being a contradiction to his teachings, the murder itself further illustrates the psychology and blindness of rage, ideology, beliefs, all wrapped in one. Khoma Brutus jarringly meshes right back into his monastery after the murder as though nothing happened: the only indication is a tear in his robes. This character’s psychology, the skeletons in his closet, and what happens in the chapel compared to his public outbursts are what make this film an intriguing watch. There is a reluctance in Khoma to fulfill his duty, but he always puts on a fictitious performance for influence. Khoma repents for his sins. The father forces him to read prayers in the chapel, and the promise of one thousand gold pieces versus one thousand lashes if he refuses, all display this repentance. Pannochka (Natalya Varley), the daughter of the merchant who dies as Brutus travels to her, called for him because he beat her senseless thinking she was a witch. The dance sequence following the second night spent in the chapel illustrates his internal battles and coping mechanisms perfectly. Khoma’s dance articulates an attempt to fight back against his fears, further accentuated by his consumption of vodka as a fear suppressor.

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Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: The Player (1992): Hollywood Conventions & Western Civilization

*Warning: Spoilers Ahead*

Director Robert Altman revitalized his career after box office disappointment Popeye (1980) did not meet studio anticipation, with 1992’s The Player. Supposedly, Altman did not want to make The Player. He wanted to do a film based on Raymond Carver short stories called Short Cuts, but the project lacked the funds until after the success of The Player. In an interview with the Criterion Collection in 1992, Altman speaks on his linear movement as a director. He demonstrates with arm movements that the audience is doing a sort of loop around his linear movement forward, and when they hit— that means a successful movie. Altman, as an auteur, saw all his projects as equal in quality. By considering all of these projects equal, he demonstrates a dedication to his craft and that he did not believe that success and money determined the quality of work. With the Player, starring Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill, Altman continues his tradition of taking a singular place as a microcosm of the United States and Western Civilization. Griffin Mill is a Hollywood executive producer who kills a writer and gets away with it. The classic Hollywood happy ending, and the good guy vs. bad guy classical Hollywood narrative conventions, are just some of what Altman tinkers with in the 124-minute runtime. In the same interview, Altman states, “I do not believe there is such a thing as an all bad guy and an all good guy.” This is in reference to Griffin Mill, the character who commits a heinous crime but is ultimately untouchable. We follow him and even sometimes root for him even though he is a murderer. In The Player, Robert Altman purposely subverts and uses the traditional Hollywood standard and satirizes the more current “blockbuster trend” and studio system to skewer the problems of the United States and Western Civilization.

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Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: Repulsion (1965) Review

*Warning: discussion of sexual assault and trauma ahead*

*Spoilers ahead*

Roman Polanski is a filmmaker difficult to write about for obvious reasons. Some may refuse to engage with the work directed by him, and it was an easy decision for me to review this film. For me, this review is very personal. I did not intend to write on Repulsion until after I reflected on my own experiences. I sat contemplating the film and if it would be better not to speak on it because of the disgrace of the director. In my reflection, I concluded that I am compelled to speak on it. Some may not agree, but I was struck with how the material unfolds. I was struck by how the film portrays the horrors of the psyche in Carol (Catherine Deneuve) and the apartment she inhabits with her sister. Additionally, I saw the immigrant experience also come into play in Repulsion through Carol and her sister, which only compelled me to speak further. As with the execution, I appreciate the film’s ability to communicate and navigate difficult subject matter and taboo through the horror-thriller genre. The haunting depictions of our main character’s trauma shocked me to my core, which I only ever felt when viewing Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), another psychological horror film. When looking at both of these films, I saw deterioration and gradual decline, which I felt was an essential component to accurately portraying this subject matter. In Possession, Zulawski explores the deterioration of a marriage, while Repulsion shows the deterioration of a woman’s sanity from what we can interpret stems from trauma and abuse.

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Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre- Review

Hello, Subscribers!

This week, instead of an Old Motel 20 miles away from Fairville, California, I have moved us to Kingsland, Texas, to unveil the horrors of a family of cannibalistic slaughterhouse workers come to life. This review will highlight some of what I believe makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a horror film worth watching. 

Without further ado, 

Here is my take on the trip that brought destruction to the Hardesty family, and friends.

*Spoilers Ahead*

Although horror films often take a backseat when one thinks of cinematic sophistication, Texas Chainsaw Massacre runs counter to these thoughts. Another film based on the real-life killer and graverobber Ed Gein, Texas Chainsaw connects to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, my previous horror film review. In that review, and with how it connects to this one, I spoke of Norman Bates as a character “hidden-in-plain-sight.” Director Toby Hooper uses this tactic to go further than a matinee model turned psychotic killer, creating an entire family of cannibalistic killers. As with Hitchcock’s Psycho and what can be read from the taxidermy, the amount of depth one can unpack in Tobe Hooper’s scene construction speaks to his understanding of the genre’s films that came before him. As with how Hitchcock saw the precedent in films like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955), parallels can be drawn with Hooper and both Psycho (1960) and The Night of the Living Dead (1968). Many of Hooper’s scenes go further than Psycho in their overt display of chaos in the form of animal carcasses, bones, or decomposing bodies. In addition to that, Hooper perverts the nuclear family to make these characters work as cross-generational killers. Even with these intricate scenes, when we think of this film, our minds still may gravitate towards the psychotic chainsaw-wielding killer Leatherface. As a whole, however, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is much more than a single character. Even though Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen)  is largely the main antagonist or main culprit, the most shocking moments of horror culminate when Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) is trapped in the dwelling of “the family of Draculas.”

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Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: Casablanca & “Invisible” Editing

Often many people hear that Casablanca is a pinnacle of Classical Hollywood Cinema, but do they really understand why? As a film, it was never meant to be so widely known as a “classic.” Michael Curtiz, the film’s director, and others, apparently thought they were just making a run-of-the-mill Warner Bros release that wasn’t going to make such a splash. However, for its time, when watching the film now, it is clear why such a film would be popular, particularly with how the ending still retains its power 79 years after its release. The story itself, which revolves around Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, Morocco, displays the conflict of WW2 with such transparency that one may weigh the film’s greatness in this specific aspect. There is a wide range of ethnicity in the bar— opening with a Russian bartender saying, “на здоровье [Cheers],” which only establishes the setting as a middle ground or stepping stone to one’s actual destination. The Bulgarian couple fleeing to America is another side example of this. Rick inexplicably helps the couple by cheating his own roulette table, which adds to the complexity of Bogart’s character. What goes without saying is that Casablanca is easily quotable. Much of Rick’s lines are delivered with initial pessimism or “isolationism,” which grows into a selflessness, which may mirror the United States’ history of isolationism. All of this mentioned, it almost feels as though Bogart was born to play the role. However, Bogart does not deserve all the credit. Both performances by its leading stars, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), are a factor of greatness that is enough for some to claim Casablanca as perfect. For a film so rife with surface factors of greatness, it rarely seems to be a point to mention the “invisible” or seamless editing in Hollywood Cinema. For the public who aren’t familiar with the conventions of Hollywood Cinema, it may come as a surprise to realize how the film covers some of its edits. As conventions go in Hollywood Cinema, continuity editing is of utmost importance. For a Hollywood film, cinematic artifice is not supposed to get in the way of the story or characters. As a narrative film, Casablanca does not bring attention to and purposely hides its editing in unique ways that reaffirm the Hollywood film style.

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Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: A Review of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”

Hello Subscribers! 

What better way to brighten up our days with a little catharsis?

I hope you all are doing well during these difficult times and I wish you a much better year. I hope the Jet Fuel Review blog will keep you company as we move quickly into February and to new horizons. For Spring 2021, my “Cinematic Syntax” will take a similar approach to what I have done in previous semesters. I will use a mixture of my in-class material and my own choices to construct pieces that reflect my judgement and taste in the form of reviews and analysis papers on film. For this semester, I am currently enrolled in two film courses: The Horror Film taught by Dr. Simone Muench and Classical Hollywood Cinema taught by Dr. Christopher Wielgos. My writing will most likely be from either of these classes, or I may change it up on occasion with films outside of these boundaries. If you are new to my blog, take a look around! I hope you enjoy of foreign cinema because that is my favorite. I make it my mission to give you well-reasoned and enjoyable material that gets you to think critically about the film we all watch. In addition to that, I curate other blogs for Jet Fuel Review and will continue getting content from a few bloggers to you all on a weekly basis. To that end, here is my review of Hitchcock’s horror-thriller classic, Psycho

*Spoilers Ahead*

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Adaptation Analysis: The Passion of the Christ

For Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a plethora of texts and even paintings were consulted by Gibson and the screenwriter, Benedict Fitzgerald. In the documentary, By His Wounds We Are Healed: The Making of ‘The Passion of the Christ, Gibson claims “faithfulness” to his source material. The “faithfulness” that Gibson claims comes from his and the screenwriter’s use of the “canonical” gospels to make sure they had not contradicted the authority of those texts. For John Desmond, co-writer of Adaptation: Studying Film & Literature with Peter Hawkes, “faithfulness” comes with various questions attached to it. The Passion of the Christ is an adaptation of multiple sources, so the question comes of “faithfulness” by what standard. In the text, Desmond states, “If we leave aside the problem of identifying what is essential in the text, we are still left with the difficulty of judging the degree to which the essential has been transposed.” (40). In the film, it is clear that Gibson took artistic liberties to The Passion. Some of his inspirations are Renaissance painters, some of whom were referenced in the documentary. Paintings by Bosch, Rembrandt, Carravagio, and Grunewald, could all be taken as visually influencing Gibson and his Cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel. Desmond states another problem, which pertains to the language of fidelity: “The reviewer claims the adaptation is ‘faithful’ or ‘unfaithful’ and that this degree of faithfulness is either good or bad. The problem with this language is that it tends to imply that the book is better than the movie.” (41). For the depiction of the Passion, it seems that using multiple texts while simultaneously having Mel Gibson’s assert “faithfulness’ would cause difficulty in determining what was essential to the adaptation. Suppose a filmmaker uses artistic renderings from a variety of time periods. In that case, it does not seem reasonable to assert faithfulness in the sense that it is an exact replica of the document. Besides, the four Gospels have differences in focus for each event leading up to the crucifixion. If Matthew, Mark, and Luke all focus on different aspects of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, what would Gibson consider more authoritative and important to depict in his adaptation? The three Gospels similarly portray the events, while John is distinctly different, so what authority does Gibson go by? By looking at Gibson’s use of The Stations of the Cross, and the abundance of texts outside of the Gospels, in his portrayal of the crucifixion, The Passion of the Christ becomes a loose adaptation of the Gospels.

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Adaptation Analysis: Lord of the Rings- The Fellowship of the Ring

For the adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson and his team claim to have remained exceptionally faithful to J.R.R Tolkien’s original novel. However, when comparing sequences, there seems to have been major truncation and combination of scenes, and removal of characters. For example, the length of travel in the chapter “Flight to the Ford” is truncated compared to the corresponding film sequence. The scene in the film does not last many days compared to the novel’s version, and the character development and journey itself seem to be less expansive. Frodo is also incapacitated in the film, while Tolkien has him regain strength at various moments of travel. The particular chapter, “Flight to the Ford,” is not an exact transference of what Tolkien included in his novel. In John M. Desmond’s Adaptation Studying Film and Literature, he explains the problem with “fidelity” and how when one claims “faithfulness,” they are putting literature above the film medium  anytime they employ “the language of fidelity.” In addition to this claim, Desmonds states, “Moreover, there is no standard measure as to how much of the “essential” text must be transferred in order for the film to be judged as faithful.” (40). In an attempt to create a system of evaluation of faithfulness, Desmond defines different metrics of evaluation: close, loose, and intermediate. Since Jackson repeatedly emphasizes the closeness of his adaptation, the definition Desmond gives of close adaptation is, “when most of the narrative elements in the literary text are kept in the film, few elements are dropped, and not many elements are added.” (44). 

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Adaptation Analysis: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

For Adamson’s adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he chose to expand on scenes that would particularly fit the cinematic medium. For many moments in the film, he shows scenes that were merely mentioned in the novel and dramatizes them. I find the dramatization of the opening scene adds stakes to the film compared to the opening line in the book, “This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the war because of the air-raids.” (3). As the children are in the professor’s home, it is evident that the reason for the characters going into the closet and reaching Narnia is quite different from the novel. Both versions focus on Lucy’s dilemma of not being believed by her siblings and Edmund lying that he did not visit Narnia. However, in the novel, the children go into the wardrobe while attempting to escape the housekeeper Mrs. Macready and her house tours. In the film, they shatter a window while playing ball, which causes them to seek refuge in the wardrobe. Much of Adamson’s transformation of the story goes after expanding upon what would be more visually appealing for the film. In Lucy’s encounter with Tumnus, as a crucial scene for Narnia, it had the feeling of the chapter through its visualization. The look of Tumnus is spot-on:

 “He had a strange pleasant face, with a short pointed beard and curly hair, and out of the hair there stuck two horns, one on each side of his forehead. One of his hands, as I have said, held the umbrella.” (10).

The character is spot-on; however, there are differences in his speech and the dialogue. Through this scene, and the rest of the film, Adamson’s adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, seems to be fairly close but on the whole intermediate. Adamson employs some techniques John M. Desmond highlights in his Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature. In the chapter on the novel, some of the techniques in the scene when Tumnus meets Lucy are adding dialogue, cutting, and finding correlatives. 

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Adaptation Analysis: Minority Report

Philip K Dick’s short story,Minority Report,” focuses on the paranoia of the protagonist, John A. Anderton. As Dick describes, Anderton is “Bald and fat and old (119)” and is the retiring commissioner of the precrime unit who arrests people before they commit murder. The precogs are what they use: mutants who receive visions from the future. The precrime unit treats these mutants (Mike, Donna, and Jerry) as a means to an end with no autonomy. The story intensifies as Witwer comes into the picture as a future replacement for our current commissioner. Everything is set in motion when Anderton finds his name on a card that tells the commissioner who is going to commit murder. The card says he is to murder a retired army general, Leopold Kaplan. As this is all developed, Anderton wonders if Witwer is looking for power and if his wife is conspiring against him. As a filmmaker known for his spectacle, Steven Spielberg takes Dick’s short story and expands it with many new elements and possibilities. Evidently, Spielberg uses the interweaving strategy. Desmond’s definition of point-of-departure indicates extreme distance, and I think Spielberg does not go far enough for this strategy. Spielberg takes some of what Dick grapples with and reimagines and reconfigures the plot. He keeps character names, narrative details, and disperses them in a different order. He is not afraid to scramble many essential elements of the story to fit a vision that he wants to accomplish for Hollywood and himself. A sequence that is indicative of Spielberg’s application of the interweaving strategy is the murder of Leopold Kaplan in the short story. Spielberg scrambles this scene and retains details in other parts of the film. When Anderton (Tom Cruise) confronts Lamar Burgess (Max Von Sydow) in the film, the sequence is a reimagining of this crucial climactic scene in the short story.

With his mise-en-scene, Spielberg uses Dick’s story in a way that complements the visual storytelling of cinema. He has a radiant ability to create mood or tone through various choices in partnership with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. For example, the filter that the filmmakers employ is “bleach bypass,” which highlights blues and causes paler skin. This filter pairs well with the subject matter; the bluish tint compliments the futuristic world, the theme of an all-seeing surveillance state, and overwhelmingly present technologies (which often overtake the frame). Both iterations interestingly tackle “extrapolation”— a common occurrence in science fiction when a writer takes known scientific concepts and imagines how events and circumstances may evolve. Spielberg extrapolates on the surveillance state and uses context from post-9/11 United States policies to predict how these policies will develop with technology. Spielberg opens the film with a close-up of an eye and subsequently has eye-scanners as a means of surveillance. He does not extrapolate everything that Dick does. He still has some similarities. Philip K Dick extrapolates on authoritarianism, the criminal justice system, penal servitude through exile to other planets, and individual freedom. For authoritarianism, Dick uses Leopold Kaplan, “General of the Army of the Federated West-bloc Alliance.” as the conspirator to authoritarian rule. Kaplan tells Anderton that he is, “Retired, since the end of the Anglo-Chinese War, and the abolishment of AFWA.” (127). The indication that the military has lost power and Kaplan’s attempt to seize power by discrediting the pre-crime system extrapolates that authoritarian rule will always be possible. At the end of the short story, Anderton waits to fulfill his exile to “Centaurus X by inter-system transport” (149). Lisa, his wife, declares, “I suppose we won’t be able to use these new atronic appliances. They’re still using electricity on Centten.”(150). Dick extrapolates on the future of punishment and even something as universal as electricity.

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