Essay Instructions: How Films Reflect American Cultural Themes
A main point of the second segment of this class is to recognize and explore the ways that films reflect (and sometimes challenges) enduring American cultural themes. A prominent cultural theme in the United States is ambivalence about politics and power. Americans tend to harbor deep suspicion of government and ambivalence about being members of a national community subject to its power. American culture is equally marked by a strong attachment to individualism, including the belief that individuals are responsible for their own destinies and that individuals should be for the most part “left alone” by government. At the same time, contemporary Americans tend to see the use of American power abroad in rather positive terms, and to believe that the U.S. is on the whole a force for good in the world. Many mainstream films reinforce these beliefs, though others challenge them.
Write an essay in which you respond to ONE of the following questions:
In this class I argue that American film usually represents power in narrow and negative terms. For example, characters running for or holding political office are usually portrayed as either comical or corrupt. Another common plot line focuses on individual action against or in spite of political institutions, not collective action through institutions, to achieve a happy ending. Test these propositions against the films we have viewed in class and your choice of on additional film chosen from the supplementary viewing list (or another film, with my approval).
In this class I argue that American films often contain themes of American innocence. American films often assume the innocence and goodness of America’s dealings with the rest of the world, though at certain key moments in our history, mainstream films have raised questions about how America’s international and military power is used. Test these propositions against the films we have viewed in class and your choice of on additional film chosen from the supplementary viewing list (or another film, with my approval).
You should be sure to draw upon the assigned readings and lectures and to structure your paper around a thesis statement that directly responds to one of the questions above, and to include specific examples from the films ("SWING VOTE" (2008), "THE QUEEN"(2006), "RULES OF ENGAGEMENT"(2000), "THE QUIET AMERICAN"(2002). Papers should be typed, double-spaced, and be approximately 5 pages in length, and should be free of grammatical and typographical errors.
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Excerpt From Essay:
Essay Instructions: Commentary on Kurosawa:
Akira Kurosawa’s films are remarkable examples of the cross-influences of Western and Japanese culture. Although all of his films were essentially “Japanese” and are set in Japan, Kurosawa’s stories were frequently drawn from Western sources and his viewpoint was often more “Western” than Japanese. Ran is loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear and Throne of Blood on Macbeth. He made adaptations of Russian novels ??" The Idiot by Dostoyevsky and The Lower Depths by Gorky. Ikyru was inspired by Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych. He frequently turned to Western crime writers for inspiration ??" High and Low is borrowed from Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom, Stray Dog from Georges Simenon’s detective novels, and Yojimbo from Dashielle Hammett’s Red Harvest. However, Kurosawa’ greatest influence came from American Westerns made by John Ford and Howard Hawks.
Kurosawa took the heroes of American Westerns and transported them to the Edo Period in Japan (1603-1868) as the basis for his samurai films. He found a powerful connection between the myth of the Western marshall vs. the outlaw and the ronin of feudal Japan. He also found a connection between Japanese Bushido (“The Way of the Warrior”) and the “Code of the West,” at least as it was presented by Ford and Hawks in their films. Bushido was the code of conduct of the samurai. It stressed simplicity, loyalty, mastery of the martial arts, and honor unto death above all other values. It tempered the essentially violent nature of the warrior’s calling with a strict code of moral principles and adherence to the laws of duty, obedience, honor, and self-sacrifice. Bushido also elevated the samurai to a position of perceived nobility even though they were essentially warrior servants.
The “Code of the West” was an unwritten agreement to abide by certain rules of conduct in the vast untamed and uncivilized American frontier. It came into being before “law and order” was formally established in the West and, like Bushido, was far more powerful than any set of written laws or rules that came into being over time. In the West, a man might violate every law of the territory, state, or federal government as long as he held to the tenets of the code. The “Code of the West” was, like Bushido, essentially moral in its outlook:
Always be courageous. Cowards have no place in the West.
A cowboy always helps someone in need, even a stranger or an enemy.
A cowboy is loyal to his “brand,” to his friends, and those he rides with.
Never shoot an unarmed or unwarned enemy.
Be there for a friend when he needs you.
Honesty is absolute ??" your word is your bond, a handshake is more binding than a written contract.
Don’t inquire into another man’s past. The measure of the man for what he is today.
Riding another man's horse without his permission is nearly as bad as making love to his wife.
No matter how hungry and weary you are after a long day in the saddle, always tend to your horse’s needs before your own.
and so on.
Kursosawa also saw the passing of the West as being like the passing of the samurai. In both cases, men of extraordinary strength and nobility were left behind as society no longer had a need for them. To Kurosawa, the loss of such men was something to be mourned and many critics saw Seven Samurai as a eulogy to the samurai.
John Ford’s Stagecoach
The visual style of Hollywood Westerns, particularly those of John Ford, also had enormous influence on Kurosawa. Ford set most of his Westerns in Monument Valley, Utah and his images defined the beauty and majesty of the West for generations of Hollywood directors. Ford also filmed action sequences with beautifully fluid camera work and elegantly choreographed action that Kurosawa both respected and emulated in his period films. Kurosawa brought Ford’s sense of place and the majesty of the land to his own films in acknowledgement of the man whose work he respected above all other filmmakers. A film critic once noted that the major stylistic difference between Kurosawa and Ford was that Ford’s films took place under a blazing sun and Kurosawa’s films took place in the rain.
As Kurosawa borrowed from Western movies in the 1940s and ‘50s, Hollywood borrowed from Kurosawa in the 1960s and ‘70s. John Sturges adapted Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven in 1960. Martin Ritt remade Rashomon as The Outrage in 1964. Sergio Leone used Yojimbo as the basis for A Fistfull of Dollars, the first of the Clint Eastwood “Man With No Name” spaghetti Westerns in 1964. A Fistfull of Dollars was so indebted to Yojimbo both in script and the approach of the cinematography that the producers of Yojimbo successfully sued Leone and received 15% of the film’s worldwide gross and exclusive distribution rights in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Kurosawa wrote Leone in regards to the lawsuit, “It’s a very fine film, but it is my film.” Perhaps Kurosawa’s most significant influence was on George Lucas who based the original Star Wars (now Episode IV: A New Hope) on The Hidden Fortress. Lucas used a plot outline of The Hidden Fortress from Donald Richie’s book The Films of Akira Kurosawa to develop the original plot outline by essentially changing the names of the characters and shifting the setting from feudal Japan to “a galaxy far, far away.” Although the final Star Wars screenplay is quite different from The Hidden Fortress, C-3PO and R2D2 are very close to the comic peasants, Tahei and Matashichi, in the Kurosawa film and the basic story of a hero trying to transport a princess to safety remains the same.
Write a minimum of 1000 words in response to the issues below and place your response in the Seven Samurai Drop Box under the “Lessons” tab on ANGEL. This assignment is due no later than 6:00 PM on Thursday 20 October 2011. (Note: The discussion on the Seven Samurai Commentary is on Thursday rather than the usual Tuesday.)
“I collect old Japanese lacquerware as well as antique French and Dutch glassware. In short, the Western and the Japanese live side by side in my mind naturally, without the least bit of conflict.”
Although Kurosawa is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, he was frequently criticized in Japan for being overly Western in both his technique and outlook…and there is evidence that critics may have had a point. In Japan, there is a belief in Uchi-Soto (Us and Them) where the Japanese always see themselves as part of a group first and as individuals second. The word amae means “dependency” and it is used as a descriptor for the proper relationship of the individual to his group or society. The American “rugged individualist,” “rebel,” and “maverick” ??" so important in our myth structure ??" would be frowned upon in Japan. However, in Kurosawa’ films the individual holds a place of importance that often runs counter to the Japanese ethic. In Seven Samurai, it is the ronin who are seen as heroic and not the villagers. Kambei’s final statement ??" “The farmers have won. Not us.” ??" is about the loss of the samurai who have given all for the farmers and received nothing. “Again we are defeated.”
Kurosawa was drawn to the Western in many ways because it revered the individual and not the group. The cowboy hero was brave, strong, committed, but always an outsider who “rode off into the sunset” because he didn’t belong and had no choice but to move on when the job was done. In many ways, Seven Samurai is, as many critics observed, more an American Western than a Japanese film.
While the place of the hero may appear be the same in American Westerns and Kurosawa’s films (they actually aren’t), there are profound differences between Kurosawa’s Japanese “Westerns” and the American films he modeled them on. We’ll take up those differences after we watch The Magnificent Seven, but for now let’s consider Seven Samurai. What are the values of the samurai in Kurosawa’s film and how do they relate to the broader culture of Japan? As a hint, they are very similar to the values of Hong Kong gangster movies like The Killer, A Better Tomorrow, Infernal Affairs, and all those Jackie Chan movies. They are also the same values held by the characters in Quentin Tarantino films, which are dramatically different from those of most American gangster and cowboy films.
Here’s another hint from Roger Ebert:
“Many characters die in The Seven Samurai, but violence and action are not the point of the movie. It is more about duty and social roles. The samurai at the end have lost four of their seven, yet there are no complaints, because that is the samurai’s lot. The villagers do not much want the samurai around once the bandits are gone, because armed men are a threat to order. That is the nature of society. The samurai who fell in love with the local girl is used significantly in the composition of the final shots. First he is seen with his colleagues. Then with the girl. Then in an uncommitted place not with the samurai, but somehow of them. Here you can see two genres at war: The samurai movie and the Western with which Kurosawa was quite familiar. Should the hero get the girl? Japanese audiences in 1954 would have said no. Kurosawa spent the next 40 years arguing against the theory that the individual should be the instrument of society.”
The Magnificent Seven is essentially the same story as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai tranferred to the Old West. However, despite the obvious similarities between the two films, they are very different from one another in terms of what they say about their seven heroes, their motivations, the men who hire them, and most of all the essential values of the societies and cultures they represent. This commentary asks only a few questions: “How is The Magnificent Seven different from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai?” “Why is it different?” and “What does it tell us about American values as opposed to those Japanese values that were so clearly presented in the Kurosawa film?” In effect, the answers to these questions tell us a great deal about our culture, Japanese culture, and the difference between our values and theirs.
Excerpt From Essay:
Essay Instructions: On each of the prompts please write ~1.5 pages worth of brainstorming/outlining ideas. Doesn't need to be full sentences/paragraphs, just get ideas with examples out there. For each prompt draw from a couple films, no need to use all the films listed.
Films option to pull from:
--Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941
--Meet John Doe (Capra, 1941)
--Good Night, Good Luck (Clooney, 2005)
--The Insider (Mann, 1999)
--All the President’s Men (Pakula,1976)
--Journeys With George
--A Face in the Crowd (Kazan, 1957
--Wag the Dog (Levinson, 1997)
--Anchorman or Bob Roberts
--Shattered Glass or The War Room
--Network or Broadcast News
--His Girl Friday or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
1) A recurring theme in the films that we have viewed concerns how power serves to corrupt individuals and institutions. Using examples from any of the films that we have watched this summer discuss how American films have addressed corruption in politics, government, the media and society.
2) The last two films that we watched, A Face in the Crowd and Wag the Dog use humor to critique aspects of American politics and media. Discuss how humor is used in these films to comment on the state of American politics and media using specific examples from these any other films viewed for class.
3) Using any of the films that we have seen this semester (including at least one of the last two, A Face in the Crowd and Wag the Dog) discuss how the mass media can be both a positive and a negative force in society.
4) Many of the films that we have seen deal with the relationship between powerful individuals and the masses. Compare and contrast how films have depicted this relationship using examples from at least four of the films that we have watched.
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Excerpt From Essay:
Essay Instructions: General Guidelines
• During this semester, you will write a review of a film released before 2000.
• You may only review films not included in the syllabus. Following the theme of the
course??"i.e., “contemporary” and “reality” films [gendai-geki, shomin-geki, etc.]??"
these should be films that are not historical dramas [jidai-geki], fantasy, sci-fi,
anime, etc. (see below for genres/classifications.)
• Reviews will be submitted for a grade and posted for your classmates to view. Ideally,
no more than three reviews of the same film will be permitted. However, once a review
has been posted, subsequent reviews must offer significantly different perspectives or
insights into the film. In other words, you will need to keep an eye on the films reviewed
or turn yours in early. These reviews may also inspire you to watch more films!
• Your completed review should be between 700-900 words. Include word count on
• Keep in mind that this review should be a polished piece of writing, relatively free of
errors or typos. If your review has significant grammatical mistakes or other problems,
your grade will reflect this. It should not be too casual (this doesn’t mean it can’t be
clever or witty) in its style. Try to avoid “I” and instead just assert your view (e.g., “In the
final scene, Kurosawa suggests XXX”, “The film creatively uses sound to XXX” vs. “I
think Kurosawa wants us to XXX” or “I found the use of sound to be really interesting.”)
Choosing a Film
If you don't have a film in mind, start by looking through the films available at UBC (see
list on Vista in “General film terminology and other useful information” folder). For
more information on a film, you can find short summaries in Donald Richie's A Hundred
Years of Japanese Film (on reserve at Koerner Library), or check out online sources such
as IMDb (Internet Movie Database) and Midnight Eye (see Vista for links).
Please avoid the following:
• films which were not produced by the Japanese film industry (i.e., Japanese-
Canadian and Japanese-American films)
• TV shows
• films which are not available with English subtitles
• films which are not readily available on DVD
If you don’t have an easy way to watch the film at home (UBC copy, DVD rental,
Netflix, etc.), Koerner Library has a few DVD and VCR players available in the reserve
area on the main level. There are also a number of computer terminals on the second
floor of the Asian Library available for watching DVDs. Room 506 in the Asian Library
can be reserved for group screenings, or for watching Region 2 DVDs.
Find out a little about the film before you see it. Useful information might include the
year the film was produced, the name of the director or main cast members, and relevant
cultural or historical information. This is similar to the guidelines listed at the top of the
“Film note taking tips” handout on VISTA.
In order to write an effective review, you should expect to watch the film at least twice.
The first time, simply watch in order to gain a general impression. What do you like or
dislike about the film? Do you find anything striking or perplexing?
Watch the film a second time, stopping when necessary to take notes. Here are some
questions you might want to ask yourself:
• How does the film begin and conclude?
• Who are the central characters and how do they relate to each other?
• What kinds of sets and costumes are used? (elaborate, simplistic, colorful,
expansive nature scenes, interior scenes, etc)
• Is there any striking or unusual use of lighting?
• Are there any striking camera shots or movements? (long shots, close ups, abrupt
transitions, unusual angles, etc)
• Are there any patterns or elements that are repeated? (sounds, colors, phrases,
images, actions, etc)
• Are there any noteworthy special effects?
• What are the most important sequences in the film?
• Does the film value or criticize any particular actions, attitudes, or lifestyles?
• What themes can you identify in the film? How does the title relate to the themes
of the film?
• Is the storyline coherent? If not, why do you think so?
• How does the film differ from other films you have seen? Does it reflect certain
attitudes or concerns specific to its time/place of production? Etc.
Writing the Review
-Broadly speaking, a film review is an analysis of a film. The primary purpose of your
review is to introduce the film to others who have not seen it, and to recommend it or not.
Try not to rely too heavily on plot summary, try not to simply express your uncensored
opinions! You need some analysis and evidence to make your review persuasive.
-Your review must have a title (catchy is preferable)
-Reviews are usually written in the present tense (e.g., “when X attacks Y”, “the
costuming is”, “the soundtrack distracts”, etc.) rather than past tense (“when X attacked
-Below is a suggested five-paragraph outline for writing a film review. Keep in mind
that this is only a guideline: you are not required to follow this format, especially if
you have experience writing film reviews or feel confident of your organizational and
writing skills. A sample review has been posted on VISTA “Discussions” under “Student
Introduce the film, including the following information: the name in both English and
Japanese (include variant names, if known), the year the film was released, the director
(previous films that stand out, etc.), prominent cast members (do not give an exhaustive
list), and film genre. Italicize or underline film titles! Be sure to include the director’s
name and film’s date in parentheses the first time you mention it. [e.g., “In Seven
Samurai (Kurosawa Akira, 1954), we meet…”].
Give a brief summary of the plot, encompassing the entire scope of the film except the
ending. Try to discuss at least 3-5 significant events. Try to avoid revealing the ending
or other spoilers. This is trickier than it might seem. How you frame your summary and
what you choose to include will often reveal your interpretation/evaluation of the film.
Discuss one aspect of the film such as acting, directing, editing, costume and/or set
design, characters and character development, lighting, camerawork, music, sound,
special effects, themes, symbolism, or cultural relevance. Use concrete language and cite
specific examples from the film.
Discuss a second aspect of the film, using concrete language and citing specific
Give your overall reaction to the film, and your general opinion of it. Include your
recommendations for potential viewers. Include a warning if the film contains excessive
violence, nudity, sex, or offensive language.
-Avoid judging a film based on its conformity to realism or “Hollywood” standards.
Keep in mind that realism is a relative concept that can vary across time and cultures, and
that realism is not necessarily the goal of every filmmaker.
-Avoid sweeping generalizations about “the Japanese” or “Japanese film”??"especially if
you don’t have some strong specifics to back up your claims.
-Avoid making cultural judgments based on the viewing of a film. Keep in mind that the
majority of films are produced primarily to entertain and make a profit, and should not be
interpreted as an unbiased perspective of a situation or issue.
USEFUL TERMINOLOGY (More can be found in the glossary and other resources
SOME GENRES AND CATEGORIES
gendai-geki (films with contemporary settings)
shomin-geki (films about everyday people)
J-horror (Japanese horror)
new cinema, new wave cinema
OTHER USEFUL TERMS (Use the resources on VISTA if you want more explanation)
story (all relevant events, either directly presented or inferred)
plot (the order or arrangement of events, how the story is told, etc.)
mise-en-scene (everything that is put into a scene: sets, costumes, lighting, acting, etc.)
set (the location for a shot or scene)
shot (the image seen on a screen before the camera cuts to another image)
establishing shot (the shot that begins a sequence)
sequence (a unified series of shots)
close-up, medium shot, long shot
angle (the position of the camera relative to the subject being filmed)
shot/reverse-shot (cutting between individuals, usually to follow a conversation)
pan (a shot that pivots horizontally while the camera remains stationary)
frame (the borders of the image)
editing (the linking of two shots)
wipe (a line moves across an image, wiping it out and revealing a new image)
dissolve (one image is briefly superimposed on another)
sound (diagetic vs. non-diagetic)
onscreen sound (the source of the sound is in the frame)
offscreen sound (the source of the sound is outside the frame)
sound effects (everything other than voices and music)
voice-off (a character who is not onscreen at the time the voice is heard)
voice-over (a narrator who cannot be heard by the characters)
narrative cueing (a sound that supports or enhances a moment or motif in the story)
*a more extensive list of terms (with definitions) is available on Vista
Obviously, you can find an endless array of examples of film reviews on-line. For the
film you’re reviewing, don’t read too many in advance! It will only make it more
difficult for you to write something original and present your own views…
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Excerpt From Essay:
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