First Year Favourites, 2020-21

Edited by Tijen Mustafa

As they finish up their first year, Warwick Film and TV Studies students reflect back on their favourite films that they studied over the past year. Spoilers ahead!

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958) – Albert Bullock

The thing that I most admire about Touch of Evil is its depiction of a limbo state, or more accurately an “in between”. In between America and Mexico, in between order and anarchy, in between good and evil; the film does not once self-solidify into a visual binary.

I wouldn’t say that the opposing elements attack each other here however, they contrast but they do not create friction; the light and the shadows, and the stillness and the chaos all come together into a rather beautiful miscellany, one that depicts an ambiguous state of being that the characters cannot escape. 

On a more personal note, I simply have an affinity for films that, more or less, execute the same aesthetics as Touch of Evil does, with most of my favourite films falling alongside it. To see characters exist within an inescapable situational stasis, in which meaning is gained more from the journey than the destination, is my favourite element of cinema. 

Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981) – Cameron Smith

Blow Out is a confession by Brain De Palma. A confession of his inner turmoil as an artist. He is exposing his illness, and it is an incurable one. An obsessive, meticulous pursuit for perfection within his films that becomes toxic and all-consuming – it inevitably destroys relationships with those closest to him.

The self-reflexivity was not visible for me on first viewing, yet it is so obvious now after multiple re-watches and hours of contemplation. De Palma projects his own issues onto protagonist Jack (John Travolta) and almost uses him as a mouthpiece to do this.

By the time sound recorder Jack finally achieves the “perfect scream” for a cheap horror movie he is working on, he has spiralled into paranoia and madness. It is the price to pay for perfection. This contributes to why Blow Out is so compelling, even forty years after its release. A suspenseful thriller on the surface, but there is an exercise in therapy that lurks underneath.

Cléo de 5 à 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962) – Maia Haukozi-Jones

Cléo from 5 to 7 is one of those films that came into my life at the perfect time, personifying the uncomfortable relationship between femininity and the male gaze without condemning it to being shallow or unworthy of exploration. For me, Cléo beautifully captures the paradoxical nature of womanhood. The traps you fall into, grasping for the external validation that you know is ultimately hollow, but alleviates the exhaustion of existence for a little while. The hatred of being looked at because you know no one will ever truly see you as you wish they would, and the subsequent warping of our identities through eyes deemed more important than our own. When Cléo is sobbing over her own impending death and catches herself with the reminder, “as long as I am beautiful, I’m more alive than the others”, it feels like a punch in the face. Sometimes the distraction from pain is more detrimental than the pain itself.

Leaving Cléo’s apartment for a walk around Paris, I was struck by the crushing numbness of her struggle to finally see the world through her own gaze. Clocks ticking, an empty face staring back at you in the mirror, everyone always, always looking and yet the unspoken terror of the day when they eventually stop. We talk a lot about the female gaze in film, including in the context of this film, and to me this transition away from the lens Cléo initially views herself through highlights just how alien and confusing divorcing yourself from the male gaze can be.

But as our protagonist begins to embrace and find solace in her lack of control over the world, and grounds herself in friendship, I feel myself filled with the same warmth and hope as her. A street you’ve hurried along a million times, your eyes fixed on the ground as you try to get back home without incident can transform before your eyes with the stability of someone beside you, and the feeling of truly being present in the world.

Sometimes a distraction is just a distraction.

La mala educación (Pedro Almodóvar, 2004) – Sam Hamilton

The 2004 Spanish film, Bad Education, was a formative lesson this year in the articulate power of film form. That is, how the shot, the edit, and the sound mix are exploited for their respective storytelling potential. But the innovation also extended to the film’s narrative sense. Director Pedro Almodóvar’s manipulation of structure and perspective in turn manipulated me, my understanding of characters, and my perception of meaning from square one to the final reveal.

The composition of the shot is a wildly unpredictable phenomenon in Bad Education because each frame embodies emotion, indicates meaning and represents character interaction. Actors are caught up in the midst of this expressive camerawork and editing, often resulting in performances consumed, obscured, or dissected visually, but always complemented. This is not exuberant ‘style’ but controlled and informative ‘substance’. The incorporation of unusual imagery, editing patterns or transitions feels necessary where it may have been awkward somewhere else. Take the transition that divides the abused Ignacio’s bleeding head to reveal the abuser (Manolo) beneath, versus the bizarre albeit funky wipes, irises and sparkly Microsoft PowerPoint-esque Star Wars ‘prequel’ transitions as an example of the opposite. My favourite formal innovation in Bad Education came from the same scene, where the dialogue recording abandons Ignacio’s autotuned, accompanied (intentionally Pollyanna) singing for a shaky, pure, a cappella sound after Manolo’s off-screen attempt to sabotage the child’s innocence. Dialogue recording presets, what may have been considered banal, become disturbing as an effective storytelling device in the right director’s hands. 

And where Bad Education is broadly a film of confession, Almodóvar chooses to reveal truths and lies as reality serves them: in perplexing and random series. At points, he neglects to be specifically clear whose perspective of what we perceive, and even when we are sure, this is later revealed to be a film-within-a-film representing a skewed viewpoint, or just another lie. The film resolves eventually to divulge the characters’ identities, but their true natures and moralities are too murky to distinguish – what they share, alone, is tragedy. Almodóvar even implicates himself in the action, suggesting with the final edit that Enrique, as a film director protagonist, is his double. But in spite of almost explicit allusions to autobiography, Almodóvar has branded the suspicion false, rendering it just another link in the fractured and convoluted chain of falsehoods comprising a film on lies. 

Rashomon or Citizen Kane resemble similar labyrinths, but the perspectives in Bad Education are even more rich, selfish and varied, rendering the truth a more shockingly unpredictable and excitingly elusive prize.

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