These extensive notes (over 7,500 words) were written as a guide for teachers who might consider using the 2016 film Arrival with students. They were originally published in the Media Education Journal No 61 in Summer 2017. The MEJ is published by the Association for Media Education in Scotland (AMES) and the notes refer to the ‘Key Aspects’ of the Scottish Media specifications set out by the Scottish Qualifications Agency. In practice the Key Aspects are very similar to the Key Concepts addressed by similar specifications in England and Wales and in other countries that have adopted similar approaches.
Outline (Spoiler warning)
I’m going to assume that anyone reading this has seen the film and especially that they have experienced the unusual narrative structure. If you haven’t seen the film, but you are looking for a study text, try to watch the film first and then read on. Please don’t ignore this advice because once you know how the narrative works, it will certainly alter the way you read the film and you need to be aware of how your students are likely to respond to a first reading.
Arrival is a science fiction film adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang, first published in a science fiction anthology, Starlight 2, in 1998. Under the title ‘Story of Your Life’ it runs to 61 pages in the film ‘tie-in’ paperback book published in 2016.
Re-titling the story as Arrival for the film is significant in altering how ‘readers’ approach the story. The film stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist with an international reputation. On the day when alien spacecraft hover over locations in different countries, Louise is approached by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and asked for advice on communicating with one of the alien ships ‘moored’ over Montana. She joins a team with another leading academic, Ian Donnelly, a physics specialist played by Jeremy Renner.
The team have to work under pressure from government and military advisers, but eventually Louise convinces Weber that the best strategy is to use simple technology to show written words (in English) and to demonstrate their meanings with actions. She prompts the aliens to respond and this leads to an understanding at a basic level of the aliens’ use of a form of ‘writing’ using ink sprayed into circular shapes with slight variations. Louise is able to build up an inventory of these different ‘logograms’. (Chiang uses the term ‘semagram’ – both words refer to graphics that represent words or phrases creating specific meanings)
At various points in the film we are offered scenes ‘inserted’ in the narrative that seem to be flashbacks. (In fact the film begins with such a sequence, suggesting that Louise has been grieving over the death of her daughter.) In the final third of the film we suddenly understand that Louise is beginning to see that the aliens’ form of communication implies a different understanding of time: its ‘circularity’ suggests that time as a dimension is non-linear. What we thought were flashbacks were in fact ‘flashforwards’. They refer to a later time when Louise and Ian have developed a relationship and produced a child, a girl who will be bright and intelligent but who will develop a fatal condition and die as a teenager. Louise will go ahead with her pregnancy even though she knows her daughter will die as a young teenager. Ian will be unable to deal with this knowledge and will leave Louise to cope alone.
When the team are close to the final breakthrough, their dialogue with the aliens is interrupted by a botched attempt to destroy the aliens locally. Despite this, Louise, aided by flashes/’memories’ of her future self as a linguist who ‘solved’ the problem, is still able to decipher the aliens’ message. They have come to earth to offer the gift of their knowledge. They know that many years in the future, they will need humanity to help them.
But is Louise too late? Governments around the world appear to be abandoning dialogue and taking their lead from the Chinese who have amassed forces around an alien craft. At this point Louise gets a clue from a more extended flashforward (1.16.00 on the DVD) in which her 12 year-old daughter asks a question which serves to educate us, the audience, about the concept from game theory of the ‘non-zero sum game’ – the possibility that two competitors could both win in a game, one doesn’t have to ‘lose’ for the other to win. This little sequence is significant because Ian has used maths to recognise the aliens’ strategy and the ‘family flashforward’ complements his discovery.
In the final section of the narrative Louise again uses her knowledge from the future and phones the Chinese military leader, General Shang. She is able to give him some personal information which convinces him to act to stop any attack on the aliens – who then take off and the crisis is averted. The film ends in much the same way it began, but now we know how Ian and Louise came together and how Hannah, their daughter was conceived.
It seems sensible to start an analysis by addressing questions about ‘categories’. The Key Aspects are a little problematic here since two rather different kinds of categories are central to the distinctiveness of this film. It is an example of a film that falls between the concept of ‘Hollywood mainstream’ and ‘independent cinema’ and therefore fits into a specific institutional category. This appears to be an issue in relation to ‘context’ rather than ‘content’, so here we’ll just note that the context also profoundly affects the generic nature of the film.
Arrival is ostensibly a ‘science fiction film’, a genre that is utilised for both studio blockbusters and low-budget independent films. Big budget studio films are often described as ‘sci-fi’ and feature considerable amounts of ‘visible’ CGI (i.e. effects that we are meant to see and wonder at rather than effects which enable scenes difficult or dangerous to perform as ‘real’ events). These CGI sequences are likely to feature elements of action genres. The studios sometimes attempt to avoid using the ‘sci-fi’ label because this might alienate some audiences. Such films might be classified as ‘futuristic adventures’ or similar. Low budget science fiction films are often recognised by their derivation from (or adaptation of) ‘hard’ science fiction literature, signifying less emphasis on action and more on ideas, characterisation, commentary on society etc. These films might be termed ‘SF’, a term which also refers to ‘speculative fiction’ – fiction which is rooted in the known world but which speculates on what might happen if aspects of social, political or economic life were to change in a significant way.
In the interviews/’extras’ on the UK Region 2 DVD, Ted Chiang says that for him science fiction is not about “special effects or giant battles between the forces of good and evil”, but is concerned with “speculative scenarios as a lens to examine the human condition”. In the same short film, director Denis Villeneuve sometimes refers to ‘sci-fi’ films, but explains that he doesn’t like the ‘unreality’ of ‘green screen’ work and that the alien craft in his film is represented by physical sets as far as possible. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who adapted Chiang’s story, specifically refers to ‘hard science fiction’. He also introduces the difficulties that producers and audiences might have with ‘hard SF’. Unlike the action scenarios of sci-fi blockbusters, ‘hard SF’ films don’t have the same easy-to-sell story ideas. Instead, they rely on audiences being prepared to work through ‘learning sequences’ such as understanding why the linguist in this case has to start with simple words and phrases.
It is this ‘difference’ in appeal that might be the reason why some audiences don’t like Arrival. (Other audiences may have objections about how scientific ideas are presented or religious beliefs are marginalised.) The appearance of the alien spacecraft over various parts of the Earth immediately conjures up the genre trope of ‘first contact’ and the fear of alien invasion. When nothing ‘exciting’ happens (i.e. aliens blasting Earth/capturing humans or Earth’s armies attacking aliens) the blockbuster audience may feel let down. They weren’t expecting a calm, measured investigation into the methods linguists must use when there are no translators available.
But science fiction is not the only genre repertoire that the film draws from. The narrative is a form of romance, albeit one that is not signalled clearly until the closing scenes – or perhaps it’s a drama about grief or what we most value in a relationship. The ‘what if?’ question, familiar from most SF scenarios, is “If you knew that you would have a wonderful child, but you also knew that she would die in her teens, would you still want her to be born?”. It’s a difficult and disturbing question which arises directly from the film’s narrative. Intriguingly, when Louise poses the question to Ian in the form, “if you knew the future, would you choose to do anything differently?”, he answers that he might say how he feels about things more often. This then leads to his declaration that meeting Louise is the most surprising thing that has happened to him, even after his contact with aliens. SF and romance are enmeshed as emotion is equated with science.
Before we consider the other Key Aspects, it’s worth mentioning the adaptation process. Eric Heisserer had a difficult task in writing a script based on the original short story. His major task was to find a dramatic ending to the story. The Chinese dimension is his invention. In the original, the heptapods (so called because they have seven limbs) simply leave after an attempted ‘exchange of gifts’. The original features more physics and more of the family drama. Otherwise the changes are more concerned with improving the ‘spectacle’ of the alien craft etc. For some reason ‘Ian’ was originally ‘Gary’ and there are other minor changes. It isn’t necessary to read the original to make an analysis of the film. But it may be interesting for students to explain why the original story was seen as ‘unfilmable’ – or at least not as a commercial venture costing $50 million.
We could argue that the narrative structure of Arrival is both unusual and potentially difficult for audiences – but also relatively straightforward. It offers two separate stories covering different time periods but presents them both within the same linear procession of sounds and images. One is the story of the aliens’ ‘arrival’, the other is the ‘family drama’ of Louise, Ian and their daughter Hannah.
Arrival is the kind of narrative that benefits from the narrative possibilities of film as a medium. Film narrative refers to at least three concepts of time which can be manipulated by filmmakers. The most easily understood is ‘screen time’ – the actual time taken to present those sounds and images on screen. However, even that is malleable. In the cinema and on Blu-ray, the film lasts 116 mins but on a PAL DVD or on UK broadcast TV, because of the ‘speed-up’ to 25 fps, it only takes around 110 mins. On a home digital video device it is also possible to watch chapters twice, to return to earlier chapters or to pause the playback and return much later.
The second concept is ‘plot time’ which refers to the length of time signified by the explicit presentation of events represented on screen. In Arrival, it is quite difficult to determine when the plot actually begins. When is the first event in the plot taking place? Louise’s voiceover gives us a clue when she refers to the day that the aliens arrived – and we see her walking towards the lecture theatre. When is the last event depicted? Is it when she walks down the hospital corridor at the beginning of the film, after she has said her goodbye to Hannah? If so, it is perhaps 13 or 14 years after the ‘arrival date’ (Hannah is listed as being 12 for the third young actor to play the role).
The third concept is ‘story time’. This is a much looser definition since it includes events that are not presented on screen but which are ‘inferred’ from the explicitly presented plot. For instance, Louise is a respected academic in her field. We learn that she has previously worked with US intelligence in counter-terrorism. She still has security clearance. She also has a long-standing rivalry with another academic in Berkeley – and she wrote a linguistics book that Ian has found. These events inform the narrative through dialogue references but they aren’t presented on screen. Similarly, Louise tells Ian that “you can be a good communicator, but still be single” implying that she has sought romantic partners in the past, but without success. Again, this latter remark informs the romance narrative. It’s more difficult to pin down future events that are inferred, but we are asked to consider a time well into the future when knowledge of the aliens’ language (their gift to humanity) might be useful.
Denis Villeneuve’s task as director is to work with his creative team to manipulate time in relation to these three concepts as well as manipulating the narrative space available to him to stage the events he wishes to record and present. (It’s worth remembering that film is often referred to as a ‘time-based’ medium.) An important tool here is narration – how is the story told? Is there a specific narrator or are we asked to ‘observe’ the events as they unfold (as in an observational documentary)? Or are we offered the ‘point of view’ of different characters at different times – or in extreme cases, a subjective view (i.e. the camera becomes the eyes of a specific character). In contemporary cinema there is much discussion of ‘immersive’ cinema in which audiences lose themselves in the action and spectacle on screen. Conversely, in some art films and classic popular films (e.g. films noirs) there is extensive use of spoken narration. In Arrival, the film begins with Louise’s voiceover. From then on Louise is in nearly every frame and we could argue that even though she only directly narrates her ‘family story’, she effectively narrates the aliens’ story since most events are presented as she experiences them.
Another important point about the narrative structure is that it is palindromic, like the name ‘Hannah’. So the film begins and ends with the same mournful music by Max Richter and in the same location of Louise’s house by a lake. In a sense, the narrative is also circular, distinguishing it from the linear ‘goal-orientated’ narratives so common in mainstream Hollywood. Students will be familiar with the idea that a narrative begins at an equilibrium point at which the narrative world is ‘in balance’. When this balance is disturbed, by what some screenwriting manuals call the ‘inciting incident’, a conflict or a ‘loss’ develops and the goal of the hero is to resolve the conflict or recover the loss – or ‘reach their goal’. When this is achieved, equilibrium is restored – although not the same equilibrium, something will be changed. At the end of Arrival, we are actually back at the beginning of the film (which after all was the end of the story!).
Louise reaches her goal, but in doing so she learns to see time differently and in so doing gives up much of her free will since she now accepts what will happen to Hannah. There is one point at which Louise does ‘change history’ when she learns something valuable from General Shang after the aliens’ departure which she can then use prior to their departure avoiding conflict. It’s very difficult to think this through. Perhaps it reveals a flaw in the narrative construction? Or perhaps it is allowable because it doesn’t affect Louise’s ‘personal’ story?
Compared to conventional action film narratives, Arrival is very different. Louise is an unusual kind of ‘hero’ and there are no real ‘villains’ who she must fight. At worst, characters like the CIA agent or the rogue soldier who tries to explode a charge inside the alien’s craft, are ‘blockers’ rather than full-blown villains. (The concept of a ‘blocker’ comes from Vladimir Propp’s work on Russian folktales. It refers to a ‘character function’ which serves to slow down or delay the hero on their quest.) Perhaps Arrival is closest to the family melodrama in which a stranger enters the family and effects a change in family relationships? Melodrama narratives are sometimes said to be circular since there is a concerted attempt to restore order and ‘return’ the family to equilibrium. The melodrama is not driven forward by direct conflict but by circling around a problem, much as Louise circles round the problem of communication.
Denis Villeneuve’s problem is how to try to ensure that the various flashforwards that break up the linear flow of the aliens’ arrival are, at least initially, presented in such a way that audiences will assume that they are flashbacks. How does he do this? This leads us into a discussion of the Key Aspect of ‘Language’
Each flashforward is located in relation to the house by the lake – except for the hospital scenes. The scenes indoors are often quite dark, perhaps to link to the later scenes in the alien spacecraft or in the tents used for analysis. All the shots, both indoors and out, make use of very shallow fields of focus – a conventional sign of a flashback or memory/dream? Sometimes the focus is so soft that it is, for instance, impossible to see who receives baby Hannah from Louise immediately after her birth. Could it be Ian? We haven’t yet seen him, so we are unlikely to ask this question on a first viewing. The flashforwards include Louise’s voiceover at the beginning and later other voices (e.g. Hannah). The dialogue is written so that it seems to contradict the images. Which do we take most notice of and what do we do if we sense the contradiction?
In the first words we hear at the beginning of Arrival, Louise says:
“I used to think that this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time, by it’s order.”
Louise is seemingly speaking to Hannah, who we quickly learn has died. She is actually narrating Hannah’s story for us and if we had read these words at the start of a novel, we would have a clear idea of what kind of story would be revealed. She tells us openly to be aware of problems associated with linear narratives. But we don’t think about that because, despite the skilled narrator’s voice, we respond emotionally to the music, the slow-moving camera, the dark fuzzy images and the overwhelming sadness of the scenes that follow.
At the end of the opening sequence Louise walks down the hospital corridor and the image fades to black before fading up again to reveal Louise walking down a different corridor towards her lecture theatre. Her voiceover (over the black screen) actually tells us “But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings”. Surely we now know what is happening?
Villeneuve and his editor Joe Walker know that the conventions of film editing mean that most of us will now assume that Louise has returned to work after her daughter’s death. We are wedded to what Bordwell and Thompson have referred to as the ‘cause and effect chain’ of narrative events in classical Hollywood storytelling. There is no on-screen title to tell us where we are or what the date is, so our assumption is that Louise goes back to work (perhaps believing that work will help to distract from introspection). The cinematography and mise en scéne of the university campus present Louise seemingly still deep in her mourning for Hannah. Yet her voiceover tells us that “There are days that tell your story beyond your life”. We don’t have time to puzzle out what this means because it’s the day of the ‘arrival’ of the aliens.
From now on, for most of us, Hannah’s story slides into the background as Louise becomes involved in ‘talking to the aliens’. It’s some 40 mins later (47.18) when the next, almost subliminal, flashforward (accompanied by that shallow focus field) reminds us that we think that Louise had a daughter she lost. Why is she suddenly remembering her heartbreak at this specific moment? It will be some time before the increasingly more frequent flashforwards actually register as glimpses into the future. It would be a good exercise for students to log each of the flashforwards and then work out when it becomes clear that the future is informing Louise’s work in the ‘present’.
The same elements of film language that ‘disguise’ the real narrative structure also serve to alert us to the type of film we are going to see. Throughout Arrival the colour palette is muted with only the orange of the hazmat (protective clothing) suits worn by the scientists and soldiers meeting the aliens providing much colour. Lighting is subdued, both indoors and often outside. The aliens (who never venture outside their ship) are almost monochrome in appearance and the craft’s technology is invisible.
Sound is a very important element in the film’s presentation and is carefully mixed. The non-diegetic score composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson comprises electronic music and human voices plus ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ written and performed by Max Richter which begins and ends the film. The short pieces by Jóhannsson are complemented by diegetic sound effects representing the sounds made by the aliens and by their technologies. By contrast, the work of the military and science personnel at the Montana site is a babble of voices in different languages via television and radio feeds being deciphered by translators.
Cinematography is also crucially important and the film’s visual signature does seem to involve some of the more expressive elements seen in director Denis Villeneuve’s earlier films. These include use of long shots and tracking shots and the device of tilting the camera through 90°. This is used effectively inside the alien spacecraft where gravity adjustments need to be made for the human investigators. Unfortunately, Denis Villeneuve’s two earliest features have not been released in the UK, otherwise we would recognise the early scenes on the university campus and the 90° tilts as Louise and Ian move through the alien ship, as coming from Polytechnique (Canada 2009). Students might, however, check out Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015), both of which demonstrate Villeneuve’s techniques for creating tension.
Throughout most of the film Louise is dressed in utilitarian or functional clothes and her hair is tied back. But in the crucial scene when she finally realises that she is being given the gift of the aliens’ language, she has what might be construed as a ‘spiritual experience’ (elsewhere I’ve argued that the film marginalises religion). As the flashforwards increase, Louise is alone, looking up at the huge heptapod (1.22.52). At one point she seems to be suspended in mid-air. Her hair has come free and is flowing around her head, her eyes are staring and unusually large with the pupils constricted. This is clearly a moment when something extraordinary is happening.
It’s worth noting too that the restricted colour palette of the interior of the alien craft and the ‘ordinariness’ of Louise’s university office and lecture theatre are matched by the ‘functional’ location of the group of tents where the analysis takes place. This latter suggests the SF category rather than the hi-tech gadgetry of a sci-fi film. In turn this ‘ordinary’ background shows up the ‘difference’ when Louise has her moment in the alien craft.
There are several different lines of enquiry possible in considering representation issues but two that stand out are Louise Banks as the central character and the aliens as ‘heptapods’. The DVD extras confirm that Amy Adams was the unanimous choice of the producers and the director to cast as Louise and she agreed immediately on reading the script. It’s worth considering why this was an obvious choice.
Amy Adams is the kind of A List Hollywood star who is comfortable working in both blockbusters and smaller independent films. This isn’t unusual in contemporary American/International cinema but her status as an actor in her forties with five Oscar nominations and hundreds of other awards and nominations since 2000 means that she is a weighty presence for audiences. Her beauty is not conventional – strawberry-blonde hair (closer to auburn in Arrival?), a strong profile and large blue eyes mean that in conjunction with her acting skills she can play ‘ordinary’ characters and still command the screen. In Arrival she is seen mostly in fairly drab costumes as a university lecturer and then often in hazmat overalls in the alien craft. A useful exercise is to compare her performance with the other role she took in 2015 in Nocturnal Animals, the Tom Ford film in which she plays the director of a high-profile avant-garde art gallery. That role presents her in harsh ‘high fashion’ outfits in a role which didn’t really extend her acting talents and caused several critics to see her as miscast.
As Louise Banks, Amy Adams is able to convince us that she could be any age from mid thirties to early forties (her true age), so that initially we think that she had a child ten or twelve years earlier – and later that she might have a child a year after the appearance of the alien craft. We also have to believe that she is a linguistics expert with a doctorate and considerable research experience. She must have the strength to stand up to the primarily male military and scientific establishment and to be convincing in this role, as well as that of a mother. Students must make up their own minds about whether she succeeds.
Whatever we think of Amy Adams’ performance, the character is presented in such a way that she controls the narrative – not just through her own voiceover, literally narrating parts of the story, but also because she dominates virtually every scene in the film. Ironically, because there are no other major female roles (apart from her young daughter in the flashforwards), Arrival fails the Bechdel Test, now widely used by feminist film critics. This is because Louise does not “discuss a subject other than her relationship with a man, with another woman”. Even so, it would be difficult to argue that Louise is anything other than a ‘positive’ female representation.
Any discussion of the major role played by Amy Adams should also attempt to define it in gender terms in relation to Ian Donnelly as played by Jeremy Renner. Renner (who played alongside Adams in American Hustle, (2013) has a similar profile in independent and blockbuster films, but perhaps a higher proportion of recent blockbuster roles in the Marvel franchises. Does this sit uneasily with his role in the more cerebral Arrival?
Renner’s academic physicist seems typical in presenting a slightly eccentric and passive/submissive man in the face of the competence and determination of Dr. Banks. It’s almost that the weaker he appears to be, the stronger Dr. Banks becomes – and this is carried through to the parenting of Hannah. The two roles are in some ways ‘gendered’ by the conventional roles encountered in academic life. Girls/women are seen as more likely to prosper in ‘soft’ sciences like biology or social sciences such as psychology, or in this case linguistics, and boys/men with ‘harder’ sciences such as physics. Students could explore what a reversal of roles might do – Renner as the linguist, Adams as the physicist. They could also look at Jodie Foster’s performance as a ‘hard scientist’, an astronomer, in Contact (see below). Ian’s role in Arrival appears as slightly underwritten and it may be one of the weaknesses of the film.
The representation of the aliens derives partly from Villeneuve’s determination that they should be unlike aliens in other science fiction films. This is very difficult to achieve. There have been so many ‘alien representations’ that some similarities are inevitable. However, by keeping the aliens behind a screen and by clever use of sound effects and the unique spray writing, these are certainly unusual/mysterious aliens, difficult to read in terms of both humans and other creatures on Earth. Consider for instance the monstrous alien in the Aliens series of films which is recognisable as reptilian or insect-like (the most used forms for aliens in science fiction?).
Students might discuss the decision to name the two heptapods after the US radio and film comedians Abbott and Costello from the 1940s/50s. Although at first this might seem like a little joke related to US popular culture, Wikipedia makes interesting comments about links to wordplay and the possible pitfalls of language. The most famous sketch performed by Abbott and Costello was ‘Who’s on first’ in which Abbott attempts to tell Costello about the team for a baseball match. ‘Who’ is the name of the player on first base, but the phrase could equally be a question about which player appears first. The sketch in turn refers to Louise’s explanation to the military of how a simple phrase like “What is your purpose on Earth?” could be interpreted in several different ways (40:29).
Other representation questions
The third lead character after Louise and Ian is Colonel Weber played by Forest Whitaker. Is there any significance in the casting of an African-American star? Again, Whitaker is well-known for roles in independent films and fits the role well. More noticeable is the film’s restraint in typing the various foreign commentators/scientists/translators etc. who mostly appear via TV screens and in the way in which the important figure of the Chinese military leader is presented. It’s worth noting that many recent Hollywood blockbusters have cast Chinese stars in secondary roles in the hope of gaining favour with the Chinese popular audience. The Chinese box office is now the second most important source of profit for Hollywood, but such casting has been heavily criticised in China (see Koehler 2017). It is unlikely that the Chinese character in Arrival has received such negative responses (although the Mandarin that Louise speaks has been criticised).
One ‘absence’ in Arrival is the political authority in the US, represented instead by the CIA agent played by Michael Stuhlbarg. The US president (along with the senior military leaders) is kept at the end of a radio/telephone link. Is this simply in order to focus directly on the linguistics work without too much high level blather? It does seem odd that Weber, a relatively low level commander, has so much power.
In the background in the scenes in the ‘front line’ tents, we are offered two other representations that seemingly have contrasting effects in relation to the central narrative. One is the impact of a right-wing TV talk host who editing suggests may influence the rogue attack on the aliens. The other is the reporting of actions by religious cults in North America. One TV report is seen briefly but doesn’t seem to affect the narrative. Arrival largely ignores the very powerful religious lobbies in the US. This is in direct contrast to films like Contact (see below) and other earlier films. Again, is this simply a pragmatic decision (e.g. to save time or to streamline the narrative) or a deliberate ploy to emphasise the rational science in the communication process?
One contemporary issue that the film represents is the explosion in communication media since the early 2000s. Students will no doubt wonder why we should pick this out since they are so familiar with cable TV, mobile phones and social media. They were not so much in evidence when Chiang wrote his original story. Sight and Sound’s reviewer remarks on how effective the announcement of the aliens’ arrival is on the university campus, especially in the lecture theatre where Louise sees one student after another turn to their phones and laptops and is then asked to turn on the TV. Later it is the array of TV screens from around the world that feeds data into the tents where Ian and Louise are working. Villeneuve’s skill is in treating this aspect of contemporary culture as realistic background and seamlessly melding it with the scenes in the flashforwards (which actually seem to ignore social media and are quite joyful in their traditional references to cowboy suits, clay modelling and crayon drawings) and inside the alien craft.
The SQA specs refer to ‘stereotyping’ and ‘cultural assumptions’. I think I’ve covered at least some of the possibilities in Arrival, but there are other aspects of ‘Representation’ such as ideology which seem to have been placed under Media Contexts, so I’ll deal with them there.
The most obvious text to use in making a comparison with Arrival is Contact (US 1997) based on a story by the astronomer/astrophysicist Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan (who later became his wife). In this story it is another single woman, Ellie, with a doctorate in astrophysics, who picks up an extraterrestrial radio signal. This turns out to be a set of instructions on how to build a spacecraft that can travel at the speed of light. Ellie is played by Jodie Foster and there are two important differences in ‘contact with alien intelligence’, compared to Arrival. First, the ‘language of communication’ in the radio message is mathematics with the signal initially sending sequences of prime numbers. Secondly, the response by Earth governments is heavily influenced by religious beliefs.
Contact was directed by Robert Zemeckis and it had almost twice the budget of Arrival, even though it was made 19 years earlier. Zemeckis is very much a Hollywood mainstream director and students should quickly recognise that, apart from the religious aspects of the plot, the film is very much ‘Hollywood sentimental’ with a conventional soundtrack and various conventional/typed characters. (But Bill Clinton plays himself as President.) Even so, there are some common elements that might make us question whether Eric Heisserer ‘borrowed’ some ideas from Contact’s script. For instance, the first confirmation of the radio signal comes from contact with Australian tracking stations and later the first attempt to launch a spacecraft from Cape Canaveral is thwarted by a terrorist attack – by a (heavily-typed) religious zealot who makes direct eye contact with Ellie.
Jodie Foster in the 1990s was an iconic figure for women in film after a somewhat difficult transition from child star via a degree at Yale to both adult star and director. Her later roles did not always use her star persona well and Contact presents an uneasy narrative about an intelligent woman in a stereotypically male world.
Arrival has an interesting production history that serves as a good example of how films get to be made. The origins of the film go back to producer/director Shawn Levy of Lap 21 Entertainment whose company had been successful in pitching family comedies to the major studios, most notably the Night at the Museum series. Levy is originally from Montréal and as part of a plan to extend the range of the company’s projects he became interested in fellow Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. The latter’s French language film Incendies (Canada-France 2010) was picked up by Sony for North American distribution and was then Oscar-nominated. Around the same time (2010-11), Levy began to discuss possible projects with screenwriter Eric Heisserer who was building a reputation based on scripts for horror films. Heisserer suggested a film based on ‘Story of Your Life’. The rights were available and Levy, Villeneuve and Heisserer agreed that the story had great possibilities. But when Levy took it to 20th Century Fox, where he had a ‘first look’ deal, they were not interested. He met a similar response from the other majors.
“It was too complex. It had the husk of a conventional commercial big studio movie, but the content of an intellectually challenging indie.”
Undeterred, Levy sought finance elsewhere and found David Linde, the then CEO of finance and production outfit Lava Bear Films, and Aaron Ryder of international sales and finance company FilmNation Entertainment. Both Linde and Ryder boarded the project as producers and set about raising the finance.
At this point, Villeneuve was completing work on Prisoners, his first English language film, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman, which was released in September 2013. A big critical and commercial success for a non-studio film, Prisoners proved that Villeneuve could work on a large-scale production with a $46 million budget. Suddenly he was ‘hot’ for many producers and studio heads and he was already working on a similar kind of project in budget terms – Sicario with Emily Blunt for a 2015 release. When Levy took the Arrival ‘package’ (rights, script, director) to the Cannes film market in May 2014 he found that, because Villeneuve’s name was attached, he was able to generate a bidding war from the studios for ‘pre-sale’ distribution rights. Paramount paid $20 million for North America and China (a record Cannes deal at that time), Sony bought many ‘international’ territories and the UK and Australia went to eOne and Village Roadshow. These deals supported a $47 million budget which was very tight for a science fiction film on a big scale, but for the three producers was mercifully free of studio interference. They could make the film as they wanted to with guaranteed distribution.
A Canadian shoot
Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps Entertainment is just one of many companies based in Los Angeles that regularly make films in Canada. The advantages include lower costs, excellent facilities in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, skilled crews, a large pool of acting talent and the possibility of support from Téléfilm Canada and/or various regional funds. Arrival was scheduled for a 55-day shoot in Québec which meant that all the locations were accessible within the province including both the university buildings in Montréal and mountain country in the province standing in for Montana. Villeneuve was able to use many of his local Québécois crew and shoot in Mels Studios, Montréal. With over 40 vfx companies, Montréal is one of the largest post-production hubs in the world. US cinematographer Bradford Young (who shot Selma in 2014), British film editor Joe Walker and Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (working with Icelandic and Danish voices) made the production team properly international. This kind of production away from Hollywood enabled Villeneuve to keep to the original budget.
Arrival was Villeneuve’s third anglophone film in the $45-50 million budget range and like Prisoners and Sicario it was very well-received, attaining a worldwide box office of over $200 million. Villeneuve later completed Blade Runner 2049 for a group of production companies (including major studios) with a reported very large budget (i.e. over $150 million). The later film received plenty of studio support but struggled to please fans as well as the general audience in North America (see below).
We’ve already noted above that the producers of Arrival were aware from the beginning that the film would ‘challenge’ audiences and that it was unlikely to play well for those audiences seeking more action-orientated entertainment. The film has been described as ‘cerebral’ by many commentators.
Although the film was given a 12A Certificate in the UK and a PG-13 in the US, it is unlikely that the distributors believed that they would attract an audience of families with young children (i.e. 10-14). The film would be too slow and dialogue-driven for audiences more used to Star Wars or Star Trek-type films. Instead, the film would be designed to attract or ‘target’ older audiences 15+. Students could investigate the poster designs for the film, as well as the trailers on YouTube to see whether this is evident in the promotional materials.
In the UK, Arrival was released ‘wide’ to 561 cinemas, topping the charts with nearly £3 million and seemingly justifying eOne’s decision to promote it as a mainstream blockbuster. But a week later Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them demonstrated what a ‘real’ blockbuster could do, generating seven times the weekend box-office of Arrival’s opening (at more cinemas – 666).
Reading and interpreting the box-office data (details of the Top 15 each weekend are available from the BFI website) is an important task for distributors on a Monday morning. What they would have noted is that although Arrival didn’t do the ‘boffo’ business of Fantastic Beasts, it attracted a very healthy audience who must have given good ‘word of mouth’ which in turn allowed Arrival to have the ‘legs’ for a long run. Arrival dropped 49% with £1.5 million for its second weekend. This is not unusual for any release and the third weekend showed a 48% fall. More importantly, the figures show that, compared to most mainstream films, Arrival fared quite well on weekdays. Cinemas are traditionally busiest from Friday to Sunday which is why the distributors use a ‘weekend chart’. Monday to Thursday are quieter because families and younger audiences are less able to go to screenings. Older audiences, however, tend to prefer midweek screenings and they may have boosted Arrival’s figures. The overall result is that Arrival eventually made over $11 million in the UK – in line with the general industry expectation of 10% of the North American box office of $100 million (see more on the US release below).
Arrival’s performance in international markets is odd in the sense that it seems to have underperformed compared to North America. Most Hollywood films now have earnings split 40:60 between North America and ‘International’ but, according to Box Office Mojo, Arrival managed only $102 million in the ‘international’ market. Perhaps this is an example of a film in which spoken language plays a major role, restricting potential audiences in some territories? The more ‘visual’ and ‘action-orientated’ Blade Runner 2049, also directed by Villeneuve didn’t make $100 million in North America, but made $166 million in ‘international’. A comparison of the two films’ performance at the box office might be very interesting.
What we don’t know is the audience profile of the film. This kind of data is now quite difficult to find without paying the large fees demanded by cinema audience research agencies. I’ve suggested that the audience might skew ‘older’ and there is also the possibility that it might skew towards women. The industry fear that science fiction is not ‘female friendly’ has been proved wrong on many occasions. As well as Contact, recent science fiction successes with female leads have included Gravity with Sandra Bullock, Passengers with Jennifer Lawrence and recent Star Wars series films with Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones. The romance/family element may also have skewed the profile towards women.
Traditional approaches to audiences have tended to focus on the extent to which audiences are ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’ in their responses to a text. We now tend towards the ‘uses and gratifications’ approach. What kinds of ‘pleasures’ does Arrival offer? Is there pleasure in working out the narrative structure? Do some audiences enjoy the idea that linguistics and physics might be more helpful in dealing with alien encounters than nuclear weapons? Do audiences get ‘cognitive pleasure’ from understanding ideas about language? Do others get ‘affective pleasure’ – emotional satisfaction from the way in which Louise deals with the ‘what if?’ question about Hannah’s life and death?
Ted Chiang’s short story was first published in 1998. The film was released on 11th November 2016 just a couple of days after Donald Trump was elected president. A lot has changed since 1998, both in the US and the UK. In the time of Clinton and Blair (pre the Iraq War) the story may have resonated with many readers. It’s hard to imagine a film less likely to appeal now to conservative Republicans or to voters who were convinced by Trump’s campaign statements.
Let’s pick out just a few aspects of the ideological underpinnings of the film. First, it’s a film that pursues negotiation ahead of any kind of military action. Second, it has a message of international co-operation (in the face of CIA attempts to prevent it). Third, it promotes scientists as ‘experts’ and ‘heroes’. Fourth, it has a single woman as its protagonist and lead expert. Fifth, it marginalises religion and critiques right-wing TV news. Sixth, it presents a sympathetic and rounded character as a ‘representative’ of Chinese leadership. It seems unlikely that it will be a White House favourite for Trump. But it also seems likely that it might challenge Brexiteers in the UK who want to ‘go it alone’. (We should also note that the Russian authorities are typed as brutal in their treatment of a dissident scientist – how would this play for Trump?)
The release of Arrival offers the possibility of a ‘conjunctural’ study (i.e. looking at the perceived ideologies of the film in terms of the events at the time of its production and then release) based on the points above. It also suggests a moment when the conventions of mainstream cinema are being challenged. The North American release through Paramount was a business venture designed to maximise returns and the film went wide to 2,300 cinemas, but it did so with a film that didn’t promise the usual box-office attractions. A week later, Warner Bros. launched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in over 4,000 cinemas, heavily promoting its J.K. Rowling connections. Fantastic Beasts, an effects-laden fantasy, is clearly an ‘entertainment’ text.
Ted Chiang’s comments about ‘Story of Your Life’ and reviews and literary criticism about the story all suggest that its objectives are to explore concepts of free will, effective communication, variational physics etc. Students could test out whether this is equally true of Arrival. If so we might argue that the film is as much about ‘education’ as about entertainment – or, perhaps more likely, that it is an unusual entertainment which requires repeat viewings to fully understand what it is saying.
References and further resources
Grater, Tom (2017) ‘Denis Villeneuve, Arrival producers on making their $50m sci-fi outside of the studio system’ ScreenDaily.com, 13/1/17
Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin (1985) Film Art: An Introduction (2nd ed.), New York: Alfred A. Knopf
Koehler, Robert (2017) Review of Arrival, Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 2, Spring
Nayman, Adam (2017) Review of Arrival, Sight and Sound, December
https://youtu.be/xzEPU2PTjT4: Science vs. Cinema: ARRIVAL
These notes act as an introduction to some of the interesting questions about the approach to a specific type of documentary by the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia. The same approach was adopted in Kapadia’s recent film Amy (UK 2015) telling the tragic story of Amy Whitehouse. A detailed post on Amy will follow shortly.
The approach discussed here involves creating a narrative entirely from archive or ‘found’ footage and complementary sound recording and photographs.
The notes were originally provided for study days for A Level Film and Media groups (16-19 year-old students) involving a full screening and an illustrated lecture on documentary practice. Some of the background material was jointly written with Nick Lacey. The notes include discussion questions and can be used in conjunction with the DVD of Senna.
The latest statistical yearbook of film in the UK is now available for free download (or online access) from the BFI website. The 2012 yearbook has all the details of film in the UK in 2011 – a particularly good year for the UK industry.
I’m already on record as arguing that this was a pointless production, so I wasn’t an impartial observer on my cinema visit to see this film. However, I felt I had to see it and having done so I must slightly revise my original condemnation. In preparation for watching the Scott Rudin/Steve Zaillian/David Fincher film, I first looked at the DVD of the Swedish film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel directed by Niels Arden Oplev and written by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. When I first saw that film in the cinema, I don’t think I really appreciated it because I was still wrapped up in the novel trilogy (see comments on this posting). I then, on the same day, watched the Fincher film and consequently went back to the novel. There is so much plot in the novel that I couldn’t keep all of it in my head and I realised that I’d forgotten a lot of what I first read in 2008/9.
My first surprise was that I really enjoyed watching the Swedish version again. I was very angry at the rather dismissive tone of many critics towards Oplev in both the promotion of the Fincher version and the reviews of that film. Oplev is treated as if he were almost an amateur. In fact, the Swedish film is a highly competent piece of filmmaking and works very well. I also found myself quite emotionally involved with Mikael Nykvist and Noomi Rapace as the principals. The Oplev film runs to 152 mins. The Fincher film is only 5 mins longer but it includes quite a lot more plot as well as an extended title sequence. I was surprised to discover that the Zaillian script for Fincher is actually more ‘faithful’ to the book – although it can’t, of course, include everything in the very densely plotted 500+ pages. One odd point is that despite what I read in some interviews about Zallian/Fincher not wanting to watch the Oplev film, they seem to have taken certain scenes from the first film rather than from the book. (One example is the scene in which Lisbeth Salander’s computer is trashed on the Stockholm rapid transit system.) We seem to be in the same territory here as with the Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake. The big Hollywood production attempts to distance itself from the original film by claiming fidelity only to the book. All this posturing seems quite silly to me.
The Zaillian/Fincher film is highly competent. It looks good and moves along at a fair lick over 157 minutes. I wasn’t impressed by the music or the stylised credit sequence that everyone seems to be raving about – but that’s probably just a matter of taste. (The squirming black oiled objects in the title sequence made me think about Nazi paraphernalia – not sure if this was the intention.) The music in the Oplev film is not memorable – but it isn’t obtrusive either. Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara perform their roles as Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander very well. But that’s what they are – performances. I didn’t feel for the characters as I did with Nykvist and Rapace. I was quite taken with Robin Wright though – she was much closer to my idea of Erika Berger. In the end the Fincher film kept my attention but I didn’t really feel engaged. It was just another Hollywood crime thriller. Despite the Swedish locations it didn’t feel like a Swedish story. I’m aware that this is dangerous territory for a critic and I’m sure that there are Swedish audiences who prefer the Hollywood film with its stars (see audience figures below). Mikael Nykvist is something of a Swedish everyman appearing in many films – he doesn’t look or act like an action star. This means that Swedish audiences might be bored with him, but he is ‘fresh’ to overseas audiences. Daniel Craig has to ‘act’ as if he isn’t a big star and I think the shtick with his spectacles, stubble and bewildered look sometimes teeters on the edge of the ridiculous.
The major issue for me is that this Hollywood film doesn’t seem to know what to include/what to leave out of the story. Symptomatic of this quandary is the way in which some actors use an accented English ‘suggesting’ Swedish and others don’t and how certain documents appear in Swedish and others in English. Nobody uses Mikael’s nickname ‘Micke’. But perhaps the best example is the depictions of the Nazi past in the Vanger family. Where the book and the Swedish film refer to the ‘Winter War’ (between the USSR and Finland/Germany in 1939/40), since this wouldn’t mean anything to the multiplex audience in North America, it’s left out of the Hollywood version. In one interview Fincher states quite clearly:
“The mystery of this movie wasn’t that interesting to me. You know, Nazis, serial killers, and the evil that people do in their basements with power tools wasn’t the thing that . . . the thing that was first and foremost was this. I hadn’t seen this partnership before. I hadn’t seen these two people working before to do anything. So I liked the thriller and I liked the vessel of that, but I was really more interested in the people front and center.
. . . I had read a lot of stuff in The New York Times and in different magazines about the Steig Larsson story. But I think that the actual sort of political leanings of the material are probably not the reasons why the book was optioned or the reason why everybody waiting for a plane at La Guardia are reading this book. It has less to do with everyone’s fear of the ultra-right in Scandinavia. So no I didn’t . . . like I said, my interest was that it had a ballistic envelope and it had aerodynamics to it. Obviously, 60 million people thought it was a ripping yarn. I thought that part was a ripping yarn. But the thing that interested me most was these two people. (From the interview here.)
I’ll return to Fincher’s interest in the couple a little later but here’s another example of missing the point – the Millennium offices in Fincher’s film are opulent and styled to the nth degree. In the book and the Swedish film they more accurately reflect the parlous financial state of the magazine. I wonder why the Hollywood production spent so much money on beautiful photography on location in Sweden which doesn’t seem to capture the feel of Sweden as presented by Larsson and Oplev? And when it isn’t beautiful, the photography and editing tend towards the tricksy. The Swedish film leaves out large chunks of the novel’s plot and possibly distorts the narrative but it still feels ‘right’ as a representation – perhaps because the small details are authentic. The Swedish adaptation also exists as a two-part mini-series for Swedish TV running at 180 mins (in 2 x 90 mins parts). I’m not sure what is in the extra 38 mins, but the cinema film seems coherent to me.
Now that I’m re-reading (skimming really) through the first Larsson book again, I’m beginning to recognise the overall structure of the trilogy much more clearly and the way in which everything points towards ‘The Men Who Hate Women’ – the literal translation of the Swedish title of the first part of the trilogy. Zaillian’s script includes more plot than Oplev’s film but doesn’t seem to know what to make of it – and Fincher clearly isn’t interested in the politics. Overall, I think that I prefer the Swedish version but having seen the Danish TV series, The Killing, I think that the best format for the Larsson adaptations would have been as weekly serials on television in 1 hour episodes. Then we could have seen everything, including the magazine business issues which are largely ignored in both adaptations, but especially in the Swedish film.
Will Sony/MGM make films of the other two books? The Fincher film has taken $140 million worldwide so far with major markets like France still to open. It did very well in Sweden and Norway and in the UK. However the budget was $90 million (Box Office Mojo) so it is still some way from even covering costs (only around 30%-40% gets back to the producers). Fincher says he wants to make the other two films back to back in Sweden but there must be some doubts about whether Sony will stump up the cash. Book 2 is action-orientated and would veer even more towards a Hollywood thriller with more focus on Lisbeth but Book 3 is essentially a courtroom drama/legal investigation. If Fincher can transform it into a mainstream $90 million movie, he’s even cleverer than his reputation suggests. But since he’s not interested in the politics perhaps he will just focus on Mikael and Lisbeth. Hmm!
Remakes are irresistible as study texts because they allow us to ‘compare and contrast’ and to demonstrate that there are specific choices that casting directors, production designers, directors, cinematographers etc. all make. The two adaptations discussed here would be very interesting to compare, though the sheer length of the films would probably put off many classroom teachers. However, if students could be persuaded to watch the films in their own time, several interesting explorations are possible. One would be to question what is ‘political’ about the films. Larsson himself was clearly a political animal but do either of the films really carry through his exposure of the decay of Swedish society? Possibly only the novels themselves do this. My guess is that most students could be more interested in the creation of Lisbeth Salander as a certain kind of young female character – who finds herself in a world dominated by evil men who need to be ‘brought down’. In turn this poses the question, how does Lisbeth relate to Mikael as a potential partner in her principal objective – and in an intimate relationship? (OK, the project is mainly his, though Lisbeth has two very personal projects to bring down the men who have oppressed her.) This relationship is what Fincher has identified as his main interest.
I’ve seen reviews that claim Fincher shows us much more of the Mikael – Lisbeth relationship developing than in the Swedish film. I don’t accept this. There is more overt sexual activity in Fincher’s film (and even more in the book) but less about the joint investigation of the Vanger family in which we see the two edging towards each other. My focus, however, would be on the sequence towards the end of the film when Lisbeth has to decide to whether to save the villain or let him die and how Mikael accepts or questions her decision. Again, I think that the Swedish version offers the better presentation of this narrative development. I would also consider the difference between the two films in the use of flashbacks. The Swedish version uses flashbacks to show us various aspects of the story but especially how/why Lisbeth has been placed with a guardian because of what she did to her father. Fincher leaves this out (I think – I’m already getting confused as to what I’ve seen!). I think work on these scenes could prove highly productive for film and media students.
Also useful for students is this posting on Nick Lacey’s website (with all the comments).
It’s good to see that one of the most useful innovations of the UK Film Council, the free downloadable Statistical Yearbook for UK Film, has been taken over by the BFI – at least for now. The latest version, which deals with last year’s activity, is now available to download here.
I’ve long maintained that this is the best free resource for film and media teachers and students and the new issue fulfils that promise. Perhaps the most interesting change this time is that mindful of the downward trend of budgets for British films, the BFI have decided to take notice of ‘micro-budget’ films under £500,000. Previously these were ignored by UKFC but now they are a significant element in British filmmaking. In 2010 there were 147 films made in the UK with budgets under £500,000 – in fact half of these films had budgets under £100,000. This compares with only 79 ‘domestic’ features made on budgets over £500,000. Using these new definitions, UK filmmaking looks a lot healthier in terms of production numbers with over 200 ‘domestic’ features, not counting Hollywood films made in the UK (the bulk of the production spend of course).
The statistical guide is a must read. Download yours now!
The Foyle Film Festival held in Derry in November, the most westerly city in the UK, is a relatively small festival with a big welcome, a lively atmosphere and a wide range of interesting activities. For filmmakers, the specific attraction is that Foyle is one of the festivals which is ‘officially sanctioned’ by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences – in other words, being in competition at the Foyle Film Festival means that your film is eligible for nomination for an Oscar. The competitive strand at the festival comprises ‘International Short’, ‘Irish Short’, ‘Animation’ and ‘Documentary’. The ‘long list’ of ten titles for the 2011 ‘International Live Action Short Oscar’ includes four titles that were screened in Derry in 2009/2010.
The full Foyle programme includes international features and documentaries and 2010’s theme was ‘The Magic of the Past’, with screenings of Citizen Kane, the newly restored Metropolis and associated documentaries. Alongside the high profile international films, the Foyle Festival’s strengths derive from its history and its location. Derry has strong cultural links with the Irish Republic (the border is only a few miles away and Derry serves the North of Donegal as well as County Londonderry) and attracts Irish filmmakers. Animation and music are also strengths because of the festival’s home in the Nerve Centre, Derry’s unique moving image and music centre which now comprises two small cinemas and a performance space alongside the production workshops which have helped to train a generation of local filmmakers. In 1998 Dance Lexie, Dance, a Raw Nerve Production was nominated for the Short Film Oscar. Run from the Nerve Centre, the festival uses the two Nerve Centre cinemas, the 100 seat traditional Orchard Hall Cinema and, for the more mainstream films, the Omniplex commercial cinema.
The Foyle Festival also runs an extensive education programme and that’s why I was invited this year. I hadn’t been to the festival for more than ten years and it was good to see the development of the Nerve Centre and of much of Derry City Centre, especially within the old walled city. Derry has been awarded the status of the first UK Capital of Culture for 2013 and that promises a build-up of arts events over the next two years in which the Foyle Film Festival will certainly figure.
I gave a presentation to students on Moving Image Arts courses exploring the film language used by Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol and Roman Polanski (materials to follow) and then watched the showcase of student productions from 2009/10. Moving Image Arts is an A Level and GCSE qualification that offers something new in a UK context – a focus on film as art with 50% production work in animation or live action. I was very impressed with the quality of work produced by students and I hope to report in detail on the still relatively new qualification offered by CCEA – the Northern Ireland Awards Body – with the Nerve Centre playing a leading role in developing moving image work in schools and colleges registering for the qualification. The work is also fully supported by Northern Ireland Screen which was well represented at the Foyle Film Festival screenings through Bernard McCloskey, Head of Education. See the Press Release from Ingrid Arthurs, Subject Officer for Moving Image Arts at CCEA.
Thanks to Nerve Centre Director Martin Melarkey and everyone else associated with the centre, without whom none of these developments would have been possible. More on Moving Image Arts later this term.
Studying Tsotsi, Judith Gunn, Auteur Publishing 2010, 120pp, ISBN: 978-1-906733-08-7
Tsotsi (South Africa/UK 2010) is one of the most popular films discussed on this website and it is widely studied in a UK context. Not surprisingly then, we were very interested in what this latest study guide from Auteur had to offer.
These study guides have now switched to a ‘pocket size’ – (162 x 117 mm), so in 120 pages there are perhaps 28,000 words in which to explore the film. I think that this is similar to the York Film Notes which tried a similar trick at the start of the decade.
The author’s blurb tells us that Judith Gunn is Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Cirencester College and that she has worked in BBC radio as researcher, writer, producer and broadcaster. In Chapter 5 on Audience and Institution, Gunn reveals that she was a child in Africa and remembers going to the cinema in Tanzania to see a Hollywood/British film. She draws on both this experience and her BBC work in interesting ways and she refers to a number of interesting and useful books and articles that I will certainly investigate. For someone looking for material to help contextualise a reading of Tsotsi in relation to a set of media studies course objectives, there is certainly food for thought here. However, I’m less convinced that the guide will be helpful for film studies students and there are some real problems with the overall approach.
I couldn’t find anywhere in the book a statement about who the expected readership might be or what level of academic course is being addressed. Tsotsi is mentioned directly on the syllabus of the WJEC GCSE (i.e 14-17 year-olds in the main) in Film Studies, but this is a new course with relatively small (but growing) numbers of students. I would expect Auteur to be targeting the far larger group of A Level teachers and students on both media and film studies courses. The problem is that without a clear focus Gunn struggles to find a consistent level in terms of pitching to readers both theoretical ideas and cultural references. There is a range of theoretical references which on the one hand are inappropriate for GCSE students and on the other are sometimes presented in a potentially patronising way for A Level students – and sometimes the attempt to introduce ideas quickly makes them confusing. Getting the pitch right is very difficult and I suspect that here it is the guide’s structure that is problematic.
There are six chapters in all – History and Context, Narrative, The Image of Tsotsi, Representation: Stereotypes, Audiences and Institutions and finally ‘Themes’. The problematic chapters are those offering textual analysis and discussion of the film in the context of South African Cinema more generally. An early indication that things are not quite right is the assumption that this is a ‘Hollywood film’ in some way. There is some useful discussion in the guide of possible Hollywood elements in the film and Gavin Hood did indeed train in the US and has gone on to make Hollywood films, but Tsotsi is a UK/South Africa co-production which Miramax picked up after production. The prime mover behind the production was UK producer Peter Fudakowski.
More confusing still is the discussion of the ‘look’ of the film. I couldn’t find anything to warn readers that the UK DVD from Momentum actually uses the wrong aspect ratio, presenting the film in 16:9 or 1:1.78 instead of the ‘Scope ratio 1:2.35 used for the cinema version. All those students in the UK have probably studied the film unable to see the careful compositions. (As far as I can see the Miramax Region 1 disc has the correct ratio). Judith Gunn’s overall strategy involves comparing the shooting and editing style for Tsotsi with television soap opera and also with a series like The Wire, which seems odd to me. This just one example of an approach which might work for media studies but which more or less ignores the specific formal questions of film studies. Gavin Hood and his cinematographer Lance Gewer made some quite careful decisions about the look of the film – none of which are directly related to television aesthetics. The best resource on this is an article in American Cinematographer which is still online and well worth reading. As Gewer states:
“Gavin’s intention was to make an intensely emotional and engaging psychological thriller set in a world of contrasts — love and hate, wealth and poverty, revenge and forgiveness, anger and compassion — and widescreen was the only way we could visually tell that story. We needed to get a sense of the characters in the space and the broadness of that space; it’s a world vulnerable people inhabit.”
Here is why, ideally, students need to see the CinemaScope print. The rest of the article explains very well why decisions were made. Unfortunately, I think some of Judith Gunn’s commentary on this area is not particularly helpful. I’m also puzzled why, after referencing authoritative sources on South African Cinema in terms of 1930s-60s films she then decides to discuss more recent South African films only in terms of the Hollywood and UK productions based there, rather than investigate some of the more recent independents. It isn’t easy to access these films, I know, but students should be aware of the structure of South African Cinema – which is still largely segregated in terms of catering for largely white middle-class audiences in multiplexes and for much poorer Black audiences in what I assume are less salubrious halls in the townships (assuming that they still exist and haven’t closed with the spread of DVDs). Tsotsi is unique in coming out of a sector of the South African industry still mainly white but at least with a grasp of working-class South African culture.
In short, this guide will give media students access to some useful material, but film students will need to supplement it with some of the books mentioned in its Bibliography.
itpworld’s blog entry on Tsotsi is here.
. . . and another entry on itpworld including a report on a new venture in South Africa, ‘Sollywood’
(These notes were first published in 2004)
Y tu mamá también is an accessible and enjoyable film from Mexico (providing that viewers have no problems with the graphic presentation of the sex lives of the characters).
On one level, the film is a mix of familiar genres – ‘road movie’, ‘coming of age’/youth movie and melodrama. But on another level it is a social commentary on Mexican culture. Never didactic, the filmmakers manage to subtly introduce this commentary via the development of a set of very specific aesthetic devices.
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, written by Carlos Cuarón and starring Gael García Bernal (as Julio), Diego Luna (as Tenoch) and Maribel Verdú (as Luisa).
(These notes assume familiarity with the narrative, so there are SPOILERS embedded.)
Julio and Tenoch are young men in Mexico City who are about to see off their girlfriends who are travelling in Europe. Stuck for something to do for the Summer, they decide on a road trip to find the mythical ‘magic beach’ known as ‘Heaven’s Mouth”. At a family wedding they meet Luisa an older woman from Spain who is married to Tenoch’s cousin – and seemingly unhappy with her lot. To their great surprise, she agrees to accompany them on their trip. The boys compete to seduce Luisa, who is far more experienced than either of them. After a series of adventures, they arrive at the coast and become friendly with a local fisherman and his family. There is a twist at the the end of the tale and an epilogue when the boys meet again after the first year of their degree courses.
‘Latin American cinema’ has a long history featuring periods of both commercial and artistic success. Compared to other parts of the world outside Europe and North America, Latin American culture is influenced by three distinctive factors:
- the close proximity of the US to Mexico and the American assumption that all of Central and South America is a ‘US sphere of influence’;
- Spanish as a common language (apart from Portuguese in Brazil and other languages in the Caribbean islands) and the lasting influence of Spanish cultural achievements;
- independence from European colonial powers in the 19th century, but issues about the persecution/assimilation of ‘Native Americans’, still sometimes referred to as ‘Indians’ or in Mexico as Amerindians.
The three largest countries, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, have had the biggest presence in film production (although Cuba ‘punches above its weight’ and Bolivia has produced at least one major filmmaker).
Mexico had a major industry in the 1940s, producing genre films such as family melodramas, musicals and action pictures. At the time of the Hollywood studio system, Mexico produced stars who appeared in both Mexican and Hollywood films – Dolores del Rio, Pedro Armendáriz – and others who were big stars within Mexico. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mexico was recognised internationally, because of the artistic success of the exiled Spanish director Luis Buñuel. Up until the last ten years, only a handful of other Mexican directors have been granted limited distribution in art cinemas in the UK.
Much of the commercial energy and the attention of the popular audience in Mexico has been diverted towards television since the late 1950s. Mexico is a big producer of telenovelas – popular television serials, similar to US/UK soap operas, but with stronger genre links to romance and melodrama. These programmes attract very large and enthusiastic audiences. They are also exported (along with similar series made in Brazil and Columbia), not only to other parts of Latin America, but also to Africa and the Middle East. This is a clear indication of the potential of Mexican production. In cinema, however, Mexican audiences have largely turned to American films which, as in most countries, take 80% or more of local box office.
The recent resurgence of Mexican cinema as ‘global cinema’ – i.e. significant circulation of a film in different markets across the world – centres on the work of three youngish directors, Guillermo del Torro (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and American films such as Mimic, Blade 2 and Hellboy), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros (Mex 2000), 21 Grams (US 2003)) and the director of Y tu mamá también, Alfonso Caurón (who also directed the third Harry Potter film). All three now live in the US. Nevertheless, they claim (supported by critics) to have made the most definitively ‘Mexican’ films of recent years. In other words, they make films that are not pale genre copies of Hollywood films, but instead offer representations of life in a Mexico that its inhabitants recognise.
The Spanish connection has been important to Mexico. Spanish has long overtaken French as a major world language (alongside Arabic, Mandarin and English) and this increases the market potential of Spanish language culture. There is the possibility of Spanish co-productions and also the exchange of actors and production crews.
The political context for filmmaking is also important in Mexico. In 2000 the Mexican electorate finally voted to oust the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had held power since 1929. The new president, Vincente Fox, represented a new beginning. Fox may have turned out to be something other than what the voters first thought, but his election couldn’t help but change the outlook of most of the population.
In fact, Fox is a conservative, akin to the Republican Party in the US. He has opened up Mexico to both the US and global capital. A truly radical political force does still exist in Mexico in the form of the Zapatistas, the rebels in the Chiapas region of Mexico, close to the border with Guatemala. Naming themselves after Emiliano Zapata, the leader of the 1911 Revolution, the rebels have proved themselves to be adept at low-key but effective organisation and action in resisting the ‘neo-liberalism’ of the multinational corporations.
Genre and Y tu mamá también
One of the ways in which the film works is to set up expectations based on generic conventions, only to confound and surprise the audience in the final act of the narrative.
The road movie
The basic narrative structure of Y tu mamá también is that of the road movie, one of the prime cinematic genres – i.e. a genre developed within the context of cinema, not borrowed from another media form.
A road movie is based around a journey – in its classical form, a journey by motor vehicle across the continent. The journey will require stopovers in strange, usually small town, communities before ending with an arrival at some kind of defining location. The journey is akin to a form of ‘quest’, with the heroes acting as ‘knights of the road’. The thematic of the road movie tends to be ambiguous in that characters are either running away or searching for something new – often at the same time. The journey means that they will have new experiences and meet new people and both of these will set challenges for the heroes. The new situations will also test the relationship between two characters who might think that they know each other very well. At some point in the journey, the characters will find out something about themselves.
In terms of iconography and style, road movies are characterised by certain restrictions on camerawork – either the camera shows relatively close framings of the characters in the car or it shows long shots of the car travelling across the landscape.
Shots of the road are inevitably accompanied by music. Easy Rider (US 1969) was one of the first successful ‘modern’ road movies. The box office success of this low budget film encouraged producers to produce similar films and also to look for music tie-ins. Easy Rider was one of the first Hollywood films to come with a soundtrack album of rock songs, most of which were not written with the film in mind. Ever since, road trips, especially for younger characters, have been accompanied by ‘driving’ music, often guitar-based with lyrics celebrating the ‘freedom of the open road’.
The youth/‘coming of age’ movie
The emergence of the ‘teenager’ as a new marketing concept in the US in the early 1950s coincided with the decline in Hollywood’s traditional family audience. Young people were the new audience and films were made to target them directly – hence the ‘youth movie’ (often shown in the new drive-in cinemas).
Youth pictures are not just a Hollywood phenomenon. Youth culture is central to the export of American consumerist culture and encompasses music and fashion as well as cinema and videogames, the internet etc. The ‘youth picture’ could be argued as a generic category, but it is a broad category within which there are several distinct groupings. One is the so-called ‘coming of age’ film in which a boy or girl goes through a form of, usually sexual, initiation into adulthood. The road trip provides the perfect opportunity for the staging of this narrative – freedom from parental control and the restrictions of school and the excitement of new places to see, new people to meet etc. There is also a time limit on the story – the trip must end in time for the youths to go on to university – and this provides some of the narrative tension.
Another sub-group of the youth movie is the ‘teen comedy’. In the female variant of this narrative, the comedy is ‘romantic’ and centres on the obstacles in the path of true love in the romantic comedy. In the male variant the focus is much more likely to be whether or not the lead characters can find the way to lose their virginity. The young men of Y tu mamá también are certainly not virgins (although they are in some ways still ‘innocent’). However, the narrative they inhabit does at first glance appear to have been plucked from the pages of a lad’s mag – the fantasy of an ‘older woman’ on the road trip and the possibility that she might sleep with one or other, or both, of the youths. The comedy comes from the fact that although the youths can fantasise, they have little idea about how to deal with the reality of the narrative events and inevitably make mistakes in their social behaviour.
The least likely generic reference would seem to be ‘political film’ – but this is precisely what the critical consensus on Y tu mamá también suggests. This is partly down to the director Alfonso Cuarón himself, who has spoken about his own experiences as a teenager in Mexico City in the 1970s (he was born in 1961). Cuarón recalls seeing the films of Jean-Luc Godard in ciné clubs and suggests that this is where the idea of the voiceover commentary comes from. He makes specific reference to Masculin féminin and Bande à part. Godard, one of the most important directors associated with the ‘French New Wave’ of the late 1950s and early 1960s made films that were avant-garde in terms of both aesthetics (how they used sound and image) and, increasingly in the 1960s, revolutionary politics.
The voiceovers in Y tu mamá también, as Edward Lawrenson suggests, tend to give an air of melancholy to the film, often commenting on death – something unconsidered by the teenagers, but an important element of the narrative. But it is another aspect of the voiceovers and the general aesthetic of the film that reveals its political sub-text. Cuarón takes care with his camera to reveal to the audience the ‘other Mexico’ through which the boys travel and which most of the time, they fail to properly see.
Tenoch and Julio are both, by Mexican standards very well off. Mexico has a large population (over 100 million), most of whom live in urban areas. This means that in many parts of what is a large country the rural population is sparse – and poor. The per capita income in Mexico is something like a quarter of that in the UK and Canada and perhaps one fifth of that in the US – one of the reasons why the inclusion of Mexico in the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) with the US and Canada is such a contentious issue. (Economists debate what the effects might be, but clearly these are not ‘equal’ trading partners.) Mexico is characterised by a small wealthy middle class and a large working class, many of whom have moved to Mexico City to look for work. This is the subject of the ‘commentary’ about the worker who is killed crossing the road in order to save time getting to work.
The division by social class is mirrored by the ethnic divisions in the country. The largest ethnic group in Mexico (around 60%) is classified as mestizo or ‘mixed’. These are people who are the descendants of intermarriage between Europeans (predominantly Spanish) and the local Amerindian peoples of Central America. The Amerindians themselves make up some 30% of the Mexican population. ‘Europeans’ make up 9%, leaving 1% to cover all other groups. The 9% of Europeans make up the Mexican middle class. On this basis, the decision by his parents to name ‘Tenoch’ after an Aztec chieftain who founded what is now Mexico City is a calculated attempt to assert ‘Mexican-ness’. The Aztecs were from North Mexico and they dominated the Southern Maya people before the arrival of the Spanish. A name like ‘Tenoch’ could be provocative for the people of Southern Mexico (especially in Chiapas, the state that is home to the Zapatistas).
Julio and Tenoch are themselves separated by a class division. Julio lives with his mother and sister who both work. Tenoch has a father who is an important politician and he lives in a grand house with a maid (who was also Tenoch’s nanny). This rift between the boys is central to the narrative.
The journey undertaken by the boys is from cosmopolitan Mexico City, south west towards the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. This is a movement from urban to rural, from sophisticated to ‘simple’, from rich to poor and from European to Amerindian. The film shows the two boys to be almost oblivious to the changing environment, but the camera and the voiceovers mean that the audience is constantly invited to notice the discrepancy between the rich boys’ internal world and the realities outside.
David Heuser (see website reference) offers a fascinating analysis of the film which he reads as a commentary on the impossibility of Mexico getting the kind of government that he thinks it deserves. In this analysis, Tenoch and Julio are representative of the two main political forces in Mexico (the upper class and the lower middle class – the ‘bourgeoisie’). Their obsession with selfish (sexual) demands prevents them from recognising what they could achieve through co-operation. For Heuser, the car represents Mexico and Luisa represents the possibilities of European-style government. Once she takes over, the goal of the journey, ‘Heaven’s Mouth’, becomes real, not a myth – just as the political goals of the country could become achievable. However, when the boys leave their tent, the pigs (i.e. the peasants) run amok, ‘proving’ to the boys that the peasantry can’t be trusted. When they wake up in bed together, the boys are horrified – they can’t face the prospect of being together. When Luisa dies the experiment has come to an end. This is a detailed and quite convincing reading.
In an interview on the DVD, director Cuarón says the film is about ‘identity’, for Luisa, for the boys and for the country. He says Mexico is a teenage country that still needs to find its identity. He also confirms that the names of the characters refer directly to Mexican history. Luisa is a ‘Cortés’ – the name of the original Spanish conqueror (‘conquistador’) of Mexico. Tenoch is an ‘Iturbide’ – the name of one of the early political leaders of revolutionary Mexico who wanted to become President. Julio is named Zapata – the name of the great revolutionary fighter (from whom the contemporary ‘Zapatistas’ take their name).
The voiceovers in the narrative structure
The narrator’s voice appears roughly twenty times during the film (more frequently in the first half). The function of the voiceover is to do three things. First, it tells us the important information about the backgrounds of Julio and Tenoch, their families and their girlfriends. This enables us to make a ‘reading’ of the characters and place them accurately in the Mexican class structure. Cuarón argues that giving this kind of detail in his Hollywood films proved impossible, but here it adds a great deal to our understanding.
The second purpose is to reveal to the audience things that Julio and Tenoch do not know about each other and also to show aspects of Luisa’s behaviour that the boys don’t notice. A good example of this is when the car breaks down and Luisa buys a doll from a local woman because it has her name. The voiceover tells us that she is thinking about the doll when she passes a funeral procession for a child. This links to later scenes by the beach when she plays with the fisherman’s children. Finally the voiceover tells us that she left the doll to the fisherman’s daughter. Throughout the film Luisa is much more aware of the lives of people around her – in contrast to the boys who are interested only in themselves. Another good example is when the car is stopped by a group from a small village and the boys are asked for money for the village queen. Only Luisa looks at the young woman. (Yet a little while earlier they have passed the village where Tenoch’s nanny was born.)
The third purpose of the voiceover is to tell us about characters who are either peripheral to the story (like Chuy, the fisherman) or completely outside the boys’ story. These are comments on the lives of Mexico’s rural/migrant poor. Further examples include the migrant worker killed crossing the street and the road accident which is marked by a roadside shrine. As well as these incidents, the voiceover reminds us of the political changes in Mexico. This stealthy political comment is also taken up in the cinematography and mise en scène.
Camera and mise en scène
The camerawork is an integral part of the overall ‘feel’ of the film. It is fluid but not overly expressive. Much of the time, scenes are shown in relative long shot, e.g. in the two scenes when Luisa seduces the boys. The central three characters are in the frame together inside the car for long periods. Organising this when they are driving in the car is quite difficult and sometimes requires a distorting wide angle lens. If it is not peering into the car, the camera is often showing the car in long shot, from in front or behind on the road itself or at an angle from the road. Alternatively, the camera looks out of the car windows at the countryside passing by. It is the shifting balance between these kinds of shots which slowly begins to show the audience more about the conditions of the local people.
In the early part of the journey, the camera is mostly focusing on the trio, but there are several instances, often in conjunction with the voiceover, when it manages to capture what is happening at the edges of the frame, or just out of the frame in which the boys are appearing. The best example of this is in the scene when the trio arrive for their first overnight stay in a country hotel. As they are about to order food, the camera leaves the party and follows one of the family in the hotel into a back room and then on into the kitchen where the family are eating and getting on with their busy lives.
A second example comes a little later when a discussion about sex in the car is undercut when the camera peers out of the car window to notice a pick-up truck carrying two armed police overtaking. Further on down the road the camera again peers out of the car, ignoring the trio who are too engrossed to notice a shot of the armed police who seem to be arresting a group of farmers selling their produce at the roadside. There are several other examples of the repression carried out by police at roadblocks etc., all passed without a sideways glance by the boys in the car.
The political commentary in the film is not recognised by every audience (in fact, it is probably recognised by a small minority in audiences outside Mexico). Some critics have lambasted the film because it panders to American teen culture. It has been described as mirroring American Pie or Dude, Where’s My Car? Although there are some obvious similarities with these films, both the tone and the look of the Mexican film are quite different.
The interaction with American culture is also more complicated than simple acceptance of the dominance of American forms. Xan Brooks quotes Paul Julian Smith on the way that the language used by the boys – ‘chilango’ a kind of ‘Mexican youth speak’ – is quite distinctive. As is the music, much of which is a form of ‘Mexican style’ Anglo-American music – made either by Mexican bands or Hispanic bands in the US. Other tracks are European rock or more traditional Mexican music. (A complete soundtrack listing is available on the Internet Movie Database entry for the film.)
An example of how music ‘codes’ the changing world through which the car travels comes at the point where the portable tape player runs down because the batteries are fading. The boys have been playing American or Mexican rock, but now as the political struggles in the world outside the car become more apparent, the music on the soundtrack becomes more ‘local’ or more ‘roots’ as it must be derived from local radio stations. As the soundtrack switches to this rootsier music of accordions, the world outside becomes more alien – the boys’ car is hemmed in by cattle and they react angrily. Later they have to be towed to a garage behind an ox cart.
The success of the film is partly down to its young stars, especially Gael García Bernal. Bernal (born 1978) had already shot Amores Perros when he began work on Y tu mamá también. He was a child actor in a soap on Mexican TV and came to London to study acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Since Y tu mamá también, he has appeared in other Mexican and Spanish films, but 2004 has seen two major releases which have confirmed his status as perhaps the hottest young star in World Cinema. Bad Education (directed by Pedro Almodóvar) and The Motorcycle Diaries in which Bernal plays a young Che Guevera both offer interesting comparisons to Y tu mamá también, especially Motorcycle Diaries as it is another Latin American road movie with a political sub-text. Screen International (9/9/04) recognised Bernal as one of the few stars who can expect to be successful in Hollywood and in both Spanish and Mexican films (the large and growing Spanish speaking population inside the United States will also help. Diego Luna (born 1979) has a similar background, again starting as a child star on Mexican television. He has also appeared in several Hollywood films, notably in the lead for Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004) and Goal, (2005).
Rudo y cursi (2008) directed by Carlos Cuarón and starring Bernal and Luna is a kind of companion piece to Y tu mamá.
Questions for discussion
1. Find some examples in the film of the youths acting in ways similar to those found in American ‘teen movies’ – how are these scenes ‘undercut’ by local, Mexican cultural differences?
2. Find examples of the ‘voiceover’ technique in the film – including each of the three types discussed in these notes. For each example, analyse what is being shown by the camera and mise en scène during the voiceover. How do sound and image work together?
3. How do the representations of the two boys differ in the film? Is it purely a difference in social class?
4. How do you read Luisa’s role in the narrative? How much is the ending of the film similar to the ‘twist’ in Hollywood films?
Jose Arroyo (2002) Review of Y tu mamá también in Sight and Sound, April
A. G. Basoli (2002) ‘Sexual Awakenings and Stark Social Realities: Interview with Alfonso Cuarón on Y tu mamá también’ in Cineaste Vol XXVII No3, June
Xan Brooks (2002) on http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4463899,00.html, accessed 8/8/04
David Heuser on http://music.utsa.edu/electron/YTuMama.htm, accessed 8/8/04
Edward Lawrenson (2002) Interview with Alfonso Cuarón, in Sight and Sound, April
Paul Julian Smith (2002) ‘Heaven’s Mouth’ in Sight and Sound, April
All text in these notes © 2004 Roy Stafford/itp publications unless otherwise indicated. Images from Y tu mamá también © Icon