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Technicolor, VistaVision, and the Widescreen Visual Experience

ATTENTION! SPOILER ALERT!

Not only did John Ford film the 1956 movie, The Searchers, in brilliant Technicolor, but he filmed it in VistaVision, providing the audience with an enhanced widescreen visual experience.

http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/widescreen/vistavision.htm

Movies made in VistaVision were intended to be viewed in theaters with large screens, both in height and width. VistaVision technology created an “optical reduction from a large negative image to the standard release print image . . . [that improved] the front and side seat viewing” (American WideScreen Museum) in widescreen formats.

John Ford’s spectacular landscape shots of Monument Valley (cinematographer Winton C. Hoch) were perfect for both Technicolor and widescreen viewing. Here are some examples:

In this wide angle long shot, the audience sees the renegade Comanches attacking the search party from two sides and chasing them through the valley. The landscape is open and wide, giving the impression of an unlimited environment with no place to hide. Will the search party survive this attack?

In this long shot, the searchers forge ahead with the search for the lost child, Debbie, in spite of a desolate desert landscape, storms, and few provisions. It is a dramatic scene which highlights the grim determination of the men involved.

In the final long shot, John Wayne walks away, after reuniting Debbie with her adopted brother, in order to avoid being arrested for murder. He is framed in black, indicating that this is the end of the story, and he will probably never return. He is a loner who got his revenge, found personal redemption, and saved his family. He is the hero of the story— but he is also a broken man who does not fit into civilized society. He has not necessarily overcome his bitterness and racism. He merely decided that saving one of the last members of his family was more important than killing her.

If John Ford’s intention was to highlight spectacular landscapes and provide the audience with an incredible widescreen experience, Technicolor and VistaVision were the right film stock and technology to use.

But if it was his intention to tell a dramatic and tension-filled story, he might have done better to use black and white film stock. The bright colors and wide angle screen shots detract from the story. It is easy to get caught up in the visual spectacle and miss what’s happening in the story. Barsam and Monahan describe The Searchers as “a psychological western that is concerned less with the traditional western’s struggle between good and evil than with the lead character’s struggle against personal demons” (Barsam and Monahan 216). They conclude that the movie “might have been even more powerful shot in black and white instead of color.  Doing so might have produced a visual mood, as in film noir, that complemented the darkness at the heart of the movie’s narrative” (Barsam and Monahan 216).

John Ford was not striving for accuracy and authenticity in The Searchers, and the use of color highlights the movie’s many flaws. Viewers in the 1950s were not as familiar with the Southwest as they are today. In 2017, John Ford could not get away with filming a western in Monument Valley (which is located in Northern Arizona and Utah), and slapping on an intertitle identifying the location as Texas. The viewers would not accept it. Neither would they accept a white actor with gray or hazel eyes masquerading as a full-blooded Comanche wearing all-too-bright red and yellow war paint. The women in Scar’s tribe of renegade Comanches are attired in traditional Navajo clothing – including John Wayne’s lost niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood). Today’s Navajos watch movies and would eagerly point out this historical inaccuracy. (Monument Valley is Navajo country, and it is obvious from the movie that Ford employed local natives to masquerade as Comanches. As part of my job, I worked with members of the Navajo, Hopi, and Apache tribes. I found the inaccuracies in The Searchers to be jarring, even though I first saw the movie on TV many years ago as a child.) Black and white film might have minimized the obvious flaws.

Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies, 5th ed. New York: Norton, 2016.

Ford, John, Dir. The Searchers. Perf. John Wayne. Warner Bros., 1956.

Ryder, Loren L. “The Story of VistaVision.” The American WideScreen Museum. 2006.

       <http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/widescreen/vistavision.htm.

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

January 1, 2018

Copyright 2018-2022 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

11 Comments »

Rebel Without a Cause: Juvenile Delinquency

ATTENTION: SPOILER ALERT!

       After World War II, Hollywood struggled to re-define itself.  Box office revenues stagnated, and Hollywood needed new markets to keep going.  The teenage market was an obvious choice.

       Post-war prosperity in the 1950s made it possible for the middle-class to own houses, cars, and the latest work-saving appliances on a widespread scale.  After the fear and deprivation of the war years, Americans wanted to enjoy their new-found prosperity.  Television invaded American homes, bringing new entertainment and exposure to the latest products.  The consumer economy had begun.

       Teenagers had unprecedented pocket money and leisure time.  While their parents climbed the social ladder and hung out with friends at the country club, teenagers necked in the back seats of cars and danced to the latest rock and roll tunes. Hollywood targeted teens to become the new movie-going generation (Lewis, 250, 255).

       The upbeat world of the 1950s cringed under the shadow of nuclear war and an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union.  Beatniks mourned the impending death of humanity in coffee houses and cafes.  The McCarthy years dragged on, and the fear of Communism ran rampant throughout the country.  At the same time, a new kind of socially-conscious movie was being made to highlight problems in American society (Lewis, 228).  Juvenile delinquency became a hot topic.

       Nicholas Ray’s 1955 movie, Rebel Without a Cause, explores the alienation and delinquency of “upper-middle-class white suburban teenagers” (Lewis, 253).  The movie was filmed using Cinemascope widescreen technology and Warnercolor.  Starring James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood, this tense melodrama was meant to serve as a wake-up call to parents: take care of your children, or they will go down the wrong path (Lewis, 253).

       When the movie opens, it is Easter in Los Angeles, California, 1955.  Jim Stark (James Dean) is lying on the pavement, drunk, playing with a mechanical monkey.  It is a poignant scene that shows a lost character who is torn between childhood and adulthood.

       Jim Stark is hauled off to jail and becomes aware of John/Plato (Sal Mineo) and Judy (Natalie Wood).  The three troubled teens are required to speak to the juvenile officer, who tries to understand them.

       Judy cries about her father, who pushed her away when she reached puberty, and complains that she feels unloved by him.  She craves his attention, runs out of the house, and wanders around alone after dark when they get into a conflict over wearing make-up and grown up clothes.  Judy is trying to grow up, but growing up means losing closeness with her father (fear of incest).  She cannot understand why he is pushing her away because nobody has talked to her about it.  Her anger and despair lead her to hang out with the tough high school gang, The Wheels, and the gang’s leader, Buzz.

       John/Plato is an abandoned and neglected rich boy whose black maid is paid to raise him.  It is his birthday, and he is angry because his parents are divorced, his father is not involved in his life, and his mother stays away on vacation.  He has been picked up for shooting some puppies, a deviant behavior that is considered nowadays to be a precursor for sociopathic/psychopathic serial killers (Siegel, 353).  Although his black maid appears to sincerely care for him, calling him “her boy,” she is powerless to help him.  John/Plato appears to be emotionally unstable, starved for love, rejected by his peers, vulnerable and gullible, and physically and emotionally immature. 

       While waiting to see the juvenile officer, Jim Stark annoys the other police officers by wailing like a police siren, making obnoxious comments, and exhibiting a negative, sarcastic attitude.  In one scene, a deep-focus camera shot captures the three troubled teens through windows: Judy sitting in the office with the juvenile officer; John/Plato waiting in the office next door; and Jim sitting on a chair in the background.  The viewer understands that these three troubled teens will eventually get together, connected by their common suffering and antisocial behavior.

       Jim’s mother and father show up at the police station wearing a mink coat and a tuxedo.  They have been at a party at the country club.  Jim’s father laughs and minimizes his son’s drinking.  After all, the family has just moved to Los Angeles, and Jim has not made any friends yet.  The parents bicker, blaming one another; and Jim’s father says to him, “Don’t I buy you everything you want?”  Jim covers his ears and cries at his parents, “You’re tearing me apart!”

       Jim loses control, punches the juvenile officer, and bangs on the desk.  He is in danger of going to juvenile hall.  His parents admit that they have been moving frequently because of Jim’s behavior in order to protect him and their own reputations.  It becomes clear that Jim’s father is weak and cowardly.  His mother is a nag.

       On the first day of school, Jim is bullied for being the new kid.  He tries to befriend Judy, but she smokes cigarettes and hangs out with the tough crowd.  John/Plato looks up to Jim and tags along behind him, calling him “my best friend.”  During the field trip at the Griffith Observatory, the teens are exposed to a presentation about the universe and a nihilistic commentary about the insignificance of earth and human beings.  Jim and John/Plato can both identify with this.

       Jim gets into a knife fight with Buzz, the leader of The Wheels.  At the end of the fight, they agree to compete in a “chickie run.”  Jim doesn’t know what this is, but he agrees to do it as a matter of honor.  When he consults his father, his father cannot give him any worthwhile advice.    Later that night, Buzz is killed when his jacket gets caught on the door, and he is unable to escape from the car.  His car goes over a cliff, and all the members of the gang take off.  Jim confesses to his parents what happened.  His mother wants to move.  His father tells him to keep quiet.

       Jim wants to do the right thing and confess to the police.  The police ignore him and tell him to go home.  Gang members think he has squealed and go after him.  A live chicken is hung up over the door of Jim’s house, scaring his parents.  Jim and Judy hide out in an abandoned mansion.  Parallel to this, the gang attacks John/Plato, and his black maid chases them off.  In his mother’s room, he finds a child support check from his father, gets angry, grabs his mother’s gun, and takes off for the abandoned mansion.

       At the mansion, the three teens pretend that they are a nuclear family, bemoan the presence of troublesome children (they should be drowned), and isolate themselves from reality.  After John/Plato falls asleep, Judy and Jim go off by themselves.  The gang shows up, and John/Plato goes nuts when he finds out that Jim and Judy have left him alone.  He shoots one of the gang members.  The police show up.  John/Plato runs off to the nearby Griffith Observatory, and he shoots at the police.  Jim and Judy get into the Observatory, take the bullets out of the gun, and escort John/Plato out of the Observatory.  John/Plato does not realize the gun is empty and points it at the police.  The police shoot and kill him.

       At the end, Jim breaks down and cries “Help me!”  His father finds renewed strength and courage and promises to be there for him, no matter what happens.  Jim’s mother finds new respect for her husband.  The family is saved.

       The importance of a strong family and good communication are highlighted throughout the movie.  No matter how much wealth a family has, wealth cannot give a child what it needs to be happy, secure, and well-grounded.  Parents are responsible for raising good citizens who contribute to society.  Nicholas Ray sent this message loud and clear when he made Rebel Without a Cause. 

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

February 13, 2018

Copyright 2018-2022 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Works Cited

Lewis, Jon. American Cinema: A History. New York: Norton, 2008.

Ray, Nicholas, Dir. Rebel Without a Cause. Perf. James Dean. Warner Bros., 1955.

Siegel, Larry J. Criminology. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2012.

9 Comments »

Film Noir: The Maltese Falcon

ATTENTION: SPOILER ALERT!

John Huston’s 1941 movie, The Maltese Falcon, is a film noir that borders on dark comedy. The opening music is melodramatic, dark, and foreboding. The story takes place in San Francisco, a romantic city with a wild and shady past. The movie is appropriately filmed in black and white, using chiaroscuro contrasts of deep shadows and bright light.

An attractive and distraught woman, Miss Wanderly (Mary Astor), seeks the help of hard-boiled and pessimistic Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and his partner, Miles Archer, in finding her sister. This sister allegedly ran away from New York with a sinister man named Floyd Thursby.

Spade and Archer agree to help, and not long after, Archer is gunned down in the fog and the dark.

(Archer gets gunned down)

Two detectives visit Spade and question him.  In this scene, the lighting causes the brims of their hats to cast shadows over their eyes, making the detectives appear dark, tough, suspicious, and corrupt. They imply that Spade (his name reflects darkness and corruption) has a shady past and they want to put him away. (“Spade” could also symbolize digging up the truth.) Spade’s face is in bright light as he defends his innocence.

(Spade and the two detectives)

Spade does not show any emotion over his partner’s death, and this makes him appear unfeeling, cold, and possibly, guilty. Soon after, Thursby is also shot down. This reinforces the detectives’ suspicions that Spade has something to do with the two murders. It would be natural for him to avenge his partner’s death, and the two detectives empathize with him.

We soon discover that Spade has been having an affair with Archer’s wife. She is far more glamorous than Miss Wanderly. Spade rejects her, especially when she accuses him of murdering her husband. This puts even more doubt in the mind of the viewer. Did Spade do it?

(Photo of Spade and Mrs. Archer)

Spade forces Miss Wanderly (Mary Astor) to confess her real name – which is Bridget – and the real story. (Who knows what’s real and not real or who’s lying and not lying?) She uses her sex appeal and plays the helpless victim, saying, “Can’t you shield me so I don’t have to answer their questions?”

(Spade and Bridget Wanderly)

Throughout the movie, Sam Spade keeps his back to the wall, implying paranoia and danger. He stays alert and pays attention. He is familiar with crooks and the underworld of crime. He expects people to lie and cheat.

Mr. Cairo (Peter Lorre), a short, well-dressed dandy with an exotic accent, approaches Spade and asks for his help in recovering a statuette of a black bird. He claims to know about Archer and Thursby and offers Spade $5,000.00. Spade knocks him out and searches him after Cairo pulls a gun on him. Cairo gets back his gun and holds Spade at gunpoint while he searches his office.

Spade laughs at Cairo (as he does at everyone throughout the movie). When he is free again, he discovers that he is being followed by “the boy.” He dodges him and goes to Bridget’s apartment. There, he tells her to knock off “the school girl manner.” She admits that she’s a very bad girl who’s done a lot of very bad things. Spade kisses her, playing along with her, and finds out that she knows Cairo. But she claims to be afraid of him and needs Spade’s help. They go to Spade’s apartment, and Archer’s wife sees them outside. They wait for Cairo, knowing that “the boy” is watching the apartment. The tension builds.

Throughout the movie, Spade laughs at all of them and tries to stay one step ahead of everybody. He is always bluffing, like an expert poker player, and taking chances. He plays one side against the other in order to dig up the truth and protect himself. Everybody is guilty of something, and nobody can be trusted. Every character – including Spade – is shady, pessimistic, comical, and greedy.

When Cairo comes to Spade’s apartment, it comes out that Floyd Thursby was working for the “Fat Man” (Sydney Greenstreet). A fight ensues. Bridget slaps Cairo (exerting her dominance) and Cairo pulls out his gun. Spade intervenes, saying, “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” (Cairo looks weak and defenseless in comparison to Bridget and Spade). The detectives show up and accuse Spade of killing Archer over his wife.

(Bridget slaps Mr. Cairo)

Bridget and Cairo continue to fight, and Cairo cries for help (the emasculated man). Bridget kicks him in front of the cops, and they get hauled off for questioning. 

Throughout the movie, Bridget flirts with Spade, trying to manipulate and distract him. He plays along with her, even letting her tell him she loves him. He finds out that Bridget and Floyd were paid to help Cairo and the “Fat Man,” but Floyd betrayed her. Spade later discovers that “the boy” is also working for the “Fat Man.”

When Spade finally meets the “Fat Man,” he discovers the history behind the black bird (stirring up greed and fantasies of great wealth). The “Fat Man” knows what it is (the Maltese Falcon), and Spade claims to know where it is. It is a cat-and-mouse game. The “Fat Man” and Cairo are not professional criminals, but they are driven by greed. The “Fat Man” slips Spade a Mickey Finn (to knock him out). Cairo searches Spade’s apartment. When Spade wakes up, he searches the “Fat Man’s” apartment.

Later on, Spade tells his loyal and adoring secretary about the black bird. A man stumbles into his office with a package and drops dead. He is Captain Jacoby, Master of the ship, La Paloma, which has just arrived from Hong Kong (in keeping with San Francisco history and the romantic history of the bird). Spade hides the bird and drives down to Burlingame after dark. (I used to live in Burlingame, which is on the San Francisco Peninsula, so I always get tickled by this part of the movie). He meets with the “Fat Man,” Cairo, Bridget, and “the boy.”

Spade’s secretary brings him the bird. Spade laughs maniacally and watches, transfixed, as the bird is unwrapped and the “Fat Man” tries to scrape off the black coating from the statue. The bird is a fake. Cairo turns on the “Fat Man”, but the “Fat Man” laughs like a little boy and persuades him to go to Istanbul with him.

(Spade, Mr. Cairo, Bridget Wanderly, the Fat Man)

Spade calls the police about the crooks and confronts Bridget. She is the one who shot Archer. Spade gives her up to the police, saying, “You’re taking the fall.” She cries and accuses him of not caring for her. He tells her that when your partner is killed, you’re supposed to do something about it. With a maniacal look on his face, he says, “I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be.”

Spade kisses Bridget and turns her over to the cops. They get onto the elevator with her. When the elevator gate closes, it looks just like prison bars.

(Bridget Wanderly going to jail)

In the end, Spade picks up the Maltese Falcon, calling it “the stuff that dreams are made of.” He got his revenge for his partner’s death, who died over a lead bird—a stupid, worthless piece of junk.

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

January 15, 2018

Copyright 2018-2022 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Works Cited

Huston, John, Dir. The Maltese Falcon. Perf. Humphrey Bogart. Warner Bros., 1941.

Lewis, Jon. American Cinema: A History. New York: Norton, 2008.

28 Comments »

Three Godfathers: Cowboy Christmas Movie

Mise-en-scene is a French phrase meaning production. In theatrical terms, this means “staging or putting on an action or scene” (Barsam 165). The two largest components of mise-en-scene are design and composition, which include settings, props, lighting, actors, makeup, hairstyles, costumes, overall organization, presentation, and integration. The finished product must look and feel cohesive and balanced, fully supporting the story and theme of the movie, as well as the genre, in every respect.

The 1948 movie, 3 Godfathers, directed by John Ford and Merian C. Cooper, stars John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, Harry Carey, Jr., and Ward Bond. The story is John Ford’s version (and vision) of the New Testament story of the Three Wise Men, incorporated into the western genre. Above all, it is a story about sin and redemption, supported by Biblical symbolism and themes of Old West justice.

The movie setting is open because the characters have to be able to move around. Most of the movie was filmed on location in Death Valley, California (not Arizona.) Rousing western music, composed of themes from well-known cowboy songs, supports the title scenes. The major underlying musical theme is from the song “Streets of Laredo.” The movie is filmed in Technicolor, which adds vibrancy to the spectacular natural scenery, costumes, and characters.

While the titles play, we see a train chugging along from the right of the scene, crossing the open desert. The camera cuts to three horsemen riding through the desert. They are dressed in typical cowboy clothing. The Mexican cowboy is appropriately dressed in Mexican clothing. The next cut shows John Wayne sitting on a horse at twilight, framed by two saguaro cactuses. He is clearly the main character. A quotation appears in white letters: “Bright star of the early western sky . . .” These scenes confirm that viewers are watching a western set some time in the 1880s-1890s. The quote reminds viewers of the star of Bethlehem. At the end of the titles, the viewers see a wide shot of the western landscape and the three horsemen riding toward the camera.

At a water hole, John Wayne (Robert Hightower) orders the other two men to fill up all canteens and water bags because they won’t find another water hole for at least 60 miles. The camera zooms in on Robert smoking and looking out over the landscape. He is clearly the leader. He joins Pedro, the Mexican, in a tight close-up, and they plan robbing the bank in the nearby town of Welcome, Arizona. Next, Robert crouches down at the third man’s level in a close-up shot of him and William. William is the youngest member of this gang.

The gang rides into the town. It is obviously a well-established town because of the grown trees and flower gardens. John Ford introduces a joke here. The first man the gang meets is B. Sweet (Ward Bond), who is tending his oleander bushes. The men laugh and joke about his name. His wife comes out of the house, dressed in a traditional western gown and hairstyle. She calls her husband “Pearly.” The laughs get even louder over this. Sweet redeems his manhood by clarifying that his name is actually Buck. He swats his wife on the behind with an oleander branch, telling the gang that his wife is a former dancer (presumably in a saloon.) He slips on his leather sheriff’s vest and star, and the gang is caught off guard. The implication is clear: B. Sweet is no tenderfoot from the East but a hardened westerner and experienced lawman. He and his wife offer hospitality to the men, believing they are cowboys from a cattle drive passing through town, and mention that their niece and her never-do-well husband are traveling to Welcome along the Mormon Trail.

Asking for the location of the bank does not rouse much suspicion. But William forgets himself, reveling in the motherly attention he is receiving from the sheriff’s wife, and mentions that people also call him The Abilene Kid. The Sheriff immediately becomes suspicious. When the men leave for the bank, he looks through a book of wanted posters and finds one of The Abilene Kid.

On the way to the bank, a stage pulls into town. A well-dressed young lady greets the gang, happy to leave civilization in Denver and return to her less-civilized town. She reveals that she is the bank president’s daughter and overwhelms the gang with sweetness and perfect manners. (As a minor character, she represents civilized manners and social status.) Two young dandies greet her with bouquets of oleanders (a desert-thriving plant), and it’s clear that she is a popular young lady. Her homecoming provides a distraction for the town while the gang robs the bank.

The typical western scene ensues. Shots are fired, and the sheriff and his deputies rush to capture the men. There are wonderful scenes of a man trying to calm a bucking horse and a scared horse running through the street, pulling an empty covered wagon. As the sheriff and his men chase the gang in a buckboard wagon, William is shot and rescued by Robert. The posse chases the gang into the desert wilderness and quits after the sheriff shoots a hole in Robert’s water bag. Although the sheriff says, “They aren’t paying me to kill folks,” he knows that the gang will die without water.

When Robert discovers the ruined water bag, he laments, “You know, he busted that on purpose,” understanding that the sheriff has condemned the men to death in the desert (Old West justice.) Robert observes that they are playing a game of chess with the sheriff and changes their flight plan.

At this point, the gang is forced to leave all vestiges of civilization and head into the barren desert. (Biblically, this represents the Hebrews going into the desert during the Exodus and undergoing cleansing and purification in order to learn obedience and faith in God.) They immediately plunge into a world of sand dunes, sandstorms, salt flats, and rocks. It’s man against nature.

In many scenes, Ford has the characters walking into the sun, the wind, the sand storms, making their journey even more arduous. He uses tight close-up shots to convey the tight bond between the men. He uses wide screen shots to convey the barrenness and openness of the environment. The landscape is beautiful, yes, but dangerous and deadly.

The men lose their horses after a sandstorm and have to walk. Pedro swears that “the devils came in the middle of the night.” The sheriff arrives at Apache Wells with his men (some locations are named after Arizona Indian tribes.) It is here that we learn it is Christmas time. Snow-capped mountains rise up in the background.

The gang arrives at Terrapin Tanks, and this is where the story changes from a typical western to a morality play. The men plan to get water to fill their canteens but discover a wagon containing a pregnant woman instead. Her husband, out of a greenhorn’s ignorance, has blown up the water hole with dynamite, believing he could retrieve more water. Instead, he has permanently lost access to the water supply. Since he is not around, the gang assumes that he is dead. But they celebrate his death. His actions have ensured the deaths of future travelers looking for water. Old West justice demands that the man die.

Pedro demonstrates great compassion and tenderness when he helps the woman give birth to a son (the Christ Child.) The other two men squeeze water out of barrel head cactuses and give it to the mother. It’s night, and the mother asks the three men to be godfathers to her son and keep him alive. They agree. She names the child Robert William Pedro Hightower, after the three men. Finally, the mother says, “We must be moving on,” and dies. The camera focuses on a dead tree and a lighted lantern, framed in the back opening of the wagon’s canvas cover. The lantern dies out, and the dead tree forms a foreboding and forbidding vision of death.

The men give the mother a proper Christian burial. Robert stands by as a skeptic. But the baby brings the men joy, wonder, and hope. They argue over how to care for the baby, demonstrate their love, compassion, and tenderness for the new life, and overcome some of their roughness.  The baby also brings some much-needed comic relief. At the same time, in parallel shots, the sheriff at Apache Wells is viewing Robert as a good chess player and figures out that the gang has gone to Terrapin Tanks. The chase is on.

As the men become more desperate for water, they argue and draw guns on each other. William uses the Bible for guidance and decides that they were not brought into the desert by accident. Like the Three Wise Men in the Bible, they were meant to find the baby (the Christ Child) and save him (from the elements instead of King Herod.) After throwing out the names of nearby towns (all Biblical), they decide to head East to New Jerusalem (representing redemption and salvation.) The camera cuts to a beautifully-photographed scene showing a bright star in the eastern sky, shining down on sand dunes rippled with shadowy contrasts. The three men trudge across the scene, traveling West to East, receiving hope and strength from the star.

The sheriff finds the abandoned wagon and figures out that it belonged to his niece and her worthless husband. He blames the gang for blowing up the water hole with dynamite, even though they are innocent. He curses them as murderers of future travelers and swears to hunt them down.

William and Pedro both die while crossing a cracked, parched salt flat after asking for forgiveness from God. Robert saves William’s Bible and moves on. It is Christmas. He must climb over the mountain. (Biblically, going up into the mountain represents searching for God.) He takes shelter in a rock-walled passage, which resembles a cave. He falls down, hopeless. He gives the last water to the baby and starts throwing away unnecessary items. In a last desperate act, he opens up the Bible and reads the passage. The passage tells him to take the donkey and its colt. Angrily, Robert throws away the Bible, considering the passage a cruel joke.

Crazed by thirst, Robert hears William and Pedro talking and singing and egging him on. The camera shows them as ghosts walking behind him. Suddenly, framed by the rock walls, Robert sees a donkey and its colt. He cannot believe it, but they are real, and he looks up to the sky, hardly believing that the New Testament passage has come true.

Robert makes it to town and bursts into a saloon, where the people are somberly singing Christmas carols. The people are overjoyed to see the baby, and the piano player plays “Silent Night.” The sheriff confronts Robert here, and he collapses to the floor.

An obvious fade out/fade in pushes the story forward into the future. The whole town treats Robert like a King for saving the baby. The judge sentences him to only one year and one day in prison and grants him custody. As Robert is leaving on the train for prison, the banker’s daughter asks him if she can write, and it is obvious that she will wait for him. When Robert returns, he has a chance of becoming a civilized man.

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

December 18, 2017; December 15, 2021

Copyright 2017-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Works Cited:

Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies, 5th ed. New York: Norton, 2016.

6 Comments »

Jurassic Park: The Movie

Photo: Universal Pictures

(Attention! Spoiler Alert!)

Steven Spielberg’s 1993 science fiction thriller, Jurassic Park, tells a linear story using continuity editing. The movie explores the ethics of scientific manipulation of nature and introduces the concept of chaos theory. The editing, done by Michael Kahn, is seamless and flawless. There are no superfluous scenes. Each scene is designed to support the story and the theme of the movie. The pacing of the movie keeps the tension building to the climax. The editor relays the story “clearly, efficiently, and coherently” (Barsam and Monahan), leaving no doubt or confusion in the mind of the viewer. Based on the book by Michael Crichton, the camera moves smoothly back and forth between situations and scenes (parallel editing), just like a book. The opening music, written by John Williams, is ominous and primitive, implying that the viewer is entering untamed territory.

The opening scene (the master scene) shows the expert hunter standing grimly by with his gun as workers unload a metal crate. This is on the Isla Nubar, 120 miles off the coast of Costa Rica. An accident occurs, and a worker is killed when the creature inside the crate is released and grabs the worker’s leg. The viewer never sees the creature. Its presence is inferred by the creature’s movements and vocalizations, the intense and horrified expressions on the people’s faces, and the scene where the injured worker is pulled from the grip of the expert hunter. The viewer understands that something predatory and dangerous was in that crate.

A “blood-sucking” lawyer (reflecting blood-sucking mosquitoes), arrives at the amber mine at Manos de Dios (hands of God) in the Dominican Republic. There is a lawsuit now against the project. A scientist (a “digger”) views a piece of amber that was just found, containing a mosquito. From his facial expression, the viewer understands that this is a rare and valuable find.

In the Badlands near Snakewater, Montana, Drs. Allen Grant and Ellie Sadler are working hard and painstakingly on a dinosaur dig. Dr. Grant is skeptical of new technology. He dislikes kids. Dr. Sadler is more flexible and is trying hard to convince him to have children with her. The scene with the fat kid is hilarious. The camera perfectly captures the changed expressions on his face. Dr. Grant shows that he has a sense of humor.

After John Hammond, the wealthy entrepreneur, arrives and convinces the pair to go to Costa Rica with him to view his “biological preserve,” the scene cuts to San Jose, Costa Rica. We see a sweating fat man (Wayne Knight of Seinfeld fame) at a café, meeting with a suspicious-acting man. It is clear that something criminal is going on. The man offers the fat man a lot of money in exchange for some “viable embryos.” The viewer does not yet know how this scene is related to the other scenes, but his imagination is captured, and he wants to know what’s going to happen next. The director is slowly laying the groundwork for the plot of the story.

In the helicopter, Dr. Grant (a paleontologist) and Dr. Sadler (a paleontological botanist) meet Dr. Ian Malcom, a theoretical mathematician who calls himself a “chaotician.” John Hammond is not impressed with his “rock star” personality. The other doctors have not heard of chaos theory. Malcolm flirts relentlessly with Dr. Sadler.

When the helicopter reaches the island, the camera reveals a lush, tropical paradise. The music becomes uplifting and upbeat, inspiring feelings of expectation and hope. There is a promise of adventure.

As the travelers are transported in a Jeep to the main center of the island, they witness huge electrical fences equipped with 10,000 volts, moats, and large concrete walls, which are meant for the “stability of the island.” If it’s just a “biological preserve,” why do they need all of this heavy-duty protection?

The Jeep stops at a truly beautiful and peaceful pastoral scene. The camera dollies in for a close-up of Dr. Grant’s facial expression. He reaches over and grabs Dr. Sadler’s head and turns it. Both of their faces show overwhelming awe, surprise, and excitement. They are looking at a live brachiosaurus! Dr. Malcolm looks awed but concerned. The lawyer gleefully says, “We’re going to make a fortune with this place!”

The camera shows a long shot of a lake with herds of brachiosaurs and other creatures. Dr. Grant is confirmed in his theory that these creatures roamed around in herds. The viewer is also overwhelmed with awe and admiration. There is no doubt that this is a splendid park that everyone will want to visit!

At the visitor center, the doctors watch a video presentation about the “miracle of cloning.” The viewer needs this information to understand the plot and the theme of the movie. Scientists in the film extracted “Dino DNA” from mosquitoes trapped in amber, but the DNA is incomplete and filled in with DNA from frogs. (The DNA, therefore, is corrupted, or mutated.)

Throughout this segment, the doctors are so excited, they break all the rules, and John Hammond cannot control them (a foreshadowing of things to come.) Overhead, we hear the announcement that the boat for the mainland will leave soon. At the same time, the doctors are witnessing a dinosaur hatching from its shell (the miracle of life.) These dinosaurs are impure, altered, corrupted, and laboratory bred. While the lab scientist (B.D. Wong) seems completely unconcerned, Dr. Malcolm is calculating in his head all the predictability/unpredictability ratios. The lab scientist reveals that all the animals are female and cannot breed because the chromosomes have been muted (implying perfection and control.) Dr. Malcolm refutes that with an impassioned speech about the history of evolution, the power of life, and the inability to contain it: “Life finds a way.” When Dr. Grant discovers that they bred velociraptors, a close-up of his face shows his mood change from elation to deep concern. Dr. Malcolm’s speech and Dr. Grant’s mood change portend danger and chaos.

The expert hunter confirms their concerns when he says, “They should all be destroyed.” The viewer recognizes him as the man with the gun in the master scene. He explains that these creatures are calculating problem-solvers who are always watching and waiting and testing the fences to get out (a foreshadowing of the future.) The hunter is a realist who has seen these creatures in action.

At lunch, John Hammond goes on and on about the significance and legacy of his theme park, and the lawyer goes on and on about the lucrative investment. Dr. Malcolm is appalled and points out their “lack of humility before nature.” He calls them careless exploiters who did not earn the right to use this technology. As a result, they have no understanding of what they have created and take no responsibility for the results. The theme of the movie is summed up nicely here when he says that the handsomely-paid Jurassic Park scientists were so caught up in “whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think whether or not they should.” And Dr. Grant and Dr. Sadler back him up about the unpredictability of the result (foreshadowing what’s about to happen.)

The chaos elements begin to reveal themselves: the grandchildren arrive, who are knowledgeable city kids but vulnerable in this environment; a tropical storm is imminent; and Dennis, the disloyal fat man, hacks into the computer system in order to implement his nefarious plan.

When the basic tour begins, Dr. Malcolm remarks that the huge gates to the park remind him of King Kong. Richard Kylie narrates information about dilophosaurus, describing it as a deadly creature that spits poison into the eyes of its victim (foreshadowing later events.)

The scene cuts to a conversation between Dennis and John Hammond. Dennis has financial problems, which is why he is willing to sell dinosaur embryos for money, and John Hammond responds that people should pay for their mistakes (foreshadowing future events.) When his plan is in place, Dennis makes a fumbled explanation of going to the vending machines, steals the embryos, and exits the building.

On the tour, the scientists have not seen any dinosaurs except the tame and sick ones. There is an illusion of order and peace. When the storm hits, however, the chaos begins. The park systems begin to shut down, including the cars containing the scientists, the lawyer, and the children.

The best segments in the movie, in my opinion, are the scenes involving the T. Rex and the car. The editing is seamless and flawless. There is no indication anywhere that the T. Rex is not real. The acting is superb, revealing the absolute terror and horror felt by the children. The children come face-to-face with the creature, as indicated by this photo (T. Rex point of view):

As the T. Rex terrorizes the group, every character is suddenly confronted with his own mortality and feelings of powerlessness. There are several shots where the T. Rex and a character come face-to-face and even meet each other at eye level (the eyeline match cut.)

The cowardly lawyer leaves the children alone and gets his comeuppance in a dramatic scene that reveals how powerless humans are compared to these creatures.

The viewer cannot help feeling glad that the lawyer got his just reward because he just wanted to exploit these creatures for profit. The editing here is a marvel of technology because it looks absolutely real, with no obvious separation between the physical scenery and the artificial creature.

When Dennis leaves the park and gets stuck in the mud, he loses his glasses and the shaving cream canister containing the embryos. When he meets the dilophosaurus, he treats it like a dog, calling it stupid, asking it to fetch, and remarking, “No wonder you’re extinct.” He has no respect for the power and danger that have been unleashed. The creature meets him face-to-face in the car, after outwitting him, and kills him. Dennis gets his just reward, and the embryos are lost forever in the mud.

As the characters deal with varying life-threatening situations, Dr. Grant protects and rescues the children, thereby learning that kids are not so bad after all. The characters learn that everybody is necessary in a survival situation, no matter their age or gender. John Hammond realizes that human life is more important than leaving behind a fantastical legacy for the world. Dr. Malcolm is proven right. And the hunter learns that weapons are not enough against a calculating predatory creature that was able to outwit him.

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

January 22, 2018

Copyright 2018-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Works Cited

Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies, 5th ed. New York: Norton, 2016.

Spielberg, Steven, Dir. Jurassic Park. Perf. Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard

       Attenborough. Universal, 1993.

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Marilyn Monroe in “Niagara”

** Spoiler Alert **

The 1953 film Niagara, directed by Henry Hathaway, stars Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten, and Jean Peters. The traditional honeymoon site, Niagara Falls, provides the backdrop for murder.

The music accompanying the opening titles is dark, foreboding, and powerful. The first scene of the movie is a wide camera shot that captures the powerful and majestic Niagara Falls, sporting a rainbow (a symbol of hope). The camera shifts to the right, revealing Joseph Cotton walking along the bank of the river. Compared to the falls, he looks small and impotent. He seems unhappy, lost, and alienated. Indeed, he delivers a monologue to the falls, extolling their strength and power, and decrying his own weakness and failure. It’s a strange scene that gives the viewer the impression that his character is mentally unstable and may be contemplating suicide.

This is an example of how the setting, music, character, camera angles, contrasts, and symbols act together to create impressions in the mind of the viewer. Indeed, Niagara is almost Hitchcock-like in its overall design and presentation.

The viewer soon realizes through her actions and body language that Cotten’s wife, Marilyn Monroe, does not love him. She, too, is unhappy. She deliberately does things to rile him up and explode into small episodes of violence. She implies to another honeymooning couple that her husband is mentally unstable and capable of violence and self-harm. She pretends to worry about him whenever he has gone somewhere alone. But this is all a ruse, because she has a lover, and the lover is planning to kill him.

In the colorized version, Marilyn Monroe stands out from the crowd by wearing stylish, colorful clothing. She carries herself as if she is looking for a good time. She is described by her husband as a bar tramp. Although he loves her, he blames her for the loss of everything he ever had. He strongly suspects she has a lover. In fact, he sees her as out-of-control—just like Niagara Falls. But he is too weak and impotent to leave her.

It is hard for the viewer to feel sympathy for either of these characters. Marilyn Monroe is too scheming and conniving. Joseph Cotten is too weak and unstable.

When Joseph Cotten disappears and a body is found in the river, it looks like the two adulterous lovers got away with murder. When the detective takes Marilyn Monroe to the morgue building to identify the corpse, they walk through a dark and forbidding corridor before they come to the body, lying on a gurney in a cold, sterile room. When the detective turns on the light above the body, the truth is revealed. Marilyn Monroe cries out, faints, and ends up in the hospital. The viewer believes the enormity of her crime has struck home. The viewer soon finds out, however, that her husband is still alive and it is the lover who is dead.

In a remarkable and dramatic scene, Joseph Cotten confronts his wife in a bell tower. This bell tower is a solid building that plays music by request. It represents the strength and solidity of marriage. But the bells are silent now. The room is shadowy and filled with contrasts. The camera looks down from between the bells, making the characters look small and insignificant. The scene tightens as Joseph Cotten struggles with his wife and murders her. He leaves her lying on the black-and-white parquet floor and runs off. The camera lingers on the body for a few seconds, then cuts away, showing Joseph Cotten trying to get out of the locked building. He finally comes back to the body and picks up his wife’s lipstick, a symbolic act that he still loves her.

The police also know that Joseph Cotten is still alive and murdered his wife. He steals a boat, kidnapping Jean Peters. The boat falters and begins drifting toward the falls. Waves wash over the boat, throwing Peters and Cotten around. No matter how hard they try, they are powerless against the waves. The acting here is so realistic, it feels like it is actually happening.

Joseph Cotten tries to sink the boat. He allows Jean Peters to climb onto a wet rock in the middle of the river. She struggles and uses all of her strength to climb onto the slippery rock. The camera cuts back to the boat then back to Jean Peters. She watches, horrified, as the boat goes over the falls. The camera uses a wide shot to show the boat falling down Niagara Falls. Compared to the falls, it looks like a wooden toy.

A helicopter appears to rescue Peters. The camera juxtaposes between Jean Peters and the helicopter. The scenes become shorter and the juxtaposition quicker. She struggles to get into the chair that is sent down from the helicopter. Will she make it or fall into the river? She makes it into the chair. She is rescued.

The final scene of the movie is a wide shot of Niagara Falls. Acting as judge, jury, and executioner, justice has been done.

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

December 11, 2017

Copyright 2017-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies, 5th ed. New York: Norton, 2016.

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How “Citizen Kane” Challenged the Hollywood Studio System

Charles Foster Kane played by Orson Welles.

Citizen Kane was made in 1941 during the height of the Hollywood studio system.  Orson Welles was a well-known theatrical actor and director by then.  He brought his theatrical vision and independent imagination to Hollywood, but the standardized operations of the studio system did not allow for too much independent creativity.  Studio movies had to reflect the look and feel of each individual studio.  Welles was unable to deliver on this and earned a reputation for being unreliable and difficult.

Even today, Citizen Kane stands out as an unusual movie.  The script was written along the lines of a news story/detective story.  In the beginning, a news reel summarizes the life of a dead media mogul.  But an enterprising journalist wants more.  He wants to understand the real man and embarks on a journey to find out, intrigued by Kane’s last word, “Rosebud.”  This kind of “parallel narrative structure is the first thing most viewers notice” (Lewis 158).

Using this kind of narrative supports Kane’s character as a hardcore newspaperman.  It seems perfectly natural to explore his life through this kind of device. (Welles had also used the news story device very successfully in his radio adaptation of War of the Worlds). 

Charles Foster Kane is a conflicted character in the sense that he longs for his lost childhood (represented by the snow globe), on one hand, and enjoys the authority and power that his wealth affords him, on the other.  He tries to control the events and people around him, to his own detriment.  He is a tragic Shakespearean figure who gains everything—and loses everything.  Welles supports this conflict through the narrative and the composition of his camera scenes.

Throughout the film, Welles carefully stages nearly every scene using depth-of-field choreography and cinematography, reflecting his vision and theatrical experience.  Lewis uses the childhood scene, in which a deep-focus camera shot shows the young Kane outside playing in the snow, as an example.  Inside, he is still framed by the window in the background. His father is stage left, protesting his wife’s action.  Stage right, and looming larger in the scene, Mr. Thatcher (the banker) and Mrs. Kane (the mother) are signing the papers which will sign away young Kane’s childhood forever (Lewis 159).  It’s a brilliant and powerful scene.

Welles was a master at composing black-and-white camera shots using chiaroscuro lighting (deep contrasts of dark and light) (Barsam 180) and German expressionism (Lewis 159).  His sets are often large, exaggerated, and overblown, especially Xanadu.  The inside of the castle reeks of funereal sadness and gloom.  Hoarding priceless artworks and zoo animals cannot lighten the darkness.  Kane’s world is empty, twisted, and dark—like the character himself.

Welles’ camera is not stationary.  He uses the camera to make creative transitions and keep the story going.  When the journalist first meets Susan at the El Rancho, the camera leaves the Thatcher Library and rolls over to the roof of the El Rancho, where it points down through the skylight onto Susan.  The viewer feels like he is eavesdropping on a private conversation.  Despite this intrusion, Welles has met his goals “to simulate a theatrical look (blocking actors . . .) and to create a realist aesthetic (an artistic conception . . .) through composition in depth” (Lewis 160).

Welles uses low-angle shots to make characters appear larger.  Reflections in glass and mirrors include more characters into the scene and reveal their reactions.  He uses a brilliant montage of scenes in the beginning of the movie which transition into one another, creating new scenes.  Welles also included a combination of both live and dubbed sounds into Citizen Kane, drawing on his radio experience (Lewis 161).

 Citizen Kane defied the parameters of most studio formula movies because it is a piece of art.  It has become a classic film that has influenced generations of independent filmmakers.  And it is a true reflection of the master himself— Orson Welles.

Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies, 5th ed. New York: Norton, 2016.

Lewis, Jon. American Cinema: A History. New York: Norton, 2008.

Welles, Orson, Dir. Citizen Kane. Perf. Orson Welles. Warner Bros., 1941.

(The character of Charles Foster Kane was based on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.)

Dawn Pisturino

December 20, 2017

Thomas Edison State University

Copyright 2017-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

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Easy Rider: The Movie

Easy Rider

Easy Rider: The Movie

by

Dawn Pisturino

Any analysis of Dennis Hopper’s 1969 movie, Easy Rider, must be made within the context of the 1960s, or the analysis may become distorted. The 1960s were a turbulent and unique period in American history (this writer was fourteen years old in 1969). Under the influence of the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement, the country was at war with itself. Fear of nuclear holocaust drove much of the “live for today” counterculture rebellion. After all, if humans are going to die anyway, why go to work? Why conform to the established social order? It’s much better to have fun and do what you want while you still have time.

Easy Rider has been described as a modern hippie road trip movie, but more than anything else, it is a biker movie — and hardcore bikers still try to follow the route taken in the movie. There are numerous websites and blogs on the Internet describing this route. Some of the locations used in the movie (such as the cafe) no longer exist. But the Spirit of Route 66 is alive and well, and enough stretches of that famous and infamous road still exist to bring Easy Rider back to life.

Peter Fonda (Wyatt, after Wyatt Earp) conceived Easy Rider as a western (Seitz 2-3; Schneider 1). The characters ride their choppers (metal horses) through the southwest, camp out in Indian ruins, and make occasional references to cowboys and Indians. (Peter Fonda may have been giving a nod to his father, Henry Fonda, who starred in a number of westerns). Wyatt and his cohort, Billy (after Billy the Kid, played by Dennis Hopper), are motorcycle-stuntmen-bikers-turned-drug-dealers who score a big cocaine deal and use their ill-gotten riches to travel across the country to New Orleans. (In a real Hollywood western, they might have been performers in an Old West Show who turned outlaw, struck it rich, and turned into aimless drifters).

The classic Hollywood western celebrates American freedom, expansion, and rugged independence (Lewis 247-248; Barsam and Monahan, 103). But as civilization spreads across the western wilderness, the heroes in these movies become the alienated outsiders. Easy Rider celebrates this freedom and rugged independence and decries the loss of personal freedom and individuality found in an urbanized and commercialized society.

The movie was billed as a story about a man who “went looking for America and couldn’t find it” (Dirks 1). The problem with this obvious hype is that there is no indication in the movie that this is their goal. The characters always confirm that their goal is to get to the Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans in order to have a good time. In fact, Billy gets pretty hostile when it looks like his plans will be delayed. The people they meet, and the events they experience along the way, are completely random and unplanned.

The characters complain throughout the movie about the hostile reactions they receive to their long hair and grubby clothes. (In most westerns, the established town folk snub the outlaws, gamblers, drifters, and prostitutes in their towns, to the point of violence). As the movie progresses, the long hair becomes a symbol for people who are different, alienated, and marginalized from mainstream America.

Dennis Hopper is remembered now as one of the auteur directors of the New Hollywood era (Lewis 289). “Made for a mere $375,000 and earning an astonishing $19 million in its initial release in 1969, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider made clear just how important the youth audience would be to a Hollywood recovery” (Lewis 289). Another $1 million was spent on licensing the music for Donn Cambern’s contemporary rock and pop score (Fisher 3), the first movie to incorporate culturally popular music (Ebert 2003 2; Schneider 2). This established a standard that moviemakers have used ever since.

The movie was born out of the low-budget motorcycle movies that appealed to young people in the 1960s (Ebert 2004 2; Ebert 1969 2). Roger Corman’s 1966 movie, The Wild Angels, also starring Peter Fonda, used some of the same creative devices, such as nondiegetic sound, that were later used in Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969). The LSD-trip cemetery scene in New Orleans, which uses “super-fast edits, jarring sound effects, Catholic prayers, and shots of the Virgin Mary” (Schneider 3), shows a young girl reciting the rosary and parallels the rape scene in The Wild Angels (Roger Corman, 1966), where the audience hears a young girl singing a Christian hymn. By combining elements “of the teen biker picture . . . , the French New Wave . . . , and cinema verite” (Lewis 290), Dennis Hopper brought the nonconformist counterculture onto the big screen while remaining independent of Hollywood interference and conformity.

Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs revealed that Dennis Hopper wanted to use natural lighting as much as possible (Seitz 3), but portable halogen lights were used at night, especially for the campfire scenes (Fisher 2). The campfires and the flicker were simulated, using “a stick with a little flicker effect” (Fisher 2-3). To shoot the  motorcycle travel scenes, an Arri camera, using 50-speed Kodak film, was mounted on a 1968 Chevy Impala (Fisher 2). The Mardi Gras scene was filmed using Bolex 16 mm hand-held cameras, creating a disorienting and psychedelic effect (Fisher 3). The entire movie was filmed in a loose style to convey a “feeling of freedom” (Fisher 4). The shooting was largely improvised, shot according to what felt right to Kovacs at the time (Fisher 2). “Rapid flashback/flash forward transitions” (Seitz 3) are used frequently between sequences. “Long, slow establishing shots transition the environment from nature to city over the course of the movie” (Seale 1). The pacing is uneven, reflecting an improvisational style, and jump cuts create a jarring effect (Dirks 1). Very little make-up is used, there are few meaningful props, and the costumes are natural and realistic, incorporating “traditional patriotic symbols with emblems of loneliness, criminality, and alienation — the American flag, cowboy decorations, long hair, and drugs” (Dirk 1). Much of the dialogue is improvised, especially in the cafe scene (Lewis 290).

“The rough cut of the movie reportedly ran over three hours, and Hopper edited it to a reasonable length by throwing out the story details and keeping the rest” (Ebert 1969 3; Seitz 3). The result is a movie that often seems disjointed and disconnected. After George dies, the excessive editing makes it appear that Wyatt and Billy are completely indifferent to his death. Questions arise, such as: What did they do with the body? Did they just leave the poor guy there? This is why, when watching the movie, the viewer scratches his head and wonders: Who are these guys? What is their backstory? Why are they doing all of this? The beginning of the film, which explains all of this, was cut from the movie. It’s the outtakes which reveal that Wyatt and Billy are motorcycle stuntmen who turn drug dealers and end up in a thrilling confrontation with “helicopters and police chasing Hopper and Fonda over mountains and across the Mexican border” Birnbaum 1). If this sequence had been included in the movie, Wyatt and Billy would be seen as nothing more than common criminals.

As it is, Wyatt and Billy are superficial characters whose lives appear aimless, lacking in any worthwhile goals. Wyatt is the more philosophical and thoughtful of the two. He is open to new people and new experiences. He smokes pot, sits back, and ruminates about life. Billy, on the other hand, is emotionally reactive, sometimes hostile, and “lives for today.” He is unconcerned about learning anything. When Wyatt and Billy are camped out in the Indian ruins with the hitchhiker, Billy shows total disrespect for the Indians who built them and appears indifferent when the hitchhiker reprimands him for it. Billy is anti-social, selfish, and self-absorbed. He smokes pot constantly as if he lives for nothing else. But while Wyatt is the idealistic dreamer, Billy is the down-to-earth realist. When he points out to the hippies at the commune that the soil is not fertile enough to grow anything, he is simply telling the truth as he sees it. When he refutes George’s conspiracy theory about aliens, he is revealing his own lack of imagination. While Wyatt sits quietly by and tells the prostitute at the Tinker Toys brothel that he bought her because of Billy, Billy drinks and carries on like a man coming out of the desert after 40 days. Wyatt examines the artwork and philosophical quotes on the walls, focusing on one quote in particular: “Death only closes a man’s reputation and determines it as good or bad” (Joseph Addison). Billy could care less. He doesn’t seem to believe in anything at all.

Here is where Wyatt has the flash forward vision of a fire by the side of the road. He seems more subdued after this, as if carrying the burden of his whole life on his shoulders. The LSD trip in the cemetery produces a profound religious experience that nobody wants. When Wyatt announces to Billy that “we blew it,” Billy’s response is that money buys freedom, and that’s what it’s all about. He cannot understand what Wyatt is talking about.

Hopper uses a lot of contrasts and juxtapositions to instill meaning into the movie. While the rancher has a solid, stable (although poor) life, the hippies at the commune seem like unstable, flighty dreamers who are barely surviving. While Wyatt and Billy are riding around minding their own business, other people react to their appearance, call them animals, and threaten violence. George, the goofy alcoholic lawyer, has a powerful father and is, therefore, protected by the town. When he leaves his home turf, however, he is ill-equipped to survive in the larger world. Wyatt and Billy camp outdoors in the elements, live rough, and feel confident that they can take care of themselves.

The movie also incorporates a lot of religious symbolism. The dead lamb at the side of the road clearly symbolizes the sacrificial lamb. The rancher and his family pray at meal times, thanking God for what they have. So do the hippies at the commune, but their prayers seem less confident and more like a plea for help. The LSD trip is full of religious iconography about death and redemption. The brothel displays much religious art, reminding the viewer to repent of his sins. The message is clear: no matter how free a person is, he or she still answers to a higher authority.

Further symbolism includes the use of the term “gorilla” to denote people who live outside of society. The hippies’ mime troupe stage is called Gorilla Theater. The rednecks in the cafe refer to Wyatt, Billy, and George as “gorillas.” This dehumanization of the characters makes it easy for the rednecks in the truck to shoot Wyatt and Billy in cold blood without batting an eye or feeling any remorse.

And here is where we find the existential heart of the movie: “we blew it.” When the rednecks kill Wyatt and Billy in a senseless drive-by shooting, they wipe them out forever. The two freedom-loving boys disappear suddenly from history with nothing to show for their lives — no property, no wives, no children, no reputations, no legacies, and no signs that they ever lived. And this is what Wyatt realizes after George dies and he reads the quote on the wall. Freedom is great, but it cannot buy immortality in any meaningful form.

STUDENTS: DO NOT PLAGIARIZE MY WORK. It will show up on Turnitin.com.

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

American Cinema, Film 110

January 29, 2018

Copyright 2018 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Please contact author for sources.

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