Movie Reviews: “Citizen Kane” and the Cinematography of the Non-spectacular

Fantastic cinematography in motion pictures is often thought of as that which captures gorgeous sweeping landscapes, a myriad of perfectly combined colors and light, and cleanly edited scenes; yet, Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) is critically acclaimed particularly for its cinematography, writing, and editing – in fact, it was nominated for the Academy Award in all three categories but only ended up winning the award for its writing – still, the film does not contain any of the three characteristics of “fantastic cinematography”. As a matter of fact, Citizen Kane‘s cinematography plays by its own rules and is considered revolutionary for the period of its release; that feature which stands out (ironically) is the focus on the non-spectacular, the mundane, and the seemingly erroneous.

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The film’s opening is something out of a nightmare and it sets the tone for the rest of the story; soon, we are asked to embark on the same quest as the characters to find out more about the subject of interest, Charles Foster Kane, and the last word he uttered before his death: “Rosebud”. The aforementioned principle characters are reporters who produced a newsreel summarizing Kane’s life story, yet they are intrigued to find out more about “Rosebud” – an elusive secret which, they believe, will help them unlock the mysterious side of Kane.

Jerry Thompson, one of the reporters, is the one we accompany throughout this journey; he gets hustled from one person who was in Kane’s life to the next, always about to unlock the secret yet never really getting close to an answer – only more questions reveal themselves. As Todd McGowan explains in his work, “Looking for the Gaze: Lacanian Film Theory and Its Vicissitudes” (2003):

The film repeatedly brings the spectator close to an encounter with this object, but each time the encounter is waylaid. We see different accounts of Kane’s life, and each account adds elements to the total picture. The film explores multiple perspectives, but none can render the object visible. (35)

As the stories he is told are revealed through flashbacks, the cinematography truly starts making an impact.

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The above scene from Kane’s childhood shows him through a window, playing in the snow as his parents discuss something quite important about his future. In the backdrop of the serious discussion we hear the sounds of Kane’s joyful laughter and  see him playing excitedly in the snow; our focus is constantly torn between the adults deciding Kane’s fate – which will set the entire story in motion – and the oblivious child, completely stealing the scene away. The line between the spectacular and the non-spectacular becomes blurred.

This becomes a feature of the film: interruption. In real life, when two people are talking over each other it may seem awkward or out of place; Citizen Kane presents that non-spectacular aspect as quite ordinary: in many of the scenes, the characters talk over each other as if that were the norm. As if some subtext is purposely hidden behind such messy dialogue. The same kind of interruption is noticed visually: the way the shadow interrupts the light and vice versa; it becomes – once again – unclear what should be the focus on. All the while, all the cinematic shots are sharply focused; that is the only certainty in and about the film.

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Another thing is Kane’s relationship to windows; whether he’s behind them, in front of them, seen from them, leaning on them, etc…there seems to be some kind of symbiotic relationship between them. Kane ran a newspaper, The New York Inquirer; it could be said that newspapers are the windows which we can see the news or the facts through.

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Depending on the perspective (both figuratively and literally), Kane could be a window himself, merely seen through a window, reflected through a window, or dependent on a window.

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Another shot where Kane stands in front of a window, looking at his career (metaphorically speaking).

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Once again, during his adulthood, Kane’s closest friend, Jed Lelland, and Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s business manager, discuss something quite important about the future of his career as Kane’s reflection bounces off a window.

Elements which tend to be discarded as merely props are shown particular care and attention in the construction of scenes. Sometimes, the shift may be removed from the characters and more to the characters objects – their “things”. An important theme in Citizen Kane is materiality and materialism.

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This is the reflection of Susan Alexander, Kane’s second wife, in her mirror as she is talking to Kane; the camera also focuses on her pictures and toiletries rather than focusing on Kane himself as he is humoring her.

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This is another scene where Kane and Alexander are arguing, yet the camera is also sharply focused on the doll (seen left). Another line which gets blurred here is the subject and object, whereas the subjects of both scenes – Alexander and Kane – become objects, and the various physical objects become the subjects. That reminds us of the importance of objects, which in turn reminds us of their inevitable unimportance, as a pivotal theme of the film.

Finally, one of the last aspects of the cinematography I would like to mention examples of is distance and the manipulation of space. The film often showcases large settings with either objects in the background or total emptiness; the characters are also put in distance from each other, and the camera focuses on those who are distanced, as well as those in proximity, all the while never losing focus on the space between them.

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This is a low-angle shot of Lelland and Kane speaking together. The distance put between them is actually great yet the angle does not put much emphasis on that in this case.

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This is another example of Kane (front left), Lelland (mid right), and Bernstein (in the far back) who are at considerable distance from each other, yet all are shown in the scene.

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This particular setting shows Alexander and Kane at a great distance from each other, to the extent that they often miss what the other is saying considering the great space and the echo which is produced whenever one of them speaks. This physical distance signifies their changing relationship.

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In this scene, Alexander walks away from Kane leaving him; however, the focus is on the spectacular – the intricate design of the arch, which steals away the show from Alexander walking out, making her (the subject) non-spectacular. This is a noticeable battle between cinematography and story, which is actually quite generative rather than destructive; it aids in emphasizing the theme of materialism and its important unimportance.

Citizen Kane is a work which blurs several clearly drawn lines purposely to reveal that things are not always certain and set in stone. We can remain unsure, and that is okay. What should be focused on is not always what we want to focus on; furthermore, the questions we ask can lead to further questions, which are more generative than any possible answers. The act of questioning itself is greater than answering because certainty can be detrimental and make us prone to vulnerability; questioning is non-spectacular and that, in itself, is quite spectacular. Everything and nothing both really matter.

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Letters: “Let Go”

Inspired by the Korean series Age of Youth – 청춘시대.

Dear …,

One day you will drown and will come to accept it.

01

You will lie still halfway between the land and the bottom of the waters. Breathing becomes effortless after you’ve fought to reach the surface in vain; all you can do is lie still and accept the position you’ve been placed in. You are alone. No one willingly settles in that place between the surface and the water.

You are a fool. You cease to wonder. You cease to wonder for a long time.

A hand reaches to grab you.

02

Someone is there. But that someone is not trying to pull you up, nor bring you down. That someone is just there. Stuck in the same position you are in. However, that person cannot seem to let go. That person gradually weighs you down.

03

Not everyone has the same kind of acceptance you possess; not everyone can maintain that position between the land and the sea for too long. Some people need to hold on to others for strength, but how can you provide someone that very same strength which you are lacking?

04

You begin to wonder again, but this time your thoughts are different. Contact has been established and that has shifted your thoughts, which are not shrouded in loneliness anymore. Someone else’s survival is contingent upon your stillness. You ought to be content, for now you are serving a purpose in your position…right?

Though, is it in your place to save someone else when you cannot save yourself?

Still not wanting to let go, you hesitate.

05

Your mind wanders to that place it dared not tread upon: the reason to why you are stuck in the first place. You have painful memories of what occurred on the land and what pushed you to jump in the waters.

You remember how you regretted that decision, you remember fighting your way back to the land, you remember all the “what ifs” which went through your mind the beginning of your settling days, and you remember the day you stopped wondering – the day you stopped believing.

You remember everything, and that is why you have to let go.

06

You wonder as you gaze upon the face of that person who looked up to you, who depended on you for survival, who is now drowning so you could save yourself…you wonder what that person is thinking. You probably are both wondering what the other is thinking.

07

It does not matter. Your decision is made and you have decided to give it one more chance. Sometimes, you have to save yourself before saving others. You have learned that the hard way.

As you return to the land, you realize that the one holding you back is no one but yourself.

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Your past self may have drowned, but you are here. You should be here. You just never gave yourself that chance. It is time to do that now; you are on land so keep walking and never think of yourself as a fool again. Let go and move on.

Sincerely,

 

Reaction: Why Orange’s New Ad Promotes Capitalist Exploitation

Orange, the multinational telecommunications company which has bought out and re-branded Egypt’s Mobinil earlier this year, came out with an ‘attractive’ advertisement scheme to lure the contemporary social media/networking consumerists users; the challenge the company issued was to watch this new ad and choose a song which would go along with it. Many have partook in the challenge, while others lauded their efforts in producing some hilarious results (myself included, guilty as charged). Yet, I couldn’t believe it took me a few times of viewing to avert my gaze from the dancers performing – frankly – botched up, ridiculous moves to notice the backdrop of the scenes used in filming the ad. Call me a crazy communist conspiracy theorist, but if these backgrounds don’t show labor exploitation, concealment, and/or mass consumption then I don’t know how more obvious could it get.

1-Laundromat:

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Laundromats represent a bleak reality of capitalist exploitation; yes, this service is not very common in Egypt (where many households may have their own washing machine or opt for manually washing the household’s clothes at one’s own home) but in the US, the service is often associated with disadvantaged communities. To insure your clothes are washed and dried, you have to wait next to the machines at the laundromat so nobody would steal your clothes or take them out, tossing them away so they would load their own clothes first.

Laundromats take away from individuals time, forcing them to pay in return for taking away their time! Maybe it is worth it for the sake of having clean clothes, one may argue; however, we have to consider the conditions which led to the rise of laundromats in the first place and how they become integrated in the fabric of capitalist exploitation.

2-Farm (Industrial Livestock Production):

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In the background, there’s a plethora of ducks (as far as I can see) in a run-down room. Of course, this seems like a farm involved in mass-producing ducks; I’m assuming chickens weren’t sexy enough for this ad, and in Egypt we eat ducks too so it’s “no big deal”. There are many resources to check out for horror stories – both on animal cruelty as well as the monopoly on these kinds of industries which have alienated and exploited farmers – such as movies like Food, Inc., Super Size Me, and Fast Food Nation. Mass-producing livestock is preferable for promoting fast food consumption and providing the market with supply in the shortest amount of time possible.

3-Textile Factory:factory.jpg

Do not even get me started on how factories reflect a form of capitalist exploitation! It all started with the Industrial Revolution (okay, probably before that)…when factory owners decided to think of people as hired labor who should produce as much output and make as much money as they can for the owners, what do they get in return? Well, a wage (not even a stable salary) which does not match the hours, effort, nor skill they have put in for their work. Oh, also if they tried to unionize in order to claim their rights, they would be put through hell. Apparently in Egypt, they would get arrested too, but I digress…

The irony of the image from the Orange ad is spot on, really: just look at the flamboyantly dressed bourgeois kids dancing around the proletariat masses who are probably producing the very same clothes the former are wearing. I think I just made myself cringe.

4-Warehouse:

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Finally, I am left looking at a symbol for neo-liberalism and global market: the warehouse. Warehouses represent trade, judging by these containers in the background I’m assuming global trade since these products will be, most likely, trans-nationally shipped. Global markets conceal tragic realities, such as the horrors of outsourcing, child/slave labor, and migrant workers’ exploitation.

While these H&M jeans may be making your butt look cute as hell, don’t forget that a young child missed out on a chance for education and severed his/her fingers in a Myanmar sweatshop for the sake of your Highness’s butt (yeah, I went there)!

“So what the heck do you want?!”

What do I want? Okay, I’ll go ahead and say it: yes, capitalist reality is too pervasive and we cannot easily escape it, but opening up our minds, being more perceptive, and not giving in too mindless consumerism every time we see a ‘viral’ social media campaign can count as a first step.

In early 2016, BDS’s boycott campaign against Orange in Israel may have played a role in the company’s end of business in Israel; despite the CEO’s claims that the decision had nothing to do with the boycott, it still leaves us lingering thoughts on BDS’s stance against the exploitative multinational, and it pushes me to look more critically at their ad in Egypt.

I had to stop and asking myself “why” after seeing bourgeois youth dancing with a laundromat, a farm, a factory, and a warehouse in the backdrop. It should make more people wonder as well…

Movie Reviews: Class and Habitus in “Café Society”

What I like about Woody Allen’s films is that I know beforehand that Allen will bombard me with so many ideas, which I will later spend time slowly deconstructing. Indeed, not only does Allen pack so many ideas in his latest film Café Society, he also complements those with a beautiful cinematography which makes the movie so irresistible that one could hardly blink while watching.

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Image Source

I do not claim to have seen that many Woody Allen movies (in fact, there’s still so many more I’d like to watch), but Allen is the type of director who trademarks his movies with his personal style; similar directors include, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino…(apologies for the generic, mainstream names – all I could think of now). All that is well and fine (and quite awesome too), but what is it about Café Society which makes it particularly fascinating?

Pierre Bourdieu is a prominent French sociologist who extensively studied class down to its core; he mainly classified class into two components: how it is presented physically and practiced mentally. Now Bourdieu is not the easiest person to understand; he is definitely up there in, what I dub complex academics as, the ‘Ultimate Confusion League’ with Michel Foucault, Karl Marx, and many others. However, his works keep being cited in all other works relating to class, class performance, etc…so he definitely monopolizes the authority there.

Café Society prominently tackles the issue of class, in relation to Bourdieu’s work. Habitus, as a term, has existed for a while but it was Bourdieu who popularized the term’s usage in the field of sociology. It is indeed an elusive term, but it can simply means practices which take part of the social nature in order to present the self [1]. It is noticeable that characters are distinguishable by their class as well as habitus. In the beginning, Bobby [Jesse Eisenberg] is an awkward New-Yorker trying to make it in LA. He appears to be so out of place, that in one scene this is physically prominent: at a lavish party, everyone around Bobby is dressed in beige as he wears a drab brown suit. Such a, seemingly, subtle detail could consist as a practice of habitus.

Later, when Bobby joins the ranks of the elite, he is seen to be at ease with navigating the field around him. Yet, despite that ease, something tugs at him – a feeling that he does not truly belong – and that surfaces as soon as he his past comes back haunting him. Bobby seems puzzled how people are able to carry themselves effortlessly in this café society they had constructed around them. Everything seems so banal. Once he’d had a taste of his true passion, he, probably, ponders how he would be able to return to that life…

It is intriguing to enter this movie in a little cinema called ‘Zawya’, tucked in the depths of Cairo’s Downtown allies, then come out and face the open, securitized streets which constitute an entirely different field on their own. Furthermore, the people who attend ‘Zawya’ are in the ranks of a different class and habitus than those who attend its adjoining neighbor, ‘Odeon’ – showcasing popular and blockbuster movies, rather than its former counterpart which typically shows independent, ‘indie’, or foreign films. It’s an unusual encounter between high and popular culture in an intriguing place of proximity.

Perhaps life solely constitutes of different fields which we are supposed to not only navigate but adapt to them depending on where we were; but, how can we be the same people after going through all these fields? How can we easily morph and change our habitus, accordingly, yet still come out sane, one way or another…? How can we play the class game without being crushed under class disparities?

[1] Calhoun, Craig, and Pierre Bourdieu. Contemporary Sociological Theory, edited by Craig Calhoun, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff, and Indermohan Virk, 259-305. 2nd ed. New Jersey: Wiley Blackwell, 2007.

Confessions: No Reason to Smile on World Smile Day

It has been almost five days since Mohanad Ehab passed away, yet that is just the tip of a mountain founded upon numerous piled up misfortunes we are compelled to helplessly stare at in misery.

Living in Egypt is like being situated between an abyss with a strong pulling force on one side and a black hole on the other; despite the physical impossibility of what I’m describing, you are constantly tossed around and sucked into both with each single unfortunate event taking place – and of those, there are plenty.

Shortly before Mohanad’s tragic death, there were those unlucky ones who spent their life savings to leave Egypt or send their children away for better opportunities using the most risky and exploitative, yet promising, scheme: migrant boats. These infamous boats are known to be overcrowded with people hoping to be delivered to the shores of Italy, Greece, Cyprus, etc…In a tragic turn of events, these boats drowned; it was actually quite common for that to happen, however this time it was widely discussed because of the media’s and government’s outrageous responses. The two entities had claimed this to be “illegal migration”, and so the rhetoric surrounding the tragic incidents turned into open hatred against those who died in pursuit of escaping the place between the abyss and black hole which they were caught in. In fact, in an embarrassingly staged show our glorious leader attempted to convince us that Egypt’s in great condition and there is no reason to leave; he had unexpectedly passed by a random “poor” household to join the family members for a wonderfully lavish breakfast.

Meanwhile, the “honorable citizens” believed that those who died committed suicide and were responsible for their own death; they further claimed that if they had that money why could they not open up their own business or undertake a prolific project…These kinds of accusations, though horrifying from an outsider’s perspective, are no longer shocking to those of us who live here and have become desensitized after witnessing the excessive cruelty, selfishness, and emotional abuse of those “honorable citizens”. As many of the unidentified drowned bodies rot, the government had to bury them – also burying along any hope for people who wholeheartedly believed in the migrant boats’ scheme as a last resort.

Mohanad’s is another case; he was a young photographer interested in documenting the events of the Revolution and had been sent to jail twice. The second time he had suffered from a severe illness while incarcerated, and when he was let go he belatedly discovered it was an advanced stage of leukemia. Prisons in Egypt are known to have horrible/non-existent healthcare; many organizations are keen to document such incompetence as well as transgressions. Mohanad was sent to the US for treatment, and despite the vigorous treatment he had underwent he passed away on the 3rd of October, 2016. Sorry, he did not pass away; he was murdered. Deliberately denying a prisoner adequate healthcare is murder.

Why is Mohanad’s death so pivotal? His death killed us all while we were alive; Mohanad’s death symbolized the death of youth and young people in this country. We are at an age where our lives are supposedly just starting; we’re supposed to receive our degrees and throw our graduation caps in the air, not receive beatings from thugs and censure words from police officers. We’re supposed to attend our friends’ weddings and dance with them, not bury them in the ground and cry at their funerals. We’re supposed to attend street festivals and mingle with the crowds, not wait ages for security permits to host such events only to have them canceled at the last minute. We’re supposed to be doing whatever we can to help rebuild our country after the turbulence it has gone through, not be questioned by officials and security forces whenever we try to do our jobs in public spaces.

Once again, the “honorable citizens” did not fail to taint Mohanad’s image, claiming he was a thug, terrorist, drunkard, etc…All kinds of insults were hurled at him while his funeral was taking place. It was a competition to see who would have the most dirt on him, yet all those who participated did not know him at all. Scrolling through Mohanad’s profile, I found myself tearing up whenever I read his statuses, comments to his friends, his friends’ replies to him…I could see Mohanad in me and in all of my friends and all other young people. It hurt so much and after I made that realization, I could never look at any of his pictures, view any of his videos, or like or share anything about him because it hurt my soul. Accidentally, I followed his account; perhaps it was a sign and I was supposed to be strong and stop avoiding Mohanad’s elusive memory. All the posts from his friends which flooded his timeline endeavored to counteract the damage made by the “honorable citizens”.

But it didn’t matter…we’re still in mourning and so we cannot reduce ourselves to their level. We have been in mourning for a very long time; it has become a perpetual mourning of sorts which is a state that has proven impossible to get rid of. We could simply remember Mohanad with good memories, despite how difficult it is to get out of our mourning habit. I did not personally know Mohanad, but I dreamed of him the night after he died. I was reassured that he would be fine now. Indeed he would, Mohanad is in a much better place than we all are now; Mohanad is now far away from that hopeless place which is situated between the abyss and the black hole.

So on World Smile Day (as Facebook claims it is) I find myself unable to smile. But Mohanad can smile on my behalf.

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Image taken from Mohanad’s Facebook profile.

 

Reading Diary: The Professor (Part 1)

Welcome to the first part of The Professor reading diary through which I will include highlights from my readings of the book and, briefly, reflect upon them or react to them.

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First, we’re introduced to the narrator and main character, William Crimsworth (whom I’ll refer to as Will from now on), who is orphaned and living with one of his uncles since childhood. He doesn’t seem to know what he wants but he knows what he doesn’t want: he doesn’t want to become a clergyman and marry one of his cousins. Therefore he sets out to become a tradesman, like his father was, and his brother is. He would first have to go through an apprenticeship under Lord Tynedale (Lord T.), brought to him through the help of his brother Edward.

Traveling to Edward’s house, seeing how wealthy he is, and how beautiful and rich his wife is, Will feels awkward around that atmosphere. He chooses to stay at an inn rather than at his brother’s house, besides it was closer to his workplace anyway. When he meets Lord T., he discovers how cold and impersonal his new boss is. Will meets a string of new people, who appear strange in his eyes, and is thrown into a world he has no idea how to navigate. Sometimes he ponders upon his choice:

Thoughts, not varied but strong, occupied my mind; two voices spoke within me; again and again they uttered the same monotonous phrases. One said: “William, your life is intolerable.” The other: “What can you do to alter it?” (chapter IV)

Such “thoughts” capture both the degrees of optimism in Will’s life – a balance between both, which eventually becomes “monotonous”; you see, Will is not coming up with any solutions, he’s just philosophizing within himself. He’s both stuck and looking to move forward, yet how can he achieve that? One of the characters, Mr. Hunsden (Mr. H.) comments on Will’s static position:

“William! what a fool you are to live in those dismal lodgings of Mrs. King’s, when you might take rooms here in Grove Street, and have a garden like me!”
“I should be too far from the mill.”
“What of that? It would do you good to walk there and back two or three times a day; besides, you are such a fossil that you never wish to see a flower or a green leaf?”
“I am no fossil.”
“What are you then? You sit at that desk in Crimsworth counting-house day by day and week by week, scraping with a pen on paper, just like an automaton; you never get up; you never say you are tired; you never ask for a holiday; you never take change or relaxation; you give way to no excess of an evening; you neither keep wild company, nor indulge in strong drink.” 
(chapter IV)

Mr. H. externally voices Will’s thoughts. We can see that his thoughts and worries are not necessarily confined within him but, at least to Mr. H., he wears them upon his sleeve. Oh, and can I just say how much I appreciate the use of the word “fossil” here…? It’s definitely more exciting than calling someone a “workaholic” or a stick-in-the-mud; we should all definitely bring back the use of the word fossil for these scenarios.

We notice that Mr. H.’s lecturing wasn’t all in vain; as Will leaves he starts pondering all these overwhelming things and surrenders to his rushing thoughts once again:

I found out that I was walking very fast, and breathing very hard, and that my nails were almost stuck into the palms of my clenched hands, and that my teeth were set fast; on making this discovery, I relaxed both my pace, fists, and jaws, but I could not so soon cause the regrets rushing rapidly through my mind to slacken their tide. Why did I make myself a tradesman? Why did I enter Hunsden’s house this evening? Why, at dawn tomorrow, must I repair to Crimsworth’s mill? All that night did I ask myself these questions, and all that night fiercely demanded of my soul an answer. (chapter IV)

Is Will starting to seriously doubt his decision? Is he going to quit the mill and go find a more exciting career that he’s actually passionate about? It’s too early to tell at this point because that night:

I got no sleep; my head burned, my feet froze; at last the factory bells rang, and I sprang from my bed with other slaves. (chapter IV)

I really do hope Will finds something else to do with his life, because look at how capitalism has enslaved him!

Psychology: The Current Mood Sentiment

One of the most interesting social media phenomena which ought to be studied is, what I like to call, the “current mood” sentiment. There’s quite a number of premature research and articles on social media culture, memes, etc…Yet I believe “current mood” pictures and posts are also quite relevant, and perhaps a bit ostracized, from that kind of research.

I found myself engaged in “current mood” sentiment-type posts on Facebook; it was quite unplanned actually – sometimes I just did not know how to capture, perhaps, complex feelings except through a comic photo or post. In fact, many of the images and posts I used (apart from being apparently funny) bear symbolic meaning – no matter how shallow that meaning may seem to be.

Maybe it takes a particular kind of audience to fully comprehend those meanings in question, yet the factors which contribute to one’s understanding are still vague: is it simply familiarity with the language? Context…? Is there some collectively shared understanding of these images and the feelings they produce? It may be several of those things, and even more, yet there is an interesting opportunity here to explore this phenomenon further that should be seized.

Till then, enjoy this gallery of “current mood” images.

1
Deadpool being Egyptian.
2
Picture of Fifi’s celebratory mood perfectly captures my heartfelt despair.
3
The entire scene from “El Nazer” reflects the state of the Egyptian weather on that day.
5
The universal sentiment of frustrated university students.
4
On that day, the weather sucked and people sucked as well.
6
This image accurately depicts how screwed I am.