Tag Archives: Expressionism

The Watchmen

Zack Snyder is  well known for his film adaptations of comic books – 300Man of Steel, and his upcoming Batman / Superman film all, of course, started as comic books. Perhaps he was the obvious choice to film what is often called the greatest comic of them all -Alan Moore’s 1985 masterpiece The Watchmen. Attempts had been made to film this story before; directors who had been involved with the project before Snyder included Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass, and all had withdrawn, creating the idea that The Watchmen was impossible to film. That Snyder finished the film at all, then, is tribute to him; that the film itself is so good is astonishing.

The mid-eighties saw a huge shift in how comic books were created and perceived. Two artists in particular, Moore and Frank Miller (responsible for Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns, 300, Sin City and more) were responsible for making the form more complex, darker, more adult. If reflection theory suggests that art mirrors to some extent the world from which it comes, then these comic books perhaps imitate a time which was defined by the last violent spasms of the cold war and the  ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. This film, of course, did not appear until 2009, 24 years after the original comic book, so some of that relevance has been lost. Indeed, in the move from page to screen, much has been lost, and the film is less clever and less ambitious than the book; but the stories and characters retain much of their power and even now, we can see how the influence of The Watchmen (and Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) has shaped the better superhero narratives of the past decades.

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What are superhero films for? Well, obviously, it depends on the superhero – Superman and Wolverine are two very different beasts –  but there are certain conventions which we can identify. Essentially, in Proppsian terms, superheroes are the narrative ‘good guys’ who save humanity time after time. Even when they have weaknesses, whether it be kryptonite in Superman’s case or a tendency towards gloomy introspection for Batman, the audience are secure in a diegesis where the good guys will always (or usually; superhero narratives were often a little more complex than they were given credit for) do what is right and where they will always triumph in the end. As such, these stories reflect a world where morality is simple; good guys and bad guys. It is no surprise that the Golden Age of Comic Books coincided with World War 2; a time when such simple, or simplistic, morality was needed to shore up patriotic belief in one’s own nation and cause.

More modern narratives, often constructed under the influence of film noir, tend to seek to construct a more complex and nuanced sense of morality, perhaps to reflect a world where people are less likely to cleave to the certainties of religion or patriotism. The Watchmen was the narrative which, more than any other, reimagined the superhero for this new world. It represents a complete act of genre revisionism and we can see its influence today in films where the superheroes are somewhat less than heroic – Kick-Ass, for example – or where the world is seen to be more morally complex than a simple binary of good and evil.

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The narrative centres around a group of masked crimefighters. They have no supernatural or extraordinary powers (with one exception) and rely on speed and strength to defeat criminals. We see that this is no normal superhero caper when the story opens with the murder of one of the group, The Comedian. Already, the representation of the ‘hero’ has shifted; these people are only slightly less vulnerable than the rest of us. This shift in representation changes much more, though, when we delve into the Comedian’s backstory. He attempts to rape another of the superheroes; he shoots dead the mother of his own baby in Vietnam; he might be responsible for killing John F Kennedy; he does very shady work for the US government. In general, he enjoys murder, mayhem and violence on a grand scale. He is most definitely not a clean-cut ‘good guy,’ or any sort of good guy at all, and yet, he is one of our heroes. His iconic smiley face badge is splattered with his blood after he dies; Snyder follows it in (his very characteristic) slow-mo all the way down until it hits the ground alongside the Comedian himself. It gets passed around some of the other heroes until it is finally buried with the Comedian. We see it repeated at the end of the film, now on a news reporter’s t-shirt, the blood replaced by tomato ketchup. Snyder is highlighting this as the symbol of the entire film; the mix of happiness and violence, life and death, good and evil, the shadowy middle ground which is the world of The Watchmen. And, The Comedian would have us believe, the world of modern America – he is semiotically associated with the American flag and describes himself as the personification of the American Dream.

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So, we start with a superhero who is a murderous, cynical, rapist. He’s the least sympathetic (by some way) of the ‘good guys’ in the film but he is by no means the only one who is seriously messed up. The others variously exhibit sociopathy, misogyny, misandry, impotency, narcissism, alcoholism, addiction, solipsism, masochism, psychopathy, promiscuity and sadism. And one of them, Rorschach, smells really bad. Indeed, Rorschach appears to be the heart of the group; the one member who never compromises his moral vision. He is utterly dedicated to the fight against evil, and he sees evil everywhere. He is deeply misanthropic and, in particular, misogynistic – his mother was an abusive prostitute and Rorschach is seriously affected by his memories of her. In his ‘normal’ life he is Walter Kovacks, a near-derelict, borderline-insane bum who reads right-wing propaganda and habitually predicts the end of the world. As ‘Rorschach’ he is basically a hard-boiled noir figure, generally framed in isolation and in chiaroscuro.

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He is in ways a typically hypermasculine, uncompromising figure (as are several of the others – these are all tough guys) but his backstory reveals him as a very damaged character and by the end his inability to compromise his morality appears more like a liability than an aspect of heroism. He needs his superhero identity to give meaning and structure to his life; when he cries ‘Give me back my face’ after being unmasked, we realise that he is in flight from his ‘real’ identity and is in fact quite a pitiful figure. It’s not that he won;t compromise; it’s that he doesn’t know how to.

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He’s not the only one whose life is rather empty without his secret identity. Nite Owl, the Batman-like alter ego of Dan Dreiberg, starts  a relationship with Silk Spectre, another of the heroes. He cannot perform sexually, however, and this impotence is surely representative of the exact opposite of what a male superhero should be. He can only perform once they have reverted to their superhero identities and it becomes clear that, like Rorschach, he is incomplete without his secret identity; he is more comfortable and effective – more potent – in his costume than out of it. (He admits as much himself. ‘I’m tired of being afraid… afraid of war, of the mask killer. Of this damn suit and how much I need it.’)

Clearly, then, the representations of superheroes are being changed in The Watchmen. The heroes are more deeply drawn, the violence is more realistically brutal, actions have more believable consequences. The story does more than this though. Postmodern theorists talk about ‘Grand Narratives’ or ‘metanarratives’ which tend to apply to our view of life. One such narrative might be that human history is generally moving towards a better state and that what is ‘good’ will eventually triumph over what is ‘bad.’ Superhero films, obviously, support this metanarrative by showing good triumphing over evil and the world as a fundamentally predictable, benevolent place. All of this certainty and predictability is removed in The Watchmen. One character, Doctor Manhattan (a superhuman figure created by a nuclear accident), a man with Godlike powers of transformation and manipulation, says of his girlfriend ‘She tells me I’m like a God now. I tell her I don’t think there is a God’ and this reflects the atheistic, existential uncertainty of the film’s diegesis. By the end of the film, we have no idea who the good guys are or whether there is any such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ There is no guarantee that the heroes live or even die, or that criminals are punished. The criminals and the heroes, in fact, are the same people. And in this regard, in this challenging of conventional generic structures and moral ideologies, the film is very postmodern (though not even nearly to the same extent as the original comic book.)

Zack Snyder makes a very good attempt at the impossible with The Watchmen; a huge amount of what made the original comic book so special has been lost, and yet enough remains to make it one of the best ‘superhero’ films ever.

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Alien

My most recent posts have been about two sci-fi films, Gravity and Stalker. I tried to frame those films as belonging to a tradition of philosophical sci-fi which also includes such films as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Duncan Jones’ Moon from 2009. There are, of course, other traditions within sci-fi; a popular one for study, for example, is that branch which reflects audience fears. Most discussed in this vein are those American films from the fifties which reflect the fear of Communist invasion supposedly rife at that time; Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) is perhaps the most famous. Alternatively, current films like Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007) mirror contemporary concerns about environmental damage. These traditions seem to me to be close to the tradition embodied in sci-fi’s alternative name, ‘speculative fiction’; they use the conventions of the genre to explore ideas and speculate about possible futures for humanity.

So, there are a range of traditions or types within sci-fi. Like any genre, it is increasingly being expanded through hybridity – that is, the joining together of genres. So, we get sci-fi action films (John Carter), sci-fi comedy (Mars Attacks!) sci-fi superhero movies (X Men) and so on. One well-established hybrid is the sci-fi horror, and it was pretty much invented by Ridley Scott in 1979 with Alien. This is the film which established Scott as a major player in Hollywood (making $100 million at the box office on a $10 million budget will do that) and thirty-odd years later it remains absolutely as sharp, contemporary and terrifying as ever; it has not aged even slightly. It finds its real heirs in contemporary sci-fi horror games; if you’ve ever guided Isaac Clarke down a seemingly endless series of corridors in Dead Space, for example, you’ve got Alien to thank for every single narrative and aesthetic convention.

The action takes place for the most part on board the Nostromo, the name (and the film’s plot, pretty much) taken from a Joseph Conrad novel. (The references to Conrad’s work continue throughout the Alien series.) An encounter with an alien nest results in the alien making it on board the ship and terrorising the crew. The heroine is Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley – one of the great female film protagonists.

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Aesthetically, the film is in the tradition of expressionism and noir which we explored in other posts. We see a lot of the conventions of that particular mode of filmmaking – the chiaroscuro lighting and bars of light, the smoky interiors, the canted angles and extreme low shots and so on.

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Given that the typical noir narrative -a protagonist is caught in a near-incomprehensible web of misfortune and must fight his or (occasionally) her way out – is exactly what happens here, the aesthetic suits the tone and mood of Alien. It was obviously a preferred mode for Scott since his next film, 1982’s Blade Runner used it again, to exceptional effect.

That expressionist style is also the foundation of horror film-making, of course, and Alien is an outstanding horror movie.  (David Thompson points out that is is ‘basically a haunted house film’ but set on a spaceship rather than in a spooky house.) The narrative conventions of horror are there – just as in every teen slasher ever, the beastie starts picking the victims off one by one as they heroically, or stupidly, go off by themselves to thwart it. In many ways, it’s very conventional. But as many theorists have noted, what makes it interesting and important (and it is important – in his excellent essay on the film, Jordan Poast calls it ‘one of the most politically progressive films ever made’) is the way it differs from horror conventions. The most obvious way is in its protagonist, Ripley. Originally, she was a man; Ridley Scott insisted on changing the character to a woman, and this is what makes Alien so special. Firstly, it’s a big deal for the protagonist in such gendered genres (sci-fi and horror are both usually dominated by men) to be a female. Scott makes a habit of ‘regendering’ genres – he would go on to feminize the road movie (very successfully) in Thelma and Louise, and the army film (not so successfully) in G.I . Jane. As Proast writes, ‘the film blazed trails for female protagonists to lay claim to the male-centered cinema that had reigned since the inception of motion pictures, including the most entrenched forms, the action genres.’

But that’s not where the film’s real importance lies. It would be noble, but not especially remarkable, if all Scott had done was to switch a female protagonist for a male one. But starting from that switch, the whole film becomes a study of gender roles. We see how the crew treat each other according to gender; Ripley’s orders, for example, are ignored by the other men even though she is at that time the commanding officer on the Nostromo. Quickly, though, the men are shown to be essentially incompetent. The audience is led to believe that the hero of the film will be the ship’s captain, Dallas. But it soon becomes clear that Dallas has no more clue how to deal with the Xenomorph (the alien) on the ship than any of the other men, and Ripley has to take charge. From this point on, she moves into the centre of the action and the frame, increasingly crowding the men out. Importantly, the men are useless exactly because of the characteristics most usually associated with masculinity; they are too impetuous, too given to violent response, too confident in their own competence. Dallas, for example, acts like he’s in an action movie, and he goes to solve the problem alone; but this isn’t an action movie and his male heroics are quickly and bloodily shown to be inadequate.

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The man most opposed to Ripley is Ash, the ship’s science officer. Finally, he snaps and attacks her and, in a strange and unsettling scene, attempts to choke her with a rolled-up pornographic magazine. This is a softly intertextual reference to a convention of the slasher; the inevitable scene where the female is stabbed repeatedly by the antagonist. It’s been said many times that the slasher movie is an acting out of violent male sexual desire; all those bad guys aren’t stabbing those girls, they’re symbolically raping them. The same is true here: Ash is trying to put Ripley in her place by violating her orally. Again, though, Ripley is empowered to fight back and triumph; the females are most definitely not the victims in Alien as they would be in a more conventional horror movie.  David McIntee, in his book Beautiful Monsters, writes that ‘Alien is a rape movie with male victims.’ He goes on to point out that gender roles are reversed in more ways than one in the film – in the film’s most famous and shocking scene, it is a man who gives birth to the Xenomorph. If Alien is anything, it is a tribute to female resilience, caution and perseverance and a warning against male aggression and arrogance. That Ridley Scott chose two of the most male-orientated genres to make his points in (revitalising and reinventing those genres in the process) is tribute to his, and the film’s, genius.

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Alien is an amazing, important, terrifying movie. It’s exceptionally well made and extremely effective. But it will be remembered, I suspect, for how it treats gender. It might be appropriate to compare it again to Dead Space, a game which effectively rips off every possible aspect of the film. But the makers of the game obviously thought the female protagonist was a step too far, even 30 years later in a post-Lara Croft world; they’ve changed the iconic Ripley to the faceless Isaac Clarke, and lost the point of the entire narrative in so doing.

Expressionism Round 2: Robocop Vs Metropolis

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is certainly not so obvious an ‘Expressionist’ as Tim Burton, but it’s not too difficult to trace the influence. Verhoeven has had a wide-ranging career, working in TV and Film (and Bible Studies, at a very high level!), in Dutch and English, and across several genres. He’s also made very well received films (Turkish Delight, Robocop, Total Recall) and at least one that was hated to a level which made it a cult in its own right (Showgirls – really, don’t bother.)

Perhaps the best known (and best) films of those he made in English are 1987’s Robocop and 1997’s Starship Troopers. Both of these, you might have guessed, are sci-fi movies, and to a film student, that’s almost without exception going to suggest a link back to Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis (1927), the first feature-length sci-fi movie ever made. Both films are fantastic, but Robocop is perhaps the best and most typical of Verhoeven’s auteurship. He has a very characteristic blend of violence (Robocop had to be trimmed substantially before release), humour and social satire which shouldn’t really work but (usually) does.
The story is set in Detroit at some point in the future. The city, in a familiar representation for fans of crime film or dystopian sci-fi, is seen as a broken, amoral hell. where crime and brutality are the norm. Everyone we meet, just about, is either a criminal or a victim of crime.  Given Detroit’s current problems, this choice of location seems remarkably prescient.
The police force in this dystopian future have been privatised; they are run partially as a private enterprise and their bosses are eager to make developments which will both control crime and create new areas for profit. The idea of a robotic cop is introduced early (and hilariously, when the first prototype goes wrong) in the move. It’s just a matter of time until our protagonist Murphy shows up, gets killed and is reanimated as Robocop.
Already, there are several themes and devices here which are typical of dystopian sci-fi and which originate fairly obviously in Metropolis. The choice of an urban location, firstly, and more generally the establishment of a location and a diegesis which is defined by conflict. The urban location is easily enough explained; crime generally happens in cities, so it makes sense to locate films which depend on crime for their narratives there. More than this, however, there is often a suggestion that the city itself engenders crime, that urbanisation or industrialisation or capitalism are processes which corrupt and brutalise humanity and actually encourage crime. It’s pretty obvious in Robocop that the ‘legitimate’ businessmen, those in charge of the police force, are not much more morally grounded or more useful to society than the ‘proper’ villains; the profit motive, the thing which defines all of them, is an inherently wicked concept, opposed to ‘proper’ human values as represented by the unquestioning commitment to service shown in Robocop and his sidekick, Anne Lewis. The dehumanising effect of urban, commercialised life is shown in many ways; for example, the news broadcasts which intersperse the action tell us about terrible tragedies which are then dismissed casually by the smiling news anchor. As such, conflict in this world is not caused by ‘bad people’ (although the baddies in Robocop are very bad indeed) but by social processes. When the film was made, Ronald Reagan in America and Margaret Thatcher in the UK were pushing aggressively capitalist-friendly policies – deregulation and privatisation of various industries, for example – and reflection theory might suggest that  Verhoeven is commenting on that from a more socialist European context. It is perhaps telling that there was quite a crop of dystopian sic-fi films made around this time.
Secondly, Detroit in Robocop is shown to be two cities in one. The first locations we see include the police station, which is swarming with all sorts of criminality and harassed cops. This is the city at ground level; criminal, seedy and typically noirish. We are also taken to the opulent boardrooms and homes of the executive class, however, perhaps most obviously to see one of them snorting cocaine from the breasts of a prostitute (the same cocaine, presumably, supplied by the chief criminal gang in the film – again, we see the ties between ‘real’ criminals and the ‘legitimate’ business class.) The offices and homes of these people are spacious, airy, full of light: a direct contrast to the dark, noirish interiors of the police station.
Verhoeven is offering us a view of a deeply divided society, one split between bosses and workers, masters and slaves. Again it seems that Verhoeven is offering a critique of a capitalist society which encourages the success of a small elite at the expense of the rest of society. America is often described as a society free of British-style class divisions; in Robocop, we see that there is a class system in operation, but one predicated upon wealth rather than birth.
The final tie to Metropolis is thematic; the philosophical question common to this sort of sci-fi, and one which links us back once again to Frankenstein and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, is -what is a human? Where is the line between man and machine or man and monster? Murphy’s character arc is perhaps predictable, but it is compelling nonetheless – not long after his transformation into Robocop, he starts to remember aspects of his previous life – his death, first of all, but then his son, his wife and so on. And he gradually becomes less robotic – especially once his mask comes off and he looks and becomes more human  – certainly, more human than many of the actual humans in the film. We’ve seen this before, most obviously in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, where the replicants (the robots) are often more human, more alive and aware of the beauty and fragility of life, than the humans:
Obviously, the point is that humanity is being dehumanised and degraded, and this is, perhaps, the defining theme of all dystopian sci-fi. It’s commonly said that sci-fi reflects an audience’s fears for the future and that these fears often involve humanity’s increasing dependence on technology. Robocop, like Blade Runner, complicates that theme a little; it’s not technology that is the problem, but human greed.
So, three things; a dystopian urban setting, a vision of a divided society, and an examination of the nature of humanity. All of these, as I’ve indicated, appear first in Metropolis so a quick examination of that film should show more clearly exactly how Verhoeven is working in an expressionist tradition. In terms of location, Metropolis absolutely established the conventions for how cities are represented in dystopian film. The famous images of a city which is both futuristic and grim are amongst the most iconic from any film.
This is, predictably, more expressionist and less naturalistic than Robocop; in terms of verisimilitude, Verhoeven’s vision of future Detroit is pretty much just 1987 Detroit. Lang, on the other hand, has constructed an amazing futuristic vision. Metropolis was one of the most expensive silent films ever made, and clearly a large part of that budget went on the astounding sets. Locations tend to be huge, dwarfing the humans who inhabit them, and the iconography is all of mechanics and machinery.
Clearly, what capitalism was to Verhoeven, industrialisation was to Lang; a dehumanising, brutalising process which turns people into parts of a machine.
Moreso than in Robocop, we see how strictly divided this society is. Here the divisions are formalised and official, and they are exemplified by the comparison between the conditions the workers labour in and the lifestyle enjoyed by the spoiled ruling classes. Freder, the son of the city’s ruler, spends his time at the start of the film idling in a beautiful garden, a location which clearly contrasts the dark, enclosed factories and workshops inhabited by the labourers.
Finally, and famously, we have Lang’s thoughts on the division between humanity and machinery, delivered through the figure of Maria; a robot, built in the image of a dead woman, who is given another woman’s appearance in order to deceive the inhabitants of the city.
Confusion between the ‘real’ woman and her robotic counterpart informs much of the film’s action, right up until the point when the robot woman is burned at the stake. Thematically, it seems clear that Lang is warning us about an over-reliance on technology; the robot is used (like Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Edward in Edward Scissorhands) by immoral people as a tool for evil. Indeed, the city itself depends for its existence on a central ‘Heart’ machine which, once destroyed, allows the entire city to flood. This dependence upon machinery, Lang suggests, leaves humanity both dehumanised (for the machinery itself demands consent maintenance, to the point where the population of the city are slaving permanently, reducing themselves to parts of that machine, simply to keep the city running) and vulnerable. There is a clear line between what is human and what is mechanical in this film; it is perhaps less thematically complex in this regard than Robocop.

Expressionism Round 1: Edward Scissorhands vs Dr Caligari

My last post, about German Expressionism, got me to thinking about the influence of those films. It’s huge, of course – just about every film or genre which interrogates the darker side of the human experience (horror, sci-fi, noir or neo-noir and so on) owes a debt to Nosferatu  or Metropolis or M. Students sometimes miss the links between then and now, so I thought I might try to draw a few of the more obvious links.

The director most obviously indebted to the Expressionists is Tim Burton. From his very first short, made in 1982 while he was working at Disney, the Expressionist influence on style and content is clear. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Burton’s style never meshed too well with the Disney vision. He didn’t last long.) Any still from that first stop-motion short, Vincent, shows how the Expressionist approach to light, location, aesthetic in general has been wholly adopted by Burton. The light and shade, exaggerated features, nightmarish locations and generally gothic tone – all present and correct. Watch it here.

It’s probably best to admit that I’ve never actually been a huge fan of Tim Burton. His ‘weirdness’ has always struck me as a little too tidy and packaged and, well, not actually very weird at all. His vision of the world is a lot lighter and ‘kookier’ than the Expressionists of old. This is not necessarily a criticism. Burton’s work is an acting-out of the common cultural transaction between the avant-garde and the mainstream; in the same way Quentin Tarantino took influences from the French New Wave and various somewhat obscure genres or movements, then packaged them together in a very mainstream-friendly way, Burton is taking Expressionist ideas and sanitising them for the bulk of viewers. This happens all the time, in all sectors of the cultural landscape. Elvis Presley took black rhythm and blues and toned down the overt sexuality a little to make it acceptable for a mainstream audience. Nickleback took the punky grunge of Nirvana and turned it into soft rock. Twilight is a cleaning-up of the vampire myth for a younger, less adventurous audience. (Compare Nosferatu to Edward Cullen…) World War Z takes the unconventional narrative structure of Max Brooks’ original (and fantastic) novel and ditches it in favour of Brad Pitt and a conventional action narrative. And there’s nothing particularly wrong with any of that; it’s just how culture works.

Having said all that, Burton has made some movies that I love. Big Fish is one of those films that I feel vaguely ashamed about liking; it is shamelessly sentimental and relies completely on Hollywood schmaltz and typical Burtonesque ‘kookiness.’ But, it’s a lovely, feel-good look at father-son relationships and Helena Bonham Carter isn’t too annoying in it. (Another thing that has troubled me about Burton is his dependence on Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Both fine actors, but scarily similar…)

My favourite of his films, though is Edward Scissorhands. Made in 1990, it’s about an ‘unfinished boy’ who has, unsurprisingly, scissors for hands. He is adopted by a regular family (insofar as anything is ever ‘regular’ in Burton’s world) and taken to live in what looks like a perfect American small town. This is effectively Burton’s reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – just as the early Expressionists looked to myths and gothic tales for inspiration, so does Burton in this instance. The location is brilliantly realised, with everything in sickly sweet pastels – houses, cars and people. It’s also very unrealistic which, of course, puts it firmly in the Expressionist tradition. There’s also some twisting of genre convention here; the spooky castle on the hill, where Edward lives, is actually a healthier environment for him than this superficially pleasant but cripplingly conservative suburb.

From the start it’s clear that not all is perfect in this world – the residents are variously promiscuous, nosey, deranged with religion or vindictive. More than anything else, it’s clear that the townsfolk (or, at any rate, the women) are frustrated and bored. Edward offers variety and contrast – in narrative terms, binary opposition – in every way. Most obviously, he looks different; dressed in black leather, he doesn’t exactly blend in with the pastels. Again, this focus on the ‘outsider’ experience is typically expressionist, although Burton is more inclined to present ‘outsiders’ as wholly good. The characterisation here is a lot simpler than in something like M.
Edward himself is an (expressionist) artist who works on a grand scale – he makes huge topiary and ice sculptures of body parts, animals, humans. For a while he is a local celebrity, but then, of course, the townsfolk turn against him. That ‘groupthink’ we saw in M is evident here also, represented by the local women, who egg each other on via frequent phone calls to first welcome and then persecute Edward.
The most obviously ‘expressionist’ thing about the film is the aesthetic – non-realistic locations, extreme camera angles, use of dramatic light and shade (especially in the castle, Edward’s home, at the start.) Here we see Peg Boggs (‘Avon calling!’) climbing the staircase in Edward’s mansion, and a more typical example of the expressionist aesthetic would be hard to find – lovely use of light, massive locations which dwarf the human subjects and, of course, the gothic iconography of the candles the windows and so on. Even the staircase itself and the frames on the window remind us of the ‘bars’, signifying entrapment, which crop up everywhere in Expressionist and, later, Noir film.
I’ve mentioned Lang’s M quite a lot here, but the most obvious Expressionist reference point is probably Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The subject matter is similar in that both films deal with ‘created’ humans; just as Edward is made by ‘The Inventor’ (Vincent Price – inspiration for Burton’s Vincent, in his very last role) Cesare is controlled and effectively ‘made’ by Dr Caligari. It’s a dark theme, the idea of one human assuming complete control over another, and as such it lends itself very well to the Expressionist treatment.
Locations in this film are much more expressionist and non-naturalistic:
Painted windows and shadows, walls and roofs distorted at weird angles, this is much more obviously artificial and extreme than Burton’s vision, and it reflects a much more twisted view of the world. Likewise, Edward is a bit tame compared to the silent, murderous Cesare, but it’s not difficult to see where Burton borrowed the dark clothes / white skin idea from:
And yet, Cesare is as vulnerable and as much of a victim as Edward is – he has no control over what he does. However the audience’s sympathies are not so clearly manipulated; we can’t help but love Edward, but Cesare is a genuine monster. In that regard, this film is more sophisticated, and it asks more from the audience, than Burton’s.
Finally, both films deliver their narratives via a framing device. In Burton’s case, this is a trick to crank up the sentimentality a little bit more; the story is told by Edward’s love interest Kim, years later as an old woman, and we all realise that they have been close together – Edward is back up in his castle –  yet separated for decades. In Wiene’s film, however, we find out at the end that the whole thing is the dream of a madman in an asylum, and all the characters suddenly shift on us; our hero is actually a lunatic, our villain is a doctor and so on. This complicates things and makes the viewer’s response even more problematic. Indeed, by the end of the film, we are not sure who to like; Burton’s film never comes close to creating that sort of ambiguity.
To my mind, then, Caligari is the better film, if we judge films according to the demands they make on viewers. Clearly, though, Tim Burton has managed to make these ‘old’ ideas and aesthetics work for a contemporary audience, and that’s no mean feat in itself.
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Sirens and Sinners: German Expressionist Cinema

Our Year 12 students have been looking at such German Expressionist classics as M and NosferatuThe Guardian recently had a slideshow of images from more of these films. Have a look – many of our ideas about film aesthetics were formed by these directors and cinematographers; many of whom, of course, were soon to flee from Nazi persecution to America, where they played a massive role in shaping Hollywood.

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My favourite is Fritz Lang’s M. Not only the first cop movie and the first psycho thriller, but a more sophisticated look at the nature of psychosis and group terror – particularly apt given the increasing violence and suspicion in Germany at the time of making – than most directors can manage now. I think it’s a real breakthrough for those students who can watch something so (usually) far removed from their normal experience and understand why it’s so important AND appreciate how it still works today. There’s a good essay on it here. Even better, just watch it…