Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A matter of perception

Here they are - the lecture notes. Last week of term. I have a cold and a sudafed induced headache. My apologies for any mistakes.

Look Both Ways is about fear, the inevitability of death and the unpredictability of life. Sarah Watt’s first feature film is a universal story about ordinary people. (Make sure you watch her early animated film “Small Treasures”. Her new film, “My Year Without Sex” is due for release.)

Watts set out to write a romantic comedy. The film contains elements of universal existence, universal truths. We bring our own experiences to it. It is all about perception. There is a tension between universalism and differences. We see the world through many complex characters preoccupied with both past and future while trying to cope with the present.

Look Both Ways is a multi-strand narrative. The action takes place during one hot long weekend -72 hours – in suburban Adelaide. Time is compressed. Animated inserts, photomontage and flashbacks intersect. Musical interludes brings characters together

In the opening scene we see flowers and cards - establishes death as a main theme.
SBS News Presenter, Mary Kostakidis, announcing the Arnow Hill tragedy provides the audience with familiarity. The characters’ personal tragedies hang off this large scale catastrophe. Both traintracks and trains are ubiquitous images. Conversations about Arnow Hill around Meryl on the train when she is returning from her father’s funeral fuel Meryl’s imagination. This is not simply a neurotic fantasy. She sees disaster all around. Note the stillness of the cinematography in the train carriage.

Birds are a recurring motif. They represent nature as being irrepressible. When there is death life goes on. The transitory nature of birds points to life as fleeting.

Nick is diagnosed with testicular cancer. He receives the news stoically - a combination of shock and Australian masculinity. The discovery he has cancer triggers the photomontage where his life literally flashes before his eyes. The doctor’s response is inadequate – note the aquatic screensaver - (see how his back is turned establishing Nick as an isolated individual. He then goes and tells his boss – who also has his back turned. I feel sorry for Nick. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against my principal but if I ever get diagnosed with cancer he will not be the first one I tell. See Phil has cricket pictures in his office. This cricket thing – we need to talk! But I digress… back to the lecture) The opening scenes establish a lot economically. A dark world view of two main characters who have both experienced life crises. Meryl is frightened by everything. She sees death everywhere and she hasn’t received a cancer diagnosis. Meryl is experiencing anxiety and shock after the death of her father. She then witnesses Rob’s death – “It just kept coming like a freight-train.”
There are a variety of responses to the accident. We need to examine the different responses to both Julia’s picture in The Southern Mail and Andy’s suicide article.

We see Andy and Anna as their relationship has fizzled. Andy is not over the end of his marriage and his custodial arrangements. He is angry and frustrated with his job. He thinks everyone has an agenda and can’t accept that accidents happen. He, therefore, sees Anna’s pregnancy announcement as a trap. (Even though I don’t like Andy I find he provides a lot of comic relief – his line connecting men committing suicide to Arts Diary; the 5c short for the newspaper meltdown where he bursts a packet of chips then walks out and yells at the church choir to shut up; when he takes the children to the art gallery/museum and tells them they’ll stay until they get a glimmer of knowledge; tripping over the pram at the cricket after Anna’s pregnancy announcement; the bursting brain aneurysm after his tirade about God “How can anyone believe in something so ridiculous?”; his champagne guzzling at Macbeth. Even his response to Nick when he finally tells him about his cancer cracks me up – “What did you go and get cancer for?” Leads me to ask, Yes, what was your agenda there, Nick? What were you thinking?)

This film is about perception. How do we live with the knowledge that bad things happen to good people. Different characters see the world in different ways. Shift your perception and you shift your view of the world. Our perception of life and the world around us is subjective. Their perceptions of themselves are also important. Self-knowledge can be a liberating force.

Nick and Meryl are both numb and immobilised but are shaken from their paralysis by the end of the weekend. Watt’s animations of anxiety, grief and loss provide a direct insight into Meryl’s point of view. We need to track her animations which show her innermost thoughts and comment on her career as an artist. Her name – Meryl Lee – is ironic. Her life is not a dream. Life is the opposite. David Stratton was critical of the animations, branding them as unnecessary – what do you think about this?

Musical interludes, the film can be seen as a series of musical interludes, brings the characters together. The value of these sequences shouldn’t be dismissed. They set mood and compare the way different characters are coping with the events occurring in their lives. Need to study Crashing, Lonely and the Lighthouse Song. (We will be doing this in mindblowing detail!)

This theme of perception is explored with the interpretation of Nick’s photo of Julia. Andy is angry because Nick didn’t get his “slant”. Linda thinks Julia has “nice hair”. Anna’s friends discuss the ethics of photojournalism. Both Julia and the Train Driver throw the paper away. The Train Driver’s son begins to change (Don’t get me started…)

Andy is blinkered, bitter, paranoid and filters everything through a lens of disappointment. His apartment is full of accident photos (evidence of his theory that many accidents involving males are in fact suicides) and also pictures of the World Trade Centre. He likes a conspiracy. He assumes Rob’s death is a suicide. It is only when Andy attempts to see things through Rob’s eyes – retracing Rob’s path to the scene of the accident and stepping in front of the train – that he changes his perception.

Film suggests that we cannot always see what is coming. Anna’s assertion that “Things just happen” is a terrifying concept. The narrative also undermines Andy’s world view. Rob and Julia at the beginning of the film appear happy and intimate. Their house renovations indicate plans for the future. The aftermath of the accident also indicates that suicide is unlikely.

Meryl’s first thoughts about the indigenous boys “maybe it was meant to be” – she know what she is saying is rubbish but type of trite response is typical. We do not deal with death well in our culture. However, we also see through Meryl’s trite sympathy card – given by the Train Driver to Julia - that such words can make people feel better – that we cling to these things for comfort.

Fear is a major theme that needs to be explored. We live in a world where fear reigns. The papers are full of bad news. This culture of fear is in the language of our politics – economic crisis, terrorism. (Though after the news the last couple of days perhaps this is changing – Utegate! – lol – only in Australia.)

The cinematography of this film needs to be analysed in depth. Everything in the frame is significant. No signifier is floating or obtuse. (How disappointed was I that the term mise en scene wasn’t used after we had practiced saying it and everything)
The camera shows us what the characters are looking at. What they see is dependent on what is happening in their own lives eg. Nick-meat, Meryl – child(Maddie) at pool; Andy-accidents.

Montage is a series of images edited together. Nick sees things as photographic images. For example, the medical imagery of his cancer multiplying showing his fear and anxiety.

The rain at the end is very significant. It is a downpour, a release after the scorching build-up of heat and has redemptive overtones. There are changes of heart and the development of self-knowledge.

Locations matter. Why did she choose the settings she did? What do they tell us about the characters and themes? Urban Adelaide – trainlines and inner city decay. The rain is cleansing both literally and metaphorically.

Need to study use of framing. Anna and Julia are framed by windows & doors showing they are trapped by their situations. (Same can be said of the Train Driver)

The ending – coda. Nick has chemo; images of Andy and child; Nick and Meryl. It seems self-knowledge has been reached. Not all problems have been solved pointing to the complexity of relationships. We don’t know if Nick survives. It is the viewers decision if the ending is happy or sad. After all, it is all a matter of perception.

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