Essay Question #2: Tim Burton, A Generic Filmmaker and Auteur

Bianca, Carly & Marco

Film Theory & Criticism

Tim Burton, A Generic Filmmaker and Auteur

         Tim Burton, a widely known filmmaker, uses many different styles and techniques to explore popular themes in cinema, while remaining true to his unique style.

Films are categorized into different genres, and Tim Burton is a director who touches base with almost every single one of them, but still adds his own twist on them. For instance, the very cliché romantic comedy becomes a very dark, grim yet passionate love story in “The Corpse Bride.” The more recently released film, “Dark Shadows” falls into the category of comedy, and yet the characters all have a gothic feel to them, an element often used in Burton’s films.  The Horror genre is a favourite among many, and is a favourite for Tim as well.  Some examples include Sweeny Todd and Edward Scissorhands, two movies that would be considered horror but also use bright colours and characters, ironically to represent the bad rather than the good. Like in Edward Scissorhands, how the neighbourhood is so perfect that it’s creepy. Surprisingly, Burton also tackles the difficult Musical genre of cinema in The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is an original take on this genre because it is done with Claymation and a cast of creepy characters.

The genre of Action-Adventure is used in Tim Burton’s movie “Alice in Wonderland,” the classic children’s story. Of course, it being Tim Burton, he obviously takes it away from the traditional happy cartoon to a gloomier, action-filled film. Not only is he a filmmaker, but he can also take an already invented storyline and revamp it, making it completely different from the original. This is what makes him an auteur.

To conclude, it tends to be very difficult for a filmmaker to make a generic film, without resorting to having it be cliché and like every other film of its genre.  Tim Burton’s ability to do this while still keeping his own style is what makes him an auteur and sets him apart from the rest.

Essay Question #1: Using Semiotics to Analyze “The Return”

Bianca, Carly & Marco

Film Theory & Criticism

Using semiotics to Analyze “The Return” by Andrey Zvyagintsez

         “The Return,” directed by Andrey Zvyagintsez uses nature and religion to emphasize the relationship between the father and sons. This is shown through symbols of nature and religion.

First of all, because the majority of the film takes place in the wilderness, nature acts as a symbol for Ivan and Andrey’s relationship with their absentee father. For one, the water reflects the mood of the three men. When tension occurs, it seems to always be raining, whereas when the mood is more calm, it is a clear and bright sunny day.  The tower, a huge symbol in the film, represents growth and courage for the son, Ivan, because he is scared of jumping at the beginning of the movie and still is at the end, but uses this fear to threaten his father and stand up to him for what ends up being the last time. There is also the scene when the three are camping, where we see fish in a bag gasping for air, just like the sons are trapped with their father on his strange mission, and slowly suffocating. Throughout the film, there are an abundance of big landscape shots, to show how small and insignificant humans are compared to the vastness of the wilderness, in the same way that the boys feel insignificant to their father. We read on IMBD that “Andrey Zvyagintsez says the four main characters of the film represent the four elements: “Earth is Mother, water is Father… the elder brother, Andrey, is air and Ivan is fire. But if you think it’s all different, it is”” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0376968/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv). This can easily be understood because Ivan and his father have the roughest relationship with each other, similarly how water and fire don’t mesh well together. Andrey is air because fire feeds off air, so the more air there is the bigger the fire gets. When Andrey provokes his father on the beach, it pushes Ivan to a breaking point, where he explodes at his father, threatening him with a large knife and running away, leading to the father’s death.

There are even more religious symbols, since the movie itself is a sort of allegory for Christianity. Firstly, at the beginning of the movie, the boys discover their father laying in bed in a position resembling that of Jesus Christ. He is also seen in this position at the end of the film, when he is lying dead in the rowboat. At their first meal as a family, their father pours wine for his sons like Jesus did at the last supper with his apostles, the wine symbolizing Christ’s blood. Likewise, when the three are at a diner, their father encourages the boys to eat the bread, thus symbolizing the body of Christ. One of the nature symbols already mentioned can also be viewed in a religious manner, because the rain is a symbol for cleansing the men, purifying them.

In conclusion, the film uses symbols of both nature and religion to explore the brothers’ relationship with their father. Without these elements, the meaning of the movie would not come across as strongly.

Notes On Symbols In The Movie “The Return”

  • Water: Reflects the mood. For example, when everything seems okay, the weather is sunny and the skies are clear. When there is tension, it rains. If you take the Christian allegory towards it, you could interpret that the rain is cleansing, purifying.
  • Shoes: The father always tells them to take off their shoes, which could symbolize the fact that, at the end of the movie, Andrei becomes like him, stepping into his father’s shoes.
  • The Towers: Could symbolize courage. Ivan didn’t jump off the tower at the beginning of the movie, and he didn’t fall at the end. He is called a coward, but yet he always stands up to the father, so is he really a coward? Is his brother Andrei really brave or a coward?
  • Their father: If we are taking the Christian approach to this, then Ivan and Andrei’s father would be Jesus Christ. The way he is laying in bed at the beginning and in the boat, dead, at the end show this. Also, the way he offers his sons bread and wine at their first dinner together symbolizes receiving communion.
  • The Camera: Memories, something they don’t have of their father, who left years ago.

Remakes: Internal Affairs (2002) v.s. The Departed (2006)

      

Both tell the story of two men planted as moles in the opposite’s group, and their struggle with deciding what kind of person they really are. Some say it is almost like watching the same movie twice, but there are significant differences in both films.

The Story

Internal Affairs is about two young men, Chan and Lau, who are both undercover. Chan is a former cadet in the police academy who was asked to infiltrate the Triad, a notorious Hong Kong gang, while Lau is a member of the Triad posing as a cop.

The film begins with Triad boss Hon Sam sending a bunch of young gangsters, including Lau, to train at the police academy and become cops, so that they can have access to inside information. The movie skips ahead to nearly 10 years later, with Chan confiding in the head of the police department, Wong, that he has been a part of the Triad for so long that he is starting to feel like a real criminal, and in the same way, Lau seems to enjoy being a part of the police force. Both organizations meet and discuss the fact that there is a mole in each group, and ironically, it is Chan and Lau who are given the task of discovering who the moles are.

Lau has a girlfriend who he moves in with and plans on marrying, while Chan begins to fall for his therapist.

Another gang member is shot and right before dying, tells Chan that he is also a mole and knows about him.

When Chan and Wong meet one day, they are nearly discovered, but Wong sacrifices his life to keep Chan’s identity a secret. Lau decides to kill Sam, thinking he can erase his connection to crime and remain a cop, but then Chan finds out he is the mole.

In the end, Chan holds Lau hostage, but is fatally shot in the head by Inspector B, a fellow cop. Inspector B then reveals that Sam had more than one mole on the force, to which Lau then shoots him, so that his past can stay a secret and he can keep being a good guy.

***

The Departed is also about two young men, Colin Sullivan (Lau’s character) and William Costigan (Chan’s character), who go undercover.

Set in South Boston, the movie opens with what looks like archival footage, while Jack Nicholson’s character, Frank Costello, narrates in voice over. He walks into a shop and meets Sullivan, who at the time looks no older than 12, and invites him to join the Irish Mob. The story then shifts to years later, with Sullivan now training as a cadet at the police academy so that he can become a mole for Costello. We then meet Costigan, another cadet, who is asked by the police chief, Queenan, and his second-in-command, Dignam, to use his family ties to organized crime to infiltrate the Irish Mob. There is a montage of Costigan doing time in prison to make himself seem more legitimate to Costello, and Sullivan doing his duty as a cop and being good at what he does. Costigan is accepted into the Irish Mob and we see that he actually does make a good criminal.

Sullivan starts to see a therapist and soon begins a relationship with her, but Costigan is also seeing her, both as his therapist and romantic interest.

Costigan meets with Queenan to talk, but the police and mob are tipped off and arrive. Queenan sacrifices himself to keep Costigan’s identity a secret and is thrown off the roof, landing right in front of Costigan.

Another member of the mob dies in front of Costigan, right after revealing to Costigan that he knows he is the mole. When his body is found by the cops, the mob finds out on the news that he was working for the police as a mole too.

In the remake, a big difference is that Costello is actually an FBI informant, undercover himself in a way, which is one of the reasons why Sullivan kills him.

In the end, Costigan holds Sullivan hostage after discovering that he is the other mole, but is shot in the head by one of Sullivan’s fellow officers when exiting an elevator. Another cop shows up and shoots the other officer, killing him, before revealing to Sullivan that he was also a mole for Costello. Sullivan then kills him too, so that his role in everything can remain a secret and he can continue being a cop.

However, this movie ends differently from the original, with Sullivan opening the door to his apartment one day only to be shot by Dignam standing there wearing hospital footies and gloves.

Mise-en-Scene

Obviously, the settings are completely different, which impacts the mise-en-scene. The lighting in Internal Affairs is mostly dark; I think it’s low-key. The Departed, being a Hollywood movie, is a lot brighter despite being a serious movie, but not by much. Their costumes are quite different because in the original, the police wear mostly suits and dressy clothes, and so do the members of the Triad, whereas in the remake, the police wear their uniforms and the Irish Mob members wear mostly street clothes, because it is Boston after all. The main difference in their mise-en-scene is that because Internal Affairs was filmed in Hong Kong, they were able to include a lot of cultural scenery in the film, which is especially notable at the very beginning.

Editing

A big difference between the two movies is their length. While the original has a running time of 101 minutes, a little over an hour and a half, the Hollywood remake is approximately 150 minutes, almost a full hour longer than the original needed to tell the same story. The reason for this is that Internal Affairs jumps 10 years into the future to where Chan is already a member of the Triad, but The Departed shows how Costigan managed to work his way into Costello’s mob.

Other differences are that in the original, there are a significant amount of black-and-white flashbacks, and it is a lot more fast paced than its remake. In the former, the film opens to a montage of what appears to be Hong Kong statues and sculptures and then the title is shown, but in the latter, director Martin Scorsese decides to only put the title sequence 17 minutes into the movie, after the characters and story have been fully introduced.

The most significant difference (in my opinion) is the soundtrack to the movie. Internal Affairs has a lot of instrumental music that I would assume is native to Hong Kong, which I was not a huge fan of if you compare it to the music in The Departed, which includes “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones and The Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up To Boston,” both of which are reoccurring throughout the film. Even if a lot of the scenes are almost the exact same as in Internal Affairs, just adding those songs made them about a million times more epic.

Shift in Target Audience

As for the original, I wasn’t sure if the actors were younger or just looked it, but I figured that might be something. That, and the fact that I felt like they were trying to make the movie funny sometimes even though it was a serious subject, makes me believe that they were trying to appeal to younger audiences.

Then, with The Departed, I think they were obviously trying to make the movie more “Hollywood” so people would want to go see it. They used the same man who wrote the original, William Monohan, which explains why both movies contain many of the same exact scenes, but they probably decided to give The Departed a different ending because it wasn’t “happy” enough. I mean, sure, the movie ends with basically everyone dead, but I guess it maybe bothered people that Lau/Sullivan got away with everything in the end and Scorsese thought people would be more satisfied with him dying too.

I also think that the love triangle between Costigan, Sullivan and their therapist (and the baby mama drama near the end), was added to make women want to see it. Let’s face it, girls and women tend to like movies more if there is love and sex involved, and that’s why they put that in there.

I think the target audience they were trying to attract was EVERYONE, based on the huge amount of bad-ass A-list Hollywood actors in the movie.

My Personal Opinion

The Departed wins.

I hate to say it, because remakes are almost never better than the original, but it was in my opinion.

They were both really funny, but I think The Departed beats out the original just because of Mark Wahlberg’s character.

I also enjoyed the relationships between Costigan/Sullivan and Costello, and Costigan/Sullivan and Queenan/Dignam better in this version.

Hon Sam didn’t seem all that crazy or threatening (we never even saw him kill anyone), which made him kind of a boring mob boss, but Jack Nicholson as Frank Costello was perfect because he was bat shit crazy, making him scary and hilarious at the same time.

And the main reason why I believe that The Departed was better than Internal Affairs: There’s nothing better than watching Leonardo DiCaprio beat the living crap out of Matt Damon.

Non-Linear Editing in The Butterfly Effect, and How it Affects Time, Space, Rhythm and Mood

The Butterfly Effect (2004) is a science-fiction psychological thriller film, directed by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, and stars Ashton Kutcher in the lead role. It is based on the theory known as the butterfly effect that says every little thing someone does could have huge repercussions for them and the people around them later in life (eg. the fluttering of a butterfly’s wing can cause a typhoon halfway around the world). Kutcher plays college student Evan Treborn, who one day realizes that by reading from the pages of his old journals, he can travel back in time to that very moment to change the past, which is a tempting endeavor for him because he has many traumatic childhood memories he wishes he could erase, or rather, change. Since the film has non-linear editing (the entire story isn’t told in order), I will be discussing how the editing affects things like time, space, rhythm and mood.

Time

The first half of the movie is mostly about Evan’s childhood and the frequent blackouts he experiences, and the second half focuses on an adult Evan trying to return to his childhood to rectify past events. Whenever Evan blacks out, we, as viewers, are sometimes not aware that that is what has happened, because the transition is just a basic straight cut. For example, when his friend Kayleigh’s dad is making them do child pornography, the film cuts from them standing outside to in their basement, which is often done in movies to speed things up and not include anything unnecessary, but here it signifies that Evan does not remember anything in between. The same thing happens for the other traumatic experiences that Evan can’t remember, like when his father strangles him at the Sunnyvale Institution, when him and his friends blow up a neighbour’s mailbox and when Kayleigh’s brother Tommy burns Evan’s dog alive. By doing this, it makes viewers just as oblivious to what happened during Evan’s blackouts and he is, until he finds out later on in the movie.

When Evan is twenty years old and begins to travel back in time using his journals, his return to the past is shown through editing by the shaking of the words on the pages as well as his surroundings. Viewers could just assume that he is time traveling whenever he reads from the journals, but because the movie is confusing since time changes so much and so many alternate universes are created, the editing is sort of important to remind viewers that things are changing once again.

Space

Like time, Evan’s blackouts affect space as well because almost every time he blacks out, there is a straight cut from one place to another, causing viewers to be disoriented for a moment, like Evan. My favourite transition that changes both time and space without involving a blackout or time travel is when Evan is writing in his journal at age 13 in the moving van and then there is a match cut to Evan writing again, but this time he is writing a test in school at age 20.

Rhythm

Besides the opening scene of the movie, most of the first half of the movie is slow and calm, but then every time there is a blackout, the scene changes instantaneously from, say, zooming in on the mailbox one second and then the kids running scared through the woods while dragging their friend Lenny along the next second, which can make viewers who have never seen the movie before jump. The rest of the movie is slow going too, but every once in a while, someone or something happens out of nowhere that frightens viewers, like the first time Evan went to visit Lenny in his 20s and Lenny just snapped and attacked him, for example.

Also, whenever Evan changes something by going back in time, he wakes up in an alternate universe and is greeted by a nosebleed and a series of new memories that flash quickly through his mind, so that he just gets bits and pieces of images and sounds from the new future he has created for himself and his friends. For example, one of the times he goes back to the incident with Tommy and his dog, he gives Lenny a shard to cut the rope of the bag his dog is in (because in the original memory, he tried to help but could not get the rope untied, resulting in the death of Evan’s dog). When Evan comes to after the blackout, he tries to reason with Tommy, who actually seems to consider not lighting the bag on fire, but then  Lenny comes out of nowhere and stabs Tommy in the back with the shard, killing him. When Evan wakes up in his new reality, his mind shows him flashes of things like playing with his dog, Tommy’s gravestone, Kayleigh hitchhiking and Lenny being institutionalized at Sunnyvale.

Mood

The mood of the film is mostly dark, obviously, but it often goes back and forth between what are – seemingly – happy scenes and sad or scary scenes. For example, the first scene of the movie is of present day Evan at Sunnyvale trying to go back in time one last time, but then just before he succeeds (which we see at the end of the movie), switches to kids riding their bikes on a bright, sunny day.

The first time Evan wakes up after having changed the past – the child pornography incident, specifically, he finds himself in bed, but the room he is in is much brighter and the colours are more vibrant than any other room he has ever lived in, signifying that, like this dorm room, Evan’s new reality should also be the happiest and most cheerful of all. Of course, that isn’t the case. At first, things seem fine because Evan and Kayleigh are on a date, talking, and a generic love song that appears in lots of movies is playing (“May Angels Lead You In” by Jimmy Eat World). But then Evan is notified that his car has been vandalized by none other than a recently-released-from-prison Tommy.

So, I think it is safe to say that editing is very important in movies like this, where the story is not told in the right order, to establish time and space, to use rhythm to show things like flashbacks, and to create moods.