30 Day Film Challenge Days 1-6

The 30 Day Film Challenge is a fun little project that I started doing over at The Reelists website. That website is shutting down so I’ll be continuing it here. The idea is to pick a movie based on certain criteria for each day of the month. First up are the 6 movies already posted there. I’ll just put them here for completion’s sake. Later today I’ll post Day 7.
Day 1: Your Favorite Film
If there’s one thing that Paul Thomas Anderson is good at it’s examining the way broken people deal with the broken world they live in. There Will Be Blood is the epitome of that idea. Daniel Plainview (played perfectly by Daniel Day-Lewis) will tell you that he is an oil man and you will have to agree. The problem is that he is single minded in his quest for oil. His nemesis Eli Sunday (Paul Dano’s performance has been maligned but I think he does a good job of being the sniveling opposite of Day-Lewis’s towering inferno of a show) is similarly broken, leaning on religion as a way to exploit the small town people he purports to lead. The movie is deeply serious on first viewing but after multiple exposures the dark comedy comes to the fore. It’s a great example of what movies can do and the technical craft is second-to-none.
Day 2: Your Least Favorite Film
Aliens (1986, Cameron)
How can I hate Aliens, you might ask. Let me count the ways. It’s a sequel that completely changes the tone and world of the original film (which is a masterpiece, by the way). Instead of a smart and scary thriller we get a dumb and explosion-y action film with nothing horrifying in the 137 minute run time. Remember the characters in Alien? They had depth and a purpose. The sequel gave us people that spout one-liners like they were going out of style and lacked anything resembling nuance. And then the creatures. One alien was enough to kill the entire crew of the Nostromo but a hundred aliens left three survivors (thankfully killed in the superior third film)? The increase in numbers did not lead to an increase in scariness. And there’s a boss fight! A freaking boss fight. Aliens, you did what every other sequel does but for some reason people love you and condemn the rest. Not I! Boo, Aliens, Boo.
Day 3: A Film You Watch to Feel Good
Sure, Jurassic Park has a few people dying in it. And it’s not exactly a carefree romp or anything. But it is super fun and fulfills the promise of cinema to the fullest extent. The great thing about movies is that you can see and hear things that don’t exist. It’s limited only by imagination and the craftiness of the artists behind the scenes. In the case of Jurassic Park the imagination is great and the craftiness greater. Like most young boys I was fascinated by dinosaurs. They were so big and there were so many kinds. And thanks to Steven Spielberg and Stan Winston I could finally see real live (or real clever use of CGI and giant puppets) dinosaurs. And that’ll make me happy any day of the week.
Day 4: A Film You Watch to Feel Down
The great thing about Hoop Dreams is that it’s a documentary about two kids that are chasing a dream. The terrible thing about Hoop Dreams is that they fail. It’s a 3 hour movie about people struggling against the system and themselves and losing. Not exactly what I would call uplifting. The two kids aspire to go to a good basketball school and transition into the NBA. While not the easiest goal to meet it certainly seems doable to young William Gates and Arthur Agee. But when one pushes his schooling to the side and the other’s body starts to fail him already the dreams begin to disappear. There are moments of joy sprinkled in there – Arthur’s mother getting her nursing assistant certificate made me cry – but most of it is utterly depressing. It is on my list of 100 greatest movies but I’d never watch it unless I wanted to be super sad.
Day 5: A Film That Reminds You of Someone
Liliom (1930, Borzage)
Those of you that know me might be surprised that this is the first Frank Borzage film from me. Many of you might not have seen a film from Mr. Borzage. Allow me to explain. My final semester in college I took a film class that focused solely on the films of Frank Borzage. He’s an old Hollywood director that nobody else seems to care about. But my professor, Bob Smith, really loved him. His appreciation was infectious and by the end of my time in his class I, too, had become a huge Borzage fan. Liliom is not a typical Borzage movie. It’s got a lot of flaws (mostly in the whole spousal abuse element and some of the acting choices) but those flaws serve only to highlight the spectacular look and feel of the film. To quote another Borzage film, “Everywhere… in every town, in every street… we pass unknowingly, human souls made great by love and adversity.” I’d like to thank Bob Smith for introducing me to Frank Borzage and for being the best teacher I’ve ever had.
Day 6: A Film That Reminds You of Somewhere.
How can a movie remind me of a place that doesn’t exist? It’s just that good at the world-building aspect of film. Peter Jackson took J.R.R. Tolkien’s base novels and planted them firmly in the already otherworldly land of New Zealand. The combination leads to a place that doesn’t really exist outside of the frame of the film but within that frame it’s as real as anywhere. It takes a special film to make me nostalgic for a place I’ve only experienced through books and movies. The Fellowship of the Ring is that movie. I would live in a hobbit hole in a second and even listening to that flute piece that plays seemingly throughout the time spent in the Shire is enough to bring me back to that place I’ve never been and will never go to.

Things that Make Me Smile: Part 1 – Sons & Daughters by The Decemberists

Today begins a new series here at Benefits of a Classical Education. Things that Make Me Smile will be a multi-part series in which I tell a story or link to a thing which made me happy. The inaugural entry is this, Sons & Daughters by The Decemberists. The whole song is great but the line that really gets me is 

We will arise from the bunkers
By land, by sea, by dirigible

The intonation on that line just gets me smilin’. That’s all.

Book Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind owes a lot to Harry Potter. There’s the school for learning magic, the dead parents, the snooty aristocrat arch rival, the wandering Big Bad enemy, the teacher with a grudge against our hero and the teacher with loopy but seemingly knowledgeable insights, and there’s the girl that is kinda strange but makes a connection with Kvothe, the hero of the tale. Yes, there’s a lot of overlap there but what The Name of the Wind does with these characters and ideas (which I recognize weren’t exactly invented for the Harry Potter universe but the popular girl get’s all the dirty looks, I guess) makes it a great story. This, the first book in the Kingkiller Chronicle series does a lot of heavy lifting as we hear about the first 15 years of Kvothe’s (pronounced like “quoth”) life. The framing story is a clever conceit in this tale because the Kvothe we know in the present is quite different from the Kvothe at the beginning of his life (and he doesn’t even come close to old Kvothe’s melancholy by the end of this book, the first day of his recitation of his life). We know Kvothe will end up as an innkeeper and bartender somewhere in the middle of nowhere hiding from his previous life as a hero but as of the end of this book he’s still riding pretty high. Only at the end of the book do we get a hint of what happened to him to turn him against the world when his two audience members – one a faerie and the other an author recording Kvothe’s tale of woe – have a midnight conversation about how sad Kvothe has become in his later years. It’s a telling scene and told well as we get some talk of masks that would please Oscar Wilde.
The book moves at a quick pace (I finished the 672 pages in around a week and a half) and is well written, though there are a few issues. At this point in the story young Kvothe is a little too good at everything. Much of the middle of the book throws a bunch of seemingly minor issues at him which he solves quite easily. Part of his myth is that he can do everything and I guess that is on display here but it makes for a kind of uninteresting story at points. There’s a lot of wheel spinning without much meaning outside of a couple of great scenes in the middle bits (the fire in the workshop and Kvothe’s performance of a long and complicated song stand out as being particularly great). The last 100-150 pages, though, are stellar.
Perhaps the element that separates The Name of the Wind from Harry Potter the most is the love interest. I never really got anything from Harry’s various romantic entaglements and in fact I thought he probably should have hooked up with Luna Lovegood because she was clearly the coolest of the girls hanging around Hogwarts. Kvothe’s object of desire is Denna and she is a perfect match for him. They meet early on but the relationship only really gets going in the middle of the book. Denna, like Kvothe, has a mysterious past and nobody to rely on for food or money or shelter. Where these circumstances propelled Kvothe to become a master arcanist (magician, basically) they pushed Denna to a largely nomadic lifestyle, living off the attention she gets from men of all ages while never getting close to anybody for too long. She’s an incredible alluring character and whenever she’s around Kvothe can’t help but admire her and the reader will likely follow his lead. The end of the book concerns a possible attack by the creatures that killed Kvothe’s entire troupe of traveling performers. This drives Kvothe to the scene of a wedding day massacre where he finds that Denna is the only survivor. There’s a lot of fun interaction between the two as they spend more time with each other than either has spent with another person for quite a while. The relationship grows as they find out why the Chandrian attacked this particular group of people and what attention they have brought on the little town. It’s one big setpiece which includes a dragon and a harvest-time celebration. It’s supremely well written and gives me hope for the next books in the series. Let’s hope they spend more time on heroic antics rather than finding enough money to pay for another semester at school. One of these things is way more exciting and, though the other is important background information, I hope it has come to an end. This is a series with epic inclinations and if it can capitalize on those it could end up being one of the best series in the genre, if not the modern era.

A Separate Savior: How Abe is Visually Distinguished in Young Mr. Lincoln

In his film Young Mr. Lincoln, John Ford creates a version of the American hero that is, for the most part, detached from the rest of the world. Ford loves the idea of community but how can you have a genuine hero in a place and a film that revolves around community? Henry Fonda’s Abe Lincoln is this kind of hero. There are visual clues that Ford uses to demonstrate that the only kind of hero that a community can use is one that isn’t part of the community. These clues come from the framing and the use of fences in those frames. Through these ideas Ford makes a clear case for the lonely and distinct hero.
            We’ll start with the framing of Abe throughout the film. Right through the film Lincoln is visually separated from other people by Ford’s use of “hero shots”, the juxtaposition of one shots and two-plus shots, and other miscellaneous framing devices. Let’s first look at the hero shot. Generally, a hero shot is a one shot from a low (as in below the torso) perspective looking up towards the character within the shot. The character will take up most of the frame and will therefore be very imposing and intimidating. John Ford uses this kind of shot on Lincoln during several key scenes to drive home the fact that Lincoln is worthy of the hero title. Our second shot of Lincoln comes in the form of a hero shot. He’s giving a speech on a porch in his small hometown. He’s not particularly imposing at this point but he does carry himself well and his speech, which is all given in the duration of this shot with the reactions saved for after his speech is over, is a good one. However, at this point Lincoln hasn’t become who he will be and is not as important or well developed yet. As such the hero shot is not very dramatic. It’s almost indistinguishable from what a normal mid shot would look like, save for the fact that we see a bit the wall above the door behind him which wouldn’t be visible in a normal mid shot.

           The next hero shot of Lincoln comes at what may be the most important moment in the entire film, if not his life. It is during the celebrations at his new town and Lincoln is the sole judge of the pie contest. We get a camera angle that is probably from the audience’s perspective and, since Lincoln is on an elevated platform to perform his sacred duties, we see a much more dramatic version of the hero shot as he struggles to decide between the two obviously delicious pies. But don’t let a little jesting fool you, this shot really is important to developing the themes of the film through the hero shot. Abe has previously recognized that the law and deciding what’s right and what’s wrong is an important concept to him and this pie eating contest gives him the opportunity to exercise that concept in a relatively unimportant venue. At this point Lincoln is building his career as a lawyer and the ability to distinguish right from wrong is a valuable tool in his belt as we see later in the film. It’s this discriminating characteristic that both separates Lincoln and turns him into the hero that the community needs. And the pies are tasty.
            The next three hero shots go a long way to distinguish Lincoln as a moral and just hero which is important for Ford to do so that the audience sympathies are firmly in his camp. They all accomplish a similar goal and I’ll therefore group them together and talk about them as a whole, for the most part. The first is at the jailhouse as Lincoln reigns in the mob that wants to lynch the two suspected murderers (who just happen to be Lincoln’s first clients), the second comes after he proves his clients’ innocence and the final is the last shot of the movie as Lincoln stands on a hill during a thunderstorm. This last one isn’t a typical hero shot and is actually more of a wide shot but as he is on a hill and super tall, I think it works for what I’m talking about here. These three shots are used to firmly establish Lincoln as an undeniable hero. First he turns the mob of people away from the jailhouse in order to get the two boys a fair trial. The moral high ground here is definitely Lincoln’s. Again, the shot is likely from the perspective of his audience, a theme which runs through these hero shots. The next one, as he leaves the courthouse to wild applause, is a similar situation and accomplishes similar things. Now he has a legitimacy from finding the real killer and proving his two clients innocent and the hero title is definitely deserved. The last shot of him on the hill sets Lincoln up as the national hero that everybody knows from history books and who pays the ultimate sacrifice for bringing his community together.
            Now that I’ve established that Lincoln is clearly a hero, I’d like to point out how he is defined as separate from the community through the framing and set up of the shots throughout the film. Ford consistently frames Lincoln in one shot while almost every other shot has multiple people in them. This constant visual separation sets Lincoln apart from the community he is trying to build and defend. Let’s look at some specific examples.
            The first example is also from the mob scene where Lincoln diffuses the crowd’s overreaction to the murder. He is framed throughout the scene in one shots either from the side or straight on (including the hero shot mentioned above). The rest of the town is framed together to emphasize how they are of a unified mind. They all think the same thing and are therefore visually equated within the scene by being shown in two-plus shots. Lincoln, who isn’t a part of this mob and knows that their point of view is incorrect, is shown separately from them to emphasize his severance from the community. Here Lincoln recognizes that the town requires him to stand and make a difference but he also knows that he can’t do it and still be a part of the community. This dichotomy is what Ford is trying to express throughout the movie and in this scene.

            Similarly, Lincoln is shown as separate from a community in the trial scene, though this time it isn’t the community as a whole that he is separate from but the judicial system. As the prosecutor begins his opening arguments Lincoln goes over to a bookshelf and begins to read one of the law books on display there. He is shown in a one shot here, too, while the rest of the trial happens in another shot that contains the judge and jury and prosecutor and everybody else. Lincoln is again established as an outsider that will eventually save the legitimacy of the court and the two innocent men’s lives. The court works as it is supposed to where both sides get a chance to argue innocence and guilt which is then finally decided by the jury, but Lincoln undermines the rules that are set up when he feels that they are irrelevant. This separation from the normal and accepted rules for the greater good is again echoed in the visual separation shown in the framing of him apart from the courtroom and with the law books that he will use when they fit him and ignore when they don’t. This dedication to the ideals of the law but not the sometimes unnecessary practices is another example of Lincoln being the necessarily separate hero.
             The way Lincoln is framed when he is shown in shots with other people is also a key to understanding how his character operates within the film. He is often shown to be separate from the others even in shots that show him interacting with them. Lincoln is usually shown to be either above or below the rest of the characters in the shot. When he is below them he is trying to be humble to people that are better than him, either in terms of class or moral stature. When he is above them he is trying to bend them to his own goal, that of bringing the community together. Lincoln was physically imposing but it is surprising how little Ford chooses to capitalize on his height. This, of course, means that when he does decide to emphasize Lincoln’s height he does so for a reason.
            Lincoln is shown in the bottom of the frame in three key scenes. The first comes when he goes to the 4th of July celebration and sits with the big wigs of the town. He feels uncomfortable here and decides to sit on the platform instead of in the chairs that the high class people are sitting in. He is a tiny figure in the bottom left of the frame when compared to these “better” people. Here Lincoln recognizes that he’s not a part of this community and is separated visually because of that. Later he pulls a similar stunt but for an entirely different purpose. Here he is meeting with the mother of his two clients at her house out in the country. This is the type of house he grew up in, and he tells them that he’s more comfortable there than in the rest of the town. He still, however, sits down on the porch floor instead of in a chair like the mother. He really respects the family he represents and is therefore humbled that they would let him be their representation in the court case. His humble nature compels him to position himself below the mother and therefore low in the frame. He is again the smaller character within the frame, a hard thing to pull off with a person like Lincoln. Finally, in the court case itself he is shown over and over again in the bottom of the frame. At the beginning it seems to be because he’s out of his league. He stretches out as we have seen him do throughout the movie and puts his feet up on the table so he takes up the entirety of the bottom of the frame. He seems unimpressed by the whole proceeding, or perhaps nervous about his first big court case. He isn’t conducting himself in the way that the prosecutor and the rest of the people in the trial are, with the pomp and ceremony that is normally associated with such an occasion. But later we see him again sitting on a kind of platform: the steps up to the jury box area. Here he’s below the jury, the witness, the prosecutor, and pretty much everybody else in the frame and courtroom. But he’s in charge here. He’s playing a role in order to fool the room so that his revelation will surprise them. When he does finally pounce he stands up and becomes the tall, impressive figure we expect from Lincoln.
            In fact, it is later in this scene that he is shown above the rest of the community in the frame. It doesn’t happen often so when it does it makes an impact. The most important scene where he is above the rest of the characters in the frame comes when he questions Jack Cass, the supposed eye witness to the murder. He knows something is fishy with Cass’s story and because of this he is framed to be taller than Cass. Lincoln hovers over him and makes him admit to the murder and conspiracy to implicate the two boys instead of him. Here Lincoln is in charge and has the moral high ground, so he is in the top of the frame. He’s powerful now, and he knows it. This difference in framing is only exacerbated when Cass gets off the stand to run out of the court room. He’s even smaller in comparison to Lincoln now that he knows he is busted.  One other example comes much earlier in the film, right after his first speech on the porch. He is offered some books as a form of payment and when he first opens the barrel of them he is below all of the characters around him in the frame. Once he realizes that they’re law books he steps forward to practically fill the same frame. He’s taller than everybody else at this point and it is all because he has found his true passion in life: law. I’ve already discussed how the idea of right and wrong shaped Lincoln’s future and this scene is the impetus for that change. When he discovers the law he fills the frame and becomes larger than everybody else, indicating how important an event it is. He is now going to be an educated man, a lawyer, which automatically distinguishes him from the rest of the community who seem to be generally uneducated.
            Fences are not normally a large part of the framing of a film, but in this case they play an important role in showing the separation between Lincoln and the rest of the community. I’ll walk you through the way Ford uses fences to cut Lincoln off in the remaining part of this essay beginning now.
            From the first there is almost always a fence of some sort within the frame of this film. This alone should be evidence enough that fences are important, but I’ll elaborate a bit more to better explain why they are important. The first critical fence comes when Lincoln and his first love Ann meet at the river side where Lincoln is reading one of his law books. They begin to walk along the river and as they do there is a fence running along the bottom of the frame. It’s presence in the foreground and the river’s presence in the background creates a path that the two characters walk down. The nature of this path means that there is no way to go but forwards. When the finally stop walking there seems to be a break in the fence. This allows Lincoln and Ann to be on seemingly equal footing. And their characters would seem to match this equality. They both love each other and want only the best. However, the camera then cuts to a wider shot and we see that Ann had moved to the other side of the fence at the beginning of the conversation. The fence hadn’t disappeared, it just got lower for a bit. When the camera shows that they were separated by the fence for the end of the conversation the audience realizes that something isn’t quite right. There is, of course, a reason that they were separated by the fence. Ann is convinced that nobody – even Lincoln – can love her. She is also dead by the next scene. Lincoln goes to visit her grave (predictably separated from the rest of nature by a fence) and there he decides to become a lawyer. Ann is the impetus for the rest of the film but even she is separated from him by a fence.

            Jumping forwards a bit and over a couple of minor fence scenes, the next important fence surrounds the clearing where the murder takes place. Not only does the fence fail at containing the violence (the mob later rushes out of a hole in the fence proving its worthlessness in its actual duties) but it also allows Lincoln to observe the entire happening. When the community comes to the clearing they all enter through a hole in the fence. Lincoln goes up to the fence but decides to stay back. He leans on the fence and watches what happens as the community turns into a mob. The fence allows for impartiality by way of separation. It is likely that if Lincoln had entered the clearing like everybody else did he, too, would have been wrapped up in the excitement of a hanging and joined the mob. Instead he watches from a distance and sees how foolishly the community acts. This visual representation of separation in the form of a fence allows Lincoln to fulfill one of the key components of law: objectivity. In these shots Lincoln is not only separated by distance but also by the fence on which he leans.
             Mary Todd, Lincoln’s future wife, isn’t much of a character within this film, but she does play an important role in a scene involving one of the most creative fences on film. Lincoln is invited to a high class party and as he enters there is a big John Ford dance scene going on. When we first see him the camera angle comes from within the big dance area facing the hallway where Lincoln enters and talks to some old guys. The dance is still going on and at this point the dancers are all linked arm in arm and skipping around the circumference of the room. As they dance by the camera their bodies and clasped hands form an unbroken fence between the camera and Lincoln who stands in the background. This living fence blocks a clear view of the hero. The camera takes a side here, and it is the side of the rich. It’s within the walls of the dance hall where all the rich guys dance and intermingle. The rich even create a fence within the already extravagant walls to keep out the less desirable elements, which Lincoln clearly thinks he is a part of. He is hesitant to enter the formal area and dance with Mary Todd. In the end she practically forces him into dancing with her, and Lincoln isn’t the greatest of dancers. He seems out of place, which makes his separation at the beginning of this scene by the dancing fence all the more important. It establishes that Lincoln isn’t a part of this crowd. Earlier we saw that he wasn’t a part of the community at large, either, so he’s effectively an outsider to everybody. Yet when he saves the day he is welcomed into the masses as a hero. He epitomizes that separate hero and no more is this in evidence than in the courtroom scene.
            Again we return to the scenes that take place within the courtroom. Here there are several fences to separate Lincoln from everybody else. The first separates him from the rest of the community by keeping them in the back of the room and him and the prosecutor and other people actually involved in the trial in the front. There is a small fence (which some would call a railing) that can be seen in nearly every courtroom scene in film and real life separating the community and the trail participants. This isn’t a super important fence until the end of the trial scene when Cass, the true murderer, tries to escape Lincoln’s questioning by leaving through a small door in the fence. When he moves to the other side of the fence the community begins to close in on him, and the mob that he wanted to incite earlier is turned against him. Still, Lincoln is separated from him and the rest of them by the fence. He’s proven Cass’s guilt and now he’ll let him get what’s coming to him, but Lincoln won’t have any part in it. After not trusting himself and almost losing the trial he seems happy to have gotten his clients off. He still doesn’t need or perhaps he isn’t able to join the community at large. He’s the hero they needed but he doesn’t really need them, nor do they particularly care about him. Still, his part is performed and now the community is whole again.
            But we aren’t finished with those darn fences yet. As he says goodbye to the family he saved they leave along a road lined with a fence. He, too, leaves by way of this road. When he reaches the top of the hill there is a fence on his side. The fences seem to have been guiding him all along, from the river scene with Anne to the final scene on the hill the fences have done more than just separate Lincoln from the rest of the community. They are like the law, unwaveringly steady. They are used to impose order and boundaries on the world, much like the law is used to impose order and boundaries on people and the community. They are a tool used to make clear delineations, a vital part of any life, but especially crucial to Lincoln, a man who must necessarily be separate from others in order to help them. The fences and framing of Young Mr. Lincoln clearly show that Abe must be severed to some degree from those that he wants to save. He is successful but at the price of being integrated into a community. It’s a theme that runs through John Ford’s films and is perhaps most important in the story of Abe Lincoln’s early career.