CHAPTER 8: BEYOND GENRE
Cinemas Beyond Genre
Beyond narrative cinema genres, film can also take the form of non-fiction storytelling, form experiments, and animation. Each of these cinema categories might also include narrative genres or traditional narrative structures, but their style of storytelling separates them as unique categories. Unlike narrative cinema’s genres, which organize certain conventions of storytelling, documentary, experimental film, and animation are categories that are determined by form.
The cinematic form of documentary carries with it a few false assumptions. When we hear the term “non-fiction” cinema, we assume that these films have a natural relationship to objectivity and to “the truth”. Though many of these films do claim to be objective, when we look at the nature of filmmaking, we can see that no film, fiction or non-fiction, can actually fulfill such a promise.
Let’s imagine that a conversation is taking place across a table. One person is being asked a series of personal questions, and they are uncomfortable, but are starting to loosen up as the conversation continues. They are feeling the close intimacy of the situation and are learning to trust their companion, whose calm gaze has a reassuring quality. Now, let’s place a camera in front of the questioner. The intimacy of the situation immediately changes. The interviewee suddenly feels on edge, choosing their words very carefully because they are being recorded and sitting up straighter with more poise since their image will be recorded for an unknown audience – maybe dozens, maybe millions of viewers.
The very fact of the camera’s presence changes the environment of a conversation. When we think that we are being observed, we tend to enter a mode of performance. This might mean that we speak louder, or answer questions with less honesty, or behave in a way that meets the expectations of the audience. It is unreasonable to think that observation has no impact on behavior. And so it is unreasonable to think that a camera can catch “reality” as it exists unobserved. The very fact of the camera's presence changes the environment.
We also tend to assume that documentaries present us with a slice of the “real world”. But by using the tools of narrative cinema, non-fiction film manipulates “real world” footage into the language and grammar of entertainment. Documentaries often are organized by a three-act structure. And, they often follow individuals – narrative heroes – whose stories track a goal and its achievement. Documentaries also make heavy use of camera style to effect the look of the scene and the characters: low camera angles can make characters look powerful, slow motion can give weight to a moment of crisis, and color palettes can set our narrative expectations. Music has the same emotional value in non-fiction cinema as it does in narrative cinema. Grand orchestral themes can bring tragedy to a scene and pop music can bring familiarity to a scenario. Editing montages create the illusion of repetition and speed. Lighting, moreover, can change the way that we view a character: bright, natural light is associated with innocence; low-key lighting is associated with villainous or suspect behavior. These types of filmmaking techniques that have become so naturalized in the realm of narrative storytelling have manipulative qualities, and so it is strange to import them into non-fiction film that claims “objectivity”. Documentary forms are constantly battling the line between entertainment, which necessarily uses manipulative filmmaking techniques, and the mission of truth-telling.
Therefore, even though documentaries are based on footage of the “real world” – meaning, they are not filming acted performances – this footage can be manipulated and edited to create a product that is far from unobserved “reality”. This is not to say that all documentaries contain false messages or are merely unsubstantial entertainment. But that all documentaries relate their stories from a certain perspective, and make aesthetic and editing choices aimed to sway the viewer in one way or the other. Whether or not visualized through the presence of a ‘host’ or voiceover narrator, the documentary is shaped by the intent and moral values of a filmmaker. It is important to keep in mind that the rise of narrative style in documentaries has created a very stylized and constructed product. In fact, documentaries have recently seen a great resurgence because of this imported style – more people watch documentaries now than ever before because these films are so well produced and tell stories in such an engaging way.
Throughout documentary history, some filmmakers have tried to resist these unavoidable problems of subjectivity, manipulated “reality”, and performance. The earliest documentaries of the 1920s claimed to be ethnographic studies, which showcased a foreign culture that was generally inaccessible to the film’s audience. Nanook of the North (Flaherty, 1922), a very popular documentary in the 1920s, highlights an Inuit community in Alaska. The film picks a hero to follow, Nanook, named for the film by the director Flaherty – and sets up scenarios for Nanook to perform indigenous acts, like ice fishing, igloo building, and walrus hunting. Though the footage is technically “real” in that Nanook is actually performing these acts and is spending time with his actual family, the documentary is highly staged. Rather than present an unfettered view of an Inuit community, Flaherty’s involvement in the scenarios – from giving his hero a name, to staging events and shaping a narrative about a “traditional” community absent of modern technology – created a very subjective film that speaks more to Flaherty’s image of the Inuit than to any ethnographic study about this community.
The 1920s also saw a trend in city-symphonies, poetic documentaries made of footage taken from around a city. Man with a Movie Camera (1929) follows a cameraman as he finds unusual ways to film several Soviet cities – from underneath train tracks to atop horse carriages and bridge suspensions. The scenes are carefully framed and are playful in how they are presented to the audience. Everyday Soviet citizens merge with urban life and machinery in distortions of perception. Objects are animated through stop-motion techniques, while sequences move between slow motion and rapid editing for dramatic effect. Split screens are also used to show two separate views of the city in the same frame, doing more to upend reality than to reinforce it. Though technically, Man with a Movie Camera is a film comprised of non-fiction footage, mostly of urban infrastructure, the playful presentation makes the documentary feel like an experiment in film form rather than an objective view of Soviet life.
In opposition to clearly subjective modes of non-fiction film, some documentary movements aim for as unobtrusive and unmanipulated style as possible. In the 1960s, Direct Cinema, also called “Observational Cinema” in Europe, preferred unmanipulated long takes, unnarrated footage, and undramatic editing. Several American filmmakers became famous for this style of filming, though they did not use it for their entire careers: Frederick Wiseman, who focused on institutions like schools and hospitals, D.A. Pennebaker, who became most famous for his coverage of music festivals, and Albert and David Maysles, brothers who focused on individuals on the fringes of American popularity. The Maysles’ most famous subjects, the Beales in Grey Gardens (1975), were former socialites who had fallen from social circles into a state of reclusiveness and hoarding. A mother and daughter duo, the Beales are wild characters full of theatricality, and the contrast between this verve and their low quality of life evokes tragedy without the Maysles needing to manipulate footage or layer on narrative explanation.
As a natural extension of Direct Cinema tendencies, essay films comment on their own film form and evoke an intentionally subjective view of the world while commenting on its subjectivity. Many types of filmmakers, both narrative feature-based and documentary-based, have participated in this mode of storytelling. Orson Welles’s F for Fake (1973) describes filmmaking as a sleight of hand magic trick and as art forgery while filming magicians and art forgers. Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988) summarizes cinema history while also manipulating its footage and describing cinema as paradoxical and farcical.
All conventional techniques of documentary filmmaking have, at one time or another, been critiqued by documentaries. The convention of talking heads, where the film frame cuts off interview subjects at the shoulders as though they are heads floating in abstract, uncontextualized space, has been critiqued by films that choose to include the interviewer in the frame. Trinh T. Minh-ha’s essay film Reassemblage (1982), an un-narrated film featuring Senegalese women, critiques ethnographic documentary films by refusing to make broad statements about a culture or a people. Instead, Minh-ha includes footage of herself watching a film to point to every film’s necessarily artificial nature. Reenactments, pieces of staged scenarios based on past events, have become a standard in non-fiction storytelling about the past, and many documentaries have pointed to how problematic these fictional pieces of film are within the non-fiction format. Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988) uses multiple versions of the same slow-motion reenactment, sprinkled throughout the film as different interview subject give different accounts of a past event. As the “history” of the event changes, the reenactment changes, showing us that this type of storytelling is innately unreliable. More recently, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) invites Indonesian genocide perpetrators to stage reenactments of how they killed hundreds of people. By filming the process of reenactment staging, the film comments on the process of remembrance as it critiques its subjects’ actions.
Though documentary filmmaking is necessarily un-objective, this struggle with the idea of objectivity has created some very creative answers to questions about truth-telling. Our current modes of documentary cinema include imaginative uses of technologies, like GoPro footage and motion-capture animation. The documentary form is not restricted by any one conventional style, and perhaps this is why documentaries are having a shining moment on today’s streaming stage.
Ethnographic film: A visual anthropological study. City-symphony: Poetic film celebrating a specific city.
Direct Cinema / Observational Cinema: A 1960s movement that featured unmanipulated long takes, unnarated footage, and undramatic editing.
Essay film: Self-reflexive films that critique or openly discuss documentary conventions.
Talking heads: Common convention in which interview subjects are cut off at the shoulders.
Reenactments: Common convention of including staged scenarios of past events within non-fiction film.
Unlike mainstream narrative cinema, which is part of a film industry whose primary aim is to make a profit, experimental cinema has different goals. Sometimes the goal is simply to experiment with the form of cinema to see how far it can be pushed. Sometimes the goal is to give representation to cultures and lifestyles often missing from mainstream cinema. Sometimes the goal is to make a political statement and share it as widely as possible. Funding for these experimental projects is quite different from mainstream sources too. An experimental film might aim to have no costs at all so that it can be further removed from the profit-goals of traditional narratives – all equipment and labor would be donated, in this case. An experimental film might be funded by a grant aimed at supporting the arts generally. Lastly, exhibition for these experimental films uses circuits outside of mainstream theaters. Some experimental films are shown in museums or galleries as installation exhibits; some are shown at universities as part of screening series; some are shown as “events” in living rooms, rented halls, or after-hours community spaces.
The main principle for many experimental projects is to be avant-garde, French for “vanguard”, or ahead of the times. The term “avant-garde” has been adopted by art studies, but it is originally a military term which describes scouts who move ahead of the main army to test out new terrain. Applied to art and cinema, “avant-garde” describes a willingness to experiment, find radical new forms, or cover unorthodox subjects. What we find over the course of film history is that experimental filmmakers will often discover this new terrain through experimentation, and then mainstream film will adopt these radical techniques, turning them into conventions of film language. In this way, the main army, or mainstream film, catches up to the avant-garde in order to make use of the new terrain. For example, the experimental documentary Koyaanisqatsi (1982) extensively used time-lapses to show the effects of human technology on landscapes and urban environments. In 1982, the time-lapse technique was not yet popular and looked quite strange to the average viewer. Nevertheless, when enough mainstream films dipped their toes into this avant-garde technique, it became normalized and has now become an industry standard for showing time passing in a stylistic way. Today, we see time-lapses used quite freely in TV shows, like House of Cards (Willimon, 2013-2018) and Breaking Bad (Gillian, 2008-2013), proving that the cinema “army” has made it to the new time-lapse terrain scouted by experimental film.
Ironically, experimental film does not necessarily feel that it is working with mainstream film, but rather against it. Underground films of the 1950s and 1960s explicitly rejected mainstream films by showcasing sub-cultures that were generally ignored by Hollywood, such as avant-garde artists, hipsters, and queer communities. Kenneth Anger made surrealist films in this era about homoeroticism and the state of American culture. His most famous film Scorpio Rising (1961), about the dissolution of American culture, mixes footage of a biker subculture with provocative images of Nazi emblems and religious iconography, taken from a Christian documentary. The film became both extremely popular among counter-culture communities for its boldness and extremely controversial, becoming briefly banned by a California court.
Andy Warhol, best known for his graphic pop art, was also an experimental filmmaker, and many of his films tried to push the boundaries of acceptable film form and subject. Some of his films, such as Sleep (1963) and Eat (1964), quite simply show the titled action being performed in one long take. His film Empire (1964) is an 8-hour long take of the Empire State Building. Very little action happens in this long take – the lighting changes over eight hours and at times a small plane is visible flying in the distance. But generally, the film is meant to be as close to a photograph as possible while still taking the form of film. When Empire screened at a small rented theater for the first time, Warhol encouraged his friends to bring food, entertainment, and company with them. By questioning the conventions of mainstream cinema – who says that a film must be two hours long? – Warhol turned his film into an “event”, similar to the experimental “happenings” of the 1950s and 1960s in the art world.
Some of these same sentiments about film expectations have been adopted in a more accepted high art form, slow cinema. Filmmakers intentionally make slow narrative films that are meant to deviate from Hollywood standards of action and momentum. Abbas Kiarostami’s film Taste of Cherry (1997), a prime example of slow cinema, moves leisurely through Tehran and its surrounding area in a series of long takes that cover undramatic conversations and periods of waiting. Though the film seems quite simple, it is not a passive viewing experience. Kiarostami’s films slow our heartbeat and focus our attention so that we experience sensations differently, newly. Though based in an experimental sentiment, Taste of Cherry won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was widely screened across the world, proving that slow cinema is no longer an obscure, avant-garde concept as Warhol’s Sleep, Eat, or Empire.
Other experimental films aim to outline a political message through an abrasive style. Most famous for its political filmmaking, Third Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s began in Latin America by arguing against neocolonialism, capitalism, and the profit-oriented system of Hollywood filmmaking. In Argentina, filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino considered themselves “militant” artists whose films were screened in homes at secret meetings and distributed by hand from neighbor to neighbor. Their most groundbreaking work, a three-part film Hour of the Furnaces (1968), critiqued Western influence in Latin America with a collision of images, editing together footage of Western-style discos with global war photographs. The film ends with a bold statement that hands the conversation over to the viewer: “Now it is up to you to draw conclusions, to continue the film. You have the floor.” In this way, Third Cinema asked that viewers not receive the material passively, but be aggravated, shocked, and pushed to action.
Throughout experimental film history, there have been experiments in film form that push the boundaries of what cinema should look like. Surrealism of the 1920s experimented with bringing surrealist art principles, like collage and non-sequitors, into short film form (See Ch1: Film History). These principles were extended into feature experimental films, like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973) and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). Other experimental shorts played with poetic modes of cinema, looking for visual ways to evoke universal themes and mythology. Stan Brakhage’s shorts, like Window Water Baby Moving (1959), explore life, death, sexuality, and nature through silent montages of images and manipulation of the film stock. By scratching and writing on film stock and exposing it in creative ways, Brakhage brings attention to the film medium and its potential shapes. This is pure cinema, a type of experimental film which overcomes audiovisual boundaries and restrictions through the manipulation of its film form. Using the principles of pure cinema, Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963) attaches pieces of grasses, leaves, and moth wings to film stock rather than film these materials. The effect of these materials literally moved through a projector is confusing and breathtaking: they take on abstract shapes and flickering lines, very unlike the original organic material. This experiment brings attention to the unnatural means by which film tends to replicate the natural world, and demands an unfettering of vision from the ‘rules’ of a mainstream cinema. When actually placed through a projector, the natural world becomes a beautiful mess.
Such experiments in pure cinema have made their way into small moments of feature film through fantasy sequences and flashbacks. And they are also consistently featured in opening credits of films and TV shows. David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) pays homage to Brakhage in its opening, where crew names are “scratched” into individual frames to create haunting and crackly effects. TV shows Dexter (Manos, 2006-2013) and Halt and Catch Fire (2014-2017) use textural and abstract experimental footage to evoke a tone and mood rather than to explain narrative details, like character, motivation, or setting. Such small touches of experimental film within the more common field of narrative storytelling showcases the creative possibilities of playing with form, style, and expectations.
Avant-garde: Vanguard, or ahead of the times. Avant-garde film is experimental in form, style, and/or subject.
Underground film: Film movements of the 1950s and 1960s that showcased sub-cultures ignored by Hollywood, such as avant-garde artists, hipsters, and queer communities.
Slow cinema: A style of poetic cinema that intentionally deviates form Hollywood standards of action and momentum.
Third Cinema: A political filmmaking movement originating in 1960s and 1970s Latin America that critiques neocolonialism, capitalism, and profit-oriented filmmaking.
Pure cinema: Experimental cinema that focuses on manipulating film material itself, like scratching and painting the celluloid, and creating shapes and forms rather than narrative story.
On the simplest level, animation is distinct from live-action film because it is recorded as individual frames, and because it creates the illusion of motion rather than recording motion in front of the camera. However, as animation has become increasingly integrated with live- -action, through computer graphics imagery (CGI), the distinction between the two categories has become more and more difficult to discern. All blockbusters now fluidly combine computer graphics with live action footage. Moreover, most feature films include at least some post-production manipulation of individual frames.
In early film history, animation helped filmmakers to understand persistence of vision, the principle by which we optically perceive individual images as if they were in motion. In the 19th century, Thaumatropes, flip books, and zoetropes showed images in quick succession so that the images appeared to become animated (See Ch 1: Film History). Early 20th century film experiments in animation, like Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), drew individual frames entirely from scratch, just like a projected flip book. Though cumbersome to make 10,000 individual frames unique, Gertie the Dinosaur comes alive with individual movement in every part of the screen: the dinosaur’s body, the tree in the foreground, and even the background details.
It quickly became obvious to animators that shortcuts would need to be taken in order for the animation form to be made quickly and efficiently, especially as animation was becoming more complicated and colorful. Some animators began drawing on rice paper, which could be layered and reused for multiple frames. Soon, the industry standard for animating efficiently became celluloid sheets, the same material used for feature filmmaking reels. Cel animation, using celluloid sheets, employs a static background layer and a character layer that is re-drawn and switched out for every frame shot. This way, the background layer does not have to be re-drawn, and only a small piece of the frame is moving at any one time. As animation became more popular, especially with Disney’s revolutionary decision to create animated films aimed at a child audience, the cels became more complicated, with each character on their own cel sheet, stacked on top of each other in layers.
Though cel animation has dominated the field of hand-drawn animation, there are other, more rare, types of animation that utilize other materials. Various painting styles create very different textures in animation. Ink wash animation from China transforms traditional Chinese paintings into animated subjects with a watery texture. Paint-on-glass animation uses oil paints, manipulated in multiple stages of drying, and light projected through the glass on which they lay. Some animated films have experimented with painting individual canvases as individual frames of animation. Recently, Loving Vincent (Kobiela/Welchman, 2017) used 65,000 oil paintings, created in the style of Vincent Van Gogh’s art, to generate the frames of its animation. Each canvas was carefully planned using computer previsualization, and then the frames themselves were hand-painted by over 100 artists. Each element of the foreground and background moves with this hand-made technique, and this creates the impression of Van Gogh’s art coming alive through the medium of film.
Stop-motion animation uses manipulated objects to create each film frame. The same object is used in multiple frames, but it is manipulated slightly between frames so that, taken together, the frames create the illusion of motion. Some well-known examples of this style are Claymation, which slightly molds clay models between takes, and puppet animation, which moves puppets into slightly varying positions between takes. Claymation and puppet animation have always been used for both children and adult genres. Puppet animation early pioneer Ladislav Starevich, for example, humorously examined sexual infidelity, revenge and filmmaking through stop motion animation of dead insects in his 1912 film The Cameraman’s Revenge. Puppet animation has recently become even more adult with R-rated films like Team America (Parker, 2004) and Anomalisa (Kaufman/Johnson, 2015), which received accolades at film festivals.
Pinscreen animation uses movable pins that cast a shadow during filming. Sand animation pushes sand around between takes to give the impression of randomly created wind patterns. In cutout animation, another style of stop-motion animation, characters and their environments are comprised of flat, 2D paper figurines. Cutout animation was made famous by Russian animator Yuri Norstein, who places cutouts on several tiers of glass to create a foggy, poetic, layered effect in Hedgehog in the Fog (1975) and Tale of Tales (1979). Cutout animation has been used in the comedy genre too, including TV shows Monty Python’s Flying Circus (MacNaughton/Davies, 1969-1974) and South Park (Parker/Stone, 1997-).
Computer graphics changed the animation scene entirely. Using digital means of drawing, animators can save time and energy in creating both foreground and background information. Additionally, digital animation can move the “camera” of the scene into areas inaccessible through hand-drawn cel animation. Since traditional animation re-uses the same background cel for multiple frames, only switching out foreground cels to make certain characters move on top of their environment, there is no way to move into the background, only across it. But with digital animation, the background can change with every frame, thus allowing for more complicated and interesting movements within the scene.
The Rescuers Down Under (1990) was the first film to use Disney’s Computer Animation Production System (CAPS), which composited scanned cels with digital backgrounds and multiplane effects. The film’s opening credits speeds the “camera” over a field of flowers, through rock crevices, and into a house. This sequence would not be impossible to produce using hand-drawn animation techniques, but it would take a great amount of time and energy to zoom into the background and redraw much of the environment details, which are constantly in motion. The digital process makes this sequence much easier to produce since any part of the image can be adjusted frame by frame. The Lion King (1994) used the same CAPS software to create several cinematic camera movements, like tracking shots and dolly zooms. The famous stampede sequence, when wildebeests pour over a cliff and fill the screen, was achieved by digitally creating some individual wildebeests, then randomizing their movements and digitally multiplying them into a crowd.
Similarly, computer graphics imagery (CGI) has been used extensively in Hollywood blockbusters to help efficiently and safely create scenarios that are difficult to film as live-action performances, including extreme stunts, property damage, and pyrotechnics. The increased popularization of the fantasy genre, accelerated by Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001), has encouraged more digital technologies that merge animation with live action. Motion capture technology translates live action movement to computer graphics in order to create more authentic movement and weight in digitally animated creatures. Andy Serkis’s portrayal of Gollum, a digitally created creature, involved motion capture of Serkis’s body movements in an empty studio and also his live performance amongst the other characters in order to achieve real reactions from the cast. The motion- -captured digital character was then rotoscoped onto the live performance, thus merging digital animation with a live action scene.
Green screens, for backgrounds, props, or characters, have long allowed for films to incorporate multiple layers of footage, filmed separately, into one believable space. Recently, we have seen such an excessive amount of green screening, motion capture, and digital animation used in blockbusters that actors are having a hard time evoking convincing performances when they are forced to work in isolation with little partner or environment feedback. Some critics of this mode of filmmaking describe it as the “Post- -Cinema Age”. In a way, the increased use of animation as a substitute for live-action filming has indeed exceeded our classical notions of “cinema”, or the capturing of motion onto celluloid. By filming only small portions of the frame at any one time (foreground characters or background environment), heavily using matte composites, and working with the image on a frame-by-frame basis, our blockbuster movies have incorporated so many animation principles that it is fair to say that they have moved “beyond” cinema.
CGI: Computer graphics imagery created in post-production. Often merged with live action footage.
Persistence of vision: The effect of an afterimage on the retina persisting after an image has been shown. This allows for sequential images, as in optical toys or in film, to blend together to appear to be in motion.
Cel animation: Celluloid sheets are painted and layered, then photographed in succession so that they appear to move.
Stop-motion animation: Uses manipulated objects to create each film frame. Includes claymation, puppet animation, pinscreen animation, sand animation, and cutout animation.
Digital animation: Frames are drawn in a computer rather than by hand.
Motion capture: Technology that translates live action movement to computer graphics in order to create more authentic movement and weight in digitally animated creatures.
but the art of movements that are drawn."
Understanding film as an artistic medium begins with learning film form. Knowing the terms to describe what we’re seeing and hearing is our ticket for entry into the conversation. Things often become most exciting, though, when we encounter a work of art to which the usual vocabulary does not apply. A film that engages us deeply yet doesn’t fit into any of the usual categories or allow us to easily apply what we already know is not only a special work of art, it’s the kind of work that opens up new possibilities for the medium.
Norman McLaren’s Neighbors (1952) is such a work, a short filmed on 16mm that stands out even among McLaren’s eclectic body of work.
McLaren is primarily known as an experimental animator, although he also produced commercial work and deserves as much recognition for his inventive musical scores as his imagery. He was famous for drawing on and scratching raw film stock to create images, and he used the same technique to create the musical scores of many of his films, creating music with no instruments.
Unlike most of McLaren’s work, Neighbors was filmed entirely in live action and includes no hand-drawn animation in the film itself.
Neighbors begins with two men sitting in front of forced-perspective houses, each reading the newspaper and smoking a pipe. The men are equal in every way: virtually identical houses, chairs, clothes, etc. McLaren is careful to frame the men symmetrically so each occupies, or owns, an equal half of the frame. Nothing is dividing the neighbors, and all is peaceful.
Both story and form begin to change, though, when a flower springs up in the middle of the frame. Each man becomes enamored with the flower, which McLaren expresses by using an animation technique called pixilation, in which the filmmaker photographs living subjects frame-by-frame. It is essentially stop-motion animation that replaces clay figures or puppets with posed human actors. It is a rarely used animation technique that straddles the line between live-action and animated filmmaking.
In Neighbors, the technique first creates moments of silly, surrealistic comedy, as both men react to the flower with an absurd degree of joy. The tone shifts, though, when the men begin to argue over ownership of the flower. The story turns decidedly dramatic as the tension rises between these formerly peaceful neighbors.
Arguing escalates to violence, and the film quickly becomes an extended action sequence of sorts. Rather than play the fight for thrills, though, McLaren makes the men increasingly grotesque, and the violence takes a shocking turn. One neighbor knocks down the other’s house, revealing his neighbor’s wife and infant child. The man brutally assaults the wife and hurls the child to the ground, presumably killing both. Then the other neighbor does the same. This scene was so shocking when the film was first distributed that many theatres cut it out prior to showing it. The escalating violence reaches its inevitable crescendo as the men kill each other. In death, with their families and homes destroyed, each gets his own flower.
So what would be the result if we applied the basic tools of film analysis to Neighbors? The film defies generic categorization. It is a comedy, drama, action, social satire, and tragedy, all in a film less than nine minutes long.
More profoundly, even the form and mode of filmmaking in Neighbors is debatable. Is it a live-action or animated film? It is both, of course. It is also an experimental film. However, the Academy Awards recognized it with the Oscar for Best Short Documentary, even though it is entirely scripted. Thus, there isn’t even consensus on what this film is.
Even though the film defies our usual descriptions, it is our knowledge of the language of film form that allows us to understand the film. The conflict of forms mirrors the film’s theme of human conflict, and the most powerful dramatization of the destructive human desire for control and power is the film’s clashing of genres and styles.
McLaren’s film is personal yet offers a universal plea for peace, attempting to cut to the core of human conflict. It reduces cinematic form to its basic property, the juxtaposition of image against image, yet eludes basic analysis, pushing both filmmaking and film scholarship toward a new vocabulary.
Dr. Jeff Marker
CMJ Department Chair
University of North Georgia
Questions for Consideration: Beyond Genre
- Can you think of other examples of slow cinema being created today? Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang, for example, considers slowness to be a form of rebellion against a modern cinema that limits the expression of the filmmaker due to its obsession with speed. He created a Walker series where the still individual is set in the midst of urbanity. Many viewers who watched the films in Tsai’s series felt driven to anger by his slow approach to cinema. What are your thoughts about slow cinema? Do you consider slow cinema to be cinema, or, like some audiences, a waste of your time?
- More recently Walt Disney Studios has gained a lot of attention for their repeated translation of animated films like The Lion King (1994) and Lady and the Tramp (1955) into live action adaptations. How is animated film similar to, yet different from traditional live action cinema? Think here about our expectations of animation and how we ‘read’ an animated film. How can we think about realism as pertains to the animated film and its live action counterpart?
- Documentary films use different techniques and strategies to convince the viewer that what we are watching is real. At the same time, editing and other aesthetic choices can suggest meaning to us that makes the viewer read more into the moment than what we objectively see and hear on screen. Examine, for instance, a popular docuseries like Tiger King (2020) or Cheer (2020). How can you see the filmmaker attempting to capture the ‘truth’ of real people and situations and, conversely, sway us to particular ways of understanding a story?