The Art of Auteur Cinema: Moulin Rouge and Superstar: A Karen Carpenter Story

          Moulin Rouge directed by Baz Luhrmann and Superstar: A Karen Carpenter Story directed by Todd Haynes were both created by auteur film directors. Moulin Rouge (2001) is a tragic love story told from the point of few of a poet who fell in love with a courtesan and is now telling their love story after she has dies. Superstar: A Karen Carpenter Story (1988) is a retelling of Karen Carpenter’s personal struggle with anorexia filmed with Barbie dolls  as the characters. Both directors’ styles are unique, these two films being evidence of their creative and artistic approach. In terms of similar plot, the main female characters both in Moulin Rouge and Superstar: A Karen Carpenter Story are both sick with a disease that is holding them back from their full potential and they both are unable to fight their sickness in the end and pass away; Satine (Moulin Rouge) from Tuberculosis and Karen from Anorexia. The themes of the stories are therefore also connected, both women are performers and the stress on them personally as well as their bodies is partially to blame for their illnesses. There is a focus on self-image in these films, as both female characters are subjected to public view and opinion. The similarities and differences between these two films can be better understood if the directors are analyzed for their personal commonalities and directorial uniqueness with regard to their auteur technique, other films, and personal stories.

Baz Luhrmann who won the “Auteur Award” in 2008 is well known for his theatrical films which often display extravagant color choices, the increase and/or decrease of the speed in which a scene plays out, and the use of well-known contemporary songs and artists in films that take place in the past (Elton John –Moulin Rouge, Beyoncé – The Great Gatsby, Radiohead – Romeo + Juliet). Moulin Rouge is arguably Baz Luhrmann’s most well-known movie; it was nominated for fifteen awards in 2001 and won four including Best Picture by the National Board of Review. Baz Luhrmann grew up a ballroom dancer and was always interested in theater. Moulin Rouge is first and foremost a musical which exhibits many singing and dancing numbers. Strictly Ballroom, another film by Luhrmann, also displays some of the auteur director’s personal interests with regard to dancing. One particular stylistic choice that is common among Luhrmann’s films is the adding in of unrealistic sound effects that don’t necessarily fit in with the scene, especially in Moulin Rouge, as well as over stylizing scenes with gimmicky special effects like sparkles. Some of these choices can only be explained through knowing that Luhrmann was interested in theatrics including acting at the beginning of his career. Moulin Rouge is only similar to Luhrmann’s other films because of these rather unique choices. Both Australia and Moulin Rouge exhibit moments where the filming seems to randomly speed up.

Chris Wisniewski, a writer for the online film website Reverse Shot says

Luhrmann is one of Hollywood’s few remaining celebrity auteurs, a filmmaker with such a brazen and bombastic sense of his own vision that he’s capable, for better and usually for worse, of co-opting and overwhelming even the most formidable source material.

Although not all film critics are as complimentary of his more unconventional style, Luhrmann is still widely acknowledged as a very talented director.

Todd Haynes is also considered an auteur director whose relatively few movies seem to often focus on music, sexuality, and self-image. Superstar: A Karen Carpenter Story was Haynes second film created when he was in graduate school. When compared with some of his other films (Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine) Superstar does seem to stick out as uniquely different because of his brave decision to use Barbie dolls as the main characters. But there are commonalities in theme. Both Superstar and Velvet Goldmine are about musical artists and self-image. Even in Haynes earlier movies, his desire to portray the stress and anxiety both men and women face over self-image is prevalent. The involvement of parents in the child’s life is also a common theme throughout his films. In both Superstar and Velvet Goldmine, the parent figures are controlling and put stress on their children, holding them back from being who they want to be.  Haynes is also well known for his part in contributing to “New Queer Cinema” however White, who has a written a book on Contemporary Film Artists, says on the subject:

Queer is perhaps most usefully thought about in relation to Haynes’s films not as a sexual orientation but as a general name for refusing social and artistic norms.

Haynes films often star characters who are gay or bisexual (Poison, Velvet Goldmine) however it is clear that he doesn’t intend this to define his work, it is an artistic decision that often adds drama and tragedy into his plotlines.

Ed Howard, a film critic from Slant Magazine says that:

In all of his films, Todd Haynes takes elements of gaudy tabloid culture and warps them to his own purposes, because he sees—in the lurid stories about sexuality and decadence and violence that we like to tell ourselves, in the celebrity gossip rags and TV news and hyped-up movies—deeper truths about identity, gender, politics, entertainment and sexuality.

Todd Haynes, along with being a film director, is also a commentator on past and present society. He creates films that are often dramatic, tragic, and have a poignant message.

Both directors are considered auteur because they show technical competence, have a distinguishable personality (themes/style), and there is always an interior meaning connecting the directors to their work. In Moulin Rouge and Superstar, the general techniques used in the films (mise en scene, sound design, cinematography, etc.) were professionally done and show that as directors they are well versed in their field. Luhrmann and Haynes’s films are also recognizable as their own; both directors have stylistic preferences and reoccurring themes in their films. The interior meanings in all their films also reflect the personal interests of their directors. Moulin Rouge was directed by a director who has experience in dance and acting, he also shows a particular interest in music in the majority of his films. Superstar was directed by a director who is also interested in music and the arts. Therefore, there are overlapping themes in films created by both directors. Moulin Rouge was also filmed a few years after Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, which the actor Ewan McGregor also starred in, so they even overlap in actor preferences.

In conclusion, the similarities and differences between the films Moulin Rouge and Superstar are understandable after looking into the director’s auteur technique, other films they have directed, and their personal stories. Both directors are well-known for their specific styles and reoccurring themes. When looking at their other films it is clear that music and the arts are often portrayed. Baz Luhrmann in particular, grew up ballroom dancing and has a very emotional and theatrical flair that comes through in his films. Todd Haynes has also always been interested in commenting on music and the lives of stars. Others say he is part of the “New Queer Cinema” but he has said before that just because a film has a gay couple in it, it should not be labeled a “gay film,” so he does not necessarily like his style being put under such a limited label. Other films made by auteurs such as Hitchcock, Kubrick or Ingmar Bergman, share similar qualities with these two directors, all their films are technologically proficient, they have their own style, and they have a personal connection to their films. All great auteurs should be recognized and respected for their gift to the art of film.

Resources

Chris Wisniewski. “A Not-So-American Tale.” Reverse Shot. http://www.reverseshot.com/article/great_gatsby

“The Auteur Award.” International Press Academy. http://www.pressacademy.com/auteur-special-achievement-award

Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard. “The Conversations: Todd Haynes.” Slant magazine. http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/2010/08/the-conversations-todd-haynes/

“Q & A with Rob White, author of Contemporary Film Directors book Todd Haynes.” University of Illinois Press. http://www.press.uillinois.edu/wordpress/?p=11681

“Moulin Rouge: Awards and Nominations” MSN Entertainment. http://movies.msn.com/movies/movie-awards-and-nominations/moulin-rouge.4/?ipp=15

Out-of-class writing for Inception

Topic 2: Inception is definitely considered a blockbuster by today’s standards. Starting in the 70’s, and still very popular today, are fantasy films. The main concept of Inception is being able to go into people’s dreams, which is clearly impossible but still an intriguing idea. One of its main themes of reality vs. the dream world has always been a popular one because there is still so much that we don’t understand, and therefore the dream world is open for interpretations from the art world. There is a lot of CGI (like in the majority of today’s films) that makes many of the fantastical scenes possible (Having the road ahead of them curve up vertically.) However, there is a part of watching Inception that is tiresome, because of all the dream layers. The audience really has to focus in order to stay aware of where the characters are presently. In this way its target audience is more on the intellectual side.

Chicago 10

The counter-culture during the 1960’s was one of the main themes in the documentary Chicago 10. The documentary was driven by the story of the hippie generation, specifically called “Yippies.” They believed in peace, drugs, sex, rock n roll and overall a free life style with limited government involvement. This counter culture is what is able to accurately portray this time in history.

Chicago 10 falls into the category of postmodern film because it has a non-linear narrative and it is self-reflective. Its narrative could be considered non-linear because it jumps around in time. The documentary begins with actual footage and then jumps to the later trial scenes which are animated. Postmodern films often suggest their own inward self-reflection. They are meant to make the audience think. They often contain unusual artistic decisions, for example having the trial scene characters animated.

The use of animation in the documentary Chicago 10 was an artistic and appropriate decision given the cultural movement of the 60’s because when using animation as a mode of art, the director could make stylistic decisions to show occurrences that couldn’t have actually happened. For example, there is an animated scene in which Lee Weiner is shown levitating while in a meditation posture. The meditation reference displays the cultural movement of peace and self-reflection. Brett Morgen was also able to animate the trial of the Chicago 7, which, like most trials, wasn’t actually allowed to be filmed. Using the dialogue from the trial, Morgen recreated what the court room and trial would have looked like. The trial scenes helped to create a story line in the documentary. 

Avant-garde films

One of the main themes in the avant-garde film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story was impossible feminine physical ideals. This was displayed through the use of Barbies as the main characters to stress the anatomical features that women strive for. Karen Carpenter develops Anorexia Nervosa and ends up dying of malnutrition which also makes this short film a cautionary tale.

The avant-garde films An Andalusian Dog and Meshes of the Afternoon are both surrealist films because they violate narrative conventions. Both short films are difficult to follow using cause-and-effect-logic because the films don’t follow any kind of recognizable plot. The images coming at the audience (especially in An Andalusian Dog) are random, without critical analysis. The third film is an abstract avant-garde film because the director chose to use Barbies to play the characters.

The film An Andalusian Dog violates the narrative film logic of Hollywood because the time sequence in the film in unpredictable and the plot doesn’t follow cause-and-effect norms. The film jumps around in time at random moments and the characters look the same, sometimes they’re even in the same moment as before the time change. For example the scene where the main male character is being chastised by his “father”, it then says on the screen, “16 years before” but then goes back to the same moment. The plot is also very hard to follow because the interactions between the characters are inconsistent. It is difficult to tell if the main characters are a couple or strangers. After the male character seemingly tries to rape her, a couple scenes later they are shown on the beach holding hands. It’s hard to know when anything is taking place. 

Zero Dark Thirty

September 11th and the war of terror was one of the main themes in the film Zero Dark Thirty. Osama Bin Laden was found to be responsible for the attack on 9/11 and therefore became the U.S.A’s main enemy and target. The capture and killing of Bin Laden was also crucial because he continued to order attacks on his own people and had utterly too much control. In order to put an end to the terrorism, Bin Laden had to be stopped. With the U.S.A’s personal vendetta against him the hunt wouldn’t end until he was found. When Bin Laden was killed, it was considered a triumph. Zero Dark Thirty was made to show the process that the C.I.A went through in order to capture and kill Bin Laden.

 

An auteur director shows technical competence, a distinguishable personality (reoccurring themes/familiar style), and an interior meaning (tension between director’s vision and subject matter), in this sense Kathryn Bigelow could be thought of as an auteur director. Bigelow directs action films such as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Action films aren’t usually considered art films; however Bigelow chose to incorporate the controversial topic of torture in her film, which she handled quite artistically. Bigelow decided to be truthful to the actual event which included torture. There were several explicit scenes of the Americans torturing men they caught which they believed had information about Bin Laden.  These scenes definitely displayed Bigelow’s technical competence because of the artful cinematography and Mise en Scéne. As far as having a distinguishable personality goes, audiences know Bigelow for her action war movies. Bigelow also had to make many careful decisions when it came to making the film so that she didn’t offend the Arab nation.

 

The director Kathryn Bigelow is a feminist director; her choice to film the story of how the U.S.A located and killed Bin Laden while putting a determined and confident woman in the lead role proves Bigelow feels that action films can feature women and that women have just as much power. Maya found a lead and followed it throughout the film despite Bradley trying to redirect her to focus on other aspects of the case. In one particular scene Maya yells at Bradley and orders him to follow her directions and get men to positions that will help her follow her lead and he reluctantly agrees. This clearly shows that women can be dominant in their work field and shouldn’t be afraid to be. 

Weekend

One of the qualities of The French New Wave is self-reflectivity which is one of the major themes in the film Weekend. There are many scenes in which the characters remind the audience that they are watching a film. This distances the audience from the film and makes them watch it more critically as an artistic film. The scene where the main couple meets the two characters who speak in riddle, they remark, “What an awful film, all we meet are crazy people.” This line, adding to the humor of the film also serves the purpose of distancing the audience from the characters and reminds the audience that they’re watching a movie.

The film Weekend best fits into the cinema styles and context of the Art Cinema genre. In Art Cinema, the characters are complex and have unclear goals like Roland and Corinne Durand. Throughout the movie, the audience is aware that they are on some kind of weekend getaway but their destination is somewhat unclear. The events that occur also have loose cause and effect relationships, meaning that the events don’t shape the movie in a predictable way. The visual style and sound is also more geared towards being used for artistic purposes rather than for storytelling.

The attitudes towards sexuality as shown in the films Persona and Weekend are strikingly different because the directors used a similar scene to show sexuality promiscuity as either a foolish almost youthful episode vs. a dull rather ordinary event. Both scenes capture a young woman confessing a threesome they had been a part of. In Persona, when the young woman is telling her story, the lighting in soft, there is silence other than her voice and she explains what happened rather blissfully. It is captivating because of the way she changes position, smiles occasionally and makes side-notes. The director is not necessarily trying to make the story-telling erotic because the character seems a little uncertain of what happened and she tells it with a hint of innocence. The scene was used to give the audience some background information about the character so the audience can get to know her better. In Weekend, this similar rather mocking adaptation of the scene in Persona has dark lighting, where the characters faces are completely in shadow, there is loud music playing to distract the audience and she tells an even more intimate and bizarre sexual experience in a complete monotone so that her story could easily be described as boring. The lengths that Godard went to in order to make this retelling sound sublime were for the purpose of distancing the audience from the character. It could also be said that Godard could be commenting on the way a scene of this sort would usually make the audience feel and how that has come to be too predictable and conventional.

Far from Heaven

The major themes in the film Far from Heaven also coincide with the ideologies explored. One of the main themes is male supremacy. During the 1950’s, the common role for a woman was to be a housewife which made the role of men more dominant. Far from Heaven challenged this ideology of the 1950’s by making the main male character homosexual, which at the time was seen as unmasculine. This struggle between trying to keep his appearance as the strong, masculine breadwinner and trying not to give into his true feelings towards other men creates one of the main conflicts. In the end, Frank does decide to divorce his wife and be with the man he loves despite the effect this will have on his family, social life and career.

The film Far from Heaven presents commentary on the culture and views of suburbia during the 1950’s. The conflicts of the film are focused on race, gender and sexuality. The film followed two romances condemned in the 1950’s, one because it was interracial and the other because it was homosexual. In the end the relationship that is able to work is the homosexual romance (as far as the audience can tell). The film makers are using the 1950’s traditional attitudes to comment on our views today. In today’s society, interracial romances are far more commonly accepted. The debate over homosexual marriages is still a hot button topic today.

Class and Race are two inter-related ideologies in the film Far from Heaven because they were depicted together in scenes like the art show. Raymond and his daughter attend an art show in which they are they only African Americans present and it is obvious from the disapproving looks they receive that they’re not welcome. The other individuals present are all white and are assumed to be of a higher class because of their race. However, Raymond ends up discussing his views on one of the modern pieces of art with Cathy and it is apparent to her and the audience that Raymond is very well educated and seems to know more about art then most people there. During the 1950’s all African Americans were assumed to be of a lower class because of their race even if they were well educated and earned a good living.