Outwardly Australian Cinema
By Daniel Bowden
This essay will discuss James Wan’s psychological horror Saw (2004). The film’s position within Australian cinema will be examined in contrast to its international reception and distribution. The USA-based collaborative production model will be assessed as the determining factor in the film’s success with a view to highlighting the future potential of the Australian industry.
Saw was first conceived by young budding film makers James Wan and school friend Leigh Whannell as a graduate project in 2001. It was pitched to Australian executives and yielded little interest until Whannell’s Australian agent suggested they look further afield to evoke support. Before embarking on their junket to LA, the pair produced a self-funded pilot for $7000 which was filmed in the basement of a Melbourne hospital (Tedmanson 2004). This gained interest from Evolution a US media company who, on viewing the one scene short, allocated a $US1.4million budget (Tedmanson 2004). The film was subsequently shot at the Lacy Street Production Centre, LA, according to IMDB (2016).
Despite its somewhat humble beginnings, Saw became an internationally acclaimed film that grossed $US23.8 million in the first two years following its release, paving the way for seven sequels, making it the highest grossing franchise in the horror genre in America (Dunn, E. & Maddox, E 2008). The horror genre’s fanatical subculture, allowed Saw to overcome initial criticism and to go on to be the most successful horror franchise of all time (Poole 89).
As cited in a journal article by Ben Goldsmith, George Miller argues that Australian-ness within film production will invariably bleed through into peoples perception, regardless of the obscured presence of Australian contributors (2014). Saw was conceived, produced, directed and performed by Australians yet, Miller’s ‘bleed-through’ is far from obvious. The setting of the film is ambiguous as the plot unfolds in an omni-locational context. In terms of its primary place of production, its funding and its high earnings at the boxoffice, Saw is certainly not a stereotypical Australian film.
However, in a 2004 interview, Saw’s creator and protagonist Leigh Whannell attributes the film’s voyeuristic style to being Australian. According to Whannell, because Australia is an isolated community with an often stark and lacklustre film industry, we quietly observe from the “bottom of the world” (Monk 2004). He also goes on to mention that some of the film’s torture devices, like the jaw trap, were taken from old methods of subduing Australian colonial convicts (Monk 2004).
With a cast of notable US stars, Cary Elwes, Danny Glover and Monica Porter, it would be fair to say that the majority of viewers would not have been aware of the Australian input. The Australian involvement with the film was not widely highlighted in the international media, which is disappointing for Australian cinema, but which also had the vindicating effect of exposing Saw to the same level of scrutiny as any other film in the international arena.
In an article by Susan Wloszczyna from USA Today (2004), it is telling where the Australian input for Saw was placed and valued within the American psyche at the time. Wloszczyna commends the ‘well connected L.A. producers’ for attracting the big Hollywood names (2004). The implication here, and with a cursory mention of the “Aussie film-school pals” (2004), is that Americans made this film with only minor antipodean input. The refreshing lacuna of Australian clichés in Saw allows this article to focus on the film’s merit rather than its Australiana, and it sets up Wan and Whannell as contributors to the Hollywood cinema landscape rather than tokens of ‘otherness’.
In the Australian media the film was embraced, and its Australian roots were celebrated. Nick Papps of the Australian tabloid newspaper The Herald Sun portentously sung its praises in a ‘what’s-hot-now’ style statement, “Saw opened at Sundance Film Festival where it received rave reviews” (2004). Similarly, Saw’s Australian reception was hailed by Australian journalist Luke Dennehy as “… a success story the Australian film industry desperately need[ed]” (2004).
By contrast, the initial American mainstream response was poor and could never have anticipated its first release as anymore than a flash-in-the-pan. Saw’s critical reception was regarded by The New York and LA Times as distasteful, vile and pure filth (Poole 2012). Roger Ebert condoned the film’s efficiency in shock value, but condemned the two dimensional and underdeveloped characters (2004).
However, the horror genre has long attracted a different sort of audience, catering to those who would much prefer to watch grind-house, underground, experimental productions. Saw managed to overcome the scathing reviews, benefiting from the cumulative word of mouth of a cult following, facilitated by a staggered release model. Exhibition ran from October 2004 to June 2005 and enlisted 30 distribution organisations worldwide all of which have an internationally competitive track record. Within a month of Saw’s release at Sundance Film Festival, it was screened in 1500 cinemas across the USA alone (IMDB 2016).
Without such an established distribution capacity Saw would not have been nearly as successful internationally, and it was for precisely this reason that Wan and Whannell took their idea off-shore. In itself, the film could easily have been produced within Australia. The bulk of the action is confined to small spaces, which adds to a sense of claustrophobic menace, but importantly minimises costs by restricting the single shoot location. The cost of this success however, was the loss of recognition for Australia. Could politely declining well-worn pathways set by US production, distribution and exhibition hegemony, become the new Australian identity? (Goldsmith 2014).
To gain recognition, increase support and strengthen an outward-looking ‘Industry 3’ focus (Goldsmith 2014), local distribution and production will require revision and enhancement eschewing rigid models set by earlier standards (Connelly 2008), as well as resisting the pull to take productions offshore to garner financial support. The current scarcity of innovation and labor in this field also encourages producers to seek help from further afield. However, if new incentives were rewarded for “working innovatively with smaller budgets” for example, this could become the defining feature that reflects our industry (Goldsmith 2014).
The success of Australian films in an international market currently relies on collaborative efforts with well established industries such as the USA. However, with similar production models to James Wan’s Saw and revised government and industry incentives this needn’t be the case, thus independent films could flourish from within Australia to reach an international market.
1) Connelly, R 2008 Embracing innovation: a new methodology for feature film production in Australia, AFTRS, February, Pp, 201-203.
2) Dennehy, L 2004, ‘Saw feat just what we needed’, The Herald Sun, 27 November, p. 1.
3) Dunn, E. & Maddox, E 2008, ‘Nouveau Riche’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 October, p. 26.
4) Ebert, R, <rogerebert.com> 2004, Reviews, weblog post, October 28, 2004, viewed 24 August 2016, <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/saw-2004>.
5) Goldsmith, B 2016, ‘Outward-looking Australian cinema’, Studies in Australian Cinema, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 199-214.
6) Monk, K 2004, Smart, cheap horror flick gets star treatment, Entertainment Weekly, 30 October 2004, p. 12.
7) Papps, N 2004, ‘Students strike it rich Film students sign big deal, The Herald Sun, 17th September, pg. 11.
8) Poole, Ben 2014, SAW, e-book, accessed 26 August 2016, <http:// rmit.eblib.com.au/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=1729705>, P. 88.
9)Tedmanson, S. 2004, ‘Filmmakers saw their window of opportunity’, The Australian, 27 August, p. 3.
10) Wloszczyna,S 2004, ‘Saw sinks into audiences; Horror flick brings Toronto flick to a close’, USA Today, 20 September, p. D 8.
Forgotten Silver - A homage to the genre of documentary
By Daniel Bowden
In 1995, Costa Botes and Peter Jackson set out to produce one of the most sophisticated cinematic hoaxes that the film world had seen thereto, in an expositional mock-documentary so naturalistic that audience members embraced the production as if it were purporting unmediated truth. Much of what drew the audience into the lie centred around Forgotten Silver’s formal structure, style, nationalistic appeal and exhibition.
Since its release, Forgotten Silver has evoked much discourse within the film community and general public. In a 1997 journal article, Roscoe and Hight critically examine Forgotten Silver and argue that mock-documentary filmmakers such as Botes and Jackson “use documentary techniques for a very different effect than that to which the orthodox documentary aspires” (1997). In this essay, I will discuss the technical and ideological tropes used in Forgotten Silver in order to analyse the extent to which the film relates to Roscoe and Hight’s statement.
In an attempt to understand Roscoe and Hight’s quote, we must unpack and define some specifics of this statement. The term ‘effect’ centres on what the filmmaker hopes to gain from their audience, for example, an ‘orthodox’ documentary may aspire to present a factual text in the hope that the viewers will concede to their views, they may do this by presenting an argument and justifying it with ‘facts’. In the case of Forgotten Silver, Botes and Jackson’s ‘effect’ was to use the same patterns and techniques as conventional documentary to create a myth disguised as fact. The overarching impact was to force the audience to question the very assumptions on which their ideologies are based (Roscoe & Hight 2016).
It is important to understand why Botes and Jackson went to such extreme measures to frame their mock-documentary as an account of true history. Historically, New Zealand has had a notoriety for producing elaborate satirical hoaxes that are intended to parody. Take for example the Town and Around: Turkeys In Gumboots prank that was broadcast on national television in 1968 (NZOnscreen 2008). This was a current affairs style segment that told of a story about farmer Ralph and his campaign to have turkeys wear gumboots to attract the opposite sex. This piece craftily lampooned the fashion industry and consumer ideologies using documentary techniques to reinforce and legitimise the hoax. The techniques included; voice-of-god narration, an investigatory journalist reporting the story with a focus on New Zealand culture, and eyewitness accounts (NZonscreen 2008).
Similarly, a Country Calendar spoof by Berton Silver titled Rural Music (1977) about musical farmers and their quest for the perfect sounding cattle fence was made in response to Turkeys In Gumboots. Here, Silver is also directing his satire at current affairs programmes, specifically at their tendency to report meaningless articles for a vacuous minority. Silver’s narrative structure is clear and immersive with a definite beginning, middle and an end. This is another example of documentary techniques being used to ally with ideological expectations in order to subvert them (NZOnScreen 2008).
Likewise, Botes and Jackson take this line of reproach toward the media in Forgotten Silver. Their intention is not only to pay homage to film greats of the past, but also to parody New Zealand culture and deconstruct the “expectations or assumptions of factual discourse” (Roscoe, & Hight 2001). Using finely tuned satire supported by world class cinematic techniques, they are able to crystallise their myth. In all three cases, orthodox codes are used to parody the well-worn styles of conventional documentary in order to fabricate mythical stories.
Forgotten Silver also shares many of the same codes and conventions used in customary documentaries and fictional dramas to drive the story forward (Bordwell & Thompson 2013). For example, in the introductory scene of the film, the viewer is lured into the warm familiarity of a garden path scene where Jackson humbly talks of how he used to “play in these gardens as a child” (Forgotten Silver 1995). He goes on to talk about of the owner of these grounds, Hannah McKenzie, who is purported to be the widow of Colin McKenzie, Colin being the crux of the fabricated story that ensues. The mood however quickly turns mysterious when Jackson leads us to the place where a significant discovery was made. There is a sense of foreshadowing tension, heightened by the foreboding music score and ominous low-key lighting of the shed where Colin’s forgotten films are uncovered (Bordwell &Thomson 2013, p.129). These techniques create suspense and intrigue and are traditionally used in fiction as well as nonfiction to draw the viewer into the myth.
From the beginning of the film to end, Botes and Jackson meticulously construct their lie using technical elements and narrative structure that is commonly seen in conventional documentaries that aspire to present truth. Another technique that is used to build the evidence around the myth is the inclusion of actual historical figures and events, such as the inventor Richard Pearse and footage from WW1. Botes has remarked that it is better to “Tell a lie with the truth” (NZonscreen). The fact that Forgotten Silver meanders between fact and fiction in such a way as to blur the boundaries an conventions of both, makes it a perfect fit for Kent Jones’ assertion that “All good fiction aspires to the condition of documentary and vice versa” (Jones).
Forgotten Silver purports to uncover facts about Colin McKenzie’s lost film archive, the fictitious hero was said to be a filmmaker who overcame industry adversity and personal constraints to produce his silent film tour de force, Salome. Colin’s film is a fabulated creation by Jackson, it tells a biblical story of treachery and deceit, a narrative stye that one would expect from an early 20th century silent film. It also has the look of a film from that era, the frame aspect ratio is set at the Academy Standard of 1.37:1 with deliberate weathering in the film stock to replicate the old film look. In an interview, Jackson states that he was wary not to scratch the film too excessively as this may have looked contrived and thus fabricated (NZOnScreen). Jackson was so determined to make Salome’s style as true to life as possible, and like early silent cinema, he applied a colour tinting process to the film which was commonly used in the silent era to relay a sense of dread or desperation. Tinting is different to the Technicolor process seen in The Wizard of Oz (1939) for example. Technicolor endeavoured to emulate lifelike tones using a broad colour palette, whereas tinting was monotone with either reds, blues or greens washed over the entire image. With the introduction of Technicolor, these techniques were quickly usurped and therefore the tinting inclusion in Forgotten Silver is another way the producers have used former technologies to persuade viewers by creating an authentic representation of the era when Colin McKenzie’s films were supposedly shot. To reinforce Botes and Jackson’s hoax, Forgotten Silver was screened by Television New Zealand on Sunday, 8 November 1995 which was the ‘quality drama Montana Sunday Theatre slot’. As the hour attracted seasoned film enthusiasts, the public took this as a sign of authenticity, that if a film was to be screened alongside sophisticated drama, then it must be real. The backlash incurred bitter scorn from many viewers as they felt deceived (Mocking Silver: Roscoe and Hight P 68).
Over the years, ideology has shaped peoples’ expectations of documentary. Dominant conventions such as expository voice-of-god narration, scientific findings and celebrity eyewitness accounts, elicit “assumptions of factual discourse” (Faking 160). In Forgotten Silver, the eyewitness plays a large role in feigning a sense of factual logic. In a talking-heads interview, film historian Leonard Maltin was ask to describe his feelings on the discovery of Colin McKenzie’s work. Maltin presents his staged interview with a theatrical realism harping back to Stanislavski’s teachings (1937), his performance is seamless and he comes across as genuine. Likewise, Miramax film boss Harvey Weinstein is interviewed in a similar setting, he speaks of McKenzie’s profound pantheon worthy achievements. Like Maltin, Weinstein’s performance is candid and convincing and the framing and lighting suggest that it is not staged but an interview on the fly.
By creating authenticity through celebrity appearances, the ideology to support the myth is further enriched. Sam Neill is one of the most notable celebrities to appear in the exposition. It goes without saying that, as an acting veteran, his performance was persuasive and immersive. Peter Jackson is acutely aware of the impact that celebrities would have on reinforcing his myth, and in an interview he stated; “When you see somebody who you recognise, who isn’t an authority on a particular subject […] talking with authority and conviction, it becomes difficult for people to believe that this couldn't possibly be true” (Behind the Bull 2000).
Although documentary filmmakers’ objectives are perpetually redefined, there are ideological conventions that are culturally reinforced and set by industrial hegemony. A commonly used notion is that a documentary’s fundamental structure should “take shape around an informing logic” (Discovering FS p111). A documentary producer will collect and present the evidence that supports their view of a subject, as they aim to persuade the audience to think about and consider their argument. Botes and Jackson embrace this notion and use it to subvert the truth and expose the naiveté of a media hungry popular culture.
The extent to which Jackson and Botes carried out their self-confessed epic cinematic hoax Forgotten Silver firmly places this film on the stage with epic documentaries that aspire to offer viewers unmediated ’truth’. Unlike other mock documentaries where the hoax becomes blatant, like in Alex Rivera’s part animated political satire Why Cybreros? [sic] (Contemporary Documentary Film 2015 p.121), Botes and Jackson carry the lie right through to the end credits. There is little allusion to the fact that Forgotten Silver is a hoax because the techniques used emulate familiar patterns of orthodox documentary form. There are however, hints throughout the film, like when Jackson presents his discovery to camera as he walks ‘up the garden-path’ during the film’s intro — a metaphor that implies the proverb that ‘we are being had’.
Similarly, there is another clue to the myth seen when the investigatory team uncover the old crypt that housed the film. The scene reveals a cover-stone with an embossed bull figure, which Jackson confesses to be the symbol of “a big load of bull’. Another technique used by Botes and Jackson in order to make Forgotten Silver compelling is to play on societal pride, and they have calibrated the film to appeal to New Zealand patriotism. This is seen in a reference to early 20th century New Zealand inventor Richard Pearse, who is a real historical figure and not one constructed by the producers. The sequence reveals the true story of Pearse’s ‘heavier-than-air-machine’ (Abbot 2015), our fictitious hero McKenzie, is appended to the event as he films Pearse’s first flight. With a preposterous film analysis technique that sees the camera zoom in on the date of a bystanders newspaper, the sequence proves that Pearse’s flight had preceded the Wright Brothers’ aeronautical debut. This acts as an homage to New Zealand’s ingenuity and innovative spirit and therefore further instils Botes and Jackson’s myth. The footage of the battlefield in WWI, where McKenzie and his brother met their demise, expands the sense of New Zealand pride. The cinematic reconstruction of the early Anzacs was incredibly convincing and it strongly reinforces Botes and Jackson’s myth, however, in a review of Forgotten Silver, one respondent stated that the film was an affront to his national pride. In fact, many expressed annoyance at the fact that they had been deceived (Behind the Bull - 10:00).
But despite the public’s indignation towards Botes and Jackson for their film, such acts of satire are of utmost importance in that they remind the public that the documentary conventions, which we frequently see, might also be used for sinister intentions, and must therefore be questioned. Triumph of Will (1937) for example, is a German film industry tour de force that had a nation buying into the Führer Adolph Hitler’s dangerous ideologies. In conclusion, Botes and Jackson have used documentary conventions and techniques in order to repeatedly underscore the ‘truth’ of the story they are presenting. Using archival footage, narrative format, candid interviews and even celebrity appearances Forgotten Silver is designed to make the viewer believe that this is an exposition of fact. Roscoe and Hights’ claim that mock-documentaries use such techniques for a very different purpose to that of documentaries does therefore not apply in this instance because Botes and Jackson are employing the same methodology for the same purpose of relaying a factual account. The dubious nature of their project does not mean that the intent and effect of the techniques used are any different.
The question remains however as to whether Botes and Jackson ultimately wished for their deceptive methods to be found out. If Botes and Jackson hoped that an informed audience would eventually recognise the immense skill with which their lie was concocted, then Roscoe and Hights’ statement holds true. It could be said that Forgotten Silver uses conventional techniques to undermine the documentary genre, which at worst can fall into propaganda, scare-mongering or obfuscation of the truth. In some ways Forgotten Silver acts as both an homage to the genre of documentary, by highlighting its craft, as well as being a deeply subversive and satirical affront to the genre as it underscores its potential to deceive.
1) Abbott, M 2015, Reform and efficiency of New Zealand's airports, Utilities Policy, vol. 36, pp. 1–9.
2) Alexa Internet 2008, NZonscreen, viewed 7th June 2016, <https://www.nzonscreen.com>
3) Behind the Bull 2010, documentary, Lone Pine Film & Television Productions, New
4) Bordwell, K, Thompson, D 2013, Film Art: An introduction’’, 10th edition, McGraw-Hill, New York.
5) Forgotten Silver 1995, mock-documentary, WingNut Films, New Zealand.
6) Jones, K 2005, I walk the line, Film Comment, vol, 41:1, January-February 2005.
7) Juhasz, A, Lebow, A (eds) 2015, A companion to: contemporary documentary, Wiley Blackwell, p.121.
8) Nichols, B 1991 Documentary Modes of Representation [extract: Modes & The Expository Mode] Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, USA, p32-38.
9) Rivera, A 1997, Why Cybraceros?, online, <https://vimeo.com/46513267>
10) Roscoe, J, Hight, C 1997, Discovering Forgotten Silver: An Exercise in Deconstructing Documentaries [online], vol. 122, pp. 29-37.
11) Roscoe, J, Hight, C 2001, Faking It: Mock-documentary and the subversion of factuality, Manchester University Press, England.
12) Sennett, A 2014, Film Propaganda: Triumph of the Will as a Case Study, Framework 55 (1), pp. 45-65.
13) Stanislavski C 1937, An Actor Prepares , Great Britain, Geoffrey Bles Ltd.
14) The Wizard of Oz 1939, motion picture, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), USA.
Jacques Tati’s "Playtime"
By Daniel Bowden
Jacques Tati’s feature film Playtime (1967) portrays a highly ordered world in which a modern city is presented as an alienating and confounding environment, within which humans are forced to operate in a mechanical fashion, or as gadgets in a circuit board. The following essay will analyse Tati’s use of set design, framing, lighting, performance, blocking, costume and sound within a particular shot that epitomises the film’s critical exploration of modern life. The apparent advancements in technology, efficiency and bureaucratic order are revealed to be ultimately shallow, faulty and misaligned with human nature, which is personified by the protagonist Monsieur Hulot.
The frame in question begins with a long shot of Monsieur Hulot on an office mezzanine overlooking twenty turquoise cubicles, which are set out in a grid formation on the floor below. The cubicles are placed within a larger warehouse space that is surrounded by steel and glass with only a glimpse of the external world. Each cubicle is inhabited by at least one office worker seated at a desk, though what commerce is being conducted is left ambiguous emphasising that the ritualistic pursuits of office working automatons are possibly futile and perhaps superfluous to human necessity.
The grid formation is a motif that is used throughout the film, in the layout of the city and in the numerous establishing shots of the buildings. Tati has set up the sense that this regimented structure is ubiquitous in the modern world. In this shot, the grid is the dominating structure and it imposes the notion of rats in a bureaucratic maze.
The camera is mounted in a locked off high angle position above the room producing a very wide crane shot tilted down. This allows significant detail in the frame; from the sheen on the balustrade in the foreground, the pastel colours of the folders carried by the office workers, the shiny metal bulkhead to the right of frame and the congested traffic out on the street in the background. This shot glorifies the mechanical space as a whole and attenuates human presence.
Similarly, the lighting in this shot has been employed to create an unnatural and lifeless atmosphere. It has been meticulously lit with three point high-key lighting reducing contrast. I can only surmise that there are at least twenty sources of light, each illuminating essential elements of the mise-en-scene. At the back of the shot we are invited to remember the light outside and that there is a life beyond the ubiquitous florescent tone of the office interior — a glimmer of hope for humanity perhaps.
From the mezzanine floor where we see a back shot of Monsieur Hulot, side-lighting is used which delicately creates the outline of his figure and minor detail on his left side, plunging his back and jacket into shadow and bringing our attention to the more luminous cubicles and the office bustle below. The figures that are set between the cubicles are casting shadows on the floor suggesting top-lighting has been used, of which, Monsieur Hulot is not a part. This most definitely puts him on the outside again telling the viewer that he is “not a part of the group”, as mentioned in a later scene.
Each cubicle has its own fill lighting source enclosed within, which is made apparent by the definition of the figures in the booths and the direction that their shadows have been cast. With the addition of the top light and the sidelight from the exterior, these people are discernible, but you cannot see their individual facial features, which adds to their robotic appearance.
The 70mm wide-angle technique employed by Tati allows the frame to be teaming with detail. Only on several subsequent viewings could one recognise certain hidden subtleties that further reduce the living aspects, such as the fact that some of the figures in the cubicles are cardboard cut-out mannequins. Initially a cost cutting solution in the film’s production, these stationary deadened figures strengthen the idea of a lifeless society that can only deliver the semblance or facade of human interaction.
Monsieur Hulot provides the antidote to the sterility and order. His position within the shot, set at a distance from the activities below immediately emphasises his difference, or otherness, as does the physicality of the performances in this shot. Hulot paces the foreground with an almost animalistic physicality, his actions mirror that of an anxious canine who is lost and in search of reason. Furthermore, after he navigates his gangly frame to settle into a new position, he leans to one side with his trademark tilt that does not conform to the synthetic grid structure. To bring our attention closer to this point, Tati uses blocking to create a contrast in the strides of the people below. They follow a strict militant right angle trajectory as if they were robots, which accentuates Monsieur Hulot’s living, breathing, meandering gait.
Hulot’s attire also sets him apart from the office-working drones. His clothes are ill-fitting, his hat is creased, flattened and is off set, his trousers are too short exposing his socks. By comparison, the people on the floor below are sharply dressed, with a dynamic contrast of crisp white and black. When compared to our protagonist, their clothes look new, reflecting the new world order, whereas Hulot’s are clearly old and out of date, reflecting his obsolescence.
Monsieur Hulot is the bumbling embodiment of disorder, though his overtly clumsy and incompetent manner is not frowned upon by the viewer in this shot, it is in fact charming, entertaining and ultimately human. Monsieur Hulot’s “human incompetence is preferable to the city’s inhumane competence” and it shines a spotlight on the machine that we’ve become.
Nevertheless, the humans ensconced in this machine, on the surface, seem more than happy to be a part of this robotic ritual as seen in the jovial interaction between two gentleman to the left of frame. This is highlighted further in the next shot by the saccharine tonality of the receptionist positioned in the centre of the room, her luring mannerisms invite Monsieur Hulot in on a human level, however, the automated swivel of her chair ceases their brief unity like an off switch. This suggests that under the veneer, it is a cold and spurious landscape.
The peripheral features in the frame have a colour palette that ventures no further than, whites, blacks and various greys; the tones of cold metal in a machine. To reinforce the visual temperature of the shot, the cubicles themselves have a slight turquoise hue that is akin to icebergs floating in a cold lifeless sea, strengthening the sense of human disconnection.
It terms of the audio component of the shot, there is an underlying electronic hum that dominates the voices of the humans and there is very little audible person to person communication. This constant buzz suggests that this place is perhaps faulty and more robot than it is human, it could short circuit and breakdown at any moment. Perhaps Tati means to suggest that, because the new technological society is ultimately man-made, it must therefore also be flawed. The ominous, ever-present buzzing in this shot is a persistent reminder of the underlying imperfection and fallibility of the new order.
In conclusion, Tati’s message, as relevant today as it was in the 1960s, that we should question our increasing dependence on technology, our monotonous daily ritual and our systematised existence in the modern city is epitomised in this shot. Hulot’s alienation and his inability to connect with or understand the other people in the scene is presented through set design, framing, lighting, performance, blocking, costume and sound.
Hulot’s discomfort has demarcated him from this contemporary society and his isolation reminds us that we must maintain a connection with our fellow humans in a constantly advancing technological world.
1. Cardullo, B 2012, European Directors and Their Films, Plymouth UK , Scarecrow Press, p. 143.
2. Rohdie, S 2012, Intersections: Writings on Cinema, Manchester UK , Manchester University Press, p. 24.
3. Bordwell, D. & Thompson, K 2012, Film Art: An Introduction, New York , McGraw Hill, p. 190.
4. Interview with Jacques Tati by Studs Terkel, Paris, (1962).
How Jaws and Dawn of the Dead Relate to High Concept Cinema
By Daniel Bowden
This essay will discuss Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws and how it relates to the notion of ‘high-concept’ by investigating the project’s merchandising, narrative, exhibition and graphic branding. By contrast, I will explore how George A. Romero’s feature Dawn of the Dead (1978) is not a high-concept film in relation to the same criteria. In order to decide whether these films are high-concept or not, it is important to understand the history of how this definition came to be.
Before the 1950’s, film industry oligopoly meant that studios had total control over the production, distribution and exhibition of cinema (Gomery 1986). The bulk of the film industry’s profits were channelled to the vertically integrated ‘Big Five’, which was a term given to the primary Hollywood studios; 20th Century Fox, RKO Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Gomery). To maximise profits, each of the five aforementioned film studios would release an ‘A’ class film accompanied by subsidiary ‘B’ films, which was a strategy to guarantee the inclusion of subsequent genres and extend their release to a wider audience. So for example, when Victor Flemming released The Wizard of Oz in 1939 through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, MGM also released smaller budget films such as Burn 'Em Up O’Connor, a lower budget race car film by Edward Sedgwick, and goofball comedies like Joe and Ethel Turp Call on the President by Robert B. Sinclair. These films used the classic styles of narration that were the forerunners to Jaws and Dawn of the Dead.
However, the doomed vertical integrated model encouraged industry price-fixing and collusion until, on July 25th 1949, the United States Supreme Court ruled the divorcement of the ‘Big Five & Little 3 — Universal, Columbia and United Artists. As a result of this breakup studio profits declined rapidly and the industry was in disarray (Gomery). A compounding factor to the film industry’s dwindling profits through the 50s and the 60s, was the fact that Americans began turning to television and other leisure activities. By the late 1960s, Hollywood studios saw annual losses of up to $200 billion (Bordwell & Thompson 2012). Consequently, film bosses attempted to reconnect with audiences by producing films that emulated successful releases of the previous era (King 2007). But by the 1970s, audiences had developed a vehement distrust for authority, and this dubiety was crystallised by the televised battle footage of The Vietnam War which was being broadcast globally. The Watergate Scandal of 1972 exacerbated this mass insubordination, as it was confirmation that the leaders did not necessarily know what’s best. By this stage, George A. Romero’s debut production, Night of the Living Dead (1968) had already made an impact on the independent film circuit. This film satirised The Vietnam War and was the first step in a career characterised by social critique.
Up to this point, very few films were turning over the enormous profits seen during the time of the vertically integrated system. Therefore, to avoid economic collapse, cinema bosses had no choice but to explore new modes of production in order to reconnect with audiences’ desires. As a last measure, the doors were opened to new film styles, those that drew from European New Wave Cinema and Italian Neo Classicism, which by the 60s were exhibited internationally via new broadcasting technologies like television. It is argued that New Hollywood Cinema is the period between the 60s and the 70s that
shifted and modified traditional genres and themes. These films would draw upon classical forms but mutate them to conform to market trends (King). Both Spielberg and Romero were influenced by these styles, but whereas Spielberg focused on the thrill of the cinematic experience, Romero chose instead to entice a more niche audience concerned with world issues.
After the brief period of 1970s Dionysian filmmaking, the emergence of a new fraternity of filmmakers came into the spotlight, they were known as ‘Movie Brats’ (King). This was a term given to the next generation of filmmakers hailing from The University of California, they were highly educated in film theory possessing specialist skills that could potentially to a turn B grade film in to an A grade film (Bordwell & Thompson). Steven Spielberg was a part of this movement. He was a tenacious budding filmmaker who admits to possessing a fascination in creating suspense through eliciting a visceral response from his audience as mentioned in the Academy Achievement Award speech in 2006.
These qualities place many of Spielberg’s films within the ‘high-concept’ model, which would target youth culture. According to Terence Rafferty of The New York Times, adolescents responded to anxiety far more effectively than any other movie going demographic. Those seeking a thrill at a theme park were the same who would pay money at the box office to be shocked by gore and violence caring less about politics and world issues. Spielberg understood this and extended on the model’s simplification to ensure that the audience were not alienated by esoteric subplots. He applied a dumbed down narrative scheme, relying on a seismic yet succinct story that was no more meaningful than it was “moronically stupid” (Rafferty 2000).
During the summer of 1975, and after coming off the set of his debut feature film Duel (1971), Spielberg had sensation seeking audiences flood to 409 cinemas across the United States for Jaws’ June 20th front-loaded premier, spurred by the largest ever television canvassing campaign hitherto. This was a prodigious promotional campaign that cost Universal Pictures $700,000 and immediately connected with the audience (Alter 2010).
Tapping into youth culture further was the film’s branding and merchandise; beach towels, lunch-boxes, arcade games, a soundtrack and Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel of the same name, upon which the film was based. Both the film’s poster and novel’s cover presented a fear generating image of a vulnerable female haplessly swimming on the surface when below, and unbeknownst to her, lurks a giant shark closing in for an imminent attack. The entire film could be synopsised with this image alone, and it is instantly recognisable branding. According to Wyatt, these are some of the key forces that define a high-concept film (Wyatt 1994).
Universal Pictures’ total budget for the film came in at $2.5 million and Jaws made $7 million on its first week. By the end of the summer, it had made $129 million during the season becoming the first film to exceed a $100 million profit. The Jaws marketing model had set the standard for the modern-day summer blockbuster as we know it today (Alter 2010).
The term “high concept” can be used to codify this strategical marketing model identifying commercial projects with broad marketing appeal that can be elucidated with a one line pitch. Their basic narrative structure and easily accessible themes allow the application of an aggressive integrated marketing strategy to be appended to their release; sequels, merchandise, simultaneous exhibition and a pre-sold premise like a book are all encapsulated within this model.
The two major components of Jaws’ style is its simplification of character/narrative and a tangible relationship between the images and musical score. With the fusing of these elements, Spielberg was able shock people on a visceral level and furthermore appeal to a wider audience as he didn't alienate any of his viewers (Wyatt 1994). Despite its colossal profits, Jaws didn’t broach themes much deeper than the conflict between the working-class and the educated, or, capitalist governments who are more concerned with municipal revenue rather than the wellbeing of the society — topics that were hardly groundbreaking. These are only superficial themes acting more as functions for the plot’s progression rather than satirical commentary, “This is the sort of picture that wants the audience not to think too hard” (Rafferty 2000).
By contrast, the narrative style of Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, which shares the same horror genre as Jaws, elicits a bodily response from the audience, yet the whole film functions as a multilayered allegorical metaphor. At a glance, Dawn of the Dead’s narrative seems simple, ‘escape the zombies or get eaten’, however, Romero’s entire oeuvre is highly satirical commenting on issues of racism, abortion, fuel shortage, poverty, consumerism and the remnants of past wars. In an interview cited by Philippa Hawker of The Age, Romero states, “The ideas always come from what’s happening in the world” (2008).
In the opening sequence of Dawn of the Dead, we are immediately made aware of racial divisions in the Pennsylvanian town where the film is set, an officer of the law delivers a vitriolic remark aimed at the racial subgroups, all the while executing the dead with a semblance to the Old West or the phlegmatic slaughter seen during The Vietnam War. By placing archetypes such as religious figures, youths of an earlier counterculture and suburban mall-going automatons within the frame, Romero sets up the film’s key expositional commentary, consumerism.
At the time of Dawn of the Dead’s release, the new post-war American dream was changing the landscape of the suburbs, decongesting the inner city streets and populating regions in the outskirts. Suburbia was seen as a safe, orderly, quiet haven to consume mass produced items (Scharoun 2012). As the sprawl extended geographically, so too did the demand for goods, this in turn led to a rapacious zombie-like society revelling in excess, buying inessential items, and losing touch with the fundamentals of human existence. “By setting the bulk of the action in the shopping mall, Romero consciously draws the audience’s attention toward the relationship between zombies and consumerism” (William Bishop 2010). But this is not only represented by the zombies, it is also seen in the survivors. Once the protagonists establish a safe barricade within the secured walls of the mall, characters Roger and Peter, our men in uniform, begin a frenzied looting spree of the shopping mall, loading up on superfluous items and exclaiming the words “Let’s go shopping!”. This scene serves as a counterpoint to the mindless flesh eating zombies who are essentially doing the same thing.
The progression of time is made apparent with Fran’s form looking as though she is in the late stages of pregnancy. After rejecting an abortion, Fran, played by Gaylyn Ross, begins setting up what looks like a quintessential 1960s lifestyle, with saccharine superficial decor which is everything they need despite the looming dead outside their chrysalis. Romero has deliberately placed family in the spotlight which may even lie at the heart of Dawn of the Dead, a prophetic vision of a new type of global family (Williams 2014).
Extending Dawn of the Dead’s societal subversion is a sequence that exposes the macho power of guns and reveals childish antics among the men that Romero likened to the Old West (Humphries 2002). With the Vietnam War still fresh in the minds of many viewers, this became yet another moment to reflect on the barbarity of war mongering governments. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead has a political awareness that emphatically forces these issues (Towlson 2014). He has seemingly returned to the beliefs of the 60s counterculture, presenting a parody of a consumer society that America had become (Humphries 2002).
Unlike Jaws, which was a film designed to be sold to the widest audience possible, Dawn of the Dead was aimed at an independent niche market due to its excess of gore. It was a film whose success came about slowly, starting with its initial Italian release in 1978 right up until its USA screening in 1979. Dawn of the Dead’s pre-sold premise was its forerunner Night of the Living Dead (1968), the first of Romero’s Zombie films shot in black & white and although it did assume some tropes of high-concept such as the poster’s macabre and striking graphic, it should not be placed in the same category as Jaws and the high-concept model (Gomery 1986).
In conclusion, the richness, depth and allegorical satire seen in George A. Romero’s piece combined with the independent exhibition strategy and staggered release dates, puts this film outside the parameters of the high-concept model. When compared to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, marketing forces such as the simplistic narrative and front-loaded cinematic release define Jaws as the exemplar of the high-concept definition.
1) Academy Achievement Award: A Museum of Living History 2006, [speech], Washington D.C.. http://
2) Alter, E 2010 ‘Jaws (1975)’ in Film Firsts: The 25 Movies that Created Contemporary American Cinema. Santa Barbara, Denver, Oxford: Praeger, 2014. p1-10’
3) Bodey, M 2008, A Living from the Undead, The Australian, released Wednesday 6 August 2008, News Corp.
4) Bordwell, D & Thompson, K 2012, Film Art: An Introduction , McGraw Hill, NewYork USA, pg.489
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6) Harvey, B 2008, BFI Film Classics, Night... Palgrave Macmillan UK(Andy Warhol interview) , pg. 119.
7) King, N 2007, 'New Hollywood’ in Pam Cook (ed) The Cinema Book. (Third Edition) The British Film Institute. London. p 60-67
8) Hawker, P released Friday 25 July 2008, Zombie Dead Live On, The Age, Fairfax Media.
9) Humphries, R 2002, Introduction to American Horrors, Edinburgh University Press.
10) Paffenroth, K 2006, Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth, Baylor University Press, Waco Texas, USA, pg. 45.
11) Rafferty, T 2000, The New York Times, The Movie That Created the 'Summer Movie’ - Late Edition (East Coast) [New York, N.Y] 30 Apr 2000: 2 (Part 2), pg.30.
12) Scharoun, L 2012, America at the Mall: The Cultural Role of a Retail Utopia , McFarland & Co., pg.19.
13) Towlson, J 2014, Subversive Horror Cinema , McFarland, North Carolina, USA, pg. 151
14) William Bishop, K 2010, The Idle Proletariat: Dawn of the Dead, Consumer Ideology, and the Loss of Productive Labour, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 43, No.2, 2010. p234-248
15) Williams, T 2014, Hearths of Darkness, The Family in the America Horror Film, University Press of Mississippi, US, pg.211.
16) Wyatt, J 1994, A Critical Redefinition: The Concept of High Concept’ in High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood. Austin: University of Texas Press, p1-22