I have held off on writing about Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood for some time now, and I attribute that to the complexity of its story. I struggled for a long while trying to understand what message director Quentin Tarantino was trying to convey in his ninth film. I have always loved the movie; it creates a vivid portrayal of the California lifestyle and the aura around Hollywood, cinema, and celebrities; however, the film’s purpose never made itself directly apparent to me until very recently. Naturally, as the film is one of my favorites of all time, I feel it necessary to delve deep into the picture, what it means, and its relationship to the Hollywood of today.
For those who haven’t seen it, Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood focuses on Rick Dalton, a washed-up television actor from the fifties who needs to come to terms with growing old and moving out of the spotlight. However, he still has big hopes of one day following in the shoes of actors such as Steve McQueen and becoming a leading man in Hollywood movies. While this never happens, he becomes a big star in Italian Spaghetti Westerns and comes to terms with his situation. Dalton is accompanied by his stunt double Cliff Booth and juxtaposed against a dramatized version of late actress Sharon Tate in the year leading up to her death. The film’s climax connects these threads bringing all characters together and rewriting history, providing a fairytale ending in which actress Sharon Tate is never killed in the Manson Family murders.
Once Upon A Time... in Hollywood, believe it or not, can be seen as a cautionary tale for today's cinematic landscape. The film takes a deep exploration of change in the film industry, whether it be Rick Dalton's career change from once famous tv actor to spaghetti western star, the change from Hollywood's golden age, or even Tarantino's own changing of historical events in the film's plot. As a central theme in the movie, naturally, parallels can be drawn to today. As Streaming Services rise in popularity and threaten the prominence of film stock and the theatrical experience, Tarantino warns us against moving away from traditional cinema. In multiple interviews, including interviews with Robert Rodriguez and at the Cannes film festival, Tarantino calls digital film and projection the death of movies as he knows it. He explores the introduction of digital projection and streaming through metaphor in his film, comparing it against similar movements in the late sixties, such as the end of Hollywood's golden age as was signified by the murder of Sharon Tate. Establishing a connection between the end of Hollywood's Golden age, also known as the era when studios ruled supreme, and the start of a new generation of streaming and home projection is essential as it signifies Tarantino's opinion regarding today's state of affairs. By keeping Sharon Tate alive and therefore removing the marker which indicated the end of Hollywood's golden age, Tarantino advocates in the very structure of his story that he would prefer we steer away from the age of digital cinema and streaming. However, other elements of the film's narrative may suggest Tarantino's coming to terms with the unfolding events of today.
Cinematography, Production Design, and Soundtrack
Vital to the film's central messaging is the use of elaborate production design, cinematography, and soundtrack, which are used strategically and extensively to create a romanticized view of the Hollywood landscape at the time the film takes place. In fact, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is often described as Tarantino's love letter to Los Angeles, Hollywood, and movies. Therefore, all elements of the film's production needed to enhance the feeling of the 1960s as well as evoke the same feelings as films made in that era. Cinematographer Robert Richardson accomplished this effect in several ways. Firstly, the film was shot on a variety of formats. Traditional, color 35mm negative stock was used for the majority of the picture; however, the use of 16mm stock was used for sequences of the film's fictional television shows as this is what these shows were shot on at the time; the use of 8mm film is implemented too during specific home video portions. Robert Richardson's traditional lighting style also serviced the film. His style is signified by the use of strong edge lighting, which can add an angelic glow to actors and therefore further romanticizes the settings and characters of the film. Finally, in an interview with ASC magazine, the film's colorist, Yvan Lucas, he reveals how the film negative was processed to finish the movie's iconic look. He mentions that while the idea was to stay as close to the films negative stock as possible, the use of the Kodak 2383 print stock was able to further separate colors into their primary channels, therefore, leading to enhanced saturation and a look that is reminiscent of the style present in films in the late sixties.
Similarly, the films Production Design and Soundtrack are used to enhance the film's realism and mise-en-scene. Production Designer Barbara Ling faced challenges involving redecorating Hollywood Boulevard to be identical to 1969, the year the film takes place, and the meticulous recreation of Spahn Movie Ranch in Chatsworth. This attention to detail is translated to Tarantino's soundtrack, which used songs from the time period and a recreation of the LA KHJ radio station from 1960s Los Angeles.
Another element that enhances the film's message is how Tarantino writes his characters. Tarantino is known for a highly distinctive style of dialogue and structuring. It is why he has two academy awards for best original screenplay; therefore, at this point in his career, having established his style, Tarantino was able to use it, or rather the lack of it, to enhance characterization and messaging in the film. In several interviews about the film, Tarantino explains that Margo Robbie lacks so many lines because he explicitly wanted to make her feel real rather than a Tarantino Character and juxtapose that against his traditional style, which was used for other characters in the film. This strategy accomplishes making Tate not necessarily feel like a character central to the story's plot, but one that is an angelic string thematically tying the picture together. As a Hollywood celebrity who goes about a typical day living in Los Angeles, her presentation translates to the audience Tarantino's own romanticized view of the time period. As in real life, her death was directly tied to the end of Hollywood's golden age; in the film, her survival is tied to its longevity. Her flattering look is not only literally how Tarantino wants us to view her, but too, is symbolically how he wants us to see film and the theatrical experience.
Looking at the cinematic elements in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood provides a strong argument against the transition into the modern streaming age; however, there also happens to be suggestions that Tarantino is coming to terms with the changing landscape of today’s Hollywood. While it is true, that symbolically, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood suggests that we should stick with the ways of the past, there are elements of the films narrative that recommend otherwise. Once again, the film follows struggling actor Rick Dalton. It is early in the film’s runtime that Dalton is offered a career transition into spaghetti westerns; however, he refuses adamantly. It is later that he changes his mind and comes to terms with his situation. Allow us to compare this against Tarantino’s career and interests. He is a director who openly admires exploitation cinema and the spaghetti western genre; he is also a director who rose from the ashes of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Therefore, it would make no sense for Tarantino to advocate explicitly against the change that took place in the late sixties, as his success is directly attributed to it. I believe that the message, while being a love letter to old Hollywood, is also a welcoming of the next stage of cinema. Time and time again, Tarantino has said he will only make 10 films, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood being his ninth. He is, therefore, leaving the world of making movies soon and leaving his spot to be filmed by new young voices and filmmakers who too will be awarded opportunities as a result of streaming services. The film, while being a goodbye to old ways, is also a welcoming of new ones. As Brad Pitt said in the same ASC Magazine article mentioned before, “[The Film] really comes down to acceptance — acceptance of your place, your life, your surroundings, your challenges, your troubles.
B, Benjamin. “Back in Time: Making Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.” American Cinematographer, The American Society of Cinematographers, 14 Apr. 2021, ascmag.com/articles/back-in-time-making-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood.
“Quentin Tarantino Talks about the Death of Cinema as He Knows It, and His Forthcoming Project.” YouTube, Associated Press, 3 Aug. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZyjBhqIhhE.
Utichi, Joe. “Quentin Tarantino Digs Deep On 'Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood' As He Fears ‘Dark Night Of The Soul’ For Filmmakers: Q&A.” Deadline, Deadline, 28 Jan. 2020, deadline.com/2019/12/quentin-tarantino-interview-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-indie-filmmaking-1202809425/.
It is not often that a movie as timeless and masterful as Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 film There Will Be Blood is released. Frequently, as audiences, we are relegated to watch mindless cash-grabs and want-to-be arthouse cinema. Of course, every year comes with a good handful of outstanding films, some years more than others; however, There Will Be Blood stands above the rest; it is a film that we can expect once in a decade. It is a film that focuses so deeply on the simple nuances of its structure and narrative development as well as the technical mastery it employs that it can't help but be entertaining, cinematic, and important. There Will Be Blood is an example of what meaningful, entertaining cinema is.
There Will Be Blood, the fifth film by writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson, chronicles the career of impoverished silver miner turned wealthy oil tycoon Daniel Plainview. Using his son to project a trustworthy, family-man image, Plainview cons local landowners into selling him their oil-rich property at a low price. However, when preacher Eli Sunday suspects Plainview of having ulterior motives, a slow-burning feud begins that puts the family, the fortune, and the life of Daniel Plainview on the line. There Will Be Blood, without a doubt, is the best character study of all time, second only to Anderson's follow-up, The Master. The film adopts genre conventions from that of the American Western and twists these elements to explore themes of greed, morality, family, and religion to explore the effects that success and fortune can have on one man's life. As the film progresses deeper into its two-hour and thirty-eight-minute runtime, we are presented with the transformation of a once soft-spoken, modest silver miner into a villainous and greedy oil prospector whose thoughts of expansion on both physical and economic frontiers haunt him for the duration of the picture.
Writing and THemes
There Will Be Blood was the first film from Anderson which departed from the director's, at the time, usual plot-driven narratives such as Punch Drunk Love or Boogie Nights. In previous works, Anderson would use the film's narrative structure to embed messages relevant to the story. While effective in many cases, this style of storytelling does not lend itself well to the slow-burn, cautionary tale that Anderson wished to tell in There Will Be Blood. Rather, the quieter, more focused character study employed by the director was successfully used to convey themes of greed, family, religion, and morality. By exploring Daniel Plainview specifically, Anderson is able to use the narrative structuring of his film to caution audiences against the actions taken by the character in the picture. It is in showing us the terrible ways that Plainview's greed affects his family, relationships, and reputation, that Anderson is able to offer the devastating effects that fame and fortune can have on audiences' lives. There Will Be Blood is an exploration of the rash effects that being well driven can have. This is especially true as it relates to our capitalist society and the valuation we have of material goods and quantifiable success over the quieter virtues in life, such as our family and morality. Anderson achieves his exploration of this duality through his slow and methodical building of Plainview's character. Audiences are introduced to Plainview and his son almost immediately in a short montage sequence absent of any dialogue. As he progresses further in his career, moving to California to drill on oil-rich property, Anderson defines Plainview's relationship with his son, giving us glimpses into the quieter moments between the two. Take, for example, how Plainview tightly holds his son following the explosion of the oil rig. It is in the second half of the movie that Anderson rips Plainview's son away, leaving him to fully transform into a villainous oil prospector who has one goal: to drill as much oil and to make as much money as he can. Here, the secondary themes of There Will Be Blood, such as religion and morality, are explored. By the end of the film, Anderson begs the question, how far will a driven man go to secure his success?
This question leads me to my final point as it relates to the writing and thematic development of There Will Be Blood. It is Anderson's comfort in leaving the audience with a question rather than an answer, a topic of conversation rather than a solution that makes There Will Be Blood the masterful work of cinema that it is. The film understands its place: it is a tale of caution, and in order to be a tale of caution, it has no right to provide a complete and concise message. It is the exploration of the film's warnings and themes that audiences are expected to have after viewing, which will, in turn, lead to the film's message. To me, that is a beautiful thing that not many writer/directors aside from Anderson have the ability to accomplish
It is not only an incredible script that sets There Will Be Blood aside as a twenty-first-century classic but also a technical mastery that creates a gorgeous and epic viewing experience for audiences. Anderson uses formal elements such as directing, cinematography, performance and score to enhance the film's themes and characters.
There Will Be Blood's strongest asset, aside from an airtight screenplay, is Anderson's directing. Throughout the film, dramatic long takes are used to enhance the realism and suspense of the story. For example, halfway through the film, when a poorly constructed oil rig goes up in flames, Anderson presents the majority of this scene in an exaggerated one-take which tracks with Plainview as he rescues his son from the debris. Experiencing a high-stakes moment, such as this one, in real-time with the character enhances our connection to both the events which play out on screen, as well as the characters that experience them. Tangentially, Anderson's use of montage to quickly and visually convey important dramatic beats and characterization heightens the immersiveness of the narrative, showing audiences the quiet moments in charachters lives and giving us a chance to see between the smoke and mirrors: Daniel Plainview's public persona and how it differs to how he acts when nobody is watching.
The cinematography also happens to play a significant role in the film. Cinematographer Robert Elswit's technical mastery allows for smooth camera motion, which enhances production value. Elswit, however, juxtaposes his smooth formalist movement with a more realist lighting approach. His use of warmer moonlight, which appears to be almost day-light balanced, provides a raw, more realistic picture and draws an audience closer to the characters. It also seems as though Elswit pushed the grain in the film stock, making it more prominent in the frame and subsequently creating a dirtier-looking image.
Both Cinematography and Directing are aided by what is an outstanding performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. His unique physicality while playing Daniel Plainview allows for what seems to be a well-thought-out, lived-in character. The collaboration between Anderson and Day-Lewis shines here with a script that lays the groundwork for a captivating performance from the acclaimed actor.
Finally, an element that I have not touched on yet is the score in There Will Be Blood. The film was composed by Radio-head lead guitarist Johnny Greenwood in what is one of his first theatrical scoring efforts. His knowledge and combination of classical scoring and modern rock allow for a unique score relevant to the time period portrayed and the modern-day. Johnny Greenwood creates tracks that are impactful as much as they are memorable and iconic.
There Will Be Blood by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is a perfect example of what a well-thought-out script can become when paired with the right creative eye and technical understanding. No element of There Will Be Blood could have been better; it is exciting and cinematic while remaining cautious and important. The themes the film explores are as old as time and will continue to remain relevant moving forward. Anderson's approach to the material allows for a movie that is both timeless and masterful in the way in which it presents themes and messages, asking the audience to think and to walk away with something they did not enter knowing. There Will Be Blood: 10/10.
The year is 1968, and Director George A. Romero and Producer Russ Streiner sit in the back of a New York City cab as they search for distributors for their recently completed film Night of The Living Dead. As the pair sit in the back of the taxi, they are informed via radio of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As the story goes, it was only by this coincidence that Romero had realized the strides he would be making in casting a black man as the lead in his film. While black actors had starred as leading roles in the past, they were always stories that revolved around the struggle that the characters faced being black; Night of the Living Dead would be one of the first to star a black man in a "traditional" role. While Night of the Living Dead as well as the late sixties can be remembered for their other numerous cinematic achievements, take, for example, the editing mastery in Bonnie and Clyde, which introduced styles from the French New wave to widely unfamiliar American audiences, or Night of the Living Dead's modernization of the horror genre and popularization of the zombie film, perhaps its most stunning achievement was that it paved the way for other actors and actresses of color to star in films which were not necessarily associated with the struggles of race.
Within the film itself, Night of the Living dead explores racial themes, albeit subtly. The movie by no means focuses on the struggles of African Americans and other people of color; however, underneath its exciting, horror surface, there are certainly themes and messaging which explore the ongoing oppression of minority groups in the United States. One of such scenes is the ending of the film when the seemingly heroic guard comes to rescue survivors from the previous Night's zombie attack; however, once they reach Duane Jones' character Ben, the guard shoots him square between his eyes.
The end to Night of the Living dead explores themes of racial prejudice that were prominent in 1968 and are still relevant in today's society. The end of the movie shows audiences the fear of black Americans who are too often hurt by the people who are supposed to protect them. With the signing of the civil rights act also taking place in 1968, it is no surprise that the note Night of the Living dead ends on is one of caution, showing comfortable white audiences that by no means is this the end of the road as it pertains to racial justice and equality.
To emphasize its point, Romero uses several cinematic techniques to highlight the issues commented on in the film. Primarily is the film's use of setting. The majority of the film is locked away in a remote cabin, surrounded by supernatural ghouls in the dead of night. It is here that all of the characters die except for Ben. Ben's death comes as the sun rises and the ghouls have left. The message of Ben's death in this seemingly safer setting is to show that in America, a black man's greatest fear doesn't come from supernatural ghouls and monsters but from the racial oppression they face daily. The blank stare given by Duane Jones at the end of the film symbolizes the numbness faced by minorities in this country after years of being treated as inferior.
George A. Romero is no stranger to inclusion and diversity in his films; his first two films of the Living Dead series starred black men, while his third, Day of the Dead, was lead by a strong female. His portrayal of minority groups in the picture served to normalize people of color's inclusion in leading roles whether he meant it to or not. In an article by the Washington Post, it is recounted how racism by no means was ended and in some ways may have been heightened by the multiple Civil Rights acts of the sixties; therefore, the film's commentary on continuing racial tensions in America, even after the civil rights act, was relevant and is still relevant to this day. Looking back at Romero's taxi ride in 1968, when he heard the news of Dr. King's passing and for the first time thought of the racial implications his film would have, we can begin to see how actively fighting racist stereotypes and breaking norms and standards can lead to great success as seen by the strides taken by African American actors in leading roles as well as the expansion of the horror genre after the release of Night of the Living Dead.
Kendi, Ibram X. “Analysis | The Civil Rights Act Was a Victory against Racism. But Racists Also Won.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1 Apr. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/07/02/the-civil-rights-act-was-a-victory-against-racism-but-racists-also-won/.
Punch, David A. “Night of the Living Dead: Horrors of Reality Manifested in the Flesh.” Medium, Medium, 2 Oct. 2018, medium.com/@DavidA.Punch/night-of-the-living-dead-horrors-of-reality-manifested-in-the-flesh-46722bb15e8a.
Ari Aster has carved a path in Hollywood, known for his over-the-top style, which aims to tell unsettling tales typically centering around strong characters and relationships. What I seem to find so fascinating about Aster personally is how I, as an audience member, can relate to and derive important lessons post-viewing from the stories he decides to tell despite their fantastic nature. Whether it be a Swedish murder cult, a supernatural, child-possessing demon, or a son who has a little too much admiration for his father, there is always something compelling about the films of Ari Aster. I attribute this to the director's unique ability to take important topics that we face in our everyday lives and apply them to sensationalist narratives that follow cinema's fundamental rule: a movie must entertain. In doing such, Aster can hide his film's themes beneath the surface and, therefore, help the audience apply these themes to their own lives subconsciously. To understand the point I am making further, I would like to examine Aster's first short, The Strange Thing About The Johnsons. The Strange Thing About The Johnsons by director Ari Aster aims to present a satirical depiction of rape and therefore create a scenario in which the audience feels a discomfort and subsequent understanding of rape victims, which can not be attained in a typical dramatic representation of the subject matter due to our inherent desensitization to it.
A Message Under The Surface
In the 2010 film Inception, Christopher Nolan explores a similar idea to how Aster thematically structures his films. In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio's character Cobb is tasked with planting an idea in the mind of Fischer, a young businessman, to dissolve his father's electric company. Cobb plans to accomplish his task by inserting himself into Fischer's dreams and convincing him that he indeed would like to dissolve the enterprise. The issue for Cobb, however, is that to plant the idea in Fischer's mind, he must make Fischer feel as though the idea was his own, to begin with. This is paramount to how Ari Aster develops the themes in his stories. By hiding his message under layers of entertainment, formal cinematic elements, and compelling narratives, he can convince the audience that after the initial viewing, the lessons derived from the picture were of their own creation and analysis, rather than that of the writer/director.
In fact, a study featured in the Harvard Gazette on September 4, 2019, penned by Harvard staff writer Peter Ruelle may be proof of this exact theory. The study was designed to explore the differences between information retained through active and passive learning. To test this, an experiment was created in which students participating in a 15 week Harvard physics course would be separated into two groups; one would listen to a traditionally polished lecture, and the other would participate in active learning exercises. Results showed that students "scored higher on tests following the active learning sessions." Interestingly, students were not aware of this change; in fact, "when the results were tallied, the authors found that students felt as if they learned more from the lectures."
If we apply the results of the experiment to one of the director's first films, Hereditary, we may see why Aster takes the approach he does. In Hereditary, Ari Aster tells the story of a family who struggles with the passing of their grandmother and the supernatural events which unfold in the wake of her funeral. This high-stakes, slow-burn horror flick is designed to teach its audience lessons related to familial relationships. However, Aster hides the film's themes under such a sensationalist narrative that audiences are required to work harder to find the message of the film themselves.
Aster uses this same technique in The Strange Thing About The Johnsons. His narrative, which focuses on a son who rapes his father, distracts the audience from the film's themes and messages, forcing them to actively seek it out. Therefore, the movie's message appears stronger and more likely to be imprinted into the audience's subconscious.
Desensitazation in Cinema
I decided to explore The Strange Thing About The Johnsons rather than one of Ari Aster's other films because it is his most clear example of the aforementioned techniques and is, therefore, a better case study to explore them. In this film, audiences are meant to explore the theme of sexual violence. The question then becomes, how does one make a film both relatable to the victims of such a crime while also making it educational to those who have not experienced this form of trauma? Ari Aster's answer is to take the topic and exaggerate the taboo elements it explores. The idea of incest in the state which it takes in the picture, a son who rapes his father, and not the other way around, is inherently discomforting and sensationalist. When researching child rape statistics, one will find the usual numbers: 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are victims of childhood sexual abuse; however, in my research, I was unable to find even one example of a child who had raped their parent, thereby proving its rarity.
I believe the reason Aster takes this approach to the narrative is our inherent desensitization to the topic. Sexual violence in media is heavily reported on. Unfortunately, this is due to societal issues which make rape and sexual assault such a big issue in our society to begin with; therefore, when I say that the media is oversaturated with stories relating to rape and sexual violence, I am not saying it is without good reason, in fact, I would go as far as to say that these cases are heavily underreported. However, the point stands that the depiction of these situations causes desensitization to the topics. A study reported on by Professor Peter Reuell of the University of California, Santa Barbara, which examines desensitization to sexual violence, explores similar theories. In the journal's abstract, Reuell describes an experiment in which participants were exposed to sexually violent media over the course of three days; he later writes that "emotional response [to sexually violent content], self-reported physiological arousal, and ratings of the extent to which the films were sexually violent all diminished with repeated film exposure. Three days following exposure to the final film, experimental participants expressed significantly less sympathy for domestic violence victims, and rated their injuries as less severe, than did a no-exposure comparison group."
Therefore, it is only by playing to the taboo nature of other topics, such as incest, that Aster can create a strong emotional response to sexual violence in his audience. Once again, he hides his central theme in more sensationalist narratives. However, if we look at The Strange Thing About The Johnsons more closely, it is apparent that all traditional elements of sexual violence are present. Take, for example, the film's climax, when Sidney Johnson's son tries to gaslight his father into believing that the events that are occurring are a result of Sidney's own mental perversion, rather than his son's unacceptable actions. These are the hidden messages about sexual assault which Aster places in the short. He takes sensationalist elements from his narrative and mixes them with real-life parallels, which are ever-present in sexual assault situations in a giant melting pot to create a story that is both entertaining in its shock value while also sneaking the lessons, themes, and messages in through our subconscious back door.
There is something to be learned from the way that Ari Aster thematically structures his narratives. He uses hyperbolized plots and characters to distract the audience from the messages and themes he conveys. It has been proven through several studies that this is the only way to, indeed, subvert an audience's desensitization and fatigue of the subject matter, which is being explored and successfully convey what the film is trying to say. It is essential to look at the example which Aster has set and understand its connections to modern cinema as-well-as the films of other students (The Strange Thing About The Johnsons was produced as Ari Aster's thesis for AFI) and how it sets the stage for the way a good storyteller experiments with themes and unique, exciting narrative.
Mullin, Charles & Linz, Daniel. (1995). Desensitization and Resensitization to Violence Against Women: Effects of Exposure to Sexually Violent Films on Judgments of Domestic Violence Victims. Journal of personality and social psychology. 69. 449-59. 10.1037//0022-35220.127.116.119.
Reuell, Peter. “Study Shows That Students Learn More When Taking Part in Classrooms That Employ Active-Learning Strategies.” Harvard Gazette, Harvard University, 5 Sept. 2019, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/09/study-shows-that-students-learn-more-when-taking-part-in-classrooms-that-employ-active-learning-strategies/.
It wasn't too long ago that I watched David Fincher's 2014 film Gone Girl, written by Gillian Flynn, for the first time. Needless to say, I was floored by the film's masterful presentation of an unusual murder mystery in which our lead, Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, becomes the prime suspect in the disappearance of his wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike. My initial love for the film boiled down to one thing; David Fincher, one of the best working filmmakers in Hollywood, deciding that upon completing his 2010 film The Social Network and his 2011 film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that he would take the perfectionist techniques which he had sharpened to a tee on his two previous projects, and apply it to what I would argue is his best thriller since Se7en.
I equate my first time watching Gone Girl to your first time riding a new roller coaster at an established theme park; that is to say, you know you are in for a treat due to the approved brand of the company, or in this case, the filmmaker, however, you still cannot truly anticipate the magnitude of the ride which you have buckled yourself in for. Not only are Gone Girl's twists some of the best in recent film history, but the quantity of them is truly astounding. That is what made me fall in love with the movie. However, as my therapist says, being in love is only half the battle; you are looking to build a relationship. It is my relationship with Gone Girl which has kept me invested after several viewings.
My "relationship" with Gone Girl began in the summer of 2020. I, along with a few filmmaker friends of mine, decided to escape the pandemic by renting a house in Lake Arrowhead, California, quarantining together, and of course, watching as many movies as possible. Many of these screenings turned into discussions that would extend beyond that night's particular film. I recall one of these nights; our conversation lead us to talk about Gone Girl.
Now, an important note, there were six of us staying in this house, three of which were men, and three of which were women. Our conversation quickly transitioned to the film's morality, a clear consensus that no one character was particularly a "Good Guy." However, through this conversation, I discovered a fascinating correlation that I hadn't considered prior. It seemed as though the women in the room leaned more towards siding with Amy's character. To me, this was shocking; Amy is psychotic, to say the least; however, my friends persisted, explaining to me that Nick's abusive behavior justified Amy's actions throughout the film.
It quickly became apparent that our different experiences, influenced by our gender, caused us to view the movie in drastically different ways. Now, by this, I do not mean a minor change in perspective from person to person; I mean that if either group were to explain the film to a third party, there would be a solid chance that the audience would conclude that we were describing two completely different films.
I never experienced a situation such as this related to cinema before and found it so fascinating that it solidified Gone Girl as my favorite thriller of all time. I was fascinated by its ability to purposefully polarize its audience. While movies I had seen in the past had successfully portrayed different perspectives, I had never seen a film that showed different perspectives to only some of its audience while simultaneously displaying an entirely different perspective, and consequently message, to another entirely different portion of the audience.
To explore this concept further and gain a deeper understanding of the film and what it may be trying to warn those who understand both sides of its argument, I will be writing two reviews, one which would theoretically be placed in Cosmopolitan Magazine, targeted to a mostly female audience, and a second, to be hypothetically placed in GQ Magazine, targeting a mostly male audience.
I apologize in advance for my Cosmopolitan review as I am not a woman and will never fully understand the perspective; however, I will do my best to accurately portray a review targeted at a female audience.
Gone Girl: David Fincher's Masterpiece (GQ Review)
David Fincher's 2014 film Gone Girl is the definition of perfect filmmaking and a testament to how far cinema can go to tell exciting and compelling stories. The film stars Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne and Rosamund Pike as his psychopathic wife, Amy. Gone Girl follows Nick's discovery of his wife's disappearance on their fifth wedding anniversary as-well-as the ensuing media scandal and police investigation. As the story progresses, we learn that Amy has framed Nick for her murder, leaving him to be the prime suspect of both the media and the police. At this point in the film, we get what may be David Fincher's most masterful montage to date in the form of Rosamund Pike's Cool Girl monologue. In this sequence, Fincher explores the exact lengths to which Amy goes to frame her husband for her disappearance. At this point in the film, we see Fincher form what may be one of cinema's scariest villains of all time.
Gone Girl is a roller coaster from beginning to end with constant twists and turns as-well-as compelling characters and brilliant performances from the likes of Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. What is truly remarkable about the picture is just how much it shouldn't work. Nobody in this film is likable, save for maybe Nick's sister. However, it is our innate understanding of right and wrong that Fincher toys with; while Nick may not be a fantastic person, it is an obvious fact that he shouldn't go to jail for the disappearance of his wife. This gives us, as an audience, an unlikely protagonist to be rooting for.
This coupled with masterful visual storytelling, take, for example, the moments of setup-payoff utilized in the Cool Girl monologue, is what makes Gone Girl not only an emotional roller coaster but also an example of perfect filmmaking. Amy's villain creates a terrifying atmosphere and makes Gone Girl one of the scariest films of the 21st century for one key reason: everything that happens in the movie is something that could happen to you.
Gone Girl: ★★★★★
Gone GIrl: A Look At The Cool Girl (Cosmopolitan Review)
David Fincher's 2014 film Gone Girl, written by Gillian Flynn, is a testament to cinema's power as a tool to display unique perspectives on everyday issues in grandiose, exaggerated ways. The film stars Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne, a desperate wife trying to save, albeit unsuccessfully, a failing marriage with her abusive husband, Nick. The movie is a cinematic representation of a women's unfortunate place in society due to centuries of oppression at the hands of men and the fantasy of liberation from the cycle, which will hopefully one day be a reality. It is, however, how the film conveys this message to its audience, both male and female, that solidifies it as both David Fincher and Gillian Flynn's definitive masterpiece.
The film opens to the Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary. Nick, unsuspecting, starts his day driving to the bar which his sister and him both own and operate. The first 45 minutes of the film are told largely through Nick's perspective and subsequently a strong male gaze. We see him deal with the disappearance and possible murder of his wife. After reporting to the police, a large-scale investigation occurs in which Amy's parents fund the "Find Amazing Amy" movement. As we move through the first act, it becomes increasingly apparent to both Nick and the audience that Amy has framed him for her murder. This part of the story reaches its climax when Nick is arrested by law enforcement for the disappearance of his wife.
At this point in the film, Fincher and Flynn transport us, masterfully, I might add, to Amy's perspective. We learn that Nick was not the perfect husband he viewed himself as; he was emotionally manipulative and physically abusive; he was a cheat and a liar and dragged Rosamund Pike's character through the wringer over the course of their marriage. At this point, the audience no longer suffers from the clouded perspective influenced by the male gaze. We begin to understand Rosamund Pike's frustration with her marriage, being treated as an object by Nick in the same way that she was treated as an object by her parents as a child with the book series Amazing Amy. Influenced by a society where a woman is never enough, Amy becomes "Cool Girl: The Girl of Nick's Dreams."
The film directly state's to its audience Amy's need to be wanted by a man and thereby comments on the way which society raises girls to be an object for men and causes them to live by their own, internal male gaze.
The midpoint of the movie also services to provide a fantasy of liberation from this objectification. Amy, no longer bound to society's high standards, can live freely and enjoy herself rather than always serving a man. And that is ultimately the message of this film. It is a commentary on the destructive nature of the male gaze and the importance of liberation from an oppressive past. It is a movie that strives to explain the importance of gender equality, providing perspective to male and female audiences alike.
Gone Girl: ★★★★★
Here is what I notice looking at these independent reviews, and granted, I wrote both of them; however, I did base my writing off research into the audiences of both GQ and Cosmopolitan, my primary source being an article from Penn State. The GQ article exhibits a strong focus on the film's twists and turns and ups and downs, while the Cosmopolitan article exhibits a stronger focus on the film's message and exploration of the male gaze. I also notice that the male article assumes that all audiences will side with Nick when that is objectively not the case. It is this ignorance that I believe is the underlying commentary of Gone Girl. A man will never truly understand what it is like to be a woman who grows up in today's American society simply because they have never been subjected to the male gaze on the same level as a woman and therefore cannot relate to the societal pressure for women to please men in society. What makes me truly love this movie is that its message is not derived from viewing the film but from the subsequent conversations surrounding it. I would never have come to the conclusion I have and the more profound understanding of what the film is saying about being a woman in this country without first talking to my female friends. It highlights the comfort that men are able to feel, unaware of what women put up with, whether it is forms of sexual assault, societal pressure to please men, or simply not being as respected as their male counterparts.
Gone Girl: ★★★★★
As I look back over the history of film, I become increasingly grateful that as an aspiring filmmaker, I grew up in the 2010s. Primarily, this is because the last decade has been amazing for movies. I am so fortunate to have grown up watching masters such as David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Christopher Nolan make some of the best movies of their careers while also witnessing the aspiring careers of many new directors such as The Safdie Brothers, Robert Eggers, and Greta Gerwig. However, of the last decade, 2019 has stood out as the year most saturated with incredible movies. Of those movies, my favorite has to be Ari Aster's Swedish folklore-inspired horror film Midsommar.
I have noticed, however, that a majority of people walk away from this movie, both confused and disappointed, most often citing "lack of a point" as the reason they disliked the movie. These comments are disheartening to me. Midsommar is a confusing film; however, it does not lack substance; in fact, the film is quite possibly one of the best representations of trauma and manipulation I have ever seen; only rivaled by Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master.
Midsommar by Ari Aster is a Swedish folklore-inspired horror film starring Florence Pugh as Dani, a young graduate student dealing with the gruesome death of both her parents and sister. When Dani's boyfriend, Christian, decides to go to Sweden to study traditional European Midsommar festivals with a small group of classmates, Dani decides to join. The majority of the movie focuses on the questionable and violent rituals of the Hårga people. Slowly, Dani's friends are picked off one by one until the film's third act, when Dani becomes the "Mayqueen" and is forced to decide whether or not she should sacrifice her cheating boyfriend. The film ends with the ceremonial burning of Christian, Dani's friends, and 4 Hårga members. A small grin is carved over Dani's face, implying that she has found both a new family with the Hårgas and successfully overcome her parents' death.
Let's start with the most fundamental aspect of my argument: why? Why did I watch the movie? What is the point? As many viewers may notice upon initial viewing, Midsommar is the exaggerated representation of a break-up, exploring the contrast in Dani's want to stay with Christian and juxtaposing it against her need to leave him. We explore how Christian handles their relationship in the wake of a traumatic event. We see Dani's struggle as she stretches herself thin for Christians comfort. We ultimately see her decision: to leave him, burning him in a raging fire to signify her complete removal from their relationship.
However, on a deeper level, the film is about manipulation. Of course, this naturally presents itself in Dani and Christian's relationship; however, more notably throughout the film, we see manipulation manifested through the Hårga's indoctrination of Dani. Elements of indoctrination and manipulation can only be observed after a second viewing. We start to see signs that the group was only brought to Sweden for sacrificial purposes or that Dani becoming the Hårga's Mayqueen may not have been such a coincidence.
And this is what leads me to the point of Midsommar. The film is about caution; it is examining our susceptibility to dangerous situations in times of grief. The Hårga's could even be symbolic of a new, more toxic, relationship for Dani. The film warns us to be careful, especially when we are emotionally vulnerable.
THe Message Presented tHrough Cinematic Elements
And this is where I explain why Midsommar is not only one of the best movies of 2019 but also one of the best films of all time. Many people could write Midsommar; however, bringing it to screen takes an absolute mastery of all aspects of cinema. To relay its message correctly, the film is tasked with bringing the audience into Dani's shoes as much as possible; our experience visiting the Hårga's for the first time should mirror Dani's. Cinematic elements are used to emphasize the beauty of Hårga and therefore show us, first hand, the danger posed when someone unsuspecting comes into contact with a manipulative person and/or community.
Director of Photography, Pawel Pogorzelski, was brought onto the project as a frequent collaborator of Ari Aster. He understood the importance of cinematography in the project as it would be the audience's first interaction with the Hårga. Pogorzelski faced several challenges while filming. Most of the picture is shot in wide daytime exterior shots, which is hard to light without equipment peaking into the frame for those who don't know. Some of the setups which he had to come up with were borderline genius and deserve to be analyzed all on their own. However, for this post, I'd like to focus on Pogorzelski's camera selection.
Before principal photography began, the team did three specific camera tests. They focused on how light interacted with the Arri Alexa's censors, traditional 35mm analog stock, and the Panavision DXL2, which uses a RED Monstro sensor. Pogorzelski decided to go with the DXL2 due to its handling of the lighting conditions that would be present in the open fields of Hungary, where the film would be shot. This was a departure from the use of Alexa on Aster's freshman film Hereditary.
One of the main advantages of the DXL2 is that it is a large-format camera, meaning that the sensor is 65mm rather than 35mm. This has one significant impact on the final image and informs the cinematographer's lens selection throughout the film. This is because a larger sensor is capable of capturing more. Special lenses are engineered to make use of the full sensor size. Because the sensor can capture more, lenses will present a wider field of view in the final image. For example, a 50mm lens on the DXL2 has an equivalent field of view as a 25mm lens on traditional 35mm cameras. However, the advantage to a large format is that the image will have the same properties as a 50mm lens, such as more compressed features.
Pogorzelski uses these properties to his advantage, shooting the beginning of the film in a traditional 35mm format and transitioning to a wider large format camera when Dani and her classmates arrive in Hårga for the first time. This effectively "opens up" the world and gives the charachters some room to breathe. The effect is used to show the immediate difference to Dani, presenting Hårga as a potential place for Dani to improve and overcome her family trauma.
Pogorzelski also uses this camera, which has a large dynamic range (14+ stops), to overexpose the image by one stop giving a brighter, more welcoming feel and giving the atmosphere of the Hårga commune a warm and inviting quality.
Another cinematic element used masterfully throughout the film is Ari Aster's directing. The aspects of Aster's directing I will focus on primarily are his shot choice and blocking; both used brilliantly to further immerse us in the world and atmosphere of the Hårgas.
As I mentioned earlier, a fair amount of the film is shot in lengthy, wide, moving masters. Aster opts to hold on shots rather than cutaway, keeping much of the world in frame. We see several scenes played out in long, wide camera angles; Dani and Christians picnic while the Hårga's nordic conga line dances in the background immediately comes to mind as an example. I forget who said it, but essentially, a cut is a cheat; it is fake emotion; the longer you can hold on a single shot, the more real the emotion becomes. Naturally, sometimes the cheat, the fake, is the better option; however, if you can successfully hold on a long shot, the emotion comes across as more natural, the audience believes it more. Therefore, by holding on shots for longer, Aster helps the audience believe both in the Hårga and Dani's struggle throughout the film.
Aster also uses blocking to enhance the realism of the story and the emotion. Throughout many of the film's long shots, various background actions occur from different members of the Hårga, implying a larger world and culture than that which is commented on in the film. For example, in the scene where Christian asks his friend Pele whether or not he can do his thesis paper on the Hårga, we can see several made-up rituals occur in the background. A small group of Hårgan women walks backward, picking flowers out of the ground, another group of individuals chop a wooden goat in half after chanting a short song in a foreign language, we see another group conducting a yoga-like ritual elsewhere in the background, we see men and women weaving, a group standing around a small firepit, the list goes on. Focusing on background action allows Ari Aster to enhance the realism of the emotion in his story, giving us more empathy for Dani and a deeper understanding of why she makes the decisions that she does.
Midsommar, by Ari Aster, warns its audience of falling victim to toxicity in times of grief. He uses many traditional aspects of cinema in new and innovative ways to further convey his story's emotion and emphasize the message of the film. It is through the masterful telling of a fundamentally simple story that I see Midsommar as one of the best films of all time. It is a story that would not work in any other medium. It is a story that is so simple that to be compelling, it needed to be made into the perfect film.
What about my favorite movie makes it my favorite? What is it that makes this movie so special and important to me and simply just another drop in the bucket to somebody else?
I’ve thought about this question for a long time. A lot of my free time is spent thinking about my personal theories about cinema and the psychology behind it. Why do some things work and others do not? It is spent looking at masterpieces such as Come and See, The Graduate, or The Good The Bad and The Ugly, and not only analyzing what works but why it works so well.
Naturally, at the center of my analysis is the central question: what makes people like a movie so much, what about that movie speaks to their identity in a way that keeps them coming back. It wasn’t until today that i feel the answer has finally struck me.
To explain my theory I’d like to use my favorite film, Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster epic Goodfellas. The film centers around the life of Henry Hill, an Italian American gangster in New York in the mid-1900’s. The film chronicles his life alongside his best friends Jimmy Conway and Tommy Devito. Together, they live a glamorous life in the Mafia, that is until they start getting sloppy, and their inevitable demise arrives.
Goodfellas displays a mastery in every aspect of cinema, from the writing, to the acting, to the direction. However, a lot of movies do that, why is this movie my favorite?
Perhaps its the subject matter that makes this movie my favorite. However, there is nothing about a gangster’s life in the mafia that specifically relates to my experience.
However, there is something about the movie that I can identifiably say speaks to me. I can identify with the lifestyle portrayed in the film. There are two main fantasies of mine that the film relates to.
The first is my desire to be on top. Henry’s goal for the whole film is to be the top of the food-chain, which is why he decides to become a gangster in the first place, to him, “being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.” Watching him achieve this goal throughout the film is what spoke to me and my fantasy as a viewer.
Second, the film shows strong friendships between the three main characters. The relationship between these characters was something I as a viewer envied.
I feel that a movie, in order to be somebody’s favorite needs to speak to what the viewer wants. I further stress my point looking further at other films which are my favorites. For example, Bonnie and Clyde speaks to the kind of romantic relationship I want, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood speaks to the career I want.
Movies give us the things that we can’t have and therefore by speaking to these fantasies, these movies become our favorites, and can further inform the types of people we become. Our favorite movies define the type of people we want to be.