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Thursday, January 25, 2007

the conscious: reflexivity in four american films

Several films call attention to themselves and defy the purpose of simulating an illusion. Instead of consummately riveting the audience in the film, the audience becomes aware of the film, its work and its technology that are supposed to be concealed. These unconventional films, which employ methods that are associated with the reflexive style, include Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, Gary Ross’ Pleasantville, and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr.
One reflexive method that is prevalent in all films is the use of camera as one of the characters.In Rear Window, the invalid Jeff (James Stewart) plays a professional photographer who gets to use his camera as a way for the audience to see what goes on in the rear windows of the apartment opposite his. Also, the director’s camera plays a voyeur, much like the character Jeff and the audience peeking through the daily lives of a woman who practices alone for a date, a lady who dances all day long and who dates men simultaneously, a newly-wed couple on an all-day honeymoon, a couple who sleeps by the balcony owing to the hot weather, and a couple who splits on a murderous note. In Being John Malkovich, a magical portal accidentally discovered by Craig Schwartz becomes a camera through which the vision of John Malkovich (John Malkovich), a real-life actor, may be projected. The director’s camera makes the audience see what goes on in John Malkovich’s mind as well as his vision. In Pleasantville, the television powered by a strange remote control shows the life of the people of fictional Pleasantville, to which the twins David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are transported and ultimately introduce a rainbow of emotions to the otherwise black-and-white boring community. The director’s camera takes the audience as witness of the chromatic transformation of Pleasantville. Lastly, the camera in Sherlock Jr. intersperses the silent film’s facts and fictions in such a manner that comedian Buster Keaton jumps onto the screen to become a legitimate part of the projected action. Keaton dreams of the case of his beloved’s missing watch, and follows it to reality onscreen.
Another reflexive method used in all four films is the disregard for the plausible, with characters becoming part of the screen of the film within the film. In Rear Window, the voyeur Jeff becomes part of the “screen” he watches his neighbors through when the murderous husband confronts him inside his home and throws him out of the window. The place he just looks outside from—his screen—takes him in as one of the characters. In Being John Malkovich, the Schwartz couple (John Cusack and Cameron Diaz), some curious people baited by the enterprising puppeteer and John Malkovich himself all get to see the outside world from the screen of John Malkovich’ mind. The characters become John Malkovich for fifteen minutes, seeing the very things the actor does, from his naked body to a dinner date to a play dialogue he memorizes a dialogue from. In Pleasantville, the twins get trapped inside the black-and-white television, where they play the characters of the kids of the TV shows’ protagonist parents. They become black-and-white as well, until such time their liberated feeling of emotions colors the world of Pleasantville. In Sherlock Jr., a sleeping Keaton disgorges his spirit and, dreaming of the kidnapped beloved and the lost pearl necklace, leaps into the screen and turns into a film-inside-the-film character. Keaton experiences an ever changing backdrop from the ocean to the lion’s den to the desert until he becomes integral to the screen, purposed at saving his lady in distress.
Being reflexive, all four films are not without references to other pieces of work. This only shows to what extent the film is conscious of itself as a work in relation to other masterpieces. For one, Rear Window is based on the short story of Cornell Woolrich entitled It Had to Be Murder. The murder the invalid believes has occurred in the film and which he would have the audience believe too is the referred murder in the short story. Meanwhile, Being John Malkovich, while a largely original work by the genius director, makes references to such works as Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard whose dialogue John Malkovich is recording when the fan who would be his girlfriend calls, and William Shakespeare’s Richard III which John Malkovich is rehearsing with other stage actors. Likewise, the puppet show Craig is performing onstreet where a furious father jabs at him alludes to the letters of Abelard and Heloise, a pre-medieval English tragic romance. On the other hand, Pleasantville is actually a black-and-white sitcom back in the 1950’s, which is itself based on works such as Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Parts of the film like the court scene divided by colors and the destruction of nonconforming signs by the town mayor’s allies call to mind the racially-segregated court scene in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird and Bonfire of the Vanities, respectively. Finally, Sherlock Jr. is no doubt an allusion to the fictional Sherlock Holmes, the famous English detective. This is made more vivid by the film fact that Keaton, while working as a projectionist in the movie house, aspires to become a detective whose first case is the missing watch.
There are many other intertextual proofs in the films which designate them as “conscious” films. They are meant to make us, the audience, aware that we are not mere spectators but characters too of the film by way of making us think, feel and see the way all the reflexive film characters do, be them the persons or the camera.

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