Monday, 11 October 2010

Essay: Fuhgeddaboudit! The Sopranos - a genre and audience analysis of the best TV drama ever!

The popularity of Home Box Office’s (HBO) award-winning serial The Sopranos (1999-2007), continues well beyond the finale of what is often cited as the ‘the best TV drama of all time’ (Nelson 2007:29). The show has also been credited with changing the way that television is being made, contributing to what some have called ‘the HBO effect’ (Leverette et al 2008:1; Keeton 2002:131). Clearly drawing on generic antecedents from the mobster movie genre, the show is also a family melodrama and owes its lineage to earlier television conventions from which it has borrowed, ultimately transforming and transgressing the expectations of the gangster genre (Nelson 2007:36; Keeton 2002:131; Leverette 2008:125-126). In this essay I will discuss the show with regards to genre, and the way that genre necessarily constructs a particular audience. This will be achieved by looking at the show from three perspectives: industry, audience and text, which are not mutually exclusive, but operate together and provide a suitable basis for textual analysis in television studies.

The term genre is a French word meaning ‘type’ or ‘kind’, which was first invoked in literary studies, and then later applied to film analysis (Neale 2000:1; Turner 1993:85). Whereas the literary use is concerned with the categorisation of fiction by subjective categories with little regard for industry and audiences, genre study in film and television, due to the nature of the material conditions in which it operates, must examine the relationship between industry, audiences, and texts (Schatz 1981:15-16). Genres are also defined as ‘a particular set of conventions, features and norms’, which are ‘a fundamental aspect of the way texts of all kinds are understood’ (Neale 2008:3). They also bring with them a ‘horizon of expectations’ for the viewer, and construct a ‘generic audience’, one that is sufficiently literate and familiar with a genre’s conventions, and who participate ‘in a fully genre-based viewing’ (Jauss cited in Neale 2008:3; Altman cited in Neale 2008:3).

Neale (1990:49) also notes how genres operate through the process of ‘intertextual relay’, which he describes as
the systems and forms of publicity, marketing and reviewing that each media institution possesses – plays a key role not only in generating expectations, but also in providing labels and names for its genres and thus a basis for grouping films, television programmes, or other works and texts together.
This can be seen in the way that critical, industrial and other discourses surrounding The Sopranos are presented in terms of ‘quality television’, and ‘original programming’ – what I call meta-genres, or generic signifiers which represent, not just a particular period in television production, or institutional programming policy and market strategy, but also issues surrounding authorship, aesthetics and audiences (Santo 2008:19-42; McCabe and Akass 2008:83-92).

Since going on the air in 1972 as one of the first nonterrestrial cable networks (and becoming one of the first to broadcast via satellite in 1975), HBO has continually striven to redefine television, and has gained a reputation for offering high quality original programming (Leverette et al 2008:1). Indeed, HBO has come to be regarded as a premier site of what has come to be called ‘quality television’, which according to Thompson (1996) is defined in contrast to the earlier broadcast period of ‘least objectionable programming’ (LOP). This was ‘the strategy in the network era of making bland programmes which would build and sustain audiences not by directly attracting them but by offending the fewest’ (Nelson 2006:62). As Thompson (1996:13) has pointed out ‘[q]uality TV is best defined by what it is not. It is not “regular” TV’.

This very point is inscribed in the HBO tagline: “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO” (Nelson 2006:62). A clever marketing strategy, and as HBO relies on viewer subscriptions, a key marker of difference which helps the organisation separate itself from commercial stations, and, consequently, take chances (Leverette 2008:15). This risk-taking can be seen in HBO’s policy of ‘original programming’, which it instituted, staking its groundbreaking reputation on ‘notions of “quality” based on branding, cost, and innovation as it sought to find a place for itself in the overcrowded television marketplace’ (Leverette 2008:16). However, whilst HBO may define itself as “Not Television”, most of the content appearing on HBO ‘draws upon existing television forms, narratives, aesthetics, themes, and economic and institutional practices in order to articulate [its] difference’ (Santo 2008:24).

HBO has also ‘relied upon various regulatory and economic differences between pay and regular television to add variation to its programming strategies, but very rarely produces anything non-televisual’ (Santo 2008:24). In this regard, HBO holds two considerable advantages over its network competitors. Firstly, its shows are not subject to the same censorship regulations as broadcasting. This is due to the outcome of its court battle with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the Court of Appeals’ declaration that cable, due to being purchased rather than ‘freely distributed’ like radio and broadcast television, was ‘more akin to newspaper publishing, which is offered protection under the First Amendment’ (Strover in Santo 2008:25). This means that HBO is able to ‘incorporate nudity, violence, and vulgarity in ways the networks [can’t]’. Importantly, this gives HBO a competitive advantage whereby it can appeal to audiences as a site for content they can get nowhere else (Jaramillo 2002:65). However, I would suggest that in recent years, due to the ‘HBO effect’, groundbreaking shows can be found on competing cable networks such as Showtime (Weeds, Dexter) and AMC (Mad Men, Breaking Bad), and on commercial networks such as ABC (Lost, Desperate Housewives) and Fox (24).

Secondly, due to being subscription-based, HBO does not to have to ‘tailor the content of its programming (as the networks do) in order to appease merchandisers seeking inoffensive material appealing to the greatest common denominator’ (Santo 2008:27). But there is also a considerable textual advantage too. By not having to incorporate commercial breaks, HBO programs can be written, such that they ‘build steadily towards a climax through multiple examinations of a particular theme from myriad perspectives’ (Santo 2008:28). I would also say, that by deploying a serial narrative structure, characters can be better psychologised, ultimately lending a greater degree of realism to their representation.

These factors work to target a niche audience – ‘an elite…intellectual audience with high expectations, willing to pay a premium price for the subscription service’ (McCabe and Akass 2008:91). This means that HBO can demonstrate a greater respect for its audience, and according to Jaramillo (2002:66), it ‘implies that [HBO’s] consumers can handle graphic language, sex and violence in a more thoughtful and productive way than broadcast viewers.’ Santo (2008:33) adds further that this sort of exclusivity offered at HBO, ‘supposedly grants paying viewers membership in a distinct community that clearly ranks above the riffraff who watch the standard broadcast and cable stations.’ From a creative perspective, David Chase, the creator/writer/director of The Sopranos, notes that his authorial latitude is granted in terms of the audience: “We all have the freedom to let the audience figure out what’s going on rather than telling them what’s going on” (cited in Lavery 2006:5). In this way, the show rewards ‘active viewing’, in which the viewer ‘has to dig for links and meanings beyond what’s spelled out on the surface and is often left with mysteries’ (Yacowar 2002:12).

The Sopranos, then, can be classified as ‘quality TV’, which according to Thompson (1996:15) ‘creates a new genre by mixing old ones…tends to be literary and writer-based [and]…is self-conscious’. In this regard, The Sopranos has created a new genre – let’s call it an existentialist gangster drama – by mixing the mobster film genre with television family melodrama. For example, the show takes the conventional gangster as protagonist, but mixes with it with a family melodrama storyline. One of the early taglines for the show was ‘Family. Redefined’. By combining these two genres, the show is able to expand on the various constructions of family – crime family, work family, private family (Jaromillo 2002:68; Nelson 2007:36).

Nelson (2007:36) points out that as a family melodrama, ‘the strong women in…Tony’s life [feature] fully, partly in relation to him, but also in their own right.’ For example, Carmela (Edie Falco) Tony’s wife, holds the family together and takes the major responsibility for bringing up their children, Meadow (Jamie Lyn Sigler) and Anthony Junior (Robert Iler). This is evident in the pilot episode, in which Carmela is making preparations for Anthony’s birthday, and later, due to catching Meadow climbing out her window, has to discipline and ground her, temporarily upsetting the order of their mother-daughter relationship. These family dimensions ‘afford intercutting of action-adventure sequences and scenes of gang conflict and violence, typical of a mobster movie, with domestic locations and issues (Nelson 2007:37). And according to McCabe and Akass, in The Sopranos, ‘the gangster genre collides with the [family melodrama] in a series in which the mobster finds himself in unfamiliar generic territory characterised by mundane chores and domestic worries’ (cited in Nelson 2007:37).

This notion of being in unfamiliar generic territory also extends to the audience. According to Keeton (2002:132), ‘[w]hen viewers tuned into the premiere episode of The Sopranos in 1999, most expected a conventional gangster narrative, but what they saw did not match their expectations.’ The opening shot after the credits frames a nervous, angst-ridden middle-aged male half hidden by a statue of a naked woman. Yacowar (2002:16) suggests that this shot ‘expresses the anxiety of a man insecure in his manhood’. Looking at Tony Soprano’s (James Gandolfini) body language he is clearly uncomfortable in his environment, suggesting to the audience he is on unfamiliar turf (Keeton 2002:132). When he finally goes into psychiatrist Dr Melfi’s (Lorraine Bracco) office, the camera cuts between them as they study each other, moving from longer to closer shots. Melfi then breaks the silence.

In the exchange between the two characters that follows, it is established that Tony has had a panic attack, and that due to ‘the line of work [he is] in’ it is ‘impossible [for him] to talk to a psychiatrist’. In this opening scene, we have a new meaning being circulated for the audience, which has been created through frustrating the conventions of melodrama. In other words, the conventions of the gangster genre prohibit Tony from speaking to a psychiatrist because what he does is illegal. And as those audience members who are literate in the gangster genre would know, he is bound by the code of silence – omerta.

This scene also establishes the tone of Tony’s intense feelings of anomie and alienation, which permeates most of the series, and can be read at a wider cultural level, of reflecting postmodern concerns of a loss of meaning in the midst of unprecedented potential for affluence (Keeton 2002:133). For example, in the scene, Tony recounts his state of mind the day of his first panic attack: “The morning of the day I got sick, I’ve been thinking. It’s good to get in on the ground floor. I came in too late for that. I know. But lately I’m getting the feeling I came in at the end, that the best is over.” Melfi replies: “Many Americans, I think, feel that way.” Tony continues: “I think of my father. He never retired. He never reached the heights like me. But in a lot of ways he had it better. He had his standards, his people, his pride, not like me. What have we got?”

So even before the first guy is ‘whacked’, this initial exchange ‘suggests how far the show has moved from its traditional gangster roots of the working class ethnic underdog forced into a life of crime by the closed hierarchy of capitalist society’ (Keeton 2002:133). This scene serves another purpose in that it creates sympathy for Tony as he works through the traumatic revelations of his childhood abuse, which are later discussed with Melfi. In representing Tony as a gangster with working class roots, it further encourages empathy because he ‘romanticises the time when a working-class man with minimal job skills could enter the workforce and support a family’ (Keeton 2002:142). This also invokes a moral ambiguity for the audience, as it encourages empathy towards ‘a thug whom we watch committing heinous acts’ (Holden in Yacowar 2002:17).

The show wears its proud gangster generic heritage through the self-conscious intertextual references to The Godfather (1972-1990) trilogy of films and Goodfellas (1990). This works to also encourage a degree of authenticity, which stems in part from the ways in which these references are used by the audience – or those who are familiar – to locate the fictional world of the series (Johnson 2007:17). For example, in the pilot, there is a scene in which Tony ranks Goodfellas against The Godfather trilogy. In episode two, “46 Long”, Silvio (Steve van Zandt) quotes Michael Corleone’s famous line from The Godfather: Part III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.”

Other instances of referencing can be found in the casting decisions. For example, Dominic Chianese who plays Corrado ‘Junior’ Soprano, appeared in The Godfather II, and several other cast members are Scorcese alumni from Goodfellas. Indeed, Michael Imperioli who plays Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos, and who also appeared in Goodfellas, is able to reprise the fate of his character in that film. In episode eight, “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti”, he shoots a bakery clerk in the foot, clearly referencing the scene in Goodfellas in which Joe Pesci’s character shoots his character in the foot.

However, in my opinion the most important reference comes at the end of the show’s final ever episode, “Made in America”. Its significant because, whilst the ambiguous and non-closed ending can be read without the reference, it allows a rewarding reading to those literate in the genre. In the final scene, the family are getting settled around the table at a diner, and a man that has been sitting at the counter with a jacket that says ‘members only’, walks into the toilet. Just as Meadow enters the diner, there is a sudden cut to black, and that’s the end of The Sopranos, and if read as the end of consciousness of the show’s protagonist – the end of Tony Soprano. What this reading implies, is that the man walked out of the toilet armed with a gun and shot Tony – another Godfather reference. I would argue that the ‘members only’ jacket is a self-conscious wink to that part of the audience – the privileged ‘members’ – who have the literacy to figure this out.

Finally, the show is literary and writer-based, and due to its serial format is able to develop characters into complex beings, providing ‘a slice of life as textured, nuanced, and involving as a Charles Dickens novel’ (Yacowar 2002:13). Indeed, Schulman (2010:27) praises the show asking ‘has there ever been an existentialist social novel quite like The Sopranos?’ The pedigree of the writing can be seen in episode fifty-two, “Whitecaps”, in which Tony calls off the hit against Carmine Lupertazzi (Tony Lip), telling Carmine’s underboss Johnny ‘Sack’ (Vince Curatola) that it would ‘create chaos in the organisation and be bad for business’. To which Johnny replies, incensed that he can’t bear to go to work tomorrow, take orders again ‘like it never fucking happened?!...Creeps in this petty place!’ To the astute observer, this is a clever reference to Macbeth, and ties the scene to one of Shakespeare’s ‘great proto-existentialist moments, the speech Macbeth makes after he can only greet news of his wife’s death with indifference’ (Schulman 2010:38).

In conclusion, the above discussion has provided an analysis of genre by considering the way in which genre constructs a particular audience. In considering the ideas surrounding notions such as ‘quality TV’ and ‘original programming’, The Sopranos can be situated in a discourse which also explains the positioning of its audience. Examples were provided from various episodes which demonstrated the hybrid generic nature of the show, intertextual references to its mob gangster roots, and the degree of its literary qualities. Finally, it can be said that through transforming and transgressing the conventions of the gangster and family melodrama, The Sopranos has not just remade the rules and expectations of the mob narrative, but through the ‘HBO effect’, has been responsible for transforming audience expectations of television at large.


Jaramillo, D.L. (2002) “The Family Racket: AOL Time Warner, HBO, The Sopranos, and the Construction of a Quality Brand”. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 26 (1): 59-75.

Johnson, C. (2007) “Tele-Branding in TVIII”. New Review of Film and Television Studies, 5 (1): 5-24.

Keeton, P. (2002) “The Sopranos and Genre Transformation: Ideological Negotiation in the Gangster Film”. Atlantic Journal of Communication, 10 (2): 131-148.

Lavery, D. (2006) “Introduction: Can this Be the End of Tony Soprano?” in D. Lavery (ed) Reading the Sopranos: Hit TV from HBO. London: I.B. Tauris: 1-14.

Leverette, B. (2008) “Cocksucker, Motherfucker, Tits” in M. Leverette, B.L. Ott, and C.L. Buckley (eds) It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-television Era. London and New York: Routledge: 123-151.

Leverette, B., Ott, B.L., and Buckely, C.L. (2008) “Introduction” in M. Leverette, B.L. Ott, and C.L. Buckley (eds) It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-television Era. London and New York: Routledge 1-10.

McCabe, J. and Akass, K. (2008) “It’s not TV, it’s HBO’s original programming: Producing quality TV” in M. Leverette, B.L. Ott, and C.L. Buckley (eds) It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-television Era. London and New York: Routledge: 83-94.

Neale, S. (1999) “Questions of Genre”. Screen, 31 (1): 45-66.

Neale, S. (2000) Genre and Hollywood. London and New York: Routledge.

Neale, S. (2008) “Studying Genre” in G. Creeber (ed) The Television Genre Book (2nd edition). London: Palgrave Macmillan: 3-5.

Nelson, R. (2006) “Quality Television: The Sopranos is the best television drama ever…in my humble opinion”. Critical Studies in Television, 1 (1): 58-71.

Nelson, R. (2007) “HBO Premium”. New Review of Film and Television Studies, 5 (1): 25-40.

Santo, A. (2008) “Para-television and discourses of distinction: The culture of production at HBO” in M. Leverette, B.L. Ott, and C.L. Buckley (eds) It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-television Era. London and New York: Routledge: 19-45.

Schatz, T. (1981) Hollywood Genres. New York: Random House.

Schulman, A. (2010) “The Sopranos: An American Existentialism?”. Cambridge Quarterly, 39 (1): 23-38.

Thompson, R.J. (1996) Television’s Second Age: from Hill Street Blues to ER. New York: Continuum.

Turner, G. (1988) Film as Social Practice (2nd edition). London and New York: Routledge.

Yacowar, M. (2002) The Sopranos on the Couch. London and New York: Continuum.


The Godfather, dir. F.F. Coppola, 1972.

The Godfather II, dir. F.F. Coppola, 1974.

The Godfather III, dir. F.F. Coppola, 1990.

Goodfellas, dir. M. Scorcese, 1990.

The Sopranos, created by D. Chase, 1999-2007.

“The Sopranos” (pilot), airdate January 10, 1999, dir. D. Chase.

“46 Long”, airdate January 17, 1999, dir. D. Attias.

“The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti”, airdate February 28, dir. T. Van Patten.

“Whitecaps”, airdate December 8, 2002, dir. J. Patterson.

“Made in America” (final), airdate June 10, 2007, dir. D. Chase.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Essay: Keeping woman in her proper place - An ideological analysis of two films: Double Indemnity and Basic Instinct

Hollywood and the institution of film in general is one of the most pervasive cultural mediums for the dissemination of meaning throughout society. Despite the presence of women directors and other film professionals, however, the industry remains dominated by males, and as the producers of representation in general, and of women in particular, men control how women are positioned in the social order. Simone de Beauvoir (1989:143) makes this point in The Second Sex, arguing that ‘[r]epresentation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.’ The aim of this essay will be to demonstrate the recuperative nature of Hollywood cinema, which seeks to keep woman in her place. This will be achieved by looking at the figure of the femme fatale and how it functions as a disruptive power, which reveals the hegemony of patriarchal society concealed in the text.

The films Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944) and Basic Instinct (Verhoeven, 1992) will be analysed with particular focus on the respective central female characters: Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) – two of the most infamous femme fatales in film history; and patterns of recuperation evident in the text. Ultimately, in examining the social conditions in which each film was produced, it will be shown that the femme fatale operates as a cultural barometer of the contemporaneous concerns of male anxiety and paranoia over the independence of women.

A femme fatale is an attractive and seductive woman, especially one who ultimately brings disaster to a man who becomes involved with her; and in French, the term translates literally to ‘disastrous woman’ (OED). Her history and evolution in cinema can be traced all the way from the ‘vamp’ in the original Italian and French silent films, to the ‘spider woman and seductress’ of the 1940s and 1950s noir era, to the more contemporary figuration of a dangerously independent career woman (Boozer 1999:20; Cook and Bernink 1999:187; Tasker 1998:121). Janey Place (cited in Hayward 2006:151), suggests that ‘[t]hese women are symbols of “unnatural” phallic power: toting guns and cigarette holders like the best of the men.’ Tasker (1998:117) notes further that the femme fatale is both ‘an archetype which suggests an equation between female sexuality, death and danger’ and a ‘textual space within which women function as the…centre of the narrative’.

In Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema, the feminist film theorist Annette Kuhn (1994:32) suggests that an analysis of ‘woman’ as an organising structure in films and the way in which a ‘woman-structure’ activates narratives, can be used to reveal wider concerns of the ‘position of women in the society which produces the narrative.’ In this regard, any recurrent structures of enigma resolution in the classic Hollywood narrative model of order/disorder/order-restored can reveal the dominant ideology residing in the text and reflect power structures at large in society (Haywood 2006:109; Humm 1997:12). For example, Harlovich (cited in Kuhn 1994:34) notes that narrative closure is always dependent on the resolution of enigmas centring on heterosexual courtship. Kuhn (1994:34) adds further that this resolution often takes the form of recuperation, whereby a transgressive female may be ‘restored to the family by falling in love…by getting married, or otherwise accepting a “normative” female role’; and any who refuse to return to the social order are punished by ‘exclusion, outlawing, or even death.’ Therefore, structurally and thematically, it can be said that the classic Hollywood narrative attempts to recuperate woman to a ‘proper place’ (Kuhn 1994:34).

However, in the process of being recuperated the femme fatale must be investigated and exposed by the law of patriarchy and found guilty before she can be restored to her ‘proper place’ or punished by death (Hayward 2006:151). This notion of guilt and punishment becomes clearer when the femme fatale is examined from a psychoanalytic perspective. Laura Mulvey (2009:22) in her influential essay Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema argues that ‘the female figure [in cinema] poses a [deep] problem.’ In the psychic paradigm of the Oedipus complex, woman connotes lack; that is, lack of a penis, which implies a threat of castration to the male (Mulvey 2009:22). The male unconscious, and by extension Hollywood cinema, solves this threat in one of two ways: via the narrative structure of recuperation as noted above, or through fetishism (Mulvey 2009:22; Smelik 1998:11).

In the case of fetishism, the threat of castration is negated by the substitution of a fetish object; that is, ‘turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous’, thereby denying sexual difference (Mulvey 2009:22). This is achieved in Hollywood cinema ‘[b]y a fragmentation of her body and an over-investment in parts of the body (breasts, legs, etc)’ (Hayward 2006:288). The scene in Double Indemnity where Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) first meets Phyllis is a clear example of fetishistic fascination. As she begins to come down the stairs, we see a close-up of her legs and golden anklet, before we see her entire body; she is a piecemeal and fragmented woman made of moments and parts (Johnston 1998:92; Bronfen 2004:108; Dick 1980:48).

According to Johnston (1998:90), the title sequence of the film sets it under the ‘mark of castration’. The silhouette of a male figure in a hat and overcoat looms towards the camera on crutches. In the next sequence we see Neff, injured and bleeding, enter the offices of his insurance company and begin his ‘confession’ to Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Johnston (1998:90-91) suggests that Neff’s confession to Keyes establishes him in the patriarchal order as representative of the Law – the symbolic father; and ‘[i]n the all-male universe of the insurance business, women are seen as untrustworthy’. For example, Keyes comments that women “should be investigated”, before any relationship is undertaken. Women, then, represent the possibility of social excess – “they drink from the bottle” – which the insurance business (patriarchy) seeks to contain (Johnston 1998:91).

Throughout the narrative both Neff and Keyes investigate Phyllis to reveal her ‘guilty secret’. Firstly, in the scene where Neff returns to the house the day after their first meeting, Phyllis complains about the boredom of her married life and asks about taking out accident insurance on her husband’s life. Neff interrogates her asking why she married her husband, and after she daringly asks how the policy could be taken out without her husband’s knowledge, tells her she “can’t get away with it”. Her guilt is confirmed in the love scene at Neff’s apartment when she reveals she wants her husband dead (Johnston 1998:93-94). For Keyes, however, because Phyllis is a woman, she is automatically guilty, and it’s his job as both claims manager and representative of patriarchal Law to relentlessly investigate the insurance claim and expose her guilt (Dick 1980:49). Finally, in the death scene, her duplicity is made emphatically clear for the audience when she says she “is rotten to the heart” and confesses that she never loved Neff (Johnston 1998:97).

In Basic Instinct, the investigation of the woman is situated within a legal discourse; in fact, all the women in the film come under scrutiny by the law (Sherwin 2008:175). Catherine Tramell is clearly coded as a femme fatale through her aggressive sexuality and criminality, not to mention her cigarette smoking. She is the suspect in a sex crime: the brutal murder of her former lover who was stabbed to death with an icepick during sex. Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) is the detective assigned to investigate her, and despite his initial belief that she is guilty, starts an affair with her (Sherwin 2008:176). During the investigation Tramell is called in for questioning, and in the infamous “crotch shot” scene asserts her power by fleetingly exposing her vagina to the male interrogators; and she further embarrasses them by ‘openly discussing her sexuality in terms that they would only have expected from men’ (Deleyto 1997:35). Her threat as a castrating woman is therefore reinforced visually by her revealing her ‘lack’, or as Gus (George Dzundza) crudely puts it, her “magna-cum-laude pussy”.

Remarkably, all the killings that take place in the film are motivated by rage specifically directed at men. For example, in investigating Roxy (Leilani Sarelle) and Hazel (Dorothy Malone), it is revealed that they both killed their families. The manner in which Roxy did it with “Daddy’s razor”, situates her symbolically as a castrating figure; and in Hazel’s case, using the knife she received as a “wedding present” connects her rage to marriage. Even Tramell has killed her parents, although Curran is unable to prove it (Sherwin 2008:177). Elizabeth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn) also comes under investigation as Curran tries to unravel the enigma surrounding the truth over her obsession with Tramell after they had a one-night-stand in college.

A pattern of guilt/innocence oscillates in the narrative between Tramell and Garner, and Curran eventually comes to believe Tramell’s version of the events – that Garner staged the initial murder to frame her. Whilst Garner’s guilt is never confirmed, she is killed by Curran after Gus is killed in her vicinity (Sherwin 2008:176). The film’s denouement deviates from the traditional recuperation/punishment structure in the traditional femme fatale film (Sherwin 2008:177). The ending neither establishes Tramell’s innocence (after all the evidence piled up against her), nor punishes her for her guilt. This ambiguity is demonstrated in the final scene, which refuses narrative closure. The film teases the spectator that Tramell may be reaching for something to kill Curran with during sex, but she turns towards him, kisses him passionately and they launch into a final round of love-making. The camera then tracks down the side of the bed towards where she was reaching and fades out signalling the end of the film. However, an unexpected fade-in reveals the camera still tracking to rest finally on an icepick under the bed. In a remarkable twist, the audience is left wondering if Garner was really the killer, and that Tramell may actually be a psychopathic killer (Deleyto 1997:25). The significance of this will be discussed shortly.

The narrative attempt of recuperating the guilty female object may not always be successful, and in the particular case of the femme fatale, it actually reveals the hegemonic work of recuperation obfuscated in the text (Hayward 2006:151). This can be seen in terms of the ideological contradiction she poses by being a strong, active and sexually expressive female vis-a-vis her domestic and passive sisters (Hayward 2006:151). Therefore, she must be recuperated or punished if the dominant ideology is to be maintained. This becomes clearer when we examine the patriarchal motivations for containment by looking at the socio-historical conditions in which the two films were produced.

In the case of Double Indemnity, the role of the femme fatale ‘emerged in the wake of World War II when gender roles were disrupted as soldiers returned from war to discover that their women had replaced them in the workplace’ (Rowe and Lindsey 2003:176). The returning veterans assumed they could ‘retake command of the family home front’, but to do so a defensive and repressive attitude against independent women had to be taken (Boozer 1999:21). Additionally, Mary Ann Doanne (cited in Bronfen 2004:115) suggests further that the femme fatale was a symptom of patriarchal anxiety about feminism. The femme fatale, then, was evoked against ambitious women, and in her role as catalyst for criminal behaviour in men, blame was directed at women’s sexuality, furthering ‘calls for her sexual repression and restriction to the household’ (Boozer 1999:21).

This can clearly be seen in Double Indemnity, whereby the unhappily married Phyllis, seduces and becomes sexually involved with Neff, and convinces him to set up a phoney insurance claim and kill her husband, so that they (or perhaps just she) can collect the payout and be together. Not only is Phyllis a deadly seductress who ‘threatens the moral and legal codes of marriage’, but she jeopardises ‘the economic codes of society at large’; and it is in ‘her longing for financial independence by way of sexual initiative that makes her so threatening to traditional phallocentric authority’ (Boozer 1999:21).
In the 1990s, the femme fatale’s desire for economic independence generally took the form of ‘careerist excess’. In this regard these seductresses were now portrayed as ‘sociopathic in their single-minded determination to dominate their chosen field’ (Boozer 1999:29). This behaviour is consistent with the ‘ethically corrupted marketplace competition and sexual exhibitionism’ which marks this period of post-modern and post-feminist sexual consumerism (Boozer 1999:29; Andrews 2006:60). However, compared to her traditional counterpart, the contemporary femme fatale’s ‘sexually tainted avarice is more deviant and perverse as a focus for blame’ (Boozer 1999:29).

The male anxiety that is clearly of concern in Basic Instinct, can also be situated in a socio-historical context; that is, the product of the successive rearrangements in gender relationships brought about by several waves of feminism and gay liberation movements, especially since the sixties (Deleyto 1997:32). Furthermore, as a bisexual (or perhaps a lesbian who faked her heterosexual desire), Tramell represents the ultimate threat of the independent woman to patriarchy. She manifests the real male fear that he might be expendable (Hoberman in Deleyto 1997:25). As Luce Irigaray notes, ‘male sexuality has traditionally been defined monolithically, in relation to the penis, but female sexuality…is plural’ (cited in Sherwin 2008:177; original emphasis). Therefore, the female as ‘polysexual’ suggests that men and heterosexual intercourse are not necessary to fulfil female desire; man is dependent on an other for sexual satisfaction, while woman is autoerotic and therefore needs no one (Irigaray in Sherwin 2008:177). Returning to the ambiguous ending of Basic Instinct, the significance of the final scene becomes clearer. By not punishing her with death, incarceration or recuperation into a patriarchal zone of containment, the film ultimately suggests that the threat of the ‘autoerotic woman’ is ever present.

In conclusion, it has been shown how the recuperative nature of Hollywood cinema seeks to keep woman in her place in the interests of maintaining the hegemony of patriarchy. This was achieved by demonstrating how a woman-structure informs Hollywood cinema through the pattern of investigation of the guilty object, with the ultimately aim of recuperation or punishment. As a contradictory figure, the femme fatale was demonstrated as a disruptive power which reveals the dominant ideology in the text. Examples were provided from Double Indemnity and Basic Instinct, and when considered in their socio-historical contexts, the femme fatale can be seen a cultural indicator of contemporaneous concerns of male anxiety and the paranoia over the independence of women.


Andrews, D. (2006) “Sex is Dangerous, So Satisfy Your Wife: The Softcore Thriller in Its Contexts”. Cinema Journal, 45 (3): 59-89.

Boozer, J. (1999) “The Lethal Femme Fatale in the Noir Tradition”. Journal of Film and Video, 51, 3 (4): 20-35.

Bronfen, E. (2004) “Femme Fatale: Negotiations of Tragic Desire”. New Literary History, 35: 103-116.

Cook, P. and Bernink, M. (1999) The Cinema Book (2nd edition). London: BFI Publishing.

de Beauvoir, S. (1989) The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books.

Deleyto, C. (1997) “The Margins of Pleasure: Female Monstrosity and Male Paranoia in Basic Instinct”. Film Criticism, 21: 20-42.

Dick, B. F. (1980) Billy Wilder. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Hayward, S. (2006) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (3rd edition). London and New York: Routledge.

Humm, M. (1997) Feminism and Film. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Johnston, C. (1998) “Double Indemnity” in Kaplan, E. A. (ed) Women in Film Noir. London: BFI Publishing: 89-98.

Kuhn, A. (1994) Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema (2nd edition). London and New York: Verso.

Mulvey, L. (2009) Visual and Other Pleasures (2nd edition). Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED). (accessed 16 April 2010)

Rowe, A. C. and Lindsey, S. (2003) “Reckoning Loyalties: White Femininity as Crisis”. Feminist Media Studies, 3 (2): 173-191.

Sherwin, M. (2008) “Deconstructing the Male: Masochism, Female Spectatorship, and the Femme Fatale in Fatal Attraction, Body of Evidence and Basic Instinct”. Journal of Film and Television, 35 (4): 174-182.

Smelik, A. (1998) And the Mirror Cracked: Feminist Cinema and Film Theory. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tasker, Y. (1998) Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Cinema. London and New York: Routledge.


Basic Instinct, dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1992.
Double Indemnity, dir. Billy Wilder, 1944.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Essay: The Influence of Miles Davis on the History of Jazz

The history of jazz encompasses a multifaceted mosaic of places, performers and progressions of style. While it is not possible to isolate a singular point of reference for its beginning, there are a number of individuals who stand out and loom large as leading figures. One such luminary is Miles Davis, trumpet player, band leader, musical innovator, and in the words of fellow musician Chico Hamilton, “jazz’s only superstar” (Kart 2004:201). This essay will discuss the influence Miles Davis had on the development of jazz by looking at his involvement at critical junctures in its evolution. In particular, it will focus on the stylistic innovations he brought to jazz, as well as looking at the importance he played in the development of bop, cool, modal and fusion jazz. Furthermore, he will be discussed in relation to how his contribution has been received by music critics and historians.

Davis emerged on the scene of New York in 1944 at the same time a revolution in jazz was underway (Merod 2001:72). Bop (the shorter version of ‘bebop’ or ‘rebop’) was a revolt against the big bands, commercialism, racial injustice, and the restrictive harmonic framework of the jazz that was in style at the time (Kingman 1990:385). In this period he played a significant role in the revolution, not as a pioneer or founding father, but rather as a participant, and worked with such notable figures as Thelonious Monk, Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and it was here that he ‘learned bop’s arcane language by imitation, informal tutelage, and constant jamming alongside players whose mastery was superior to his own’ (Merod 2001:72-74).

It was during this time of working with the Parker quintet that Davis perfected his approach to difficult melodic lines and rhythms which were played at breakneck speed (Merod 2001:72). However, at first Davis could not play high, loud or fast, and as he was young and still developing the strength of his lip muscles, he felt more comfortable playing with a light sound (Tanner et al 2001:219). This gave his playing an extraordinary emotional power infusing the sound with stark dramatic explorations of personal inwardness. And it was from this brooding and lyrical intensity that Davis’s trumpet persona emerged; and with it his own language – a heartbreaking plangent poetry of the soul, from which you could hear yourself think (Merod 2001:73; McConnell 1991:617).

In 1948, Davis collaborated with composer and arranger Gil Evans and the Claude Thornhill band who were working with ‘layered harmonic voicings’, and had introduced the french horn and tuba, and played them as ‘melodic rather than…rhythm instrument[s]’ (Merod 2001:86; Sales 1992:163). Dissatisfied at the increasingly virtuoso instrumentalism of bop at the time, the band was a confederation of sympathetic musicians who had been meeting in Evans’s apartment to rehearse and exchange new ideas (Sales 1992:163). Davis took an active leadership and secured a gig for the nine-piece, but most importantly, he secured a contract with Capitol Records.

The twelve sides they recorded between 1949-1950 were collected together for the eventual 1954 album Birth of the Cool, which launched the ‘cool’ sound and pointed the way for the sound of the 1950s (Tanner et al 2001:220). It is interesting to note one cut in particular from the album “Boplicity”, which can be seen as marking the transition from bop to cool. Kingman (1990:388) suggests that while the tempo has been slowed down, it still exhibits particular bop characteristics: the light style of drumming; the importance of the bass in keeping the beat; and that quintessential trademark of bop – the unison playing at the beginning of the piece.

Ironically, having fathered the ‘birth of cool’, Davis was among the first to turn away from it with the recording in 1954 of Walkin’, a twelve-bar blues whose straight-ahead funkiness loomed in contrast to the cerebral restraint of cool (Sales 1992:171). Known as ‘hard bop’, it came at a time when cool was being disdained as ‘white man’s music’, and was embraced as a welcome return to ‘soul’ and represented a return to the roots of jazz, especially its roots in black gospel music (Kingman 1990:389).

It was during this time that Davis emerged as the dominant influence in jazz on a number of levels:
as a trumpet stylist, as a best-selling recording star who broadened the audience for authentic jazz, as a leader with an uncanny gift for launching important new trends, and for introducing innovative musicians who were to help shape the future course of jazz (Sales 1992:176).
Importantly, Davis had also begun to develop the playing style that characterises much of his later work, borrowing the softer tone from his cool era, and slowing down the melodic activity. His phrasing also became fragmented leaving space for the rhythm section, from which he set himself apart by playing scale-oriented, rather than chord-oriented long notes. By 1958, he had freed himself further with the use of modal scales and slower moving harmonies. For example, ‘rather than weave a melody through complex bop or funk harmonies, he suspended his melodies based on early modes, above the harmony’ (Tanner et al 2001:223).

This can be seen in the Milestones recording with standard chord changes being abandoned, instead adopting a series of scales as the framework for improvising. This technique is called ‘modal’ and it had a ‘profound impact on the future of jazz’ (Sales 1992:178). It should also be noted that Davis did not invent modal jazz but popularised it (Sales 1992:180). The work that best exemplifies the sound is Kind of Blue, which was recorded in 1959 and went on to become the highest selling jazz album of all time with over four million copies sold, and is considered his magnus opus (Tanner et al 2001:224). The album is so significant that in 2009, the US House of Representatives voted 409-0, to pass a resolution honouring the album and declaring jazz to be a national treasure (ABC 2009).

Between 1969 and 1975, Davis went through the most productive phase of his career. While this ‘fusion’ period is marked by further experimentation and innovation, the direction he took is the most controversial (Svorinich 2001:91). In the face of the ascendancy of rock and roll, Davis began introducing electronics and a rock aesthetic. He added electric keyboards and a wah-wah effect pedal for his trumpet, and took on musicians with rock experience into his band (Svorinich 2001:100).

Always perceptive to what was in the air, Davis was aware that the use of a rock beat would hold the attention of his audience, regardless of how abstract some of the solos were. He was also evolving his studio technique, and started to adopt the rock method of recording large amounts of material and then editing it on tape and creating albums (Shipton 2001:858). This can be seen on the recordings In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew both recorded in 1969 (Milkowski 2003:29). However, critics were divided with some condemning that his foray into fusion was just a cynical attempt to grab a piece of the rock action. Regardless of whether they were right or not, the fact that the fusion movement remains very much alive today is testimony to the influence he exerted on the next generation (Sales 1991:202).

Through each of his stylistic incarnations, Davis was supported by a cohort of capable musicians, who went on to develop their own styles and forge their own places in the history of jazz. Among these were John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett, and Tony Williams. Aside from his legendary trumpet playing, his legacy derives, in part, from his ability to assemble the right musicians at the right time, and from his leadership ability to provoke and extract the best results to augment his own. He insisted that his musicians ‘play beyond themselves, that they reach for more than they know how to execute’ (Merod 2001:80).

There is no doubt that music critics and historians revere Davis as one of the most influential figures in the history of jazz, and indeed, American music (McConnell 2001:616). Whether it is his ability to sense new directions, assimilate their attributes, and popularise the new style, he was certainly a maverick amongst musicians (Tanner et al 2001:225). His genius was centred on an ability to construct and manipulate improvisational probabilities, selecting and combining compositions, players, musical styles and other performance parameters (Smith 1995:41).

However, Walser (1993:343) points out that jazz critics and historians have never known how to explain the power and appeal of his playing, and notes that there has been a critical blindness to his actual trumpet playing. In this regard he specifically argues that Davis was ‘infamous for missing more notes than any other major trumpet player.’ But perhaps it was this raggedness and raw primal nature of his playing that characterised his personal style, which was conducive to his very intimate expression. This ‘flawed technique’ supported ‘a glimpse he often gave us of the raw emotional world emanating from his music’ (Tanner et al 2001:225).

The above discussion has provided an outline of the influence Miles Davis had on the development of jazz. In particular, his involvement was charted through the stylistic innovations he brought to jazz and the importance he played in the development of bop, cool, modal and fusion jazz. Ultimately, music critics and jazz historians have been unanimous in their agreement that Miles Davis has been one of the most influential figures in the history of jazz, pointing to his musical ability, his sense for change, and gift for bringing together talented musicians who would go on to become trendsetters in their own right. Finally, the legacy of Davis lives on through the way he still speaks to us through his music – through the intimacy of his horn he communicates to us directly, personally and immediately with whispered messages from another universe.

Australian Broadcast Corporation (2009) “US House of Reps Honours Miles Davis Album” (accessed 29 April 2010).

Kart, L. (2004) Jazz in Search of Itself. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Kingman, D. (1990) American Music: A Panorama (2nd edition). New York: Schirmer Books.

McConnell, F. (1991) “The Prince of Darkness: Miles Davis R.I.P.” Commonweal, 118 (18): 616-617.

Merod, J. (2001) “The Question of Miles Davis”. Boundary 2, 28 (2): 57-103.

Milkowski, B. (2003) “Fusion: The Vaunted F-word: From Where Did It Come? And More Importantly, Where Is It Going?”. Jazziz, 20 (3):28-31.

Sales, G. (1992) Jazz: America’s Classical Music. New York: Da Capo Press.

Shipton, A. (2001) A New History of Hazz. London and New York: Continuum.

Smith, C. (1995) “A Sense of the Possible: Miles Davis and the Semiotics of Improvised Performance”. The Drama Review, 39 (3): 41-55.

Svorinich, V. (2001) “Electric Miles: A Look at the “In a Silent Way” and “On the Corner Sessions”. Annual Review of Jazz Studies, 11 (2000-2001): 91-107.

Tanner, P. O., Megill, D. W. and Gerow, M. (2001) Jazz (9th edition). New York, London, Sydney: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Walser, R. (1993) “Out of Notes: Signification, Interpretation, and the Problem of Miles Davis”. The Musical Quarterly, 77 (2): 343-365.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Critical review - Jazz Latino at Alexis Bistro Ampang, 13 March 2010

Jazz is one of the most ubiquitous and enduring genres of American popular music, and in the views of some cultural critics, America’s only indigenous art form. Whilst jazz began as distinctly American, it has since become internationalised and can now be found in most corners of the world. An example of this notion is Latin jazz, which will be the main focus for this essay. In particular, a discussion will be provided on the history of Latin influences on jazz. A critical analysis will then be applied to selected pieces from a live performance by Jazz Latino, which took place at Alexis Bistro Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, on 13 March 2010. According to the program guide, the band play a ‘high energy blend of salsa, Latin jazz, funk and even some straight-ahead bebop.’ For the purposes of this paper, however, pieces that were more closely aligned with jazz have been chosen for analysis.

Historically, Latin music styles and jazz have shared a common history, with both ‘intersecting, cross-influencing, and at times seeming inseparable, as both have played prominent roles in each other’s development’ (Washburne 2002:410). The idea of a ‘Latin’ jazz was not realised until the mid-1940s when it was determined that a separate label was needed to ‘differentiate Latin-influenced jazz from other jazz styles.’ This was also around the time that musicians began using the term ‘bebop’ to ‘distance themselves from their swing forefathers’ (Washburne 2002:411).

There was also a fusing of bebop and Latin jazz, under the name of ‘Cubop’, which was made famous by Dizzie Gillespie and his Afro-Cubano Drums Suite, which also featured Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo. However, the term ‘Cubop’ proved too limiting and ‘was eventually replaced by the more geographically-inclusive “Latin jazz”’. In fact, it was the band’s performance at Carnegie Hall on 29 September 1947, that marks the birth of Latin jazz’ (Washburne 2002:411).

Whist the collaboration between Gillespie and Pozo was brief due to Pozo’s untimely death, it wrought a profound influence on the style. It is thanks to Pozo that we have the conga drums in jazz ensembles today, and it was Gillespie’s nurturing of young Latin players, and his overall influence, which helped to legitimise and incorporate Latin musical structures and principles into jazz (Washburne 2002:412; Gonzalez 2004b:46). It was in this way that Gillespie became an ambassador for the internationalisation of jazz, even playing in Cuba, and for the last ten years of his life directed The United Nations Big Band (Washburne 2002:412). This is partly why, even today, ‘there is hardly any area of the globe…in which there is not some knowledge and appreciation of jazz’ (Kingman 1990:403).

Musically, the question of the Latin influence on jazz concerns the rhythmic aspects, which have their antecedents in Caribbean dance rhythms, for example, tangos, rumbas, sambas, etc. And given that jazz at this time was connected to dance, for example, lindies and foxtrots, the leap to playing Latin rhythms in jazz was only natural (Kingman 1990:355).

Having provided an outline of the influences on Latin jazz, attention can now be turned to looking at specific musical examples. The band members of Jazz Latino are from various nations further reinforcing the points made above on the ‘internationalisation’ of jazz, and exemplifying Gonzalez’s (2004a:10) statement that Latin jazz ‘is as diverse as the people who create it.’ For example, Eric Li (piano) is from Hong Kong; Marco (vocals, guitar, congas) is from Cuba; and Fly (electric bass) and John Thomas (drums), are both from Malaysia.

On the night of the performance, Jazz Latino take the stage, and after a request to the audience to not speak too loud during the show, they get started with their first piece for the evening, “Once More Once”. Influenced by bebop, this piece demonstrates the virtuoso pedigree of the outfit with each performer given an opportunity for a solo to show off their talented skills (Kingman 1990:385-386). The connection to bebop is perhaps best illustrated in the use of non-sensical vocals (scat singing), which Marco sings for the first vocal solo (Kingman 1990:387). Each solo is clearly improvisational, which according to Kingman, ‘is never a matter of “anything goes”...[i]t is a product…of a fine balance between discipline and freedom’ of which ‘balance is the real essence of jazz performance’ (Kingman 1990:375).

The piece opens with the delicate tinkling keys from Eric, and John Thomas (JT) provides a slow percussive beat with wooden block and cowbell, before picking up his sticks and laying down syncopated rhythms. Marco and Fly on lead and bass guitars, respectively, join in providing further texture to the groove, and the ensemble is in full swing.

The first solo is from Marco and features a hallmark of bebop – scat singing; and sung here, he exhibits the same fluidity and virtuosity to be heard later in the instrumental solos. The second solo is also courtesy of Marco, but here he demonstrates his guitar mastery with his fingers moving in a blur up and down the neck, strumming out faster and faster rhythms. Picking up where Marco left off, Eric’s fingers stab out an intricate piano solo, rising and falling in waves of struck keys, which progresses in a continuous and swirling movement to a high energy peak.

In Fly’s solo, the understated walking bass which has accompanied the ensemble so far, becomes a fast striding experimentation in deft fingerwork and adept skill. Similarly to Marco, his hands fly up and down the neck as he extracts faster and faster rhythms from his instrument, culminating at the top of the solo with Latin flourishes.

Just before Fly finishes his set piece, JT interjects with percussive hits, and by the time Fly reaches crescendo and bows out, he picks up the rhythm in a demonstrative performance of furious stick work, with frenetic cross rhythms and complex syncopation. The sticks disappear from sight with the speed of maniacal hitting with cowbell, snare and hats crashing and booming as JT takes the tempo to a fever pitch, before adroitly settling back into a rolling groove, and the rest of the ensemble join back in to take the piece out.

It was interesting to note Eric’s piano accompaniment during JT’s solo, with staccato attacks interspersed with Latin rhythms. The audience’s appreciation of the piece was sincerely felt with awed applause at the end of each performer’s solo, and rapturous ovation at the end.

Following on from a fast-paced Latin piece, “Stone Flower” is introduced as a slower number. Here we have more scat singing, but rather than allowing the performers individual solo space, the piece is really based around Eric’s piano playing, and an interesting episode in the middle between Eric and Marco, switching between solos in a call and response pattern.

It opens with Eric’s floating piano, and develops shortly with low sustained bass chords, whilst tinkling sounds rain above, and the whole structure circulates with purposeful phrasing. JT gradually introduces shuffling cymbals, simple drumming and percussive fills, which is understated enough to give room to the piano in the overall sound. As mentioned above, Marco joins in with guitar accompaniment, and the piece starts to shape itself around the solos between Marco and Eric. Meanwhile, Fly stays cool on bass, thumbing out a steady rhythm, and Marco now comes in with his ‘scatted’ vocal gymnastics.

In this piece, the piano playing of Eric really takes a dominant role, and it’s his instrument which holds the rest together in a cohesive way. The piece closes in the way it began, with the solo piano repeating similar patterns, but with a direct movement to a final close.

The third piece to be discussed, “Cloudy”, also follows after a highly energised Latin number, and is the slowest piece of the performance. Once again it predominately features Eric’s inimitable virtuosity, and the wistful and dreamy piano sets the tone for the rest of the number. Marco joins in early from the beginning with soft slaps on the congas, and JT supports with the gentlest of percussive accompaniment. Fly provides a simple slow grooving bassline, and later into the piece, Marco complements the piano with a tempered guitar rhythm. Whilst the piece remains delicate overall, the complexity of playing for each instrument increases after each movement, but never rises to the sort of frenetic pace or compulsive vibe of previous pieces. By the end it is clear that this was an exercise in cool, measured and restrained temperament.

In considering the whole set, Jazz Latino put on a superb performance which traversed both spectrums of jazz and Latin, with elements of each in every piece. It is interesting to note that the program guide suggested ‘music to move your body to’, however, the music that was performed was far from danceable due to being either too fast, or in some cases, slow. This perhaps also lends credence to the bebop aspect of the performance, in that bebop deliberately discouraged dancing in its revolt against the big bands (Kingman 1990:385).

From the above it should be quite clear that Jazz Latino are consummate professionals, and this was clearly demonstrated through the sheer proficiency of both individual performance, and ensemble performance as a whole. At times it was as though they drew the same breath and were connected psychically as a single living and vibrating organism.

Gonzalez, F. (2004a) “Editor’s letter: On Latin jazz, looking in and looking out”, Jazziz, 21 (9), p. 10.

Gonzalez, F. (2004b) “What Latin Jazz? Moving Beyond Jazz-with-Congas”, Jazziz, 21 (9), pp. 46-47.

Kingman, D. (1990) American Music: A Panorama (2nd edition). New York: Schirmer Books.

Program Guide for Jazz Latino (accessed 29 March 2010).

Washburne, C. (2002) “Latin Jazz: The Other Jazz”, Current Musicology, Spring 2001-Spring 2002, (71-73), pp. 409-426.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Talkin all that jazz

I am presently in the throes of writing an essay on jazz. In my research I've come across particular pieces which are historical markers for the form, and thought I'd share them and have a chat about jazz.

The first piece is 'Dippermouth Blues' by King Oliver & His Creole Band, which was originally recorded in 1923. According to Daniel Kingman, author of American Music: A Panorama (2nd edition), this piece is representative of the traditional, or New Orleans style. It is also a good example of the fundamental variation of jazz technique. You can clearly hear the clarinet, and later the cornet, emerge as soloists. Of note is Louis Armstrong, and here he is playing the cornet.

A vital ingredient of jazz method is improvisation, which is not a matter of 'anything goes', but a fine balance between discipline and freedom. It is this balance, which Kingman says in the 'real essence of jazz performance.'

This notion of improvisation can be illustrated in contrasting two examples. Firstly, we have "Embraceable You" by George Gershwin (1928), and secondly, Charlie Parker's version (1947). Listen for Parker's inventive improvisations on the tune, with a rhythm section of just piano, bass and drums.

As well as reliant on improvisation, jazz is also notable for soloists, as was seen above. Perhaps the most gifted soloist was Louis Armstrong, who was one of the performers who helped to define the 'hot' style of playing in the 1920s, and was an early proponent of 'swing'. Kingman notes that Armstrong's solos, 'with their melodic inventiveness, rhythmic drive, and variety of tonal colour, especially during the period from the 1920s through the late 1930s, were models that had a great influence on the course of jazz as it moved out of the traditional period.'

The example I have chosen features Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra. If I've done my research right, then this is from 1928. The name of the song is also interesting, with 'Muggles' being slang for marijuana. So it would seem that Louis also liked a toot. Pun very much intended.

Whilst any discussion involving the provenance of Jazz invariably speaks of New Orleans, Chicago and New York are also important when looking at its move into urban centres across America. Both cities benefited from the emigration of New Orleans 'jazzmen', and musicians both black and white, were now playing jazz.

With the shift came new players and new ideas, which changed the way jazz was played. In particular, the 'traditional free-wheeling, relaxed, improvised style was lost.' This can be seen in the so-called Chicago style. Unfortunately, due to the attitude and conditions of the times, white musicians, mostly trained by blacks, were reaping the rewards and enjoying a disproportionate share of the economic gains.

According to Kingman, the Chicago style is demonstrative of a kind of adolescence between the carefree youth of the traditional, and the maturity of the soon-to-come, big band style, with its sophisticated craftsmanship. This can be heard in the next two examples "Royal Garden Blues" and "Jazz Me Blues" with Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines (1927).

The shift to New York brought with it three developments. The first was a solo piano style, which grew out of ragtime. Alternatively named 'Rent-party', 'Parlor-social', 'Harlem', or 'stride', these describe, 'in terms of economics, geography, or left-hand agility, a solo piano idiom'. This is best illustrated in the work of its recognised founder, James P. Johnson. The following example, "Carolina Shout" (1921), demonstrates his 'rollicking piano style'.

It's interesting to note that the Harlem rent party was a phenomenon born out of Prohibition and made necessary by the Depression. The aim of the party was to raise the rent, and anyone who could donate a quarter admission, was admitted.

Here's another example from Johnson, "You've Got to be Modernistic" from 1929.

Fats Waller was another stride player, and along with Johnson, became influential in the mainstream of jazz. Before we get to the example, it's interesting to note that Waller was abducted by Capone's gangsters in the 1920s to sing him 'Happy Birthday'. Hustled to the party which was in full swing, Waller was forced to the piano with a gun to his back! This piece is titled "Handful of Keys" (1929).

To be continued...

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Essay: Film form and narrative in David Lynch's 'Lost Highway'

Once known as the ‘dream factory’, Hollywood has been in the business of creating and selling dreams for almost a century. Throughout this time, Hollywood has been influential in the way films are made and the conventions that have come to dominate filmmaking throughout the rest of the world. In particular, formal elements such as the use of camera, editing, lighting, sound, mise-en-scène and narrative technique, have become determining factors in the way meaning is produced in films. This essay will present a discussion on film form and narrative, which will be supported by a formal analysis of selected scenes from the film Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997).

Classic Hollywood cinema is a tradition of filmmaking that dominated Hollywood production from 1917 through to around 1960, and remains a pervasive style in western mainstream cinema to the present day (Bordwell et al 1985:9; Hayward 2000:64). The most important criterion in the classical system is narrative causality, which works within subordinate systems of time and space (Bordwell et al 1985:12). Narrative describes the way in which story events are structured,  of which the classical system is dependent on a pattern of order/disorder/order-restored. In unifying causality, motivation is necessary to explain justification for certain elements within the film’s diegesis; that is, inside the story world; and by the same token, nondiegetic refers to the space outside the story world (Bordwell and Thompson 2008:66; Lehman & Luhr 2003:27; Hayward 2006:101).

It is useful here to introduce the concept of mise-en-scène, which essentially means, ‘putting into the scene’ (Bordwell & Thompson 2008:112). The term is used to signify the control that a director has in staging a scene for the framing of shots, and includes such elements as setting, costume, lighting, and overall movement within the frame (Hayward 2000:231). Mise-en-scène is important for the consideration of space, in that it serves to explain compositional motivation through the choices that the director makes, and functions to establish a cause of impending actions so that the story can proceed (Hayward 2000:242). To avoid the film drawing attention to itself, the Hollywood filmmaker relies on continuity editing, ‘a system of editing which uses cuts and other transitions to establish verisimilitude and to tell stories efficiently’ - with each shot having a  causal relationship to the next shot - and the strategies of mise-en-scène, to ensure narrative continuity (Corrigan & White 2004:125-126).

Whilst the discussion so far has mostly concerned the visual aspects of film form, it is important to also consider the use of sound, which from a film studies perspective has been marginalised by the hegemony of the image (Chion 1994: xxvi). Sounds can be situated at different narrative levels: the diegetic, for example, synched dialogue; and the nondiegetic, for example, background music, sound effects, etc (Chion 1994:67). The main function of sound is to unify and connect the flow of images, which it achieves with sound overlaps, the creation of realism with diegetic sounds, and invoking atmosphere through the use of nondiegetic music (Chion 1994:47). In these ways, sound participates to add-value to an image; that is, it ‘enriches a given image so as to create [a] definite impression’ (Chion 1994:5).

Having looked at the formal conventions of Hollywood cinema, and the way it works to present a unified image and narrative, attention can now be turned to looking at specific examples from Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997). According to the press kit, the film unfolds with the ‘logic of a dream, which can be interpreted but never explained', and it is this preoccupation with cinema as dream which best explains Lynch’s aesthetic (Herzogenrath 1999:4; Szebin & Biodrowski 1997:37). This notion of a dream logic is best exemplified by a number of events that take place which defy normality. For example, Fred (Bill Pullman) turns into Pete (Balthazar Getty); dark-haired Renee (Patricia Arquette) who was murdered by Pete, reappears as Alice, the blonde femme-fatale (also played by Arquette); and then there is the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), a character who can be in more than one place at once.

Structurally, the narrative is constructed around the shape of a mobius strip, a surface with one side and one boundary. This is demonstrated in the way in which the film ends, virtually where it began, subverting the circular narrative structure of conventional filmmaking (Press Kit). Also, the two stories of Fred and Pete are the inverse of each other and according to Lynch ‘[t]hey’re living the same relationship…but living it in two different ways. They’re victims in different ways, in both worlds.’ However, it’s not until the scene in the desert that the two worlds are connected; Pete disappears, and Fred resurfaces again, bringing us full circle, or perhaps, repositioning us along the mobius strip (Herzogenrath 1999:3).

The idea of two worlds is best exemplified by looking at how mise-en-scène is used in the film to delineate the separate alternative realities (Vass 2005:20; McGowan 2000:52). The first part of the film takes place in Pete’s world, which is infused with mystery and a sense of emptiness, or unfulfilled desire. According to McGowan (2000:54) this can be seen in the use of minimalist décor and subdued lighting in Fred and Renee’s house, which is emphasised by the depth of field in the shots, further working to demonstrate a sense of depthlessness in their world. The colour scheme is also drab with blacks, greys and dark orange. The mise-en-scène in Pete’s world, however, appeals to more realistic conventions with bright lighting, more realistic furniture and décor, and a deeper depth of field (McGowan 2000:54).

The aural space in the early scenes between Pete and Renee is also interesting in that essentially it is empty, with the soundtrack having long periods of silence with no background noise. This use of silence exemplifies Bordwell & Thompson’s (1985:184) point that in film ‘silence takes on a new expressive function.’ And in the example noted here, silence works deliberately to communicate the distance in the relationship. This can also be seen in the sparse dialogue and resonance of delivery, which further emphasises the tentativeness of their relationship (Herzogenrath 1999:22).

In shifting the story back to the beginning, Lynch signifies this move through repeating the song with which the film began, and indeed set the tone for what was to follow – David Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” – which is underscored by the same shot of the highway at night which began the film, and continues on into the credits (Mazullo 2005:500). Another example of Lynch using a song to signal a shift in narrative is the use of Lou Reed’s version of The Drifter’s “Magic Moment”, which is played at the first time (the magic moment?) in which it is realised that both characters from ‘the first half of the film, Fred and Renee, are present, in different bodies, in the second half’s alternate reality, as Pete and Alice’ (Mazullo 2005:502-3).

As can be seen, the use of soundtrack for Lynch involves a sophistication of choice, which is affirmed by his comment that ‘[h]alf of [a] film is picture…the other half is sound. They’ve got to work together’ (Press Kit). Herzogenrath (1999:9) suggests that, for Lynch’s work, the soundtrack is ‘a most important factor to enhance the mood of a scene’, or as mentioned above – ‘add-value’. The use of background sounds, and in particular Lynch’s use of ‘drones’ clearly demonstrates this point. For example, when Renee first finds the videotape a low bass sound rumbles, which can be seen to signify the threat of the outside (through the videotape) entering the inside. In the cinema this would have produced an unsettling affect with the low frequency being felt physically by the audience (Herzogrenath 1999:10).

The above discussion has provided an outline of the formal conventions of filmmaking which have been developed over the last century and still continue to influence the way films are created today. Examples were provided from Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997), which not only demonstrated the filmic context of the concepts under discussion, but also illustrated how film form can be subverted to produce a text that is outside the dominant style, and outside the normative assumption that films must finally, in their denouement, bring the experience to a satisfying and explanatory resolution.

Bordwell, D. and Thompson, J. (1985) “Fundamental Aesthetics of Sound in the Cinema” in Weis, E. and Belton, J (eds) Film Sound: Theory and Practice. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. and Thompson, K. (1985) The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. London and New York: Routledge.

Bordwell, D. and Thompson, J. (2008) Film Art: An Introduction (8th edition). New York: McGraw Hill.

Chion, M. (1994) Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. New York: Columbia University Press.

Corrigan, T. and White, P. (2004) The Film Experience: An Introduction. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s.

Hayward, S. (2000) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (2nd edition). London and New York: Routledge.

Hayward, S. (2006) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (3rd edition). London and New York: Routledge.

Herzogrenath, B. (1999) “On the Lost Highway: Lynch and Lacan, Cinema and Cultural Pathology”. Other Voices, 1 (3): 1-22. (accessed 20 March 2010).

Lehman, P. and Luhr, W. (2003) “Narrative Structure” in Thinking About Movies: Watching, Questioning, Enjoying (2nd edition). Oxford: Blackwell.

Mazullo, M. (2005) “Remembering Pop: David Lynch and the Sound of the ‘60s”. American Music, 23 (4): 493-513.

McGowan, T. (2000) “Finding Ourselves on a Lost Highway: David Lynch’s Lesson in Fantasy”. Cinema Journal, 39 (2): 51-73.

Official Press Kit for Lost Highway. (accessed 20 March 2010)

Szebin, F. and Biodrowski, S. (1997) “David Lynch on Lost Highway”. Cinefantastique, 28 (10): 32-41.

Vass, M. (2005) “Cinematic meaning in the work of David Lynch: Revisiting Twin Peaks, Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive”. Cineaction, 67 (Summer): 12-23.

Lost Highway, dir. David Lynch, 1997.

Friday, 26 February 2010

The end of the world as we know it. A review of two films.

The end of the world is nigh! Well, at least it is at the cinema at the moment with the post-apocalyptic offerings of The Road and The Book of Eli. The characters of both films are survivors of cataclysmic events which have left their respective worlds barren, desolate and lawless; only the rule of survival remains. Peopled by cannibals and the desperate, they make their way along the road, overcoming obstacles and threats on their way to an ultimate destination, where it is hoped things will be better.

Having read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, from which The Road is adapted, I had reservations over whether director John Hillcoat could replicate the sheer lyricism of the novel. The film is good, and Viggo Mortensen’s depiction of ‘the man’ is superb, however, the film doesn’t match up to the art of the novel.

It was always going to be a great challenge to any director who took up the task of adapting McCarthy’s work. His prose is bleak, halting and trudging, and mirrors the journey along the road both tragically and beautifully, and cleverly captures the reader with a lyrical sublimity, which seems difficult to accurately render on film.

The only director who could have realised such a vision – and forgiving his average remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho – would perhaps have been Gus Vant Sant. By using a combination of conventional and non-conventional techniques, he may have achieved a similar award winning result as he did with Elephant, a winner of the Palme d’Or.

A great strength of The Road was the outstanding cinematography of Javier Aguirresarobe. Eschewing the use of CGI, stock footage from Hurricane Katrina, images of bloody tracks in the snow from the Kosovo Conflict, and real locations of abandoned highways, and bleak and wasted landscapes, were used to more immediate effect in creating the post-apocalyptic mise-en-scene. I read in a separate review that this can perhaps be read that apocalypse is potentially with us presently, and if not careful, we could well find ourselves in similar circumstances.

In The Book of Eli, the story takes a more action-oriented approach, with breathtaking moments of cleanly choreographed bloody fight scenes, which are supported by great editing. The first fight is shot with Eli (Denzel Washington) in silhouette as he takes out an entire gang of highway robbers with precise and deadly strokes from his large knife.

Making his way west, Eli stops at a local town under the influence of Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who is searching the country high and low for the titular book – the last of its kind. It just so happens that Eli is carrying the book, which he reads from every day. Blamed for the atrocities that caused ‘the flash’ thirty years ago, all the books of its kind were destroyed in the wake of the war. Carnegie is obsessed over gaining possession of the book, which he calls a powerful weapon, so that he can influence and be worshiped. He lacks the right words and ideas, however, which he knows can be found in the book.

The film is a decent effort by directors the Hughes brothers, but suffers from two major flaws. Firstly, the introduction of Mila Kunis as a sidekick forces Eli into expository dialogue, which had been avoided in Gary Whitta’s screenplay. She is perhaps also miscast, making you wonder what a fashion model is doing roughing it on the road.

Whilst the cinematography was great overall, the use of CGI seemed out of harmony with the rest of the mise-en-scene. The digital composites stuck out rather than dissolving into the screen.

The greatest problem, however, is the film’s ending. There is a moment towards the end which provides a logical spot for ending the film, however, for whatever the reason it continues into a final act. Rather than tie off hanging story threads, it confuses with illogical plot developments.

Regardless of the negatives mentioned above, both films are above the blockbuster standard, and give great opportunity to experience the post-apocalyptic genre film from two different directorial viewpoints.