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Comparative Studies In World Cinema

University Paper written by Sebastian Bos on 22nd of July 2019 for Dongguk International Summer School 2019 module: Comparative Studies In World Cinema DISS 2019 teached by Tim Bergfelder, Bryan Konefsky and Corey Schultz

How has your experience of this course (so far) informed the ways you think about cinema?

Introduction

In order to answer this question I think it is necessary to first reflect the way of how I think about cinema in general, or in fact of how my way of thinking has evolved so far. This itself is not an easy question since many years ago watching movies has been mostly a way of entertainment or furthermore to pass time. However there must have been a few sort of key-movies which sparked the understanding of movies as a form of art and as an important cultural good. This seems to be the first shift in my perception of cinema, which was most likely triggered by Christopher Nolans “Inception” and Robert Zemeckis “Forrest Gump”. I watched these two films in 2010 and for many reasons they really affected me. From this point of time my view on cinema was developing constantly and I tried to get the most out of every movie. But how has this course informed the way I think about cinema? And suddenly I realise that I have never before thought about my own view on this matter, but that this course has inspired me to start to think about this. Of course these movies are not the only remarkable ones in my life, still they are two of the most important ones for me.

Movies

During the first section of the class, which focused on European Cinema, I felt especially addressed since I was born and raised in Germany. Due to that I knew a lot of the movies discussed in class from Europe but also I grew up under a big influence of Hollywood. Therefore I think Im able to use this knowledge to compare these two big branches of world cinema.

The most interesting area in European cinema in my opinion is the category of art-movies. On one hand they can indeed be very kind of artsy but on the other hand they can capture realistic moments of life. Before that course I have never encountered art cinema from this period of time. However after being introduced to it and after watching the movie “Bicycle Thieves” by Vittorio De Sica from 1948 I think it’s an incredibly important movie for this genre. The movie begins with an actually positive ray of hope for the main character who has the possibility to get a job. However after raising enough money to finally buy the needed bike for the job, it gets stolen very soon after. Furthermore he starts to become obsessed about finding it, which even impacts how he treats his son. After a very long search the character is so desperate he becomes a thief himself and steals a bike. However in contrast to the thief in the beginning, he gets caught immediately and is humiliated in front of his son. This story is a very simple yet realistic one which fits well into the art-movie category. Furthermore it does a great job in representing emotions and it really had an emotional impact on me. Therefore I started to think about my way of interpreting and analysing character behaviour and emotions in movies.

The American movie “King Kong” from 1933 by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack is an example for a Hollywood movie. In “King Kong” a film crew travels to a distant island to shoot a movie as they approach an ancient tribe as well as a huge ape that takes the main actress captive. The film crew is trying to free her and they are successful, however while fighting with Kong and other dinosaur creatures many people died. The film crew is able to trap Kong and bring him to New York, where they want to present him in a big theatre. During the first show Kong manages to escape the mounting and breaks out, later though he is killed by airplanes. After watching this movie I quickly realised how strong this movie focusses on entertainment. Especially after watching “Bicycle thieves” before, I can see the big differences between European and American cinema. This focus on entertainment can still be observed in todays Hollywood movies. The movies mostly contain basic story structures and are visually and audibly very appealing for the viewer, furthermore they offer a big portion of action and other elements to entertain the viewer.

If we compare “Bicycle Thieves” as a representative of European Cinema to todays European movies we can also see differences but also a lot of influences of Hollywood. Todays European movies still focus more on story and even on realistic stories for example in the Thriller and Drama genre, but they still changed a lot compared to “Bicycle thieves”. Nowadays they also are visually and audibly appealing but they still lack of some patterns of Hollywood. In that matter I think todays European movies can be placed somewhere in between “Bicycle thieves” and Hollywood.

Another interesting movie that was screened in class was “Blazing Saddles” by Mel Brooks from 1974, which can be categorised as a mixture of Western and Comedy. Since we saw “A Fistful of Dollars” by Sergio Leone from 1964 shorty beforehand it was interesting to see how precise and clever Mel Brooks is making fun of the typical western formula, but also criticises and approaches important historic elements of American history like racism. These connection of humour but also serious problems makes it easier to treat and show a problem without over-stressing the feelings of the viewers, while still leaving an important message.

One last interesting aspect I noticed about “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” by Robert Wiene from 1920 is that in the copy we saw the black-white movie has been tinged into subtle colour moods. This can actually already be described as colour-coding. This means that through a specific colour the viewer got reminded of a specific situation, place or emotion. This effect is perceptible especially in the beginning and the end when we leave and enter the present tense we subconsciously are reminded of that by the colour. Colour-correction and Colour-coding are also incredibly important and powerful tools that are unavoidable in modern cinema and its interesting to see ideas and first implementations of that in older movies. A really good usage of colour-coding and correction in my opinion is the Netflix-Original-Series “Stranger Things” that does on extraordinary job in separating the “real world” and the “Upside-Down” through amazing colour profiles (“Real world”: standard colour-palette with decreased vibrance but increased contrast and green/brown/red colours. / “Upside-Down”: Cold colour-temperature with slightly decreased contrast  and clarity and strong usage of blue colour).

Storytelling

During class we also talked about storytelling and a certain shift in that area. In a paper by David Hoppe called “Storytelling animals” he suggests that todays cinema in contrast to earlier movies are using a concept which can be described as “Story-explaining” instead of “Story-telling”. The difference between these two terms is that “Story-telling” refers to a pattern, where a story is only told without explaining every little detail. This provides the possibility for the viewer to imagine different motives, trends or interpretations. However it requires a lot more attention, thought and understanding from the viewer. The term “Story-explaining” describes a pattern, where every little detail is explained to the viewer, which might be perceived as a lighter or easier experience.

The paper furthermore suggests that earlier films tended to belong more to the “Story-telling” area, while most modern movies are part of the “Story-explaining” area. I think this is more or less the case. While watching early movies during class we saw a lot of plot-twists and unpredictable turns. For example in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” we suddenly get the impression the main protagonists turns out to be the insane one, despite that we cant be sure if Caligari is really not the villain (many possibilities for interpretation). Or in “Blazing Saddles” we suddenly find ourselves in a film set in a film, which is also quite an unforeseeable twist.

If I compare this to modern films that came out of Hollywood during the last years I think it’s possible to see a lot of evidence for the theory David Hoppe suggests. In my previously mentioned movie “Inception”, even though it’s a very important movie for me personally, I can still see a lot of flaws in that respect. Many characters are frequently telling over and over again what they are doing and why. While this is making the movie understandable and approachable for a lot of people I think it takes away from the mysteriousness and the puzzle elements, that this movie is actually about. These sections in “Inception” can fittingly be described as “Story-explaining” sadly. However I think Christopher Nolan approached his newer movie “Interstellar” differently. It is in my opinion an example for a modern “Story-telling” movie since it provides lots of room for interpretation and it by far doesn’t explain much. Even though this is a positive argument for me personally I was surprised when I recently read a lot of negative reviews on Amazon-Germany, which said, that they cant understand the story and see this movie as a waste of time. Alone the fact  that its possible to read some of those comments about the movie shows, that most popular cinema today is no longer “Story-telling” and also that many viewers don’t want that kind of movies anymore or aren’t used to it. Of course “Interstellar” is still a very great received movie in general, however it’s on the edge and shows what modern cinema viewers tend to like and dislike.

Conclusion

In conclusion it’s notable that nearly all movies of the different areas and cultures in world cinemas show one very important commonality. They all are very connected to their corresponding history. Nearly every movie is depicting important happenings or mindsets from earlier times. We can see that especially significant in movies like “Ragtime” or “Blazing Saddles”, which shows the view on Afro-American people and thematise racism. This was a very important time in American history. Also “Bicycle Thieves” shows the society and the situation after war which is very important in that period of time and which is therefore a reason many people could connect to that movie very well. Furthermore the movie “Powwow Highway” illustrates a lot of Native American history and culture.

Also its possible to see a trend towards “Story-explaining” like David Hoppe suggests. However there are some movies who approach different patterns that are still well received which shows, that cinema viewers still like to be challenged and it is all about a good mixture about not to explain too much, so the viewer can let his imagination play, but still don’t let the viewer completely alone.

This brings me to an even more general point which is quite obvious but still important to explain: The fact that todays movies are very well made in terms of quality, story, visual effects, post production, colour-correction etc. is only achieved because we have a big history in cinema. “Primitive” beginnings are the reason why this form of art is that advanced and modern as it is today.

Grade: A+

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