Daniel Siegelman's Blog

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I got it, I’m gone.

April 15th, 2011 by Daniel Siegelman · Uncategorized

What is Do the Right Thing about? As I watched the film, the answer to this question was constantly changing in my mind. At first, it seemed like a parable about a certain time and place, about racial tensions in 1980’s Brooklyn. The film’s heavy emphasis on setting, as well as its initial division of characters into their respective racial groups, made this interpretation seem viable. As the film progressed, however, it began to explore broader and deeper problems: families, employment, social acceptance and others. It then seemed to me that Do the Right Thing was not simply about racial tensions, but about those deeper issues that bring them about, and perhaps their emotional consequences as well.

That all changed when the film ended with two quotes, one by Martin Luther King Jr., the other by Malcolm X. These quotes alluded to pacifism and “self-defense,” the two conflicting ways of dealing with prejudice. This gave me the impression that the film was only about racial tensions tensions after all, and not all those other themes that I read into it. My broader interpretation of the film was, in a way, debunked. I wish that Spike Lee had concluded the film in a more open-ended way; the use of quotes, I think, serves to restrict ones understanding of a film instead of broadening it.

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R for Real

April 9th, 2011 by Daniel Siegelman · Uncategorized

In Medium Cool, “real” and the “fictional” are tightly interwoven, continuously accenting and reflecting on one another. However, the relationship between the two realms changes throughout the film. At the beginning, most of what we see – footage of protests, interviews and the like – is real. Only brief glimpses of fiction are shown to us at this point; for instance, a short conversation between Eileen and her son occurs within a long sequence of documentary footage. For this reason, the fictional segments stand out violently: it is made rather obvious that they are not “real” like the rest of the film. I thus struggled to suspend my disbelief over the fictional scenes. I found myself thinking constantly about the fact that they were staged.

As Medium Cool progresses, the fictional segments start to become far more prevalent. By the 80-minute mark, the pattern of the beginning has all but reversed: the film is now predominantly fictional, with a few documentary scenes popping up here and there. As the fictional universe expanded, it began to feel more powerful, more truthful, and more convincing to me. No longer was I differentiating between the real and fictional; instead, I suspended my disbelief and simply bought most of the film showed me.

At the end of Medium Cool, the documentary scenes begin to dominate once again; for me, however, this did not make the fictional segments seem staged. Once I had begun to believe in the film’s fiction, I did not stop. I knew that a division between the real and fictional existed, but at the same time I didn’t really feel it anymore. It was quite a vivid experience, watching “the real” juxtaposed with fictional elements and believing in both. It made the film feel more emotionally resonant and artful than a documentary, but more “true” than a fictional work. Bravo, Mr. Wexler.

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Bending Genre

March 12th, 2011 by Daniel Siegelman · Uncategorized

I liked Fallen Angel for its synthesis of different genres. When the film begins, it resembles a noir: ambiguous motives, shadowy lighting and a dark mood permeate the first thirty or so minutes. However, the film soon changes gears, shifting its focus to the romances between the characters. Though it retains it dark tones, it comes to feel more like a romantic drama than a noir.  Suddenly, with only a half hour to go, Stella is murdered. In the aftermath of this crime, Fallen Angel returns to its roots in noir; however, it never looses sight of its romantic storyline. All of this, I think, is a great example of “genre-bending”: the film begins in one genre, shifts to another, and ultimately unites the two. Though I usually think of genre-bending as a union of differing characters, themes, and styles, Fallen Angel showed me that it can be done through a film’s story as well.

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Another Problem

March 3rd, 2011 by Daniel Siegelman · Uncategorized

Written on the Wind is the kind of film tend to dislike: it took itself incredibly seriously; its story contained almost no trace of originality; worst of all, most of its performances felt trite and one-dimensional. In sum, it felt too melodramatic for my taste. While watching the film, then, I expected that it would leave me bored and disappointed. I was totally wrong: I ended up liking the film. In fact, I just about loved it. Why?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m struggling to isolate the elements of the film that created my positive reaction. Perhaps the film’s strange visuals drew me in. Or maybe it was paced in a way that excited me. Another possibility is that I actually do enjoy melodrama when it’s contextualized in a certain way…

...or maybe it was that smoldering gaze

Thinking and writing about this issue has not produced a clear answer. It seems that I simply don’t know what made me like Written on the Wind. For me, this raises an important question: do we truly know what makes us like a given film? When we say that we like Psycho because of its plot twists, or The Graduate for its emotional story, are we correct?

Sometimes, we probably are; at other times, perhaps we’re mistaken. While we may think that we like Psycho for its plot twists, maybe the true causes of our enjoyment are its visuals and musical score. While we believe that we like The Graduate for its emotional story, perhaps it’s the performances and cinematography that truly draw us in.

In psychology, there’s a concept that centers around just this: it’s called misattribution of arousal. Often times, we experience physiological arousal for a reason that’s unclear to us. Instead of accepting these feelings simply as they are, we tend to attribute them to something in our environment. For instance, when we become moody as a result of bad weather, we might look to our immediate situation, and attribute this anxiety to our workload. As a result, we feel as though our work is making us anxious. Similarly, when someone watches Psycho, he might become excited as a result of the visuals and score. Unaware of this cause-effect relationship, he could attribute his excitement to the plot twists instead. For this reason, he might claim to like Psycho because of its plot twists.

Misattribution of arousal has been demonstrated in some cool studies. Check this one out.

Does misattribution of arousal really apply to the way we watch films? I’m not really sure. And I don’t see how we could study it in relation to something as complex and intricate as cinema. What do you think?


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A Problem

February 26th, 2011 by Daniel Siegelman · Uncategorized

As we learned in class, the problems surrounding film studies do not end with those discussed in Robert Ray’s essay: there remain many issues that students, scholars, and cinephiles have yet to resolve. Recently, I have been thinking about one of the broader issues; it concerns how we relate two terms – “art” and “entertainment” – to the films that we watch.

People are often quick to label a film as a work of “art”, or to dismiss it as mere “entertainment.” In her Trash, Art, And The Movies article, Pauline Kael uses these terms in such a way: at one point, she even asserts that “most of the movies we enjoy are not works of art.”(339) Roger Ebert has written that video games are not, and can never be, works of art. In my winter term project, I described Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster as a “piece of entertainment”; on the other hand, I called Bergman’s Persona a “mysterious work of art.” It seems that we readily apply these terms to films and other media.

What must a film do in order to merit “art” status? What makes a film a piece of entertainment? The answers to these questions are certainly not written in stone. In fact, I don’t think they’re written anywhere. After some 115 years of film history, we still have not defined these terms as they relate to cinema. We have not established specific criteria for what constitutes art or entertainment in film. Despite this, we continue to use these terms as if we know what we’re talking about.

Well… to some extent, we probably do know what we’re talking about. If we can easily incorporate these concepts into cinematic discourse, then we must have at least a vague idea of what they stand for. Though we may not know specifically what we mean by the terms “art” and “entertainment,” we seem to have some abstract notion of what they entail.

However, I feel this “abstract notion” is often misguided. These concepts are often treated as opposite ends of a spectrum, the “art” side representing films that are beautiful, tasteful, intelligent, etc., and the “entertainment” side representing Adam Sandler and the like. I don’t think this is necessarily valid. I feel that a film can function as both a work of art and a piece of entertainment. The films that I think about in artistic terms are often the ones that I find the most enjoyable. For instance, whenever I watch Hitchcock’s Vertigo, I always find myself giving it the “art” treatment, analyzing it on multiple levels. This is not only because I find it intellectually simulating, but also because I enjoy it immensely. The film thrills and entertains me, and draws me into its world. This, in part, is why I feel compelled to analyze it. Thus, perhaps the entertainment value of a film can enhance its artistic value, and vice versa.

Aditionally, as Pauline Kael noted, we may find elements of “art” in pieces of “entertainment.” Consider this shot:

This is certainly a beautiful shot. The framing, colors, and scale come together to create an artful composition. I think that the tightly controlled mise-en-scene elements almost make it feel like a painting. What film might this be from?

The answer:

Wedding Crashers. No joke, that shot really appears in Wedding Crashers. What do you all think of this whole “art vs. entertainment” issue?

Happy Saturday!


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I am Iron Man.

February 21st, 2011 by Daniel Siegelman · Uncategorized

Is he alive or dead? Has he thoughts within his head? We’ll just pass him there – why should we even care?

You Know Who

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